The death of Lucy Farnsworth

Vol. 1, No. 3
By Daniel Dunkle | Oct 13, 2017
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle The Greek Revival house on Elm Street where Lucy Farnsworth lived for 85 years.

Still at the wheel of Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine, I arrive on Elm Street in October 1935.

It's a blustery gray autumn day and the car ripping through space and time, coupled with the seasonal wind, kicks the leaves up into a frenzy. Here and there as I was driving through town I could see pumpkins and Jack-O-Lanterns and get a feel for the time of year.

There's a sadness in the air as I dismount the vehicle. I scoop up a recent edition of The Courier-Gazette that I find blowing about in the gutter and read the big front-page story.

“Body Of Wealthy Rockland Woman Found On Floor At Her Elm Street Home,” it says. I look up at the white Greek Revival-style house, now many years younger and yet in worse condition than I had last seen it in 2017.

“Possessing a fortune roughly estimated at one million dollars, but electing in her 97th year to live alone and unattended, Miss Lucy C. Farnsworth met the end which many had feared,” the article states. She died Oct. 15, 1935. “Last seen on Sunday night by George Wong, Chinese laundryman and one of her tenants, her body was found Tuesday afternoon crumpled on the ploor of her locked chamber at 21 Elm street.”

Were she still alive, I would expect the editor would receive a polite-yet-stern letter from her the next week concerning the typos in such an important news story.

Ever since I arrived in Rockland, I have heard about this Lucy Farnsworth character, one of the most significant in the city's history, and also one of the least understood. Lucy did not leave us diaries or photos or even paintings of herself. She lived a somewhat reclusive life, 85 years of it in the homestead on Elm Street.

Lucy was the daughter of William A. Farnsworth, who accumulated a large fortune in the lime business (indeed, he is sometimes referred to as a “Lime Baron”). He is also interesting, in that he started the city's water company and brought modern conveniences to his home. The Farnsworths lived life in a grand style.

Two of her brothers died when she was young. Her father, whom she admired and loved, died in 1876. She lived in the house with her mother for many years.

Lucy was a very private person throughout her life. For some reason, written accounts of the famous family during her life and after her death fill in the gaps in what we know with unkind words about her. She was described as homely, serious and a spinster, and there were statements about her dressing all in black on the few occasions she left the house. The Saturday Evening Post called her the “ugly duckling” in a 1953 article, according to a talk about her life given by Farnsworth Art Museum Curator Michael K. Komanecky. She was also considered something of a miser. In addition, one thinks of “Grey Gardens” when reading accounts of her living in squalor at the end.

In 2017, one no longer questions the right of a woman to live as she chooses, independent and unmarried, so much of what we read about Lucy comes to us through a warped lens of sexism.

It is clear from her business dealings over the years and her correspondence with her Portland attorneys in drawing up her will that she was a very smart person.

Shortly after her death, the city of Rockland learned that the fortune, which she had multiplied fivefold since her father's death (according to Komanecky), would be used to create a museum of art and library, and the house would be preserved and open as an exhibit of what had already become a bygone era. The fortune was actually about $1.3 million.

The house would be renovated and opened by 1938. The museum would open in 1948.

As I stand on Elm Street meditating on all of this, a boy comes up to me on his wooden scooter, his clothes patched and dirty – possibly serving only as play clothes or possibly a reminder that we are in the middle of The Great Depression.

“Someday,” I say to him. “This city will be known for its art museums and galleries, a place drawing people from all over the country, and it will have all started with Lucy Farnsworth's generosity.”

He looks at my strange clothes and my strange car and says, “You're crazy, Mister” and off he scoots.

It seems clear that Lucy Farnsworth loved her father and her family very much, that she admired their accomplishments and wanted to leave a lasting legacy. She also cared about a community, which, in retrospect, could have been kinder to her.

Did you know? A slight earthquake was recorded in this area Oct. 17, 1769, according to Shore Village Story. It seems likely that many other earthquakes may have taken place over the years, but how would we tell the difference between a natural one and blasting at the local quarries, which continues to the present day?

Newspaper term of the week: Ink by the barrel. "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” is an often-quoted, seldom-practiced proverb in political circles. The idea is that members of the press buy massive quantities of ink and newsprint, and can often get the last word in an argument. Usually, in my experience, someone will say this in a phone conversation as an icebreaker, before launching into whatever they want to argue with me about. “The phrase is cited in print from 1964, where it was credited to former Indiana Congressman Charles Bruce Brownson (1914-1988),” according to the blog: barrypopik.com.

Editor Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. We want to hear from you, so tell us what you think! Send in your responses, stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Hand-written notes are welcome and appreciated.

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The entrance to the Elm Street homestead. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The private Farnsworth cemetery off Pleasant Street.
Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 13, 2017 16:36

Thanks for the memories. I toured the residence once with friends and marveled at how well it was preserved. Rockland is blessed to have this treasure in the midst of the city.



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