By Sharon Lakey, Danville Historical Society
“Until I began to compile lifelong information, I didn’t realize the full range of gifts Meg was giving to others throughout her life, without the slightest wish for praise.” Charles A. Robinson, 2013
On July 2, 2013, a mystery came to an end in Danville: our anonymous donor passed at 88 years of age in Pennsbury Township, Pennsylvania, and the requirement of her anonymity was lifted. It is with humility and pleasure that I relate some of what I have learned about this remarkable woman, Meg Robinson. Much of this knowledge comes to us through her husband, Charles, who has graciously answered questions and, as a good historian himself, provided documentation of the important events of her life.
What I have gathered of her suggests a thoughtful, bright and strong woman with a deep regard for history. This dance with history is reflected even in the name she chose to use. Charles wrote, “You may have noticed that Mary Elizabeth Goff Robinson was known by different names at different times. Her mother (and her friends in Danville) always called her ‘Mary Elizabeth,’ at college she was known as ‘M.B.,’ in Providence in the 1950s everyone called her ‘Mary Beth,’ but when we moved to Pennsylvania in 1963 she took the name ‘Meg’ (from her initials).”
Her grandparents, Frank and Mary Crane, lived at Woodside House in Danville. In 2007, Meg wrote to a friend: “I made a gift to the Danville Historical Society to purchase an original, early 19th century village house and barn for its headquarters…The Society badly needed a home for its collections. As my mother [Eva Crane Goff] was born and brought up in Danville where she became organist and accompanist, it seemed only proper to help the DHS.” (Eva was the organist at the Congregational Church in Danville as well as accompanist and music teacher.)
Just how her mother and father met was conjecture on Meg’s part. We know this from a book she wrote about her father entitled Newell D. Goff, the Life of a Young Entrepreneur at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Meg believes her mother and father met through friends that had connections to the Cranes of Vermont. At the time Newell began to show interest in Eva, she was studying music at the Shenandoah Collegiate Institute in Dayton, Virginia. Meg writes, “Eva always delighted in recalling Newell’s courtship. In the spring of 1917, when returning from a trip to Florida, he wrote asking if he might see her… The school director was consulted, and permission was granted. Newell arrived from the train by rented horse and buggy in time to attend the ‘Senior Piano Recital’ given by Miss ‘Evelyn’ Crane…on Saturday evening, April 28, 1917. During her performance there arose a heavy thunderstorm, and the lights went out. With considerable presence of mind, Eva continued playing in the dark until the lights were restored. That summer Newell proposed to Eva in her home, Woodside House, in Danville, Vermont.”
Newell Goff was a self-made man. He was born in 1877 and Meg writes, “Born the youngest of eight children on a bleak, 2,236 foot high mountaintop farm in Gilboa Township, Schoharie County, New York.” His father eventually moved the family to a “rich, fertile, bottomland farm when Newell was fourteen years old.” Though this farm was a good one, young Newell was third in a line of brothers, and, because property passed to the eldest, he decided to leave home to make his own fortune.
Again quoting from Meg’s book, “Newell recalled to his wife that 1895, his transitional year from home to destitute poverty in the indifferent clamorous, industrial city of Lowell, was the hardest.” His first job was sweeping floors at the Appleton Mill. By 1896, he was listed in the Lowell Directory as a machinist at the Appleton Corporation. Newell’s spending habits are detailed in a book of “memorandum of daily expenses.” It is fascinating what a simple listing of expenses can tell about a life: “April 2, 1896 ‘Lost by betting-$0.50…August 30 1897 purchased a violin $8.50… December 22 suit of clothes and shoes $10.95…May 28 1898 $48 for a bicycle.” These small details keep historians captivated by their subjects.
After a bout with diphtheria and at the suggestion of his doctor, Newell took a recuperative trip to Florida and California. It was after this trip that he decided to make some life changes. With investment funds of his own and funds from his landlords, Mary and Henry Russell, originally from Vermont, they formed a loan company. Hattie, the Russell’s daughter, became the manager of the Merrimack Loan Company in Lowell, which was a successful venture. From this success, Newell was able to go into another.
