“There Were Five of Us Who Played Around Always”: Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s Taunton Friends
By William F. Hanna
On November 30, 1993, in the East Room of the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. As frail as she was, the 103-year old “Grande Dame of the Everglades” was able to rise from her wheelchair to accept the highest civilian honor that the nation can bestow. “Mrs. Douglas,” said Clinton, “the next time I hear someone mention the timeless wonders and powers of Mother Nature, I’ll be thinking of you.”
Since there was no opportunity for Mrs. Douglas to make extended remarks on that day, we don’t know what was going through her mind during the lengthy awards ceremony. But it’s fair to wonder if she took a moment to think about a few of her oldest friends. Mrs. Douglas’s half century of work on behalf of the Everglades had brought her international celebrity and a legion of followers, but her formative years had been spent in Taunton. Eight decades later she wrote that as a young person she had many friends, but she had been especially fond of four girls. “There were five of us who played around together always,” she wrote.
In 1987, as she approached her one-hundredth birthday, Mrs. Douglas, with the assistance of John Rotchchild, published her autobiography. Entitled Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River, the book devotes several pages to the years she spent in Taunton. Born in Minnesota in 1890, she had come to this city from Providence, Rhode Island in 1895, when her parents separated and she and her mother settled into her grandfather’s house at 14 Harrison Street. She lived there until she left for Wellesley College in the fall of 1908.
While she found love and security with her grandparents, Marjory’s home life was always complicated by her mother’s delicate health. Florence Trefethen Stoneman had been trained as a concert violinist but Marjory remembered her as a devoted, loving mother whose emotional fragility had given way to chronic mental illness. That had contributed first to the break-up of her marriage and it later brought stress and sadness to the occupants of 14 Harrison Street.
After attending the Barnum Elementary School, young Marjory was enrolled at the Cohannet Grammar School. Both buildings were within walking distance of her Harrison Street home and later in life she shared pleasant memories of favorite teachers at both schools. In September 1904, as she began her freshman year at Taunton High School, her social life became more important. More than eighty years later she retained vivid memories of a few of her best friends, and her autobiography gives us a good picture of them, as well as of life in Taunton during the years straddling 1900.
Marjory found the high school’s social ramble particularly stressful, especially the ninth grade Cotillion dances. “That’s when I began to experience the awful ordeal of being a wallflower,” she wrote. “I was fat, my hair was greasy, I wore glasses, I giggled, I was completely self-conscious with boys, and I wondered why none of them wanted to dance with me.” Marjory had a friend and ally, however, in Pauline Starrett, “the prettiest of the lot . . . and the boys were crazy about her.” Pauline, “always had boyfriends and her steady was Fred Nichols. They took me along to my first dance in high school.” There stalwart Fred did his duty as commanded by Pauline: “Poor old Fred Nichols had to dance with me once,” recalled Mrs. Douglas, “but I don’t think he liked it.”
Thanks to Pauline and other friends, Marjory was able to enjoy some of the amenities that her family’s lack of resources would otherwise have put out of reach. The Trefethens, while not exactly poor, nevertheless lived a frugal life. Marjory’s grandfather, Daniel A. Trefethen, owned a local brass foundry but his business had declined over the years to the point where every dollar counted. So, the kindness of friends meant a great deal to his granddaughter.
Eight decades later Marjory also remembered Edith B. Seibel. “She was literary-minded,” wrote Mrs. Douglas, “so the two of us were more bookish than the others. We read a lot of books together. Her father owned the trolley company, so she always had free passes.” Edith was the daughter of George F. Seibel and his wife, Frances, and while he didn’t “own” the trolleys, it’s easy to see why it might have seemed that way to a young girl. Edith’s father was a highly respected specialist in the electrification of streetcars, and his daughter and friends were riding for free because he was an executive with the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company. Later, George Seibel would become manager of the Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant and gain local notoriety as the designer of the city’s annual Christmas displays on the Taunton Green. Marjory and Edith were kindred spirits and good weather brought them memorable times alongside the Taunton River. “Since her father was a member of the yacht club,” wrote Mrs. Douglas, “in the summer we’d go together on the trolley, eat lunch at the yacht club, then sit on the porch and read.”
