Henry Huttleston Rogers and Mark Twain by Earl J. Dias
Unquestionably, Fairhaven’s most famous native son is Henry Huttleston Rogers, the Standard-Oil magnate who became one of the most powerful tycoons of his day. Born in 1840, Rogers lived during his childhood and early youth in the house at 39 Middle Street, which still stands today. A member of the first graduating class of Fairhaven High School, Rogers, after completing his secondary school studies, worked as a clerk in a grocery store, then as a baggage master for the Old Colony Railroad, and, at the age of 20, left to seek his fortune in the oil fields of Pennsylvania.
Determined, ingenious, and ambitious, he founded the Wamsutta Oil Refinery, invented several devices for use in the industry, became a leader in the fight of the independent oil refiners against the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil, won a position as an executive of the Pratt Refinery in Brooklyn, and, when that corporation was sold to Standard Oil, was made a vice-president of the latter giant business. By the time of his death in 1909, he had amassed a fortune of more than $100,000,000, but despite his rise in the world, he never forgot Fairhaven, which he once called “the dear old town which for 200 years has been the home of a continuous line of some of my ancestors.”
During his lifetime he spent many happy hours in Fairhaven at his elaborate 85-room mansion near Fort Phoenix, and he bestowed on the town such priceless gifts as the magnificent Fairhaven High School; the Town Hall; the beautifully-appointed Millicent Library; the Rogers Grammar School; the Unitarian Memorial Church, which is one of the nation’s architectural gems; Masonic Hall, and Cushman Park.
Undoubtedly, Rogers’ most famous friend was the great writer, Mark Twain, whom Rogers first met in New York in 1893 at a time when Twain’s unfortunate financial ventures had led him to the verge of bankruptcy. With consummate skill Rogers managed to untangle the gnarled web of Twain’s commercial enterprises, saved the author’s copyrights, and probably also saved Twain’s sanity. Twain expresses his gratitude simply and succinctly in his Autobiography, “His wisdom and steadfastness saved my copyrights from being swallowed up in the wreck…and his commercial wisdom has protected my pocketbook ever since.”
From 1893 on, the two men were on increasingly intimate terms, Twain being a frequent guest at Rogers’ New York home, or aboard Rogers’ yacht, Kanawha, or a familiar visitor to Rogers’ Fairhaven mansion. It was Twain who interested Rogers in furthering the education of Helen Keller at Radcliffe. [See a note from Helen Keller — 25kb]. Moreover, it was Twain who delivered the dedication speech at the opening of Fairhaven Town Hall on February 22, 1894 (the manuscript of the speech is on display at the Millicent Library) and also gave a humorous address at the laying of the cornerstone of Unitarian Memorial Church. There is also a letter written by Twain about the Millicent Library.
The published correspondence between the two men is lively and revealing. In many ways Rogers and Twain were kindred spirits – fond of poker, billiards, the theater, practical jokes, mild profanity, the good-natured spoof. Their friendship, in short, was based on a community of interests and on the fact that each, in some way, needed the other.
The tycoon and the writer have appropriate memorials in the Fairhaven of today. In the reading room of the Millicent Library is an impressive bronze tablet on which is a remarkable likeness of Mark Twain seated in an armchair and puffing on his curve-stemmed pipe. Below Twain’s representation Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are depicted. And engraved on the tablet is one of Twain’s favorite aphorisms, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
On the west side of Fairhaven High School’s spacious lawn stands a tall granite shaft, a memorial to Rogers erected after his death by grateful townspeople. On the memorial these Latin words are inscribed: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (If you would see his works, look about you).
Rogers himself lies buried in the family mausoleum in Riverside Cemetery, Fairhaven.
In the story of the two men, in their friendship, is illustrated an early example of the manner in which big business and the artist can complement each other.
——-Published by the Millicent Library, 1976
Furnished at the Dedication of the Town Hall, Fairhaven, Feb. 22, 1894
“By a thoughtful and judicious allotment of the privileges of this occasion, each speaker has been appointed to the function best suited to his capacity, his character, and his credit in the community. Chief of all the speakers, and the most eloquent, stands the building itself. It is its easy office to declare to you the love of its builder for the town which was her birthplace and the home of her girlhood. It may be trusted to say its say well; and be understood;and be applauded from the heart; and to occupy the platform longerthan anybody else, and make the only speech that will be printed right in the papers. Yes, and it is the only speaker of us all, gifted and popular as we try to let on to be, that can dare to stand up here and undertake to hold your unfatigued attention for a hundred years. Why, we couldn’t do it for forty.
