From the Summer 2013 issue: Where three presidents celebrated our natal day.
By Laurie Masciandaro
The national press was flabbergasted. “No remote village of a score of houses was ever so honored before,” the Boston newspaper Zion’s Herald declared on July 14, 1870. The crowd gathering on Woodstock Common grew until it seemed to include not just all of Windham County but, according to the Hartford Daily Courant, “the rest of mankind” as well. For one day—July 4, 1870—this little-known town in the secluded northeast corner of Connecticut commanded the country’s attention. President Ulysses S. Grant, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, and a host of other luminaries, all accompanied by the prominent military musical ensemble Gilmore’s Band, had chosen Woodstock as the place they would celebrate our great natal day. The Hartford Daily Courant reported that as many as 13,000 spectators attended the celebration.
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This was the first of many grand Independence Day commemorations held in Woodstock. Those celebrations were marked day and night with speeches, music, and fireworks in a manner and scale not seen in the United States since before the Civil War. Honored guests gathered at Roseland Cottage (now a museum operated by Historic New England) the evening before the festivities for a gala reception and buffet dinner for 400 to 500 invitees. The grounds and common across the road were bedecked with bunting, flags, and pennants and illuminated with Chinese and glass lanterns of red, white, and blue. Roseland Cottage was bedecked in an immense American flag that reached nearly to the highest gable of the salmon pink Gothic Revival villa. The July 4, 1888 Boston Globe likened the scene to a fairyland.
How had this out-of-the-way hamlet managed to attract a gathering of such importance? The answer lies in the influence of Woodstock native son Henry Chandler Bowen, whose 200th birthday the town celebrates this year. He rose from humble beginnings to prominence as a merchant, publisher, and insurance innovator. Bowen used his wealth and his newspaper, The Independent, to carve out an important national role for himself in late 19th-century politics and society and to spread his vision of American society, built on New England values of church and town—what Bowen referred to as “village culture”—to the rest of the country.
Bowen could be moralistic, rigid, and litigious. He was also capable of great charity, loyalty, and sacrifice. He was drawn into the scandal surrounding the 1875 adultery trial of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, which rocked the country and ultimately resulted in Bowen’s excommunication by the church he had founded and rejection by Beecher, the minister he at one time had counted as pastor and friend.
Still, Bowen remained committed to values rooted in the New England town and its church. His dedication to Congregationalism dates to his conversion in 1829, when he attended a conference of several church leaders in Woodstock and was moved to “consecrate myself to Christian work.” A short time later, as a young man not yet 20 years old, he took part in an intense meeting of temperance supporters and took the pledge; he remained a devoted “temperance man” for the rest of his life. Bowen dated his anti-slavery sentiments to 1833, when Prudence Crandall was persecuted for opening a school for African-American girls in Canterbury, just down the road from Woodstock. These moral commitments would prove powerful elements of Bowen’s self-image and would define him throughout his life.
As a youth working in his father’s general store, Bowen showed signs of the business talent that would make him a successful merchant. His formative experience in Woodstock allowed him to develop the underlying skills and attributes he needed to be successful.
In 1833, the 20-year-old Bowen accompanied his younger brother Edward to Manhattan to help Edward get properly settled in his new position with Arthur Tappan and Company, a leading silk importation and dry goods business. Upon meeting the Bowen brothers, however, the Tappans preferred Henry and offered him the position. Though he had intended to remain in Woodstock, he bowed to his parents’ wishes and accepted the Tappans’ offer. Tough taskmasters, the Tappan brothers demanded long hours and absolute compliance with their strict policies for employees, which included complete abstinence, regular church attendance, and membership in an anti-slavery society.
Bowen was ideally suited for the rigid discipline the Tappans insisted their clerks observe. They had hired a young man cut from the same New England cloth and dedicated to the same causes as they were. That commitment was put to the test when Bowen, a self-proclaimed Conscience Whig, was thrust into the violence surrounding the anti-abolitionist riots of 1834. Mobs attacked Lewis Tappan’s house and the Pearl Street store where Bowen worked; Bowen and other armed employees defended the store against the siege.
Bowen went on to thoroughly master the business. When his five-year clerkship was over, he left, eager to start his own firm. “With a liberality almost without parallel,” he declared, Lewis Tappan used his influence to help Bowen start a silk importation and dry goods firm with another former clerk of Tappan and Company, Theodore McNamee. Within five years, Bowen & McNamee became the most successful firm of its kind in the city, eclipsing even the Tappan brothers’ company, and, according to the Continental Monthly in December 1862, “realized an enormous fortune.”
