|Anna Bruce Houston (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
Beautiful, energetic and imbued with a devotion to public service inherited from her father, Bruce Houston is justly remembered today both by her family and the fraternity she loved. Bruce's education, personal charm and organizational abilities made her uniquely suited to being a leading light of Zeta Tau Alpha as well as a beloved figure in two Lexingtons--one in Virginia, the other in Kentucky. I am able to tell her her story today thanks in part to the generosity of Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA), which shared with me a number of photographs, documents and publications. I especially wish to thank the fraternity's Director of Archives and Historical Information, Patti Cords Levitte.
|Red House, Rockbridge County, Virginia (Houston family collection)|
Anna Bruce Houston was born on March 16, 1877 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. She was the first of four daughters born to Finley Willson Houston and the former Grace Ann Alexander. Bruce and her sisters were all born at "Red House," the stately home where Grace Alexander was raised. Also known as "Veranda," this house has been in the continuous possession of the Alexander family since the early 1850s.
|"Brucie" Houston, early 1880s (Houston family collection)|
|"Brucie" Houston, 1880s (Houston family collection)|
Bruce's parents were devout Presbyterians, and the family attended church regularly. Bruce would remain committed to the Presbyterian church all her life. As a young person, Finley Houston grew up in New Providence Church, near Mount Pleasant. His father had been an elder there, and his brother, Will, was also an elder and deacon there for more than 50 years. When Finley and his family moved to the campus of VMI, it became more practical for them to attend the First Presbyterian Church of Lexington. In the evenings, the Houston sisters would sing hymns while their mother accompanied them on the piano. The early education of Bruce, Annette and Mary was religious in nature, and they learned at their mother's knee. Grace Houston read to them from Charles Foster's richly illustrated The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, published in 1873.
Although these blonde, cherubic sisters were well-disciplined and lived up to the high expectations of their parents, they also could be mischievous scamps. The adventuresome side of their nature was quite evident in a story shared with me by Bruce's niece, Mary White Robinson. After the death of their Grandmother Alexander in 1885, ownership of Red House passed to their uncle, John Gibson Alexander, and his wife, the former Mary Patton. While visiting Red House one day, the usually obedient Houston sisters decided it would be fun to ride an imaginary horse (in this case, one of the fence rails). They also decided that special riding clothes were called for. Aunt Mary's clothes had been previously declared off limits for play purposes. That prohibition made her clothes only more desirable for their purpose. Annette climbed up a tree near the house and gained entry to Aunt Mary's room through a window. Wedding clothes were obtained from Mary's trousseau and tossed down to Bruce and Mary. When Aunt Mary heard a commotion outside shortly thereafter, she went to investigate. To her horror, she came upon her three nieces, dressed in her finery, astraddle the fence as they pretended to ride a wild horse.
Although he would never have sons, Finley's energetic daughters suited him just fine. He taught them all how to ice skate, row a boat, shoot, fish, ride and handle a horse and buggy. Skills required for their social development were not ignored, however. Finley also ensured that his girls learned to dance. Grace was remembered as a particularly graceful dancer, and the names of all the Houston sisters regularly appeared in the society pages of The Lexington Gazette when they attended dances (or "hops," as they were called).
Bruce's formal education began in Lexington in the private school of Virginia "Jennie" Lee Letcher, daughter of John Letcher, who had been governor of Virginia during the Civil War. Jennie Letcher was a god-daughter of General Robert E. Lee, thus her middle name. A memorable event occurred while Bruce was a student at Miss Letcher's school. Finley Houston was a die-hard supporter of the Democratic Party, and of course his daughters took his views as gospel. As it happened, the only boy in Miss Letcher's school at the time was Rob Morrison, whose father was an outspoken Republican. One day, Rob and Bruce had a heated exchange regarding their fathers' political differences. Fisticuffs ensued, and blows were exchanged before Jennie Letcher could separate the combatants.
Bruce attended the Ann Smith Academy in Lexington for two years, and she boarded at the St. Paul's Female School in Petersburg during the 1891-92 and 1893-94 sessions. Finally, Bruce took classes at Lexington High School, where she graduated in June 1898. Her walks to school took her past the Blue Ridge Hotel, a boarding house for Washington & Lee students. It is likely that it was during this time that she met William Emrys Davis.
|Clifton, 1915 (Houston family collection)|
|Mary, Annette and Bruce at Clifton, 1890s (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
In 1897, Finley Houston bought Clifton, a 70-year-old house on the North River near Lexington. This would be home to the Houston family for the next 80 years.
|Virginia State Normal School at Farmville, 1900 (Ancestry)|
Bruce Houston received a scholarship to attend the State Normal School of Virginia at Farmville (forerunner of today's Longwood University). The normal schools trained future teachers. Students attending these schools were obliged to teach in a Virginia school for two years after graduating.
