The Tale of The Lion

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

We are not a campus of monuments.  Other schools may have their statues of alumni Presidents, of creepy idealized schoolboys, of King Ozymandias . . . Williston has a statue called “The Actor,” generally understood to represent a fictional knight whose every attribute defies institutional aspirations toward Purpose, Passion, and Integrity.  And, of course, a lion.  No . . . The Lion.

The Lion in Winter. (Please click images to enlarge.)

The Lion has no name, nor does he represent the school’s Wildcat mascot.  He stands guarding the flagpole.  His empty eyes scan Mount Tom, perhaps anticipating danger from the bike path.  For generations he has been a magnet for children, some of them quite old, who cannot resist riding him.  Chameleonlike, his colors change so often that while his aging body is cast iron, observers may be forgiven for assuming that he is comprised entirely of layers of paint.  Perhaps like Auden’s Sphinx, The Lion is admired. but unloved.

Periodically, especially before important events like Convocation and Commencement, The Lion metamorphoses to a neutral color, institutionally repainted in the name of Looking Neat and Clean.  It never lasts.  The Lion has celebrated the national holidays of many countries, graduations, and the occasional birthday.  At times of local or national tragedy, leonine memorials have been de rigeur.  These have tended to last longer than other redecorative efforts.  He has been painted to advertise school plays, has appeared in support of political candidates, has been colored pink to promote breast cancer awareness,  and adopted a rainbow insignia to commemorate Williston’s participation in an LGBDQ Day of Silence.

(Ann Hallock)

Not every paint job has been so high-minded.  A couple of years ago, The Lion sported an odd shade of light blue, serving as background for a too-public senior prom invitation.  (Embarrassed, she declined.)  And painting traditions have changed over the years.  There was a time when a student subject to involuntary early departure might leave a farewell message.  More often, his friends would paint the beast in the miscreant’s memory.  Until a recent shift in tradition, it was rare actually to see anyone painting The Lion.  Most of the time, he appeared, overnight, to have painted himself.

The Lion in the 1930s, in its original Williston location, next to Swan Cottage

How the Lion Came to Williston

Edward Clare (William Rittase)

The Lion was brought to Easthampton in the 1920s by Williston Junior School Headmaster Edward Clare (for whom Clare House is named), and was installed next to what is now called Swan Cottage, on the crest of the Main Street Precipice.  When Ed Clare died suddenly in 1947, his widow Hazel stayed on, as did his Lion.  In 1965 the statue was relocated to a spot on the main campus, next to the Theater, where it remained until 1996, at which time it was moved to its present location, to make room for Falstaff.

The Legend of the Lion

According to legend, as transmitted by Hazel Clare, The Lion was one of a pair that stood overlooking the Charles River in Boston, on the property of a British merchant.  At the time of the Boston Tea Party, a mob invaded the merchant’s house and dumped the lions into the river.  The Tory fled to Canada, and the lions remained underwater until around the time of the Civil War, when they were dredged from the river during the expansion of the Charlestown Navy Yard.  Col. George Moore was the officer in charge of the recovery operation.  In civilian life, Col. Moore sold pianos.  That detail becomes relevant because at home in nearby Walpole, Mass., Moore had access to a variety of cranes, blocks, and tackles meant for hoisting pianos through upper-story windows, thus also useful for fishing cast iron lions out of the muck.  Moore took one of the lions for himself and installed it at his Walpole residence, which he named Lionhurst.  The second lion was taken by someone else, and lost to history.  Col. Moore had a daughter, Treby Moore.  Treby, who never married, was Edward Clare’s aunt.  She gave Ed the Lion, which he brought to Easthampton.

Hazel Clare, telling stories (William Rittase)

At least, that’s the story Hazel Clare used to tell.  It certainly appealed to every small (and larger) child to whom she told it. I had the good fortune to have known Hazel for much of my life.  In the 1950s, she was my art teacher in the Easthampton Public Schools.  Until her death in 1982, she was my neighbor on Glendale Street.  Hazel was a passionate and creative storyteller.

And therein lies the problem.

Another Legend

“Perhaps the Lion is admired bur unloved?”

We’ll get back to Hazel Clare in a moment.  But a brief digression, that may seem familiar to current Williston students: in February 2020, a faculty colleague asked me to elaborate on a story that in 1775, General Henry Knox had removed the lion (or lions) from Fort Ticonderoga and transported it (them) to Boston along with the Ticonderoga cannon, which were to be used in the fortification of the city.  Depending on which version of the story I heard, the lion was either left behind when the Knox expedition passed through Easthampton – an event not otherwise recorded in local history – or ended up in the Charles River, whence its history resumes with the George Moore/Hazel Clare story.

The Ticonderoga tale, completely new to me, demanded investigation.  It didn’t take much to discover that the story had originated with a highly respected member of the History Department, who told it while making a guest appearance in a colleague’s AP U.S. History class.  Apparently he wanted to see how credulous they were.  If so, he was not disappointed.

Hunting Lions, or the Legend Continues

Lionhurst (Walpole Historical Society)

True to the traditions of folklore, Hazel Clare’s tale “grew in the telling.”In fairness to Hazel, most of her information probably came from Ed Clare’s Aunt Treby, who had grown up with George Moore’s stories.  A more-or-less canonical version was established around 1965, when Hazel related it to Williston’s Director of Public Relations, Dorothy Potter.  Potter placed the story in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Boston Globe.2   But neither she nor Headmaster Phillips Stevens was entirely satisfied, even though Hazel, in an October 5, 1965 note to Potter, suggested that “Maybe we’d better let well enough alone.  I think it is a pretty good story as it is.”  There were two nagging questions: first, what were the pre-Revolutionary origins of our lion, and second, whatever happened to the other one?  The latter question was of particular interest to Stevens, who thought that if it could be found, an effort might be made to reunite The Lion with its twin.

Detail of the Lionhurst photo. The Lion is faintly visible left of center.
Colonel Moore’s recumbent lions (Walpole Historical Society)

Dorothy Potter’s investigations took her to the Historical Society in Walpole, Mass., from whom she learned that Colonel and Treby Moore had indeed maintained a residence named Lionhurst, on which property there were three cast iron lions.  By 1965 the property had passed to another owner, but the Society was able to provide a grainy photograph, in which two recumbent lions are clearly present, on either side of the front porch.  Williston’s lion is less obvious, but it is there, faintly visible next to the house (see photo above).  There was also an intriguing story: that “the officer in charge of retrieving the two British lions acquired one and shipped it off to his home in Ohio.”3

So Potter placed a press release in several Ohio newpapers, while Stevens sent a “Help Us Find the Lion” letter to the Ohio parents and alumni. No Ohio lion ever materialized.  But one Edward Shucki contacted Columbus resident Cameron Coe ‘68, with this terse but definitive note: “I have reason to believe the Lion Casting of the mate you’re searching for is located at Wisconsin Dells, Wisc., in front of the first house north of the Crandall Hotel on River Road.”

Helen Johnson’s lion in Wisconsin Dells

Ultimately this led Potter to Helen Johnson, owner of the Helen M. Johnson Knit and Needle Shop at 905 River Road, Wisconsin Dells.  Yes, she had a lion statue.  But no, it was not from Boston.  Her understanding of its history was that it had belonged to a family named Dickson or Dixon, who had brought it from Cornwall, Canada, shortly before the Civil War.  The Dicksons had owned what was now Johnson’s house, and had placed the lion there.  Helen Johnson sent a photograph, of a lion similar to Williston’s, but with a different tail.  (The location of this lion is presently unknown.  Google Maps indicates that the intersection near the Johnson address has been reconfigured, and the house is gone.)

The Gaskin Lion, in Kingston, Ontario

To further muddy the waters, a lion identical to Williston’s turned up in Macdonald Memorial Park in Kingston, Ontario.  It was donated to the city by activist John Gaskin, and has recently been restored.  Nothing in its history suggests that it was ever anywhere near Boston.

Meanwhile, attempts to document the lions’ salvage from the Charles River met with frustration.  Neither the United States Navy, nor the Boston Maritime Association, nor several other agencies were able to locate records of any statuary having been recovered during the Navy Yard construction.  All sources agreed that it had been a long time ago, and that record-keeping during the Civil War might have been haphazard.  But in addition, records at the American Antiquarian Society and elsewhere could not identify the name of the British merchant whose lions had supposedly been dunked, nor did they contain any corroborating evidence of the incident at all.  Col. Moore’s narrative was beginning to look like pure invention.

Nor was there information forthcoming concerning the Lion’s origins.  Ultimately, Dorothy Potter was referred to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the leading repository of information on British arts and design.  In January, 1968, a C. Blair of the V&A wrote that “the likelihood that a sculpture of this size was cast in England in the 18th century and then transported to America is fairly small.  We note that the early part of the story is based on hearsay, and we are inclined to think that the lion probably dates from well after the Revolutionary War.”  And there, for the next four decades, the matter rested.

Finally, the Anticlimactic Truth!

