Part 1: Early Years
"`Abdu'l-Bahá says little about destiny,
but teaches much about will."
The region of the Adirondacks is one of ancient mountains, eroded by nature’s forces to smooth rounded forms and covered everywhere with broadleaf and conifer forest. Nearly every peak is below the tree line so the effect is a richness of trees that is the arborist’s counterpart to the richness of grasses of the prairies. In the northeast portion of what, today, is the Adirondack Forest Preserve flows the Ausable River, a small drainage that has cut deep, dramatic gorges in the limestone that forms the very bones of the earth. Here is Essex County, an area nearly the size of Delaware with only thirty-seven thousand people. In its northern portion lies the village of Jay, on the Ausable River, twenty-six straight-line miles west-southwest of Burlington, Vermont across Lake Champlain.
In this beautiful setting, in 1871, Eliza (Frazier) Wilcott received an early present on Christmas Eve of a son. He was named John Henry Wilcott.
`Abdu'l-Bahá says little about destiny, but teaches much about will. If we accept that will is a prime determiner of the course of a person’s life, then one of the lessons of John Henry Wilcott’s life is how will can determine a courageous and steadfast course of action and leave an example of living by one’s convictions.
From John Wilcott’s daughter (Ethel Frost, a Bahá'í pioneer in Puerto Rico) and from the archives of the U.S. Bahá'í National Center, we learn that Eliza Frazier was a French Canadian, "the French part going directly back to Napolean." It is by a previous marriage that she acquired the name Frazier and gave birth to William, John Wilcott’s half-brother, and a number of half-sisters. John’s father appears to have been English and Scottish, so it comes as no surprise that in nineteenth century rural New York that John’s upbringing would be in the Presbyterian Church. The detached observer may feel justified in believing that the Calvanist work ethic was thoroughly ingrained in John during his formative period and showed itself to good effect in later years.
Of John’s childhood and education nothing has been discovered as of this writing. From family members, however, it is learned that as a young man John spent time and earned some living as a trapper along the St. Lawrence River and traded with Canadians. Frost tells us, "From what I can figure out he must have spent a great deal of his life with his uncles around these mountains hunting etc. on up into Cheaspeake Bay [sic] and Lake Charbonneau which carries the name of his great, great uncle. Yes, the one that went with Louis [sic] and Clark on their expedition." In time he found opportunity to develop talent as an artist. Ethel Frost tells us, "Dad also worked somewhere in New York as a commercial artist for furniture companies. I have seen drawings of his beautiful designs for the carvings on the backs of chairs which was the ‘in’ thing in those days. And, he worked for jewelry companies chasing the intricate designs. He painted in water color, pencil and India ink." In later years, as a family man, this artistic ability would awaken the talents of his son who produced paintings and drawings of striking quality.
John’s artistic ability may well have led him to his work as a landscape gardener for the Simmons Bed manufacturing firm. There he worked for the Lances, the family of Mr. Simmons' daughter. At least some of his work was around the Lance home. The Lances were apparently hospitable to John who sometimes received a piece of pie or the like at the greenhouse via a family servant.
While the order of events cannot be determined from the records and notes at hand, it is possible to determine that in his twenty-fourth year, John Wilcott resided in Providence, Rhode Island. The marriage certificate for his first marriage records that as his place of residence when he married Nellie Mae Stevens of Keeseville, New York. It is conjectural, but possible, that John met Miss Stevens while still in New York since Keeseville is a short distance away from Jay, located on Lake Champlain’s shores. If that was the case, it seems it may have been their decision to begin life together in Providence. The marriage is recorded as being in Keeseville on the eleventh of July, 1894 and conducted by J.H. Clark, Methodist Minister.
But, that marriage was not to endure. Family members recount that one child was born to the couple but died. Later, Nellie Mae divorced John. The next segment of his life seems to be in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Chicago. No mention is made of Nellie Mae in either place. Assuming the end of the marriage in the East, John’s move to Michigan may represent an effort to start life anew, but no record of his time in Michigan other than his being there is at hand. Whatever the case, he appears next in Chicago where he became a devout member of the Salvation Army. There we find the first indications of John Wilcott’s outlook on the world and on people. Frost says, "I do not know if he personally knew Booth or not [William Booth, founded the Salvation Army in London’s East End, never left England. Ballington Booth and Evangeline Cory Booth, William’s son and daughter, spent some time working in America: auth.] but he revered him and his teachings of a ‘World Army’ uniting all peoples and all religions in one. He considered him a Bahá'í before his time."
Apparently, at this time in his life, John Wilcott discovered the Bahá'í Faith. Frost recalls him speaking of that time and referring to a tent. Since his move to Montana was before `Abdu'l-Bahá’s visit to America, this must have had to do with other gatherings of the time. Frost recalls his mentioning old friends of the period such as Thorton Chase, Carl Sheffler, Roy Wilhelm, John Behrens (who would later pioneer to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, at the same time John Wilcott moved to Montana, and with whom John maintained correspondence) and a Mr. Reimer whom, it turns out, was the father of Marguerite Sears, wife of the Hand of the Cause. According to his Bahá'í Historical Record and attached biographical questionnaire, John’s acceptance of the Bahá'í Faith was in July of 1908. He expresses uncertainty as to exactly where since he stated, "either Chicago or Wisconsin." Very likely, he had contact with Bahá'í communities throughout the area. Frost tells us that, "I have an idea that his mother was living in Wisconsin, perhaps with her son and that dad would visit her and interested her in the Faith 100% so that when he decided to go pioneering and homesteading in the west, she was glad to go with him, even tho elderly" [sic]. This marks the beginning of son and mother working together for the Faith. This can be seen later in their move to Montana which they undertook together, presumably at John’s instigation.
Frost goes on to tell us, "It was Racine, Wisconsin, in 1907 that dad was a charter member. I remember a picture that said 1907 so assume that was the date." Racine and Kenosha were Bahá'í communities comprised of primarily working class and middle class people according to Robert Stockman’s history of the period. From that, we may get some approximation of what he was doing in life. Also, the Bahá'ís in America had rebounded from the effects of the defection of Ibrahim Kheiralla who had attempted to appropriate the leadership of the Bahá'ís in the West to himself. Stockman recounts the late part of that decade as a time of stability and some growth for the Chicago and southern Wisconsin area. So, this was a good time for a new Bahá'í to become acquainted with the Faith and Bahá'í community as well as to acquire stalwart personal friends in the Faith.
John Wilcott was quick to be involved in the Faith. Richard Hollinger in his Community Histories
says, "In 1908, at the request of the Chicago House of Spirituality, a Temple committee was appointed, consisting of three men and two women. By August 1908, they had raised about two hundred dollars and had another two hundred in pledges." John Wilcott was listed as one of the members. He continued supporting this effort of the American Bahá'ís long after this as Frost indicates, "He would have us, as children, save our pennies to send to help build the temple..." Hollinger further mentions John as part of one of the supporting families of the Kenosha community, possibly meaning John and his mother, Eliza, as a family.
It is at this point that Frost mentions, "...a letter came from Abdul Baha [sic] stating that he wanted a Bahá'í in every state when he arrived in the United States," and, "Before dad went pioneering, maybe just the year before, he made an extended trip to the west visiting Berkley[sic], Oakland and San Francisco. He was with Mrs. Goodall Cooper, Kathryn Frankland and many others. I think this must have been in 1909. This, naturally helped convince him to pioneer." At this stage, it is useful to consider some other events transpiring in American history that likely had a bearing on John H. Wilcott’s selection of a pioneer post.