At the WHS Annual Meeting on Sunday afternoon, September 27, 2015, attendees reminisced about Worthington’s Frederick Sargent Library (then celebrating its 100th anniversary) and its venerable librarian Arthur Capen (1881-1981), who was also a teacher, church organist, Grange member, and clerk or treasurer for several town organizations. The following transcript of this discussion has been very lightly edited for readability. The proceedings began with an introduction by Julia Sharron, one of Capen’s successors as town librarian.
Julia Sharron: Arthur Granville Capen was born December 4th, 1881. He was the only son of Granville Capen and Hattie Blackstone, and they lived in the Capen home – number 4 Capen Street – that was in the family for many generations. Then Arthur’s father died at 67 years old, and that meant his wife, Hattie, was a widow. So Arthur did take care of her. They moved to Enfield, Massachusetts, and Mr. Capen taught for about ten years in Enfield, from 1917 to 1926. At that time there was discussion on building the Quabbin Reservoir, so the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott were demolished to make the reservoir, and everything had to go.
Julia Sharron: Well, Mr. Capen was not only a teacher there in Enfield, he was also the librarian there for ten years. So he was able to get about 720 or more volumes of books that he brought to the library here. And also he brought about $5,000, which at that time was a lot of money. That’s how our library got its second addition, with that $5,000. And I might be wrong, but there might still be books there from Enfield. I know when I was a librarian they were there.
Mr. Capen was a confirmed bachelor. He was a caregiver for his mother, Hattie, for many years. He was active in Worthington in all aspects of life. He was an organist for the church for 50 years, which was tremendous. He was a teacher in school here. He also taught at Lyceum Hall for a number of years. He was a clerk for the water district for 36 years, and that in itself was incredible. He was a member of the school board, and he helped build the R. H. Conwell School, and later on he was instrumental in helping with an addition there. He was also correspondent for 21 years for the Berkshire Eagle. And of course we can’t forget that he was the librarian at Frederick Sargent Huntington Library for 67 years, starting in 1909. He was instrumental in having the Cutter system put in place – that’s the system of finding books by authors and so on. Later on he developed the Dewey Decimal System, as is used throughout the United States.
Julia Sharron: Every time you went into the library you would hear, “tick-tock, tick-tock,” and that was the clock. It was so quiet in there. Mr. Capen paid very close attention to detail – everything was perfect. The books were around the walls, and we didn’t have the shelving that we have now. And if you were going to pick out a book, he would watch you, so you had to hurry up and get that book. [laughter] And he would also tell you what new books had come in, because he had a screen that went from almost the ceiling to the roof. He would take the outside cover of the book and hang it up, and that way you knew there’s a new book here. And if he didn’t like a book, it went in the fire. [laughter] I never knew if Peyton Place made the shelving or not. [laughter]
During the winter months and holidays we would have Ida Joslyn and Mrs. Lucie Mollison at the library. And by the wonderful fireplace he would have a fire going, and they would be reading Dickens, which was very nice. And we did have a little entertainment on occasion – he played the piano. He would have a couple students come in and play every so often. Helen [Sharron Pollard] played once, or somebody would sing. There would be refreshments served, but it was simple. Also during the holiday, say, Christmas week, you would go into the library and he would have a little Christmas music going – very softly, but really very nice.
Julia Sharron: Now Mr. Capen didn’t have an automobile, and he would walk to the library. If it was slippery he had cleats on his rubbers so he wouldn’t slip. And I love this photo here, because that was typical of Mr. Capen going back and forth from the library to the store. He wore his black jacket always, his gloves, his chapeau. He carried that tote, and in that tote was his lunch or whatever. Because when he was at the library, there was no running water, no bathroom facilities, nothing. There was a dirt floor.
Sometimes I would ask if he would like dessert. He always liked desserts, and he would say, “Yes, that would be very nice.” And Damaris Fernandez-Sierra and Mrs. [Lois Ashe] Brown were very nice to him, and helped out all the time. They would bring soup or whatever. The library would be closed, but he knew you were coming, so you could come in. At that black walnut table that’s still there now, he would set out his placemat and tableware. He would have a certain place for his napkin – everything had to be okay. So you came in with his dessert or whatever, and he would say, “Okay, you could put that right here.” He was very careful about that. On occasion he would walk to the store and buy a little Dixie cup, that was his treat.
