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Letters tell a Franklin County love story

They shared birthdays two days apart, and they lived about a mile from one another — he in Charlemont and she in Colrain.

She was 33 when they saw one another that special September day at the Catamount picnic. He was 39.

And yet the love letters between Maud Purrington and Frank Johnson tell of a hushed romance that burned slowly but grew steadily over time a little more than 100 years ago.

“You are a dear boy, and I love you dearly, but — you know,” Maud writes at the end of one letter, from her Shattuckville home, July 15, 1906.

As with the other 83 letters hand-written in the collection passed down through generations, we’re left to imagine what Frank, a farmer who lived near the confluence of the North and Deerfield rivers, wrote or said to elicit this response from his admirer. Only Maud’s letters, written between Sept. 1, 1905, and Sept. 2, 1909, survive to tell their tale of romance.

Maude Purrington and Frank Johnson were married Oct. 14, 1909.

Those letters were found by Grace Johnson in a 1926 clothing box in the back of the closet in the Johnson house in 2004, after the death of her husband, Marshall —Maude and Frank’s only son. The “Letters from Maud” are part of a program presented by Maud’s granddaughter, Diantha Wholey, and her daughter, Martha Wholey.

“She just expressed every single thought she had. Everything in her heart,” she wrote, says Diantha, who believes that nobody in the family knew the love letters existed.

Their program, created for the Shelburne Grange for a Valentine’s Day program, have also been shown to the historical societies in Shelburne, Buckland and Colrain. It traces the letters that went back and forth, just like the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway car that carried Maud to and from Shattuckville and Shelburne Falls, past the farm where Frank lived with his mother. The letters from Frank, a reserved man who lived without a phone, did not survive, but they are mentioned in Maud’s responses.

In the beginning

The letters begin soon after the Aug. 23, 1905, Catamount Reunion attended by both Maud and Frank, who had known each other and whose families had descended from the settlers of Catamount Hill in Colrain. Those reunions, which began in 1875 and were held every five years, were wildly popular, with hundreds of people attending.

“No Frank, I am not fooling,” the first letter begins. “I mean to tell you the truth the next time I see you, and I trust that may be before five years have elapsed.” The letter is signed, “Yours sincerely, M.M.P.”

By the next letter, dated Sept. 12, 1905, and addressed to “Friend Frank,” she refers to a letter she has received from him, and writes, “I am not going to be married as you thought for I am not even ‘engaged’ but I am in the ‘dark,’ and do not know what to do or which way to turn. … Yours hastily, M.M.P.”

Maud writes many of her letters in the morning from the Shelburne Falls grammar school where she teaches so that Frank can have them that afternoon.

In her Sept. 28 letter, Maud explains, “I had a talk with Mama in regard to our mutual friend and I found out just what would be the consequences if I chose to say ‘yes’ to him. … Papa is very much opposed, and I have given him, Irving I mean, up for good and all without any regard for his feeling. I think someone has told him that you and I were together at Charlemont, for his appearance toward me has been very different since then...”

The letters come one after the other, sometimes days apart, mailed with 2-cent stamps from Shelburne Falls, which she later explains is meant to avoid rumors starting at the Shattuckville Post Office and the possibility that Irving will notice if he carries down the family’s mail to their house.

“Of course, Mother knows about your letters for she asked who they were from and I told her,” Maud writes on Oct. 5. “I told her you wanted to know if we could write and she did not forbid it, so I am going to think perhaps we may …”

Church together

It’s in that letter that Maud brings up for the first time a matter she repeatedly hammers home: a request she repeats over and over: “I rather go to church than anywhere else. I have always felt and still feel that I could not go with any young man for long unless he was one who was just as willing to take me to church and Sunday school as any where. … Now, Frank, decide as it best pleases you. I shall pray over it and shall be anxious to know what you have to say ...”

