TAMPA — She kept the letters under her bed and forbade her children from going through them.
But from time to time, Cordelia Bryant McIlwain showed her children some of the memorabilia dating to the 17th century. Much of the material comes from the Civil War, in which her grandfather and two great-uncles fought for the Confederacy.
Locks of hair. Fabric from a party dress. An 1898 news clipping, announcing the peace treaty in the Spanish-American War.
The letters remained private, even though their authors were long dead.
"They were all very personal. She would only bring them out on occasion," said James McIlwain, 70, who described his mother as a "grand Southern matriarch."
Cordelia Bryant grew up in Welaka, Fla., a town her ancestors helped found, and Miami. She graduated from Florida Southern College, where peers named her the first "Miss Southern" in 1930, an award recognizing all-round excellence. She met Eddie McIlwain while a student and married him.
She helped her husband run a book and greeting card store, and continued to trace her family's genealogy through old Bibles and charts. The Bryant and Stephens descendents, linked by marriage, held reunions every year, studying a family tree on two large posters.
Of all the family members of Winston Stephens, a Confederate soldier, and his wife, Octavia Bryant Stephens, few if any threw away letters. As Mrs. McIlwain, Octavia Bryant Stephens' great-niece, protected her boxes of memorabilia, another relative, Winston Stephens Jr., was doing the same with 863 letters and 33 diaries from the Civil War, which he donated in 1975 to the University of Florida's P.K. Yonge Library.
Mrs. McIlwain gave the library her boxes a few years later. The Stephens-Bryant Family Papers constitute one of the largest collections in existence involving Floridians in the Civil War. Mrs. McIlwain's contribution amounts to about one-third of the collection, said Ann Lainhart, a genealogist and great-granddaughter of Winston Stephens.
Lainhart, who lives in Massachusetts, interviewed Mrs. McIlwain several times while researching a book, Rose Cottage Chronicles: Civil War Letters of the Bryant-Stephens Families of North Florida.
"She was so proud of the family and the fact that (her family history) was all becoming known," said Lainhart, 59. "Maybe that's why she was so possessive of the material, so that it wouldn't in any way be harmed or destroyed."
Historians appreciate the effort.
"In terms of the Civil War, it's particularly good just talking about the home front in Florida, and what was going on in Florida during the war years," said librarian Jim Cusick, who handles special collections at the P.K. Yonge library.
The letters offer glimpses into what Confederate soldiers and their families were saying about taxes, slavery or the increased role of women in keeping plantations running.
"It kind of helps put the Civil War in northeast Florida in context from a micro-social point of view," said curator Bruce Graetz of the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee, where a dress uniform of Winston Stephens hangs behind glass.
Eddie McIlwain died in 1993. In recent years, Mrs. McIlwain had been living at John Knox Village, a retirement community. She drove a car and played golf until a couple of years ago.
Mrs. McIlwain died Aug. 28. She was 97.
"It's very nice when family members are generous in sharing their part of family history," said Graetz, "particularly when it ties into a much larger event like the Civil War."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.