Friday, November 19, 2021

A matter of historical record: Meet 'Old Mrs. Wilson' of Windham Center – author, lecturer, teacher, early feminist

By Walter Lunt

In the early years of the 20th century, some residents who lived in the Windham Center neighborhood called her “Old Mrs. Wilson.” They were half right. She was elderly by this time, but her real name was Abba Louisa Goold Woolson. She was born in the stylish colonial house with the Greek Revival wraparound porch and attached ell and tower on Windham Center Road near the Nash Road, known today as the historic Goold House. Old Mrs. Woolson had developed an odd reputation since returning to her childhood home in the late 1800s.

Strong willed and independent,
Abba Woolson helped lead an effort
to reform women's dress codes of
the 1800s, which she felt were
unnecessary and unhealthy. Many
historians rank her among the
distinctive Women of the Century.
She was born at Windham Center
in 1838 and published books and
articles into the 20th century.
The late Windham historian Kay Soldier once inquired of elderly Windham residents who remembered Woolson; it seems the gossipy onlookers found Woolson to be an “odd duck” who lit up the neighborhood with a huge bonfire every April 22 in honor of Queen Isabella’s birthday. And, they claimed, she would occasionally “go out back (to) the family cemetery and open her husband’s casket.”

Born Abba Louisa Goold in 1838 in Windham, she was the second of eight children to William and Nabby Goold; her father was first a tailor, then represented Windham in the Maine legislature and Senate and later in life wrote history books, including Portland in the Past (The Windham Eagle – Nov. 5, 2021).

Abba graduated head of her class at the Portland School for Girls in 1856. That same year, she married the school’s principal, Moses Woolson; she was 18; he was 17 years her senior. The couple lived in Portland where Abba began writing poetry and teaching at Portland High School.

From 1862 to 1887, Moses answered the call for principalships in several cities including Cincinnati, Ohio; Concord, New Hampshire and Boston, Massachusetts. Abba, meanwhile, pursued poetry and began publishing essays. She became Professor of Belles Lettres at the Mount Auburn Young Ladies Institute in Haverhill, Massachusetts, taught higher mathematics and Latin while assisting her husband at Concord High School and delivered lectures before various literary societies on such diverse topics as English Literature, the historical plays of Shakespeare and Spanish history. In 1871, Mrs. Woolson traveled to Utah to interview Brigham Young for the Boston Journal (later the Boston Herald).

By the early 1870s, Woolson’s essays were being published in book form with each volume based on a theme. Her first was Woman in American Society, a reflection of Woolson’s interest and concern for women’s emancipation. It examined and critiqued certain cultural situations that placed constraints on women. It drew favorable reviews nationwide. A follow-up volume titled Dress Reform argued that women’s layered and cumbersome clothing of the time, especially corsets, were both unnecessary and unhealthful. The book featured essays written by women physicians, with recommendations for reform, such as bloomers, or a two-piece garment comprised of a shirt and pantlet, which became known as the emancipation suit. According to Woolson, “…the bloomer costume had been resisted, not because it was unfashionable, but because it had originated in America and not Paris.”

Woolson traveled extensively, both in America and Europe. One nation in particular became a favorite topic, even an obsession: Spain, and the Queen of Castile, Isabella I (1474 to 1505). Woolson visited the nation on two occasions in the 1880s and 1890s. Enthusiasm for its history and geography prompted her founding of the Castilian Club of Boston to promote the study of Spain. Isabella was a strong-willed and powerful queen of Spain as Europe transitioned from the Middle Ages to the age of the Renaissance. Woolson wrote, lectured, and generally celebrated the queen for the rest of her life.
In the late 1880s, Abba Woolson served as president and co-founder of the Massachusetts Moral Education Association, subject matter that was near and dear to her heart – it sought to address certain social issues that led women into prostitution.

Moses Woolson died in 1896. Abba lived on for another 25 years. She returned to the old homestead of her birth in Windham.

As was the custom of those early times, private burial grounds were often created near the family farm. Moses, who was 74 at the time of his death, was placed in the Goold family tomb located on a ridge behind the historic house. He joined veterans of several wars and several generations of the Goold family.

In 1912, a most unusual funeral procession took place there. It seems Abba kept company with two elderly lady relatives. And with them, a beloved cat – who died that summer. It was decided that the cat, named Buffy Greenleaf Clarke, would be interred in the Goold family cemetery amidst grand pomp and ceremony. Invitations were distributed – friends and relatives arrived dressed in appropriate funeral attire – bouquets of flowers graced the beloved kitty’s headstone – Buffy’s casket was lined in pink satin and the tiny feline rested with a pink rose between her paws. Funereal protocol was expected of the full procession. However, it is said that the three elderly mourners became “miffed” when several of the gentlemen attendees failed to remove their hats during the solemn event.

It is likely that this funeral exercise, the annual bonfires on the birthday of Queen Isabella and the rumors of Abba’s visits to her late husband’s casket all combined to encourage the neighborhood to form unfair judgments of the elderly educator, writer and lecturer.