Shortly before beginning her studies at Farmville, Bruce had quite a scare on Main Street, as reported in the June 22, 1898 edition of The Lexington Gazette: "While Miss Bruce Houston was driving out Main Street Monday afternoon, her horse became frightened near Col. W. T. Poague's residence and threw her from the buggy spraining her right arm. No serious injury was sustained."
After a very brief period of adjustment and homesickness, Bruce came into her own during her time at college. The Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity was established at the Normal School in 1898. Bruce was initiated into its membership the following year. Bruce appears with her ZTA sisters in the photograph below:
|ZTA members at the Normal School, 1900 (ZTA Themis Fall 2012)|
Bruce completed her education at Farmville in just 18 months. She graduated in the class of February 1900 and received her professional diploma in June. In the picture below, Bruce is seated at center:
|Normal School class of 1900 (Ancestry)|
During her senior year, Bruce was both president of her class and the first editor-in-chief of The Virginian, the school's newly renamed yearbook. William Emrys Davis, who was by now her fiance, was credited in the yearbook for contributing a number of illustrations he had drawn.
|Bruce Houston, 1900 (Ancestry)|
Bruce was also a member of the German Club. In each of the photographs below, Bruce stands center at the rear of the club's members:
|Normal School German Club, 1899 (Courtesy of ZTA)|
|Normal School German Club, 1900 (Ancestry)|
A few more pages of the 1900 edition of The Virginian in which Bruce is featured:
In February 1901, Bruce hosted a get-together at Clifton to support Delta Tau Delta (the fraternity of her soon-to-be husband, Will Davis). From the February 13, 1901 edition of The Lexington Gazette:
The two undated images below show Bruce photographed in informal settings. In the first picture, she is sitting (at left) with her cousins Louise and Edith Willson, daughters of Frederick Newton Willson, professor of mathematics at Princeton University. In the second photo, Bruce is seated at far left during a picnic. Will Davis is looking directly at the camera and smiling.
|Bruce Houston (left), with Louise and Edith Willson (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
|Bruce Houston and Will Davis (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
By April 1902, Bruce had fulfilled her obligation to the state of Virginia by having taught first grade in Lexington for two years. She was now free to marry the love of her life, Will Davis.
|Will Davis, 1899 Calyx (Ancestry)|
William Emrys Davis was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on December 7, 1877. His father, Evan J. Davis, came to America from Wales in 1870 at the age of 30. In 1874, Evan Davis married Elizabeth Jeffries, whose parents were also Welsh immigrants. In addition to Will, the Davises had at least one more son, Howell Jeffries (born 1875), and a daughter, Mary (born 1882). The undated photograph below, from the special collections of the Western Kentucky University Museum, shows Evan J. Davis and his family. I presume the woman sitting to the right of Evan is his wife and to his left is is daughter. The males standing behind them are not identified.
|Family of Evan J. Davis (Courtesy of Western Kentucky University Special Collections)|
By the time of his marriage to Elizabeth, Evan had already established a successful slate roofing business in Knoxville, located on McGhee Street near the Kentucky & Ohio Railroad depot. In 1880, he was also working as the superintendent of the East Tennessee Coal Mining Company. Within a few years, Evan was president of that mining operation. In 1888 he was also named president of the Jellico Mining Company. Evan Davis was also active in Republican politics, and served for a time on the Knoxville city council.
Both Will and his brother, Howell, attended Washington & Lee University. Will Davis graduated in the class of 1899. He was president of his senior class; he was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity; he played on the baseball team and was halfback for the football team; he was on the gymnasium team in 1899. In this photo of the 1899 football team, Will stands at rear, third from left:
|1899 W & L football team (Ancestry)|
During his senior year, Will taught as an assistant in the Chemical Laboratory. He was also credited as an illustrator for the 1898 Calyx, the Washington & Lee yearbook. The editor-in-chief of that year's Calyx was Benjamin Franklin Harlow, Jr., who married Bruce's sister, Annette, in 1905.
Bruce and Will were married at Clifton at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 24, 1902.
|(ZTA Themis, January 1944)|
|Bible of Finley Houston (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
Three days later, The Lexington Gazette published this article describing the wedding:
The following month, Bruce's sister, Mary, wrote a long and entertaining letter to her aunt, Lizzie Houston Row. She included this account of the wedding:
. . . Now I know you want to hear all about the all important wedding. In the first place when you open the door at "Clifton" you step into a big, square hall, to the left are folding doors (making double parlors) straight in front is the door to Mother's room. Promptly at 11:20 Lois Gorrell, Bruce's old music teacher a woman about thirty started the wedding march from Lohengrin. The bridesmaids came from M[other]'s room single file, the groomsmen from the front door (directly opposite M's door). We marched the length of the two rooms. The maids on one side the men on the other. When we got to the fire place we crossed over to the side where the men were and they crossed over where we had been. Then we walked back to the folding doors and turned, forming almost a semi circle. Then came Mr. Davis and his best man Charlie McNeill. When they had gotten almost to the minister then came Nettie [Bruce's sister, Annette] and several yards behind came B[ruce] on Father's arm. The rooms were decorated in ferns, daisies and potted plants. A large daisy chain festooned around the top of the room. The decorations were lovely. Mary Moore had charge of them.
