Carol Allis inherited the mysterious wire-rimmed glasses years ago. They now bring into focus a forgotten schoolteacher who died too young in 1898.
“They were too small to fit my grandfather and they didn’t match the photos of the ones my grandmother wore,” said Allis, 73, who keeps the glasses on the desk in her Minnetonka home.
Thanks to a stack of 400 love letters from the 1890s, and some gumshoe photographic research, Allis has learned that the old glasses belonged to a young woman named Anna Barnard.
Allis first heard “whispers” about Anna as a girl. Her grandparents, Roy and Lulu Allis, were married for 63 years. But before Lulu, her grandfather had fallen deeply for his classmate from Rochester High School’s class of 1894.
“After the rain the other afternoon … the sun shone down through a break in the clouds on the blue hills to the west, all covered with mist,” Roy wrote to Anna in one of their almost daily letters. “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.”
Those letters surfaced after Lulu died in 1975, a month shy of her 98th birthday and seven years after Roy’s death. Their daughter, Harriet Glasenapp, had stashed them away.
“Only after both my grandparents died did my aunt feel she could finally bring the letters out of hiding,” Carol Allis said. “… Anna was a family secret no one dared talk about in front of my grandmother.”
In one of those letters, Anna Barnard said: “We will write as often as we must, for we are never going to be tired of each other, if we live a thousand years.”
She lived only a few more years, dying at 24 in Rochester from a heart condition, according to Dr. William Mayo, who treated her.
A grain miller, farmer and Zumbro River dam operator, Roy Allis married Lulu six years later in 1904. But every December, on the anniversary of Anna’s death, Roy would visit Lake Shady near his home in Oronoco to remember his first love.
“That drove my grandmother nuts,” Carol Allis said. “She just hated that.”
After Roy and Anna graduated from high school, their letters refer to a Lake Shady point where they read books, lounged in a hammock and, well, this was more than 120 years ago. So any amorous details remained vague.
In one letter from Nov. 9, 1894 — just months after graduation — Roy wrote to Anna: “And I remember one morning ... when the professor shut the blinds, and you were standing near me, and I reached out and touched your braided hair. … 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?”
Carol Allis recently published a book called “Dearest Anna, A Love Story,” based on the letters (tinyurl.com/Anna-Roy). At 3 p.m. Feb. 8, the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester will host a dramatic reading of Anna and Roy’s selected letters at a book signing event.
For years, Carol Allis had never seen a photo of Anna, whose shadow shaded her grandfather’s entire life.
“It was maddening to read her words and not be able to picture her face,” Allis said.
A breakthrough came in 2017 when Olmsted County archivist Krista Lewis rummaged through a file of random graduation photos and unearthed a shot of the eight members of Rochester’s class of 1894. Roy Allis is standing behind Anna Barnard, who’s reading a book and wearing those wire-rimmed glasses.
“It was the first time I saw her face,” Allis said, “and I wept.”
After reporter Matthew Stolle wrote about Roy and Anna in 2017 for the Rochester Post Bulletin, a reader reached out to say his great-grandmother was Anna’s stepmother. He had a photo of Anna from her days preparing to become a teacher at Winona Normal School. Again, she was wearing those wire-rimmed glasses — an artifact Roy saved all those years.
Carol Allis’ research revealed Anna’s short life had been tinged with heartache — her brother died in a hunting accident and their parents died young. Allis figures her grandfather and Anna put off marriage plans as she became a teacher in Chatfield — a job women were forced to quit if they wed in the 1890s.
Roy tried college at Hamline and the University of Minnesota, but returned home to help in the family grain mill after a flood. He never received a college degree. If he had, the Mayo Brothers promised him a job.
When Roy Allis died in 1968, a friend described him as “an articulate and well-read scholar” and an outdoorsman who harvested maple syrup, trapped pigeons and was proficient with an ax, canoe and snowshoes.
He was also a prolific writer, and boxes of old letters tell the story of a bespectacled young woman who, until recently, was merely whispered about in family history.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.