Henry & Henrietta Nesbitt

Henrietta Nesbitt (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Victoria Henrietta Kugler (pictured at the White House) was born in Duluth on March 23, 1874. Her parents were Ernest Kugler, born in Germany, and Victoria Kugler, who was born in Hungary. Ernest had come to the United States in 1851 when he was 14 years old. The Kuglers were early residents of Duluth, moving here about 1869. Ernest worked as a butcher, partnered with his brother-in-law Herman Burg. About 1887, he opened a drug store, F.W. Kugler & Co., with his son Frederick W. Kugler, a pharmacist who had been working in St. Paul. The store was located at 127 East Superior Street. Ernest was also elected to the position of City Alderman for the Third Ward, a position he held from 1888 to 1889. The Kuglers lived at 427 East Second Street. Ernest died working in his drug store on July 17, 1903. According to the obituary in the Duluth Herald, he was “one of the oldest, best known and most highly respected citizens of Duluth.”

In addition to Frederick, who was born in Michigan about 1860, the Kuglers had two daughters, Emily, who was born in 1866 in Michigan, and Victoria Henrietta. Emily married William Schupp in Duluth on July 17, 1886, and they were the parents of Emily Schupp, who became famous as an interpretative dancer. Victoria married Henry Nesbitt in Duluth on April 29, 1905.

Henry Nesbitt was born in Ireland in 1866. His family came to the United States in 1886 and settled in Duluth about 1887. His parents were William H. and Louisa Nesbitt. Their children, in addition to Henry, were Thomasina, born in 1869, and Letitia, born in 1871. All three were born in Ireland. Letitia was an elementary school teacher at Emerson School. William worked as a veterinary surgeon in Duluth. The family lived at 1018 East Third Street and later at 124 Tenth Avenue East. William was seriously injured on May 27, 1902, when he was thrown from his buggy at Fifteenth Avenue East and Fourth Street when the horse was startled by a passing car. His injuries resulted in the amputation of his right leg. Due to his advanced age (he was 72), he never fully recovered from the accident. He died from “apoplexy” (probably sudden death after losing consciousness) in his home on April 11, 1905. Louisa died in Duluth on November 20, 1913.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Nesbitt (Victoria began to be identified as Henrietta, her middle name, about this time), lived at 1222 East Second Street. Henry had worked at various jobs. He had been a clerk for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and had sold both real estate and insurance. From 1902 to 1904, he served as private secretary to Duluth Mayor Trevanion W. Hugo. In 1913, Henry ran for mayor of Duluth, but out of ten candidates he finished last with 946 votes. Henry and Henrietta had two sons, Garven Stokes, born on May 30, 1906, in Duluth, and Trevanion Henry Ernest, born on February 19, 1911, in Duluth. About 1919, the Nesbitts left Duluth and moved to her sister Emily’s farm in Stattsburg, New York. They lived there for seven years, until the farm was sold following Emily’s death. About 1927, the Nesbitts moved to Hyde Park, New York. There, Henrietta became involved with a group of residents organizing a branch of the League of Women Voters, and through that group she met Eleanor Roosevelt, a neighbor. They became friends. At that time, Franklin Roosevelt was running for governor of New York. During the campaign, the Roosevelts were doing a lot of entertaining, and they hired Henrietta to provide their baked goods. Even after Franklin became governor and they moved to Albany, Henrietta and Henry continued to bake for them.

When Franklin became President in 1933, the couple asked Henry and Henrietta to work for them in the White House, Henry as chief steward or custodian (responsible for keeping all the accounts) and Henrietta as the chief housekeeper (in charge of all the servants and meals).

Henrietta remained in her job throughout the Roosevelt administration and stayed on for a while after Harry S. Truman became President. She felt very strongly that the White House should set an example for the rest of the country, especially during the depression and World War II, so she tried to get by on less and followed rationing rules. She was often criticized in the press and by White House staff for the meals she served and for her plain cooking, but Eleanor Roosevelt remained loyal to her.

Henry died in Washington on January 6, 1938, at the age of 72. His New York Times obituary calls him “one of the most popular members of the household staff” at the White House. Henrietta eventually left her position after Truman came into office. She remained in Bethesda, Maryland, and wrote two books after she retired—White House Diary, published in 1948, and The Presidential Cookbook: Feeding the Roosevelts and Their Guests, in 1951. She died in Bethesda on June 16, 1963.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.