In honor of Women’s History Month, today’s column is a revised and expanded piece that first appeared in 2012. The subject is Florence Watts, who made major contributions to cultural and educational institutions in Vincennes, winning praise for her work as an amateur historian. Watts turned her considerable energies toward making her adopted city a better place to live.
Florence Goold was born in Chicago on October 31, 1887, to John E. and Jane Everett Goold. She attended Wendell Phillips High School at Chicago from 1902-1906, graduating as valedictorian. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and went on to do graduate work at the University of Chicago. She would embark on a career as a teacher, teaching both French and dancing.
While visiting a friend in Vincennes, she met Harry Temple Watts, who at the time was city engineer and would go on to become superintendent of the Vincennes Water Supply Company. Friendship turned to romance, and the couple married in Chicago on Nov. 9, 1917. After a honeymoon, they made their home in Vincennes. One child, Harry Temple Watts, Jr., was born to them on Aug. 13, 1919.
Florence Watts quickly became active in the community. She was a diminutive woman, with lots of enthusiasm, described as having a quick, clipped manner of speech. Watts would serve as head of two exclusive women’s organizations. From 1928-1929 she was President of the Vincennes Fortnightly Club. It was in 1928 that the Fortnightly’s elegant clubhouse was constructed at Sixth and Seminary streets, and she did much to help bring that project to fruition.
From August 1943-June 1944, she held the position of Regent of the Francis Vigo Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution. In that capacity, she worked tirelessly for the betterment of Grouseland.
Mrs. Watts had a love of history and proved to be a skilled historian. This passion was spurred in part by her husband, who had a reputation as an outstanding local historian.
In 1932, she was among those who helped establish a museum in the old City Hall at Fourth and Main streets. She would not only serve on the board of the Indiana Historical Society, but she had the distinction of becoming the society’s first woman president. She was elected president in late 1951 and held the position until 1954. She also published articles in the society’s quarterly “The Indiana Magazine of History.” Her pieces were of local interest, such as a March 1966 article titled “Fort Knox: Frontier Outpost on the Wabash, 1787-1816.”
Mrs. Watts contributed much of her time and resources to Vincennes University. Harry Watts died of cancer on Jan. 5, 1932, at the age of 56. Following her husband’s death, she established a scholarship in his name. She joined the VU Board of Trustees in 1950 and would serve 20 years on the board acting as board secretary. In 1958, The VU Home Economics Building (now the home of the Francis Vigo Chapter NSDAR) was named Florence Hall in honor of Mrs. Watts.
She became known for her philanthropic pursuits, playing a role in the annual Good Fellows Fund, sponsored by the “Sun-Commercial,” to give children at the Knox County Orphanage gifts at Christmastime.
Florence Watts was a dedicated member of St. James Episcopal Church and was generous in her gifts to the church.
She also had a love of gardening. Her home at 1222 Audubon Road had a lovely garden that she tended. In a 1947 profile published in the “Sun-Commercial,” she was asked to name her favorite flower, to which she responded: “I like narcissi because they’re early, chrysanthemums because they’re late—and everything in between.”
Florence Watts died in Crestview Nursing Home on June 20, 1970, at the age of 82.
The Vincennes Sun-Commercial had this to say about her at the time of her passing: “Mrs. Watts was a person of great energy, large vision, and concern for the total development of her community.”
She was survived by her son. Burial was in Greenlawn Cemetery.
The Knox County Public Library’s McGrady-Brockman House now houses Florence Watts’ papers.
Brian Spangle can be reached at [email protected] His new book, “Lost Vincennes,” will be released by The History Press on April 10.