Axtell House - Spirit of Christmas Past

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Holiday Album 2009 - mixing conversations and prose, Charles Dickens quotes, with history provided by the National Museum of Women’s History.

1. “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” ( A Christmas Carol)

This season I’m haunted by a Spirit of Christmas-Past. Been drawn again and again to gaze at an old Bellingham home. She sits, funky yet still good humored, at 413 E. Maple Street, near the YWCA. A quirky place - big and boxy, with a porthole, columns in two sizes, lots of leaded glass, and balconies - falling into disrepair, yet still full of charm. Every detail of the design and construction of this old home was lovingly supervised, often even hammered, by Frances Axtell She lived there from 1902 -1942, converting her home into apartments later in life. Many Bellingham residents may not have heard of Axtell yet the National Women’s History Museum claims:

“Along with Tacoma’s Emma DeVoe, Frances Axtell led the successful 1910 campaign that restored women’s right to vote, which the Washington Supreme Court had struck down in 1887. Bellingham voters rewarded her with election to the Washington House of Representatives in 1912; her campaign manager was Ella Higginson, a well-known author. Dr. Axtell’s platform focused on banning child labor and creating workers’ compensation for industrial accidents, as well as pensions for the elderly, disabled, and widows with young children.”

Born in Illinois in the year 1866, Frances Cleveland proved smart, brave and strong, earning a doctorate in 1889 from DePauw University. Moving west and settling in Bellingham (then Sehome) she taught at the teacher’s college (now Western Washington University). On June 11, 1891 Dr. Frances Cleveland married Dr. William H. Axtell, a local physician.

“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” (A Christmas Carol)

2. “Your grandfather. A notable early feminist.” I remark to William Hussey who is Frances and William Axtell’s grandson, an elder now in his nineties.

“Guess he must have been to put up with my grandmother!” Bill chuckles.

William Hussey has lived a fine life too. After World War Two he tells me he “resigned from the Regular Navy as a Lieutenant-Commander, being sworn in as a Reserve Officer the same day and remaining active until retirement in l962. I was commissioned a Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. Department of State in late l948 and spent most years until retirement in London, Bonn, Munich, Frankfurt, Rangoon, Chiengmai (Thailand), Togo, Malawi, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Mauritius. From Mauritius we went to Apia, Western Samoa where I was the United National Development Program Regional Representative for the Western Pacific. From l975 on to full retirement in l990 I was a Foreign Affairs Consultant to several Fortune 500 companies except for a break from l982 to l984 when I was having the happiest time of my life as Assistant Vice President of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for Political Affairs. Almost forgot another happy opportunity l985 and l986 in charge of Political Affairs on the Committee organizing the incredible three days in New York celebrating the l00th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty”

After a full life of public service Bill’s one regret: “I hoped to buy grandmother’s house. I’ve tried but haven’t been able to.”

“You celebrated Christmas in that house?”

“Yes with my grandparents, my mother and aunt. Wonderful Christmas memories that have warmed my whole life.”

“They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.” (A Christmas Carol)

3. “The room up front and to the left when you entered was the formal parlor. I entertained myself on the player piano in that room as a boy but otherwise it wasn’t much used. Except that that was where the Christmas tree stood each year.” William tells me.

“In the corner window?”

“That’s right. We hiked into the forest and chopped down the tree ourselves, Grandpa with his ax.”

“Your grandmother decorated the house for Christmas?”

“Top to bottom, perfect Dickensian Christmas!”

“There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories - Ghost Stories, or more shame for us - round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.” (A Christmas Tree)

“Behind the parlor (in the old house before my grandmother turned the building into apartments) was the living room library, with books on three walls and a big fireplace. Very cozy. That was where we gathered to enjoy our presents and each other. There were a few servants but grandmother always did the bulk of the cooking herself. She was a fantastic cook!”

