Early Marquette Boarding Houses
Among Marquette’s earliest establishments were its boarding houses which catered to the growing population, including single men, lumberjacks, sailors, and families. My ancestor Rosalia Bishop White and her sister Lucia Bishop Bignall would both operate boarding houses in Marquette’s early years. While I do not know the name of Rosalia’s boarding house, if it had one, Lucia and her husband Joseph established the Filmore House. Joseph Bignall purchased the property for $100, a great price at the time considering the lot encompassed a quarter block between Third and Front Street. Later city maps however show that it was not that large and several other buildings were located in that portion of the block. The Filmore House was located at 156 W. Baraga Avenue, directly on the corner across from the courthouse and where today the new historical museum is located. Perhaps the boarding house was named for then U.S President Millard Fillmore. Although this cannot be confirmed and the name was spelled differently, the Bishops did have a connection to President Fillmore. Back east, Lucia’s first cousin, the early American artist Annette Bishop, lived for a time with President Fillmore’s family and painted a portrait of the president’s wife, Abigail.
While the Bignalls lived in Marquette, their daughters attended the first Marquette school with Amos Harlow’s children. Their son, Elbert Joseph Bignall, was the first white child born in the village of Marquette in 1851.
In 1865, Joseph Bignall deeded the boarding house to Tim Hurley, and the family moved to Minnesota. They would later move to Colorado, although Joseph and Lucia’s son, Elbert Joseph, would return to live in Marquette in 1877 and marry Rosalia Corlista King, the daughter of his cousin Eugenia Sylvia White. (Marriages between cousins were not uncommon in the nineteenth century, so it was not out of line in Iron Pioneers when I had cousins Edna Whitman and Esau Brookfield marry). Many of the Bignall descendants still reside in the Marquette area today.
The Filmore House would change hands over the years before finally being torn down in 1952. The site remained empty then until 1963 when the A&P supermarket was built on the property. Later the Marq-Tran bus depot was in that place before the historical museum came to occupy the property.
Basil Bishop attributed the success of both Rosalia and Lucia’s boarding houses to his daughters rather than to their husbands. In an 1858 letter, he writes:
“Bignal has a larg hous well furnished he keeps a boarding hous & is doing well he is worth over $2000 but as one man said who knew it all answer his wife Cyrus White came heare poor I sent him $100 cash to get him heare he has paid me that & now is worth over one thousand clear & has good furniture rooms carpeted and papered & one sette that cost $20 below & he bought & paid for 5 acres of land adjoining me The question is who erned all this is answered the same as Bignall Rosalia erns a washing $12 pr weak for months together Lutia done that and more for years.”
In Iron Pioneers, I merged Rosalia and Lucia to create Cordelia Whitman (Basil Bishop actually had a daughter named Cordelia who remained in New York). Cordelia’s sister, Sophia, is completely fictional without basis in any Bishop relatives. To make matters more interesting, I had Cordelia’s boarding house destroyed in the 1868 fire where it lies in approximately the same area as the Filmore House. Following the fire, Cordelia is stoic about the loss of her home:
“Oh Jacob,” said Edna, burying her face in his sleeve, so glad he was safe, “the library is completely gone. Fifteen hundred volumes, and the boarding house—”
Mention of the boarding house made Jacob think of his mother. He found her in the west parlor. Cordelia’s entire domestic world was upset by the loss of her boarding house, but she smiled when she saw her son. “I’m fine now that you’re safe,” she said, thankful to hug him. “I won’t have to cook and clean for a while. I needed a little break anyway.”
Jacob smiled at her courage.
Cordelia rebuilds her boarding house north of Washington Street—I imagine on Bluff Street most likely. It is here that her son, Jacob, tries to get her to take in an unlikely boarder, who turns out to be her long lost brother, Darius Brookfield. Darius, who dresses like some mountain man or character from the Wild West, was also inspired by a family story. Basil and Eliza Bishop had a son, Darwin, who went out West as an Indian scout and was never heard from again. I was always curious about what happened to him, and while the family must have mourned him as dead, I thought I would remedy their grief a bit by having Darius track his family down in Marquette. It is Darius’ son, Esau, who marries his cousin, Edna Whitman.
I don’t know how long Rosalia White operated her boarding house. After her husband died in 1896, she decided to move to Tacoma, Washington to live near her daughter. (Her fictional counterpart, Cordelia, later moves West to live near Edna, Esau, and Darius). Rosalia Bishop White would not die until 1918 at age 96. During her lifetime, she saw the entire westward expansion and she herself moved from the East to the West Coast, stopping in Marquette for nearly half a century to run a boarding house.