Cents and Sensibility
Page 4 of 4

Oyster River bridge, c. 1897, courtesy Library of Congress
In this 1897 photo of the bridge across the Oyster River, now on Route 108, the Durham Community Church can be seen at the top center.

Newspapers had an editorial field day with the proposal, referring to the college as an "incubus in the shape of a state agricultural college," a "turnip yard," and something about as useful as a "million-dollar pest house." The Daily Press of Manchester declared that the agricultural college "fad" was "pretty well played out." Thompson proved more prescient, envisioning in his will that such colleges would "be multiplied in every state of this great confederacy."

A year after his death, the agriculture committee in the state legislature finally took up the matter on Feb. 21, 1891. The heirs, led by Ben's nephew William Thompson from Ohio and presumably including Mary, were no longer contesting the will on the grounds of "mental disabilities," a newspaper reported, but were still pressing an appeal claiming the state had no legal right to accept the gift. (The case was ultimately dismissed.) On this same day, as if on cue from central casting, a cousin swept in from the Midwest. James F. Joy, a railroad magnate living in Michigan and the executor of Thompson's will, had grown up with Thompson. Where Thompson had been contented to speak only through his will, Joy was now able to answer some nagging questions.

"My heirs are pretty well off," Thompson had explained, said Joy, and "he formed an idea that the best use he could make of his fortune was to put it into an agricultural college for the education of the boys of the state. . . To the day of his death this idea was uppermost in his mind." Joy urged the committee to move the struggling New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts from Dartmouth to Durham immediately.

Ben Thompson Alice Stevens' 1935 portrait of Ben Thompson, based on a photo, hangs in Thompson Hall.

The committee voted unanimously to accept the bequest, and within a year, Thompson Hall was under construction on the new campus. Mary never carried out her threat, in a letter to her niece, to move to the Dark Continent should the state accept the bequest. But she was still angry enough in 1892, two years before she died, to write, "I will do nothing whatever to countenance my perverted uncle's alienating the property of my grandfather for such a purpose as this college." Perhaps she would have been mollified if she had lived to see what land-grant colleges like UNH would do for the education of women.

Many have speculated as to why Ben Thompson kept quiet about his grand plans all those years. Did he fear the wrath of the disinherited heirs—or even relish the thought of revenge? Or was he simply shy and modest about receiving attention for giving such a large gift?

For a clue, we might look to Benjamin Thompson's most peculiar peculiarity. In 1968, Lucetta Davis's grandniece appeared at UNH, bearing a nondescript, brown plaid blanket with fringe, reputed to be The Shawl, the constant companion of his later years. It had come in handy in church, where he sometimes snoozed through a sermon, smothered in his shawl, right up front in pew #34—a citizen of the first rank in little Durham, shy, yet fearless of what others thought of him in life or death. And so it was that he was willing to appear small minded, while secretly devoting his life and fortune to the betterment of generations of young people he would never meet. One can even imagine that he took some pleasure in this paradox. And maybe, just maybe, he had a fondness for surprise endings. ~

Page: < Prev 1 2 3 4

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus