Inside the Wondrous Woodman Museum
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson


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.


Woodman Museum Dover, NH



The past


Annie WoodmanLike 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.


Four-legged chick



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.









The present


At the dedication ceremony in 1916, the spacious rooms of the Woodman Institute were empty. Today they are filled to overflowing with guns, fossils, Native American tools, military artifacts, dolls and toys, clothing, documents, maps, textiles, pictures, furniture, and the largest rock and mineral collection north of Boston. Among the prized items are a saddle and podium used by Abraham Lincoln when he visited Dover. The writing desk of Rev. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote the first history of New Hampshire, is prominently displayed, as is the armor of an ancient Samurai warrior.  


In addition to the 1675 Damm Garrison, the 1819 Christie House, and the 1813 Hale House, Woodman trustees recently purchased a fourth building. The 1825 Keefe House on Summer Street completes the museum quadrangle. This elegant brick house now includes an art gallery with changing exhibits, and more than 7,000 historical records in a climate-controlled environment.  


It can be a little overwhelming. Our recent tour lasted upwards of 90 minutes, and a knowledgeable guide only scratched the surface. The best deal may be a $35 family membership, allowing visitors to return again and again, taking in a bit more of the museum collection with each visit.  

William Damm Garrison, Dover, NH courtesy Thom Hindle


The future



There are great challenges ahead for the Woodman. Museums across the nation are fading or failing or falling into debt. Collections are costly to maintain. Quality volunteers and guides are hard to find. Although located near Dover City Hall and the public library, the Woodman has no parking lot. To survive, museums must build up millions in endowment dollars.  


polar bear at Woodman MuseumBut perhaps this "hidden treasure" is on the verge of discovery. The unique nature of the Woodman--an early museum inside an evolving new museum--may be a great competitive advantage. So is its expansive and eclectic collection, that becomes more curious and rare each year. So is its proximity to the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire. So is the family-friendly attraction and rising economy of Dover, the “Garrison City.” A former river “seaport” and cotton manufacturing capital, like many of its seacoast neighbors, Dover is undergoing a renaissance of arts and culture.



In 2016 the Woodman Museum will celebrate its 100th anniversary. But already great changes are underway. Historian, collector, and photographer Thom Hindle, who has been a key steward of the museum for decades, is stepping down as trustee to focus on the Woodman’s collections.



This spring Woodman trustees hired their first executive director. Wes LaFountain hails from South Portland, Maine. He recently worked at the Portland Museum of Art. Wes is bursting with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

“What I see is the museum transforming,” Wes says, “but we want to keep the character of an old museum within a new museum."


 A new video showing excited children experiencing the Woodman is posted on the museum website. The new director imagines more changing exhibits, targeted thematic tours, and special fundraising events. He is working already with local teachers to integrate the museum collections into school arts, social studies, and language programs. He sees teaching opportunities in anthropology, archaeology, ornithology, geology, and many other fields.


Wes notes that the Woodman is not just about history, but is equally about science and art, the three-sided mission clearly spelled out by its founder a century ago.



The purpose of the Woodman, one speaker noted at the dedication, is education. And the purpose of education, he said, is “to help teach mankind to be noble.” The Woodman's goal, the speaker boldly announced in 1916,  is “the unselfish devotion to the welfare of others--not love of self, but love of our fellow creatures.”

          You can see many of those fellow creatures just down the street and inside the doors at one of New Hampshire's oldest and most fascinating museums.


For more information call 603-742-1038 or visit

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books including history books for children on Lord Baltimore, Jesse James, and child labor exploitation. His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See It is available in local stores and in narrated form by