After the ceremony refreshments were served. They were a tomato hollowed out and filled with chicken salad on a lettuce leaf, a beaten biscuit, a sandwich of two olives. This was on a place and a plate was given each of the guests--there were forty in all. Then in little glass cups we served a new drink here--pineapple tea--nothing more or less than tea flavored with pineapple. Aunt Mary Alexander, Mrs. McCrum and Mrs. Poague fixed the things that morning and helped us so nicely. Mrs. Poague gave B the biscuit. Everybody said the wedding was beautiful.
The presents were lovely. She got three cut glass bowls, 2 cut glass olive dishes, 1 beautiful cut glass vase. Indeed she got a good deal cut glass and silver. Mr. and Mrs. D[avis] "pa and ma" gave her a dozen pearl handle knives, a doz. forks (breakfast and dinner sizes) 1/2 doz. big spoons & 1 doz. tea spoons. She got eighteen heavy forks, cold meat forks, etc. etc. I wont try to name any more. They drove to Buena Vista and took a train north, went to Wash. Phil. Atlantic City then Knoxville. She has been out to Jellico and says the house is very nice and comfortable. She says everybody in Knoxville is so cordial and nice. Old Mr. Davis, his son Howell and Howell's wife were the only ones who came over. "Mother Davis" (as Mrs. Howell D[avis] calls her) wasn't able for the trip. We like the D's fine. Mary Moore was very much amused at me. She came up to me and asked how I liked Pa. I said, "Mary, he is one of these hateful old Yankees." I afterward changed my opinion of him. He was very much touched the day of the wedding, could hardly control himself.
Let me tell you a funny thing that happened soon after the ceremony. B changed her organdie dress for traveling dress. She slipped out so quietly that she wasn't missed till when "Father Davis" got his crowd (Mayme and Mr. and Mrs. Howell D.) into the carriage. I rushed out to tell them goodbye and just as I got to one side of the carriage B got to the other. Well the old man saw both of us but as I had on a white dress he thought I was the one so he started out to kiss me. I told him to look behind him but he didn't understand me. By the time he got to me the others were pulling on him. Finally he turned around and saw his mistake, they teased him very much about not knowing B.
Soon after their wedding, Will and Bruce settled in Jellico, Tennessee, where Will was managing his father's coal mining interests. By September, Bruce returned to Clifton for an extended visit. It was during this trip that Bruce had her second mishap while driving a buggy in Lexington, as reported in the October 8, 1902 edition of The Lexington Gazette:
As it so happened, Bruce's savior that day was none other than Americus Frederic White--the man who would marry her sister, Mary, in 1914.
Bruce's primary mission during her stay in Virginia was to take steps to reinvigorate Zeta Tau Alpha that would ensure its long-term viability and gain its acceptance in the Intersorority Conference (the forerunner of the National Panhellenic Conference). It was decided at a meeting in Farmville that the governance of ZTA would be transferred from the original chapter at the Normal School to the alumnae. Bruce was named secretary-treasurer at that time, a position she held until 1904, when she was elected Grand President. In 1903 she also became the first editor of Themis, the fraternity's publication.
|(ZTA Themis January 1944)|
During the early years of the newly reorganized ZTA, Bruce was instrumental in revising the fraternity's constitution and by-laws. In this effort she was again assisted by Will, who as always took a serious interest in her activities. Bruce served as Grand President until 1908, when she stepped down to give attention to her growing family. That same year, the fraternity presented Bruce with a ring which featured a ZTA setting of diamonds. After her death, the ring was donated to the Zeta Historical Association.
Despite the demands of raising her children, she could not keep from participating in the affairs of her beloved ZTA. She accepted the position of National Historian, in which capacity she worked until 1915.
Will and Bruce had six children together: Evan Jeffries (born 1903), Grace Alexander (1905), Finley Houston (1906), Howell Jeffries (1908), William Emrys, Jr., (1909) and Bruce Llandys (1914). All of these children lived normal life spans but one. In late February 1922, 12-year-old Billy (as they called Will Jr.) fell ill. He remained under a doctor's care from March 1 to March 13, when he succumbed to the combined effects of lobar pneumonia and empyema. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery.
