This is one of a series of interviews conducted by Tom Murray. He is especially interested in talking with people who became “year-round people” after having spent time in Nelson as “summer people.”
From Summer to Settler
Ben Smith as interviewed by his nephew, Tom Murray
July 16, 2010
Compiled from the transcription by Tom Murray
Ben Smith, born 1921, grew up in Yonkers, NY when it was still a rural town north of New York City and south of Hastings on Hudson and the Rockefeller properties in Tarrytown and Pocantico. You could see the towers of the George Washington Bridge in the distance, completed in 1931, and the land at Tappan Zee where another bridge over the Hudson River would be built.
Ben was the second of four siblings, all but one of whom have ongoing Nelson connections. Brooks was the oldest, then Ben and Cornelius. Last was daughter Pru who would marry Jack Giffin and have a place over at Tolman Pond. (Jack was from Keene, NH and had his own connections to both the Sheldon’s and the Spaulding’s of Tolman Pond.)
Ben attended Harvard and got a degree in engineering, and spent most of his working life at the labs at MIT. He married Joan Vincent, the eldest of the three Vincent girls who summered at Tolman Pond from 1930 onwards. Ben and Joan settled in Marblehead, MA and had two daughters, Gretchen and Marcia, who now own the cabin and property in the mowing of Harvey Tolman*.
Additional Smith family nearby: Brooks’ son Jonathan has been here for decades. Pru and Jack’s son Jay married Sienna Merrifield, and they live over the pond with offspring Abby and Henry, adjacent to Pru and Jack’s place, where daughter Jane is a frequent visitor.
Various Vincent-in-laws nearby: The Jorja (Conn/Vincent) Bishop family have a lease on a Tolman Pond cabin; The Judy (Conn/Vincent) Waterston family own a house on Old Stoddard Road; and Tom (Vincent) Murray and Linda Cates live between Cabot Road and Tolman Pond and own a part of the old Merriconn acreage.
The Nelson Connection
Edric Smith, Ben’s father, grew up in Cambridge, MA and as a high school student attended Rindge Tech. One of the teachers there was Myra Ellis, who with her companion Marian Butterfield, ran Camp Nubanusit from as early as 1896 or 1897 to well into the 1930s. The land may have been owned by the Thayer’s of Dublin or by Ethan Tolman’s family. (Concrete platforms for tents were still to be found in the 1970s.) Edric was at this camp, as a camper or counselor, around 1905 -1906.
Edric went on to Harvard and graduated with a degree in Engineering, which at the time was a joint degree with MIT. His specialization was power plants. After some Massachusetts work, Edric moved to New York to work on building a power plant for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He and his wife Laura settled in Yonkers. After construction he continued to work for the organization and wound up as business manager.
Edric married Laura Seaver, some distant connection to Edgar Seaver, the eggman and mailman from nearby Chesham. As the family grew Edric contacted Wilmer Tolman and made arrangements for a cabin to be built for them to rent. They occupied it in 1923. Wilmer had a sawmill and provided the lumber. Nelson had once been primarily a barter community, but the need for cash was rising, so inns and summer rentals could provide needed cash. The Tolman’s and Upton’s realized this, too. The rental cabins below the Upton house on the dam end of Nubanusit were there from the 1920s. Those at Tolman Pond were built around the same time,
Ben’s first year in Nelson was 1923. The family arrived by train, a 7-8-hour journey from Yonkers. Edric, never having driven before, bought a 1923 Buick, in Keene, and learned to drive here.
Early or Vivid Recollections
Tolman Pond was a working farm, with goats, chickens and other animals. But the Tolman’s also ran an inn and had some summer rental cabins.
The Mowing crowd was academic and intellectual. Tolman Pond was also clever but a little looser in its approach to things. Wayland Tolman or “Pop” and “Ma” headed things up, and sons Newt and Fran contributed. Pop Tolman’s sister Mrs. Grace Skillen was a big Women’s Christian Temperance Union supporter, as was Mildred, wife of Wilmer Tolman. During prohibition, liquor could be found at Tolman Pond, but not on The Mowing. At one point, Newt Tolman had a nudist colony, not likely on The Mowing.
