Aunt Maria (pronounced Mariah) Burwell Johnson was my grandfather’s aunt. Born near Fingal and died near Eden, she homesteaded in Michigan during the Civil War and later had a fruit tree farm in Essex Co. Ont.
On her 100th birthday in June 1935, two newspaper articles told her story. Here are the clippings and transcribed copy. Click the images for larger views.
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Woman To Mark 100th Milestone
Mrs. Marie Johnson, Bayham, 100 on Wednesday
Looks after garden – Birthday Dinner Held At Daughter’s Home
Belmont, June 23 – Surrounded by her immediate family and relatives, numbering 22, Mrs. Maria Burwell Johnson, this afternoon was tendered a birthday dinner at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Charles Allemand, Bayham Township, the occasion marking her 100th birthday anniversary.
Although Mrs. Johnson does not attain that age until Wednesday, the party was held today, that her family might be present for the function.
In speaking to the press by telephone late this afternoon the celebrant carried on a brief, but sprightly conversation. Before calling her mother to the phone, Mrs. Allemand told the reporter her mother was as active “as a 16-year-old girl.”
The centenarian devotes much of her time to the household duties of the home. She has her daily walk, helps with the weekly churning, cares for the garden, and in winter, knits and reads extensively. Although her hearing is slightly impaired she is able to read without the aid of glasses. Today she received a telegram from her cousin, Mrs. Lydia Bage, of Burtland, Ore., who is also 100 years old, having attained that age on February 6th last.
She takes a keen interest in current events and in her telephone conversation mentioned that she “voted for Hepburn,” in last year’s provincial election. On Wednesday the Ladies’ Aid of the Bayham circuit, are tendering her a reception and birthday dinner. A three-storey birthday cake, with 100 candles, will be featured, at the event which has become an annual affair in the last few years.
Maria Johnson has been a life-long resident of Elgin County, having been born one mile west of Fingal village, Southwold Township, June 26th, 1835, a daughter of the late Lewis Burwell and Levina Williams. She is a first cousin [2nd, 1 remove] of the late Col. Burwell. For 20 years she has resided with her daughter, Mrs. Allemand, Eden R.R. No. 1. Her family are Charles Johnson, Detroit; Mrs. Edward Parker, Kingsville; and Mrs. Allemand; also 12 grandchildren.
… Johnson was just “taking it easy.” But it appeared to be no great effort for her to “tidy up” and come and have her picture taken. She walked along on the arm of her daughter because, Mrs. Johnson explained, “I’m getting pretty staggery.”
But she said it with a chuckle and marched stalwartly along. She carries a walking stick, but it’s mostly “to keep the peace.”
A characteristic of Mrs. Johnson that has always been hers has been her joviality. Though she is a little hard of hearing, she sees perfectly well and when others around her Wednesday afternoon were laughing about something she had missed, she spoke up and said: “Come now, what are you all laughing about. If there’s anything going on, I’d like to have a hand in it.”
Born Before Rebellion
It seems hard to realize, but Mrs. Johnson was born before the rebellion of Upper Canada. Her birthday was June 26, 1835, and was born the oldest of the family of Lewis and Levina Burwell, whose farm was broken in the woods between Fingal and Watson’s Corners in Southwold township. She is a second cousin of Colonel Mahlon Burwell, associate of Colonel Talbot, who surveyed much of this district and who was, with Colonel Talbot, one of Elgin county’s settlement promoters. She did a bit of pioneering herself during the early days of her married life when she lived near the village of Pontiac, Mich., and she and her husband cleared a farm in the bush out in Gratiot county.
But Mrs. Johnson’s home has been practically all her life in Elgin county. The oldest of a family of seven children, all have predeceased her with the exception of her sister, Mrs. Jane Elams [Helms], of South Haven, Mich., who was the third of the seven children in the Lewis Burwell family and who is herself in her 90’s. One of her brothers, Richard, died only a short time ago at his home in South Haven. The family has been noted for its longevity, but Mrs. Johnson is establishing a record. The names of her brothers and sisters, in order of their age, were John, Jane, Richard, Hercules, Samuel and Amy.
Lived on Talbot Estate
Mrs. Johnson lived with her parents near Fingal and on the Talbot estate until her twenty-third year. She had no schooling other than what she was able to learn herself. She reads and writes which, to say the least, was an achievement for one who, in her early days, had no end of hard work on her father’s farm, and who, when she married, brought up a family and helped hew down bush to clear more land. She does little writing now, nor does she read, because the strain of the latter is too telling.
