FRANK AND HANNAH 1878-1912
Richard Nixon had no famous ancestors, nor any who were rich. There was not a political leader among them. He came from humble folk and was born in the turn-of-the-century California equivalent of a log cabin.
On his father's side, his progenitors were generally loud, boisterous, emotional, and Methodist. On his mother's side, they were generally quiet, restrained, unemotional, and Quaker. What they had in common was a penchant for taking risks. They were men and women unafraid to move on west with the frontier.
Nixon's maternal ancestors were Germans who came to England to fight for Cromwell, and who received as their pay an estate in Timahoe, Ireland. Their name was anglicized from Melhausen to Milhous. In Ireland, the Milhouses became Quaker converts of William Penn, and in 1729 Thomas Milhous and his family migrated to Chester County, Pennsylvania. A century later, his descendants were living in a Quaker colony in Ohio. In 1854, when Richard's grandfather, Franklin Milhous, was six years old, the family moved west again, to Jennings County, Indiana. The family was abolitionist, and the farm was a way station on the Underground Railroad. In 1879 Franklin Milhous, a widower at age twenty-eight, married Almira Burdg. Together they raised two sons and seven daughters; the daughters included Richard Nixon's mother, Hannah, born in 1885.
The Milhouses were gentle Quaker folk, living an unpretentious and frugal life. Almira was a schoolteacher; Franklin, a farmer. Ordinary though their occupations were, they shared an urge to migrate. California beckoned, for all its usual reasons -- the agreeable climate, the orange groves, the space, the low price of land -- and because in 1887, just east of Los Angeles, the Society of Friends had founded a Quaker community, Whittier, named for the famous Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. The founders chose a site away from the railroad line, a site suitable for the peaceful, conservative Quakers, who wanted to grow their crops and live their lives away from the city and the hurly-burly of modern life. The lure proved irresistible to many Indiana Quakers, including nearly the whole of the large Milhous clan. Whittier soon became the largest Quaker colony in the United States.
In 1897 Franklin, his mother, his wife Almira, and his nine children made the move. They brought with them the doors, window frames, and much of the lumber from the farmhouse in Indiana. Franklin loaded it on a freight car, along with his livestock. On the outskirts of Whittier he planted orange groves and a nursery. A good husbandman, he was successful enough to become a prominent member of the community, well known for his honesty. His children helped him graft the plants; he guaranteed the pedigree and hardiness of each plant, and if it sickened and died, or did not grow true, he would replace it. He also traded actively in real estate. He saved enough money to establish a trust fund at Whittier College for his grandchildren's education.
While Franklin tended the crops, Almira made their home into a center for social and religious activities, with her dining room as the focus of events. She loved gathering the constantly growing Milhous family around her; in time her family reunions ran to forty and fifty people. They used "thee" and "thou" and other Quaker expressions in their ordinary speech. Religion, work, and family were the center and almost the circumference of their existence. The religion was neither overbearing nor overpowering, rather peaceful and comforting, but it was always there -- in speech, in dress, in mannerisms, in daily prayers and Bible readings. It was a religion without doctrines, one that put a great stress on individual conscience and responsibility.
Franklin was a jovial man, liked by everyone and adored by his family. He took Almira and the children on trips, to San Francisco and Yosemite. "Father loved music," Hannah later told reporter Bela Kornitzer. "He sang in the church choir and played the organ. Later on, he took up the accordion. Evenings, he used to sing hymns and then read aloud to us. His favorite tale was James Whitcomb Riley's Bear Story." Hannah said her mother Almira "was even more appreciative of the pleasures of life....She loved social contacts and special events, whether in our home, picnics at the park, at the beach, the mountains, or at church. She loved to work in the yard, tending her plants or caring for her chickens." As parents, Hannah recalled, "Father and Mother were full of love, faith and optimism. I don't recall ever seeing them in despair....[They] never talked loud -- never yelled orders."
Richard Nixon had vivid memories of his grandmother Almira. "My grandmother set the standards for the whole family. Honesty, hard work, do your best at all times -- humanitarian ideals. She was always taking care of every tramp that came along the road....She had strong feelings about pacifism and very strong feelings on civil liberties. She probably affected me in that respect. At her house no servant ever ate at a separate table. They always ate with the family. There were Negroes, Indians and people from Mexico -- she was always taking somebody in."
