Death, remarriage, and a fateful move east
Editor's note: The following is the second in a four-part series. Part 3 will appear in tomorrow's Banner.
By Tyler Resch
Now that construction has begun for the Putnam Block redevelopment project, it seems important to review the life of the entrepreneur who started it all. Henry W. Putnam was the most significant benefactor in Bennington's 270- year history. His story is also a great American story of a person who rose from modest circumstances and through hard work and leadership found an important social and economic niche to fill.
BENNINGTON — Whatever money Henry W. Putnam had made in California would be put to good use in a climate of mid-nineteenth-century expansion and optimism. Returning briefly to his home town of Boquet, New York, he married Irene Crossman, his childhood sweetheart. He entered into a partnership with two men his father had done business with. Under the corporate name of Ross, Low & Putnam, the firm operated a rolling mill, a woolen mill and a horseshoe nail factory.
Cleveland was Putnam's next destination, possibly because the products of his Boquet business were sent there, and this is where he first made real money. Cleveland was booming; its population between 1830 and 1840 had quadrupled because of the completion in 1832 of the Ohio-Erie Canal. In 1851, rail lines began moving freight and passengers through this Lake Erie port, and the economy prospered with the iron and steel industry. Putnam's partnership of Ross, Low & Putnam invested in real estate, railroads, banks and manufacturing.
After Putnam's wife died, apparently in childbirth, he paused to reconnoiter in Philadelphia and New York, and then remarried in 1861. The new wife was Mary Hamlin Everett, the widow of a wealthy Cleveland physician, Dr. Henry Everett. The new Mrs. Putnam was the daughter of Deacon Samuel I. Hamlin, a onetime carpenter who had migrated early in the century from Lenox, Massachusetts, to establish the first Presbyterian church and Sunday school in Cleveland. Mary Hamlin Everett Putnam was also the mother of a strong-willed 11-year-old son, Edward Hamlin Everett.
After the marriage Henry and Mary returned to New York where Putnam opened a retail and wholesale hardware business at 108 Chambers St. The business proved successful, and the couple maintained a part-time residence there for the next 35 years.
While the Chambers Street business prospered, the couple looked for an environment in which they could raise a family. They selected Bennington, where Mary's twin sister, Martha, and her husband, Charles E. Dewey, were living in the Dewey homestead near the corner of West Main and Depot streets (where a Dollar General store is now). Putnam saw opportunities to employ local workers to manufacture his hardware products.
Almost immediately on arriving in Bennington in 1864, Putnam became a selectman. He and Mary moved into a Greek revival house on Main Street near the Methodist church. They were joined by Henry's younger brother, Elbert, and his wife, Thetis. Thus an instant family circle of three couples had been created by the time Mary gave birth to a son, Henry William Jr., on Sept. 12, 1864. He would be known as "Will."
A month before the child's birth an early morning fire had destroyed the Bennington Second Congregational Church. There was a great shortage of water to fight the blaze, and the Putnams' house was damaged before enough water could be dammed into a reservoir for use by the fire pumpers. Then the old Bennington County courthouse, located in what was called the Centre Village (later Old Bennington) was destroyed by fire in 1869. In 1868 the largest fire the town had experienced destroyed the Mt. Anthony House at the main four-corner intersection; the $50,000 loss was said to have been caused by a defective chimney.
The courthouse fire prompted the legislature to ask Bennington County to vote on whether they wished to keep the unique two-shire system - with both Bennington and Manchester having county courthouses. The vote was in favor, and Putnam became a member of a three-man committee to oversee the election. He combined both roles, risking the charge of conflict of interest, and his committee oversaw construction of the new courthouse. Next to it, Putnam proceeded to build a three-story brick hotel. The courthouse adjoined the existing three-story Park Block, owned by Calvin Park, a cousin of Trenor's.
Though the hotel was completed in 1871, it did not open until 1876 because Putnam insisted that whoever operated it must agree to maintain a temperance house. It was difficult to find an innkeeper who would not serve alcoholic beverages.
Putnam was praised by the weekly Banner for his "marked liberality and public spirit" in building both the hotel and courthouse. The hotel cost $40,000, of which $4,500 was raised by public subscription. A grand ground-breaking ceremony was held on the Fourth of July, 1870, with a parade, speeches, and a dance. Trenor Park christened the new building, naming it for Putnam as he made "appropriate remarks."
Tyler Resch is the research librarian of the Bennington Museum and among several books of local interest he has written, there have been two books about Henry W. Putnam, the first titled "Deed of Gift: The Putnam Hospital Story," in 1991, and the more recent "A Century of Care," written for the hospital's centennial in 2018.
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