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. <

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