Meigs & Farr: Touching the lives of children

Cordelia Meigs & Shirley Farr

Cordelia Meigs & Shirley Farr

I thought this was just going to be a story about two early-20th-century Brandon women who made great contributions to our state. And it still is. But there’s a twist — one that found me reading a conspiracy theory about Howard Dean.

Both Cornelia Meigs and Shirley Farr, whom I assume met while summering in Brandon, boasted Vermont heritage but were born elsewhere, had connections to Chicago, and were active members of the American Association of University Women (Farr, a member of the Rutland branch, was a national vice-president). Both are remembered, although in vastly different ways, for their roles in lives of Vermont children.

Cornelia Lynde Meigs spent her childhood summers in the Hero Islands, traveling there first from Illinois where she was born in 1884, and then from Iowa. Her father’s career as a U.S. civil engineer took him, his wife and six daughters on several excursions throughout the Midwest and West. Honored for his work in navigation improvements, an airport in Chicago was named for him.

Meigs was always a storyteller who loved to teach. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1912, she returned to Iowa to teach. It was there she first realized the lack in the range of books written according to children’s varying comprehension and reading abilities.

Thus began the keystone work of Meigs’ career. She urged book companies to print stories on several reading levels and encouraged libraries to house special sections, and eventually whole reading rooms, for children’s literature. From there she worked with college administrators to train specialized librarians, a program that gained international support.

Meanwhile, Meigs was writing her own books; stories that appealed to different age groups, based on what she learned from her students. From 1915, a steady stream of action-packed books were published and honored. In later years, she also wrote for adults, including “Invincible Louisa,” a biography of Louisa May Alcott for which she won the Newberry Medal in 1934.

In 1932, Meigs began teaching at her alma mater where she was eventually honored as professor emeritus of English. During those years she lived in Maryland, but continued to return to Vermont each summer. One particular year she stayed at the Brandon Inn and decided to make the Vermont town her summer home. Renting for the first few years, she eventually purchased a large colonial on Wheeler Road where, as she put it, her “very large collection” of nephews and nieces could stay.

Active in Brandon’s town life, Meigs particularly supported the library and 4-H, writing into her stories many of the children she met. Transforming an abandoned one-room school house on her property into a writing room, she continued to produce stories and other works right up until her death in 1973. In 1967, she was presented a doctorate of humane letters from the University of Plano in Texas.

Meigs’ landlady during those early Vermont summers was one Miss Shirley Farr.

Born in Ohio in 1881 to Vermont parents, Farr was raised and educated in Chicago, earning her Ph.D. in 1904. Her first teaching job was at Ripon College in Wisconsin where she taught French and history. In 1913, after her father’s death, she succeeded him as trustee of the college. She returned to the University of Chicago as a professor and much later as a counselor in the history department. Having gained fluency in French while in Paris for her undergraduate degree, she worked in France for the Red Cross in 1918 and later as president of the Women’s Overseas Service League.

Like Meigs, Farr had also spent childhood summers in Vermont, in the Middlebury/Larrabee’s Point area. In 1909, her father, who had made his fortune in banking, built a summer home on Park Street in his native Brandon — a location that is now the Lilac Inn. Farr inherited it in 1915 and eventually moved there permanently in 1942.

Politically- and civic-minded, Farr voted every November in Brandon as soon as women won the right and eventually represented the town in the Vermont Legislature in 1945 and 1947. She served on and donated much money to many boards, including Brandon’s library, National Bank and inn, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, as well as committees dealing with sewage, water and mosquito issues. To the State of Vermont she gifted Branbury Beach and areas of adjacent forest. In 1941, she opened a home in Brandon for refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.

Farr also served on the executive board of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society. Founded in 1919 by Rutland native Bernice Tuttle to help children who were living with the consequences of poverty, VCAS was collecting data on Vermont families. These “eugenic surveys,” funded by Farr between 1925 and 1935 at $5,000-$6,000 annually, were in fact “studies of degenerate families.” According to UVM’s Vermont Eugenics documentary history, the state supported “programs for identification, registration and ‘social control’ of ‘dependent, delinquent and deficient’ families.”

While Farr was, I have no doubt, acting in the best interests of children, she had nevertheless supported a program which asked, “… how may the quality of the (Vermont) human stock be conserved?” Thankfully, VCAS discontinued references to the “poor heredity” of their clients after 1930 but, unbelievably, a state law for “voluntary sterilization” was passed in 1931.

Googling “Shirley Farr Vermont” pulled me down a rabbit-hole of ugly truths about our state. Although I am anxious to delve deeper into this fascinating story (which I have also learned involves another famous Vermont woman, Dorothy Canfield Fisher), for now I choose to look at the positive.

Both Farr and Meigs, driven by their talents, passions and convictions, made positive community changes from which we are still benefiting. In their different ways, they touched the lives of many children — I mean, who hasn’t squealed in delight over the tiny chairs and book boxes in the library’s children’s room at some point in their lives?

(As for Farr’s “connection” to Howard Dean, you’ll have to search for that one yourself.)

Source material for this column was provided by “Those Intriguing Indomitable Vermont Women,” a publication of the Vermont State Division of the American Association of University Women (1980).

Originally published March 27, 2013, Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young

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