Notes from the Archives: Duncan Howlett papers

By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger

Rev. Duncan Howlett (1906-2003) — minister, Doctor of Philosophy, author, social justice activist, and…tree farmer? After an illustrious career in the ministry, Duncan Howlett retired to Maine, and began a whole new career as a tree farmer. Even then, he wouldn’t simply sit on his porch and watch his trees grow. He organized and was the first President of the Small Woodland Owners Association. One can find papers related to his work in Maine at the University of Maine, Orono.

Rev. Howlett’s papers regarding his life before moving to Maine – as well as when he lived in Maine and kept his fingers in his former life as a Unitarian clergyman – are now processed and available at Maine Historical Society. This collection (Coll. 2993) is voluminous (51.25 linear ft.) in content and subject matter.

So, who was Duncan Howlett?

Born in 1906 in Newton, Massachusetts, he studied law at Harvard and spent two years as a lawyer. In 1933, he yielded to a lifelong interest in religion and returned to Harvard where he was awarded the STB degree (Bachelor of Sacred Theology) with honors in 1936, while serving as Minister of the Second Church, Unitarian, in Salem, Massachusetts, having been ordained to the ministry in 1935. Howlett served at that church from 1933 to 1938. From there, he went to the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford (1938-1946). In September 1946 he became Minister of the First Church in Boston, Unitarian, a position he held for the next twelve years. In 1958, he was called to All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., the position from which he retired in 1968. In May of that year he was appointed to Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign staff.

Interested in public affairs during the entire range of his ministry, Howlett also played an active role in Unitarian denominational affairs, serving as President and Chairman of many national organizations, including the Unitarian Historical Society and the Washington, D.C. Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

A prolific author and writer, his works include: Man Against the Church; The Struggle Between Religion and Ecclesiasticism (1954); The Essenes and Christianity; An Interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1957); The Fourth American Faith (1964); The Critical Way in Religion (1980); and The Fatal Flaw at the Heart of Religious Liberalism (1995).

Howlett also wrote No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story (1966). James Reeb served under Howlett as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. Tragically, Reeb was later murdered while participating in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The correspondence with the Reeb family is especially heartwarming.

Upon retiring from the active parish ministry in 1968, Howlett became deeply involved in the environmental movement, particularly in the area of forestry, after studying forestry at the University of Maine. In Maine, he organized and was the first President of the Small Woodland Owners Association, popularly known as SWOAM. The conservation of natural resources emphasizing the responsible management of woodlands on the part of citizen forest owners became a “second career” for him. But even while involved in the environmental movement, he still served in the religion and church realm, including as interim minsters at various churches in Westport, Connecticut, and Atlanta Georgia, and Acting Dean of the College Chapel at Mt. Holyoke College. He also continued to write books and travel on Unitarian related trips.

Duncan Howlett was first married to Margaret L. Merritt in 1931 who died just two years later. He later married Carolyn Abbot Chance in 1943 in Summit, New Jersey. He had four children: Margaret (Susan) Howlett Hasty, Albert D. Howlett, Richard C. Howlett, and Carolyn (Lynn) Korth. After living in Center Lovell, Maine, for the last 35 years of his life, Rev. Howlett died in 2003 at age 97.

Duncan Howlett’s papers were given to the Bangor Theological Seminary. When the seminary closed and the BTS records were transferred to Maine Historical Society, Rev. Howlett’s papers were included in that gift.

This collection contains many sermons, correspondence, and printed material. Subject matter includes the Civil Rights movement (including James Reeb), Howlett’s extensive travels, and the general day-to-day business of being a minister in the Unitarian Church, not only locally, but nationally and internationally. Howlett had an inquiring mind, and was interested in many subjects, as one can see from the various files of information he gathered over the years.

One of my favorite parts of the collection is Box 23, which contains materials regarding Howlett’s early travels in the mid-1930s, apparently after his first wife died. This part of his story includes his sailing in 1935 on various ships – including the Cunard White Star “Majestic” – to Paris, Persia, Singapore, and Calcutta — and an overland trip with a friend where they drove in a stock model Ford across Europe and Asia. Mementos and souvenirs in this box are from such exotic places as Agra, British Malaya, Tokyo, Delhi, Japan, Turkey, Hungary, Jerusalem, and Persia. Howlett was a lifelong traveler, and much of Coll. 2993 is evidence of this.

Coll. 2993 Duncan Howlett papers 1935 travel letters

The Civil Rights materials are also fascinating, including hate mail. Rev. Howlett was in the thick of the movement, researching, writing, and preaching about it. From being involved in the grand sweeping movements, to corresponding to church members and international leaders, to the day-to-day details of running a church, this collection is rich in fleshing out this amazing man and the times he lived in. (There is a whole box on the “Sixties” with folder titles such as “Dancing in the aisle,” “Hippies,” and “Protest, dissent, etc.”)

Coll. 2993 Duncan Howlett papers Wallace letter and clipping

Coll. 2993 Duncan Howlett papers hate mail 1

Howlett also corresponded with Karol Grycz-Smilowski (1885-1959), a Polish Lutheran priest who sought to reestablish the Polish Brethren of the period 1565-1658.

 

Coll. 2993 Duncan Howlett letter from Karol Grycz-Smilowski

Duncan Howlett was a mover and a shaker in his world of being a Unitarian minister as well as a social justice activist – there was no separation of church and state in his eyes. Maine Historical Society is honored to be a repository of his records.

