Helen Augusta Childs Shepler

the Aunt Nellie Page
© MJP Grundy, 2001

old photo of North 15th Street, Philadelphia

          Helen Augusta Childs, called Nellie, was the childhood friend of Martha K. DUNNING. They grew up in the same block of Fifteenth Street in Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s.  The Childs's house was at 1309, the Dunning's at 1328.

          Martha named her first born daughter after her: Helen Childs Paxson.

          There is a newspaper clipping from the Cape May, NJ Daily Star of Friday, 19 July 1878. The headline reads: "Grand Children's Hop. the mammoth ball-room crowded". It goes on to describe a gala dance at the Stockton House. At 9 o'clock in the south parlor, hundreds of little children marched in to the music of the Annapolis Naval Band. After the Grand March ten sets of children danced a quadrille, followed by a polka and waltz. There were some exhibition "fancy dances" by pupils of Prof. Asher. The paper then listed all the children's names. Among them was Nellie Childs, who was all of three years old. A pencilled note indicates that Geo. Beebe was "Nellie's Gallant".

          Aunt Nellie attended Friends Central School at 15th and Race Streets in Philadelphia. She studied in the "Scientific Section", graduating in 1894. A classmate was the historian of the western frontier, Frederic Logan Paxson.

Here are photographs of Nellie's mother, and herself as a young woman.

      Helen Augusta DuPlaine Childs        and her daughter      Helen Augusta Childs Shepler: "Nellie"

hairbrush H.A.C. hairbrush belonging to H.A.C.

          Nellie's father, Isaac Richard Childs, apparently took his daughter with him to places young girls did not usually visit at the end of the nineteenth century. I remember her speaking of him frequently; I don't remember her saying that much about her mother, who died in 1905. With her father Nellie toured factories, seeing how things were made. She learned how to handle banking and financial affairs. This presumably built on her "scientific" course at Friends Central.

Nellie and Harry Nellie and Harry, with her father in back.

          Nellie married Charles Henry "Harry" Shepler, but I haven't discovered the date. There is more information on him at the end of this write-up.

garage in Ridley Park decorated for Hallowe'en party

          Nellie enjoyed entertaining. Parties would have placecards and perhaps a little gift at each guest's place at the table. She would prepare parlor games, riddles, and other entertainments. Here is an old photo of the garage at the Ridley Park house decorated for a Hallowe'en party. At some point she must have given my parents some of the decorations and for years we used them: a commercially made four foot tall cardboard skeleton with jointed arms and legs, Hallmark cutouts of pumpkins, black cats, and so on. There were also remnants of some homemade costumes such as a headband for an Egyptian pharoah, as well as a few pieces of old clothing, perhaps from her own childhood.

          She had wide ranging interests: geology and collecting mineral specimens; plants and gardens; cooking and preserving foods; an interest in other peoples and cultures, although always through her own unself-conscious ethnocentric cultural lens; history and classical (broadly defined) literature; local architecture and history.

          Nellie's best friend's daughter, Helen, was named for her. Nellie and Harry took Helen with them on several trips, including one from Sept. 8 to 19, 1926 through Eastern Historical Virginia. Helen was 21 and kept a journal. Places visited reflected the broad interests of Nellie, who wanted to see everything, get all the stories, observe industrial processes, and so on. Here are some excerpts from Helen's journal.

Sept. 9 Thursday. West to Newport News Ships yard to see launching of the Algonquin of the Clyde Line to ply between Jacksonville Fla. And New York City. They were taking moving pictures of the launching in the production "His Rise to Fame". We then went over the yards and through a large machine shop.
This afternoon we visited Fort Monroe. All of Old Point is Government Ground. We also visited the old church "St. John's" in Hampton. After super we went down to the water front to listen to the Fort Band Concert, and watch the ships come in.

Saturday Sept. 11. West to Carter's Grove Colonial home where Gen. Tarleton dashed upstairs on horseback and nicked banister with sword. Then to Jamestown and saw ruins of old church and foundations of houses. Government has kept Sea Wall to prevent further washing away of the Island.
Cross the James River by Ferry, and on Scotland side the Baptist Darkies were having Baptisms in the River. Ate picnic lunch in Pine woods where lumbermen were at work sawing and loading lumber. Examined closely a peanut field and dug a peanut. Stopped at Bacon's Castle and examined cotton on that plantation. Here Bacon had his headquarters during Revolution. Visited St. Luke's church outside of Smithfield (this town noted for its hams). Home by Critindon Ferry.

