Inside the Wondrous Woodman Museum
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
The closest you will ever get to a ten-foot tall polar bear is on Central Avenue in Dover, New Hampshire. He’s waiting inside the front door of Annie Woodman’s house. Annie Woodman died almost 100 years ago, but it wasn’t the polar bear’s fault. He’s dead too, stuffed and standing upright in a huge glass case. (Click title to read more)
The white Arctic polar bear is the first great “reveal” of the Woodman Museum. First-time visitors do a double-take as they enter the natural history room. That’s where they also discover the huge stuffed manatee, a moose, a few bears, a bobcat, a cougar, snakes in bottles, a giant clam, bird eggs of every size, the 37-pound lobster, the four-legged chicken, countless birds, luminescent moths, pin-mounted insects, and much more. The Woodman is among the most comprehensive small museums in New England and we’ve only gotten started.
The second great “reveal” is the William Damm Garrison. The fortified 1675 house was dragged here almost a century ago. It is hidden beneath a protective wooden portico. Visitors gasp as the tour guide unlatches the entrance and the city’s oldest wooden home appears, seemingly untouched by time.
And again, we’re just getting started.
Like so many of our seacoast museums, we owe this treasure to a female benefactor. On January 7, 1915, according to the Dover Democrat, “an estimable lady of Dover passed to a higher life.” Five days later, locals discovered that Mrs. Annie E. Woodman had bequeathed $100,000 to a group of three trustees, equivalent to over $2.3 million today. The funds were to promote the local education of science, art, and history.
As if by magic (but, in fact, by clever advance planning), three incredible buildings became available. The stately brick home of Dover attorney Daniel Christie (where Mrs. Woodman had lived) was for sale. So was the brick mansion next door of former NH Senator John Parker Hale. Both were purchased for the museum at a bargain rate. A local family then donated the 1675 garrison that was moved from the Back River area and positioned between the two brick homes downtown.
The garrison was covered by a wooden shelter and the three buildings were connected by a white colonnade, creating an attractive museum campus. A gift of over 800 “choice relics,” most from the colonial era, were donated with the old garrison and are still exhibited there today. Hand-crafted wooden display cases were built for the main museum. A wide range of early 20th century collectors stood ready to donate their precious artifacts.
At the opening ceremonies in 1916, a prominent lawyer and the first curator, Daniel Hall, described the museum as “an infant in swaddling clothes, having no articulate voice.” With no children and a widow for 30 years, Hall told the gathered spectators, Annie Woodman had lived “a somewhat lonely and narrow life, and had no taste for social activities.” She had considered donating funds for a local hospital, but was beaten to the punch by another female philanthropist.
Among the final speakers at the 1916 dedication was William E. Chandler. And this is where the story gets extra strange. Chandler, in precarious health, had been married to Lucy Hale, the daughter of J.P. Hale, best known as the nation’s first openly-abolitionist senator and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Lucy Lambert Hale is best-remembered today, however, as the woman who almost married John Wilkes Booth. Secretly engaged to the senator's daughter, Booth dined with Lucy and her mother just hours before he assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. Lucy's photo was in Booth's pocket when he was captured and killed after a massive manhunt. Lucy’s engagement to the famous actor was quickly hushed up by her father and remains one of the darkest and most fascinating secrets in Seacoast, New Hampshire history. Museum trustees acquired the house from Lucy Hale Chandler, who died in 1915, the same year as Annie Woodman.
CONTINUE WOODMAN MUSEUM
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