William Wood and the Founding of Nahant’s First Public Library

By Bonnie Ayers D’Orlando, NHS Curator (retired)

Nahant Historical Society salutes Nahant Public Library on the bicentenary of its founding.  Among our museum’s rarest artifacts is a framed collection of four original letters. Although fragile and faded after 200 years, they document that beginning. On Saturday June 1st, the letters will be displayed for one evening during the Library’s gala.

Who was William Wood?  He was a Boston merchant, and an early 19th century summer visitor to Nahant, staying at the Breed’s homestead, now the Whitney Homestead at 369 Nahant Road. In a letter dated April 8, 1819, Wood approached the year-round residents with a valuable gift. He had “collected from various quarters about ten hundred volumes of books, for the purpose of forming a library at Nahant…” The subscriptions or borrowing fees would be used to purchase trees “in order that your pleasant abode may be rendered delightful by shade.”   The Johnson and Hood families responded, quickly agreeing.  Portraits of one of the Johnson brothers, Caleb, and his wife Olive hang in the Society’s Lowell Gallery.  Find out what Olive holds in her hand.  

NHS Ballou's - the Late William Wood - larger .jpg

Engraving “The Late William Wood, Esq.” Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, (Boston, MA). Vol. XIII, no. 12, September 19, 1857, p 188.

By July 8, 1819, Salem diarist Reverend William Bentley reported a “School house is of stone, mostly built by the visitors from Boston. Stands on the height on the east of the lane & has an enclosed yard, a pleasant room well plastered and ornamented with two Ionic columns brought from Europe & fixed to the E. wall.  In the building is a Library of several hundred volumes & of these a Catalog is kept with the names of the persons who gave them, and the list and books are respectable.” The columns were treasured by generations of Nahanters, and moved from school to school over two centuries. Now the marvelous 15th century Italian Renaissance pilasters by the Gagini family grace the south wall of the top floor of the Nahant Community Center, formerly the 1904 Valley Road School.

As an historian, I was curious as to why Wood started a lifelong “hobby” of establishing libraries, of which Nahant was the first.  Several accounts paint him as an unusual, sometimes eccentric, yet modest man. There appear to be more than one reason.  Prior to his birth in 1777, his family had been settled in Charlestown for at least three generations.  The Woods prospered as merchants, and owned much undeveloped land, too. In the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, they were forced to evacuate as the British put Boston and Charlestown under siege and naval blockade.  Much of Charlestown’s prosperity depended on maritime trade, so the Woods suffered severe losses.  During the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, most of Charlestown was destroyed by flaming shot cannonaded by the British Navy.   When the fledgling American army forced the British out in 1776, the family rallied. Probably that family resilience taught Wood the essential value of building community.  Charlestown rebuilt as the theatres of war moved south, and began to flourish with creation of a new nation during Wood’s childhood. 

According to the Boston Directories, William Wood became a merchant and importer early in the 19th century, later partnering with his younger brother Timothy.  The founding of the Boston Athenaeum in 1807 inspired him to sign on as an original subscriber, as noted by Josiah Quincy in his 1851 History of the Boston Athenaeum (p 43-44).  This library became the cultural center of Boston during the 19th century, and continues as one of the most distinguished institutions in America. Using that outstanding example, Wood began what he called his “hobby,” starting with Nahant in 1819.  He asked family, friends, and others to contribute books to this effort, finally totaling 1,075 volumes. Some still survive, due to careful stewardship of townsfolk, and eventually, librarians.  The late Library Director Daniel deStefano put each original volume in custom archival enclosures. Current Director Sharon Hawkes has taken digital images of surviving donor inscriptions to research. You will see more on June 1st. 

However, one volume is safeguarded here at the Society as one of its most cherished artifacts. On October 24, 1819, Reverend Bentley documents this gift:  “The wife of Christopher Gore, our late [previous, not deceased] Governor has given a Prayer Book, presented to her by one of the Royal family to the Library at Nahant, which is increasing.”  According to Nahant legend, the regal giver was King George the 3rd.  Both the artifact and research backs much of this story, and more.  This volume has dark green and gilt royal monogrammed covers. It is engraved with “Mrs. R. Gore” on the front, and “Windsor Chapel” on the back. Inside is a gilded inscription from her to the Nahant Library.   Rebecca Gore accompanied her diplomat husband Christopher to London, where he was an American commissioner from 1796 to 1803, and then Chargé d’Affaires from 1803 to 1804.  A person of rare talents, Rebecca designed their magnificent neoclassical mansion on their farm in Waltham, Massachusetts. Now a museum, Gore Place, is renowned for being the most technologically advanced Federal period house in New England. See https://goreplace.org/

What of Wood’s desire to give Nahant “delightful shade?”  In his 1928 Some Annals of Nahant (p. 61) library trustee Fred A. Wilson notes that William Wood and Thomas Handasyd Perkins planted elm trees from Summer Street to the present day Whitney Homestead. The latest of our four Wood letters is to Samuel Cabot, Jr., the son-in-law of Perkins who built the first summer cottage for the Perkins-Cabot family in 1820.  On December 6, 1820, Wood passes to Cabot the oversight of library subscription fees to purchase ornamental trees from Princes Nursery, (Flushing) Long Island, New York.  This plant market had become renowned for its far-reaching inventory, and included among its customers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the British King William IV. 

Why did Wood ask Cabot to take over? He had already completed his second project, the Apprentice Library of Boston, in February 1820.  Over the rest of his life, he established more libraries in Boston, New York City, Albany, and Canandaigua, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and even Liverpool, England.  Most unusually for the time, he also worked to get books onto merchant ships.  Let us honor Wood’s community building spirit, and that of Nahanters past and present who enjoy and support Nahant Public Library. See you there on Saturday June 1st.