Sunday Sept. 12 . . . . Took supper at Magnolia Tree Inn. Then we waited at wharf for Uncle Harry's boat. While waiting a school of Rock Bass was sighted and immediately about 6 or 8 men got out fishing poles. Catch was good.

Sept. 14 Tuesday [at Williamsburg] . . . Then went to see home of John Randolph where we found a lineal descendant of Peyton Randolph Nelson who later we found was a little mentally unbalanced. He wanted to know who we were and where from. Upon finding out he termed us as "Yankees" but showed his house along with a great string of his genealogy. We had as a guest to dinner the English Counsel, his wife, ad party. Which made is very realistic. Miss Cora Smith showed us several diamond cuts on her window pane, one of a ship drawn by her brother dat[ed] 1873. Another "O fatel day June 12, 1796" Still another "H Bush 1743". They had holy cross doors. [she provided a sketch of door panels and hinges]

Sept. 15 Wednesday. Came back to the Shirley [hotel] at Newport News by bus. Had lunch there. Went through the Hampton Institute for Colored. Has an enrollment of over 900. Uncle Harry and I took a walk through the town after supper up to mail night letter. Related to him our experiences at Williamsburg.

Sept. 19, Sunday. Took breakfast at Richmond inn. Went to Capitol Square and took several pictures. Took a walk on Monument Ave. Sentiment of South on Civil War still very strong. Left Richmond on noon train, had dandy dinner, and a beautiful ride. Arrived in West Philadelphia, left Uncle Harry and Aunt Nellie and made connections to Westmoreland.

They also took Helen for a trip to Europe.

          When we knew them, Nellie and Harry lived in a large house at 211 Upland Way, in Wayne, on the Main Line.

The gardens and yard were her particular delight. Of course she hired men to follow her instructions and care for them.

          Nellie had a guest book which I remember laboriously signing each time we visited. It was a chore to write what was expected. I have it now, and can use it to correct my memories. The entries began Dec. 25, 1935 with guests from Norway, Germany, Austria, India, and the captain of the S. S. Commercial Horidian. The first few years the guests are almost entirely international visitors. The first entry of our extended family was a Thanksgiving poem from 1941 signed by seven Herrs. Sue signed for her first visit March 3 to 5, 1944: "I like everything and I want to come again." My first visit, Easter Sunday, April 9 that year, was dictated (or written for me, as we never referred to Aunt Nellie by her given name): "This also is my first visit to Aunt Helen in Wayne just the same as my sister Sue, and I want to come again. I like my visit. I like everything. I like my chocolate Easter egg, and my chicken and my paper dolls, and my gold bed and I like the light to use at night. That's all. April 7 to 10, 1944."  When we visited Aunt Nellie at 211 Upland Way in Wayne, Sue and I slept in the big brass bed in the guest room. We could hear the trains on the Main Line.

Picnic at 211 Upland Way: Charley and  Kitty, Frank, Betty, Sue, Chip, Stan, Nellie, Marty

          We visited again, according to the guest book, January 5-7, 1945 when we went to the zoo, lunch at (a restaurant? named) Hollands, and the Academy of Natural History where we saw the movie, Elephant Boy. I left my tooth brush and it had to be mailed to me. Probably around this time I was given Sabu, a boy doll dressed in white satin turban and Hindu costume. At some later time I have a vague recollection of an evening trip to the Pennypack sponsored by the Academy of Natural History, during which we looked for spring peepers.

          One visit (Dec. 14, 1947) Aunt Nellie gave us cooking lessons, which we dutifully wrote down in small note books she provided. We tackled fondant, and I don't remember what else. Perhaps it was this visit when Aunt Nellie brought out the doll coal stove, fired it up, and showed us how to cook squabs in its tiny oven. At some point she gave Sue the stove. But I can't remember that we ever actually used it for other than play at our house. Eventually it got cracked. In time Chip got it for his girls. There were times when we were allowed to play quietly in the large yard. I remember finding hawthorn berries and other "doll foods" with which we set up tea parties.

          Nellie also gave us the Little Colonel books, a new volume each time we visited. Sue and I would either take turns, or try reading them lying side by side. The heroine, Lloyd, was the daughter of a Union Army officer and his wife, the disowned daughter of a southern gentleman. The impoverished family moved south and the little girl won the heart of her crusty grandfather. The rest of the books were set in the magnolia-draped south.

          Sue and I went to Cape May with the Sheplers and stayed in the Lafayette, one of the large old hotels. The guest book records Sue's note and my dictated thanks for the visit, from August 22 to September 5, 1946. I remember that I was unable to eat as much as they thought I ought to eat, or as quickly as the others did. At one point I was given a locket commemorating that I had eaten my whole meal with alacrity.

