Alexander Ramsey House

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Introduction

One of the nation's best preserved Victorian-era homes, the Ramsey House offers a glimpse into family and servant life in the 1870s. Three generations of Ramseys lived the home before it was willed to the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1960s. Thousands of original family items and furnishings remain.

Background

Anna Jenks was visiting her father, Rep. Michael Jenks, at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., when she first met Alexander Ramsey, an up-and-coming congressman from Pennsylvania. The couple married in 1845 and lived in Washington and Pennsylvania until Ramsey was appointed Minnesota's first territorial governor by President Zachary Taylor. With his wife, three-year-old son, brother and servant, Alexander Ramsey arrived in Minnesota territory in 1849. Daughter Marion, born in 1853, was the only one of the three children who survived to adulthood. Although Mrs. Ramsey complained she "would never want to winter again in St. Paul," the Ramseys spent most of their lives in Minnesota.

Alexander Ramsey held numerous offices throughout his political career - territorial governor, mayor of St. Paul, second state governor, U.S. Senator, and secretary of war under President Hayes. He was also a shrewd businessman, and made a sizeable fortune in real estate.

While Ramsey served in the Senate, he and Anna lived in Washington, D.C., and Marion attended boarding school in Philadelphia. Mrs. Ramsey wrote to her daughter in 1866, "Papa and myself rode over to Georgetown. I was astonished to see so many beautiful fine grounds. Papa made the sensible remark: he wished he owned such a home; how he would enjoy it: I wonder if we all would not also." Six months later, they contacted St. Paul builders Leonard & Sheire.

St. Paul's fashionable Irvine Park neighborhood was selected as the location for the new mansion, and construction began in 1868. Architect Monroe Sheire submitted designs, and contractor John Summers supervised the construction. The new home was equipped with the latest technology - hot and cold running water, gas lighting and hot water radiators.

As construction neared completion, Anna Ramsey visited the A.T. Stewart department store in New York City to buy new furnishings for their home. Her purchases almost filled two boxcars. Mr. And Mrs. Ramsey and 19-year-old Marion moved into the new house in September 1872.

The elegant home was the site for numerous social gatherings, including the 1875 wedding of Marion to Charles E. Furness of Philadelphia. The young couple moved to Philadelphia and had four children - Anita, Alexander, Charles (who died in infancy) and Laura. After her husband Charles Furness was hospitalized indefinitely due to mental illness, Marion and the children moved back to St. Paul to live with her parents.

Anita, Ramsey and Laura Furness grew up in their grandparents' home with Alexander Ramsey as their father figure (Anna Ramsey died in 1884.) The busy household also included several servants who lived and worked at the home. Many of these were immigrant women, including longtime cook Annie Robertson, and five Carlson sisters, who worked on and off for the Ramsey family for 30 years.

Grandson Ramsey Furness eventually moved to Missouri and married, but died at age 39 without any children. Neither Laura nor Anita married, and they remained in the home throughout their lives. In their wills, the sisters left the property to the Minnesota Historical Society, along with family letters, numerous photographs and more than 14,000 original furnishings. The Ramsey House is now open as a historic house museum, interpreting the Ramsey household and domestic life in 19th-century St. Paul.

The Minnesota Historical Society is a private, non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849 to preserve and share Minnesota history. The Society collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota's past through interactive and engaging museum exhibits, extensive libraries and collections, 25 historic sites, educational programs and book publishing. Visit www.mnhs.org for more information.

Additional Background

Christmas holidays at the Victorian-era Alexander Ramsey House are both like and unlike holidays today. A tour of the Victorian home of Minnesota's first territorial governor reflects the ease and elegance of his lifestyle. It also uncovers the inconveniences.

The son of a blacksmith, Ramsey rose within the political ranks of Pennsylvania before coming with his wife Anna and the first of their three children, Alexander Jr. ("Sonny") to Minnesota in 1849. Here he prospered, eventually serving as the state's second governor, mayor of St. Paul, a U.S. senator, and Rutherford B. Hayes' Secretary of War. Following its construction in 1872, three generations of the Ramsey family came to occupy the handsome native limestone home at 265 South Exchange Street. In 1964, on the death of the last surviving family member, granddaughter Anna Furness, it was willed to the Minnesota Historical Society Ramsey himself founded.

Today, visitors are welcomed by costumed guides on tours through the home that served as the focus of political, cultural and social life in Minnesota for almost a century. "Aleck" Ramsey, who was orphaned at age sixteen and worked as a carpenter's apprentice to earn his school expenses, eventually lived in an impressive home rich with walnut trim. Many of the original furnishings are still on display, carefully preserved. High ceilings, fireplaces, and dusky mirrors all add to the aura of a bygone time.

In spite of the home's long-ago atmosphere, however, today's visitors will also find much that is familiar and expected. Although the holiday menu planning may not be orchestrated from a second floor "snuggery," as Anna Ramsey's was, it involves the same careful attention to detail. Children may still be relegated to a lesser table until their table manners are acceptable to adults. Although today's trees may not be lit with candles and glowing with delicate German-made ornaments, many Minnesotans still give a place of honor to the Christmas tree. Finally, modern holidays continue the same age-old pattern of preparation, enjoyment and exhaustion.

Reservations are recommended for the forty-five minute tours, which begin in the Visitors' Center, the Ramsey's reconstructed carriage house. Here, visitors may purchase history-related items, including postcards with recipes for the holiday boiled turkey and apple-cranberry-raisin pie fancied by the Ramsey family.

Weekend holiday tours also feature vignettes with behind-the-scenes portrayals of the Ramsey family or the servants. Visitors may sample authentic cookie recipes, while clustered about longtime cook "Anne Robertson" in the kitchen. Drawn into the servants' daily preparations, visitors hear them chatting about the jobs earning them approximately $10 a month. Visitors also may eavesdrop on Ramsey family and friends, deep in social and political conversations, all based on their original letters and papers. After finishing their tour of a faraway time, visitors walk out the stately front doors onto the veranda, suddenly re-entering a world more than 100 years older.

Fun Facts
  • Alexander held numerous offices throughout his career - territorial governor, mayor of St. Paul, second state governor, U.S. Senator, and secretary of war under President Hayes.
  • Three generations of the Ramsey family lived in their St. Paul home.
  • Anna Ramsey's first winter in St. Paul did not suit her: She wrote a letter to her husband, who was out of town on government business: ". . . Oh, Alex, could thee be here and know how we suffer with cold thee would never want to winter again in St. P[aul]."
  • To decorate her home, Anna Ramsey went on an extravagant shopping spree in 1872. At a New York department store, she bought enough furnishings to fill two boxcars. A train carried her purchases all the way back to Minnesota.
  • Though she had been raised a Quaker, Anna Ramsey joined the Presbyterian church when she married her husband.
  • When construction began in 1868, the Ramsey home included the latest innovations, such as gas lighting and running hot water.
  • The Ramseys were known to maintain warm relationships with their servants. Many of these were immigrant women, including several who worked for the Ramseys on and off for 30 years.
  • For three and a half months in 1863, Ramsey was both a senator and the governor of Minnesota. His term as governor had not yet ended when he was sworn into the Senate.
Timeline

1815 On Sept. 8, Alexander Ramsey is born in Pennsylvania, the eldest son of Thomas and Elizabeth Kelker Ramsey. His brothers and sisters are Elizabeth, Margaret, Henry, Justus and Catherine.

1826 On June 17, Anna Earl Jenks, daughter of Michael Hutchinson Jenks and Mary Ridgeway Jenks is born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

1834-1835 Alexander Ramsey attends Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

1837 Ramsey studies law at the John Reed School that later becomes Dickinson Law School in Carlisle, Penn. He graduates in 1839.

1840 Ramsey is admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and practices law in Harrisburg. He serves as delegate to the Whig party national convention.

1841 Ramsey is appointed chief clerk of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

1843 Ramsey is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving in the 28th & 29th Congress until 1847.

1845 Anna Jenks visits her father, Rep. Michael Jenks at the U.S. Capitol, and meets Alexander Ramsey. The couple marries on Sept. 10.

1846 Son Alexander Jenks Ramsey is born May 30.

1849 Ramsey is appointed governor of the Minnesota Territory. On May 27, he arrives in St. Paul with his family. The Ramseys stay with Henry and Sarah Sibley in Mendota for one month. Alexander also becomes the first president of the Minnesota Historical Society in 1849.

1849-1853 Alexander Ramsey serves as governor of the new Minnesota Territory.

1850 The first Alexander Ramsey House is built. The Ramseys' second son, William Henry, is born March 30. On July 28, their first son, "Sonny," dies.

1851 Alexander Ramsey serves as U.S. Commissioner for three Indian treaties: Traverse des Sioux, Mendota and Pembina. William Henry Ramsey dies on November 1.

1853 The U.S. Senate investigates Ramsey's negotiation of Indian treaties. Daughter Marion Ramsey is born on March 29.

1855 Ramsey is elected mayor of St. Paul.

1857 He loses election for Minnesota's first state governor to Democrat Henry H. Sibley.

1858 Minnesota becomes a state.

1859-1863 Ramsey is elected Governor of Minnesota on the Republican ticket; he serves from 1860 to 1863.

1861 Ramsey pledges 1,000 Minnesota men to defend the Union two days after Fort Sumter is attacked by the South.

1862 After years of tension between settlers and Indians, the U.S.-Dakota War breaks out. Several factors had led to the war, including unkept promises by the government, nefarious practices by nearby fur traders and a crop failure in 1861. On Dec. 26, 38 Indians are executed.

