Our Write Wing: The Authors of Nelson, Part I

Henry Putzel, Jr.
From Grapevine-2, February 1992.

“There’s gold in them thar hills,” the ever hopeful western prospector used to say. But the only ore in the hills hereabouts was “lead” (which was really graphite), and the two so-called lead mines in Nelson have long since ceased operating. In our hills, however, there runs another kind of rich vein, and that is the writings of various Nelson authors. Some are native Nelsonites; some are “summer folk.” Some are still around, some have moved away, and some have passed on. This will be a brief and by no means complete survey of the books that they have written.  Some of these were issued by big-name publishing houses; some by local presses. Some are out of print; other not. Many, but not all, of the books mentioned herein are in the Olivia Rodham Library. Book listings below are not necessarily in chronological order.

We start off this rather random account with Parke Sturthers’s A History of Nelson, New Hampshire. Parke was a zoology professor at Syracuse University. His Nelson antecedents went back many generations. He and his wife Mildred were the parents of Jane, Alfred, Parke, Jr, John, Bob, and our highly esteemed recently retired minister, Lindy. In 1932 Parke bought the beautiful farm he named Merriconn, which is presently occupied by Mike Desmond. The History gathers together much lore about Nelson and has a wealth of genealogical and historical material.  Though not flawless, this is the best compendium of its kind and is a great source of information about the town and its inhabitants. He also issued a pamphlet for Nelson’s bicentennial, 1767-1967, entitled Homestead and Cemetery Directory. Struthers also wrote Tellable Tales From Nelson, New Hampshire, consisting of 128 pages of anecdotes about those who lived here. This little work was published in 1950 by the “Merriconn Press.”

Of considerable local interest is a now hard-to=find paperback entitled Celebration of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the First Settlement of Nelson, New Hampshire, 1767-1917. This contains a Sketch of the Early History of the Town of Nelson, New Hampshire, by Major-General S. G. Griffin, who was born in Nelson in 1824; sketches of pioneer settlers edited by Henry Melville and Charles A. Bemis, assisted by memoranda that General Griffin prepared; and much other interesting material, all published under the aegis of the Nelson Picnic Association in 1917.

We turn to the late John B. Armstrong’s Factory Under the Elms. This history of Harrisville, New Hampshire, was published seven years ago. John was a history professor at Boston University but summered at his aunt Helen Burns’s place, formerly a farm, off Blueberry Lane. Previously the artist Margaret Redmond lived there. Bonnie Armstrong, John’s widow, still comes to these parts. (Incidentally, and with reference to the title of John Armstrong’s book, the elm tree is making a comeback in this country thanks to John Hansel’s Elm Research Institute in Harrisville. Three blight-proof American Liberty Elms located by the Nelson cemetery memorialize John Armstrong, Newt Tolman and Robbins Milbank.)

Mention of Robbins Milbank brings to mind another Nelson author, his widow Helen, a former distinguished foreign correspondent. Then Helen Kirkpatrick, she wrote mostly for newspapers, and, be it noted, at a time when women foreign correspondents were few and far between. For her journalistic accomplishments during World War II she received the highest awards both in this country and France. But Helen also wrote two books, both of which appeared in 1939. This Terrible Peace, published in London, deals with the tragedy of Munich the year before. Under the British Umbrella, published in New York, bears the revealing subtitle “What the British Are and How They Go to War.”  Helen and Robbins lived at the beautiful Schoolhouse Farm on Lead Mine Road, which Marianne and Jim Rothnie now own.

Another prominent foreign correspondent was Lael Wertenbaker, who now lives in Keene but who used to reside with her late husband Bramwell Fletcher in the house now occupied by Nate and Celia Anable, down the road from Ethan and Pamela Tolman. Lael has written extensively. Among her books is Death of a Man, which deals with the death from cancer of her then husband Charles Wertenbaker. She has also written many novels, such as Eye of the Lion, The Afternoon Women, Unbidden Guests, and Perilous Voyage. Her nonfiction works include Mister Junior, The Story of Joseph F. Cullman, Jr.; The Magic of Light; The World of Pablo Picasso and To Mend the Heart. The latter is an interesting account of the development of cardiac surgery, which centers on the accomplishments of the distinguished surgeon, Dwight Harken who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but whose sprawling summer home commands a splendid view of Silver Lake. Lael is also co-author of The Magic of Light: The Career of Jean Rosenthal, Pioneer in Lighting for the Modern Stage.

The most productive of all Nelson writers is May Sarton, who now lives in York, Maine, but who for many years lived in the old Dr. Rand house off the village common. (Sarton devotees often show up in these precincts with the familiar inquiry, “Which is the house where May Sarton lived?”)  Her love of that 18th century house, the first home of her own (now owned by Marc and Nancy Stretch), is a focal theme in Plant Dreaming Deep. As of a couple of years ago, Sarton, who has won numerous awards, had written sixteen books of poetry, nineteen novels, nine works of nonfiction, and two children’s books. “My business,” she once said, “is the analysis of feeling.” A thumbnail characterization of her writing some years ago put it this way: “…Miss Sarton has used a wide range of literary forms…to explore the tangle of feelings involved in human relationships in general and in women’s relationships in particular.” Several of her writings besides Plant Dreaming Deep focus on or have reference to Nelson and its inhabitants, namely, A World of Light, Portraits and Celebrations, Journal of Solitude, Kinds of Love, and Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare.

