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New arrivals once got white-glove treatment

November 6, 2012 12:10 am

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By JENNIFER MILLER STROBEL

Allow me to indulge in a bit of personal nostalgia.

It was spring 1961. I was 5. My parents, big sister and I had just moved to Fredericksburg. Home was where my family was, and our new-to-me house at 1411 Caroline St. was the world to me.

My mother kept house, my days were my own, and my contentment ran deep.

One quiet afternoon, a nice lady--the Welcome Wagon lady--came to our door with a basket of gifts, conversation with my mother, and even a few kind words for me, the small child looking on.

More than likely, that Welcome Wagon lady was Frances Hewetson, and more than likely she wouldn't have imagined that little girl would remember her kindness half a century later. Apparently Hewetson made that kind of impression on everyone she met in her visits as hostess for Fredericksburg's chapter of the national Welcome Wagon organization.

In 2006, her name was added to the city of Fredericksburg's "Wall of Honor." Judith A. Hansen, among those nominating her for the posthumous recognition, wrote: "In 1966, my husband and I moved to Fredericksburg--he to begin a career as professor at Mary Washington College and I as an English teacher at James Monroe High School. One of my earliest memories of our first weeks in Fredericksburg was the visit from Frances Hewetson, bringing her basket of goodies from the Welcome Wagon. To me, a young wife in a new community, this gesture of welcome was extraordinary and put a personal face on this new town to which we had moved."

F. Freeman Funk, former city manager, wrote that Hewetson's work with Welcome Wagon "brought her to City Hall on a regular basis, where her affable personality quickly marked her as a friend of us all."

Her daughter, Nancy Cooke, shared this photo on Page D1 of her mother posing with her basket and Welcome Wagon car. Future real estate developer Carl D. Silver, a car salesman at the time, donated a car for the organization's use each year. The photo was probably taken in the late 1950s, though Cooke isn't sure the exact year. The businessmen posing in front of the Buick are (left to right) Francis P. Yeager, Mayor Charles M. Cowan and Frank C. Silvey Jr.

Hewetson's basket was full of small gifts, coupons, advertisements, a city map and information on local services. The group posed on the Mary Washington College campus, where Hewetson's husband, Henry, was a professor of economics.

She knew first-hand the feelings of being the newcomer in town. In 1948, she, her husband and daughter moved to Fredericksburg from Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta.

"She loved this town the minute she got off the train," her daughter recalled in a recent interview, speaking of her mother's first impressions of Fredericksburg.

Hewetson became her adopted hometown's first Welcome Wagon hostess, a role she filled for 15 years with the national organization consisting of local chapters.

According to the website--welcomewagon.com--the organization was "founded in 1928 by an insightful marketing man in Memphis, Tenn., Thomas Briggs. Mr. Briggs was inspired by stories of early Conestoga 'welcome wagons' that would meet and greet westward travelers, providing fresh food and water for their journey."

As stated on the site, the Welcome Wagon organization expanded into a national network of hostesses. Home visits stopped in 1998 because the increase in two-income households meant that few families were home to receive calls.

Hewetson's daughter shared a scrapbook of memorabilia, including clippings of her mother's experiences.

According to one Free Lance-Star report in 1963, Hewetson was "a familiar sight to local residents making calls in an all-white car with official seals. She always wears a hat and gloves (a job requirement and quite acceptable with the hostess who has a flair for hats.)"

In the article, Hewetson recalled one particularly memorable adventure when a snake slithered into a newcomer's basement apartment. According to the article, "The man of the house killed it, and that particular family moved from the apartment about two weeks later."

Most visits were more tame, with Hewetson fielding questions about restaurants, groceries, churches, medical care and the like.

She would also arrange newspaper and milk deliveries.

Looking back, I realize what a massive job my mother had in getting us settled, and our Welcome Wagon visitor was most welcome.

Hewetson's welcome didn't stop with the initial visits. The hostess also invited newcomers to join the Welcome Wagon Newcomers Club, a path to community life. The club met to hear speakers, take field trips, and sponsor fundraisers for organizations including the March of Dimes.

Connie's Hat Shop sponsored an Easter bonnet dinner meeting at the General Washington Inn. One scrapbook photo shows a large gathering of Welcome Wagon Club members--all wearing fashionable hats--at the dinner.

The Free Lance-Star regularly published news of the Welcome Wagon's Newcomers Bridge Club. A few members still continue to play as a group.

By the time of her death in 1999, Hewetson's newcomer status had long since been transformed through her deep involvement in community work. The list of her active civic involvement fills two pages, with many more pages subdivided into her deeds with the League of Women Voters; Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.; and the Girl Scouts at both local and state levels--to name a few organizations she worked with.

Her legacy touched many.

One letter-writer, Evelyn Schremp, wrote, "Many families stayed here, raised our children and grandchildren here, because Frances Hewetson made us feel welcome."

Hewetson's daughter touched the lives of many of those children and grandchildren. She has retired after 30 years teaching, with 28 years in Spotsylvania County as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher.

Jennifer Strobel: 540/374-5432
Email: jstrobel@freelancestar.com





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