Something about Vermilion poet Helen Kelsey Fox

By Rich Tarrant

REPETITIO MATER STUDIORUM EST. If that which follows seems familiar to some readers, it should. It is a reiteration of a story – with some minor additions / corrections that appeared in the VPJ on 07/01/2010. While I don’t often make a habit out of formally repeating articles, as a student-recorder of local history I have long since become aware of the fact that some things merit repeating. What follows is one of those “things”.

Vermilion poet Helen Kelsey Fox was certainly no Emily Dickinson. But on the other foot – who is? I stumbled across her poetry while reviewing some microfilm files of The Vermilion News from 1901. What follows is an excerpt from her poem, “I Would I Were a Child Again”. 

“I would I were a child again / To roam among the clover, / To wander by my dear old home / With meadow lark and plover. / What honeyed hours I then enjoyed, / The like I ne’er shall see, / No matter where I am employed / Or what my life may be…

The poem is fair, but hardly unique for American newspapers of those times. My initial take on the piece was that it was just used to fill space on the printed page. Nonetheless I was curious so, of course, I “Googled” her. To my surprise I found mention of her in two places. Carl Van Vechten gives her a paragraph in his book “The Merry-Go-Round (1918). While in Frank L. Boyden’s  “Popular American Composers” (out of copyright) she is afforded five full paragraphs. And though I’ve yet to discover any of her work in print – outside the pages of The News – I’m sure that it exists. One of her compositions, “A Song of Lake Erie”, was published by the Success Music Co. of Chicago during the summer of 1901, and was sold as a souvenir at the “Groves” (i.e. Linwood Park and Shadduck’s Grove) for 50 cents.

Reviewing her biographical data I was a bit put off. Whenever anyone uses phrases such as “artistic temperament”; “poetic nature”; and “lyric mentality” I am inclined to think that the truth is being dramatically enhanced. And when more than passing mention is made of a person having been descended from European royalty – in this case a French nobleman and a German princess – as if this lineage had something to do with their said talent, I found myself ready to quit reading. But when I further discovered in both accounts of her life that she was apparently so imbued with the “poetic spark” (another one of those phrases) that she was said to speak in rhyme half the time, I just knew there was something about Helen that wasn’t being said.

Born on a farm 4 miles south of the Village of Vermilion in 1850 Helen was the only daughter of Mary A. Riblet and Daniel Kelsey. Her biography indicates that It was from her mother that the poet inherited her “rare spiritual gifts” and royal lineage. [The Riblets were actually a prominent Vermilion farm family.] It has been said that Helen’s talents were noted at a very early age, and that she quickly developed an exceptional ability as a writer of both prose and poetry.

Right around 1874 she met and married a Berlin (Heights) man named Theodore Fox. By 1880 the couple had a son, Joel (aka. Jay) and a daughter they named after Helen’s mother Mary. Sometime during the following decade the couple divorced, and in December of 1890 Helen, who was then living alone with her widowed mother along Risden Road, fell ill and was not expected to survive. But survive she did. And by the early 20th century she was beginning to establish herself in north-central Ohio as a respected writer and composer. But then her fortunes seemed to turn downward.

In late January of 1907 a story appeared on the front page of the Richwood Gazette in Union County, Ohio beginning with the headline “ A Pitiful Case”. It seems that Mrs. Fox, who had apparently been living with a relative in that area, was receiving treatment at the Marysville hospital with a nervous condition, which – as the newspaper report put it – had “dethroned her reason”. Helen, who the newspaper referred to as having once been “one of the brightest literary lights on the stage” was being transferred to the Erie County Infirmary for further treatment. She never recovered.

In the U.S. Census of 1920 she is listed as being an inmate of the Toledo State Hospital. And on the 25th day of April the following year there she died. She was laid to rest at Maple Grove cemetery not too far from her childhood home. On her tombstone are the words: “Helen Kelsey Fox – Ohio’s Poetess”. But a further inscription on her grave might have been the last lines of her “Child” poem: “I would I were a child again / To roam amid the clover, / To hear the meadow-lark’s sweet song / But ah, those days are over.”

Ref: Special Thanks To: Vermilionite Laurence Bettcher and Vermilion expatriate Jim Wall;  VPJ 07/01/10.

Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: rnt@twc.com

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