Bruce's sister, Annette, married Ben Harlow, Jr., at Clifton on September 7, 1905. Bruce and Will made the trip to attend the wedding, where they posed for the photograph below, the only one of all the Houstons together known to exist. Bruce and Will stand at left, Mary at center, and the newlyweds at far right. Finley and Grace Houston are seated.
|(Houston family collection)|
Medical facilities were pretty basic in Jellico in the early 20th century, so Bruce elected to give birth to at least one of her children at the home of Will's parents, 924 Oak Avenue in Knoxville. She was staying there when she wrote this letter--on ZTA stationery--to Lizzie Houston Row, her aunt in Virginia, on November 10, 1906:
|First page of Bruce's letter to Aunt Lizzie, November 1906 (Houston family collection)|
Dear Aunt Lizzie:
I can't begin to tell you how glad I was to receive your letter this morning--also to have the lock of
hair. Compared it with Grace's and find mine was more golden than hers is now. The little dear has been sick since Sunday, stomach upset & cutting teeth. She seems to be a little better now. I have been here since Oct 6th. Am expecting a visit from "the stork" any minute now. My nurse has been here since Tuesday. I did not intend to come here but could not get a competent servant in Jellico, so Mother [Elizabeth Davis] wrote for me to come in, she & the girls could look after the children better. E. J. spends his mornings with Hal, & in the afternoons either Mother or [...] take him dining. Grace is as good as gold when she is well, is very much like the Houstons, while E. J. is more like Davis. If the new baby is a boy I am going to call it for Father "Finley Houston Davis" & if a girl for my sister-in-law, "Hallie Hope Davis Jr." Hal is wild over the children, can't have any herself on account of her health, she loves them to distraction...
Bruce's guess about the imminent arrival of "the stork" proved to be quite accurate. Finley Houston Davis was born at 8 a.m. the morning after she penned this letter to Aunt Lizzie.
|Birth announcement of Finley Houston Davis (Houston family collection)|
Will's father was severely injured in an elevator accident on March 21, 1911. He died a week later from the effects of his concussion. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Knoxville.
Bruce's sister, Mary, married Americus Frederic White at Clifton on April 2, 1914. Mary and Fred made their home in Donora, Pennsylvania, where Fred worked as a manager for the American Steel and Wire Company. Mary gave birth to their daughter, who was named in her honor, on December 1, 1916. The delivery was a difficult one, and Mary died in Memorial Hospital in nearby New Eagle on December 8.
The day before Mary died, Finley telegraphed Bruce and informed her that he did not think that Mary could live. Within 30 minutes of receiving her father's message, Bruce was on her way to Clifton. She stayed with Finley for several days, answering letters of condolence and handling her father's business correspondence. Mary's body was brought back to Lexington and buried in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
It was about this time that the Davis family left Jellico and moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Their new home was located at 420 West 6th Street, and is still standing today:
|420 West 6th Street, Lexington, Kentucky (Google)|
In 1918, both Will and his brother Howell were featured in the trade publication, "Coal Men of America:"
Bruce quickly became part of the civic life of Lexington. She and Will joined the First Presbyterian Church, where she taught the beginner's class of the Sunday School for the rest of her life. She was a member of the Captain John McKinley Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Women's Club of Central Kentucky and the Women's Committee of the Lexington YMCA.
|Bruce Davis, about 1926 (ZTA)|
In 1925, Bruce once again became active in the affairs of Zeta Tau Alpha. That year she was appointed the first president of the Delta Province. The following year, she was elected grand vice-president. By then, Bruce had held more offices in the fraternity than any other person.
In June 1943, Bruce's heart problems had become quite serious, and her time was obviously growing short. She died at home at 11:20 p.m. on September 10, 1943 (ironically, on her father's birthday). Her funeral was conducted by her pastor, Reverend Whitfield Miles. Bruce is buried at Lexington Cemetery.
|Bruce and Will Davis (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)|
In his Will, William Emrys Davis provided for the installation of a stained glass window in Bruce's honor at First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Will died on November 2, 1953 and lies buried beside Bruce at Lexington Cemetery.
Included in the January 1944 edition of Themis are the following articles:
- Strout, Shirley K., To Whom Zeta Owes Much...Bruce Houston Davis
- Haines, Louise A., Bruce Houston Davis...First After the Founders
- Davis, Bruce Houston, Days Recalled. Originally published in 1938
- Tributes to Mrs. Davis by The Lexington Gazette, The Women's Auxillary of the Presbyterian Church of Lexington
Strout, Shirley Kreasan, Journey to Virginia, Themis, Winter 1957
Bruce Houston (Davis), Second Grand President. History of ZTA
Pages from the minute book of Zeta Tau Alpha, September 1900