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Ethel Robinson Dow on graduation from Smith College in 1907
Ethel Robinson Dow on graduation
from Smith College in 1907

Ethel Robinson Dow was born on August 4, 1884 in Andover, New Hampshire, the daughter of Herbert B. and Vanie B. (Robinson) Dow.

She graduated from the Woburn High School in Woburn, Massachusetts, and then went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, graduating in 1907.

We three ready for a trip in the Packard
We three ready for a trip in the Packard
Ethel was a life-long close friend of Robert Strong Woodward and spent many summers at a country boarding home, the Johnson Homestead, in Buckland, Massachusetts, close to the homes and studios of Robert. She frequently came to suppers with him in his studios and nearly every summer weekend would go riding with him in his Packard as he traversed the many back roads of the area searching for country scenes to paint. This was when I came to know Ethel, being the chauffeur on her many trips with RSW.

During the summers of the 1930s and 1940s Ethel would come to Buckland to room and board at the Johnson's Homestead in Hog Hollow, Buckland, just a few miles from her friend Robert Strong Woodward.

The Johnson Homestead
The Johnson Homestead had a relaxing atmosphere and great country food.
The Johnson Homestead
1938 Johnson Homestead price brochure

Current management: David and Susan Grader and friends
Current management: David and Susan Grader

Supposedly, Ethel first met Robert through a mutual friend who ran a rooming house in Peoria, IL. It was always my suspicion as I observed and listened to their conversations that they might have been sweethearts in their early lives. But I never knew that for certain. Quoting from a letter from Ethel to Earl Williams in 1971:
"My knowledge of his 'early life' is very little. In 1905, I went to Peoria IL. with my college friend, Julia Bourland, for a two week's visit. Bob was living at the Bourland's while he was in Bradley. We were both in the 20's then, and had a happy time going to parties and dances. I remember that Bob asked me if he could come to Northampton to see me in the fall, for he was planning to go east. But that never happened for he wrote that he had decided to go to California with his parents, an unhappy choice!! I never saw or heard from him again until I was on a little trip over the Mohawk Trail, and ventured to stop at 'Redgate' where he was established at his aunt's and uncle's."

Ethel Dow cleaning mushrooms with the author Mark Purinton and his future wife Barbara Purinton with her dog Shaggy
Mark Purinton eats his first wild mushroom at Ethel's nephew, Prescott Dow's camp in New Hampshire.
His wife Barbara and Ethel Dow review mushroom identification books while Presctt's dog Shaggy looks on.
Ethel Dow was an amature mycologist, and enjoyed trips into the woods to find mushrooms.
Ethel had a magnificent sense of humor and it was always a joy to be in her presence. A good example of her intelligence, her sense of humor, and her just plain all around good naturedness is the following letter she sent back to Smith College to be printed on the 10th anniversary of her graduation.
"Your recent reminder and an article in the Atlantic Monthly have both spurred me on to write you the story of my life. The article in the Atlantic to which I refer begins like this: A decennial of mine is about to be observed. Decennials are usually celebrated, I believe, but I have no cause to rejoice over this particular one, for it registers the completion of ten years of failure. This sounds like a very pessimistic beginning, but that sentence doesn't really apply to me in all its dismal significance. It does apply in that I have failed to do anything in the past ten years that could be of especial interest to the class of 1907. I have been at home those ten short years, learning to be somewhat useful in that atmosphere, and in that respect they have not been years of failure. What social and philanthropic work I have done has been purely local. I am secretary of a Lend-a-Hand club connected with the Unitarian Church in Woburn, which does its bit of charitable work, and in which I am much interested. Up to a few years ago I was secretary of the Woburn Visiting Nurse Association, which has now become merged with the local hospital. I merged along with it, becoming treasurer of the Hospital Aid Association.

My typical day would read something like the small boy's diary: 'Got up, worked and went to bed', only somewhere between the getting up and the going to bed comes the wondering what to feed a hungry family on. Three meals a day seems to be the most harrowing thing about running a household. One longs for a new kind of meat, or a new sort of vegetable, or a divine inspiration about dessert.

If I have any greatest hobby it is coaxing flowers to grow in my back yard, and personally conducting them up the little strings they don't wish to climb. I work in constant opposition to the man who cares for our place, and who seems to have as fixed a determination that I shall not have a garden, as I have that I shall. He has a special antipathy to what he calls 'them fleur de lis.' But I manage to keep part of what I plant in the ground, and get much pleasure from it all, and great training for my disposition. The fact that I have not killed the man shows remarkable self-restraint.

That is about all there is to tell. I haven't done any systematic graduate study, nor held any positions. I can't boast a single publication, and my travels have carried me only to Canada and the Middle West. I haven't married, nor gone to China as a missionary; but I assure you that it takes, if not the missionary spirit, at least a Christian spirit to accept gracefully, and what is more, at times to refuse gracefully, the demands made upon the girl who has nothing to do."
And then 15 years later Ethel submitted the following letter for publication in the Smith 25th year Anniversary Class booklet. Continuing in her own inimitable style:

"I have been putting off answering this questionnaire in the hope that I'd have a husband or grandchildren, or offices or publications to report, but the outlook seems hopeless, so I'll have to confess that the last fifteen years have done little to me except made me fifteen years older.

I'm still keeping house for my parents, (the poll tax assessor of our city publishes this as no occupation!!), and endeavoring to be as useful as possible in my little sphere. My offices held, and my travels aren't of sufficient importance to itemize, the former being purely local, in church and hospital, and the latter taking me no farther afield than Canada and the Middle West. I have spent much time in the last ten years being an aunt to two very nice nephews, and while the initial cost isn't nearly so great as being a mother, the upkeep is at times considerable---and worthwhile.

I get diversion in my garden and at the theater, and I am very sure that my game of contract (bridge) could be called a vice!

All this can't be very interesting to my classmates but you dared us to tell the worst, and I'm certain that lack of notable achievement is almost the worst!"

Now tell! Don't you feel that you know Ethel much better having read these letters?

Ethel carving the turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner,  November 1953.
Ethel carving the turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner, November 1953.
Ethel's life went on as did mine. Her parents died and she continued to live in the old Woburn homestead on Warren Street. I married, and my wife and I moved into a Boston apartment while I attended Tufts Medical School. Every Thanksgiving during our four years in Boston we were invited for Thanksgiving dinner at her home. She baked the turkey.

The only other photograph I have of these visits is the one below showing her beloved old soapstone kitchen sink where we helped do the dishes after the feast.

Ethel's soapstone sink
Ethel's soapstone sink

In approximately 1970 we brought our children down to meet and vist with "Aunt Ethel." They recall being amazed at her large collection of elephant figurines and her great sense of humor. She moved slowly as arthritis was taking its toll. Several years later was our last visit with Ethel. She was confined to a bed in a nursing home at the time and was severely crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. She passed away on March 30, 1975.

Ethel Dow's collection of Rose Medallion
Ethel Dow's collection of Rose Medallion

Closeup view of Rose Medallion
Closeup view of Rose Medallion
In her will she left to us her collection of antique Rose Medallion cups and saucers, sugar and creamer and several ancillary pieces. These have been treasured for these many years. Now that we are trying to downsize, these have been given to the son of one her nephews, and so will be back in the Dow family for at least another generation.

She was one great lady!

Ethel collected elephants too
Ethel collected elephants too

February 2011