From Summer to Settler: 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.”
Bonnie Allen Riley
An interview by Tom Murray, with Jonathan and Laurie Smith
July 26, 2010
Compiled from the transcription by Tom Murray
First Coming to Nelson
We started coming here the first year of my dance school which was 1949 or 50. I think maybe it was 1950 because we had tried one year in the Berkshires which I didn’t like for my kind of school. I needed a smaller more comfortable place for us to live and eat, that sort of thing. And I went wandering and I had found Peterborough some time before and thought it was a lovely New Hampshire town so I went to the head of the Monadnock Association. I saw their sign from the Old Peterborough Inn across the street from me. So I went over and asked, “Do you know a place where I could have a small summer dancing school for girls?” And he said, “Oh, yes!” He then started taking me all over the county and for a long time we thought it might be the old theater school that was then empty, but it was too big for my small group. Then we tried the Dublin School. Mr. Lehmann, the headmaster, had never rented the school in the summer, but he consented. I had a dormitory. The red school house was new then and it opened out onto a terrace, so it had indoor and outdoor places for dance. The whole thing was just absolutely perfect for my needs, so I was there for six years. Anyhow, we found Nelson through the contra dance. The rest of the year I was teaching dance at the Chapin School in New York.
For those six years I ran a summer school of dance for young women of high school, or first year of college age, at the Dublin School in Dublin, NH. Paul Lehmann who was the founder and headmaster of the school told me that we ought to go find out about local dance which meant contra dancing. Nelson was one of the first places we came to for a contra dance. We danced very hard all week at camp winding up for our performance at the end of August. And every Saturday night we went contra dancing. Nelson was outstanding because they had something called the Nelson stomp. It wasn’t anything like the so called stomp at Fitzwilliam – that was very ladylike. Hancock was also very lady like. Nelson was special. We realized that right away. We didn’t know a soul there and I had a bunch of 12 beautiful young dancers who didn’t know how to contra dance. So we learned the Nelson way. And that was the beginning. That was when I discovered where Nelson was, very close to the school in Dublin and very enjoyable. The girls loved it. And, in fact, the reason Lisa Sieverts quite often calls dances at the Monday night contra dance in Nelson is that her mother was one of those 12 girl dancers. That’s that connection.
My Contra Dance History
Ralph Page was calling the dances when I first came to Nelson. In fact, I took Ralph Page’s records with me to Africa  and taught them at the school there where I taught. We didn’t do very well, but we tried.
There was a family staying at the Tolman Pond Farmhouse and they had two daughters. They were wonderful dancers. They danced in Boston, I think, with English country dancers, an unusual name. One of their daughters married a man named Phillips. They were so good at contra dancing that my dancing girls used to watch them very carefully. They were very much a sort of teacher for us. We used to watch them, the most beautiful style. They never did the Nelson stomp but they simply moved in complete rhythm and very smoothly, very smoothly, no clunk. One of the daughters is still living in Keene. She married up here.
First Nelson Sublet
At the end of the sixth year of my dance camp I knew I would not be going on with the school in the summer because of my mother’s health. One of the girls in the group, a day student was Susan Craig (You may know Marty Craig, [Susan’s sister, who spends the summer at Tolman Pond]). The Craig’s camp was at the bottom of Rodger Tolman’s mowing and I think Susan was the oldest of the three daughters. She came as a day student over to the dancing school. Her father who was a professor at Princeton, was going on sabbatical and they wanted to sublet their camp for a year. I thought, “I wonder if I could.” So I took a big leap and said, “I will.” They had rented it from Rodger Tolman. There were Rodger Tolman camps and there were Fran Tolman camps. All I knew was that the Craig’s rented it from a man who owned a large white farmhouse down the road who was a perfect darling.
So anyhow, at the end of my summer school, my mother and I, instead of going back to New York, went over to the Craig’s house that we had rented for a year, but we could not be there in the winter. I can tell you how important it was to me: I passed up a ticket to My Fair Lady in New York and stayed in Nelson.
In the course of that year I had moved from New York to Cambridge. I suspect that the part of me that made the move said, “Well, that’s closer to Nelson.” As I look at my life I see that from there on I made one decision after another to get me up to Nelson. At any rate, we had a wonderful time. We came up in the fall and earlier in the spring than Rodger expected. I asked Rodger, knowing that our lease with the Craig’s would soon expire, “Do you have another camp I could rent?” and he did.
First Direct Rental
It’s the one on the corner by the “sign tree” that had been rented to Mary Farmer and her husband. That camp had been built by Rodger for his own use when he was still teaching school in Winchester. However, at this time, it was vacant so I could rent it and did for nine years. It’s the cedar shingled house with red trim. I think of it as dark brown shingled because there weren’t any sheds at that time except for an outdoor john.