Most of all, Almira held the family together. "Every year at Christmas and usually once during the summer we had a family reunion....She was a prolific letter writer. On birthdays she composed rhymes and couplets and sent them to us." She used the plain speech, "thee" and "thou," exclusively, but her daughters did not use it with their children.
Almira was a staunch Republican, as were most Quakers with their abolitionist backgrounds and dedication to hard work and thrift. "She virtually worshipped Lincoln," Richard Nixon later recalled. "On my thirteenth birthday she gave me, in addition to a very welcome five-dollar bill, a picture of her idol. Underneath, written in her own hand, was the last part of Longfellow's Psalm of Life. I can remember part of it even now:
Lives of great men oft' remind us,
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time."
Almira and Franklin Milhous' emphasis on religion, family, and duty dominated Hannah's youth, and left her with lifelong values. To an outsider her life may have seemed dull and dispiriting, her boundaries limited by the backwater town where nothing ever happened, but she found Whittier a source of strength and comfort. Her father gave her security; her mother, inspiration and guidance; her sisters and brothers and the entire Quaker community provided playmates aplenty, while church, school, and work were outlets for her energy.
Discipline in the family was done verbally rather than physically, and the words of criticism were spoken softly rather than shouted. "Father never paddled us," Hannah recalled in her old age. "Mother switched my ankles once with an apple twig." By high-school age, she had a dark, brooding look. Of medium height, she was exceedingly slender, bony in her shoulders and face. She usually did up her long black hair in a knot. Her eyes were dark and deep-set. Her lips were narrow and pursed, her mouth a bit too wide for her narrow face. Her nose was deep and broad at the nostrils, narrow and pinched at the top. The line of the curve looked a bit like a ski jump, a trait her son Richard inherited. All the photographs taken of her during her adolescence show a serious, almost forbidding face, and the testimony of her childhood friends and family agrees that she was indeed a serious young lady.
She was no great beauty, and she had no talent that set her apart from the community, aside from her devotion to her religion, which even in Quaker Whittier went beyond the norm. One of her brothers-in-law thought she was too gentle, too soft-willed, and called her "the angel unaware." But an acquaintance found her to be "cranky and Puritanical" and a family friend dismissed her as a "colorless little thing." She did not appeal to the boys -- one of her sisters said, "Hannah sometimes went out with a group but she never had a single date...."
After graduating from Whittier High School, Hannah entered Whittier College, which she attended for two years before dropping out to teach school. On February 15, 1908, at a social gathering at the Friends Church in East Whittier, she met Frank Nixon. Whatever impression she made on the other young men in the community, she swept Frank oft his feet. He walked her home that night, and as he later testified, "I immediately stopped going with the five other girls I was dating, and I saw Hannah every night."
Frank Nixon had arrived in California a year earlier, marking the end of a westward migration of Nixons that had begun in the seventeenth century, when Frank's ancestors had moved over to County Wexford, in Ireland, from Scotland. The name, in Celtic, was variously spelled Nicholl, Nicholson, Nicholas, Nickson, and Nickerson, all meaning, roughly, "he wins" or "he faileth not." In the 1730s the Nixons became part of that great wave of emigration of Scotch-Irish to America. Later critics of Richard Nixon, referring to him as a "black Irishman," missed the truth. Whatever the cause of the adult Nixon's dark moods, introspection, and depression, it was not Irish blood, at least not such as any Catholic citizen of the Irish Republic would recognize.
James Nixon was the first to come to America. He settled in New Castle County, Delaware, within twenty miles of Hannah Milhous' ancestor Thomas. James became a substantial, if not prominent, citizen; his will, dated May 16, 1773, included a sixty-pound bequest to his wife, Mary, forty-five pounds to his daughters, a hundred-acre farm to his son George, and two slaves to his other son, James, Jr. Both sons fought in the Revolution, George crossing the Delaware with Washington to fight in the Battle of Trenton, and both moved west after independence, following the frontier to Ohio. George Nixon III enlisted with Company B, 73rd Ohio, in 1861, and fought and died in the Battle of Gettysburg. He is buried in the national cemetery. He left behind eight children, including a son, Samuel Brady Nixon.