Robert Wood’s lions, formerly adorning the Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia (liveauctioneers.com)

In May 2016, Walpole, Mass. historian Susan Anderson emailed the Archives seeking information on Colonel Moore and Lionhurst.  It turned out that most of the data held by the Walpole Historical Society was based on Dorothy Potter’s articles about the Lion legend, now considered spurious.  But Ms. Anderson sent some information about Moore, who appears to have been, to put it gently, adept at reinventing himself.  Then out of the blue, a few days later, she emailed suggesting that I google “Robert Wood” and “pair of lions.”  (Try it!)  An antiques dealer in western Connecticut was offering two cast iron lions, identical to Williston’s.  These beasts, which had once flanked the entrance to the Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia, were the work of Robert Wood, whose Philadelphia foundries produced ornamental ironwork of all kinds, from fences and lampposts to fountains and garden statuary, 1839 to 1878.  (2020 searches of online auction sites indicate that this particular pair of lions has been resold a couple of times since.  And other Wood lions have turned up with surprising regularity.)

More information about Wood can be found at https://hiddencityphila.org/2015/09/finding-robert-wood-the-long-lost-foundry-of-an-iconic-ironworker/  There is an 1867 Robert Wood catalog online at archive.org.  The page showing a none-too-accurate rendering of The Lion is at https://archive.org/details/portfoliooforigi00robe/page/n605/mode/2up .  As it happens, Lionhurst’s recumbent lions are on the same page.  Browsing the whole catalog is worthwhile, to get a sense of the range of Wood’s products.

Endpiece, or The Tail of the Lion.

The repaired tail. The upper raised section is a reinforcing collar; the lower, paint.

As a final indignity, in 2015 The Lion’s tail was broken off.  It was found one morning lying next to the pedestal.  No one knows what happened, but it may well have snapped off when someone tried to use it for a step to climb on – after all, as has been noted, some of the “children” who have tried to ride have likely weighed in excess of 200 pounds.  Metal fatigue is real; consider how you’d feel if people had been standing on your tail . . . well, never mind that.  Welding cast iron is difficult; it took two attempts, and necessitated adding a collar to reinforce the break point.  At the time, campus children Ben and Clark Evelti (who are much larger now) gravely presented the Archives with a large collateral-damage paint chip.  Under a microscope, the chip revealed uncountable layers of paint, while the average thickness, measured with calipers, was approximately 1600 microns – 1.6 millimeters.  That’s a lot of paint.

Archival donors Bennett and Clark with their paint chip.

Everyone, please be safe and well in these uncertain times! (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh)

Notes

1J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, preface to second edition (New York: Ballantine, 1965), p. 8.

2 “Pre-Revolutionary War Lion Gets New Spot at Williston,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 28, 1965, p. 3; and “Tea Party Lionized,” Boston Globe, November 13, 1966, p. B35.

3Daily Hampshire Gazette (1965)

Panama Lion
Anatomical Lion
Tiger Lion
Riding Lion

7 thoughts on “The Tale of The Lion”

  1. Rick, what a fascinating tale! Of course, as a Main Street “townie” growing up in the 1950s, the lion was a familiar figure to me and my pals, especially in the winter when it watched over our sledding down nearby “Williston Hill.”

  2. Growing up in the early 1960s next door to Swan Cottage, I have many memories involving The Lion—always knew there was a tale of two lions but never knew all these other details
    Thank you for this and the photos as well
    Best wishes and stay safe,
    Ruth Henchey

    1. Ruth, Swan was not a residence in those days; it was called the “Junior School Schoolhouse” and contained classrooms. The Clares lived in what is now Clare House, which they purchased from the Lynch family when they arrived. After Edward Clare’s death, Hazel sold it to the school.

  3. Rick, I had a Hazel Clare as a 4th grade teacher at the Maple Street school, mid 1950’s. She was also a member of a local women’s Bridge Club (comprised mostly of Congregationalists) that met monthly and never played bridge. Could she have been the same Hazel Clare referenced in your Willy Lion story? I have a vague recollection of her dying suddenly of a heart attack when she was 60-ish, maybe in the 1960’s, which wouldn’t gibe with the Hazel Clare referenced here as passing in the early 1980’s. But how many Hazel Clares could an Easthampton hold?

    1. John, Hazel Clare was a roving art teacher in the Easthampton elementary schools in the fifties and sixties — she would have retired around 1966, when she turned 65. She died in 1982 — see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/140860954/hazel-may-clare, and as noted in the article, was a very good neighbor, in furiously good health, on Glendale Street until then. The bridge club story sounds very much in character. So I don’t know whose heart attack you’re remembering, although I can put on my grim reaper costume and ask around. You’re probably right, there can’t easily have been two of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *