by Steve Michaels Lydia Docenia Ely was born in 1835 in Clinton, Michigan, the daughter of two of Milwaukee’s earliest pioneers, Ambrose and Eliza Ely, who came to Milwaukee in 1840. On September 6, 1855, Lydia married Gideon Hewitt, Jr., and moved in with her parents. Hewitt worked in his father’s Hardware store on East Water Street, which he took over after his father’s retirement in 1869.
During the Civil War, she was a member of the Ladies Association of Milwaukee for the Aid of Military Hospitals (the first soldiers’ relief effort) and a President of the West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society.
In Spring 1864, when supplies were solicited for a Chicago fair, in support of a Soldiers’ Home there, she was one of three Milwaukee ladies opposing the efforts. Mrs. Hewitt was not satisfied with the results of the Chicago’s 1863 Fair and wanted a Soldiers’ Home in Wisconsin. In March 1864, the city’s West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society reorganized as the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home Society. They rented a single storefront at 207 West Water Street (now North Plankinton Avenue), where overnight lodging, warm meals, a little hospital care, and a bit of money were provided to returning veterans. So many veterans showed up that additional buildings were rented on both sides of the street. Lydia Hewitt served as president of the women directors of the home The Home received its charter from the Wisconsin legislature in February 1865, as well as a grant of $5,000, for the purpose of erecting a permanent facility for the relief of soldiers.
In 1865, Mrs. Hewitt and other women organized a “Soldiers’ Home Fair,” raising money for the purchase of a site and the construction a facility to serve returning wounded soldiers. Opening June 28, and officially lasting ten days, the Fair raised $100,000 towards what was to become the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled American Soldiers (today’s Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee).
Prior to the Fair, Congress had passed the “National Asylum for Disabled Volunteers Act” on March 3, 1865. It was signed by President Lincoln and provided for a U.S. government sanctioned and run central asylum and three branches. When site selection commenced in 1866, the Lady Managers were persuaded to divert their efforts to the establishment of the Northwestern Branch, transferring their funds, selling real estate, and purchasing new land.[Read Mrs. Hewitt’s letter of resignation from the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home Association and her friends’ resolutions marking her many contributions.]
On May 1, 1867, the downtown Shelter (Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home) transferred its veterans to the new site, formally closed its doors and returned its charter to the State of Wisconsin. Mrs. Hewitt was also involved in several charities, one of which ran the city’s first two orphanages. Lydia had grown up in an educated family and traveled throughout Europe as an artist. When Sculptor John Severino Conway opened his studio in Milwaukee in 1871, the two developed a close relationship. It is unknown how close, but sometime during the 1870s, the Hewitts divorced. Conway, 17 years her junior, continued to correspond with Mrs. Hewitt for 30 years after his 1881 departure from Milwaukee.[View two examples of Lydia’s work at Museum of Wisconsin Art.]
Mrs. Hewitt exhibited her work at the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. She inspired and fostered an intelligent appreciation of art in Milwaukee. The city’s first art exposition had been during the Soldiers’ Home Fair. In 1879, she conducted the Lone Art Exposition, in which she assembled nearly all the fine pictures and pieces of sculpture in the city. In 1881 and for several years thereafter, she served as head of the art department at the Milwaukee Industrial Exposition. There she broadened the scope of the art exhibit with works contributed by artists and dealers in the East.
Mrs. Hewitt received approval for a Civil War monument from Milwaukee’s Chamber of Commerce in 1885. To raise money for the monument, Mrs. Hewitt and other women secured public subscriptions and held fund raising events, such as the “Bazaar of All Nations” in May 1896. This only raised part of the monies, so Mrs. Hewitt came up with another clever plan. She collected autographs of famous Americans in government, science, art and literature. These were compiled in a giant autograph book, two feet wide and two feet thick. There were over 2,000 signatures. Sculptor John Conway’s The Victorious Charge was sketched on the title page. When completed, Hewitt auctioned the volume to Captain Frederick Pabst, the city’s most prominent brewer, to complete the fund raising. The monument was unveiled in June 1898.
Before the turn of the 20th Century, Mrs. Hewitt moved to Kilbourn (Wisconsin Dells), while continuing to travel in Europe. During the summer of 1913, she was stricken with paralysis. Mrs. Hewitt died on December 22, 1914. Her ashes were buried at Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. Sources:
Ancestry.com The Ely Ancestry Pioneer Settlement of Milwaukee from first American Settlement in 1833 to 1841
Wisconsin Women in the War