'Anna letters' tell story of grandfather's tragic first love
Carol Allis was in her 30s when she received the letters.
Carol Allis had always known that her grandfather, Roy W. Allis of Oronoco, had an extraordinary life. When he died at 92, nearly 50 years ago, he was eulogized as a renaissance man, a scholar-philosopher, and an outdoorsman who could opine on subjects as wide ranging as making maple syrup and canoeing down the Zumbro River.
"Many 15-minute visits lasted two hours while he settled the problems of the world with some particularly appropriate classical quotation," a Rochester Post Bulletin obituary read. "He was, in the very literal meaning of the word, a gentleman."
Allis was also a prodigious letter writer. During periods of his life, Allis would write once a day, if not more. His lifetime's worth of correspondence would end up filling boxes and boxes. The letters, stretching from the 1890s into the 1960s, not only tell one man's soulful musings about life in southeastern Minnesota from the late 19th century onward, but a granular social history of the area as well.
But one batch of letters in particular, delivered separately by Carol Allis' aunt, would tell a family secret.
The trove of letters would fall into the hands of Roy Allis' granddaughter. Now 71, Carol Allis always considered her grandfather a fascinating figure, and once in the 1970s, she began doing taped interviews with her dad and his siblings about him. That's when she would hear the first hints of an early "romance" in grandpa Roy's life. But it wasn't until she received the letters that the relationship — and its sad, tragic ending — would become more fully revealed.
Family members call them "the Anna letters."
'This set a shadow'
For four years, from around the time they graduated from Rochester High School in 1894, Roy Allis and Anna Barnard wrote to each other nearly every day until her tragic, unexpected death in 1898.
"I know enough from what my relatives told that this set a shadow that followed him for the rest of his life," said Carol Allis, who was raised in Rochester but now lives in Minnetonka.
During that correspondence, Roy and Anna shared nearly everything they were thinking and experiencing at the time: The books they read, the plays they saw, the people they talked to, the things they saw. But what sets the letters apart is the tone. Tender and affectionate, high-minded and literary, they are lovers' letters first and foremost.
"And I remember one morning down in the old laboratory when the professor shut the blinds, and you were standing near me, and I reached out and touched your braided hair," Roy wrote on Nov. 9, 1894, months after their high school graduation. "Things do look bright for us. Anna; you must be careful — you will, won't you, for my sake? I'm going to return that last kiss, and the one before — first on the forehead and then on the lips. Did you feel them?"
But both were also filled with a desire and ambition to make something of their lives. This may have been particularly true for Anna. The women's suffrage movement, seeking the right to vote, was in full swing. Women were seeking to exercise freedoms denied previous generations to make decisions about their bodies, careers and lives.
"They married less than any other generation of women in American history until recently," said Peter Frederick, Carol Allis' husband and a retired history professor from Berkeley, Calif.
The social climate explains partly why the letters exist at all. Both Roy and Anna were separated as they went about pursuing their educational and career paths. Given the abundance of letters, it suggests the couple had limited opportunities for contact, except for the summer months when they were home from school. Their letter writing commenced soon after they graduated from Rochester High School. Roy lived in Oronoco and Anna in Eyota.
There might have been practical considerations that may have delayed marriage, if marriage was what they contemplated, Carol Allis said. Anna became a teacher at Chatfield schools after graduating from the teachers' college at Winona State Normal School, the forerunner of Winona State University. If she had gotten married, she would have had to give up her career. That's what the social conventions demanded of women at the time.
"She was independent," Carol Allis said. "And the fact that she graduated from high school and went to college was not that normal for women back in those days."
While Anna was getting straight A's, Roy floundered in college life. Roy went to Hamline College and the University of Minnesota. He studied engineering at first, which may have been a mistake for this romantic and lyrically minded man. What he loved and enjoyed doing was going to the theater. His letters teem with references to Sara Bernhardt, one of the leading actresses of the day, and other famous actors and actresses he saw at the State and Orpheum theaters in the Twin Cities.
Not that he wasn't seen as a man of promise. Roy was contemporaries of Will and Charles Mayo, the brothers who founded Mayo Clinic. Both brothers had cabins built around Lake Shady in Oronoco on land sold to them by the Allis family. Roy knew the Mayo brothers and helped build their cabins.
After he left college to work at a grain mill — this may have been around the time Anna had died — Roy was offered a job at Mayo Clinic if he went back to college and got his medical degree.
"I know from the letters that he struggled in school," Carol Allis said. "It wasn't that he wasn't smart. He was just kind of an out-of-the-box thinker."
'Sweetheart' and 'Dear'
There is only one extant picture that shows Roy and Anna together. It's their 1894 Rochester graduation picture. Roy has a wild mane and full lips and exudes a roughness around the edges. Working in the field or at the mill, Roy reportedly killed rats with his bare hands. Anna, on the other hand, wears spectacles and has a demur and almost schoolmarmish mien.
They called each other "sweetheart" and "dear." There is a suggestion from the letters that the relationship wasn't entirely platonic, but they are no more than hints.
"I know that right after they graduated, they apparently go off alone together on a point somewhere around Lake Shady, because he talks about the point and the birch trees and the hammock and the book they were reading at the time," Carol Allis said.
A subtext to some of the letters is Anna's fragility and health. Life back then, the letters make clear, was fragile. Anna lost her parents early in life and a beloved brother was killed in a hunting accident. She may have suffered from bronchitis.
But sometime around Thanksgiving in 1898, Anna fell ill. She traveled to an uncle's house in Rochester to rest. Aware of the seriousness of her condition, she wrote a letter of resignation to the Chatfield school. A couple of days later, she died. The cause of death, according Dr. William Mayo, who came to the house to treat her, was a heart condition.
The obituary reported that the uncle had heard "pitiful groaning" from Anna's room before she died, but by the time he entered it, "the angel of death preceded him."
More to the story
How did Roy get the news? How did he react? We don't know yet, because Carol hasn't yet read all of the letters, which number more than 2,000. But she does plan to write a book about her grandfather and the Anna letters.
Roy eventually married and left behind an extensive correspondence with his wife as well.
But the oral history that has been passed down to Carol's generation makes clear that Roy never forgot about Anna. Every year on the anniversary of Anna's death, Roy would go out to the point on Lake Shady, where the two shared books, a hammock and each other's company to honor and mourn her.
"That drove my grandmother nuts," Carol recalled. "She just hated that."
What did he think during those lonely vigils, dreaming of Anna? It's not hard to imagine. Roy speaks to us from beyond the grave through his letters.
"After the rain the other afternoon when I was coming home with the men, we were out on the hills to the east of town and the sun shone down through a break in the clouds on the blue hills to the west, all covered with mist," Roy wrote her. "I wish you could have seen it. I don't know but some way everything I see that seems beautiful to me, I connect with you now."