Life & Culture

Then Again: Hemenway’s ‘gazetteer’ is remarkable and unique

Abby Maria Hemenway dedicated the second half of her life to producing the “Vermont Historical Gazetteer." Vermont Historical Society

Anyone studying early Vermont history will encounter Abby Maria Hemenway and her masterwork, the “Vermont Historical Gazetteer." Rummage through a library for details on Vermont through the Civil War and any librarian worth their salt will ask you, “Have you checked in Hemenway?” 

It’s an obvious place to begin your search — like looking in the fridge for the milk.

Abby Hemenway devoted most of her professional life, from 1859 until her death in 1890, to compiling a detailed history of her home state. Relying on local residents to write about their communities, and doing the work herself when none could be found, Hemenway set out to produce an encyclopedic history.

It was an audacious goal. Historian and naturalist Zadock Thompson produced a state history in 1824 and updated it in 1842. But Hemenway was more ambitious. She wanted her state history — which would be a compilation of town histories — to be in far greater depth. 

Following the custom of the day, she decided to group her town histories by county, beginning with Addison County.

The local reaction was not exactly encouraging. When she sought help from several Middlebury College professors, who were also apparently members of their town’s historical society, they replied in a condescending letter that the project was “an impracticality.” 

It is “not a suitable work for a woman,” the professors wrote. A team of scholars had toiled for years on a county history, they informed her. “How could one woman expect to do what 40 men had been trying for 16 years and could not?”

As stinging as the letter must have been, it didn’t stop her. Over the next 30 years, Hemenway overcame prejudices and financial troubles and churned out five thick volumes of Vermont history. 

Unlike most 19th-century histories, which view the world solely through a political and/or military lens, Hemenway’s many contributors looked at social, economic, cultural and intellectual aspects of their communities. Printed in small type and laid out in two columns, the tomes chronicle the history of each town from its settlement, discuss the history of local churches, offer profiles of prominent citizens, catalog the military records of local residents and even present samples of local poetry. 

The gazetteer includes an idiosyncratic mix of history and folklore, a reflection of the amateur historians who wrote the vast majority of it. 

Hemenway left the folklore in because she viewed it as part of the story and, in a way, as important as the facts. She trusted her readers would distinguish myth from reality. 

An unequaled achievement

The volumes are an invaluable record of what Vermonters knew, or in some cases wanted to believe, about their past. It is an unequaled achievement, according to her biographer, the late Deborah Clifford, who wrote that no one else even attempted what Hemenway undertook, compiling a history of each community in a state.

It is rich terrain for researchers to mine. The late historian John Duffy once suggested, only half jokingly, that students of Vermont history hang a portrait of Hemenway above their desks and give thanks that she embarked on her remarkable endeavor.

Together, Abby Hemenway’s “Vermont Historical Gazetteer” totals about 6,000 pages and takes up nearly a yard of shelf space. She planned to publish the history in six volumes, and was working on the sixth (the one containing the history of Windsor County) at the time of her death. 

The volumes are restricted to libraries’ reference sections, so you can’t check them out. And when they come up for auction, complete sets in middling condition tend to fetch $300 to $400. New reprints cost only a bit less. 

Fortunately, you can read Hemenway’s gazetteer online on Google Books, and some academic websites even let you download the volumes as PDFs. Printed books have their tactile appeal. I feel much more connected to Hemenway when leafing through the books than scrolling through them on my computer.

But reading the books online won’t deprive you of the experience of curling up with them — the gazetteer has never made good fireside reading. Haul one into a chair and you’ll soon feel like you are reading with a bowling ball in your lap.

The digital version has other distinct advantages over the printed one. Besides saving you money and shelf space, the digital version lets you quickly search the 6,000 pages for any word or phrase. Using the printed version, you have to rely on the less-than-perfect index. 

The digital version is a boon especially for genealogists, who have long been indebted to the breadth of the gazetteer. Want to track people with your last name through the pages? Just type the name and off you go. 

Vermont and the rest of New England are particularly important to genealogists, because so many American families started in the region before migrating west.

From poets to state history

Hemenway was born in 1828 into a large family on a small hill farm in Ludlow. We know little about Abby’s education, but by age 14 she had already entered one of few professions open to females, teaching. 

In her 20s, she spent some years living in the Midwest before returning to Vermont at age 30 and launching into her first editing project. Hemenway decided she would publish a volume of verse by Vermont’s leading poets, the first such compilation ever created. 

In some ways, “Poets and Poetry of Vermont” helped lead to the “Vermont Historical Gazetteer,” Clifford argued. The project forced Hemenway to hone her persuasive skills, as she talked poets into sharing their work. Some she persuaded by corresponding with them; others she charmed in person. 

She was making valuable connections, since the poets included among them members of the state’s political and cultural elite.

Once the poetry volume was published, Hemenway traveled around Vermont to sell copies. Clifford conjectured that the trips sparked in her an interest in the state’s past. 

Independence and an income

Hemenway seems to have cared little about social strictures that held that a woman shouldn’t travel alone and definitely shouldn’t promote herself. The poetry project gave Hemenway a sense of independence and provided an income few women of the era enjoyed. 

At a time when women were expected to marry and were rarely encouraged to work after they did so, Hemenway chose to live as an unmarried career woman. Clifford titled her biography “The Passion of Abby Hemenway,” the passion referring to Hemenway’s devotion to recording local history. 

“Her skills were prodigious,” Clifford once explained in a newspaper interview. “She was obviously enormously persuasive.” 

She talked scores of writers, most of them men, into contributing sections to the gazetteer. “She knew everybody in the state who could help,” Clifford said. “She was a tremendously fast reader. She had a great memory. She worked 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. She just threw herself into this with a kind of dedication. … She had a wonderful mind and she knew the history of the state backwards and forwards.”

The Vermont Gazetteer took a toll on Hemenway. She fell behind in her payments to printers and fled her debts by moving to Chicago, where she continued to toil away. Hemenway was working on the final volume, number six, which was to cover her home county, Windsor, when she died of a stroke at age 61. 

The material for that volume was packed off to the home of a friend, William Portus Baxter, who was a major collector of Vermontiana. Baxter also stored many other documents that Hemenway had amassed. The papers remained with Baxter until his death in 1911, at which time they were shipped to his niece in North Carolina.

Seemingly spurred by news of Baxter’s death, the Vermont Historical Society wrote to his niece on Nov. 22, 1911, asking whether she would donate Hemenway’s papers to the society. It would be a valuable contribution to Vermont history. 

But fate intervened. On Nov. 27, fire destroyed the home of Baxter’s niece, and with it Hemenway’s papers.

Fortunately for us, the bulk of Abby Hemenway’s work had already been committed to the printed page and in recent years has made the leap to the cloud.

Mark Bushnell

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