The two diminutive white-haired women sat side by side in their rocking chairs, wearing black lace caps and silk ‘kerchiefs draped around their necks. The date was February 15, 1893, their 91st birthday. They were dressed in their finery to chat with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. At the time, they were thought to be the oldest twins in the world.
Born in upstate New York in 1802, Christiana Churchill Christian and Lurania Churchill Ackerman uprooted to Illinois in the 1830s, along with their parents Winslow and Mercy Dodge Churchill and a large clan of siblings, nieces, nephews and children. The Churchills were the first family to settle in the area that would later become Glen Ellyn.
“I sat in this rocking chair, up in the wagon, all those long and tedious weeks,” said Lurania of the arduous journey, patting the straight-back rush-bottom rocker on which she sat. Lurania was accompanied on the trip by her husband John D. Ackerman and their three children. Christiana, whose first husband had passed away 11 months after their marriage, came to Illinois with her son Erastus Ketchum. [See “‘Old Ketch’: a Colorful Character in Glen Ellyn History,” on page 6.]
The two women, memories still intact, talked about some of the hardships of growing up in the early 1800s. Christiana recalled how she walked to school barefoot as an 8-year-old child, with just stockings to cover her feet, because the traveling shoemaker had yet to pay a visit to town. “We had very little schooling, the schools being poor, and the nearest one two miles away,” she said. Soon after arriving here, Lurania and her husband allowed school classes to be conducted in their home while the first log schoolhouse was being built.
After coming to Illinois, the twin sisters lived on adjoining farms near the East Branch of the DuPage River for 50 years. However, they were described as “unalike in disposition” and “opposites in the matter of dress.” One fashion trend Christiana particularly despised was the hoop skirt. “Hoops!” she said with contempt. “Yes, I wore them–I was such a fool. I’ve been reading in the papers about the legislature passing a law against the wearing of them, and I’m glad of it.”
Although frail in appearance, the ladies displayed a spirited sense of humor throughout the interview, as they shared their wry observations about life in the 1800s. When asked to reflect on the boys of that period, Christiana commented: “O, I guess boys were about the same then as now–they liked to be where the girls were.” Lurania was equally succinct in summing up the people of “present day” (1893) Glen Ellyn: “I think folks are smart and like to dress, and they have a little of everything.”
Lurania passed away a month after the birthday celebration, but Christiana lived to the age of 97 (dying in 1899) and was still active at 94. The average life expectancy of people born in the United States in 1850 was 39, according to the earliest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.