History's People: Eleanor Moore McCullough's Life was a Tale of Resolve and Endurance

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
January 30, 2014

If you walk into CCHS’s current feature exhibition, Profiles: Chester County Clothing of the 1800s, you will immediately be struck by an explosion of colors, shapes and sizes. Hidden among the fancy dresses and coats is an unassuming dress that one might miss at first glance. Its demure appearance belies its story, the story of Eleanor Bechtel Moore McCullough.

Eleanor H. Bechtel was born in 1839 in Birchrunville, West Vincent, to a seamstress and a stone mason. “Ellen,” as she was known, had 11 siblings.

In 1848, due to the burdens of managing such a large family, Ellen was sent to nearby Kimberton where she was raised by the Lewis sisters (Graceanna, Elizabeth, Mariann). The Lewises were active abolitionists and their home served as a station on the Underground Railroad. As Susannah Brody wrote in “Constant Struggles: Chester County Biographies,” “at their home called ‘Sunnyside’ the Lewis sisters treated Ellen like a younger sister and provided her with food, clothing, love and a solid Quaker education.”

Ellen chose teaching as her vocation, studying briefly at the Lancaster County Normal School, now Millersville University. An early teaching job took her to the Avondale area, where she met ex-teacher-turned-farmer David Moore of London Grove.

On Oct. 20, 1859, the two married in a Quaker ceremony. The wedding dress took center stage. As described by Chester County Historical Society Director of Collections/Curator Ellen Endslow, the ivory colored dress is “in the style of the period but is restrained in decoration, which was not unusual for Quakers. It also precedes the so-called ‘traditional’ white wedding dress that Kodak black-and-white photos made popular.”

According to biographer and granddaughter Eleanor Moore Webster, “Ellen spent every spare minute sewing on her wedding dress.” The day was “rare and beautiful,” with guests reading poems that Graceannna Lewis composed for the occasion.

The couple’s life soon took many turns and twists. David seemed to have wanderlust, always looking for a better opportunity. After briefly farming in Avondale, where Ellen gave birth to their daughter, Ada, the family left their rural life for Philadelphia in 1861. There, they struggled to operate a store and farmers market booth.

When war consumed the nation, David enlisted. Although he was raised a Quaker, the combination of financial need, the Union cause and his love of adventure trumped any pacifist beliefs. In July 1862 he left to join the 124th PA Volunteers, a primarily Chester County regiment under the command of Col. Joseph Hawley.

This left a pregnant Ellen alone with a young child in the city, running a floundering business. She ditched the store and sold the contents, and moved back to live with the Lewis sisters who welcomed her with open arms.

Just six weeks after leaving home, David fought in the bloodiest battle of the war, Antietam. Although the 124th had 64 casualties he survived unscathed. Ellen had no idea if he had lived or perished. “Oh how can I endure this terrible suspense!” she wrote. Her anxiety persisted for many days until she finally heard from him that he was safe.

She sent boxes of much-needed food and supplies when the regiment had to forage for food near Harpers Ferry. David, in return, carved his wife and daughter wooden rings as mementos. Back at Sunnyside, at age 24, Ellen gave birth to her first son, aptly named Lewis. In May 1863, the 124th fought at Chancellorsville, Virginia, before mustering out later that month.

The 124th arrived home to huge fanfare, but Col. Hawley was soon charged with getting the regiment ready for General Lee’s anticipated invasion of Pennsylvania. Just before David was to leave, typhoid fever struck him and he stayed home. He survived, and the family moved back to Philadelphia and reopened their stall at the farmers market.

In Philadelphia, the Moores struggled as before. There, they became familiar with a Quaker movement to convert old cotton plantations into operations to hire and educate freed slaves. David, loving adventure, jumped at this opportunity for a fresh start. In 1865, they moved to Helena, Arkansas, on the banks of the Mississippi, where they operated a cotton plantation. Ada was 5 and Lewis 18 months old. Their second son, Ziba, was born after they arrived.

Life in Arkansas, however, was not the dream they had imagined. Drought, floods and pests destroyed their crops. In 1866, Asiatic cholera struck David and his two sons. Within a matter of hours, David and Lewis were dead, leaving 28-year-old Ellen alone with Ada and a desperately sick Ziba. As Eleanor Moore Webster wrote, “Ellen’s world collapsed around her.”

She returned home to Chester County, where luck soon changed for this woman who had endured so much. She learned of a new school that had opened close to Sunnyside - the Chester Springs Soldiers’ Orphan School. The school, located on the former Yellow Springs spa property, cared for orphans of Civil War soldiers. Ellen was offered the position of matron and in March 1868 she and her children moved to the school, into what is now known as the Lincoln Building.

The school, part of a statewide system, followed a regimen designed to raise students’ academic, moral and physical attributes through a military-like structure. It is a story well-documented and shared today by Historic Yellow Springs.

In 1873, Ellen, who changed her name to Eleanor, became principal of the school, the only female principal in the state orphan school system. She was lauded for her efforts. Graceanna Lewis wrote about her in “The Woman’s Journal” in 1877, calling Eleanor an “unusually capable woman,” noting that the school’s board of trustees had turned to her for leadership after male principals had failed to run the school adequately.

It was through the school that Eleanor met Matthew S. McCullough, a Philadelphia attorney and member of the school’s board of directors. She was 43 years old when she married him in 1882 and resigned her position.

The next chapter of her life took Eleanor back to Philadelphia with her new husband. McCullough developed the beach town of Longport, New Jersey, and in 1891 they gave up their home in the city to spend most of the year in Longport. They travelled to Europe, daughter Ada became a teacher, and son Ziba an attorney who served as a state representative. Despite her travels and new life, Eleanor always remembered her roots and even returned to a reunion of orphan school graduates as late as 1922. She died four years later, at the age of 86.

Caption: Photo by Gilbert & Bacon, Philadelphia. Chester County Historical Society Eleanor H. Bechtel Moore, October 1877.