In the 1930s, the kids would meet at Tolman Pond. Wilmer Tolman owned some pond side land between the Partridges’ house and the house next to the farmhouse. There was also a bathhouse and a rowboat for their use. There was a community dock close to shore in very shallow water. You could wade out a bit and then swim a couple of hundred feet out to a platform on stilts, (built with lumber from Wilmer’s mill) and a diving board of hardwood provided by George Vincent. Probably because of his connection to manufacturers of hardwood heel lasts used in shoe production. Peggy (Read) Vincent’s family was in the leather and shoe business. Pop Tolman and sons Newt and Fran and others were the builders. A volleyball court was set up on the pond side of the road in front of the farmhouse, pretty much where it is today.
Dorothy Nassau was a paying guest at the farmhouse for as long as they served meals, then she rented a cabin from Rodger Tolman, Harvey’s dad.
George and Peggy Vincent had a cabin by the pond from 1930, and their three daughters, Joan, Margot and Sue were an attraction for many. Peggy and the girls would come up for summers with George joining as work permitted. George worked as a New England rep for the financial company William Iselin, later purchased by CIT and Lehman Bros. He would travel to examine the books of companies of interest, often those in trouble or in need of cash, who might sell their receivables.
Most of the cabins that are by Tolman Pond now were there for as long as Ben remembers.
The Robinson’s had a house on the pond. It was built by Newt. Newt’s first wife was Beth, mother of Renn. (Beth would later marry Joe Barrell.) Newt’s second wife was Janet Robinson. Janet’s brother Bob, with his wife Hallie and three post-war kids Pip, Mary, and Jim, lived beside the pond in one of the houses that Newt built. Set back a little from the water is Barn, which became Kitty’s residence. Kitty was sister to Bob and Janet.
Already owning land in the 30s were the Pateks: Jack, a physician, his wife Mary and eventual children Dave and Sue. Jack’s wife’s family already owned land above the farm and up along Tolman Pond Road where Dave Patek and Louise live now.
Mary and Ted Brewster ran a turkey farm somewhere south of the Massachusetts border but summered on the hill above the farmhouse, perhaps where the Moeller cabin is now. Their son Benny, a post-World War II birth, later bought land and built on the road that goes up the Greengate side of City Hill.
The Faulkners, related to the Faulkner mill family in Keene, had a house somewhere on the pond as well and had some involvement with Newt’s nudist colony. [Henrietta Faulkner and Mary Brewster were sisters.]
Wilmer Tolman owned The Mowing with his wife Mildred. Later their son Rodger Tolman would own it, and then later Rodger’s son Harvey. In the early days it was a working farm along with a sawmill. At age 10-12 Ben remembers milking four or five cows and haying with the big rake and horse. Ben’s family has a movie of him haying. Ben also remembers that Wilmer would get up early, start the woodstove and put on the cereal for breakfast.
Many of the people on the Mowing were academics. Academics often like to be left alone to write, a survival technique in a world of publish or perish.
The Camp Nubanusit founders Myra Ellis and Marian Butterfield also had a cabin until they were no longer capable of self-care. Harvey and Frankie built their new house on this same site.
The first cabin on The Mowing was built in 1922 for Churchill and Grace Gerrish. Churchill was a history professor at Marietta College and lived in Marietta, OH. They previously had a cabin at Tolman Pond, on the site where Barry and Karen Tolman built their new home.
Walter Hall was a professor of History at Princeton, and was the co-author of a history book (Hall and Albion) that Ben remembers using in a history clash at Harvard. There were two Hall boys of similar ages, Walter who was killed in World War II, and Michael who wrote his undergraduate thesis in History at Princeton on the early History of Nelson. Copies of this are in the archives and library and a summary of it is in a pamphlet in the library. Their place was on a road up from Nubanusit, but they were part of The Mowing and the Tolman Pond crowds.
Gordon Craig was a provost at Princeton and later moved to a job at Stanford. Marty Craig, his daughter, now rents a cabin across from the beach at Tolman Pond.
Kit Bryan’s husband was a chaplain at Princeton and stayed in cottages down by Nubanusit Road.
Currently, Leslie Lawrence is an academic at Tufts and U. Mass /Boston and a summer resident of The Mowing.
Arvilla, Gordon Tolman’s wife, acquired much of the land from Burns Brook to City Hill. Gordon fought in World War I and was caught in the gas attacks, which caused him ongoing lung troubles, and may have contributed to his contracting an MS type of muscular disorder. Gordon was remembered as scholarly, perhaps with a doctorate.