Margaret Graham Blaine was a third friend whose thoughtfulness found its way into the pages of the Douglas autobiography. She was the daughter of Charles Hodge Blaine and Emma Burt Blaine, and her father was the manager of the Taunton branch of Cobb, Bates & Yerxa’s highly successful grocery store chain. Margaret “was tall and had small blue eyes, blond hair and a great sense of dignity.” The Blaines lived in a large house on High Street and Marjory attributed some of their affluence to Mrs. Blaine’s inherited wealth. “Sometimes Margaret’s coachman would drive us to dancing class in a neat little covered carriage with a fat grey horse, Molly. . . . They lived a very well-to-do life but that didn’t affect our friendship. It didn’t make any difference to any of us which family was richer or poorer.” Marjory also recalled the time she accompanied Margaret and her family on one of their annual camping trips. “Actually, they lived in tents but ate in a hotel, which was all extremely civilized,” she wrote. “We drove up with their chauffeur.”
The last of the four girls remembered fondly by Mrs. Douglas was Laura Madeline Beers. Three months younger than Marjory, Laura was the daughter of Stephen and Frances Beers, of 52 Cedar Street. She was “the most well-rounded of all my friends,” wrote Mrs. Douglas. “Her father was German and had the second largest jewelry store in Taunton.” “Being with Madeline was especially important in the summers,” she recalled, “because her family had a cottage on a lake. Three or four of us would stay for the weekend and do our own cooking. There were always boats, motorboats and sailboats, that we took across the lake for picnics. . . . Later in high school she and I would go out there alone, after her family had returned to Taunton.”
When Marjory graduated from high school in 1908, her grandfather took in a boarder at the Harrison Street house in order to pay her tuition at Wellesley College. Her graduation in 1912 and her mother’s death several weeks later effectively ended Marjory’s close connection to this city. She returned occasionally for visits and family funerals, the last of which came in 1939 upon the death of a favorite aunt. Immediately afterward, and ready to embark on a path that would one day bring her to the East Room of the White House, she sold the family homestead and never returned to Taunton.
While the details of Mrs. Douglas’s life and career are fully documented, we might well wonder what became of those dear Taunton friends after the group separated. To all appearances at least, it seems that each of the five women managed to live long and healthful lives. Pauline Starrett, who had taken Marjory to her first high school dance, married Fred Nichols on September 24, 1912. Their son Henry was born in 1914 and they lost him before his first birthday. Their daughter Elizabeth came along in 1916 and later trained as a nurse. Fred practiced law in Boston so the family lived near the city for many years. They also had a home in Falmouth to which they eventually retired. Pauline and Fred had been married for sixty-three years when he died in July 1977. She died two years later at age 87. In addition to their daughter, Pauline and Fred left four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Marjory’s “bookish” friend, Edith Siebel, first attended Smith College and then studied at Simmons College, which offered one of New England’s first programs in library sciences. In the early 1920s, Edith accepted a librarian’s position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she met Joseph L. McDonald, an economics professor. It may not have been love at first sight because Edith returned to Taunton and took a job as the librarian at the high school. All turned out well, however, when she and Professor McDonald were married in Taunton in August 1927. They left for Hanover immediately afterward.
In New Hampshire Edith lived the quiet life of a faculty wife at an Ivy League school. Her husband served as the chairman of Dartmouth’s Economics Department from 1929–34, and he also taught at the Tuck School of Business. He finished his Dartmouth career as Dean of the College, a post he held until 1959. Edith and her husband had no children. She died in Hanover in 1977, at age 86, and he followed three years later.
Margaret Blaine, whose “great sense of dignity” had so impressed Marjory, graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1913. Five years later, upon the death of Henry Yerxa, George Blaine was called to Boston and named senior director of the company. The Blaines moved into the city and Margaret lived most of the remainder of her life near downtown Boston. She never married but her name appeared frequently in the society pages of the city’s newspapers. She was a generous patron of the arts, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and she worked tirelessly raising money on behalf of Bryn Mawr College. She died in Barnstable, Massachusetts in November 1959, a few months shy of her seventieth birthday.
Finally, Madeline Beers, the “most well-rounded” of Marjory’s inner circle, graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in 1912. One year later she married William Buck Crossley and moved to Middleborough, Massachusetts where she lived for the rest of her life. Her husband was a member of the town’s Committee of Public Safety during World War I and in 1917 he became the first treasurer of the Colonial Brass Company of Middleborough. During the 1920s, Colonial manufactured the Silvertone antenna to take advantage of the burgeoning radio industry. The company remains in business to this day. Madeline was employed as a social worker by the Town of Middleborough until her retirement. Throughout her life she was active in the Episcopal Church and she was also a member of the local Garden Club. She was 87-years old when she died in November 1975, having outlived her husband by eighteen years. She left two children and two grandchildren.
The “Grande Dame of the Everglades” was 108-years old when she died, much heralded” in May 1998. Although Pauline, Edith, Margaret and Madeline hadn’t been blessed with Marjory’s extraordinary longevity, their generosity and friendship had secured them a lasting place in her heart.