Anyway, I had it for nine years and drove Rodger crazy because I decided that I could come up in winter on Friday afternoons. I was teaching in Newton, not dance at this point but English. Rodger was the most lovely gentleman. He used to see to it that there was a fire in the kitchen stove so that it was a little warm when we got there, and I used to rush into the bedroom to connect the electric blanket so that I could sleep. And the winter weekends there were just marvelous. Anita and Shubrick [Clymer] and, of course, Jan and Newt Tolman were quite often there during the weekends. And it was fun to see what you could cook in a situation like that. I remember one New Year’s Eve when I did a complete feast of paella one way or another. It was a wonderful get-a-way for me.
I became a resident of Nelson sometime between 1956 and 1960. I’m not quite sure of the year. Even though I was working in Massachusetts, teaching at Newton, it was legal to be a resident up here. That was one reason I came up here all the time.
In 1962, the summer before I went to teach in Africa, Jim and Betty Lape (Jim Lape and I had been teachers in a summer project in Boston and got to know each other) came up to visit me in the house I was renting from Rodger and they said, “This is a lovely place. I wonder if he has another camp.” And, he did. The Lapes rented the camp next to me, which had been Rodger’s sister’s [and which is now the Osherson’s]. Their daughter Rose eventually met Harvey Tolman [Rodger’s son]. They married and had three children: Caitlin, Gwyneth and Colin.
First Nelson Land
About 1962, Jan and Newt were selling off land on Nubanusit and they very kindly remembered us two very poor school teachers [Bonnie and Jim Lape] and said, “Would you like to buy a piece of land together?” And we could manage that, so we bought a piece of land together. (And since then their half of it has gone through several hands and is now owned by the Cousinry. [The Cousinry belongs to Bill Riley’s son, George; Jane Sieverts’ daughter, Lisa; and Mary Brown, who now lives in California and who was one of my students in English at the Dublin School.] Anyway, they called themselves the Cousinry because they didn’t know what else to call it.)
I know that Jim Lape (with whom we shared the beach front on Nubanusit) came from Ohio. Jim taught in the school system next to Newton – Wellesley. At Wellesley, he was the head of the English Department. And then he became the principal of the next town, possibly Weston. I think he was probably the principal there when they came up and wanted to buy a camp. The one that the Osherson’s now own was the one they bought from Rodger. It had been built against Rodger’s wishes by his sister. It was a house that could be assembled, not quite like the houses you buy now that come all in one piece. This came in pieces and had to be put together. And Rodger, who was a perfectionist about carpentry, didn’t think that it was very good.
Jonathan.: “I remember the Lapes when they first rented here. They were up at the top of The Mowing in Marion Butterfield’s cabin … When Harvey and Rose married, Rodger broke his promise that he’d never sell a piece of property and sold what had been his sister’s house to the Lapes.”
Tom: “I think Marion was the partner of Myra Ellis, the lady who ran the camp that Edric Smith [Jonathan Smith’s grandfather] had gone to.”
Jonathan: “Oh my gosh.”
Tom: “So her partner was a teacher at Rindge Tech and that’s how Edric first came to Nelson.
Jonathan: “As a camper.”
Tom: “Camper and counselor, but that was 1906. Ben [Ben Smith, Edric’s son] has a postcard that the teacher had sent Edric in the twenties., saying ‘Oh I wish you could come by. I would love to see your son, Brooks.”
Laurie: “I can feel a great web coming down over the hill of Nelson like this, a huge tapestry of interweaving stories, like a spider web from all different directions, from all different times. All coming to the center with Nelson in the middle.”
Home from Africa
Around 1962 I went to teach in Africa for two years at the first comprehensive high school in the country. Otherwise they’d been pretty much English style schools. The first eight years, thanks to Nigeria, public schools in essence became like ours. And free. They didn’t pay taxes the way we do. They were all Nigerian students. And a lot of them came to colleges in this country. Now, there is a very active Comprehensive High School Aiyetoro Alumni Association that meets every year.
And then of course, there’s Benedict. Benedict had been my steward at the school in Aiyetoro. He saved up money because I told him if he saved it up I’d match it. So he did and he came over here and finished his schooling at Newton High School. Then he said to me, “I’m not going back. I have already enrolled in Newton Community College.” And he put himself through that and the University of Massachusetts and finally got a Master’s Degree at one of the colleges outside Boston. He was truly a splendid American immigrant like my own father.
Under some bushes down there, there’s a small granite stone that marks where Benedict is buried. And, that’s all the way from Nigeria. That’s interesting, isn’t it. There’s also a stone for his wife. Yes. She was from Ebo country, well they both were matter of fact, which is eastern Nigeria. But they didn’t know each other in Nigeria. They met in Cambridge where his wife was getting a doctorate at Harvard. And they were married in the Harvard Chapel. And by that time Benedict had become an American citizen and his wife became one by marrying.