Bowen infused his business with his moralistic sense. Taking a page from the Tappans, Bowen & McNamee would not hire anyone who used intoxicating drink or sell to those who dealt in it. Bowen’s anti-slavery principles were challenged in 1850, when other New York merchants publicly condemned the firm for failing to attend a rally in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, which had been enacted to make it more difficult for Northerners to assist escaped slaves. In response to those who denounced them in the Journal of Commerce, Bowen and McNamee published a reply in the October 28 edition of the New York Herald, making it clear that they would not compromise their ideals to enhance their business: “Our goods and not our principles are in the market.” By taking a firm position against those merchants who hoped to appease slave-holding customers by supporting the Fugitive Slave Law, Bowen lost half of his existing subscribers, but gained twice as many new ones. Holding fast to one’s beliefs turned out to be good business.
In 1844, Bowen married Lucy Maria Tappan, daughter of Lewis Tappan, his former employer. Though Bowen married “the boss’s daughter,” no one would argue that theirs was not a love match. He was her “dearie,” and she was his “little Lucy.” They met while teaching Sunday school and eventually moved to one of the finest homes in Brooklyn Heights. Their marriage lasted 18 years, until Lucy’s death in 1863, shortly after the birth of their 10th child. Bowen would remarry in 1865, to his second cousin Ellen Holt of Pomfret, who was a loving and supportive stepmother to the 10 children she inherited and the one child she and Henry had together.
Financial success allowed Bowen to invest his treasure in support of the causes and institutions he believed in while diversifying his investments in an ever more volatile business environment. Sectional conflict made the mercantile world increasingly difficult to navigate safely, particularly for firms such as Bowen & McNamee that counted many Southerners as clients. In fact, the firm closed in 1861, a casualty of its Southern clients’ unpaid debts.
In 1848, Bowen founded The Independent, an anti-slavery, temperance, and Congregationalist weekly newspaper. A “bread and butter” project, Bowen would later write, the paper was a commercial venture with the added benefit of spreading New England culture, values, and religion to the rest of the country. In more than six decades of publication, it featured the leading literary and public figures of the time, including John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Seward, James Henry Lowell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, critical to its success, Stowe’s brother, one of the most influential men in America, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
Historian Louis Filler writes that from its inception, The Independent played a role in national affairs due to its influential, if initially small, readership, but it would take years for the paper to achieve financial success. With his characteristic persistence and dedication to mission, Bowen supported the paper through lean years of steady but slow growth until it became the most successful publication in its field, boasting 100,000 subscribers at its peak. Among those subscribers was Abraham Lincoln, who claimed to read it every week.
An eminence grise in Brooklyn politics, Bowen wanted to influence national politics, too. The Independent was a first step. While the paper took strong stands on national issues from its inception, it avoided party politics until 1856, when it endorsed the new Republican Party’s candidate, John Frémont. Bowen was also the force behind the mass meeting in Woodstock in support of Frémont’s presidential candidacy in 1856 and Grant’s of 1868, with more than 15,000 attending the latter. Woodstock would become known for political rallies, which Bowen claimed were the largest in the history of Connecticut. He would also claim that the northeast part of the state was, with his guidance, responsible for the state’s Republican majority.
Bowen and his paper were indeed early and staunch supporters of the Republican Party and its candidates. It was Bowen who recommended to the organizers of the lecture series that Lincoln be invited to deliver the “Cooper Union speech” in New York in February 1860, which historian Harold Holzer refers to as “the speech that made Lincoln president.” It was Bowen’s office that Lincoln first visited upon his arrival in New York, and it was with Bowen that he attended Plymouth Church—a church that Bowen had helped found with other transplanted New Englanders in 1847—to hear Henry Ward Beecher preach.
Lincoln felt Bowen had played a significant enough role in his election to award him a patronage plum: Tax Collector for the Third District for the State of New York. This put Bowen in charge of one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. In an era when tax collectors kept up to three percent of what they collected, the position was a lucrative one.
