Our pictures of the “Henry Stevens” and “Henry Stevens, jr.” road makers were recently featured in a article on the life of Henry Steven, jr. We would like to thank Beth Kanell, the writer of the article, and Vermont’s Northland Journal, the publisher of the article, for their permission to repost the article on our website.
Soldiers to Innkeepers to Book Men: The Unusual Path of the Stevens Family in Barnet, Vermont
by Beth Kanell
Henry Stevens Jr. left Vermont at age 26, to make a life of wealth and fame in far-away England. But he never gave up his pride in his roots, for he signed himself Henry Stevens, G.M.B.–that is Green Mountain Boy.
How did this local boy become internationally known? What lured him from Barnet, Vermont, to London?
Henry’s story can be picked up with his father, Colonel Henry Stevens, born in Barnet on December 13, 1791. The descendant of American settlers, Col. Henry Stevens may have felt he had a lot to live down: His own father, Enos, had taken the side of the British during the Revolutionary War, a commissioned officer who served in Nova Scotia, Canada, assisting refugees there. But Enos left Canada in 1785 to buy land in Barnet, becoming the largest proprietor of land in the new town. He became an innkeeper and mill owner, as well as farming there. Eventually buried in Stevens Cemetery in Barnet, he is also noted for having kept a journal that was preserved by his family. Author Frederick Palmer Wells, who wrote History of Barnet, Vermont (published in 1923), saide the Stevens family in London still had the journal and let him use this for his book.
So Col. Henry Stevens, father of “our Henry,” was born and grew up in the small but bustling town, attending Peacham Academy, but leaving school at age 12; he too became an innkeeper, mill owner, and farmer, but added to this a burning love of books. He collected “antiquarian” material to study, and used his collection to found the Vermont Historical Society in 1838. The VHS office was in his Barnet home until 1851. Although he lived in Burlington for a few years, “home” meant Barnet, where he lived out his final years, dying in 1867.
Our Henry, Henry, Jr., grew up in this world of books and study (born August 24, 1891, in Barnet), and from the start he was headed for a college education. After Peacham Academy, he took a term of classes at the nearby Newbury (Vermont) Seminary, and entered Middlebury College in 1838–just for a year before leaping to Yale College and the Harvard Law School (leaving there in 1844). All of this is clearly spelled out in Frederick Palmer Wells’s Stevens notes in the town history, although Wells gets some of the Harvard details a bit confused.
There is much more detail, though, in a little book of 30 pages compiled by the BAiley-Howe Library at the University of Vermont, 100 years after Henry Jr.’s passing. The writer of this booklet quoted many of Henry’s letters home from schools, to his father, describing his activities. These turned out to be based in large part on the young man’s elegant handwriting! At Yale, he inscribed diplomas for the college and, as a true Vermont entrepreneur, soon opened a private school for tutoring others in penmanship and calligraphy. Yale also gave him work as a librarian, where he could read, add to the school’s collections (spending their money, rather than his own, which would set a precedent for his career), and meet many private book and manuscript collectors.
Yale also gave him membership in a secret society called The Brothers in Unity. Although its secrecy came in the form of Masonic style, it began as a literary and debating society, intended to cut across class lines . . .
. . . and engage underclassmen in these pursuits. Later the society became less open and probably prioritized power and social status, but that was after Henry Jr.’s days at Yale.
Still, the Yale experience gave him status and employment, which was probably a great relief to his father back in Barnet, who’d been the “deep pocket” for younger Henry’s school-related debts. Henry Jr. could write home that he’d “ordered copied” a journal kept through the Revolutionary War, and the record of the court martial of Colonel Moses Hazen, in which General [John] Stark presided over the court. (Hazen, known to Vermonters for his part in creating the Bayley-Hazen road, was acquitted.) Henry checked to see whether his father had seen these; he was excited by the hundreds of dollars that collector Peter Force allowed him to spend, and also the hundreds he was earning himself.
Peter Force sent Henry Jr. to book and manuscript auctions, and soon there was another client as well, George Brinley, destined to be one of America’s great collectors of historic books and manuscripts. In mid-1844, Henry left Harvard–he had too much to do! By autumn 1844, universities like Harvard, Yale, and Brown were buying from Henry, too. What a change from selling his handwriting and devouring books for his own education!
In February 1845, Henry wrote to his father, saying he would be going to Europe on May 1 on a packet ship called the Havre. He hadn’t quite broken his habit of asking his father for money, although it was usually “loans” by this point (“until the auction” and other reasons). His father warned him ina letter that the trip was likely to be expensive. “I hardly know what to think about your going to Europe,” the Barnet resident wrote to his son. ” Who is to furnish funds, what are you to per annum… Your expenses will be great etc. If you conclude to go you had better apply to Senators Upham & Phelps for a letter of recommendation.”
That subtle change that happens between father and grown son also flavored the letter of Henry (Sr.), though, for he switched topics to the one that delighted both of them: “I have discovered many more of Ethan & Ira Allen papers, first rate. I have Gen. Ira Allen’s biography written by himself while in prison in France.”
So it was that the Stevens family connected even the most famous Vermont names, like Ethan Allen’s, with an international experience and point of view. Life in London turned out to connect Henry Jr. with even more of what he loved doing–putting together collections of books for other people (with their monetary resources). By autumn of 1845 he had a larger list of American clients to send books to. But the big coup came in spring 1846 when the British Museum, having noticed his activity, asked young Henry to evaluate and start building up its collection of Americana.
From here, the young American book lover never looked back. Over the next decade, he provided some 16,000 American books to the British Museum’s library. He bought and sold the collection of George Washington himself. The American Minister in London attended Henry’s wedding ceremony, when at age 35 he married widow Mary Newton Kuczynski. And that American minster turned out to be future American President James Buchanan.
Because of the drift of books and manuscripts from America to London, Henry Jr. also could sell collections back across the ocean. Later he would . . .
. . . even sell to one of his first American clients, George Brinley, his own personal collection of 275 books by members of the famous Mather family of New England (Cotton, Increase, and Richard).
Meanwhile, he continued making himself as a Green Mountain Boy with the “G.M.B.” addition to his signature. His sister Sophia, widowed, joined him n England and met and married artist William Page, who painted a portrait of the now high-society bookseller from Vermont. A brother, Benjamin Franklin Stevens, also came across the Atlantic, first to work for Henry, then to found his own epic book business, B. F. Stevens & Brown. The book empires of both brothers would endure beyond their own lives, making a lasting European and global mark fro the Stevens family of Barnet, Vermont.
Henry Jr. only made visits to America during the rest of his life; at his death, in 1886, he was buried at Hampstead Cemetery in London. But his monument there is made from a block of Barre, Vermont, Granite, wrote historian Wells, and on it is this inscription honoring the noted Green Mountain Boy:
In Affecionate Remembrance of Henry Stevens Lover of Books Born at Barnet, Vermont, 24 August, 1891 The Volume of Whose Earthly Labor Was Closed In London, 28 February, 1866, in the Sixty-seventh Year of his Age. “And another book was opened which is the Book of Life.”
So far, digging into Vermont history has led Beth Kanell to write three published novels set in the Northeast Kingdom; she has four more on the way. She also writes poetry and books of adventure travel, as well as some local history, especially for her own town of Waterford, Vermont. Follow her investigations at BethKanell.blogspot.com and several linked book and history blogs.