‘Miss Nelly’ seen in wildflowers, birds

By Regina Villiers. Originally published October 8, 1997 in the Suburban Life, added November 15, 2015

Pictures of Nelle Hosbrook are almost non-existent. This one, as she walked in front of Madeira's library, was provided by Drucilla Bain.

Pictures of Nelle Hosbrook are almost non-existent. This one, as she walked in front of Madeira’s library, was provided by Drucilla Bain.


Whenever conversation shifts to Madeira history or stories of the “old days,” the name, Nelle Hosbrook, or “Miss Nelly,” is usually the first one dropped.  Even people too young, or too recent, to remember her, have heard her name.  She’s a legend around Madeira.

A few weeks ago, Dorothy Miller wrote to suggest that I write about Miss Nelle.  Dorothy wrote that Miss Nelle was a “dear, sweet, sincere person” and that she thought a good story could be written about her.

I have written about Miss Nelle and her bird sanctuary before, both here and in Ohio Magazine, but her stories could stand repeating.

Nelle Hosbrook could trace her lineage back to the first settlers in Madeira.  Her grandfather, John L. Hosbrook, was the grandson of the first John Hosbrook, the first settler in Madeira.  Her parents were John Asaph and Clara Fowler Hosbrook.

Miss Nelle lived in her entire life, almost a century, in a small, yellow house, built by her father.  It stands there still- a bare block from the business district, next door to the firehouse, and across the street from the library.

Miss Nelle was a music teacher and a librarian.  She was Madeira’s first librarian in a library established in 1930 in a room at the elementary school.  Then it moved to a room in the back corner of Bauer’s Store on the northeast corner of Miami and Euclid.

It’s unclear what title she’d like to be remembered by, but most people remember her as a music teacher.  It’s like the “George Washington slept here” claims, or in modern times, the “Elvis touched me” stories.

Nearly every older person I’ve ever met in Madeira has told me:  “I took piano lessons from Miss Nelle.”  The names are too numerous to mention.

Since it has been more than 22 years since she died, the stories about her have mellowed.  People remember her, as did Dorothy Miller, as a “dear, sweet, sincere person.”

Wanda Gardner, who knew her well, falls into that group.  Wanda’s husband, Emory, was related to Miss Nelle.

“She was a good-hearted person,” Wanda said.  “She’d walk to our house on Maple Avenue, always bringing gifts.”

The Gardners would take her for Sunday outings.  Wanda remembers her as a tea-drinker.  She always had the teakettle on, and then she’d forget to turn it off.

“She burned up more teakettles,” Wanda said.

My favorite stories about her are the other ones- those showing her to be a peppery, spunky, independent, eccentric woman who did as she pleased and said what she thought, to the point of bluntness.

She was and educated woman who never stopped learning.  In her 80’s she went to school to learn to type, and even later, to learn “new math.”

She was an inquisitive woman who stayed interested in world news as long as she lived.  She would drop in, almost every day, at the gift shop of good friends, Brownie and Helen Morgan, to discuss the news and the day’s issues.

Brownie recalled that in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, when she was at least 90 years old, she asked them: “Do you think that all the social and behavioral problems we’re having in the world today are sex-related?”

Fiercely independent, she wanted to do everything for herself.  In her later years, she was forced to get a cleaning woman.

“I despise it,” she complained to friends.  “I can’t find anything because she puts it where it’s supposed to be.”

There are all the stories showing her to be slightly eccentric, as were many of the Hosbrooks.

She once would not allow the mailman to come on her porch for weeks, while a Carolina wren nested in her mailbox.

She loved cats and always had cats around her.  One of her cats, a female tiger named Tabby, hated men.  If a man tried to enter Miss Nelle’s house, Tabby would hiss and spit, attacking the offending male around the legs.

Miss Nelle never drove or owned a car.  She rode the train, or she walked, everywhere she went.  She was a familiar sight on the streets of Madeira, a small woman with a basket on her arm, walking home with her groceries.

She loved the woods surrounding her house.  She knew every wildflower, and she talked to the birds.

I have it on good authority that they never talked back.

“They wouldn’t have dared,” a friend said.  “Nobody talked back to Miss Nelle.”

She walked her woods daily, a wispy woman, carrying a cup of tea and a long, pointed stick, a cat companion trailing at her heels.  She used the stick to skewer any stray piece of tossed paper or trash that defiled her beloved woods.

When it became apparent to her that she couldn’t take her woods with her, she took legal steps to ensure that her trees wouldn’t be whacked down, or her land turned into a superstore.

She willed her woods to Madeira, stipulating that they become a bird sanctuary.

She died March 12, 1975.  She would have been infuriated that the local paper printed her age – 96.  “Age is something I never discuss,” she once told someone brash enough to ask.

In her later years, Madeira friends and neighbors took care of Miss Nelle.  In return, she left them a legacy too valuable for a price tag – the scent of wildflowers and the singing of birds.