March 24, 2010
LIMA — “The value of the Summer Social Register, issued early in July, is that it is the only means of ascertaining the scattered addresses of prominent families during the Summer months when communication addressed to the winter residence will not reach them.”
That’s the introduction to the directory issued in the summer of 1897, letting Gilded Age millionaires and old families know who was worth inviting to tea. And right there — in the B’s — “Brice, Senator and Mrs. Calvin (Olivia Meily) at Beaulieu, Blv. Av., Newport, R.I.
Olivia Meily Brice has come a long way from her childhood house on Spring Street in Lima.
Catharine Olivia Meily was born in 1840, the eldest of nine, but her father moved to Lima when she was 4. Lima was then a dusty village, but John Meily was enterprising and built a business weaving carpets and coverlets, as well as starting a small foundry.
The Meily girls were encouraged in their studies, and Olivia — or “Leve” as she was known — was acknowledged to be especially bright. She was teaching in local schools by the time she was 13. She was engaged to a young man who died in battle at Shiloh in 1862. With his death, she looked ahead to a life of teaching and good works. In 1864 she enrolled in the Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio, the predecessor to what would become Miami University.
The school has many letters and records regarding “Leve” because her attachment and loyalty to the school would last her lifetime. In a memoir of her days as a student, friends recalled her strong convictions. During the last year of the Civil War, she dared Southern students to wear their flag’s colors to dinner, and when they did she threw “pitchers of cold water on them with one hand and tore off the offending colors with the other.”
A passionate nature was coupled with a good mind. “Leve” graduated at the head of her class in 1866 and wrote the class song. She was proficient in algebra and physics, areas of study not frequently undertaken by women of the day. The principal of her school recalled that she “never did anything by halves.”
After graduation, she taught high school in Terre Haute, Ind., but returned to Lima in 1869 to marry Calvin S. Brice. He was a young attorney practicing in Lima, the son of a Presbyterian minister with a farm in Putnam County. He had taught in Lima schools before going to law school and may have crossed paths with “Leve” then.
He was a graduate of Miami University and the marriage of the alumni was a topic of school legend. The school’s version of their meeting was that he was an examiner when she was being tested for licensing as an Ohio teacher. But he was five years her junior, and this is not documented.
The wedding was announced in the Allen County Democrat.
“On the ninth, at the residence of the bride’s father in Lima, by Reverend W. K. Brice, Mr. Calvin S. Brice and Miss C.O. Meily. We congratulate our friends on this new arrangement and wish them the fullest realization of their most cherished achievements for the future.”
In the same paper a decade later — “Mr. and Mrs. C.S. Brice will celebrate the tenth anniversary of their married life with a reception at their home on West Market Street. On Tuesday next.” More than 500 people attended.
By this time the fortunes of the young couple had flourished. Mr. Brice had done some legal work for a railroad and become interested in that growing industry. As time went on, it became clear he had a gift for putting together a deal.
Ohio Gov. Charles Foster met Brice in 1871. “He was the most successful borrower I ever saw. He bought anything and everything and he did it without money. Men of affairs had confidence in him.”
At home, “Leve” took charge of raising five children and running a house and staff.
When he began to make money, the couple made a pact on how to use what they didn’t need. Their alumni magazine quotes letters between them.
“They agreed to confer with one another about ‘every expenditure of any considerable amount.’ They would carefully arrange each charitable gift so that their assistance yielded ‘long term good.’ They would create ‘independents rather than dependents, and would alter conditions rather than circumstances.” “Leve” gave the first $100 her husband gave her to do with as she pleased to her alma mater.
The couple began traveling a lot on business and obtained a home on Park Avenue, but kept their Lima house and their local connections. In the 1890s, Lima’s high school sponsored a book drive and held sales and lectures to finance new volumes for the school library. Mrs. Brice pledged to match locally raised money dollar for dollar — and she did.
After Mr. Brice put together the Nickel Plate Road, and then sold it to the Vanderbilts, there was a lot of money for charity and pleasure. The Brices are credited with financing with their own money and with their influence with state government the financing that restored Miami University to operation after it virtually ran out of money after the Civil War. She was made a trustee of her college seminary after years on the Alumnae Association focusing on the education of women.
He had been active in Democratic politics and when he won election as U.S. Senator, “Leve’s” intelligence and organizational skills focused on the job of entertaining. They revamped the Washington home once occupied by Daniel Webster and entertained lavishly. They maintained their Park Avenue house, and the one in Lima, and from time to time took up residence in Paris or London.
Although Senator Brice left office, 1897 was an eventful year. The family summered in Newport. In a letter in June of that year, she describes in detail to her sister Franny the experience of being presented at court at Buckingham Palace. The family was among the select to attend a costume ball and “Leve” commissioned Worth gowns for herself and two eldest daughters. Senator Brice has his portrait painted by John Singer Sargent.
But in 1898, everything changed. Calvin Brice caught a case of pneumonia and died at 53. A pending deal in which he had invested much capital to create a rail line in China fizzled without his guidance. “Leve’s” health began to fail. She spent the next two years traveling to California and to the mountains to get better, all the while keeping up a mountain of letter-writing and administering her late husband’s estate. By December 1900, her body would not take it and two years to the day from her husband’s death, “Leve” followed.
There were massive funerals for her both in New York and at home in Lima. It is in Lima where both Calvin and Olivia Brice make their final home, in Woodlawn Cemetery under a marble monument “Leve” designed and commissioned.