Eldon Through the Eyes of Elizabeth Swanson

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Elizabeth Lyons Swanson

Elizabeth Lyons Swanson.

In 1911 Elizabeth Swanson declared, “[M]y heart has been bound up in our summer home, a big tobacco plantation which is …halfway between Lynchburg and Danville…. I find the most repaying joy in farm life and every detail appeals to me — not only in the homage, which I must pay at the shrine of ‘My Lady Nicotine’ … but in the details of the barnyard.”

In the same Richmond newspaper article (written in Washington by Margaret B. Downing), Mrs. Swanson, wife of U. S. Senator Claude A. Swanson, remarked, “I do not relish being very far from my own hearthstone.” She went on to describe Eldon, the country home of the Swansons: “The house on the farm has been recently remodeled. We purchased the property some years ago [1903] and it had already been named ‘Eldon’ probably for the great English statesman. [The house was originally built in the 1830's by James M. Whittle.] We have added two wings to our home and built a porch which is the most cherished possession we boast. It is 100 feet long and 14 feet wide, and the joy of it during the summer days cannot be told in cold type.

“Our library is another beloved part of our home. It is a colonial room opening out on this porch and [is] always cool and inviting in summer and just so cozy in the winter. The walls are lined with books ….” Mrs. Swanson spoke of her love of reading, saying, “I just skim books during the winter … I live on newspapers and clippings. But in the summer I spend my days … trying new schemes for home making made easy …, [china] painting, and reading … . I like a good love story. I believe in love and happy marriages and the problems so-called find me a very unsympathetic auditor …. [My] husband has been a booklover ever since he learned his alphabet …. [T]he only thing which reconciles me to the turmoil of political life is the knowledge that if my husband were not in public life he would be a book-worm, and that would be worse.” — Swanson served as governor of Virginia from 1905-1909, and starting in 1910 served more than four terms as U. S. Senator. He was Secretary of the Navy from 1933 until his death in 1939.

Mrs. Swanson went on to describe her role as business manager of the farm, and stated, “I have found tobacco growing a most delightful vocation.” She also valued the luxury of having home grown vegetables, eggs, fowl, and butter which the couple enjoyed at Eldon, and also took to Washington. Mrs. Swanson commented that having farm fresh foods “… is worth the farm, if it were not profitable otherwise.”

She also described Eldon's “flowers and vines and trees" [as] "my pride …. I am trying a number of new roses this year ….”

Mrs. Swanson reported on the state-of-the-art water system at Eldon; her love of horses (“I would not be a good Virginian if I did not love a horse,” — although a serious fall had caused her to give up horseback riding); her interest in raising pigs; the “servant problem” in general, but the tremendous asset of a capable black cook at Eldon who could impart “magic” when baking Virginia hams, “the finest hams in the world.”

Elizabeth Swanson was described by the newspaper reporter as “a delightfully sociable woman [who] discharges all her obligations with the punctiliousness of the gentle Southerner … [she] is constantly entertaining streams of company …. The home is the paramount issue with the charming chatelaine and she never neglects a single detail for the most pressing social duty.” Dinner guests there were treated to the use of quite unique tableware.

“ … [T]he china which Mrs. Swanson has herself painted is the most attractive feature of the interior decorations [of Eldon] …. The dining room is filled with handsome platters, plates, cups and saucers. The service which the Senator uses for his daily meals came from his wife's clever hands and he cannot relish any home food unless it graces one of her dishes.” The writer goes on to describe the artistic designs created by Mrs. Swanson who “paints in odd hours as other women embroider or sew … .” Beautiful pieces of silver and a huge punch bowl were among the unpainted objects “arranged on tables and buffets in the big dining room.”

In addition to her other activities at that time Mrs. Swanson was regent of the Danville Daughters of the American Revolution, and a member of the Colonial Dames and of the society of the descendants of colonial governors. She claimed descent from five governors. Her father, Peter Lyons, had been a Richmond doctor, and her mother had been "a belle at the White Sulphur Springs in antebellum days and nationally known for her beauty."

Elizabeth Swanson, herself said to be “one of the most youthful looking matrons in the senatorial set,” pointed out that “Women in the South have a powerful influence with their men …. I believe that home is the place for woman and that her power is centered there and not in a public career …. Our entire modern system of living needs reforming …. And the way to reform it is right in the homes, by making our menfolks happy and comfortable and contented. The more a man appreciates his wife and his home, the better man he is and the better citizen he makes. This sort of reform I sympathize with most cordially, but with no other.” Mrs. Claude Swanson helped to make her husband content and influential up until her death in 1920. They had enjoyed 26 years of married life together, spending many sweet hours at Eldon.


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