by Henry Lane Hull
In my childhood one of our family’s annual summer rituals was a trip to Weems to visit Topsey Olds. She was an elderly lady who lived in the Victorian house beyond Campbell Presbyterian Church, on the land that included the site of Corotoman, the home of Robert “King” Carter. To this day I can say that she was one of the most colorful individuals I ever have known.
She had spent her career in Washington, where her grandfather, Return Jonathan Meigs III, a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, had served as first clerk of the reconstituted Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. His unusual first name derived from his great-grandfather, Jonathan Meigs, having courted his prospective bride with repeated proposals of marriage. Once when leaving on a long trip, she proclaimed, “Return Jonathan Meigs,” thus after their marriage when their son was born, she named him Return Jonathan Meigs.
That Return’s son went on to become the fourth governor of Ohio and later senator. Topsey’s grandfather, Return III, had his own illustrious career in the Washington legal community. Topsey was born in 1869 and as a child I used to listen to her tell me stories of going to the White House as a little girl and sitting on the lap of President U. S. Grant, a close friend of her grandfather. Many years later when I met General U. S. Grant III, I told him about Topsey and he confirmed that his grandfather always had enjoyed the company of children.
Topsey followed her grandfather to the Federal Courthouse, not in a legal capacity, but as the manager of the lunchroom, where she stayed for many years, getting to know the legal community and being a part of it from an ancillary position. She thrived on knowing all she could about the judges, lawyers and important trials that came through the courthouse and her memory was astounding.
After leaving the lunchroom, she came to live with her daughter and son-in-law, who had purchased the house in Weems. With that move she began trying to learn all she could about “King” Carter. She died in 1969, shortly prior to her 100th birthday, before the establishment of the Foundation for Historic Christ Church and before the archeological excavation of the site of his home, thus she was one of the first to research the history of King Carter’s Church and his home, Corotoman.
In those days her archival resources were limited and by modern standards perhaps historians might say that she blended history with legend, but she was indefatigable in trying to learn as much as she could and she delighted in telling all she knew to anyone who would listen. She also knew her family genealogy and could recite tales of her forefathers’ services in the War for Independence and succeeding wars, along with that of her collateral relative, General Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster of the Army during the Civil War.
As a child I was fascinated. I recall her claim that the rocks in front of her home had come as ballast on ships from England and have wondered ever since whether that tidbit of history was documented, but to a child listening to her, as she had listened to U. S. Grant tell her stories of the Civil War, I was mesmerized.
Topsey also liked to write poetry and gave me one of the privately printed booklets containing her verse. She and my father would go over their times at the courthouse and my father would turn to tell me how much he had enjoyed her famous pies, which were the signature items on the menu of the courthouse lunchroom.
Since those childhood visits listening to Topsey’s stories, I have been to Weems countless times, but I never go there without thinking of her and reliving the history that to her was still very much alive.