Mr. Capen was very, very nice. He was a gentleman all the time. He wore a suit, and he never hesitated to say hello when you came in the library, very meekly. The whole place was as neat as can be. Now when it was time for his vacations, guess where he went? He went to the Y in Pittsfield, that was his favorite spot. [laughter] Sometimes Emmy Snyder or other people in town would take him there. And he loved eating, and desserts. He never thought he was a good cook, so in Pittsfield he would eat out and have the desserts of his life and all. And when he came back home I’d say, “Well, Mr. Capen, did you have a good time?” And he’d say, “Oh yeah, I ate a lot, it was really good.” [laughter]
Julia Sharron: One time we got this overdue notice in the mail – it was really orange, so you could see it – three children’s books. And I said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t remember seeing these books.” So I asked my girls, “Did any of you take these books out?” and they said, “No Mom, we didn’t.” So the next time the library was open, I went over and said, “Mr. Capen, I’ve talked to the girls, and we did not take out these books.” And he’s looking at me, and he says, “Well, you have so many kids, I can’t keep track of them, and I just thought they were your kids.” [laughter] And so after that I started to be a little bit more careful about writing down every time the kids took out a book.
Now Mr. Capen did not like women interfering with him very much, he would get a little upset with Damaris on occasion and maybe Mrs. Brown, but she knew how to put him in his place. [laughter] So I would gradually say, “Well, Mr. Capen, could I somehow have a couple of kids’ programs?” And he would say, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And finally one day he said, “Yes, that would be nice if you could.” So I started with a few stories and so on, and that worked out very well.
Now as he was getting on in life, he was holding up, but he was coming and going, and the winters were bad. And Damaris, Mrs. Brown, and myself, we would communicate by the phone and say, “Okay, can you take Mr. Capen home today, can you pick him up?” We’d go back and forth like that so he wouldn’t have to walk home, and that worked out. He would always say, “I don’t really want you to do this,” and we’d say, “We know you don’t, but we’re gonna do it anyway.” [laughter]
But he was such a wonderful fellow. I was so glad that I had known him. It’s hard for me to believe that I really knew somebody that was born in the 1800s, besides my grandparents. I really thought a lot of him. He was very nice to the children, and he was soft-spoken, and he was always a gentleman.
Mr. Capen died at the age of 99 in 1981. He was in the Hampshire Hospital, and as I said, he was the only son. He had cousins, but I never knew any of them. He was buried where his mom and dad are in Northampton – there’s a family plot there. He was cremated, and that’s where his ashes are.
Helen Sharron Pollard: My mother is correct – Arthur Capen was such a sweet man, but he scared me to death. [laughter] When I was a little girl, I’d go into that silent library –the ticking of the clock, it was so quiet. And the fire going, and the hissing of the water as it dripped down the chimney into the fire. It was lovely to be there. I am the oldest of my mother’s “so many” children, and for me going into the library had a special meaning. It was very quiet, there was nobody else there. I had my own time to peruse the shelves and read all the books I could possibly get my hands on. While there were a number of children in town, Mr. Capen knew who I was, I was just there so much.
My little sisters would ruin books. They’d write in them, they’d tear covers off, and I always felt terrible about it. But one day I was reading under a tree, and I left my book outside and it rained. I felt so bad about it, but he was just very nice to me. I thought he was going to yell at me – there was fire and brimstone behind him – but he was very sweet. I had the book under my coat to keep it from any further damage, and I’m sure he burned it. [laughter]
He always wore a beautiful white shirt, and a black tie, and his black suit. And if you had an overdue book – for three cents or what have you – you’d have to put it in the little change bucket. I guess I was there enough that when he needed some help – when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old – I got hired over one summer to help him put the stamps on some of the books, and tape or paste in the field and this and that. But one day I stacked a set of books on a glass table, and I cracked the glass, and I’m not sure I got asked back. [laughter]
But my memories of him are just of a sweet, wonderful man. And looking back on it, he’s one of those people that was an institution. He was the library. His character and his personality really defined what that building was for a very long time. And as a kid, it’s a wonderful thing to see how much a person’s energy, or spirit, can really own something like that.
Evan Spring [to Julia Sharron]: You were saying he would decide which books he liked and didn’t like. What was his taste?
Julia Sharron: Well I don’t know his taste per se, but if there was something that was a little grey written in the book – like a “damn” or something – that was his way of throwing it out.
Helen Sharron Pollard: Oh, but there were nude photos upstairs. [laughter] It was a photography book with nude pictures, and it had on it: “This is not to be taken out of the library.” [laughter] It was upstairs hidden in a corner, but I did find it because I was cleaning and helping.
Evan Spring: These were “artistic” pictures?
Helen Sharron Pollard: I don’t know as a child that I could say that they were artistic, but they were interesting.
Pat Kennedy: Was the fireplace the only heat?
Julia Sharron: Yes. They didn’t have heat for a long time. Maybe in the seventies.
