Notes from the Archives: The Friendship of Robert P. Tristram Coffin and Samuel Appleton Ladd Jr.

by Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger

I love presentation copies. I also love Maine authors. A recent donation from  Samuel Appleton Ladd III of books owned by his father, Samuel Appleton Ladd, Jr., combines two of my favorite things in the collections of the Maine Historical Society, as well as incorporating other themes such as friendship, the bond of fraternal brothers, and artwork/illustration.

Samuel Appleton Ladd and author, poet, and Bowdoin professor, Robert P. Tristram Coffin were longtime friends. They were also members of the same fraternity at Bowdoin College, Zeta Psi, although at different times. Samuel Ladd was born in 1906, and Robert P. Tristram Coffin was born in 1892, and graduated from Bowdoin in 1915.

Evidence of this friendship is in this wonderful collection of books and their inscriptions, including some with drawings, from Coffin to Ladd, and his wife Estelle (“Dolly“). “Primer for America” is inscribed: “For Sam Ladd, who spends most of his money buying my books, and may he keep up the good works! With best wishes, in Tau Kappa Phi as brother in fraternity and life.”

Apparently “Tau Kappa Phi” is the greeting of those in the Zeta Psi fraternity. This inscription includes a charming picture drawn by Coffin of a coastal scene, complete with house on the shore (with smoke billowing out of the chimney), dory on the beach, a lighthouse, and lots of seagulls (seemingly birds are Coffin’s trademarks).

Another inscription in “Maine ballads” says: “for my friend and brother in Tau Kappa Phi and fellow Brunswickian, Sam Ladd Jr. with all neighborly wishes, Robert P. Tristram Coffin.”

In “Kennebec, Cradle of Americans” Coffin writes: “Inscribed for Samuel Appleton Ladd who has a good Bowdoin name, is a Bowdoin man, a brother [?], and now my friend, Robert P. Tristram Coffin.”

In Coffin’s “Collected Poems” he writes, “For Sam Ladd who reads my books as much as I do, friend and brother in TKØ, with best wishes Robert P. Tristram Coffin.” This inscription also includes a drawing by Coffin of a house with smoke rising from the chimney, and flanked with pine trees on either side.

In “Captain Abby and Captain John: An Around-the-World-Biography” the inscription says: “For Sam and Dolly Ladd who live around the corner and are my good friends, with best wishes, Robert P. Tristram Coffin.” The drawing underneath shows a bunny and tracks in between two pine trees.

Even Dolly, Sam’s wife, has her own inscription in Coffin’s “Mainstays of Maine”, a cookbook: “For Dolly Ladd who is a New England artist and cookery and doesn’t own this book, but I am glad she has it so I can put my name on it and good wishes, Robert P. Tristram Coffin.” The drawing under this inscription shows a bird carrying off an envelope.

Also in the collection is a book “Inscribed for Harry Oakes, Fellow in Bowdoin at whose home I spent a lovely Californian evening talking about Maine, with best wishes in Tau Kappa Phi, Robert P. Tristram Coffin.” This is an intriguing tale, if indeed it is inscribed to Sir Harry Oakes, the gold mine owner, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. Oakes was born in Sangerville, Maine, and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1896. He earned his fortune in Canada, and in the 1930s moved to the Bahamas for tax purposes, where he was murdered in 1943 in notorious circumstances.

This inscription has a date of February 19, 1948, but it looks like it could have been written at a different time. In any case, obviously Oakes was dead by then, but his daughter, Nancy, later lived in California – perhaps this is when the book was signed. There is a bust on their mantelpiece of the Zeta Phi House at Bowdoin College of Sir Harry Oakes, so this may have been the same Harry Oakes in the inscription. Underneath this inscription is a drawing of three birds flying.

Samuel Appleton Ladd, Jr. was on the Bowdoin College faculty for many years. During that time, he became the elder person at the Zeta Phi fraternity to keep order, good food, and be financially secure. Sam co-edited “An informal history of the Lamda Chapter of Zeta Psi at Bowdoin College, 1867-1967” (Brunswick Publishing Company, ca. 1967). Bowdoin later eliminated fraternities and turned them into housing places for students. All living members on the fraternities voted to re-name the houses and get rid of the Greek names. The Zeta Psi house, by popular vote, was named the Ladd House. It still stands today on College Street in Brunswick. (Information from the donor, Samuel Appleton Ladd III).

All together, these presentation copies, as well as other books which were part of the library of Samuel Appleton Ladd, give us a charming picture into long friendships and connections within the Bowdoin College family.

One thought on “Notes from the Archives: The Friendship of Robert P. Tristram Coffin and Samuel Appleton Ladd Jr.

  1. Charles

    This is an intriguing and charming story of two Bowdoin gentlemen, from elegant times. Their shared friendship lives on through these warm inscriptions.

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