Abba Louisa Goold Woolson passed away in 1921, aged 83, and was interred beside her husband, Moses, in the Goold family tomb on the high ridge behind the old family homestead on Windham Center Road. They had no children.

According to the respected website, “Mrs. Woolson (had) a remarkably retentive memory and a wide knowledge of literature and history, and is probably the ablest woman that Maine has ever produced.”

So, as a matter of historical record, here’s to “Old Mrs. Wilson” – Windham is proud of you.

Next time, an epilogue to our recently concluded series on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal. <

Friday, November 5, 2021

A matter of historical record: Windham’s Goold family – 'born of good ole Yankee pluck'

By Walter Lunt

Countless individuals and families of honor, high character - even fame have called Windham home. Many have been discussed in this column. Few, however, have carried distinguished careers from one generation to another quite like the Goold family.

The Goold House on Windham Center Road was home to
several generations of the Goold family, including William
Goold, a tailor and the first proprietor of Windham's Old
Grocery. The Goold House was placed on the National
Register of Historic Places in 1990.
The first Goold to arrive in Windham is probably best described by historian Samuel Thomas Dole in his book Windham in the Past (Merrill & Webber, 1916): “In the year 1768, a young Quaker named Benjamin Goold, then twenty-one years of age started from Elliot, Me. to Falmouth to make his way in the world. He had no means to begin with except his Yankee pluck.” (pluck: courageous readiness to continue against all odds; dogged resolution – Merriam-Webster).

Young Benjamin found employment in Falmouth (Portland) and worked there before coming to Windham in 1774 where he worked on Daniel Hall’s farm near Windham Center, eventually building a log cabin and later a single-story wood frame house. He was described as industrious and frugal while acquiring considerable land.

Benjamin married Phebe Noble of Gray, who was later remembered by her grandson as a “smart Quaker lady who rode to (Friends) meeting on her pacing mare named Knitting Work.” Benjamin became tax collector and assessor for Windham. He died in 1807 at age 60.

Benjamin’s son, Nathan Goold, born in 1778, purchased 60 acres of land across the road from his birthplace at Windham Center in 1802 on land that is the current site of the Goold house we know today. He was married soon after to Miriam Swett; their first son died within two years of his birth, and later Miriam died only days following the birth of their second son. Nathan remarried and the couple had three more children.

Nathan became a prominent citizen of Windham. He was chairman of the Windham Board of Selectmen for eight years; represented the town in the Court (assembly) of Massachusetts; was a justice of the peace for many years and was captain of the Town Militia during the War of 1812. In September 1814, he marched his company to Portland to defend his town from an expected attack. It is thought that during this time Nathan built the iconic tower onto the ell of his Windham Center home where he mounted a bell to warn citizens of imminent danger (The Windham Eagle – Oct. 22, 2021).

Nathan is also remembered for an act of uncommon generosity. Shortly after purchasing the farm land he turned over a small parcel to a widow, Dorothy Barton. He provided her with a house that he had moved onto the property where she and her daughter lived out their lives. He charged them nothing for all the years they lived there. It is believed the reason for Nathan’s kindness was that Barton’s husband had served with Nathan’s grandfather in the Revolutionary War.

Nathan Goold died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1823 at the young age of 45. His son, William, was just 14 at the time. Just before his death, his father had advised him to learn a trade, and at the urging of his mother, Betsy (Gowen), he went to Portland and began a seven-year apprenticeship under Seth Clark, a tailor (despite his desire to be a printer, or writer). During this time William walked back to his boyhood home at Windham Center numerous times to visit his family. By 1830 he had become a partner with Clark, and in 1834 married “the bosses’ daughter,” Nabby Clark. By 1837, they had established a prosperous tailoring business at the four corners of Gray Road (route 202) and Windham Center Road in a building later known as the Old Grocery (which today has been moved to the Village Green behind the Windham Historical Society Museum). The intervening years had seen the home of his childhood, today known as Goold House, enlarged at least twice.

William represented Windham in the state legislature in 1866, and was a state senator in 1874 and 1875.

But it wasn’t until 1886 that William realized a life-long dream and the achievement for which he is best known. At age 77, he published Portland in the Past, the culmination of a long interest in local history. He was also an original member of the Maine Historical Society, to which he submitted numerous writings.

The Honorable William Goold died in the Windham Center home in which he was born in May, 1890, aged 81 years. William and Nabby Goold had eight children.

Their second child was named Abba Louisa, and was probably the Goold family member who tops the list in terms of notoriety.

Born in 1838, she was, like her father, a person of learning and literature, publishing books and poems, delivering lectures around the country on such far-ranging topics as Shakespeare’s plays and what she termed “constrictive” women’s fashion and, later in life, lighting bonfires at the Windham Center house in honor of Queen Isabella of Spain. According to Windham residents who knew her in the early 1900s, she was quite unique. Some would call her “odd.”

Suffice it to say, over many generations, the Goold family of Windham made significant contributions to the town, the state and even the nation.

And they did it all…with pluck. <

Next time, more on Abba Louisa Goold.