The Public and Very Private Life of Susie Pendleton
Though many now living in Hebron have never heard of her, Susan Bingham Pendleton was one of the most well-known women in our community in the first half of the 20th century. But it would come as no surprise to those that remember Susie to learn that she was the topic of a library book club discussion just last year in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
Born May 1, 1870 to Dr. Cyrus H. Pendleton and his wife, Mary Welles Pendleton, Susan was the middle child of the Pendleton’s five children (a sixth child, Winfield, died a day after birth.) Clarissa, Anne, Susie, Grace, and Cyrus E. were all born and raised in the classic Federal home on Church Street, right in the center of town, known to everyone at the time as “Pendletonia.”
In addition to being the town’s only doctor for almost 50 years, Dr. Pendleton was very active in the community, at various times in his life serving as Town Clerk, Selectman, Judge of Probate, District Health Officer, and member of the Committee of Education and the Hebron Literary Association. The library was of particular importance to Dr. Pendleton; he served as its first president from 1898 until 1919.
He was a scholarly man who wrote in Greek, read his Hebrew Testament upside down (“because it was more interesting that way”), and mixed his own medicinal potions right in his home. He was also known as being somewhat odd. Once, he decided that he wanted to measure the distance between towns in a scientific way. So he wrapped a rag around one of his wagon wheels (to keep them from slipping), and drove from Hebron to Marlborough, carefully counting the turns of the wheel, and then multiplying the number of turns by the wheel’s circumference!
All of the children were taught to value education, but Susan in particular demonstrated her father’s intellectual prowess at an early age. In the early 1880’s, and barely a teenager, Susie joined a group of other Hebron women to form what was known as the “Rosebud Society,” a group dedicated to books and learned discussions. Through a number of evolutions, the Hebron Literary Society was eventually born. According to John Sibun, “There was not a building to house the books, and they were loaned out from the front hall of Pendletonia; the “librarian” was whichever member of the Pendleton family who happened to answer the door.”
That initiation into the literary group probably influenced Susie as much as growing up in the Pendleton home. Like many other women of the time, she graduated from Willimantic Normal School, which today is Eastern Connecticut State University. For a short period of time, she taught school in both Hebron and Columbia. In 1908, she played a major role in the celebrations of Hebron’s 200th anniversary of incorporation, assisting her long time friend, Ida Porter Douglas. As official Poetess of the event, she also wrote and delivered a poem simply titled Hebron.
Interestingly, it was Susan Pendleton who took the 1920 census for Hebron. She canvassed the residents, and carefully recorded their age, occupation, where they were born, and where their parents were born. For her own occupation, she listed “None,” even though she was 50 years old and a budding writer. True to her keen wit, for which she was well known, she also wrote the word “Lied” in her personal records when Roger Porter claimed to be 40 and Della Wilcox Porter claimed to be 43 (they were 42 and 45 respectively.) But in the end, she kept their secret and reported the younger ages.
Susie is best remembered as a poet, journalist, and historian. She is also remembered as somewhat of a “firecracker,” to quote one long-time resident. Her roles as historian and newspaper writer are closely intertwined. Susie was a correspondent for the Hartford Times, and for almost 40 years, she reported Hebron news for the Manchester Herald. In a significant number of those stories, she wrote about Hebron’s history, building on the research done by Hebron’s first unofficial historian, F. Clarence Bissell, as well as the documentary work she and her father had done.
But she never wrote for the Hartford Courant. The “firecracker” in her probably destroyed that possibility in October 1920, just a few weeks after the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was approved in Connecticut. Susie wrote a scathing Letter to the Editor which she demanded the Courant publish. “I am beginning to become quite interested in republicans,” the staunch Democrat wrote. “Picking up a recent paper of yours, I notice that you print a statement to the effect that when Senator-elect Lunergan visited Hebron only three (or was it four?) women were present to listen to him. Not a man. Why not lie about Wilson, the League of Nations, and so on? Why bother to lie about Hebron? I was there….” She then continues, insinuating the Courant favored the Republican party. For her efforts, she received a scathing response from the Courant editor. “The writer, who calls the Courant a liar and signs herself “very truly yours,” may be inconsistent, but she is welcome to her opinion…This Hebron voter will learn, in time,” he wrote.
