Saturday, March 30, 2019

Helen Bigelow Merriman

In a previous post we noted the Bigelow/Merriman barn as a remnant of a past era and an example of adapting to changing times. Now, as part of Women's History Month, we will look at one of the woman behind that barn and so many contributions to Conway and beyond that are often ignored or forgotten.

Helen Bigelow Merriman was a remarkable woman. She was an artist, writer, conservationist and philanthropist. She left an important and lasting legacy in the Mount Washington Valley. As the sole heir of her father's Bigelow carpet company fortune, she had the means to support many causes dear to her heart. She founded Conway's Memorial Hospital in memory of her parents and was key to developing the Worcester Massachusetts Art Museum as well as churches and libraries in several towns.

This painting The painting is signed and dated "Abbott H. Thayer 1890" by Abbott Thayer dated 1890 sold by Skinner in 2015, now in a private collection. she is shown in this portrait holding a paint brush. (Image courtesy of Skinner Inc. For more details see this link). 

Helen wrote several interesting books such as What Shall Make Us Whole?: Or, Thoughts in the Direction of Man's Spiritual and Physical Integrity (1888), The Perfect Lord (1891), Concerning Portraits and Portraiture (1891), and Religio Pictoris (1899). Most of these can now be read on Google Books.

The portrait above of Helen Bigelow Merriman once hung at Conway's Memorial Hospital. This painting from 1908 is now at the Worcester Museum of Art. See this link.

Stonehurst was the family home and is now open to the public as an inn and restaurant. You can find more details on there website here.

It has great outdoor views across the intervale to the ledges and beyond to Mount Washington...

...and a wonderful interior.

Stonehurst has had a great write up in Dr. Tolles book Summer Cottages in the White Mountains (click on images to enlarge them or check it out at the library).

Dr. Bryant Tolles remarks that Stonehurst "is the epitome of the English country estate in New Hampshire's White Mountains" and that "In this region it was the supreme statement of rural elegance..." He adds that "Despite physical alterations and changes in ownership and function over the years, the site conveys much the same impression as it did a century ago, and provides important physical evidence of upper-class summer architecture and life in late-Victorian America."

Monday, March 18, 2019

Big Night and the Indomitable Miss Nute

There is a "big night" coming soon!

Literally, it is called “Big Night” and at its nexus is an interesting connection between art, history, nature and folklore. Let's start with the collected newspaper columns of Helen Elizabeth Nute, a remarkable historian whose life we celebrate as part of March's Women's History Month.

At 458 pages, covering the years 1952 - 1988, this book in the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room covers hundreds of topics and is a real treasure trove.

Helen Elizabeth Nute was born in Conway on October 25, 1897, during Queen Victoria’s “Diamond Jubilee Year.”

David Emerson noted that “From her earliest years, Helen was destined for greatness. If not in anyone else’s mind, certainly in her own.” By 1927, she had earned a master’s degree from Harvard University.

She was a historian, journalist, political activist, feminist, naturalist, conservationist and spent twelve years as a library trustee. A 1980 article in The Irregular, The Mount Washington Valley News stated that Helen Nute is more than historian. Helen Nute is history.

While she made it clear she preferred being called “Miss Nute,” she wrote under the pen name Sally Mander, a word play on her real last name and the amphibian newt. Newts are actually a type of salamander.

Nute and Newt are homophones, two words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings, like plane and plain and two and too and ant and aunt (pronounced like we do in the south, not the north).

The spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) was designated as the official state amphibian of New Hampshire on April 18, 1985 after a two year effort by high school students and Goffstown science teacher Philip Browne. The Union Leader newspaper (April 25, 1985, p. 48) lists the newt as the "perfect symbol for ensuring ecology in New Hampshire as they exist predominantly in the rain and runoff sodden areas heavily affected by acid rain."