Once when Ben was attending a party in Rhode Island the subject of Nelson came up. A doctor asked, “Do you know Newt?” “Of course I know Newt,” Ben replied. It turns out groups of Mass General interns used to come up to Tolman Pond to blow off steam. When Ben asked Newt about them, he just shook his head and said, “He and his brother were crazy.”
Ben came up as a kid to ski at Tolman Pond. Newt got Rob Sagendorph of Yankee Magazine to sponsor him, for some time with European ski expert Hans Schneider. They laid out the Jack Rabbit slope and a trail from the top of Herd Hill to the farmhouse. Ben remembers it as being about a mile long but only about 10 feet wide, a feat on the skis of the day. They founded the Tolman Pond Ski Club and had one of the first ski resorts in America.
Newt also made his own skis which were turned up at both ends so he could ski in either direction, backwards or forwards. Once he performed as part of a winter sports exhibition at Boston Garden where a pile of ice chips was arranged to reach from the second balcony down to the ice rink.
Brothers Newt and Fran were both accomplished, but in different ways. Newt as woodsman, musician, writer and skier; and Fran as cruise director and orchestrater of events.
Electricity arrived in the 1930s, probably a Roosevelt Electrify America project. Prior to that it was ice from the ice house and a kerosene water heater. Water arrived by gravity feed from somewhere up on City Hill. With four kids there was lots of laundry, so an early wringer washing machine was obtained for Ben’s mom, who had said she wouldn’t go to the cabin unless she got one.
Ben’s dad had a running feud with Buzzer Hall. The etiquette of the ice house was that you left the shovel at the edge of the ice currently being removed. Optimally when you arrived the shovel would be on the sawdust over where the most recent layer of ice had been cut. You would then have the shovel, the location, and once you cleared the sawdust, the easiest area from which to remove ice. After you got your ice you covered up the face with sawdust and left the shovel on spot. Buzzer would get his ice, do the appropriate sawdust cover, and throw the shovel anywhere, leaving the next person a hide and seek game of finding the working edge. Ben remembers delivering ice and firewood to various camps, among them that of Myra Ellis who first brought, his father, Edric Smith to Nelson.
Ben’s upbringing was fairly puritanical. Church on Sunday. No liquor. Ben remembers getting a bible from the Dutch Reform Church. Prior to church they would make ice cream and wrap it to set. He remembers Reverend Hardy in the 1930s. He had a very long beard and when he preached he’d hang the beard over the front of the pulpit. Dick Upton took the collection, and if you arrived after it went around, say because you were making ice cream, you needn’t worry because he would come find you.
The Seaver’s had a Flatbush connection: a grandfather who was a Unitarian. Edgar Seaver of Chesham played trumpet, was a mail carrier, lived by Silver Lake, and left his property to Paul Geddes. Frank Seaver was a mountain climber and very active with a Canadian Alpine Club. He has a hut dedicated to him somewhere in Banff National Park.
The Annual Expedition
In the earliest days it was a train to Keene. Later, came a car. In the early 20s, like politics, all roads were local. “We couldn’t understand why dad took an aspirin when he arrived.” Ben remembers using Route 10, referred to as the college highway, going from New Haven and Yale through Northampton and Smith on up to Hanover and Dartmouth. Once while driving through they saw former President Calvin Coolidge sitting on his porch in Northampton.
During the Depression work crews began the parkway system, including the Hutchinson-Merritt, the Bronx River, and the Cross County Parkways. These enabled blinding speeds of forty or more miles per hour.
Edric believed in a quality vehicle. The big old Buicks could handle seven passengers. They had two jump seats in the back implying leg room that once existed in a New York Checker Cab. The jump seats were coveted because they were closer to the front so it almost felt like you were driving. The trunk was full and suitcases were strapped to the running boards and duffels to the fenders.
There was always a calamity. It might be a spring, for which a local blacksmith shop might fabricate a leaf, or a tire or overheating. They would stop by some farmer’s pasture and picnic, always referring to the field, wherever it might be, as farmer Brown’s.
Ben’s mom never learned to drive, but she did try. Once, after Brooks and Ben each had licenses they tutored their Mom. She accelerated when she should have braked for a turn, overcorrected, made the turn, but kept right on driving into a brook. They got out of the car, looked around, and wondered for a while what to do. Ben hiked into Nelson Village to contact a garage in Keene to come pull them out. Soon, along came modern Peggy Vincent driving her car, and she picked up Ben’s mom and Pru and gave them a ride home. After this Ben’s mom never drove again.
