During this Women’s History Month, it is perhaps fitting to learn a bit about one of Davidson’s great female eccentrics. Louise Withers Sloan, fondly referred to as “Miss Louise,” was born in 1891 to local businessman and longtime mayor James Lee Sloan and his wife, Ida Withers Sloan. Their home, which is still standing, is located at 230 South Main Street, next to the current town hall, and she lived there until 1982, when she relocated to Virginia to be near her niece, Ida Withers Currie.
“Miss Louise” was very well educated for a woman of her era. She graduated from Peace College (now William Peace University) in Raleigh in 1911. In late January 1916, the Davidsonian noted that she had just traveled to Baltimore to enroll at Johns Hopkins University. She later attended Duke University, where in 1928 her freshman yearbook noted that “all have discovered her to be most conscientious, always ambitious to make the most of her work. No one can say that she failed at any time to prepare her class assignments. Steadfast and true, she has all the characteristics of a successful teacher.”
Miss Louise never married, but an interesting 1915 letter was found in her home after she moved to Virginia. In it, William H. Richardson, city editor of the Raleigh Times, wrote asking if she missed him and asking her if she would marry him “when I get things in shape and prove that I can save and invest.” They never married, but apparently remained friends.
Although Miss Louise was wealthy, having inherited all of her father’s commercial buildings and rented them out, around Davidson she was best known for her extreme parsimony. To save on heat, she spent her days in the Davidson College library, where she devoured newspapers and magazines. According to William E. Thompson, who delivered the eulogy at Miss Louise’s memorial service, “She was there, almost like the woodwork, every single day the library was open. I don’t suppose Miss Louise ever knowingly subscribed to any magazine or newspaper in her life, so long as she could read them free in the library!”
Her house was full of papers and twigs that she gathered around town to heat the house at night. She didn’t install indoor plumbing until the town insisted on it. According to Mary Fetter Stough, she wandered the town in fifty-year-old clothes, picking things up—even at night, when she pilfered items from trash cans. She enjoyed going to the movies, which were almost across Main Street from her home, but only after the ticket-taker had left at 9:30 p.m. Miss Louise left her beloved Davidson for Arlington, Virginia, in 1982, and died there ten years later at the age of 100.
While planning her memorial service, Miss Louise asked William Thompson not to focus on her eccentric reputation. She told him “I want the theme of my funeral service to be that it is my Homecoming. I used to enjoy the Homecoming weekends at Davidson so much, when so many acquaintances came back and when everything in our little town was so festive. That’s the way I want people to remember me at my service – that it’s a festive Homecoming where old friends and family members gather…don’t you dare make mine a morbid service.”
But according to Thompson, “Louise was not much on the formalities of faith and church.” She asked him not to talk much about the church during her memorial: “I never had much use for the church, although the church people were truly my friends…I never got any comfort at all out of going to church, except to see my friends there… I was taught that the greatest thing in the world was to do your duty as God assigned it, and that’s the way I lived my life.”
Rather ironically, she did not always avoid the church. She often appeared at weddings at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church, even when she was not invited. Indeed, it was considered an insult if she didn’t crash your wedding. And as she left the reception, she departed with a purse full of goodies to eat when she got home. Despite her many eccentricities, Louise Withers Sloan was remembered, in the words of historian Mary Beaty, as “something of a landmark herself, one of Davidson’s human institutions, a southern gentlewoman of soft features and incisive mind.”
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.