142-year-old autograph book returns to Massachusetts academy

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BRIMFIELD (AP) >> Charles G. Morgan, a town native who likely died in the early to mid-1900s, is probably resting a little easier these days.

His autograph book, akin to today's school yearbook, from 142 years ago that wound up in Iowa for decades, has finally made its way back home.

"I thought it was so intriguing it made its way back across the country. This is where it belongs. This is home for the little book," said Susan P. Gregory, executive director of Hitchcock Free Academy.

The little 5-by-4-inch brown clothbound book, with gold edging and the word "Autograph" stamped in gold on the cover, belonged to Mr. Morgan, who attended the former Hitchcock Free High School. It is not known if Mr. Morgan graduated from the school or what he did later in life, but there is evidence that he was active in the school's theatrical productions.

During that time, elementary schools were free to attend. But public high schools were not mandated. Private secondary schools were available, but many teens could not afford the cost. A local man Samuel Austin Hitchcock, who did not have the resources to attend a private academy, and other town folks started the free high school for local youth. The school operated from 1855 until 1954, when Tantasqua Regional High School opened. The former free high school was converted to Hitchcock Free Academy, a nonprofit community center.

The book contains the signatures and sayings from 29 people, mostly classmates from 1873 and 1874.

Ephraim W. Norwood, principal of the school from 1869 to 1879, was the first to autograph Mr. Morgan's book. He wrote: "I hope that the earnest, faithful boy will become a noble man. One who shall be strong in the strength of his own manhood, whose life work shall be rich in good results, whom God and man shall delight to honor."

Classmate George Sherman, who signed the book in November 1873, wrote, "May friendship reign!" After graduating from Hitchcock High School the following year and later Amherst College, Mr. Sherman became principal of Black River School in Ludlow, Vermont. One of his students, Calvin Coolidge, became governor of Massachusetts and later the nation's 30th president.

At an alumni reunion in Worcester in the fall of 1923, the year Mr. Coolidge was elected to the presidency, Mr. Sherman, who then lived in Northboro, was quoted as saying "Calvin Coolidge was the most extraordinarily ordinary boy I ever knew."

Another classmate who signed the book, Anna Tarbell, became a very important figure in town and the surrounding area. She went on to become a teacher at Hitchcock Free High School, a local historian, writer and local librarian. She held an ice cream social at her home, located a few houses from the school, to raise money for the first library in town. Ms. Tarbell never married and died in the mid-1930s. Larry Lowenthal, a local historian, said Ms. Tarbell dedicated her life to advancing education and library resources in town. She wrote a couple of books about education and building up libraries.

"To me she represents one of those admirable women of the old New England type who believed in social progress through education .... She had a great deal of impact on people," he said.

Ms. Tarbell also wrote newspaper articles and obituaries for virtually everybody who died in Brimfield, said Mr. Lowenthal. She had a knack for capturing the importance of each person.

"People used to say that it was almost worth dying to have your obituary written by Anna Tarbell," Mr. Lowenthal said.

Tom J. Brown, the assistant fire chief, is a descendant of Ms. Tarbell. His late mother, Harriett Tarbell Brown, was a great-niece. Mr. Brown said he still has an obituary that Ms. Tarbell wrote for his great-uncle George Munroe, who died in the late 1800s. The penmanship of those who signed the little autograph book in fountain pen, including Ms. Tarbell, was an impeccable art form.

"I knew a little bit about her. But I didn't realize the extent of her dedication to the town and education," he said. "It's nice to know that people in your ancestry was that special."

One signature in the book that appears to have been written on Jan. 30, 1874, remains a mystery. A page near the middle of the book contains Japanese lettering and a signature: "Sadanori Youchi, Kagoshima, Japan, Japan."

Ms. Gregory, the community center's executive director, said the little book will be kept with other treasures in the room that was the high school's former library. Among the items are records of graduates, a library of old books that covers two walls, an Indian bow and arrow from 1876 that was presented to the high school, period furniture and photographs, and an old desk for students. An 1860s Native American History book was sold to Mohegan Sun for its library for a few thousand dollars about 15 years ago to help renovate the room.

Ms. Gregory said the little book has taken on a life of its own. "But one of the things that caused me to scratch my head is how did it get to Iowa," she said.

The book apparently had been in the possession of George Klingler, a communications professor at the University of Iowa, for several decades. Mr. Klingler's widow, Judy, said her husband had been a "collector of all things." She said that a couple of years before he died in September, her husband left a few of his collections at an antique shop in Dysart, Iowa. Mr. Klingler's son, Keith, who lives in Ohio, said his father's family once lived in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and his grandparents owned an antique shop in a small nearby town. He did not know the name of the town.

Joan Witter, a native of Iowa, purchased the book after looking through a few pages and seeing that it was from Brimfield. She was familiar with the town because she had visited the Brimfield Flea Market with a friend who lives in Sturbridge. Ms. Witter mailed the book to her friend, who returned it to Hitchcock last month.

"Lots of people have commented to me on what a great story this is. People are excited to know about it," she said. "People wanted to see the little book and now they'll be able to."

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester), http://www.telegram.com


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