She continues the theme in her next letter, Oct. 18: “You must not think that I meant to find fault with you … I know a farmer’s work necessitates his working a good deal on Sunday. That is all right, for stock must be cared for, and it would not be Christian to neglect them. But Frank, I do want you to lay aside all your dislikes for Church and go. You will enjoy it when you have formed the habit. … You must not dread to write but just say what you think best.”

The conversation must have followed along the same path, with Maud’s Nov. 2 letter responding, “You speak as if I could see many faults in you. Now, Frank, I can see nothing of the kind … If you ever get a chance to know me better, you will discover plenty of faults I dare say, presumably as many as forty or fifty. You must think me a flirt if you think I had better take one for Sunday and one for every day. I know people have one hat for Sunday and one for every day, but a man who is good enough for every day ought to be good enough for Sunday. Frank, there are so many things I want to say on this subject and I dare not put them on paper.”

Maud ends the letter with a PS: “Better burn these letters.”

By Nov. 27, Maud is starting her letter “My Dear Frank,” and writing, “I hope no one will get hold of any of these letters if you cannot burn them as you say you cannot. … You say they are all you have to live on.”

During her upcoming school vacation, Maude writes on Dec. 14, she plans to visit her Uncle Frank in Charlemont for two or three days. “I have not been there since last summer before Mama and I went on our visit to New York State, and that was before the picnic on Catamount. To me that is a memorable day.” (In a subsequent letter, Maud mentions “the moment when you took my hand when on Catamount … It was then that I had a very faint idea that you cared for me.”)

Secret no longer

On Jan. 8., 1906, Maud writes, “I guess there isn’t much use of trying to keep our affairs a secret any longer for almost anywhere I stir from my own home, someone asks me about either Mr. Johnson or Frank. I went into Mrs. Lusty’s the other day and she said she had heard I was not going back into school but was going to be married. I told her other people might know about it but I didn’t.”

Visiting her friend Dora one day, Maud writes “for fun,” “Her chief conversation was about you. She said your sister, Laura, told her several years ago that if Frank ever got married the girl would have all the courting to do and the proposing as well, for you would be too bashful.”

Another running theme in the letters are the lectures she attends in Shelburne Falls or Colrain, suggesting which trolley car he can take if he wants to join her. It’s on the trolley car that they can talk and presumably have some privacy.

“The next one of the lectures is to be on the coming Friday night. I would be delighted to find you on the car to attend when I get on here at the (Shattuckville) store, that is, if you would be pleased to do so. There is a special car leaving S. Falls at 7:30 and returning after the lecture so you would not have to walk as you had to before. If I do not hear from you I shall expect you are going.”

A letter on Jan. 16, 1906, says, “The seniors and juniors at Arms Academy have a debate tomorrow, Wednesday evening, at Academy Hall. I do not know whether there will be a special car (returning afterward), but in case there is I want to go. ... I do not know whether we shall go on the 7-16 or 7-49. I do not dare press the question at home so that I can tell you positively...”

Along the way, we learn that Frank has sent Maud a calendar, a book, “The Woman’s Home Companion,” tickets to a concert, but in a letter on March 31, 1906, we learn that “the ice is broken,” with him actually paying her a visit.

“Well, Frank, did your little visit us here make you sick? Did it take a great deal of courage to get here? … I was delighted that you came … I was sorry, however, not to have Mr. Edwards here with his Phonograph, but I dared not say a word Monday when (brother) Ralph insisted that he come then. You would have had a good excuse to stay until eleven o’clock, because he did not stop playing until that time.”

No duel

By now, Maud is signing her letters, “Yours lovingly,” and she writes Frank that her mother and a friend “came up from the Falls on the (trolley) car one day with you and Irving (and) expected to see a duel.”

In an April 7, 1906, letter, she writes, “It may surprise you, my dear, when I tell you that I don’t think (Irving) has spent a half a dozen evenings at my home with me in the sixteen years I suppose most people had made up their minds that he and I were engaged, but they were very greatly mistakened.”

A month later, Maud writes, “Oh, Frank, you do not realize how my heart goes out for you, and how I am daily praying that you will become a working Christian and love Church as well as I do. If you really realized how much it all means to me, you would not hesitate if you really and truly love me as you say you do.”