One of Susie’s best known writings in the Herald was called “Hebron in History and Story.” Encompassing many pages, the lengthy article (published in a number of editions) presents a history of Hebron going back to the Native American roots of the land. It also contains references to events that might otherwise be lost, such as F. C. Bissell’s 1924 journey, leading a group of Hebron people, to locate Prophet’s Rock or that Miss Adelle White, whose ancestors had lived in the Burrows Hill area since the town’s beginnings, claimed that the original settlers actually called the landmark “Prospect Rock.”
Her writings always seemed to capture a bit of the new with the old, and as such become reference materials, especially in locating old buildings. When talking about Reverend John Bliss in 1715, she notes “his house was on Godfrey Hill, then known as Church Hill…” or “the first [Puritan] meetings in Hebron were first held at the house of Caleb Jones in 1709 (on the road leading east from where Loren Lord’s house now is.)” Today, these are important clues to researchers and genealogists trying to piece together old maps and determine where certain early 18th century events occurred.
As a poet, Susie’s They Shall Remain continues to provide a look at Hebron as seen by someone who grew up during some of the most challenging events the community has ever witnessed, including the Great Fire of 1882, the Blizzard of 1888, and the Hurricane of 1938. The book, compiled by Austin Warren, was published in 1966 shortly before Susie’s 96th birthday.
It is poems such as “Secret” in the 38-page volume that lend insight into the Susan Bingham Pendleton most people didn’t know. In that poem she wrote:
I will lock it tight away
Under a clamped lid.
(But will not people turn and say
“She keeps something hid”?)
My heart shall be its hiding place…
In Part II: Susie’s poems reveal a woman who kept her emotions in check, as was the expectation of that day. But through the oral history she passed on to her great nephew, Horace Sellers, who lived with Susie off and on for 50 years, we learn much more about the private life and shattered dreams of this very public woman.
In Part I: Susan Bingham Pendleton was heavily influenced by her intellectual, although sometimes eccentric, father, Dr. Cyrus H. Pendleton. She was a public person, one of the icons of Hebron at her time, and a prolific writer. Susie knew that people recognized a certain sadness in her, though only a privileged few understood it. In her poem “Secret,” she had written: “I will lock it tight away under a clamped lid. (But will not people turn and say “She keeps something hid”?) My heart shall be its hiding place…”
It is through the oral history, passed down from Susie to her great-nephew, Horace Sellers, that we learn more about this remarkable woman. Horace lived with her and her sister Clarissa (known as Clara) at the large house on Church Street, referred to by all as “Pendletonia,” off and on beginning in 1947. During those years, he learned much about his famous aunt.
Even though she once had an opportunity to leave, Susie had remained in Hebron, an isolated community in which people were pretty much stuck with each other when it came to socializing. From outward appearances, she was a bright, beautiful woman who found contentment in her community work, her writing, and her social engagements.
But one “secret” Susie tried to keep mostly likely influenced her decision to become a writer, artist, and poet. From an early age, she had struggled to hear the happy chatter typical of the teas and picnics dominating Hebron social life at the turn of the 20th century. “It was some kind of bone misalignment in her ears that she was probably born with,” said Horace. “Hearing aids couldn’t help.” It would be years before the general public became aware that Susie had a significant hearing problem. Horace clearly remembers that “as she got older, she took to writing notes to people. She could talk fine, but she couldn’t hear their responses, so writing was just much easier for her. I still have some notes she used to write me.”
Although few knew it, Susie found herself in a number of “competitive situations” with Caroline Kellogg, another single woman and the long-time librarian at the Hebron Public Library. Carrie, who was almost 20 years older, was also a writer, although not nearly as prolific as Susie. “The relationship between the two,” says Horace, “was frosty.”
Part of the reason for that “frosty” relationship might have centered on Ida Porter (later Mrs. Charles Douglas.) Ida had a way of surrounding herself with women of like interests, taking on the men in town, and ultimately accomplishing many good things for the community. Both Susie and Carrie were devoted to books and the need for a library, so it was natural that they seek a friendship with Ida, the recognized leader in the creation of the Hebron Public Library in 1898.
It was Susie who at a very early age joined Ida in the Rosebud Society and later the Hebron Literary Association that ultimately led to the first library building project. It was also Susie who worked hand-in-hand with Ida on Hebron’s 1908 celebration of the town’s 200th anniversary of incorporation (a goal of Ida’s), and it was Susie who for years had performed with Ida in local plays.
But it was ultimately Carrie who was given the honor of memorializing Ida’s contributions to the Hebron Library Association.