Helen was a true lover of nature and knowledge and she enjoyed the linguistic implications of Sally Mander and salamander. There is a lyric in the Genesis song Carpet Crawlers, “salamander scurries into flame to be destroyed...” According to folklore, salamanders have been tied to fire for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that the salamander "gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin." This relationship to fire as well as the shape of a cooking tool used for browning or toasting food such as creme brulee or mac and cheese led to this item being called a salamander.

Over the years the logo for her column changed from a traditional ink well and quill pen ...

...later it changed to a typewriter.

The column title "Inklings" has a couple potential meanings. On one hand it could be a noun and refer to a physically small inked or written bit, like a column or blog.It could also refer to a type of perception or understanding, such as clue, suspicion, hint, glimmer, or vague notion of an idea.

From 1943 to 1945, Helen Nute served in the Woman’s Army Corps as a clerk and educational reconditioning instructor in army hospitals. She raised to the rank of corporal.

She was the only female member of the local American Legion and in March 1980 she received a certificate of merit to express the  Legion's appreciation for her work in establishing the high school oratorical contest (click on image to enlarge and read the text).

Her olive drab uniform, with it's somewhat enigmatic insignia, is now in the collection of the Conway Historical Society.

If you can read and interpret the emblems, ribbons, buttons and heraldry please contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Part of the uniform includes a good conduct medal engraved on the back with her name.

Now what is this about "Big Night" and what does have to do with Helen Nute?

Well it has to do with her interest in nature, especially amphibians, and it also has to do with mud, this will soon be mud season after all. By the way that is geological mud, not political mud  (or will it be both?)

Every spring, the first warm, rainy night facilitates a massive migration of frogs and salamanders leaving their winter hibernation grounds to mate and lay eggs. This is called Big Night. To learn more about this check out some of the books at the Conway Library and/or attend a program on Big Night at the Cook Memorial Library in Tamworth on Wednesday, March 20 at 7pm. Check out this link for details. 

In another seasonally appropriate recollection, Miss Nute was famous for closing the annual Town Meeting for many years. She was known as a stickler for parliamentary rules and procedure and at the end of the meeting she was given the opportunity to stand up and pronounce “In the words of our forebears, I move to dissolve this body.”

Helen Nute died April 10, 1994 at the age of 96. 

If you stories you would be willing to share about the indomitable Miss Nute, or anything related to Conway history please consider sharing them during the filming of an upcoming NH PBS special on Conway Our Hometown. For more information see this previous blog or contact us at the Conway Public Library.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Fanny Abbott Kicks off Women's History Month

This portrait of Fanny Abbott hangs at the Conway Public Library.

A brass plaque attached to the frame indicates it was "presented by William Chase." Notice on the plaque her last name is spelled with only one "T." In most other cases it is spelled with two Ts.

In her left hand she holds a couple flowers indicating the portrait represents Spring.

Her hair is cut in the style that young people wore it around the middle of the nineteenth century.

The 1850 US Census (available through the Conway Public Library's subscription to the Ancestry database) lists her at 2 years old and indicates that she was born about 1848 in Conway. She lived with her father Hiram C. Abbott, mother Laura A. Abbott and ten month old sister Ann M. Abbott. Her father was listed as a merchant.

Our 1860 map shows the location of their house and store next door to the west - look for the name H.C. Abbott near the four corner intersection (click on image to enlarge it).

The pink necklace around her neck was probably made of coral. Since ancient Roman times, coral has been thought to protect children against danger.

Over her right shoulder a purple velvet curtain has been drawn back to reveal the landscape outside the window. While the scene cannot be precisely identified, it certainly has the appearance of Conway's combined agricultural and industrial landscape with its low lying surrounding hills. This landscape can be seen in a number of images around the library including the ones discussed in previous blogs here and here.

The 1850 US Census noted above indicates that her neighbors were listed as "mechanic" or "merchant" or "farmers." One neighbor was listed as a "harness maker."

The arm chair she is sitting in is draped over with a a decorative fabric with the floral design and colors known as palampore usually from India. 

Her pleated dress has sleeves finished with tatted lace edging.

Throughout this month we will explore the archives of the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room to bring more about women's history out from the shadows.