On April 10, 1873, Samuel, then aged twenty-six, married a twenty-year-old schoolteacher, Sarah Ann Wadsworth. They had five children, three boys and two girls. The second-oldest, Francis Anthony Nixon, was always called Frank. He was born on December 3, 1878, in Vinton County, Ohio; he became Richard Nixon's father.
Shortly after Frank's birth, Sarah contracted tuberculosis, the most dreaded disease of the nineteenth century, thought erroneously to be inherited. Samuel sold his farm, piled the children into a covered wagon, and headed south for Georgia and the Carolinas, where he hoped Sarah might recover in the warmer climate. But her condition worsened, then became acute. In despair Samuel returned to Ohio, where, in January 1886, Sarah died in her father's home.
Frank went to live with an uncle, while his father, Samuel, tried to overcome his grief and poverty. Samuel worked in a pottery factory, taught school in Vinton, and carried the mail. He eventually saved enough money to buy a forty-acre farm and bring Frank home. "When we moved there," Frank's younger brother, Ernest, remembered, "Dad's only assets were a five-dollar bill and a hen setting on a nest of eggs. He gave those last dollars to the man who helped us move. Still, we never begged, nor did we let on we were next to destitute. He said: 'Here we are and it's root, hog, or die.'"
In 1890, when Frank was eleven years old, Samuel remarried. Frank's stepmother was harsh, demanding, even cruel. "She was hard and beat Frank," a relative recalled.
He had other problems. "Frank and I attended a one-room country school, known as Ebenezer, miles from home," Ernest later reported. "We were newcomers; poor, strange, and badly dressed. The big boys would follow us home through the woods to pick a fight. Frank was the more aggressive of us, slow to anger but a wild bull if things went too far."
Frank could not put up with this stepmother, school, or poverty. At fourteen, only past the fourth grade, a consequence of all the disruptions in his life, he quit school and ran away from home. He took a job as a hired hand with a local farmer at $13 per month, plus the right to put a calf he had bought on the pasture. In the fall he sold the fatted calf. He had promised to send his earnings home to his family, but, as Ernest related, instead he used the profit from the sale on his wardrobe. "He seemed to take keen delight in showing his former classmates that he was dressed just a bit better and was more mannerly. He acquired a pride that became the armor of his body and soul."
Life as a farmhand, however, had little appeal. "We usually had milk and bread for dinner," Frank recalled. "Fifty to seventy-five cents a day was just about tops in wages for a farmhand in those days." Restless by nature, skilled with his hands, he was willing to work. "The dignity of labor was...my brother's philosophy," Ernest declared. "He liked to quote the Scripture: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.'" He became a jack-of-all-trades, and something of a rolling stone, as he journeyed across Ohio, taking jobs as a glass worker, potter, house painter ("I even painted Pullmans at one time"), potato farmer, telephone linesman, motorman, and carpenter. (Ernest stayed in school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and became a professor at Penn State.)
Frank did not prosper, he did not starve, he did not improve his station in life. He knew a great deal about machines and tools, little about people. He was argumentative, cantankerous, opinionated; he shouted a great deal; he was critical of his bosses; small wonder that every spring found him working at a new job.
Like Hannah Milhous, Frank was deeply religious. Unlike her, he was demonstrative about it. He came from a long line of frontier, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping Methodists, which placed him in a tradition about as different from that of the Quakers as one Protestant sect can be from another. The Methodists were loud, in their sermons, in their hymns, in their greetings, in everything. They had a set of strict rules for folks to live by and were dogmatic about them. These precepts both fit and helped shape Frank's personality. Hannah's Quakerism led her to love God; Frank's Methodist faith led him to fear God.
Neither Hannah nor Frank ever smoked or drank. In Hannah's case, no one around her did either, but in Frank's case abstaining was far more difficult. He lived in many a rough environment, working beside roustabouts of all types, men who tempted him with their tobacco, whiskey, and tales of amorous adventures. He never gave in, a mark of both the depth of his religion and the strength of his willpower. Nor did he abstain through avoidance -- he led a hectic social life, with many dates and parties.
