The remarkable story, featured in The Telegraph, is below the photo
Editor’s Note: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo and an explanation of how he got the shot.
It’s been a long journey, and Cail Bellavance doesn’t want it to end.
That end is near, though – literally hanging over her by the doorway of her workspace, in an old carriage house on Berkeley Street.
That journey began unexpectedly, spawned from an offhand comment to her husband Joe while they were in her in-law’s north end home, where that carriage house is situated.
The property is adjacent to 51 Berkeley St., a home built by Nashua’s Frank Stevens, who ran the Maine Manufacturing Co. It became a well-known maker of refrigerators and an important operation in Nashua’s early industrial beginnings. Number 61 Berkeley was built by Frank’s son Phil in 1937. The stone carriage house, once a barn, became part of that property. I stood with Cail at the edge of the driveway as she began her story.
About five years ago, she said, she wondered out loud about the home and the lives of those who lived there. “Well, there’s an old trunk in the attic of the carriage house you may want to take a look at,” Joe said.
The next day, she marched in to take a look. She opened one of the trunks – there were three of them; on top of the pile inside was a half-inch of crumbled newspaper. Then she began digging.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said.
A little backstory:
Frank Stevens and partner John Cotton came to Nashua in 1895. The first place Stevens lived in was a room over the Card Shop building, next to the Nashua River near the Main Street Bridge, Cail Bellavance explained. After he became successful, he started building the house in 1900.
She said at the time, the neighborhood’s layout was a bit different than today. There were a couple of houses on Chester Street, then everything else was part of the Laton Estate. “It was all farmland,” she said. “The Stevens property stretched a bit, even back to river, and also included the lot across the street,” long since sold off.
“This was the barn,” Bellavance said. “This was started in 1908 and finished in 1910.” It is a solid stone structure, the material coming from the same supplier that provided for the well-known Greeley Park bathroom structure, which was built around the same time (John Cotton had given money to help develop the public park).
Bellavance takes me inside. Our voices echo as we climb a short set of wooden steps and go through a series of closed doors.
“When I came up here, it was March,” she explained. “It was cold. I came up here with gloves and a hat for two weeks straight, just taking things out in piles.”
The trunk takes up a sizable amount of floor space. It is huge. The letters M and M are stenciled on the left side. Two leather straps, still soft, hold the lid open. Bellavance showed me how she gingerly propped it open with a pillow as she worked.
“This was full – I mean it was all the way to the top. And the top was just crumbled newspapers,” she said. “I kind of brushed those aside and the rest was perfectly preserved, packed in there all the way down.”
We made our way down to yet another locked room. “Now the fun stuff,” Bellavance said.
She opened the door. In the back of the room is a small window with a view over the expansive backyard. Light streamed in over a staggering collection of ephemera covering decades, all of it at one point stored in those trunks.
Unpacking and collating this has been Bellavance’s passionate vocation for four years. Over that time, Frank Stevens’ life slowly and literally unfolded before her eyes.
“See the strings hanging? I had the dowel rods going all along here,” she explained as she motioned around the room. “I would take a year at a time of newspapers and I would hang them up. Then I would go through them and take notes and figure out what he was trying to say, and then I would preserve them,” Bellavance said.
The amount of material is staggering. “He was involved in everything and saved everything,” she said.
Stevens’ personal stash covers the years between 1900 and 1925. Another trunk, filled by his son Phil, contained material from later years. There are boxes of World War I war bond posters. There are menus. There are programs from events and celebrations. He saved tickets from a track meet. He saved meeting notices and telegrams. He had information on the Board of Trade, the predecessor to the city’s chamber of commerce.
There are more than 600 letters, a few from him to his wife Mabel when he traveled. All handwritten, of course. Bellavance said she has transcribed or at least taken notes on all of them. All 600.
One letter reads:
April 13, 1918
Hotel Alexandria Los Angeles
Just a line and enclose a few orange blossoms that we gathered from a tree today in Pasedena. Phil and I took a ride out to that city today – visiting the Ostrich farm and the alligator farm. We have seen Ada twice and she took dinner with us here at the Alexandria this evening. Will be writing you a longer letter soon,
With much love to you all, Frank.
In the envelope, under layers of keepsakes in that trunk stored in a dark attic room, is an orange blossom from Pasadena.
Stevens was a member of the Nashua Country Club, so there’s stuff on that, as well as the city’s Choral Society and the Nashua Symphony. On some of the programs, printed speeches and newspapers are handwritten notes saying “save this.” It appears every aspect of Stevens’ life is documented in hard copy and slowly, but surely, it’s being categorized and scrutinized by Bellavance’s gentle hand.
She has shelved binders marked “theater,” “travel” and “kids homework.”
Every aspect? I bet he didn’t save his grocery receipts. Who would do that? Frank Stevens did.
One day in 1920, Frank bought bread, ham, cheese, sugar and olives from Alton Grocery at 81 Main St., near the intersection with Water Street. Oh, by the way, 5 pounds of sugar cost him 50 cents.
The family performed skits at Thanksgiving. Roles and recitations are remembered in a list with careful block letters. There’s even a hand-drawn map, sketched by Frank’s son Phil, that according to an accompanying letter shows where the boy was allowed to ride his bicycle. It was penned in 1909. The simple map includes Concord, Beasom and Chester streets, all in relation to the family home, and as written, the “barn,” the very building we stood in.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect is many of the items, including letters, are carefully wrapped together with bits of colorful ribbon or twine, all of it unopened until now.
“When you look at what he saved … He wanted to be old. He saved articles on how to be a centenarian. He wanted someone to see it and appreciate it,” Bellavance said.
“This is the journey I went on, remember?” she said. “I would have to stop, look up the hotel and see where he stayed and reference everything. This is what I’ve been doing for four years.”
Now Bellavance admits it’s coming to its end. “Because of that,” she said, motioning toward what is hidden behind the piece of shelf paper, draped over something hanging off that wooden rod, shielded from view. “See what’s behind there?” she asked.
The paper is yellow and crisp. It’s a Nashua Telegraph from August 21, 1925. On Page 1, front and center, is Frank Stevens’ obituary.
“That’s the one I don’t want to get to,” she said.
She paused and faced the window with its view to the back lawn. “I just don’t want to get there. It’s been so awesome – going everywhere with him, the menus … It’s not just reading. He describes what things smell like, what the food tastes like, what the weather is and who was there. I just know his so well. That’s the hard part. It’s a life completed. You see the whole thing together.”
The ultimate goal is a book using the treasure trove of material to paint a rich picture of the Stevens’ family life and their relationship to the city. For now, the obituary will remain hanging on the wall, hidden.
“He loved life so much,” Bellavance said. “You see the whole rich experience. I just loved it. All of it. I just hate to see it end.”
“(Frank) tells me pretty constantly to stop doing this and get out there,” she said, pointing out the back window. “I remember Charlie (Cail’s son) when he was little. Charlie was out there with Joey and I’ve been in here with my head in 1912 for hours. I looked out there and they were playing.”
It was then Bellavance realized Frank was saying to her, “Stop this, get out there, be in the moment and live your life.”
“It’s really fulfilling and I love it, but that’s the main thing he tells me through all of this,” she said.
Bellavance looked out the window again, gesturing around the room. “This is good, but make sure you don’t miss that.”
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).