Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My Educational Roots

I've blogged before about my great-great-grandfather Lemuel Dunham, but not about his education. In late 1856 or early 1857—after a year spent working the cod fisheries of the Newfoundland Banks—Lemuel enrolled at Hebron Academy in the English Department. Back then, a 26-year-old man could show up for class at a co-ed prep school without the police being alerted.

In the spring of 1857, Lemuel hatched a plan to plant elm trees in the school's yard. When Lemuel's elm was planted and a speech was called for, he declined to speak. He wrote later that he was “somewhat diffident, and not much of a Franklin for that sort of business." James Libby spoke in his stead, saying "Here's a fine tree planted by the hand of Dunham. May it extend its roots beneath, its branches overhead and thus grow and flourish forever." The time came for a Mr. Marshall to plant his tree, which was accomplished with the following words: "Here's a fine tree, plucked from the meadow, and planted by me. May it grow, wave its branches and flourish a thousand years longer than Dunham's!"

Lemuel was a student at the Academy as late as April of 1858, when one of his teachers composed a poem about a late-season snowstorm. The summer following was an especially eventful one. Years later, after spending a night in the house where he was born and raised, he recalled the fondest wish of his boyhood.

From the window the White Mountains loomed up in full view; there I resolved, if my life was spared, to stand on the top of Mount Washington some day, and as good luck would have it that wish was gratified on the 7th day of July, 1858.
The road up Mount Washington wasn't completed until 1861, so Lemuel must have reached New England's highest point on foot.

The second notable event of Lemuel's summer was the most disturbing of his life. On the morning of Aug. 27, he went to the town of Auburn to witness two hangings.

Peter Williams and Abraham Cox had been convicted of murdering the captain, mates, and one other man aboard the brig Albion Cooper. Six to seven thousand people ("of whom it is estimated that one quarter were women" said a newspaper account) gathered in the Auburn prison yard to witness the spectacle. Lemuel was among them. "I saw those poor wretches launched into eternity," he would write, "and it was a sight that I do not wish to witness again.”

Lemuel had certainly ended his educational career by Jan. 1, 1859, the day he married a young widow named Lydia Ann Clifford. They would settle eventually in my hometown of Greenwood, where Lemuel was a newspaper correspondent and a poor farmer in both senses of the word "poor." He fancied himself a poet (judge for yourself), dabbled in art, was a careful student of nature, and took great interest in science. When a hydroelectric generator was installed in a nearby town, he made a trip to see the device. About 1889, he asked neighbor John Small if he could watch him set off some dynamite. When Small installed an aqueduct to supply his kitchen and barn with running water, Lemuel inspected the improvements and reported on their performance.

The Dunhams didn't have running water, but Lemuel claimed in 1885 that he had “owned a good microscope for more than thirty years.” While his neighbors were about the business of running their farms, he was examining a snow flea with the instrument and relating his findings to his readers. He satisfied his urge to educate through those columns, and as a Sunday-school teacher. As a member of the town school committee he was known to sit in on classes. I suspect this had as much to do with his fondness for children and the classroom as with the requirements of his office.

Lemuel showed boundless curiosity when confronted with different cultures. He frequently visited the Catholic inhabitants of Greenwood's "Irish Neighborhood," and was fascinated by the tattoos and dialect of a French-Canadian woodcutter who settled near his home. He was a man who sought out stimulating conversation, and would leave his farm for weeks at a time to walk the countryside and visit old acquaintances. An undated article in his scrapbook states that he had stopped by the newspaper office on a "vacation trip."
Notwithstanding the fact that he is quite a number of years past the meridian of life, Mr. Dunham is not afraid of walking, which he says is becoming a lost art, and when on a trip, if it is more convenient to walk than to ride, does not mind making fifteen to twenty miles a day on foot.
His travels in 1904 took him to the week-long centennial celebration at his alma mater, Hebron Academy.
Sitting in the shade of the elm trees I assisted in planting nearly 50 years ago, one man spoke in this manner: Yes, one hundred years ago the first academy was built on these grounds, and we are celebrating its one hundredth anniversary. In one hundred years from now, or in the year 2004, who, and what then? One thing is certain, said a man at his side, you and I will not be here and nobody will care whether we were here to-day or not.
Well, it's been nearly 103 years, and I do care that Lemuel was there on that day, for it demonstrates the value he placed upon education. His children and grandchildren didn't receive high-school diplomas, but his later descendants have collected armloads of diplomas and degrees. His elm hasn't survived, but his love of learning has.

Becky Wiseman

A wonderful post Chris, and interesting too! I enjoyed it very much. Not that I don't enjoy your "humorous" posts too, but you really should write more of this type of post.


I loved your story, Chris!

You are your great-great-grandfather's great-great-grandson, that's for sure.


Thanks to you both!

Lemuel has always been the dead ancestor I'd most like to meet, and the one with whom I have the most in common. He appears to have valued education for its own sake, rather than for the wealth and prestige it might bring. As someone with plenty of education and little wealth and prestige, I have to admire that.

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