Carrie began her address with the words, “Because, I suppose, of the many years in which we were so intimately connected in the welfare of our library, I have been asked to try to tell a little of what Mrs. Charles Douglas has meant to it. It is a large order, for how can I put the doings of the thirty years we worked together in the few lines allotted me? ... I do not mean to praise her out of reason, yet words spoken truly must of necessity reveal the beauty of her character.”
Later, in 1937, Carrie mailed her handwritten speech, complete with scratch-outs and notes in the margins, to Dr. Douglas. For some odd reason, the letter ended up among Susie’s possessions, although no one knows exactly how or why. It is not known whether Susie felt slighted. After all, her friendship with Ida went back fifty years, far longer than Carrie’s thirty years!
Over time Susie and Carrie had found themselves joined together in the forefront of other community affairs, such as leading the charge for women’s suffrage. At the turn of the century, Connecticut women were only allowed to vote on Town School Committee members. In 1911, there were only eight Hebron women registered to vote for even that, with Susie and Carrie being the only single women. In 1912, they were joined by another single woman, Daisy White. Interestingly, in the 1913 School Committee elections, it was only these three maiden ladies – Susie, Carrie, and Daisy – that actually voted; the six married women did not. Unencumbered with husbands, perhaps Susie and Carrie competed to lead the suffrage banner for all Hebron women, but that is not known.
“When Carrie died in 1945, her will listed people who were allowed into her house and take one item. My mother was on the list, and she selected a Chippendale mirror. When she came home, she said she got it for Susan.” Susie’s response was short and to the point: “I don’t want it.” Horace still has Carrie’s mirror.
Despite her leading role in the community, Susie’s biggest secret had a profound impact on her, as evidenced in the poetry she wrote over many decades.
Many of those poems have a dark side to them, and there is no doubt that someone broke Susie’s heart. In “To Be Shut Of Love,” she wrote: “I am glad to be shut of love, To pull out of it and get by. I looked at a red flower, Asked God to let me die….I look back with a scornful wonder, Back on those tides of pain; I’m glad it’s all over, all over – I wish it were here again.”
Sometime in her late 20’s or early 30’s, Susie had indeed been in love with a man whose name is now forgotten. He was in the manufacturing business and planned to move to the Midwest, perhaps Cleveland, taking Susie with him. But Dr. Pendleton put his foot down. “No daughter of mine is going to marry an Adventurer,” he told her. Susie kept the painful secret “locked tight away” throughout her lie. She told the story to Horace only once, never mentioning the incident again.
If anyone in town knew about the “Adventurer,” they never let on. True to the times they lived in, it was simply never discussed. But her poetry reveals the true depth of her heartbreak. At times, Susie seems almost angry with God, with the concept of love and beauty, and with herself, knowing she had no other means of venting her tremendous loss.
In an often overlooked poem, “A Window Through,” Susie wrote of sitting in church at the age of 10, lost in the blue skies she could see through the windows, thinking that surely it must be Heaven she was seeing. But the poem concludes “Was it true that I worshipped God? And was it a prayer?” And in “Sweet Fern, Bayberry,” she wrote another telling verse: “Do the great ones above on their part, Toy thus with the human heart? Ah, do our sorrows rise, Perfuming the craving skies?”
Another of Susie’s poems was titled “Do Not Pray Too Hard,” in which she wrote: “But once I wanted! Tore the sky apart! God in reply like thunder spoke! My prayer was granted. And my heart broke.” In reading the sum total of Susie’s poetry, most likely she had prayed that God would lead her in the most difficult choice of her life: abide by her father’s wishes or marry her beloved suitor.
Peppered throughout the poems are constant references to “secrets,” “fears” and “death.” But she knew it wasn’t proper to share those thoughts; after all, as she wrote in “Keep It Dark,” “Folks who are afraid of the world mustn’t let other folks know.”
Selected poems of Susan Bingham Pendleton were published in 1966 in a slim volume called They Will Remain, also the title of the final poem in the collection. A year later, when she was 97 years old, Susie was awarded a Certificate of Merit from the Fine Arts Foundation of Connecticut for her contribution to American poetry. They Shall Remain is available at www.HebronHistoricalSociety.org.
Shortly before her 100th birthday, Susie told her great-nephew that she wanted to go into a nursing home. “It was something she really wanted; the big rambling house had just become too much for her,” said Horace. Susie, along with her secrets and memories, moved to a place in Mansfield, leaving Hebron behind.
On April 3, 1972, less than a month shy of her 102nd birthday, Susan Bingham Pendleton passed away. She is buried with her parents at St. Peters Cemetery.