Betty with family: Kitty, Frank, Sue, Betty, Stan, Marty, Charley, Tom Jr.

          According to the guest book Chip's first visit by himself was June 10, 1951. They went to Valley Forge. He was introduced to Aunt Nellie's mineral collection, and given stories about Indians and George Washington. He amused himself by shinnying up a clothes pole in the yard. He returned home with a knife, which he wore to school. Sue and I were taken (June 13-15, 1952) to Fairmount Park, Strawberry Mansion, Sweet Briar, and a doll exhibition. Uncle Harry drove us around Wayne so that we would be able to find our way from the train station to their house. Sue was given tips on what to see on her upcoming trip to Europe. I came by myself one Thursday and Friday, and wrote Sept, 3, 1954: "I've enjoyed my visit here at '211', thank you so much for inviting me. I'm sure the boys will get a lot out of the minerals and stones. The shells are nice, too."

          Every Christmas season Aunt Nellie had a large dinner party for her friend Martha's children and their children. Helen remembers that it was Aunt Nellie's birthday party. These were elegant dinners, with place cards. The adults sat at the big table, and the four oldest cousins sat at a small table off to one side. I don't remember the younger cousins. Perhaps they also had a table? Maybe as babies they were tucked off somewhere in cribs in another room? Under the large table, by the hostess's foot, there was a button that rang a bell in the kitchen to summon the maid. I don't remember there being a maid when we were there, but we discovered the bell and pressed it a few times with great glee. The menu for dinner always included Nellie's special macaroni and cheese. We were led to understand it contained all sorts of exotic expensive cheeses. The men, in particular, always made a big fuss over it, and there was a lot of good-natured banter. Nellie made it fairly highly seasoned, and one year there was too much pepper, at least for our young tastes.

          Interestingly, none of these feasts have entries in the guest book. Our parents' names do not appear. After the first few years, the book seems to have been reserved for over night guests. The entries end in November 1957.

          In addition to macaroni and cheese, and the fondant she tried to teach us little girls how to make, Nellie must have been an accomplished cook. She made jams, jellies, preserves, and conserves; there were technical differences among each of them, that she taught us. I have her old Boston Cooking School cookbook, dated 1931. When I need to know something basic, without modern store-provided preparation, I turn to it. How do you cook a whole salmon? How do you make blanc mange? Quince jelly? What do you do with elderberries? I'm sorry now that I didn't learn more from her of basic Anglo-American early twentieth century cookery.

          Nellie was a member of the New Century Club in Philadelphia, and contributed three recipes to its cookbook, The Philadelphia New Century Club Book of Recipes Contributed by Members of the Club. Compiled and edited by Mrs. H. S. Prentiss Nichols, President (Phila.: The John C. Winston Company, 1915). The Foreword proclaims the volume

. . . does not profess to be a book on cookery; it is what is far better, a unique collection of tried and tested recipes, many of which have been handed down from one generation to another and have never before been in print.
           It is a beautiful demonstration of the fact that club women are the very best home makers. They not only have their useful fingers in many public pies, but they look well to the ways of their own households.
           The income from the sale of this Book of Recipes is to be used for the purchase of Club china and for other special objects, so that not only those who contributed their choice recipes, but each one who buys a copy, will have a personal share in adding to the beauty and comfort of this beloved club.
                        Isabel McIlhenny Nichols

          As I got older I enjoyed quietly sitting and listening to the adult conversations. Really, they were adult monologues. Nellie would launch forth into tales of her travels. I was fascinated. She and Harry would drive west, stopping at roadside stands and other places to find or buy minerals for her collection. They visited Indian places and bought souvenirs. They took a cruise around the North Cape. But trips to Europe occurred before my time; during my childhood war and its devastation spoiled the prospects of a Grand Tour. Wherever they went, they always brought back little gifts or souvenirs for each of us.


          When I was a teenager, Nellie realized that I enjoyed listening to her stories of her own family. She told me about Anthony Charbonnet DuPlaine, who came to Philadelphia at the time of the French Revolution. She gave me a small pewter spoon belonging to his wife Rachel. She told me about Rachel's brother, John Kessler, and gave me a handwritten copy of his journal written while he was at sea. Aunt Kitty worked for years to write a novel or children's book based on the journal. I never got it back.

          I made crude charts of her family and began taking rough notes of her stories. All that remains of the miniature of Anthony Charbonnet DuPlaine. It was stolen one year when we rented our house while we were abroad.