Land to Build On
So after nine years, Jan and Newt sold this piece of land to me [where I now live]. They had come to visit me in Nigeria which is a story by itself. I was teaching there for two years. Jan and Newt came to Africa for about two months and about six weeks of that time they were living with me. Living together for six weeks in a strange country is a great way to bind you. Anyhow they said they would have a piece of land for me when I got back. Thanks to the American government (which sometimes does the right thing) if you’re out of the country for two years you don’t have to pay income tax. So I had just enough money in the bank to go to Lee Petty down at the Peterborough First National Bank and say, “Look, I’ve got this much, could I build a house?” And he said, “I think so.” So here I am.
When I went to Africa, I already owned this piece of land [on Nubanusit] in Nelson. That was really very primary with me. When I got back I didn’t really quite know where I was because you go through an awful culture shock, from this country, not Africa. After about four days Jan and Newt said, “We’ve got the land all picked out. All you have to do is come.” The great big machine that was going to clear it was coming at ten in the morning. Just like that, and here I am.
This is what I know about this lot. Newt told me that he remembered as a boy when this was open hay fields, very good hay. I think it was called sweet mountain hay, something like that. And, it was special for horses in the city. That seemed to have been the market for it. I’m just telling you what I recollect. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But they knew what the shape of the land was and they knew what the view was.
So I built the house in 1965. It took about a year to get the land cleared and plans approved. The plans for this house were made during 27 years of faculty meetings. (That’s what you do in a faculty meeting.) Actually, it reflects the cottage I grew up in along the Susquehanna. It had a deck like this and it was gray. And half of this house as you know is gray. I haven’t enough money to put the shingles on the other half yet. I’ll get there.
And I hadn’t even met him [Bill Riley] yet. William, in the meantime, had become a resident of Francestown, unbeknownst to me. And we don’t remember the year of that either, exactly. But, in any case, he had become acquainted with Newt and Jan because they helped train his two unruly little dogs. Jan and Newt called me one day and said, “Why don’t you come up and have a drink this afternoon.” So, I did. And William and I were married in 1972.
Shortly after I married William, he said, “Well, I know you will never give up your residence in Nelson so I’ll come to Nelson.” So he has a house in Francestown where, when after we were married, we spent winters there and we spent summers over here. And he became a resident of Nelson in 1972 and stayed that way for 25 years, maybe even thirty, before he renewed his residency in Francestown. We’ve been spending winters in Francestown pretty much since we were married.
Now he is back to being a resident of Francestown, but he was a resident of Nelson from 1972 until probably about four or five years ago. He represented Nelson for twenty years in the State Legislature and has two memorable bills. One of them is known as the Riley Bill and it’s what to do if you are a small town, and have no money, but have one student who has to be taken care of because he’s special. And that is, indeed, something. Well, it cost the town something over $200,000 a year which put an end to the library, etc., etc., so the Riley Bill helps to pay those special education costs.
Jonathan: “Bonnie, do you have any of those old tree fungi that Newt used to write you notes on?”
Yeah, I have two of them. I love those. They are not easy to do. I don’t know what he used on them. I could probably find them, one down on the rocks at Nubanusit and one here. The one that sort of sticks out is where the steps go down into the water, and I used to sit on that rock just for a long time and sort of watch the water. There was a little fish that, believe it or not, walked up the rock – somehow its fin or something did it – and it was the shape of a cigar. It never came out of the water, but it used to come up, and I said something about it to Newt one time and he said, “That’s not possible.” So he turned up one day and said, “Show me the fish.” And I showed it to him. And somehow he did a drawing of it (I’ve got that somewhere) and sent it off to the University of New Hampshire and they identified it. It’s some sort of odd kind of fish which is known to be in only, I think, one other lake here. So Newt wrote near it: Bonnieallanesus. Remember that fish. We could see it when Bill invented that wonderful dock. I still miss it so much. We don’t have any way of feeding the fish anymore.
Bonnie used to swim regularly in Nubanusit. She enjoyed personifying the landmarks she passed and named many of the rocks or landmarks she swam by. Laurie asked if she remembered the names, and here they are:
Massasoit: Indian who befriended the Pilgrims
Yggdrasil: A birch tree, after the Norse world tree
Nokomis: Daughter of the Moon, Longfellow’s Hiawatha
Minnehaha: Daughter of Nokomis
Winter Faun: Bonnie’s Wyoming Indian friend
Nez Perce: A western tribe led by Chief Joseph
Sitting Bull: The chief and the turning point by the big island to go uplake.
They had a dock she remembers fondly. This led to discussion of a steamboat having once plied out of Rodger’s dock carrying lumber and other building supplies to the cabins being built [on Nubanusit]. It was also used by summerfolk for access prior to roads being cut in.
Frankie Upton’s mother (Frances Rodgers) had been a counselor at a summer camp on Nubanusit, and met and married Frankie Upton’s dad, another example of summer people’s influence. See stories by Meg Cline on this website: Flying Loon Farm: Parts I and III.
And from the women of Wednesday Academy to honor the founder of Wednesday Academy: