Annie Pillsbury: Manhattan postmaster, writer and activist

Gloria Freeland Contributing writer
May 24, 2020

Annie, Ellen "Nellie" and Mary "Mate" Pillsbury, daughters of Josiah and Frances Alnora Pillsbury. Photo courtesy of the Riley County Historical Society and Museum.

Editor's note: 2020 is the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. This is one of a series of articles about area women who made important contributions to their communities.

Most people who live in Manhattan are familiar with Pillsbury Crossing, located 9 miles southeast of the city. It is a natural ford used by pioneers to cross the waters of Deep Creek. But few are likely to know there is a connection between it, the local library and women's suffrage.

The basis for that connection was established when Josiah and Frances Alnora Pillsbury and their baby, Arthur Judson "A.J.," moved from New Hampshire to a farm near the ford in 1854.

The first winter was hard and the family was unprepared, so they moved to Lawrence, where a second son, Clinton, was born in 1855. He didn't survive. The family then returned to the Deep Creek farm after the winter.

Three more Pillsbury children were born: Annie - the focus of this story - in 1858, Ellen "Nellie" or "Nell" in 1860, and Mary "Mate" in 1862. Josiah was elected county surveyor, so after Mary's birth, the family moved to Manhattan. He began the "Independent' newspaper in 1863 and wasn't shy about voicing unpopular opinions. An ardent Prohibitionist, he refused to run ads for patent medicines because of their alcohol content. Alnora set type and did other jobs at the paper, as well as cared for the family's home and children while Josiah did surveying.

Suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton made several trips to Manhattan during this time. During a Sept. 7, 1867 speech, Anthony proclaimed, "Any man who voted against female suffrage was a blockhead." Annie was of a similar opinion, and met Anthony at some point.

On July 4, 1868, Alnora gave birth to twins, but she and her babies died soon after and were buried in Manhattan's Sunset Cemetery.

After the deaths of his wife and babies, Josiah lost interest in the paper and, in 1869, accepted an appointment as postmaster, providing the family a steady income. A.J. and Annie helped.

In 1870, Josiah married Emmarilla Steele, but the couple divorced in 1874. He died in 1879. After his death, Annie, only 21, was appointed Postmaster on Nov. 18, 1879. The Manhattan Nationalist, in its Dec. 5, 1879 issue, stated: "... She is perfectly capable and a worthy young lady and the citizens of Manhattan heartily approve of the appointment..."

In a May 1881 letter, Anthony expressed her condolences on the death of Annie's father:

"... Well I know you are a brave girl and so are the other two girls � and will do the best you can in yourselves and in the memory of the dear ones gone ..."

In her letter, Anthony also mentioned the "History of Woman Suffrage" book that she and Stanton wrote and suggested that Annie might like a copy.

The Sept. 24, 1881 Industrialist mentioned that Annie had received a copy and had donated it to Kansas State Agricultural College:

The College Library is under renewed obligation to our esteemed postmistress, Miss Annie Pillsbury, for Vol. 1 of the "History of Woman Suffrage" - the joint product of the pens of Miss Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. E.C. Stanton.

People respected Annie's work at the post office, although some seemed to be amazed that women were capable of doing a good job. In its March 30, 1883 edition, the Nationalist said " ... Our post office, which is one of the best-managed in the state, is run entirely by ladies, and has been for a long time, but, nevertheless, complaints are rare."

Annie married James R. "Bob" Young, a bookkeeper for Stingley and Huntress, a general merchandise store, on June 15, 1884. She retired as postmaster later that summer.

In 1886, daughter Ethel was born, but died the following year. Son Clifford Caudy Young was born in January 1887.

In 1895, Annie, Mary Ursula Vandivert and Vandivert's daughter Harriet organized the T.P.M Club, or "Tuesday Afternoon Club." The study club's activities included discussions about literature, music, art, politics, travel, science and other topics. It had 25-30 members of "Manhattan's highly cultured literary ladies" and typically met alternate Tuesdays of each month. Later, Annie described the early days of the club:

... This of course means the TPM Club in its "tallow candle period" when the light it cast in the darkness of its own ignorance and the community's was not noticeable. Perhaps we may get a more striking realization of the progress we have made by first taking a look at "Us" as we now are, one of many thousands of women's clubs, a recognized power the world over to be reckoned with in every department of life, from better homes and better babies to presidential elections with that long line of smaller lights hung in between making a great white way, lit thru the dynamic force of women's organized effort: civic pride, civic righteousness, child welfare, parent-teachers' associations, pure food, conservation of everything, juvenile courts, prohibition and woman�s suffrage ...

Annie and other club members helped organize the Manhattan Library Association. In April 1903, the city voted to spend $1,000 annually for the library after Andrew Carnegie agreed to donate $10,000 to build it. The mayor appointed a board of directors, including Annie as secretary. The Carnegie building, at 105 Courthouse Plaza, now houses the Riley County Attorney's Office.

Bob and Annie divorced in 1910. By the time of their divorce, their son Clifford was attending the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Annie was a housemother for the Sigma Nu fraternity there for about 20 years, and returned to Manhattan in 1932. Clifford went on to a career in public health in Michigan. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Annie devoted time to writing essays and poetry, many of which were published in newspapers and magazines.

In a profile of her in the May 11, 1935 Manhattan Mercury, Annie recalled when she and her sister were Anthony's guests at a reception in Rochester, New York. She said they were there to honor "a distinguished member of the Political Equality club ... Kansas was lauded for her courage and principles, the old time stuff you know and we were rather conspicuously introduced as daughters of the free-state father who had through loss and danger sponsored the reconstructive movement in his newspaper."

Annie died Aug. 9, 1942, and is buried in Sunset Cemetery next to her ex-husband Bob, who died in Kansas City in 1928. Their son Clifford died in 1944 in Lansing, Michigan and is also buried in that cemetery.

Current Manhattan resident Elisabeth Vanderlip, a third-generation T.P.M. Club member, said the group met regularly until 2012-2013, when it was disbanded. She joined in 1965-1966, and wrote papers about bird watching, her family's orchids, square dancing and many other topics. Other members did the same. Her mother, Marjorie (Dean) Nonamaker, and her grandmother, Minerva (Blachly) Dean, were also members.

One of Annie's quotes was printed at the front of each year's program booklet:

Some of life is to be endured
Part of it overcome
A bit of it ignored �
Most of it thoroughly enjoyed
And all of it
For therein lies the development of the soul.

Gloria Freeland is professor emerita in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications and is a board member of the Riley County Historical Society. The staff of the Riley County Historical Society Museum helped provide most of the information for this article.

The museum has the Susan B. Anthony letter, the compass Josiah Pillsbury used when he was a surveyor, photographs of Anthony and the Pillsbury family, T.P.M. club booklets, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts related to the Pillsbury family in its collection. The Richard L.D. and Marjorie J. Morse Department of Special Collections at Kansas State University holds the Josiah Pillsbury Family Papers � 1848-1958.