He was a handsome young devil, of average height but big in the shoulders and hands, as befit a workingman. When dressed for a social event, he wore his dark hair slicked down and precisely parted. He had a fine full face, a strong but not oversized nose and jaw, deep, penetrating eyes, and a firm mouth. He wore stiffly starched high collars, precisely tied bow ties, double-breasted suits, always with a watch chain hanging down the front and a handkerchief hanging out of the breast pocket. In short, he cut quite a figure. His good looks, careful grooming, and animated ways drew people to him, but unfortunately his loud and aggressive personality drove many of them away.
Even in the hard times of 1896, when he was seventeen, Frank worked hard enough and long enough to save some money. ("I never missed a day's work in my life," Frank later boasted to an interviewer.) He spent his money on his wardrobe, but still had enough left over for a magnificent four-year-old sorrel horse, plus all kinds of accouterments, such as trimming on the reins, gold cloth for the saddle, and ribbons everywhere.
Along with his Methodist faith, Frank had inherited Democratic politics. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, not Lincoln and Grant, were the heroes of his youth. But Frank was a boy with a questioning, not an accepting, mind. Whatever his inheritance in politics, by age seventeen he had lost faith in the Democrats. He blamed President Grover Cleveland for the Depression. In 1952, he explained that he had learned the value of a dollar the hard way, and that he was thus "all for" the Republicans' sound money policy.
An incident in the 1896 presidential campaign completed Frank's conversion. William McKinley was coming to town, for a parade and other hoopla; McKinley himself would ride in a carriage at the head of the parade. Frank got his colt brushed, put on all its finest gear, dressed himself to the teeth, and rode out to join the tag end of the parade. The parade marshal came riding along and spotted him. Much impressed, the marshal called out, "Come on, son. Ride up to the front of the line with me."
Frank galloped to the front and soon was at the side of McKinley's carriage, in the place of honor. When the parade ended, McKinley got out of the carriage and walked over to Frank. He patted the colt and said, "Mighty fine horse you have there, son. Finest I ever saw." Turning to leave, he called out, "How are you going to vote, son?" Frank replied loud enough for the surrounding crowd to hear, "Republican, of course!"
"Naturally," he later explained, "I was elated. I was too young to vote in that election, but in 1900 I voted for McKinley. I've been voting Republican ever since."
In 1904 Frank decided to give the West a try, and spent eighteen months in Colorado, but he discovered that for all Colorado's beauty and appeal, it was a tough place to find a good-paying job. He returned to Ohio, where he went to work for the Columbus Railway and Light Company. He became a motorman on the streetcar line. It gave him an opportunity to wear a fancy uniform, with a bandmaster's headpiece, covered with braid, a double-breasted suit with bright buttons, and a gold watch chain across the coat.
Unfortunately, the working conditions were not so pleasing. He operated the streetcar from an open vestibule, and in the wintertime his feet froze. One particularly cold day, he organized the motormen of Columbus to demand better conditions. Together with another delegate, Frank went to a young lawyer with political ambitions. "If you'll help us get legislation against the open vestibules," Frank told the lawyer, "we motormen will help you get elected to the state senate." The lawyer agreed, got elected, introduced the necessary legislation, and, against the opposition of the company, got it passed.
It was Frank's sole excursion into either politics or labor organizing. Rather than use his victory as a base for advancement in Columbus, he indulged his rootless, restless nature and headed west again, this time for California, the land of perpetual summer. He carried with him an enthusiastic letter of recommendation from his employer, an indication that his organizing efforts had not been held against him.
He arrived in Los Angeles in January 1907, and immediately got a job with the Pacific Electric Railway Company as a motorman, his letter of recommendation stating specifically that he was "an experienced streetcar man." For eighteen cents per hour he ran old red cars along the narrow streets between Whittier and the sprawling town of Los Angeles. His good start came to a crashing halt when he hit an automobile and forthwith lost his job.
