A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 313

If the hat fits, share it

FARMINGTON - There has been a recent flurry of interest in Henry Wilson, he who gave Castro length speeches before and even after the Civil War about the evils of slavery. He had an ax to grind, of course, having been forced to slave away himself for 11 years as an indentured farm servant in Farmington when he could have been wasting his youthful years with his more fortunate peers, mudding, laying down rubber and clanging that metal stop sign opposite Cumberland Farms in the middle of the night.

As a handful of people already know, Wilson (known at the time as Jerry Colbath) claimed his freedom on turning 21, and stamped off to Natick, Massachusetts to become a cobbler. That was way back in the 1800s, in the days before shoe factories moved to China on account of the limitless supply of indentured servants.

Wilson honed his skills as a windbag by joining Natick Debating Society and eventually was elected to the U.S. Senate in recognition of his prattler par excellence status. Later, as one of the least corrupt politicians in Washington, he was shrewdly tapped by Ulysses Grant to be vice president - a bit ironic, when it was Grant, or at least his gold-speculating cronies, who were associated with vice.

Anyway, it all served to put Natick on the map for that’s where Wilson, his parents, his wife and son are buried. And now, with Barack Obama elected as the first African American president, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the early years of struggle for racial equality. Thus, researchers are stumbling with greater frequency on Henry Wilson, author of The Rise and Fall of Slave Power in the United States and father of the endless political diatribe.

And now comes Natick Historical Society, which is in the throes of organizing a Henry Wilson festival slated for 2010. My phone rang the other day and a lady’s voice asked, "Hello? Is that President Nolan of WOOOF?"

That was a bit surprising, because despite more than 20 lonely years at the helm of Wilson Out Of Obscurity Forthwith, I am scarcely a household name on River Road, never mind Farmington.

Dottie Bean of Farmington Historical Society, it seems, had been already contacted by this same lady, who is on a mission to borrow Henry Wilson’s top hat, which rests in a glass case in the museum under the Goodwin Library, next to the Henry Wilson walking cane, the Henry Wilson bedspread and the Henry Wilson gallstone. Dottie had mentioned the existence of WOOOF.

Meanwhile, back at the top hat. This turns out to be the property, not of the Historical Society but of the Library, itself, which is governed by a board of trustees. And yet, the Henry Wilson Hat, the Natick lady emphasized, is crucial to their entire festival, as it is one of four hats that are closely associated with the great man.

They already possess the other three. There is his General’s Slouch Hat (for Wilson raised a Civil War regiment) and another couple tightly linked with his life, but which have since slipped Dottie’s mind. I’m pretty sure one is a jaunty Cobbler’s Hat and the other a Dunce’s Cap, on account of his missing all that schoolwork as an indentured servant.

The plan for the Natick festival may be to have four separate Henry Wilsons march in a big parade, bedecked as he was in the various stages of his life, and obviously the top hat is absolutely crucial. This formal headgear illustrates what a magician Henry Wilson was to make Grant acceptable to the voters of the United States for a second term after the odium of the first four years. You could call Henry Wilson the 19th century equivalent of Al Gore or Dick Cheney, I suppose.

Well, after Dottie got the call for the Hat, she spoke with Marty Chagnon, who, like her, is a library trustee, and he was very dubious on account of things lent tending not to come back again.

(At this point, I would like to convey to Mrs. Calvert of Alton my strongest assurances that I’m slowly plowing through her lent book of endless Henry Wilson speeches that comprise his biography.)

Dottie subsequently passed Marty’s initial misgivings back to Natick, which brings us to the phone inquiry, "Hello? Is that President Nolan of WOOOF?"

The Natick lady, grossly misinformed, had mistaken me for a person of influence, and thought my intervention, as president of WOOOF, would tip the scales in her favor. The real hero of the hour, though, was Dottie Bean, herself, who won over the library trustees by pledging to hand-deliver the precious top hat to Natick Historical Society in person.

My caller also enquired if I’d be willing to present a Henry Wilson program during the Natick festival, but I waxed cold on that idea. Natick can be a tough audience.

Years ago, I was asked to sing there at the annual New England Folk Festival, which included a workshop on children’s songs, and I contributed a working class gem from the north of England called You’ll get a belt from yer da’.

Unhappily, the age of political correctness had just arrived, and formerly laid-back liberals with a sense of humor had become converted into self-righteous and dangerous idiots. Mothers, outraged by the inference of child violence in the refrain, booed me.

I’m not sure that Natick has changed enough since then to appreciate WOOOF’s slightly embroidered version of the Henry Wilson story, of which Royce Hodgdon is an integral part - as New Hampshire Public Television realizes. Or maybe not.


March 1, 2009


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