Marvelous Meredith Historical Society
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
It’s a place I had always wanted to visit. The big display windows at the front of the building are chock full of interesting items. On view are intriguing things that made me want to see more, but I always seemed to be on my way elsewhere.
However, my luck changed on a hot July day when I was in Meredith and saw the open flag was out in front of the Meredith Historical Society Museum.
I have been to many historical society museums all over the Lakes Region and beyond and I have to say they all are pretty good. My expectations are generally not too high when I visit these places, because I know they operate on minimal budgets, with mostly volunteer staff. However, each and every museum I have visited more than meets expectations and I am always surprised at the quality and depth of exhibits and the interesting items on display.
The Meredith Historical Society at 45 Main Street in Meredith is no exception. I was treated to a wonderful visit with each area, each wall space and display case full of interesting items. From an early mover and shaker in the development of the town to an exhibit of artwork by the town’s folk artist extraordinaire, the museum is a great place to visit.
Meredith Historical Society President, Karen Thorndike, greeted me and she was eager to show me what is on display this summer and to share the unusual and fun tidbits of information about the town over the years.
“This building was once the town’s post office and in the 1960s and 70s, it was an auto museum. Our current exhibits encompass two floors and we also offer an area where people can do genealogy research,” said Karen.
She had a lot to say about Seneca Ladd, the founder of local Meredith Village Savings Bank. He did a tremendous amount of good for the town and there is a display with photos of Seneca, his wife and other items that help tell the story of life as it once was in Meredith. He lived from 1819 to 1892 and had a manufactory of pianofortes and melodeons in the building that is now the Historical Society’s museum. An old photograph on display shows the stately home where Ladd resided and it is a large, beautiful building. A charming painting depicts the SA Ladd building in winter, with horses and wagons parked outside. In the background is what I assume to be Ladd’s home and just up the hill, a whitewashed typical New England church.
Seneca seems like someone we would all have enjoyed knowing. He had a deep interest in all sorts of things, and among them was our earth; he was known as an amateur geologist and archeologist. In an old photo, he appeared to be an imposing figure, with thick, unruly hair and piercing eyes. Skilled in all sorts of things, Ladd noticed his employees in the manufactory were not the best at managing their money. He decided to start a mutual savings bank to help people organize and save money; in 1869 Ladd and some associates opened Meredith Village Savings Bank. The bank’s safe remains in the building today and is a unique part of the museum. Among the collection at the museum is a melodeon made by the Seneca Ladd Manufacturing Company. It is on display at the museum.
One of the things I love about the museum is the homage paid to the town’s unusual citizens. One such citizen, who is highlighted in a display space on the second floor, is Caleb Towle. Hardworking Caleb was born in 1767 and owned a property called Caleb’s Clearing in Meredith. He built a log cabin on the land and later, a frame house. Caleb and his brother were among those who signed an early petition to have “Centre-Harbour” broken off from New Hampton. This was done in 1797 and Caleb was later among the 11 original members of the Centre Harbor Congregational Church. But it was Caleb’s unusual size - it is said he weighed about 515 pounds - that created his local fame. He stood 5 feet, 10 inches and a special chair was made to accommodate his size. Caleb was beloved in the town and was known as a hardworking, active citizen with a “jovial spirit.” In a display at the museum, there is a drawing of Caleb, decked out in his finery and nearby, a pair of very large trousers it is said he once wore.
Perhaps my favorite display was the paintings on the stairwell going to the second floor. My eye was immediately drawn to the folk-art style of the paintings, some landscapes and some portraits. Karen, when asked, told me about the artist, Freda Weeks. It seems Freda used her considerable art talent to capture in her paintings, a variety of local people. My absolute favorite was a painting of a little elderly lady wearing a fine hat with a large feather. It is an absolute gem of a picture, as is the portrait of a local man smoking a pipe. “Freda was a Meredith artist and she passed away over 20 years ago. She painted local scenes, such as a church, the village and even the dump!” said Karen.
Admittedly, I was fascinated with Freda and later searched the internet for information on the local woman. I found some information about her, and the most interesting was an article in the Boston Globedated 1949. There was a photo of an attractive Freda sitting in front of her painting called “Christ Blessing Little Children.” The painting, the article related, was to be unveiled at a Palm Sunday Boston church service.
Elsewhere in the museum, a display of Dudley Leavitt was also interesting. Dudley, who lived from 1772 to 1851, was born in New Hampshire. By the time he moved to Meredith, he was a teacher and farmer. As if that wasn’t enough, Dudley began publishing Leavitt’s Farmers Almanack, among the nation’s earliest farmer’s almanacs. As can be imagined, the almanac was very popular with farmers all over the area.
Dudley was quite an asset to Meredith and he is given a good spot in the museum where his story continues to be told for everyone. He was as much a mover and shaker in the town as Seneca Ladd; Dudley also opened and ran a school and taught until he was elderly. It was a matter of pride for former students to say they had been educated at Leavitt’s school.
The list of items in this special museum is way too numerous to include in one story. If you like unusual items that speak of the origins of a town, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Meredith Historical Society Museum. And if you like the “real” stories of locals, such as Caleb, Dudley, Seneca and Freda and how they lived, this is the place to learn more.
The Society also has a charming barn museum called the Farm Museum/Pottle Meeting House located at 61 Winona Road and open Saturdays until Columbus Day from noon to 4 pm.
The Main Street Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday until Columbus Day weekend from 11 am to 4 pm.