He found work on a ranch east of Whittier -- back to being a farmhand again. He also discovered that the Quakers so dominated the area that there was no social life outside the church. He began to attend the meetings and the socials. Day laborer or not, he still cut a fine figure in the evening. He made a good enough impression to be invited to the Milhous home following a Valentine Day's party at the church. That night he walked with Hannah and lost his heart. He saw her every night thereafter, through the winter and spring.
Why Hannah kept seeing him, her sisters could not understand. For one thing, Frank was always free and open with physical embraces, which made them uncomfortable. As Richard Nixon's cousin the novelist Jessamyn West relates, "There was not much hugging or kissing or daughters sitting on their fathers' knees in Quaker families." West, with her novelist's insight, describes Frank as "temperamentally...a Democrat and a Methodist" who converted to Republican and Quaker. "He was very unlike my birthright relatives," she continued, "who were quiet, subdued, inclined to see both sides of every question. Frank saw one side: his; and he was not bashful about letting you know what was wrong with your side."
Not only was Frank boisterous, argumentative, and much too loud to suit the Milhous girls, he was also just a common laborer, far beneath Hannah's station as the daughter of a leader in the community. Hannah's youngest sister, Olive, so thoroughly disapproved of Hannah's continuing to go on dates with Frank that she climbed into a tree, took out her tablet, and wrote, "Hannah is a bad girl." After Hannah married Frank, Jessamyn West recalled, "Every Milhous daughter was convinced that she had married beneath her." Hannah's younger sister Jane remembers her father taking her aside some years after the wedding and saying that he hoped she would marry a Quaker, "someone who has been raised our way. It is best for people to marry those of like faith."
In the face of this opposition, Frank persisted, not surprising considering his bullheadedness and considering how badly he had been smitten by the fair Quaker maid. What is surprising is Hannah's persistence. Everyone she valued urged her to end the relationship. Frank had no education, no culture, no particular skill, no prospects. Their personalities, traditions, and experiences were at opposite poles. In spite of all, Hannah was drawn to Frank as much as he to her, and she had the strength of character to ignore the gibes of her sisters and friends, the disapproval of her parents, and the differences in temperament between her and Frank. On June 25, 1908, four months after they met, Frank and Hannah were married.
It was a union of opposites that was hugely successful. Hannah's calm ways, her compassion for others, and her peaceful thoughts were a nice balance to Frank's excitability, his inability to see someone else's point of view, and his aggressive nature. He softened under her gentle guidance, made a formal conversion to the Quaker faith, toned down a bit.
As a married man, Frank had to give up dancing. Quaker disapproval was one factor, but the other stemmed from his self-knowledge and his self-discipline. Frank explained his reason to Jessamyn West's father: "When his arms went around a woman, his amorous propensities were instantly aroused." He avoided temptation and embarrassment by not dancing, but he did not completely suppress his exuberance and appreciation for the opposite sex. "He never saw my mother, a plain woman," West wrote, "without exclaiming, 'Grace, I swear you get prettier every time I see you. How do you do it? I want your recipe. Come here and let me give you a hug.'" Grace would always protest afterward that Frank had embarrassed her, but as West commented, "She was also secretly pleased."
Frank was even more expansive in his compliments to Hannah. He was aware of the value of her love. In 1952, in his first interview as the father of a famous son, he told Richard Gardner, "I knew I had picked the very best. And I haven't changed my mind in the forty-four years since then."
In the first months of their marriage Frank continued working at the citrus ranch. When Hannah got pregnant, her father invited the couple to live in his house and gave Frank a job as a foreman on his ranch. The first son, Harold, was born in 1909. Within a year Frank pulled up and moved his family to Lindsay, north of Bakersfield, to work at yet another ranch that Frank Milhous had bought on speculation. In 1912 he had saved enough money to return to Southern California and buy -- with his father-in-law's money -- a small lemon ranch at a place called Yorba Linda. He had either bad luck or poor judgment -- the land he picked had a clay subsoil, did not drain well, and produced inferior lemons. Frank supported his family by doing odd jobs of whatever kind. He found enough time to build a two-story frame house, and build it well enough so that it still stood and was occupied three-quarters of a century later.
