Jane Renwick Smedburg, Jeanie to close friends and family, was born 22 November 1827 in New York City. No one in her social circle imagined that the sixth child of Charles Gustavus and Isabella, a prominent merchant family, would eventually reside in rural North Carolina. Like many children with a wealthy family background, Jeanie attended a private school, named Miss Rittenhouse’s School, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.
One of her classmates was her cousin, John Wilkes, who the family called “Jack.” Jack and his family moved from New York to Washington, DC in the 1830s. However, the families were very close and Jeanie frequently visited the Wilkes home in Washington. In 1849, while Jack was a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, he and Jeanie began frequent correspondence, eventually leading to their February 1853 engagement. For almost a year, the couple faced an uncertain future while Jack arranged for discharge from the Navy and sought full time employment.
Fortunately, relatives owned the Capps Mine and St. Catherine’s “Stamp” Mill in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they needed a manager. In the fall of 1853, Jack moved to an area outside of Charlotte called St. Catherine’s Mill and made preparations for their new life in North Carolina. After months of hard work getting the mill running and after many home repairs, Jack returned north to collect his beloved Jeanie.
Jack and Jeannie married on 24 April 1854 in the bride’s home and arrived in Charlotte by train on 10 May 1854. The Wilkes quickly became part of Charlotte society. Eight of their nine children were born in or near Charlotte. During the Civil War, Jeanie volunteered at the local hospital, but having three young children during this time prevented her from being more active. Jack supported the southern cause, oversaw the completion of two railroads lines with his brother, Edmund Wilkes, and served in Charlotte’s Home Guard.
Following the war, the Wilkes fell into some financial troubles and buried three of their children. Eventually, the family settled on West Trade Street, and Jack managed the Mecklenburg Iron Works. Devout Episcopalians, Jack served as Warden of St. Peter’s Episcopal until his death, and the couple devoted their time and money to numerous Episcopalian charities.
Many wonder why Jane Wilkes devoted her time and talents to the completion of two hospitals, St. Peter’s for whites and Good Samaritan for black citizens. One possible explanation is that Jeanie grew up in a city with some of the best medical care in the country and lost many close family members. Her letters contain countless stories of friends and family who lost a spouse, a child or other family member. By the time the Church Aid Society organized a fundraiser for a hospital in 1875, four of her nine children, including her oldest, Charlie, were dead. Jeanie never mentions her own personal sorrows in her letters. Instead, she focused on fund raising activities to improve the lives of those without the means to afford medical treatment.
Four years of hard work and fund-raising passed before St. Peter’s Hospital finally had a permanent location at West Poplar and West Sixth Streets. In 1882, Jeanie began raising funds for Good Samaritan, a hospital for black residents. She reached out to her extensive family and numerous friends, many outside of North Carolina. The Episcopal women in Charlotte held fundraisers, as did local children, and the hospital was completed in September 1891. Jeanie also remained active with the hospitals after they opened. Her letters reveal daily trips to one or both hospitals as well as preparing the annual reports for each hospital.
Jeanie’s life was not totally consumed with her hospital work. She and Jack hosted two weddings for their daughters, Rosalie and Agnes, as well as their own fiftieth wedding anniversary. Jack Wilkes eventually turned the Ironworks over to his sons who ran the business until the 1950s. In 1908, Jack died after a short illness. Jeanie outlived not only her husband but also five of her nine children and most of her siblings.
When Jane, “Jeanie,” Wilkes died in January of 1913, Charlotte residents from every class and race came to pay their respects. The Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, the Right Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire, officiated the service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Mourners overflowed the church and spilled outside. Flowers overwhelmed the chancel. Jeanie was interred beside her beloved Jack in Elmwood Cemetery. A small stained-glass window memorialized her at St. Peter’s Church, where it can still be seen today.
Annual Reports of Good Samaritan Hospital, Various Years. Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The Autobiography of Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes,” (Typewritten) Wilkes-Smedberg Papers, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Renwick Smedberg Wilkes, Jane. The History of St. Peter’s Hospital, Charlotte, N.C.: for Thirty Years, from January 1876 to December 1905. (Charlotte, Elam & Dooley), 1906.
Wilkes-Smedberg Family Papers. Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.