September - November 2008 • Marion, Virginia
Eleanor Gladys Copenhaver, first child of Bascom and Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver, was born in 1896 in Marion, Virginia. Laura Lu Copenhaver taught English at Marion College, wrote hymns and pageants for the Lutheran Church, worked as a publicity agent for the Farm Bureau, and founded Laura Copenhaver Industries, which marked local handicrafts. Bascom Copenhaver was an administrator and teacher of mathematics at Marion College, the superintendent of schools in Smyth County and raised cattle on farmland near Marion. The Copenhavers lived in a large, stately house called Rosemont, reputedly the oldest in Marion, next door to Marion College, which was founded by Laura Lu’s father , the Reverend John J. Scherer. Eleanor was educated in the public schools of Marion then for two years she attended Marion College, the institution where her relatives taught and administered. She transferred to Westhampton College in Richmond in 1914 for her junior and senior years of college. Eleanor, who studied a broad range of liberal arts, majored in English and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. She returned to Marion to live with her parents and to teach high school courses for one year.
High-school science teaching wasn’t Eleanor’s long-term career goal therefore in 1918 she undertook further professional study at Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania. She completed a two-year program and received a certificate in social work – specifically in community organization. During the summer of 1919 Eleanor worked as director at a settlement camp for New York City women and there she found her profession for life. Beginning in 1920, she worked full-time in education and organization for the YWCA and by the early 1930s she had risen to influence in their industrial division. Eleanor had become the spinster daughter of her family, devoting herself to public service in the tradition of her Scherer and Copenhaver religious ancestors. She found herself bearing her ancestors’ religious conscience but without their burning theology, perfectly in accord with the YWCA’s liberal social goals.
Given the devastation of the Great Depression of 1929 and after, which had depleted the YWCA’s treasury of voluntary donations and had greatly disadvantaged the already precarious status of American workingwomen, Eleanor found reason to become radical in both her political beliefs and her professional activities. Because her work involved much travel to factory sites for counseling and organizing her workingwomen clients, she was able frequently to visit with her family in Marion. It was on one of her visits home to Rosemont during 1928 that Eleanor Copenhaver met Sherwood Anderson and their intellectual attraction must have come upon them suddenly and surely.
About the same time Sherwood and Eleanor met, Anderson had also discovered “working people” - more specifically, he had discovered the labor movement. These people were not the common men and women whom he had written about in his book or those whose news he had been publishing for several years, but “poor whites” – particularly mill workers, whom he had just began to meet in his wanderings around southwest Virginia, North Carolina and East Tennessee. He first heard the story of the reality of labor’s life from Eleanor, who through her work in the Industrial Division of the YWCA had come to know much more about that subject than did Sherwood. She had been interested in the plight of working people, of working women in particular, for years. Eleanor’s education, her experience, everything about her situation set her farther apart from Anderson than any woman he had known before and he found this very attractive.
Eleanor Copenhaver had traveled regularly into the centers of labor conflicts and at times had scrapes with violence that worried her parents. In one incident in the South, she was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In another she was mugged on a street in Chicago – an incident that was picked up by the Marion papers and spread around town. After she assured her parents that she was fine, she received an admonishing letter from her father concerning propriety and her reputation – as well as the reputation of her family. Eleanor knew how to weather such storms and continued on undaunted.
Eleanor Copenhaver was twenty years Anderson’s junior and when he first knew her and she was also working toward the master’s degree in political economy that she would receive from Columbia in 1933. The relationship between Sherwood Anderson and Eleanor Copenhaver developed slowly. Eleanor’s crowded schedule left little time for romance with Anderson and his own schedule of activities kept him on the road much of the time. Sherwood intensified his pursuit of her and began to propose marriage and finally in late September 1932, after many months of indecision, Eleanor agreed to marry him as soon as the demands of her job permitted. They were married at Rosemont, her family’s home in Marion, on July 5, 1933.
Sherwood expressed his contentment with and dependence upon Eleanor as the “solid rock” in his life. They spent their Virginia time at Rosemont in Marion and at Ripshin Farm in Troutdale but they also visited an eclectic group of artist and writer friends who lived all over the world. In 1941, after the death of Laura Lu Copenhaver, Eleanor finalized YWCA duties before taking a leave of absence to make a South American trip for several months with Sherwood. After attending farewell celebrations in Marion and New York City, Eleanor and Sherwood boarded the SS Santa Lucia on February 28 for the trip from New York to Valparaiso, Chili. By the second day at sea Anderson was taken ill with peritonitis and when they reached Cristobal in the Canal Zone, he was taken to a hospital at Colon, where he died on March 8. During one of the farewell celebrations, Sherwood had bitten the end off a toothpick, which he swallowed and which also caused the peritonitis. Eleanor Anderson returned to Marion with his body, and on March 26 he was buried in Round Hill Cemetery on a hillside overlooking Rosemont.
Eleanor subsequently resumed her work with the YWCA, serving as the head of its industrial division (a position she had assumed in 1938) until 1946. In the fall of 1947 she presented her husband’s papers to the Newberry Library prior to leaving for Italy, where she served as a foreign secretary for the YWCA until 1949. She helped to organize the Newberry’s Anderson collection in 1950 and, in the years following, returned frequently to work with it. In New York she assumed new duties with the YWCA, the United Community Defense Services, and the American Labor Education Service, and served as executor of the Anderson literary estate. In Virginia she assumed the management of Laura Copenhaver Industries and faithfully preserved Ripshin as Sherwood had left it. She died in Marion on 12 September 1985 and was buried beside her husband at Round Hill Cemetery.