Hurricane of 1938 – September 21
It had been raining for days and the ground was saturated. The cabin was mostly closed up and the boys were ready to head south, dropping Brooks off at Harvard and 17-year-old Ben off to school in NY. They got a phone call from Edric in NY telling them to stay put as a great storm was coming through. After this call the phones went down and it would be a month before phone lines were reestablished.
Teenage boys don’t take direction well, and besides they were out of food and had places to go, so they prepared to set out, taking handsaws with them. First Buzzer Hall and Ben’s younger brother Corny walked to Harrisville for supplies. As they were on the way back a lady said, “please help me close the barn door.” They fiddled with it and managed to close it. As they walked away the whole barn collapsed.
Ben remembers that the whole area looked like the recent microburst damage. Some trees especially pines were blown over at the roots, others were sheared off at height. The route involved going south to Greenfield, MA to catch decent roads east to Boston. The boys would saw through a tree, and swing it aside and move on. It was welcomed when they’d meet a group moving the other way so they’d get a section already cleared. It took three days to get Brooks to Boston. Then down to Providence, RI where boats were up alongside the roadway. Down in New London a maritime navigation buoy was up on the railroad tracks. There was way more timber than could be used currently, so locally it was hauled to Nubanusit and Spoonwood lakes where it was dumped in the water so it would keep better.
Bill and Alice Sharples had the white house on the Nubanusit side of the intersection with Tolman Pond Road. They had lots of cats. Alice’s uncle, Bill Hall, lived at Greengate, and was related to the Olmsteds. [His sister, Sarah, married Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.] Hallie Robinson used to look after Bill Hall.
After World War II Joan and Ben were living in one room on Mass Ave beyond the Harvard Law School. They were having a tough time getting into Harvard University housing. Alice Sharples said her brother was on the Harvard housing board and to give him a call. Joan and Ben didn’t have a phone so they paid a visit to make their case, visiting them at a grand home in Holder’s Green, Cambridge. They were told to “stay with us for a while.” In return they asked Joan to companion the Mrs. and for Ben to show up for afternoon tea. In addition, they were to accompany them to square dances in Belmont, Salem, and if necessary to dance to records in the great living room of the house they lived in. One morning they got up for breakfast and Ralph Page the square dance caller and prompter was there on the first night of his honeymoon.
Barry White was a year younger than Ben. His family had Five B Farm, an acronym for the five names of their children beginning with B. Barry was from the same town as the Vincent’s, Swampscott, MA, and lived on Little’s Point. Joan had remembered driving by and seeing a man working in the gardens all the time. At first they thought he was a gardener, but he was Barry’s father. Barry would occasionally come by on his horse to visit Margot Vincent.
Ben remembers being at Harvard with Barry after the war and reviewing for exams together. Barry would later marry Daphne Milbank, of NY but also with Nelson connections. Pamela White is their daughter.
Parke Struthers was a botanist at Syracuse. His parents had lived at one of the houses on Hardy Hill Road. Parke’s brother Francis had the land that was the Kasper’s on the Nelson Road on the north and east side of the Child’s Bog intersection. There used to be a sign that said Merriconn Farm 1 mile, Syracuse 287 miles. Merriconn was hundreds of acres between Cabot Road and the Nelson Road. It was split up for Parke Struthers children. So Parke was both a native and a summer person. The Struthers kids would come to Tolman Pond to swim and would often access it down by Williams dock.
Ben Smith’s connection to the land was strong and long. Both parents, Edric and Laura, are buried in Nelson Cemetery, as well as wife Joan, and grandchild Todd. Gentlemen’s agreements about the cabin on the mowing sufficed into the 1970s at which time Ben was counseled to get a longer term lease before putting significant money into improvements winterizing parts of the cabin. Offers to buy were made and turned down. A few years ago Harvey asked if they’d still be interested in buying it. They were delighted and it is with great joy that the Smiths could finally call the cabin their own after many years of renting.
Since acquisition a deck has been added, and some trees toward the mountain cleared away. Ben is comfortable that future projects will be the joint responsibility of Gretchen and Marcia’s families, and he’ll just get to enjoy them.
* 2017: The cabin is gone now and daughter Gretchen and her husband, Mike Ezell, are building a new home on the property. Marcia and her husband, Rich Ragin are renting a seasonal cabin on Tolman Pond.