Another Nelson author was “Maurie,” Ishbel Morrison, who for 20 years lived in what is now Betsy Taylor’s house. In Maurie’s memoir, The Knot of Love, she presents a sketch of her life and describes how she took care of disturbed children.

At Apple Hill Music Camp, where beautiful music now emanates – thanks to the talented Apple Hill Players and their skilled charges of all ages – lived Guy Murchie for several years.  His multi-faceted interests (teacher, pilot, newspaperman, illustrator, photographer, aerial navigator, world traveler) resulted in several books. These are: Men on the Horizon, The World Aloft, Song of the Sky, Music of the Spheres and The Seven Mysteries of Life. One (Song of the Sky) was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in which Murchie “explores the ocean of air above us and the vaster spaces beyond”; another (Seven Mysteries), a Book Club alternate, was described as “a pioneering philosophical work in the field of natural science with overtones of poetry and mysticism.”

Ruth Smith in the seventies lived in a small house that she had built in an alluvial deposit near the bottom of Brickyard Road. Ruth was a person who was deeply caring about human relationships. She held high ethical standards and beliefs, and she put those beliefs into practice.  For example, as a young woman she taught for some time in a segregated black school in the South at a time when racial animosity was at its height. Her book, White Man’s Burden, deals with that period. She also wrote A Wide Place, a testament so personal that she masked her authorship by using the name “Sarah” Smith. Ruth also edited The Tree of Life, which consists of selections from the literature of many religions.

Nora Kubie bought and expanded Ruth Smith’s house, where she lived off and on for roughly seven years. (The Roehrigs are the present owners.) Nora, a woman of many parts, such as artist, archeologist, and traveler, was also a writer. She wrote a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction for young folks and she also wrote the Road to Nineveh, which is a book about Sir Austen Henry Layard, a pioneer in archeology.

Still another Nelson author was the Reverend Edwin N. Hardy, whose antecedents went back many generations to the very beginning of what is now Nelson. As a matter of fact, he was a co-author of the Genealogy of the Hardy Family. He also wrote The Churches and Educated Men, Manual of American Citizenship, Uncle John Vassar, and a biography of the famous eighteenth-century evangelist entitled George Whitefield, the Matchless Soul Winner.

Another genealogy was written by the man known as Nelson’s “lifelong benefactor,” Henry Melville. He wrote The Ancestry of John Whitney, who was a prominent forebear of his.  In a brief biographical study of Henry Melville, Nelson’s contemporary benefactor, Henry Melville Fuller, gives an interesting description of the genealogy: “The volume was published in 1895, each copy bound in white vellum, its 600 pages embellished with colored armorial plates, illustrations of ruined castles, folding genealogical charts, and old documents reproduced in facsimile.”

Without doubt one of the most esoteric books by a Nelson author is described in Parke Struthers’s History of Nelson. It was written by Dr. Dauphin William Osgood, a medical missionary who opened a small hospital in China in 1870. He wrote in Chinese a book on anatomy for medical students and illustrated it himself.

A fascinating intellectual enclave, sometimes called “The Philadelphia Group,” used to exist in Nelson and nearby territory. In Robbins Milbank’s pamphlet on Olivia Rodham he gives the following description: “A map prepared in 1904 by Samuel Wadsworth in Keene is titled ‘Pennsylvania Settlement and Surrounding Lands in Nelson, Harrisville and Roxbury.’  On it 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 in 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. Rolfe, he, too a Shakespearean 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.” This interesting group merits separate study and I hope that such a study can be made and run in a future issue of the Grapevine-2. But at the moment our interest centers on books by Nelson authors. Professor J. Duncan Spaeth, who was the maternal grandfather of the deMartellys, Joey, Taya and Mike, did a translation of Beowulf and, interestingly, The YMCA Camp Reader, a widely used literacy program to enable illiterate GI’s in World War I to write home. He also edited Old English Poetry. Incidentally, Duncan Spaeth’s brother Sigmund must have frequently visited these parts. He was the author of over thirty books on music and has been described as having “done more to promote good music…than any other figure in the musical world.”

I have referred to the deMartellys. Though I have not generally attempted to include book illustrators in this survey I cannot omit mention of our local distinguished artist John deMartelly.  His original lithograph illustrations of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, published by the Peter Pauper Press in Mount Vernon, make that edition a collector’s item. John also, among other books, illustrated William E. Wilson’s The Wabash, one of the Rivers of America series, and Walter D. Edmonds’s Wilderness Clearing.

In the next issue of the Grapevine-2, we will continue this account, including the writers from around Tolman Pond, plus some cookbook authors of local renown. Suggestions for additional material are invited.

2017-02-09T00:01:57+00:00 Henry Putzel, Writers|