Most Hamburg moviegoers will certainly recognize these photographs of the much acclaimed star of the stage and screen, but few probably realize that she had significant family ties to the Town of Hamburg.
The story that follows was provided by long-time local Hamburg resident and history buff, Ed Beck.
Appropriately, another story on a town resident with ties to the theater, Mr. George Abbott, will be featured in this column next week. Research again was by Mr. Beck.
Whether you’re a baby boomer or one of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” the name Katherine Houghton Hepburn probably brings to mine one or more of her movies, or her long love affair with the never divorced actor, Spencer Tracy.
Perhaps it’s her earning four Oscars, or the celebrated obsession she had with privacy, or her classy rejection of living the life of the Hollywood star system.
Maybe it’s Martin Short’s trembly-voiced imitation of the elderly Hepburn on “Saturday Night Live,” the classic “African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart; or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” or “On Golden Pond” – okay, so the point’s been made.
She made her mark in the world by performing on stage and in movies and was active to the near end, living life for nearly one hundred years.
However, few (if any) might have listed Hepburn’s family tie to Hamburg, which predates her 1907 birth by a number of years. But real nonetheless, we can best guess that Katherine grew up hearing her mother’s reminiscences of her own Western New York childhood.
The link relates to her mother’s parents and Hepburn’s grandparents, the Alfred Houghtons. Hepburn’s mother was born and raised in Buffalo, and they “summered” each year along the Hamburg shore.
Like many of Buffalo’s well-heeled families, the Houghtons had an impressive vacation home where they escaped the heat and unhealthy air of the growing city.
“The Farm,” as their 7-acre shoreline retreat was called, was located in Athol Spring and was purchased by Hepburn’s grandfather, Alfred.
His sister, Nellie Houghton Abbott, also spent summers in nearby Cloverbank with her husband, George Abbott.
This purchase created an enlarged family vacation destination in the Town of Hamburg.
Until it was sold upon Alfred’s death, The Farm and Lake Erie provided several years of good times for the Houghton cousins, children who would become Katherine Hepburn’s aunts and uncles, and among them, of course, would have been her very young mother, who lived in Buffalo.
Despite the good fortune created by their business, the world-famous Corning Glass Company, Alfred was the victim of repeated bouts of severe depression.
After an apparent masquerade of improved spirits during an October country ride with his sister Nellie, Houghton made off on his own along a remote stretch of railroad tracks, somewhere near Corning, and ended his life.
His sister reported that Alfred must have had the revolver hidden in his coat during their deceptively upbeat carriage ride, since she had suspected nothing so sinister.
According to the wishes of his widow, Caroline Houghton, Alfred was buried in Hamburg’s Prospect Lawn Cemetery.
Sadly enough, some two years later, on Sept. 2, 1894, despite the valiant efforts of her Buffalo physician, Dr. Roswell Park, Caroline died and soon joined her husband in death in the southwest corner of Prospect Lawn.
The cause was abdominal cancer, with final preparations for her funeral and burial conducted by the W.L. Froehley Funeral Home, 84 Lake St., in the nearby Village of Hamburg.
The young Caroline Houghton left behind three daughters, the eldest was Katherine Martha, the mother of the famous actress. Photos– histoiran files
This column was written by Ed Beck, with an introduction by Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker.
Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call the historian’s office in the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at 649-6111 ext. 2400.
Readers can also provide feedback by writing to The Sun and mailing it to The Sun, 141 Buffalo St., Hamburg, NY 14075.