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home : columnists : columnists April 27, 2017


2/25/2017
'Aunt Nan' Roberts - A 'Notable Ninety' of the past

By Paula Dunn
From Time to Thyme


In honor of Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to write about a lady who undoubtedly would have been one of our most celebrated Notable Nineties if she were alive today.

Nancy Elliott Roberts, affectionately known as "Aunt Nan" Roberts, could be described as "notable" on several counts.

To begin with, she was the first African American child born in Noblesville. Her parents were free blacks who came to Hamilton County from Henry County in the early 1840s. Their home was a log cabin in an area of southeast Noblesville called "Calamus Swamp."

(I've tried to get a fix on Calamus Swamp's exact location, but this is the only reference I've been able to find. My best guess is that it was low-lying ground somewhere along Stony Creek.)

Nancy maintained that her birthdate was April 4, 1852, based on a record in her family Bible, but some people thought she might have been even older than that since the original notation appeared to have been altered.

When she was 20 she married Stephen "Steve" Roberts of the Roberts Settlement Roberts family, and except for a short stint when Steve worked for the state prison in Michigan City, the couple spent their entire lives in Noblesville, where they rubbed shoulders with some of the most influential members of Noblesville society of their day.

Steve was a livestock buyer for prominent local farmers such as banker Marion Aldred and Sam Craig, who served a term as county treasurer, while Nancy, who was described as "an excellent cook and a good manager," was in high demand for various social functions.

Nancy's touch graced some of the biggest weddings in town. Among them were those of: William E. Dunn and Fanny Ross (Dunn was president of Citizens State Bank for 38 years,) Fred E. Heylmann and Cora Ingermann (Heylmann was the son of J. G. Heylmann, the wagon and buggy manufacturer,) George Craycraft and Lucille Oursler (Craycraft was the son of Daniel Craycraft, founder of the Craycraft Dry Goods Store,) and Eugene C. Pulliam and his first wife, Myrta Smith. (Pulliam was the founder of Central Newspapers, Inc. which published the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News. His bride was the daughter of Noblesville mayor James W. Smith.)

Steve Roberts passed away in 1915, and the couple's son, Leroy - "Frosty" to his friends - died nine years later, but although Nancy lived by herself in the years afterward, between her fellow parishioners at the Bethel A. M. E. church and her wide circle of friends, both black and white, she was never truly alone.

After Nancy turned 90, stories began to appear in the newspaper to commemorate each landmark birthday. Sometimes the articles included Nancy's memories of early Noblesville, a time when the town's boundaries were White River to the west, 12th Street to the east, Harrison Street to the north and Division to the south.

In one article Nancy told how people in those early days never considered leaving their homes after dark in the wintertime. She added that cracking hickory and other nuts was their only form of entertainment during the long winter nights.

She also recalled Mayor Smith angering many of of the town's residents when he had the streets bricked because a huge number of locust trees had to be destroyed in the process. (People liked their locust trees.)

"Aunt Nan" died April 20, 1952, just two weeks after what may have been her 100th birthday. According to her obituary she left this life "greatly loved and held in the highest esteem and respect by all who knew her."

Paula Dunn's From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com





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