A July 25, 1906 letter begins, “My dearest Frank, I am sorry my last letter made you feel so bad that you lost your appetite. … I did not mean to offend you in the least and am sorry to have done so … I have been exceedingly happy in knowing that you love me enough to desire me as a life companion.” The reunion

And by Aug. 23 — a date that Maud underlines twice because it marks one year after their memorable Catamount Reunion — she closes with the words, “Maybe you are not looking for this letter and do not care anything about it, but there is a whole lot of love (underlined) between every line.”

The visits between these two seem to become a little more frequent, and on Sept. 5, 1906, Maud writes, “I have never felt so tired from sitting up at night as I did Monday, and I have no doubt your bee stings sent you to bed early. I knew we were foolish to stay up so late, but somehow we cannot help it. I guess we better not keep such late hours very often, but it is hard to let you go early.”

At the end of the letter, signed “Your own loving, Maud,” she writes that a Mr. and Mrs. Werner “left word for us to go see them on our ‘wedding trip.’ Are we silly? No, I guess we are not.”

And the following Jan. 10, Maud writes that in Griswoldville, “A lady grabbed my hand and looked to see if I had a new ring. She said she heard I had one because someone saw Mr. Johnson in the jewelers looking at them and she knew how much it cost too. What a story! Did you ever hear one like that? She said if she had a fellow she would bring him to church. I did not tell her I would be glad to, but you know.”

A ring

At some point between then and Nov. 11, 1907 – when Maud suggests doing “something special” to mark their special date — a ring appears. Maud mentions it in a letter about a Mr. Dean, who she hopes will preach at church.

“I do want you to hear him preach, and you may never get another chance. … Maybe you will think I am running on too much about Mr. Dean, but never fear. You are the one, and I am wearing the ring all the time. I presume Mr. Dean will ask me about Irving, if he gets a chance; but I can show him my ring, and I guess he knows who you are. ... Have I asked a lot of you to go to church twice next Sunday/ If I have it is only because I love you so much, and I want you to enjoy and love the things that I love.”

The letters grow less frequent, and the Wholeys suggest the reason may simply be that Maud and Frank are able to see one another more, or that Frank is finally able to get a telephone.

On July 8, 1908, — one of only five letters that year — Maud writes, “It is almost ten o’clock and I am writing to you not so much because I have any news in particular but just to talk to you because I love you. My love for you is as warm as the weather and you are aware that it is very warm or has been for two days.”

On April 15, 1909, she seems to be remarking on some stress in their relationship and writes, “Tears dim my eyes so that I can not easily write anything, but I am up here in my room alone where I can cry until I cry it out and the rest will not know it. I could have burst into tears any minute Sunday if I had been alone, and I had hard work to keep them back as it was. … My heart is nearly broken to think you do not trust me ... At least do believe me true and then if you have become tired of your promise, dear one, I will not trouble you; but, dear boy, always remember that the pieces of the poor broken heart are yours.”

She signs, “your true love.”

But the romance recovers. The last letter is written on Sept. 2, 1909, from Malden, where Maud has just purchased a piano for $325 and clothes, presumably for the wedding the next month in Shattuckville.

“I had to give the man we bought it of your name so he could send the piano and bill straight to you,” she writes. “You see I rather had to give myself away, but do you think I cared. Not a bit of it. I was proud to let them understand the circumstances...”

After four years of courtship, Maud and Frank wed in October 1909.

*****

In July 1911, Maud gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca. On Dec. 16, 1915, she gave birth to their son, Marshall.

Maud Johnson died the following day, Dec. 17, 1915, of complications from childbirth. She was 43.

In 1923 Frank Johnson remarried. After the trolley ceased operation about four years later, he purchased trolley Car Number 10 and had it towed to his farm. It remained there until his son, Marshall — who never knew his mother — donated it to start the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum.

You can reach Richie Davis at

rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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