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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Revisiting Henderson's Past: Godspeed, Ms. Towles

It's time for another peek into the archives ...

Godspeed, Ms. Towles

It would be a futile attempt to find a culture-conscious Hendersonian who has no knowledge of John James Audubon, considered by many to be America’s greatest naturalist and ornithologist. He is arguably Henderson’s most well-known resident and one of the greatest painters of wildlife of the early nineteenth century. In fact, it is for these reasons that Audubon captured the unwavering fascination of the Henderson Public Library’s first head librarian, Ms. Susan Starling Towles, who was responsible for bringing the first large collection of his prints, now housed in the upstairs meeting room of the library and in the Audubon Museum, to our community. Our thanks to Boynton Merrill, the nephew of Mrs. Henry Barret, for this story.

As it turns out, the story of the journey these prints took to get here is nearly as interesting as the legendary artist himself. Henderson resident and local horticulturalist, Mr. Henry P. Barret and his wife, who owned a substantial portion of land throughout the county in the early part of the twentieth century, had purchased several publications from Goodspeed and Company, a bookseller and print dealer in Boston, Massachusetts. Mrs. Barret contacted the company in order to purchase an Audubon print of a cardinal, which her husband intended to use as the trademark for his orchards. She discovered that Mr. Goodspeed had a large collection of original Audubon prints, which he was willing to sell for an average of $10 to $25 per print, or $1,000 for an entire folio collection (which is said to be the price Henry Clay had paid in 1840).

As a favor to Mr. Goodspeed, Mrs. Barret brought home several of the prints and held a showing for a small group of Henderson residents. It was after this showing that Ms. Towles, who had attended, wrote to Mr. Goodspeed and asked if she could sell the prints on commission. He agreed, and each time that Ms. Towles sold enough prints to earn her commission, she purchased a print. By the 1930s, the Audubon Museum was established with these original prints as a main attraction.

The above photo is of one of the Audubon prints hanging in the library’s meeting room. To see the other nine prints acquired by the library or to learn more about the history of their acquisition, come visit us upstairs. As always, you can visit our webpage or read previous “Revisiting Henderson’s Past” entries.

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