          Because of my interest in her stories of her family, after Aunt Nellie's death a packet of papers came into my hands. A yellowed, crumbling newspaper clipping contains an obituary for her grandfather, Benoni C. DuPlaine, died Feb. 16, 1905 in his 66th year, private services and interment. Glued to it is a longer clipping, "An Insane Man's Will". Benoni died in the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. His widow, Jennie, stated that for eleven years prior to his death Benoni was addicted to morphine, "causing him to labor under delusions." She "related numerous peculiarities of her husband, and stated that he frequently made and destroyed wills. 'He was generally erratic,' continued the witness. 'For upwards of four years he was antagonistic to his children.'" They requested that his last will, that was handwritten and unwitnessed, be set aside by the court, and the usual intestate law be followed. The case was held over, according to the clipping, so I do not know what the decision was.
Hair bracelet 1852

          One of Nellie's relatives sailed with Commodore Perry when he "opened" Japan to US commerce in 1854. From that expedition she gave us a handpainted book illustrating, if I remember, various Japanese occupations. It disappeared after we showed it to a Japanese exchange student who was invited over one evening. An appraiser who had looked at it earlier, thought it was not of very high quality.
Aunt Nellie's other grandparents, the Childs, were married in this church in Burslem, Staffordshire, England. Their first child, Susanna was supposed to have been christened here. The family moved to the United States. Susanna later married Henry Mercer in Philadelphia. Nellie's father, Isaac Richard Childs, was born May 21, 1837, and became a naturalized US citizen in 1840. He married Helen Augusta DuPlaine in 1873, the year before Nellie was born.

 postcard from Ellie Mercer, 10/28/1910

           I know surprisingly little about Nellie's husband, Charles Henry Shepler. According to another note, he was born April 9, 1876, in Sacramento County, California. He was Chief Engineer of the British Oil Tanker S. S. Cordelia, out of Liverpool, chartered to the Union Oil Co. of San Francisco from May 1912 to Dec. 1914. I don't know when he retired, how he met Aunt Nellie, or when they were married.

           Thanks to the wonders of the internet and this web page, I was contacted by a relative of Harry's. His mother, a British citizen, was Jane Elizabeth Pope (b. 1859). She married Paul Sharp Brabant (b. 1850) in 1883 and had three children: Paul (1885-1924), Mary Annie (b. 1887), and Elizabeth Brabant (1892-1919). Then Paul Sharp Brabant disappeared from public records. In the 1901 U.K. Census the three children were all living with their mother and their Grandmother, Annie Coates (b. 1835). Also living with them was Charles H. Shepler (b. 1878 in California) who named his mother as Jane Elizabeth Brabant. His WWI Draft registration card also named J. E. Brabant as such. Charles appeared in the 1881 and 1891 U. K. Census living with his Grandmother Annie Coates. Jane Elizabeth Brabant was enumerated in 1861 and 1881 in the U.K. Census but not in the 1871 Census. There is passenger information for Jane Elizabeth Brabant noting that she was in California between 1875-80. There is a marriage record for Charles A. Shepler and J. E. Cope (her maiden name was Pope so this is probably her). Mary Annie went to the United States in 1916, to Pennsylvania, and the record says that passage was paid by her brother Chas. Henry Shepler, living at 993A 7th St., Philadelphia. She lied about her birth year: 1890 instead of 1887. Mary Ann stayed in the College Inn, Hartsville, Pa., and apparently married Albert Millishop. Charles's draft registration listed him living in Hartsville and his occupation was something to do with ships, which makes sense as he had already been crewing ships for a couple of years.

           Here are some snapshots of Harry's mother, an undated one of Jane Elizabeth Brabant on the left and then Jane Elizabeth with her son Harry's car in the 1930s. On the right is Harry's sister Annie in 1934 in Philadelphia. By 1941 Annie and Albert Millishop and their son Nate lived in Noble, Penna. My thanks to Caroline Fairhead for them and also for the information about Harry's family.

Jane Elizabeth Brabant, photo courtesy of Caroline Fairhead Jane Elizabeth Brabant and Harry's car, photo courtesy of Caroline Fairhead Annie Brabant, 1934, photo courtesy of Caroline Fairhead

           I would be glad to post reminiscences of the Sheplers that others would like to share. I know a few more good stories "out there". She lived in a very different world than that which we inhabit today.

See photographs of Nellie's best friend, Martie Dunning Paxson.
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Updated 8/16/2013