1863-1875 Alexander Ramsey is elected to the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket. He serves in the 38th-43rd Congresses until 1875. He is also the U.S. Commissioner for Indian treaties with the Chippewa, Red Lake and Pembina bands.

1868 Anna Ramsey inherits from her father. The first Alexander Ramsey House is moved across the street and added to Horace and Cornelia Bigelow's home. Construction of the current Ramsey House then begins.

1869-1870 Anna Ramsey and daughter Marion toured Europe.

1872 During the summer, Anna Ramsey visits a New York department store and purchases enough furnishings to fill two boxcars. A train carries them back to her St. Paul home. The family and their servants move into the "mansion House" at 265 Exchange Street.

1875 The Ramseys' daughter Marion marries Charles Eliot Furness in the Ramsey House parlor. Marion and Charles move to Philadelphia.

1876 The first granddaughter, Anna Earl Ramsey Furness, is born.

1877 The first grandson, Alexander Ramsey Furness, is born.

1878 President and Mrs. Hayes visit the Ramseys and the state fair. Plans change at the last minute, and President and Mrs. Hayes dine at the Ramsey House.

1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes appoints Ramsey as Secretary of War. He serves from December 1879 to March 1881. A second grandson, Charles Eliot Furness Jr., is born.

1880 Charles Eliot Furness Jr., dies. Alexander Ramsey is an unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

1881 Justus Ramsey, Alexander's brother, commits suicide.

1882 Alexander Ramsey is appointed Chairman of the Utah Commission by President James A. Garfield. He serves until 1886. Charles Furness is hospitalized due to mental illness. Marion Ramsey Furness returns to St. Paul with her children, and daughter Laura is born in the Ramsey House.

1884 Anna Ramsey dies on Nov. 29. Sophie Carlson, a Ramsey servant for 12 years, inherits $1,000. Marion Furness takes over as mistress of the house.

1889 Annie Robertson is hired as cook for the Ramsey - Furness family.

1891 Alexander Ramsey is elected President of the Minnesota Historical Society and serves until his death in 1903.

1903 Alexander Ramsey dies on April 22.

1907 Charles Eliot Furness dies on January 22 in Rochester, Minnesota.

1926 Dedicated cook Annie Robertson dies. Her funeral services are held in the Ramsey House library.

1935 Marion Ramsey Furness dies on Nov. 1.

1959 Laura Furness dies of cancer.

1964 Anna Furness, the last surviving Ramsey family member, dies, willing the Ramsey house to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Images

Alexander Ramsey House Images

Alexander Ramsey House Images

Alexander Ramsey House

Alexander Ramsey House

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Alexander Ramsey House vertical

Alexander Ramsey House vertical

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Alexander Ramsey & granddaughter Laura Furness, 1901

Alexander Ramsey & granddaughter Laura Furness, 1901

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News Releases

October 15, 2014 Victorian Christmas Tours Return to the Alexander Ramsey House in November and December
September 3, 2014 Learn About Gothic Novels, Brewing History and the Year 1868 at the Alexander Ramsey House in October
August 6, 2014 Victorian Era Medicine and More at the Alexander Ramsey House this September
July 2, 2014 Sweet and Sultry with a Side of Spirits at the Ramsey House this August
June 11, 2014 History for Kids, Victorian Secrets and Transportation Maps this July at the Alexander Ramsey House
May 7, 2014 Alexander Ramsey House June Program Topics Include Clairvoyance, Superstitions, 19th-Century Facial Hair and More
March 19, 2014 Time Capsule for Kids, History Happy Hour and Ramsey After Dark this May at the Alexander Ramsey House
March 5, 2014 Victorian Magic, Washington Connections and a Time Capsule for Kids at Alexander Ramsey House in April
January 8, 2014 Love Letters, Prohibition-era Cocktails and Kids Programs this February at Alexander Ramsey House
December 4, 2013 Alexander Ramsey House January Programs Include Time Capsule, Ramsey After Dark and History Happy Hour
November 6, 2013 A 'Little Women' Christmas, A Swedish Christmas and A Victorian Christmas at Alexander Ramsey House
October 16, 2013 A Victorian Christmas Returns to the Ramsey House Beginning Nov. 13
June 5, 2013 July at the Alexander Ramsey House Explores 1876, Unmentionable Victorian Topics and Vintage Baseball
May 1, 2013 Learn About 1857, Alexander Ramsey: Secretary of War, Vintage Bicycles and Summer Camps Offered in June
April 3, 2013 May Events at the Alexander Ramsey House Feature Fun for Families and for Adults
March 6, 2013 April Programs at the Alexander Ramsey House Include A Walk Through the Year 1861, Victorian Superstitions and Minnesota's Liquor History
January 9, 2013 The Alexander Ramsey House Offers a Glimpse at the Year 1876, Valentine's Day Themed Programs and History Happy Hour in February
November 28, 2007 RAMSEY HOUSE TO CLOSE FOR HISTORIC RENOVATIONS