The Berkshire Museum has hit on an interesting idea for an exhibit: Personal collections. A lot of us have personal collections. I know people who’ve collected everything from thimbles to souvenir chinaware, electric watt-hour meters to fabric ethnic dolls, milk bottles to Royal Canadian Mounted Police memorabilia.
I’m going to talk about two collectors -- not from the museum exhibit -- who assembled interesting stuff.
Frank Dorrance Hopley (1872-1933) worked for years as a professional secretary in New York before moving to Lee, where he wrote, among other things, "X-Bar-X Boys" juvenile series books under the pen name James Cody Ferris. Hopley collected notes from famous people in which they described their greatest thrills.
Thomas Edison, for example, said his was when he "started up the first large electric light station in New York City, which it was claimed would fail." James W. Gerard, who had been ambassador to Germany during World War I, said his was when the Kaiser wagged his finger and told him he "would stand no nonsense from America and you had better look out after the war."
Hopley amassed the notes in anticipation of writing an article, according to a story in the Springfield Republican of August 26, 1933. But then his collection kept growing. His solicitations weren’t always successful; William H. Taft said his life had had no thrills. John J. Pershing and Will H. Hayes were too busy to think about it. William Jennings Bryan couldn’t settle on any one thrilling moment. "I appreciate the compliment you pay me in asking for the most thrilling moment but I have passed through so many thrilling experiences that I am not willing to single out one as surpassing all the rest," he told Hopley.
For the Rev. David James Burrell, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, it was, as a boy, shaking the hand of Abraham Lincoln. "One afternoon in 1858 I heard Lincoln in one of his joint debates with Stephen A. Douglas. After it was over, my father introduced me to him and he shook my hand with a smile and a few pleasant words."
Skipping ahead to today, Sam Barrett of Sheffield, when we had lunch at the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington a few weeks back, had just checked off his 29th and final Berkshire County library. (It was in Hancock.) He "collects" libraries in the Berkshires and anywhere else he goes. He collects them by stopping by, entering the building, locating a book that he has read, soaking in the atmosphere and obtaining a paper take-away with the library’s name on it to place in his album.
"I try to get a bookmark," Barrett said.
It all started years ago when traveling in summer to a family getaway near Lake George, he said. Foregoing the Northway, he one day took the back way on Route 22. He saw the New Lebanon, N.Y. library. He found others in Corinth or Stillwater or Mechanicville. He had a new hobby.
Why libraries? "You can tell a lot about a town by its library," he said, noting that Norfolk, an otherwise sleepy looking town in Litchfield County, Conn., has a "stunning library. Inside there is polished oak trim, it’s beautiful." Libraries, he is convinced, are true reflections of the economic viability of their communities. "They’re the intellectual focal point of almost any town," he said.
The largest he’s visited is the New York Public Library. The smallest is in Savoy, a room at town hall. The most modern he’s been to is in Salt Lake City, Utah. And the one with the most unusual name is the municipal library in What Cheer, Iowa. The oldest is in Philadelphia, the one started by Ben Franklin. Unfortunately it wasn’t open the day he was there, so it can’t officially be on his checklist.
His collection of bookmarks is as varied as the towns he describes. Some are plainly printed, some are die-cut. He has one from a library in Santa Fe, N.M. He’s been there, but the souvenir from a library in Juneau, Alaska, was a gift from his wife, Mary.
He often nabs two or three libraries on a given excursion, his record being nine in one day.
"Libraries are my passion," he said. "I just love being in libraries, whether a few minutes or a few hours."
His life list now tallies 281. "I gave $100 to number 100 (New Marlborough) and $200 to number 200 (Bayfield, Colo.)," he said.
My own collections? I’ll only mention one. The Elaine and Dora Read Goodale Poetry and Prose Collection. I have copies of all but one of the books by these Mount Washington-raised women, including many with variant cover colors. Four are signed by the authoresses. The most difficult to locate -- it took me a couple dozen years -- was "Hundred Maples," Elaine’s Stephen Day Press novel from 1935, with dust jacket. The last copy I saw available online was without jacket.
But that’s what collecting is all about -- the thrill of the search.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.