Out & About: Norwich Historical Society’s talking tour features the town’s ‘unsung women’

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Members of the Norwich Women's Literary Club sewing circle gather in the early 1900s. At the time, the group advocated for women's suffrage. The group continues on today as the Norwich Women's Club. (Courtesy Norwich Historical Society)

Members of the Norwich Women's Literary Club sewing circle gather in the early 1900s. At the time, the group advocated for women's suffrage. The group continues on today as the Norwich Women's Club. (Courtesy Norwich Historical Society) Courtesy Norwich Historical Society

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 5:01 PM

Modified: 07-08-2024 3:13 PM


NORWICH — A few years ago, Norwich Historical Society Director Sarah Rooker searched a 1909 Norwich history book for the word “she.”

Rooker’s electronic search brought back three results from the roughly 300-page volume that has since been digitized: The first result was “she struggled bravely to keep her head above water,” which referred to “an old white-faced cow,” Rooker wrote in an email, quoting passages from the book. The second result referenced a Mrs. Messenger, who heard the first baby born in Norwich cry. In the third reference, the “she” was Great Britain.

Rooker chose another keyword: “Mrs.” to see if she’d get different results that mentioned the women who contributed to Norwich in the town’s early days. There were three: women who organized the town’s Old Home Week, those who served as library trustees and those who organized events on behalf of the community’s churches.

“Women just are not represented in the early history of Norwich. That really spoke to me because women contributed so much to the community, so could we tell those stories?” Rooker said in a phone interview. “I wanted to take a look at that more closely.”

Rooker, together with other members of the historical society, did so. Rooker will present their research during a “Women’s History Stroll along Main Street,” a nine-stop talking tour which is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 11. The cost is $10 for the roughly hour-long program and registration is required at norwichhistory.org/walking-tours/. If the program proves popular, it will be offered again.

While more recent Norwich history books have included more about women’s roles in shaping Norwich, the event aims to bring that history to the public in a different way. The tour will mostly highlight women who lived in Norwich from the early 19th century to the early 20th centuries. Some of the information presented stems from an exhibition that opened in 2020 about the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Unfortunately, it was only open a couple weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I’m turning a lot of the exhibit into a walking tour,” Rooker said.

Nathalie Hebert, of Norwich, was among the volunteers who researched women who will be included in the tour. Hebert went to Dartmouth College, which had papers from Laura Shelby Blood, who lived in Norwich from around 1860 to 1890 and owned property in town — rare at the time for a woman.

“She’s a very interesting figure for her time,” Hebert said.

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Hebert also looked at letters that cadets who attended Norwich Academy — a military academy that got its start in Norwich and later moved to Northfield, Vt. — wrote home when they were students in the 1800s. While they slept at the school, they ate their meals at boarding houses run by Norwich women.

“These are the unsung women,” Hebert said. “The women we don’t have any information about but gleaned from letters by secondary sources from the cadets or anyone writing (letters).”

Hebert also will share what she learned about a women’s seminary that operated in a building at Norwich Academy. The institution, which the historical society believes was active from around 1810 to 1890, based on research from advertisements in newspapers at the time, was primarily for middle class women “not to so much to elevate their careers but to have them be better mothers and wives,” Hebert said.

Other women Rooker will highlight include Julia Emerson, who helped found the Norwich Female Abolition Society in 1843. During their monthly meetings, the women made quilts or hand-sewed clothes for refugees who made it to Canada. Sometimes, guests would stop by to deliver lectures or members of the group would read from anti-slavery materials.

“I’m highlighting a woman of color who appears as just a tick in the 1820 Norwich census,” Rooker wrote in an email. “An 1824 student diary reveals that there was a servant in the house, which must have been her. We will never know her name, but we know she was there serving meals to students.”

Rooker also will touch on the “fragility of women’s financial and legal status in the early 19th century” by sharing a story about a woman known as “the widow Waldson” who was “drummed out of town” by the community because she couldn’t pay her bill at a local store.

Rooker plans to include information about the Norwich branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Group members installed a fountain on the Norwich Green to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol.

“I think an ongoing thread is that from the beginning women have been change-makers and have worked together to improve their communities,” Rooker said.

Hebert said researching women’s lives in Norwich over the centuries has been fascinating.

“It’s kind of neat now that there’s an awareness that women contributed a lot to the growth of economy, politics, everything,” she said. “It’s just not very well documented which makes it a little frustrating.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.