A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 295

For WOOOF, the Outlook is excellent

FARMINGTON — Hi, President Nolan of WOOOF here. It has been a few years, but at last I have some heartening tidings on the Wilson Out Of Obscurity Forthwith front.

It is a pleasure to announce that Farmington’s most famous son, US Vice President Henry Wilson, was featured last Wednesday on state television’s public affairs program, New Hampshire Outlook — albeit around 11:45 p.m., long after the Republican National Convention had zipped up its tent for the night and tedious analysis by Shields and Brooks had closed the eyes of even the most dogged viewers.

Nonetheless, director/interviewer Phil Vaughn is to be heartily congratulated on the thoroughness of his Wilson research, which is reflected in the high quality and accuracy of the profile. Thanks to Vaughn’s 15-minute documentary, its several viewers now have a much fuller picture of the 18th Vice President’s life, death and subsequent reincarnation, than they got from that iffy TV piece by Fritz Weatherbee, as described in this very column back in 1992. (See Windbags Wince at WOOOF.)

I was contacted by NH Outlook in August after their initial Internet research on Wilson led them to WOOOF, whose 16-year struggle to rocket Wilson out of obscurity has been somewhat hampered, of late, by a lack of dues-paying members and a tidal wave of apathy. The campaign, too, has encountered some terrible reverses far beyond its control and, up until last week, Henry Wilson, born as Jeremiah Jones Colbath near the first tee of Farmington Country Club on Feb. 16, 1812, had sunk deeper into obscurity than ever.

Allow me to illustrate. Nothing is heard these days of the Henry Wilson Softball League, which the vice president (in his reincarnated form of Royce Hodgdon, purveyor of second-hand stoves and freezers) had once ceremoniously launched with an opening pitch.

The dear old Henry Wilson Grange on Mechanic Street seemed to lose vitality with the passing of pianist Betty Webster, and now members, as they enter their 90s, avoid meeting in snowy and summery months, which doesn’t leave much.

Henry Wilson Highway, reactivated in the late 1980s after history buff Roger Nutter contacted the state, has lost its signs on Route 11, and earlier this year, Farmington selectmen, with a marvelous piece of nose-thumbing at the tourist industry, purged Henry’s name from that part of the old road that went through town.

And to cap it all, Henry Wilson Memorial School has been official designated as a failing institution. Yup, times were tough for Henry and WOOOF, until the recent arrival in town of Phil Vaughn.

By arrangement I met him and his NHPTV cameraman a couple of weeks ago at the rock that marks Henry’s birthplace, and then we drove to Mechanic Street to view the only trace of life at the Grange — a little spider web swaying in the breeze on the Henry Wilson sign. And from there we went to the Goodwin Library, where, thanks to sterling work by town historian Roger Belanger, with strong support from Dottie Bean and Librarian Debbie Christie, a treasure trove of Henry Wilson memorabilia had been laid out on a table.

There, on display, were Henry’s top hat and walking cane, framed portraits from the museum, and election posters of Wilson and President Ulysses Grant from Roger’s fabled collection. I dipped into my folder and without ceremony added to the table the reincarnation photograph that Joe Henry had taken years ago of Royce attired in a tuxedo borrowed for the purpose from George Meyer of Pease Development Authority fame — the photograph that helped to prove, along with irrefutable charts, that Man of Granite had come back among us as Man of Enamel.

Vaughn told me that, not wishing to be lampooned in a column á la Fritz Weatherbee, he had done an exhaustive amount of research on Wilson, much of it from the Farmington Corners I had recently sent him. And so the interview with the president of WOOOF began, and a pleasure it was, for the interviewer had not only done his homework, but also displayed a genuine interest in the subject matter.

We covered Henry’s poverty stricken childhood and his years as an indentured servant that convinced him of slavery’s evils; we talked of his great respect and aptitude for learning, and his rise in the Natick shoe trade and in Massachusetts’ politics. Vaughn asked about Wilson’s role in national politics and the Civil War, and why he was chosen as Grant’s running mate. I mentioned Henry’s flirtations with both a southern spy and spiritualism. The conversation next turned to Henry’s death whilst in office, and of his subsequent reappearance, according to the Senate Book of Ghosts, as an occasional chilling presence outside the vice presidential office.

As this NH Outlook program was due to be aired on the evening of current VP Dick Cheney’s speech at the Convention, I though it important and timely to mention the haunting business, as it would be rather unfair if every chill were blamed on Cheney’s personality.

I was just about to move on, in my discussion with Vaughn, to the reincarnation of Wilson, and his astonishing reappearance in Farmington as my friend, Royce Hodgdon, someone whose belief in the Rights of Man had led him to battle Town Hall just as resolutely as Henry had fought against slavery. But, oh calamity, we were out of time!

The camera, seeking graphic content to enhance the interview, then transferred its attention to the library table of artifacts and hovered over items of particular interest.

"What’s this?" asked Vaughn with dead-pan artfulness (as if he hadn’t done his thorough research), picking up the photograph of Royce/Henry looking splendidly statesmanlike in Meyer’s tux.

"That’s Henry as a younger man," said Roger Belanger, which is what we reincarnationists believe to be absolutely true.

"That photograph must have come up from Washington," added Roger, completely forgetting to credit Joe Henry. This made me feel a bit guilty, but as I was distracting Dottie Bean at the time, I said nothing, and Debbie Christie, new to the scene, was unaware of Roger’s memory lapse.

Things worked out okay though. The TV program on Henry Wilson opened with a nice shot of Royce, and even though photographer Joe Henry received no kudos, he was pleased to learn that his famous picture was used not just once, but several times throughout the show. George Meyer was happy in the knowledge that his tuxedo had made Farmington look good, and John Hodgdon, over a Bud down at the stoves and freezers shop, agreed that his dad, who sadly passed on a couple of years ago, would have enjoyed the program every bit as much as he liked the column on Fritz Weatherbee.

Now selectmen, about that street name …

Sept. 5, 2004


The Life of Henry Wilson as seen on NHPTV on 9/1/04


                  FC Gallery No. 1 - Henry Wilson                             FC Home5         Previous         Next