Meg writes, “Newell’s wife, Eva, often said her husband made his money in the automobile business.”On his recovery trip out west, he had caught a new kind of bug—automobiles. Newell became an investor and sales agent for a variety of cars. By 1917, his financial successes allowed him to retire, not quite 40 years old. He left Lowell, and, after travelling and looking for a place to call home, he bought a five-bedroom house named Englewood Cottage, a Victorian summer house that “overlooked the waters of Narragansett Bay and the Bullock’s Point Lighthouse.” And, that is when the bachelor sought his life’s partner, young Eva Crane. The couple was blessed by the birth of a little girl, Mary Elizabeth, who was born on January 3, 1925, the name being a combination of her maternal and paternal grandmothers.
Young Mary Elizabeth remembered that her father never approved of fairy tales. “He recommended nature and animal stories for the very young, followed by biographical material for the middle childhood years, and finally, histories for the adult.” (It is interesting to note that Meg didn’t take Newell’s reading dictates to heart. According to Charles she “always read widely, both fiction and non-fiction, including many biographies of famous women.”) Mary Elizabeth, the child, appears in many photographs we have at the Choate-Sias, related to time spent either with the Cranes on vacation or at Woodside House.
She wasn’t to have her father in her life for long. “On June 17, 1933, he died from a sudden heart attack in front of 67 Angell Street in Providence while walking up the hill for exercise.” He was 56-years-old; she was only eight. Because he had died intestate, his estate was divided “evenly between his widow and his child, as specified by Rhode Island state law.”
Eva and Mary Elizabeth visited at the farm in Danville, which was located next to the McDonald (now Beattie) farm. McDonald sisters, Alice (Hafner) and Kate (Beattie), remember the younger Mary Elizabeth as a precocious child. Alice shares the story of the younger Mary Elizabeth, who would run in the front door of the McDonald house, out the backdoor and hide in their barn. Eva and her grandmother would search to no avail until the child decided to make an appearance.
Meg graduated from Wheaton College in 1947 with an English Literature major. Charles explains, “Mary Beth Goff, as I knew her, and I met at a dance at the University Club in Providence, RI, in the fall of 1951. She was working as a medical secretary to Dr. Herman C. Pitts, a noted surgeon in Providence, and I was a research chemist at Arnold, Hoffman and Co.” They would marry in 1954. In 1957, their son Thomas was born.
A terrible grief followed 23 years later when Thomas died in a swimming accident at Naggs Head, NC. After his death, Meg wrote a piece entitled “Offering to Tom.” Two lines in the writing reflect particularly on his early death, “You died so that we might forever have the heritage of your beauty, generosity and nobility unspoiled by the cynicism and meanness of a longer life. Fear not that your life has all been in vain.”
According to Charles, Meg “always enjoyed her frequent visits to her Crane grandparents’ farm…and became very fond of Danville and her friends there. I remember the first time she introduced me to Danville, on Memorial Day 1954 a few months after we became engaged. It was a beautiful, unusually warm spring day with the flowering trees in early bloom. Mary Beth’s uncle, Glenn Crane, was the only one living at Woodside House at that time, and we later became very close friends.”
Meg’s Danville friends included the McDonald sisters, Janet Wakefield, Gloria Morse and, later, Margaret Springer. Charles relates, “Her interest in Danville was renewed when, about 1984, we began doing research on Woodside House…and the chair making shop next door. She learned that her ancestor, James Crane, operated a sawmill in Danville in 1828…that he began acquiring land, including the sawmill, in 1837 and that his son, Charles Crane, added the Ingall’s Homestead to the Crane farm by purchasing the adjacent property in 1861. The Crane family lived on that farm for over 119 years (1837 to 1956).” These well-researched writings can be found in the Danville history book, Village in the Hills and are models of incredible patience and accuracy in historical research. Charles, though not a trained historian “found that doing research on historical subjects was not that different from doing library research in chemistry. Both involved use of the library, with which I was familiar, and both involved searching for data to solve mysteries.”
Meg became an accomplished editor and writer on topics stemming from her volunteer activities in museums, historical societies and personal interest. Her published writings, including both edited and original work, cover a period of nearly 40 years. She gave generously to causes in which she believed with time, expertise and money. In a letter to Meg from Mary Prior, former president of the Danville Historical Society, she wrote, “You are the most magnanimous woman I know. Some are able to give generously with no restrictions after their death, but few with such grace while they are still living.”
Our little town has been the recipient of Meg’s interest and generosity. She has left us with the Crane family history as well as family Danville artifacts; she has left us with a house to hold and engage in our historical past; she has left us with funding to provide an employee to help guide our research. The rest is up to us.
Charles sends us Meg’s oft-quoted unknown source: “History is an indispensable resource of society and its importance is one of our shared humanist values.”