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by Martha F. Barkley
It won the first biography prize awarded by Pulitzer [in 1917] and written by Laura Richards and two other sisters about their famed mother, who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I discovered Julia Ward Howe, 1819 – 1910, a gem of a two-volume biography when the Belgrade Historical Society had a tour of Merryweather Camp by the Shaw family members. They welcomed three pontoon boats of tourists from all over Maine. This happened several summers ago as a fundraiser.
Merryweather was a boys camp for forty years run by Laura Richards and her husband from Gardiner. Henry Richards had a failed paper mill business, so his wife Laura encouraged the running of a summer camp. Both Quentin and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of TR, attended. A WWI monument still stands near the beach and the Big House where camp projects are displayed. Both Greek and Latin tutoring were conducted during summer camp, along with water sports of all kinds.
Laura Richards wrote many children's books as well. Among the ninety publications are biographies of Joan of Arc and Abigail Adams. Captain January was her most well known book for kids because it was made into a movie many years later with Shirley Temple. The Gardiner Public Library holds a wealth of information about the Richards family and most of her books. The beautiful yellow house where the family lived is not far from the library and still owned by the Shaw relatives.
Poetry and lyrics to popular tunes was Julia Ward Howe's talent. She wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" when aroused from a dream at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. during the Civil War. It was set to the popular tune of "John Brown's Body." Lincoln was said to have cried when he heard it.
I borrowed only the second volume of this lengthy biography through interlibrary loan. From reviews, I read that after her husband died, Julia's life blossomed into a life of her own. Her husband Samuel Gridley Howe ran the highly respected Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston and together they had six children. Like their poet mother, Laura became the talented writer. Maud Howe Elliot founded an art museum in Newport, RI.
The third sister who helped with the Pulitzer biography of their mother was Florence Howe Hall who gave speeches for women's suffrage. All of these daughters learned well from their mother Julia Ward Howe.
We thank the Shaw family for having our tour of the Merryweather Camp on Horse Point and its main lodge and many out buildings. They gave a book to our Belgrade Public Library that tells some of the boys camp history: Check it out! Family tradition continues with water sports and meals together like long ago when Laura Richards and her husband ran a boys camp. The doctor on call at the camp was a mile away at Snug Harbor. We also thank the Shaw family for Oak Island and the natural setting for camping experiences.
To think that Julia Ward Howe inspired her daughter Laura to become a prolific writer, another daughter Maud to help found the Newport Art Museum with her artist husband, and a third daughter Florence to give women's suffrage speeches. All of them enjoyed Merryweather Boys Camp and helped Laura run it along with her husband Henry.
Gardiner is a lovely town to visit nearby Belgrade. The old public library building on Main Street is a gem to enter and discover these wonderful books. Then drive up the steep hill to the Big Yellow House. Many beautiful homes. Laura helped her neighbor Edwin Arlington Robinson, poet laureate, during difficult times. (That is another Pulitzer Prize for poetry story.…)
Also, a boat ride along the Horse Point side of Great Pond facing Oak Island, you will find many small red out buildings and the Big House with rope anchored dock where the Shaw family enjoys Merryweather Camp all summer long to this day.