We all recognize the value of this building as an example and a suggestion — a suggestion to any who are moved by love of their fellowmen to make gifts to them of hospitals or town halls or libraries, to build these things while they are alive, not wait till they are dead. If you do it while you are alive, it is really done, and well done; but if you wait till you are dead there is but a barren result and a divided profit; you get credit for the intention and the lawyers get the money. The stomachs of the lawyers of this land are distended to utter discomfort with the elemosinary architecture that they have swallowed. In all this world there is no joy like the joy a lawyer feels when he sees a good hearted inconsiderate person erecting a free library or a town hall or a hospital in his will. He smiles the smile that only he knows how to smile, and goes into training for the anaconda act. Perhaps no one has ever known a dead man to try to do even the least little simple thing without making a botch of it. The truth is, a dead man ought to lie still, and keep quiet and try to behave. But you can’t teach him that; you can’t teach him any useful thing. Everything about him is perishable but one thing, and that is his inability to accept the fact that circumstances over which he has no control have limited his activities. And first and last and all the time it is impossible to make him understand that there is nothing very large or fine or generous in spending his own money on himself and building hospitals with his children’s cash. Why, some people do seem to get duller and duller the deader they get. Oh, well, perhaps it’s no matter; it is the way they are made. Perhaps the mistake was in making them at all. I mean, if it was a mistake; I am no judge of that — but I wouldn’t leave it to them.
It was a pleasant and patriotic thought to dedicate this building and confirm this grace to Fairhaven on the natal day of Washington– George Washington, first of Americans — George Washington, the Father of his Country — George Washington, the Father of Those Who Cannot Lie. The family has dwindled a good deal. But I am left yet; and when I look back over the waste of years and call up the faces of the others, and know that I shall see them no more in this life and that I must remain now solitary and forlornly conspicuous to the last, the sole remnant of that old noble stock, it makes me feel sad, sad, and oh, so lonesome.
What I owe to Washington no words of mine can tell. He was my model from my cradle up. All that I am, — morally speaking — I owe to his example. Even in my tenderest youth his spirit was ever near, to guide and succor me. The first time I ever stole a watermelon in my life — I think it was the first time — it was the thought of Washington that moved me to make restitution, restored me to the path of rectitude, made me morally whole again. When I found out it was a green watermelon, I was sorry; not superficially, but deeply and honestly sorry. Then came the thought of Washington, and I said to myself, “What would Washington do?” That is what I said to myself. “What would George Washington do if he had stolen a watermelon? Green one. He would make restitution — that is what he would do.” And that is what I did. I rose up spiritually refreshed and strong, and carried the melon back to the farmer’s wagon and restored it to him; and said the merit was not mine, but Washington’s. And then I felt that inspiriting something, that electric thrill, that exaltation which rewards duty done, a moral victory won, a moral heroism added to one’s stock of dear and precious memories; and I told the farmer he ought to be ashamed of himself, going around working off green watermelons on people that had confidence in him; and made him give me a ripe one for it. And he was ashamed, and said he wouldn’t ever do it again. So I forgave him. For when a person has done wrong and acknowledges it and is ashamed of it, that is enough for me. It was Washington that saved me that time; he has been my guardian angel ever since — and has had an active career. I am glad and proud to have an opportunity at last to help celebrate his memory and to do honor to his noble name.
In the distribution of the privileges of this platform I was appointed to temper the glare of the gay and thoughtless oratory of these others with the wholesome shadow of a few words of sober advice — for there is a time for such things, and it is meet that we recognize this truth and rest our spirits with intervals of seriousness and solemnity. And so my advice to you — yea, more, my supplication — is, that you live as Washington lived — live as I have lived — and build your gift-halls and hospitals while you still live and can build your heart as well as your money into your gift.”
MARK TWAIN’S LETTER
Fairhaven, Feb. 22, 1894
I am glad to have seen it. It is the ideal library, I think. Books are the liberated spirits of men, and should be bestowed in a heaven of light and grace and harmonious color and sumptuous comfort, like this, instead of in the customary kind of public library, with its depressing austerities and severities of form and furniture and decoration. A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of events or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them. Creed and opinion change with time, and their symbols perish; but Literature and its temples are sacred to all creeds, and inviolate. All other things which I have seen today must pass away and be forgotten; but there will still be a Millicent Library when by the mutations of language the books that are in it now will speak in a lost tongue to your posterity.