Be Kind to Animals All Year ‘Round in Maine

By Shannon Schooley, Project Cataloguer

Americans have a particular interest in animal welfare, which is evident in the establishment of Be Kind to Animals Week in 1914.  American Humane created Be Kind to Animals Week in response to the deaths of millions of horses during the First World War.  Its purpose was to educate Americans, especially children, about how to care for animals with kindness and respect.  This theme was an easy sell for Mainers, who have always had a special relationship with animals.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a frequent visitor to Maine, wrote about Be Kind to Animals Week in her newspaper column, My Day, in 1943.  With World War II in mind, she wrote:

Though it may seem to a good many people that a time when the world is hardly a kind world is not a time to emphasize kindness to animals, and that we should think primarily of our attitude toward human beings, I believe there is great value in continuing to train children in the proper attitude toward their pets.

Her message continues to ring true. Teaching children about caring for their pets is a way to prepare them for caring for people as they mature and enter society as adults.

In 1927, children gladly posed for Portland Press Herald photographers with their dogs, cats, and horses.  It is clear that these animals were special to the children who cared for them.

Treating animals with respect is not limited to pets and domestic animals. Since there are rural areas in Maine, it was, and is, fairly common to run into wild animals in populated places from time to time. Some of the animals Mainers encountered in the 1920s and 1930s included deer, turkeys, raccoons, and foxes.

In the photos below (ca. 1925), several fawns follow a little boy, who may be proving their meal, through a meadow.  In another instance, a man feeds a young fawn with a baby bottle while a small child watches.

Raccoons also interacted with Mainers in different ways.  Sometimes they were hunted for their pelts, but other times they were treated more as beloved pets.

More recently, in 1993, President Bill Clinton made a proclamation at the start of Be Kind to Animals Week.  He said:

We celebrate this week in order to remember the many ways that animals help us. By serving as guides, animals aid the blind. As lookouts and detectives, animals assist in our military, customs, and law enforcement efforts. As friends and companions, pets befriend our children, ease the loneliness of the elderly and the ill, and entertain our families in our daily lives. We also salute the veterinary professionals and animal protection organizations that help us provide food, shelter, and medical care for animals and pets.

Click here for more on Be Kind to Animals Week: Commemorating a Century of “Be Kind to Animals Week” 1915-2015. American Humane, 2015)

Spite House in Rockport Maine: Garden Papers and Correspondence

By Steven Deschenes, MHS Volunteer

Garden lilies: L. testaceum, L. washingtonianum, L. humboldtii, and more – they came by the dozens from across North America, and they came to a small corner of mid-coast Maine.

Their destination? The gardens of the Spite House in Rockport, Maine.

Despite some plants having come thousands of miles their travels are not nearly as impressive as that of the Spite House itself. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the Spite House owes its existence to a family dispute from the early 19th century.

When Captain Thomas McCobb returned from a long voyage at sea, he discovered that his relatives had broken his father’s will and moved into the fine house his father had built in Phippsburg. In retaliation, or “spite,” he had an even more ornate home built strikingly close to his father’s usurped house.

The house was completed in 1806. By the early 20th century the house had seen better times and, in 1925, it was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Donald D. Dodge.

Shortly after purchasing the home, Mr. Dodge arranged for it to be moved (completely intact) from Phippsburg to Deadman’s Point in Rockport. The house was braced, lifted onto a barge, and shipped 85 miles to its present location. Once safely back on dry land, two more wings were built.

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The following year, Mr. Dodge had gardens installed according to a design by the landscape architect Robert Wheelwright. Now, thanks to a recent donation to the Maine Historical Society, we know just what bloomed!

Relatives of Mr. Dodge donated his documents pertaining to the gardens of the Spite House to the Maine Historical Society. Among the papers are purchase orders, receipts, plant lists, notes on plant care and propagation, catalogs, and letters.

Looking through the correspondence with over half a dozen plant nurseries (most of which appear to no longer exist), you discover the wide variety of lilies, roses, and alpine plants ordered and planted by Mr. Dodge and his gardener, Henry B. Williams, during the 1950’s. Mr. Dodge kept carbon copies of his letters detailing their successes and failures. It’s clear that he was an avid gardener with a keen interest in learning all he could about lily propagation.

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Reviewing the papers, you’re regaled with their struggles to control a common plant disease, Botrytis, that plagued particular species, especially during wet and damp periods of weather. Controlling the local woodcock population also took precedence, as it’s assumed the gamebirds – primarily an insect eating species – rooted around in the flower beds, disturbing young seedlings and causing general havoc to the flower beds.

Here’s a passage from a letter addressed to A.D. Rothman of Strawberry Hill Nurseries, dated October 15th, 1954:

I am having a wonderful time in my garden now preparing the planting arrangements for these lilies and planning where to put them. You can be assured they will have every care possible. They are planted amongst shrubs – Azaleas, Kalmia, Rhododendron, Mahonia, Bayberry – but I have learned to give them plenty of room and I have also learned to restrict the roots of the Mahonias and Bayberries by putting in sheets of zinc to give the lilies a head start. The Kalmias and Rhododendron are no problem and the same applies to most Azaleas but some of the Azaleas do have runners. However, I am having a hard time keeping up with my woodcock shooting and getting the lilies planted too!

By all appearances, the time period covered in the collection marked one of the high points in the history of the Spite House Gardens. While under the care of Mr. Williams, the gardens underwent an extensive expansion with a lily and wildflower garden planted in the woods south of the house, installations of a rock garden, an enclosed rose garden, island gardens in the lawns surrounding the property, and the construction of a greenhouse.

All in all, the collection provides a glimpse into what it took to plan, execute, and nurture flower gardens on the coast of Maine nearly 70 years ago!