Diane Brenner: Wow. When did the bathroom go in?
Julia Sharron: Same time, yeah.
Diane Brenner: Was there an outhouse?
Julia Sharron: Well, as I said earlier, it was a dirt floor in the cellar. Figuring, you know – [laughter]
Sheila Kinney: Reading some of the old minutes, there was a comment that the selection committee rejected some books for “low moral tone.” [laughter] I’d love to know which ones they were.
Evan Johnson [to Julia Sharron]: What year did you start driving him? How old was he?
Julia Sharron: Well, we didn’t move here until the sixties, so it was in the seventies perhaps.
Evan Johnson: So he was doing it well into his eighties?
Julia Sharron: Yes, yes.
Helen Sharron Pollard: I think he was librarian ’til probably 1976, because there were four students, me included, that were librarians after him, until you [Julia Sharron] started. I was in high school. But he couldn’t stand by himself at that point, and it was kind of dangerous to leave him alone in the library. He would hold on to the desk, because otherwise he’d be unsteady.
Diane Brenner: He looked to have visual problems too. I know he had eye surgery at one point, which might have been cataracts, which was a much bigger deal then.
Julia Sharron: But he was so proud he wouldn’t tell anybody.
Ben Brown: There were other people, no doubt, taking care of him in his advanced years – bringing groceries, and checking in on him, and so forth. And I vaguely remember about the light, a light system signal of some sort.
Julia Sharron: If he needed help at all, the light was on.
Ben Brown: Yeah, people were looking out for him. I have just the memories of a little boy, and I apparently didn’t spend as much time in the stacks as you [Helen Sharron Pollard] did. [laughter] Never did discover the nude photographs. But you mentioned the tick-tock of the clock, that takes me back. You’d open the front door, creak. And there he’d be, right straight ahead, with the little librarian lamp with the green glass shade. And the musty smell, and the leather chairs. It was just the same, every single time. Just a timeless library experience. And he’d have his visor on, and he’d say very quietly, “Hello?”
While he was there I didn’t spend much time except in the children’s room, that little back room that had kids’ books. And I took out the same Doctor Seuss books over and over and over again. But also I lived across the field from Arthur Capen. He was rarely seen in the yard. Never mowed the yard – it was always long, shaggy, overgrown, as I remember it. And this is probably in his later years, but he did keep the rainfall records that my mom [Lois Ashe Brown] eventually took over, and he did it for an extremely long time. The few times that we would see him outside of his house – other than walking back and forth from the library, with tiny, mincing steps – would be checking the rain gauge. He was not somebody that tried to keep us out of the back yard, like some of his neighbors did. He was just laissez-faire – “It’s not my domain, go ahead.” But yes, he was very soft-spoken, and refined, and gentlemanly, exactly that. Always dressed with the same –
Julia Sharron: Chapeau.
Ben Brown: Chapeau hat, yeah, carrying his valise.
Diane Brenner: My understanding was that the rain records were part of his job as water district clerk, to help the water district sustain itself. He received a citation for that particular aspect of his work from the state water district commission or whatever, because of drought and keeping the water supply up. There were many, many articles over the years about, “The water table’s up, the water table’s down.”
Diane Brenner: When I started gathering this information about him, he was like the clerk of everything, or treasurer of everything. He was the clerk of the Grange. He was the clerk, actually, of the Historical Society, too. The church, the school. He was on the board of the Conwell school down in South Worthington, before it closed. When did he do all this? And some of it, like the library, he did when he was teaching in Enfield. He apparently got the job from Katharine McDowell Rice, who was the first librarian, when she quit in 1909. So he was librarian from 1909 ’til whenever – 1976, you said. Some of those years he wasn’t here, but he did maintain the job. He was still coming to meetings, and so –
Julia Sharron: Yeah but don’t forget, the library wasn’t open that many hours, like it is now. So that made a difference as well.
Diane Brenner: So how often was it open?
Julia Sharron: Well, it was 10 to 12 and 2 to 7 for many years.
Helen Sharron Pollard: On Wednesdays, and then Saturday from 10 to 5.
Julia Sharron: But he lived very frugally, and he had little wants. And he was a bachelor – no one to answer to.
Jim Downey: So did he remain in the farmhouse, even when he was living in Enfield? He kept his mother there?
Julia Sharron: Yeah, about three years. And then he sold it.
Jim Downey: And then he brought her to Enfield.
Julia Sharron: Yeah, and then they came back on Old Post Road.
Diane Brenner: My reading of it was that Granville Capen, his father, died in 1924. And Arthur was back here pretty much full-time by 1928.
Julia Sharron: Yes.