When she was 23, she married Howard Johnson, who came to Southern Ontario from Nova Scotia. The marriage took place in Pontiac, Mich., and there they built their home, a little log cabin some miles out of the settlement. For some time directly after the wedding, the young couple resided at Waterford, where their oldest son, Charles, now of Detroit, was born. But they returned to Pontiac and resided there until after the American Civil War, for service in which Howard Johnson was drafted. When he went away to war, he had to leave Mrs. Johnson and two young children to fend for themselves on the little farm in the woods. Home from the war, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson moved from Pontiac back to Ontario and began farming near Fingal.
It was no easy matter for the couple to break up their home in Gratiot county. It had stood for a good deal to both Mrs. Johnson and her husband. But conditions in the States at the close of the Civil War were far from settled and neither cared to take the risk of going through another war. Mrs. Johnson says to this day that, of all the home in which she had lived, that little log cabin in the woods was far the best.
Husband Lived Till 84
For many years, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson lived not far from the Lewis Burwell homestead west of Fingal. But they later acquired a farm in Bayham township near Eden and resided there until going to the district around the town of Essex where, until his death, Mr. Johnson was a fruit farmer. He passed away in 1912 at the age of 84, and Mrs. Johnson returned to Bayham township to make her home with her daughter, with whom she is still living.
Mrs. Johnson’s three children are all living. They are Charles Johnson, of Detroit; Mrs. E. L. Parker, of Kingsville; and Mrs. Kitchen [Allemand], of Eden. She has twelve grandchildren living. In Charles Johnson’s family there are Carl Johnson, Detroit; Mrs. (May) Williams, residing in California; Mrs. (Ruby) Blain, Mrs. (Gladys) Anderson, Mrs. (Dorothy) Brian, and Mrs. (Nellie) Kirkland, all of Detroit. Mrs. Parker’s children are Gordon Parker, Detroit, and Cecil Parker, Kingsville. Mrs. Kitchen’s children are Mrs. Fred Stark, Toronto; Mrs. Arol Bowes, New Liskeard; Mrs. Clarence Williams, Lapeer, Mich., and Arthur Allemand, Eden. There are twenty-seven great-grandchildren. The Burwells having been a large family of Elgin county pioneers, Mrs. Johnson is related in one way or another to a very large number of descendants of the original Burwell family, many of whom still reside in this district.
The Elgin County Council and the Council of the township of Bayham will likely recognize Mrs. Johnson’s 102nd [100th?] birthday. Certainly she will have the felicitations and best wishes of a host of old friends.
No Recipe for Longevity
Mrs. Johnson offered no suggestion on how to attain old age. But she had always been a great worker, her labors carrying on into the evening hours, commencing early in the morning. It is still no hardship for her to stay up until eleven or twelve in the evening and rise again at five along with the others on the farm. She eats three hearty meals a day and is by no means as frail as one might expect of a person who has reached her age.
Recently a radio was acquired at the Kitchen home and Mrs. Johnson enjoys its programs. She particularly enjoyed the Coronation broadcasts, and in this regard it is of interest to note that she has lived during the reign of King George IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIIII, and now King George VI.
Maria’s son Charles Johnson of Detroit. He married Nellie Havens Gray of Eden. Charles’ sisters were Amy Jane (married F. L. Sweet, Edmond Parker) and Fanny Jeannette (married Charles Allemand, R. Kitchen). See Burwell Family Tree, nos. 59-60 for their families.
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Mrs. Maria Johnson of Eden Feted on 100th Birthday (June 27, 1935)
Col. Thomas Talbot was a good old fellow but pretended he wasn’t, Mrs. Maria Johnson of Eden told The News this week as she recalled incidents of her childhood days spent near Port Talbot. She was 100 years old yesterday. Mrs. Johnson lives with her daughter, Mrs. R. Kitchen, formerly Mrs. Charles Allemand. Her birthday was marked with two parties, one on Sunday for the relatives who could not be present yesterday when the whole community was invited. The Ladies’ Aid Society of the Eden Baptist church arranged the dinner and reception yesterday afternoon in her honor.
Mrs. Johnson likes to read and can do so without the aid of glasses. She crochets, too. In her own words she says she is able to walk a mile. Her daughter remarked that she had churned on Tuesday of last week. Mrs. Johnson possesses unusual faculties for one who has seen a century go by. Her only impairment is a slight difficulty in hearing. She laughs as she recalls the fun of childhood and holds the listener’s interest with her well-told anecdotes.
Mrs. Johnson was born one mile west of Fingal. Her father, Lewis Burwell, was a mason and did a great deal of Col. Talbot’s masonry work. He was a cousin of Col. Mahlon Burwell. Her mother was Lavina Williams, a sister of Thomas Williams – patron of the Thomas Williams Home for indigents at St. Thomas.
“Col. Talbot was good to us young ones if we were good to him. He was not very cranky, pretending a lot which he didn’t mean.” Mrs. Johnson remembers that the boys bowed and the girls curtseyed in those days. Sometimes she failed to curtsey to Col. Talbot, and then he would say to his retainer Jeffry Hunter, “Hit that girl a good slash, Jeffry”; but he didn’t do it.”
“Oh, my, but that is a long time ago,” she would remark occasionally.
Mrs. Johnson’s husband first saw her when she was driving sheep along the road. Right away he said to himself that she would be his wife. His family went to Michigan. Mrs. Johnson followed and on Sept. 12, 1858, became the bride of Howard Johnson at Pontiac. Her husband fought in the American
Revolutionary War [Civil War], in which her brother, John R. Burwell, was killed.
Mrs. Johnson is the oldest in a family of seven. She has a brother and a sister living, Richard Burwell of Grass Lake, Mich., and Mrs. Jane Helms of South Haven, Mich. A first cousin, Mrs. Lydia Bage of Burtland, Ore., was 100 years old on February 6th last, and has sent a letter on congratulations on also becoming a centenarian.
While living on a fruit farm at Essex Centre in 1912 Mr. Johnson passed away, ending 54 years of married life. Mrs. Johnson has since lived with Mrs. Kitchen and another daughter, Mrs. Edmond Parker of Kingsville. A son, Charles Johnson, resides in Detroit. Mrs. Johnson has 12 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson lived in Pontiac, Waterford, and Gratiot during their stay in Michigan. “When we moved to Gratiot we saw hard times,” she recalled. “It was a new country, and we had to build our own little log house. It was the best little home we ever had. Then the war broke out and Howard had to go, leaving me with two children five years and five months old. The roads were bad and we had a team of oxen. There were lots of bears about. It was a great change for me after living on the Talbot Road on Col. Talbot’s place.
“That was where father died and mother was left with a large family. John and I being the oldest, we were great chums. We made sugar, braided hats, picked limestone out of the creek, and husked the corn. When it was awful cold Bill Welch came and helped us.
“We had good days as well as sad days,” she paused to say.
“For music, a fiddle did it all – for logging bees, barn-raisings, dancing, and it was played in the church, too. Those were good times, but I enjoy life yet,” Mrs. Johnson said with a happy smile.
On Sunday 25 relatives gathered for dinner at the home of Mrs. Kitchen to honor Mrs. Johnson. They came from Toronto, Lapeer, Mich., Detroit, New Liskeard, and Kingsville. A large birthday cake centred the table. Some of the guests remained for the big party Wednesday.
Yesterday afternoon the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Eden Baptist church and many people of the district celebrated Mrs. Johnson’s 100th birthday. There was a beautiful four-story cake made for the occasion by Mrs. D. D. Healy of Eden, who is 80 years old. It was trimmed with white icing and silver berries. The figures “1835-1935” were on it in silver icing and the top story held up a silver horseshoe. All the community was invited to come with their lunches and enjoy a piece of the fruit cake. A program of speeches and music was prepared the the members of the Ladies’ Aid Society. Mrs. William White is the president and Mrs. W. Stilwell the secretary. Solos and duets were sung by Mr. N. O. Stilwell and Miss Olive Stilwell. Mr. [Edward] Sivyer of Eden, who is 93 years old, was an honored guest.
Mrs. Johnson has received many gifts, flowers, cards and letters of congratulation for her birthday celebration. On June 16th her granddaughter and husband from Lapeer, Mich., took her for the first automobile ride she has had this year which she enjoyed greatly. She was a Methodist, but the church was closed at Eden and for several years now the Baptist Ladies’ Aid has gathered with her on her birthday.
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The Thomas Williams Home, I learned from St. Thomas residents on Facebook, is at 57 Walnut Street right beside the old St. Thomas Anglican Church.
Maria’s brother John Rice Burwell died 16 June 1862 in the Battle of Secessionville, James Island, South Carolina at the age of 24. He may have been a Private in Company C, 8th Michigan Infantry, Union Army. There is a record that matches in all details except names of parents and siblings.
One article says that Maria’s brother Richard is alive and the other says he recently died. I have his date of death as Feb. 27, 1937 in Jackson, Michigan.