4. “Once elected as a very progressive Republican, Frances Axtell sponsored a state minimum-wage law, something that would not happen at a national level for decades. She also focused on agriculture, children’s issues, reforestation, and funding for retired teachers. Her independent thinking also led to reforms in criminal law, especially violent assault. She presented this legislation with such eloquence that she was termed a ‘brilliant theorist and a broad-minded individual.’ Re-elected in 1914, a newspaper termed her ‘the lady from Whatcom [County] who votes as she pleases.’”

These days a Spirit of Christmas-Present has mounted a simple lit-up peace sign on the chimney of the Axtell House Apartments, yet I keep driving by the strange old building like it’s a gaudy electric Christmas display. The Axtell tree still shines in that window for me “brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.” (A Christmas Tree) I hear William’s smooth and kind voice in my mind.

“My grandfather made a production of placing a wrapped present under the tree each year; a gift to himself, from himself. He’d announce, ‘That way I know I’ll get at least one present I want!’”

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.” (A Christmas Carol)

“Actually presents from my grandmother were exciting, insightful and numerous, so numerous. Gift opening was also much enlivened by all the presents to my grandfather from his medical patients and to my grandmother by her suffragist friends and political allies.”

“Earlier than any other woman, Frances C. Axtell made a daring bid for the U.S. Senate in 1916—and came closer to victory than expected, losing by only about three thousand votes. She won support from the Non-Partisan League, the Washington State Federation of Labor, the Railway Men’s Political Club, the League of Women Voters, the Parent-Teacher’s Association, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Some coined this group of organizations as the ‘Conference for Progressive Political Action.’ Although she lost, her strong race was a true political achievement: no other state would elect a woman to the U.S. Senate until 1932, when Arkansas did.”

5. A few weeks back, at the beginning of the season, Bellingham writer Thelma Follett and I stood on the steeply sloped sidewalk of Maple Street staring at the Axtell House.

“I have a long term interest in local Bellingham history, specifically in Ella Higginson,” Thelma told me. “I have studied her work with Frances Axtell on a number of civic projects as well as her job as ‘political boss’ running Axtell’s 1912 campaign.” Thelma Follett adapted Ella Higginson’s silent film script, “Just Like The Men,” Higginson’s semiautobiographical account of her Axtell campaign, into a play which ran in Bellingham, Christmas 2003.

“Ella Higginson was an internationally noted Whatcom writer remembered now mostly for her poetry. She was poet laureate of Washington State. But she also wrote newspaper articles, quite good short stories, a history of Alaska and one published novel,” Thelma instructs me. “Sadly, her home, which certainly should have been protected as a national landmark, was torn down some years ago. Every time I drive by here I think to myself, ‘This property belongs on the National Register!’”

I nod, knowing Thelma has been trying to accomplish that feat for some time, so far unsuccessfully.

“Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.” (A Christmas Carol)

“I wish Frances Axtell’s home could become a Washington State Women’s History Museum,” I tell Thelma.

“Yes,” Follett agrees, “that is what ought to happen.”

“Absolutely!” William Hussey concurs.

”...if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” (A Christmas Carol)

6. She sits, funky yet still good humored, at 413 E. Maple Street, near the YWCA. A quirky place - big and boxy, with a porthole, columns in two sizes, lots of leaded glass, and balconies - falling into disrepair, yet still full of charm. Christmas after Christmas Frances Axtell, her family and friends “met on that day, a merry and joyous circle.

Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday!

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions (and delights) of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!” (The Pickwick Papers)

“Bill, what do you remember most about your grandmother, about Dr. Frances Axtell?”

“Her complete independence. Also, her honesty and her social consciousness.”

“How about her architectural design skills and her way with a hammer?”

“Her home remains an expression of her - her art, her personality - an important part of my grandmother’s local, regional and national legacy.”

About Kamalla Rose Kaur

Notifications • Bellingham • Member since Jul 12, 2009

Comments by Readers

Paul deArmond

Dec 25, 2009

My granddad boarded with Ella Higgensen when he attended Western Normal School as a member of the first class.  He always referred to her as “the lady poet.”


Kamalla R. Kaur

Dec 26, 2009

Hi Paul,

To see a photo of the Higginson House, which stood at the corner of High Street and Pine Street, scroll down a bit at:

Or click here