Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

For the last 20-odd years of her long life Topsey Olds lived with her daughter and son-in-law at their home on the site of Robert “King” Carter’s estate, “Corrotoman,” on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Weems.

Topsey, who died in 1969 at the age of 99, had come here from Washington, and she easily would qualify in the top echelon of any compendium of interesting similar immigrants to the Northern Neck. Some years ago, I mentioned her in a column, and what follows is an update.

Topsey was the granddaughter of Return Jonathan Meigs, who had been the first Clerk of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, now known as the U.S. District Court, after the court was established by President Lincoln in 1863. He served in that office for 30 years, having been appointed in part because of his close friendship with Lincoln.

The name Return is ubiquitous in the Meigs family, going back to the late 17th century, when Hannah Willard regretted having rejected the courtship of Jenna Meigs, and called to him, “Return, Jenna, Return.” They named their first son, Return Jonathan Meigs,” thus beginning the tradition that has come to encompass over a dozen members of the Meigs family, I am sure posing a great challenge to genealogists.

Long after her grandfather’s tenure at the Court had ended, Topsey went to work there after the building had been reconfigured in 1917, a renovation which included the installation of a restaurant in the basement. She became the manager of the restaurant, a position she retained for over 30 years, after which she moved to Weems.

One of the rituals I most enjoyed in my childhood was our annual family pilgrimage to visit her, where I had the opportunity to ask her about her fascinating life. She told me that her earliest memories centered on her grandfather taking her to the White House, where she would get to sit on the lap of President U. S. Grant, another close friend of Return Jonathan Meigs. She had deep affection for the President, and liked to recount how he enjoyed the company of children, especially telling them tales of his military exploits. Topsey described a side of General Grant that is not known to most citizens.

Topsey was a gifted poet who wrote many short jingles that she would read to her visitors. For her, a poem had to have a clearly defined rhyme. She would not have been a devotee of modern, abstract poetry. She also had significant artistic ability, documenting the scenes around her home with her watercolors. She was fascinated by the history of “King” Carter and could recount many of the tales she had learned about him. Perhaps coming from a famous American family, she could relate to the fame he experienced in an earlier age.

One of her stories concerned the stone jetties that extended into the river from her shoreline. She thought they had come on ships from England as ballast and were used by Carter to protect his waterfront. If accurate, they would constitute one of the first attempts at shoreline conservation. She did not live to see the excavation of the foundation of “Corrotoman” in 1978, but she knew where it was on the property.

Lastly, perhaps from her days in the restaurant, she had learned how to be a wonderful chef. She specialized in desserts, notably cookies, that she readily had on hand as treats for guests. They were great, but my lasting memory is that of knowing someone who had sat on the lap of U. S. Grant.