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McCallum: Abby Hemenway

If a quirky friend announced her plan to visit Vermont’s 251 towns and record in scrupulous detail the history, politics, geology, literary life, eccentric residents, strange animal skirmishes, plagues and religious life of each one - well, you’d likely be skeptical . But back in 1860, Abby Hemenway one of Vermont’s most persevering and idiosyncratic women, published the first volume of what would become the celebrated Vermont Historical Gazetteer.

The project produced five weighty volumes totaling 6,000 pages and four million words when its obsessed creator died a pauper, leaving her mission unfinished.

Hemenway, born in Ludlow in 1828, was passionate about worldly knowledge, education and literature. She became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse at age fourteen to earn her tuition to Ludlow’s Black River Academy. After a stint teaching , she embraced her real loves: writing poetry, editing literary collections and her life’s greatest achievement, the recording of Vermont history. In this, her nearly religious obsession is legendary.

For thirty years, Hemenway labored on a project deemed “impractical and not suited for a woman” with a fanatic’s passion that left no space for marriage, children or stability. Pursued by creditors, she beggared herself in her desire to record the story of Vermont, county by county, town by town, depending upon written accounts from hundreds of local contributors whose stories still resonate today.

Consider this one about the boyhood of a general from Hancock: “… he resided on his father’s farm, remote from school, and noted for but two peculiarities - a passionate love of books and a waywardness of disposition.”

And this unsparing description of unfortunate Dr. Gurnsey of Mt. Holly: “He at one time bid…to become one of the leading physicians of the county, but unfortunately he became addicted to habits of intemperance, which destroyed his usefulness, and no doubt shortened his life.”

Abby Hemenway’s addiction to the monumental task she set for herself most likely shortened her own life. Utterly consumed, she lived as a recluse, mercilessly hawked her published work, doggedly set type herself, fled bill collectors, and traveled in even the worst weather to collect data. After a fire destroyed parts of the manuscript for her nearly completed volume five, she resurrected it then suddenly died alone and in poverty at 61. Her sister finished and published that volume a year later. Then, i n one of life’s great ironies, the manuscript-in-progress for volume six covering Abby’s own beloved Windsor County was years later consumed by fire.

Journalist Jon Ronson has written, “ … our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions…are…often what lead us to do rather interesting things.”

Abby Hemenway - ambitious, unyielding, driven and not particularly happy, did just that.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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