His commitment to his religion deepened, and he began to teach Sunday school for the Quakers of Yorba Linda. He used the opportunity to let out a bit of his frontier Methodist upbringing, even among the staid Quakers, and as Jessamyn West remembered, he was popular with his pupils. "I doubt that Frank Nixon could do anything halfheartedly," she wrote, "and this trait is appealing to young people....Frank was certainly ardent in his Sunday-school teaching. His cheeks flamed, and his voice trembled."
Frank would express his strong political convictions in his teaching; he was, West declared, "the first person to make me understand that there was a great lack of practicing Christianity in civic affairs." He may have voted Republican, but "what Frank had to say about probity in politics pointed...straight to Norman Thomas," at least so far as West was concerned. "All of us who had been in Frank's class had been convinced that Christians should be political, and that politics, if not Christian, should at least be ethical."
Hannah was pregnant again while Frank was building the new home. She cared for her son, Harold, and worked endless hours in the lemon grove, planting, irrigating, pruning. Although she had her family only ten miles away in Whittier, and her church activities, essentially she led the lonely life of a farmer's wife before the age of telephone, television, and the automobile.
When Cecil Pickering moved to Yorba Linda on August 1, 1910, his was the third white family to arrive. Frank Nixon's family was fifth or sixth. Pickering described the place: "It wasn't a town. It was turkey mullein, cactus, rattlesnakes, tumbleweeds and tracks." Yorba Linda was on the edge of the desert. There were terrible dust winds, with no trees to offer protection. But overall the climate was ideal, and if the soil was good and if you could get water to it, the land grew marvelous citrus crops. Frank's venture was only one of many -- between 1910 and 1913 the entire area was planted to citrus orchards, and Yorba Linda began to turn into a town. Frank helped build it -- he worked on the first warehouse in town, plus most of the new homes. The water, source of Yorba Linda's life, came from the Anaheim Union Water Company canal that ran through the town, smack in front of Frank's house.
The people coming into Yorba Linda were mainly young couples, and nearly all Quaker. They imposed a Puritan streak on the town; there were no liquor stores, no bars, no dance halls, no theaters, nothing at all to do -- except church activities. Soon an elementary school went up. Mary Skidmore, who taught in the first grade, said that the teachers were informed by the school board that they were forbidden to dance, or talk to men on the streets. The teachers felt spied upon and knew for a fact that they were gossiped about.
In short, for all its idyllic location, its booming economy, and its Quaker domination, Yorba Linda was like every small town "back east," a place where everyone knew everyone else and talked about each other's activities without embarrassment or hesitation. It did not urge, but rather insisted upon, conformity; it also insisted that the church have a monopoly on leisure time and entertainment activity. That suited Frank and Hannah. Frank livened things up by arguing politics, but people tolerated his harsh manner because he gave so much of himself to the church.
They were known as people who paid their bills on time, which was good for their reputation but harmful to Frank's fortunes. He would not go into debt, not even to improve his land. Friends told him he could sweeten up that clay soil of his with loads of manure, but Frank always replied, "I won't buy fertilizer until I raise enough lemons to pay for it." But he couldn't raise the lemons.
So through the first years of their marriage, as their sons were born and began to grow, Frank and Hannah lived on the edge of poverty. "Many days I had nothing to serve but corn meal," Hannah confessed years later. "I'd bring it to the table and exclaim, `See what we have tonight -- wonderful corn meal!'" Frank could not afford to indulge his sartorial proclivities -- one shirt and one pair of pants had to do, along with a suit for church.
He always found work, and in 1912 earned enough to hire help of his own in the lemon grove. But as soon as Frank was able to buy a tractor he dispensed with the hired help. He hated to spend money. "Uncle Frank wouldn't spend a nickel for a firecracker," his niece said. "He was...too tight with money. He didn't have to be as tight as he was." Hannah too dressed plainly, and didn't indulge herself in any extravagance. "She was a great saver," a relative said. Although the Nixons lived on a farm, and in due course had a family of growing boys, they never had a dog or cat or any other pet. They did not take vacations. They worked.
Copyright © 1987 by Stephen E. Ambrose