The Unvarnished Truth About the Varney Sisters

Varney MonumentViola (Varney) Phipps (1840-1913) and Laura (Varney) Strout (1845-1893) were born at the beginning of the Victorian era, when a middle or upper class woman was expected to stay at home, tending the needs of her husband and children. Viola and Laura, though, chose to live on their own terms.

The daughters of Jotham (1803-1879) and Mary Jane (Robertson) Varney (1807-1894), they had 3 older brothers, John (1831-1833), Lincoln (1833-1908), and Edwin (1836-1909). Their father was a farmer and master cooper who was interested in a wide variety of academic pursuits and probably encouraged his children to develop their own minds, as well.

Viola cropped unmarried Massachusetts, State Census, 1865 for David PhippsThe year the Civil War ended, Viola was 25-years-old and still single. Most women her age were already married and starting families. Viola, though, had moved herself from the family home at 200 Maine St. to the city of Boston. There she purchased a dwelling. But, instead of a small cottage suitable for a woman living alone, she bought a boarding house. Twenty-six men and women rented rooms from her. One of those roomers was David W. Phipps (1837-aft1930), a painter from Plymouth, Maine. On New Year’s Day in 1866, he and Viola married.

At a time when women were encouraged to be meek and mild, Viola seemed to be a leader in her family. When younger sister, Laura, married Horace Strout of Durham (1845-aft1910), the newlyweds followed Viola to Boston. Not long after, Jotham Varney, the women’s father, followed Viola’s lead and built his own boarding house at 206 Maine St.

In 1870 Boston, the Viola Phipps’ household seemed to thrive. David was still a painter; Viola was still “keeping house.” Of course, she wasn’t “keeping house” for just the two of them. A grandniece wrote, “Vi let out apartments in Boston and got good money.” Indeed she did. Census records listed the value of David’s real estate as $600. Viola’s personal estate (everything other than real estate) was more than triple that, at $2000. Clearly, Viola was an astute businesswoman.

206 Maine, 200 Maine, Corner Maine & Elm

206 Maine, 200 Maine, Corner Maine & Elm

Another family member wrote, “Violet [sic] couldn’t stand Boston…” and David “…hated Brunswick so they parted.” Either separated or divorced, Viola returned to Brunswick in 1879, the year her father died, and bought the property on the corner of Maine and Elm Sts. next to her parents.

Laura once again followed her sister. By 1880 Laura and her 10-year-old son, Leon, had left Massachusetts and returned to the Varney family home in Brunswick, next door to Viola. The Strouts divorced two years later with Leon remaining in his mother’s custody. Horace had already moved on — 10 years later he lived in New York with his second wife (from Maine), their 11-year-old son, and 7-year-old daughter. After Laura’s divorce, the two sisters shared a once-in-a-lifetime European tour, paid for by Viola. After their return, Laura moved to Waltham, Mass., where her son was an up-and-coming photographer. She supported herself by working in a shoe shop and died in Waltham at the relatively young age of 48, from carcinoma. She had divorced a husband when that wasn’t the done thing, then supported herself and her son in a manner than allowed him to achieve acclaim in his chosen field of photography.

For nearly 50 years Viola astutely managed properties that she purchased or inherited, either selling or renting them as she saw fit. She outlived her parents and all her siblings. When she died in 1913 at age 73, her will distributed her considerable assets as she directed. She left her only nephew, Leon, the use of 200 Maine St. She also endowed the Mary J. Varney Fund, in honor of her mother, to support the Pejepscot Historical Society.

Varney Cemetery Scenic 2013Today her most visible legacy is Varney Cemetery on Pine St., the family’s privately owned cemetery. Viola’s last act was to leave the cemetery in the trust of the lot holders for use by the people of Brunswick.

Though we think of the Victorian era as a time when women had little power over their own lives, Viola and Laura worked, married and divorced, traveled, and conducted business. They led the way into the modern era.

And that is the unvarnished truth about the Varney sisters.


  • David Phipps married a second time, to another Maine woman, in 1890 and lived in Seattle, Washington, until at least 1930.
  • Leon B. Strout was a noted landscape photographer whose are in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After WWI he completed assignments in France for the U.S. government.



About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
This entry was posted in Brunswick History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Unvarnished Truth About the Varney Sisters

  1. Deb Gould says:

    That’s all pretty interesting! I guess I should give a quiet thanks to Viola every day when I walk through her cemetery!

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