Diane Brenner: So he wasn’t down there in Enfield that long, as mother and son.
Julia Sharron: Right.
Jim Downey: And when was the Quabbin Reservoir?
Julia Sharron: That was started in 1910, actually, in the planning stages. Then maybe ’38 or so, and by 1940 it was completed.
Jim Downey: So the towns were gone.
Julia Sharron: They were completely gone, yes.
Ben Brown: Do you have a sense of when they arrived on Old Post Road?
Diane Brenner: I think it had to have been 1928, because I couldn’t find any record of him anyplace else.
Julia Sharron: That’s what I’m thinking too.
Ben Brown: By all appearances, he’d been in the house forever.
Julia Sharron: But he never drove, never had an automobile. Mr. Snyder used to pick him up in Enfield, even, and bring him back, and people would take him to Pittsfield.
Jim Downey: His little vacations were just a week in Pittsfield?
Julia Sharron: Yeah, and that was heaven to him – believe me, he loved it.
Pat Kennedy: Well Pittsfield was a happening town then.
Julia Sharron: It was then, yes. And he’d travel, too.
Diane Brenner: It looked like he traveled a fair amount. He went to Grange conferences, and he was involved in this Western Mass school thing that would have conclaves in Springfield, or Rhode Island, or wherever. Or he was involved in the church and went out to some place in California for that.
Jim Downey: Was he a college graduate?
Diane Brenner: No.
Julia Sharron: No.
Diane Brenner: He went to a special program, apparently, at Lyceum Hall, that Harry Bates apparently also went to. But that was it, as far as I know. And then he was teaching, sort of, at 15 or so.
Julia Sharron: In those days all you needed was certification. You didn’t need a diploma at all.
Pat Kennedy: I think you had to go through the eighth grade.
Diane Brenner: I’m sure he did that.
Pat Kennedy: Now how did he get to Texas?
Diane Brenner: It was a missionary program. The Congregational Church had a missionary program.
Julia Sharron: Yeah, they had to provide transportation.
Diane Brenner: Yes, train to Austin. It was a black college, which is sort of interesting. He was only there for a year, though.
Pat Kennedy: What did he teach?
Diane Brenner: History and math.
Sheila Kinney: One of the things I was always curious about was his library numbering system. Was there a theory behind that? Because I remember, I got to be 6A. [laughter]
Helen Sharron Pollard: I can answer that question, because it used to be numerical. And my parents moved into town in 1967, and their number was 1515. And when I got old enough, and I was taking out books, I got my very own number, and it was 1655. So it was numerical, but then when he left it was close to two thousand names. And Damaris thought that was too big, and she started over, so I was 1-A.
Jim Downey: I knew him as well. We came in ’65, and I would spend a few hours there in the summer afternoons. I didn’t recall the limited hours. I guess I was only there for a brief period – I was ten or eleven or twelve. But I would ride my bike around, put it in the bushes, when the Lafayette Barn was still there. Olive Cole and Chris Henry, he ran that little shop there. And then I would cut through the bushes and go sit in the library.
Arthur Capen was a very kind man, a lovely guy. You knew something important was going on in that building. He had that air, that if you come in his room, you need to be here for the pursuit of learning, and knowledge, and betterment. He gave you that in a non-communicative way. He was a little intimidating, but very friendly – a man of few words. But that march to the store, when you would see him take those little baby steps with those cap-toed, black shoes, as thin as a rail. And then back with a little Dixie cup and a wooden spoon. Like that was the high point of his day.
Helen Sharron Pollard: And beautiful white hair. And beautiful skin, long fingers.
Pat Kennedy: No romance that we know of?
Julia Sharron: No, no.
Pat Kennedy: She’s pretty definite about that.
Sheila Kinney: He left money in his will to the library. I don’t know who else he gave money to.
Diane Brenner: Well, his will is over there, if anybody wants to look at it, and the letter from the lawyer afterwards. He left his estate to two cousins, both of whom actually predeceased him. Also to two towns – I think Worthington and Peru – to take care of gravesites for his grandparents. And the church and the library, in shares. The letter from the lawyer says he had $1,600 in his bank account when he died. He was going to use it to pay for his debts and funeral expenses, and any remaining money would go to the towns.
The family’s plot is in Northampton, at Bridge Street Cemetery, because when his father was dying, they moved down there so he could be near a doctor, and he died in December. And so rather than ship the body back to Worthington, they bought a plot in Northampton. And when his mother died, that’s where she was buried, and of course that’s also where he’s buried. But the Capen Stone, which is huge, they only own half of it – the front half. The Capen side is one side, with three plots, and on the back of the stone is another family unrelated to the Capens.
Posted April 12, 2019.