By the time Bowen & McNamee closed the following year, Bowen’s main source of income was the Continental Insurance Company, which he founded in 1853 with a few business associates who, like him, were unable to find adequate insurance for their Manhattan businesses. Bowen and his associates at the Continental strove to improve firefighting in the city as a matter of public safety and to protect their investment. They petitioned the city for steam-powered fire engines and other improvements to make fire fighting more effectual, and donated $500 towards the establishment of a full time professional fire department.
While Bowen pursued his various business enterprises and political ambitions in New York, he maintained his ties to Woodstock. In 1846, he built a summer home, Roseland Cottage, across from the town common. It was a fitting site for the grand affairs that would be held there in the years to come. Built in the newly fashionable Gothic revival style, Roseland made a powerful statement that the local boy had returned to Woodstock a successful, fashionable, and thoroughly modern man. Its steep gables, decorative bargeboards, and ornamented chimney pots stand out among the more sedate classical and Greek revival homes nearby. But it is noticeable, above all, for its color: One contemporary described it as “crushed strawberry.” The house has always been pink—13 different shades of it, Historic New England’s paint analysis reveals.According to family lore, the house was named for Lucy’s favorite flower, and many have interpreted the color scheme—pink siding, green shutters, and brown trim—as a metaphorical representation of a rose.
It is one of few Gothic revival homes that remain virtually unchanged inside and out, from the days when it echoed with the voices of Henry and Lucy’s children. It survives with its original furnishings, elaborate wall coverings, stained glass, and many “modern” improvements including attic and cellar cisterns and a spider or gravity furnace added in the 1880s, to provide central heating. Bowen’s rare surviving Fourth of July decorations are on display at Roseland from late June through early July each year.
The loving care lavished on the estate by three generations of Bowens ensured that the house remained a showplace. Roseland Cottage was acquired from the family in 1968 by Historic New England and became a museum. The estate, now a National Historic Landmark, includes an icehouse, aviary, carriage barn, and, as a reminder that this house was built for healthy recreation, the nation’s oldest surviving indoor bowling alley. Roseland Cottage’s picturesque landscape includes original boxwood-edged parterre gardens planted in the 1850s.
In February 1870 Bowen had lunch with Connecticut’s Senator William Buckingham in Washington, D.C. They discussed inviting President Grant to Bowen’s estate in Woodstock to commemorate Independence Day. As Bowen was a respected and influential member of the Republican Party, owner, publisher, and editor of an influential newspaper, and a steadfast supporter of the president, the notion of his hosting Grant didn’t seem audacious or out of the question. President Grant did come to Woodstock—and thousands of spectators did too.
Woodstock’s Fourth of July events continued to reflect Bowen’s outsized influence. For more than 20 years, until his death in 1896, he enticed prominent figures, including three presidents (Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William Henry Harrison in 1883 and the soon-to-be-elected William McKinley in 1891) to Woodstock to celebrate the nation’s holiday. Cabinet secretaries, senators, foreign ministers, vice-presidents, military leaders, financiers, university presidents, literary figures, and clergymen also made the journey. Newspapers from around the country covered these events, and Bowen’s reputation stretched from coast to coast. The Los Angeles Times in 1886 suggested that the rest of the country should look to Bowen to learn how to celebrate Independence Day.
Henry Chandler Bowen died in 1896 in Brooklyn and is buried in the cemetery on Woodstock Common next to the Congregational Church and across from Roseland Cottage. The common on Woodstock Hill is little changed from the days when presidents visited and Gilmore’s band entertained the throngs who came to revel at Bowen’s grand celebrations.
Laurie Masciandaro is the site manager for Historic New England’s Roseland Cottage.
Roseland Cottage, 556 Route 169, Woodstock. Open Wednesday to Sunday, June 1 to October 15. Closed July 4th. For more information visit historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/roseland-cottage or call 860-928-4074.
June 26 – July 14. On view: the Bowen’s Fourth of July decorations ornament the interior of the house.
July 5. Independence Day concert featuring the 94th Army Band. 7 p.m. Bring a blanket and picnic supper. Free
July 20. Party Like It’s 1850! Period games and activities for families and tours of the house emphasizing how the Bowens celebrated birthdays. 1 – 3 p.m. Free
September 8. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bowen! Celebrate Henry Bowen’s birthday as he did: By planting a tree on Woodstock Common, with appropriate musical fanfare; tours of Roseland Cottage, and, cake, ice cream, and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.” 1 – 5 p.m. Free.