Olivia Rodham Library

Excerpts from: A History of Nelson by Parke Hardy Struthers and Olivia Rodham by Robbins Milbank.
Newsletter, Chesham, Harrisville, Munsonville & Nelson, New Hampshire
February 1982

Olivia Rodham, a Quaker, was born in 1845 near Belaire, Hurford County, Maryland, daughter of William and Rachel Rodham. There she grew up, and when her mother and sister died shortly after the Civil War, she assumed the responsibility of looking after her father. At the age of thirty-five, a growing estrangement let her to leave the farm. Abruptly, at night, penniless, she walked to a neighbors.  Her search for work took her to Swarthmore College where she was appointed Assistant Librarian, a post she held six years. At this time she also served as an assistant in the botanical laboratory. In 1887, she became Acting Librarian. In 1888, she resigned to study Botany in Berlin. She returned to America in 1891. Swarthmore awarded her an honorary B.A. degree.

Olivia Rodham at the front door of her cabin, early 1900s

In 1891 she bought the Collins place on Lead Mine Road in Nelson, New Hampshire. Her barn there, itself, stood as mute witness to Miss Rodham’s influence. She cleaned it, shored it up, shingled it, converted it to bedrooms above the original stalls, tucked her library in one end, saw it furnished over the years by the Dolley family with wicker thrones from the Philippines, forty-gallon pottery jars from Damascus, straw mats from Mexico, poison spears from the south seas, Indian blankets from the Southwest, sheep-skin rugs from New Zealand, a loud, tuneless piano, a vast painting of the “Horse Fair” (copy) by Rosa Bonheur, prolific sketches by all three Dolley children. It was a large barn, seventy-five feet long, and crowded.

On a map prepared in 1904 by Samuel Wadsworth of Keene, entitled “Pennsylvania Settlement and Surrounding Lands in Nelson, Harrisville and Roxbury,” are the names of six persons who bought land in Nelson because of Miss Rodham’s presence there. They are: Miss Margaret Redmond, noted painter and artist of stained glass; Professor and Mrs. J. Duncan Spaeth, she a painter, he a leading authority on Old English and Shakespeare; Dr. And Mrs. Charles Dolley, perhaps Miss Rodham’s oldest friends from Swarthmore days; Professor and Mrs. Henry W. Rolf, he too, a Shakespearian scholar; Dr. And Mrs. Seneca Egbert of Philadelphia; Dr. And Mrs. Thomas Montgomery Lightfoot, Philadelphia teacher and naturalist with doctorates in six fields of the natural sciences. Each was brought to Nelson by common affection and respect for Miss Rodham.

Olivia Rodham homestead, early 1900s

The magic of Miss Rodham’s person touched others, some who came to visit, some who lived along the roads of the village. Among visitors, most frequent was Homer St. Gaudens, son of the sculptor Augustus, and himself talented as an actor and stage director of Maude Adams’ plays. His wife, Carlota, was the daughter of the Charles Dolleys.

Shortly after she died in 1920, her friend and neighbor, Mrs. William Elliot, conceived and carried through a plan to build a library in Nelson to house the books Miss Rodham loved and to help pass on to future generations some understanding and knowledge of Miss Rodham herself, her rare, indestructible beauty of face, mind and character. Many people responded.  Among them were Mr. Henry Melville who donated the land, Mr. Alexander F. Law who was the architect, and Mr. Homer Priest who built the Library.

The original Olivia Rodham Memorial Library

The laying of the cornerstone of the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library occurred, September 1, 1925. Featured in the exercises was a sketch of Olivia Rodham’s life by a friend, Professor Henry Rolfe, and prayer appropriate to the occasion, by Rev. Millard Hardy, pastor of the Congregational Church. The cornerstone was laid by Mrs. William H. Elliott. It contains a photograph of Olivia Rodham, a copy of “The Sentinel,” containing an account of her life, coins and postage stamps, et cetera.

The beautiful carved dedicatory tablet was presented by Alexander and Mrs. Rosmond E. Law. It bears a favorite quotation of Miss Redmond’s: “Silence waits within the gate and peace beside the door.” Thus was put together a home for her books, a repository for some of her letters.

The following summer, Miss Redmond, presented in her memory two exquisite stained glass windows depicting scenes from Tennyson’s “The Idylls of the Kings.” A portrait of Olivia Rodham by Margaret Redmond has been presented to the library by Miss Helen Burns.

The origin of the Nelson Library began in 1824, with a Literary Society composed of thirty-two young men. In the early days of the “Picnic” gatherings, J. Monroe Robbins of Cambridge, Mass., a Nelson boy, said he would give $100 if a like sum could be raised for a Public Library. The amount was raised, and a committee appointed with Mrs. Frank Jewett as one of its members. The Library was first located in Charles Atwood’s Store with Mrs. Lydia Atwood as Librarian. After Mr. Atwood’s death, in 1882, it was moved into two small cupboards in Lydia’s kitchen. When Homer Priest owned the Store the books went back to the store shelves. About a year and a half (later) the store burned, but through the heroic efforts of Mrs. Melville and a few others, most of the library was saved and moved to the small room in the Town Hall. Mrs. Delia Osgood became the librarian, serving for many years. The Town of Nelson voted a small sum each year for books. Through the years there have been many generous gifts.

Librarians who followed Mrs. Delia Osgood were Ida Holbrook, 1926-1934; Delia Farwell, 1934-1944; Alice Sharples, 1944-1960.

In the spring of 1961, Miss Myra Hardy became the librarian, Mrs. Donald Bennett, assistant librarian. The library was thoroughly renovated and old books discarded and sold. A new furnace was installed. A children’s alcove was arranged, to which souvenirs from our own and other countries added much interest.

Our present librarian, Patty Packard, started July 1, 1972. To her credit many additions, and changes have been made.

In 1973: Library hours increased from 4 to 8 hours a week. Friends of Olivia Rodham Memorial Library was organized, and were helpful in raising money for books and other needs of the library. The Library began taking books to the Munsonville School and Patty began teaching sixth graders there a library course to prepare them for Junior High School. Summer reading programs were also begun.

In 1974: Friends of the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library purchased a film strip projector, record players, and cassette players for the “Adventure Time” project. This “Adventure Time” was held every Monday afternoon for the children. This is now the “Story Time” which is held every other Monday after school. Film programs were introduced for the adults and held one Wednesday night a month. Films were obtained from the State Library in Concord. The interior of the library was painted, new shelving and new carpet were given by the Friends of the Library.

1975: An Open House was given to dedicate the new interior. Robbins Milbank and Elizabeth Yates McGreal spoke, 46 attended. A Certificate of Merit was received for meeting State requirements.

In 1977: Money was given to purchase recordings and cassettes. Over the years a complete inventory has been taken and the card catalog is up to date.

In 1980: The new 1980 encyclopedia World Book was purchased by the “Friends,” the Childcraft Books were purchased by the library. Hours were again extended from 8 to 10 hours per week.

Patty has also contributed a special touch of her own to Nelson and many surrounding community libraries, to the delight of the children, with original stories complete with photos of her own creation.