People & Events
The central person in George Eastman's life, without a doubt, was his mother. She was born Maria Kilbourn on August 22, 1821, on a farm on Paris Hill, between Waterville and Utica, New York. The youngest of seven, she grew up knowing a rural, self-reliant life. Her religious leanings were Calvinist and moderate, her social life next to non-existent. On September 25, 1844, at the spinsterly age of 23, she married George Washington Eastman in Kingsville, New York, and they soon moved to the relatively bustling city of Rochester.
G. W. Eastman taught bookkeeping and was an author of such titles as "Fulton and Eastman's Bookkeeping, Single and Double Entry," and the "Complete System of Penmanship." These pursuits were not enough to put bread on the table, however, and the Eastmans were compelled to move back to Waterville, where he took a second job while still maintaining his school in Rochester. The young George Eastman, born on July 12, 1854, was thus raised mostly by his mother, as his father spent half the year in Rochester on business.
To these difficulties fate conspired to add the pall of mortality. G. W. died when his son George was only eight. Georges sister Katie, who suffered from polio, followed in 1870. Struck with poverty, Maria began taking in boarders, one of whom, Henry Strong, would later become a leading player in the Eastman company. Doubtless, these circumstances brought Maria Eastman and her son George uncommonly close together when he was still quite young. As George Eastman began to experience success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him. She did not make this easy, however. Long accustomed to doing without, she went shopping with him only under vigorous protest. If he bought a fur coat for himself, she would make a point of choosing a cloth coat with fur trim. He once did everything short of beg her to make a trip to the dressmaker for new clothes.
George knew that his mother would show the same resistance when he decided it was time to buy her a new house. Rather than enter into a protracted debate, then, he simply purchased a 15-room house for her on Arnold Park, in Rochester's fashionable East Avenue district, then went off to Europe on business.
Maria had no choice but to move in, but she didn't have to like it. Her son sent back telegrams and letters from Europe detailing his adventures. He had attended to the Royal Lyceum Theater and met with famous architects. He had met the famous Nadar, a balloonist and photography pioneer who had once started an "aerialist" society with novelist Jules Verne.To these reports, Maria responded with complaints about the wallpaper, the plumbing, the heating. When George tried to tease her or offer reassurances, she became slow to respond to his letters. Finally, just before returning home, he wrote "I am afraid you are worrying yourself sick."
His fears were prophetic. Not long after he returned to Rochester, they received word that Maria was suffering from uterine cancer. An operation was performed, successfully, but her recovery was slow, and George's became more devoted to her than ever.
By the turn of the century, Maria Eastman was perhaps the happiest she had ever been. Lavished by her millionaire son, she became almost jaunty and was quick to reassure him that everything would be all right even if his various business "schemes" fell through. When he went away on business, she was a familiar presence around Kodak Park, where she kept a well-attended bed of flowers in the engine room. Only in the last two years of her life was she completely confined to a wheelchair.
The death of one's mother is always a cataclysmic event, but Maria's passing on June 16, 1907, was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself unable for the first time to control his emotions in the presence of friends. "When my mother died I cried all day," he explained later. "I could not have stopped to save my life."
Of course, Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime, and so it was after she was gone: When he opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester on September 4, 1922, among its features was a chamber-music hall dedicated to her memory: the Kilbourn Theater. And long after that, a rose cutting from her childhood home still flowered on the grounds of the Eastman House.
written by David Lindsay