Exploring The Last Green Valley – Women’s History Month – Harriet Arnold Tourtellotte, Philanthropist and Founder

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Women’s History Month – Harriet Arnold Tourtellotte, Philanthropist and Founder

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Women’s History Month – Harriet Arnold Tourtellotte, Philanthropist and Founder

In celebration of Women’s History Month, my column last week was the first in a series about remarkable women who lived in The Last Green Valley. There are many women from our region who had a positive impact on the lives of others – more than this column can possibly highlight.

Today we explore the life of Harriet Tourtellotte, who turned a deep personal loss into an opportunity to make a difference for generations of young learners in her home town of Thompson.

Born on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1837, Harriet was raised in Thompson where her father was part owner of one of the larger textile mills. She grew up in a prosperous home and attended her local village school. There was no high school in Thompson so her parents sent her to Nichols Preparatory School in Dudley, MA, to continue her education.

At Nichols Preparatory School she met another student from Thompson, Jacob Francis Tourtellotte. Even though they came from the same town, Harriet and Jacob, or Frank as he was called, did not know each other until they met at Nichols. They soon became sweethearts and so began a wonderful relationship that would sustain them through years of great success, heart-wrenching sorrow, and philanthropic opportunity.

After Nichols Preparatory School, Harriet attended Salem Vale Normal School for music in Salem, Connecticut, to become a music teacher. Frank discovered that medicine was his calling, and he went to Columbia College’s School of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

Soon after graduating from college, Frank joined the Union cause in the Civil War and accepted a commission in the U.S. Navy as a ship’s surgeon.

Following the war, Frank and Harriet were married in New York in 1865. Some years later they followed Frank’s brothers John and Munroe to the western frontier, settling in Winona, Minnesota, and set about establishing a new life.

Frank practiced medicine and began investing their money while Harriet concentrated on making a home for Frank and their baby girl Lucy. Sadly, at barely one year old, Lucy contracted scarlet fever and died. In November of 1873, three years after the passing of Lucy, Harriet became pregnant again at the age of 36.

In July of 1874, Frances Harriet Tourtellotte “Hattie” was born. By this time Frank’s investments were doing well and Harriett had also become a good investor in land and real estate. They settled into a happy home life with their new daughter, and through their investments, became some of the wealthiest people west of the Mississippi River.

Tragedy struck again in 1884 when Hattie, age nine, died from what was suspected to be either food poisoning or appendicitis. Frank and Harriet were devastated and tried to move past the sorrow of losing both their children.

A year after Hattie’s death, Harriet met Sarah Knight, a woman who had dedicated her life to helping the sick and injured. She had founded Deaconess Home in Minneapolis and had a deeply meaningful life caring for others. The happiness and joy that Sarah expressed in her work assisting others was a huge influence on Harriet. Over the years their friendship grew.

One day in 1906, Harriet told Sarah about her childhood home of Thompson. She told her that Thompson was really two communities – Thompson Hill with grand homes of the wealthy, and the other part of town for those who worked in the mills. Thompson still didn’t have a high school and suddenly it occurred to Harriet what she would do.

She told Sarah that the law compelled children to attend school, but in Thompson, the only way students could go to high school was to take a trolley into the next town. Harriet decided to follow Sarah’s inspiration and leadership, and along with her husband Frank, would build a high school for all of Thompson’s children. She would see to it that they would have every facility that children from wealthier families had.

She would build a great school with a grand auditorium for the arts. It would have a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a magnificent memorial room filled with family art and treasures. Importantly, the school would be built in memory of Lucy and Hattie. For the first time in many years, Harriet felt alive with a new calling and direction for her life.

In 1907, Harriet visited Thompson and with the help of interested citizens and family members, began planning for Tourtellotte Memorial High School. It would not be built on Thompson Hill, but instead on a small hill with a commanding view of North Grosvenordale, near the homes of many children whose parents worked in the mills. On December 21, 1907, the first stone was laid for the school and from that point on, Harriet was actively involved in all aspects of the school.

Two years later, on September 3, 1909, the school was dedicated. There was an empty seat that day as Dr. Tourtellotte was unable to attend due to sickness. He passed away in 1912. Alone, Harriet was determined to continue working for her school. She concluded her business in Minnesota and built a small home on Main Street in North Grosvenordale so she could be close to the school. She remained involved with the school until her death in 1919.

It is hard to imagine Thompson without Tourtellotte Memorial High School. It is a grand building that has served as the town’s high school for many years. As the town grew so did the building, and today a modern middle school and high school are part of the complex.

Not only did Harriet build the school, she also endowed it with a fund to help pay for maintenance. That fund is now being used by the Tourtellotte Memorial High School Alumni Association to restore the original building as well as the amazing artwork and treasures located there in the museum.

Last month, members and friends of The Last Green Valley attended a program at Tourtellotte Memorial High School and learned about Harriet, Frank, and the work the Alumni Association is doing to restore the building. The building restoration is a fascinating and heartwarming story about several Thompson residents who have come together to fulfill and restore the vision that Harriet Tourtellotte brought to life more than 100 years ago.

Time and again, I learn about people from our region who have made a difference in the lives of others. My guess is that most people have never heard about Harriet Tourtellotte. Perhaps they knew that Thompson High School was called Tourtellotte Memorial High School, but didn’t know why.

The residents of Thompson, especially those who graced the halls of the school, know who Harriett was and are forever grateful.  This generous, philanthropic woman returned to Thompson, and out of deep personal tragedy, found meaning by making a difference in the lives of others. Her legacy lives on every day with the ringing of the school bell at Tourtellotte Memorial High School.

Here in The Last Green Valley, let’s always remember to care for, enjoy, and pass on the stories of those who helped make our region a better place.

Information for this column on Harriet and Frank Tourtellotte was taken directly from a paper written by Joseph J. Lindley, Tourtellotte Memorial High School class of 1974, President of Tourtellotte Memorial High School Alumni Association, with input from Joseph Iamartino, Alumni Member and President of the Thompson Historical Society.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

(The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.)


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