On March 8th of this year International Women’ Day was celebrated, and all were called to an awareness of women’s rights and changing roles in our modern world. Progress in the equality and prospects for women and girls naturally focuses the mind toward the future, but with a clear backdrop of histories largely centered around male figures. The absence of women in many historical narratives is a legacy of times when women had minimal footing in property and common law, or public roles in their own right. One occasionally even reads family lineages that may omit the maternal side altogether, favoring a singular string of paternity – one man begetting another. We are thankfully becoming more aware that these omissions obscure important understandings about our past.
In Effingham, we have a chance to recognize a significant woman in our history, born 250 years ago, on March 8th 1773. Susannah Leavitt Lord was the wife of Isaac Lord, and while she does appear in the folklore of our town, her presence in the stories shared is often one of absence. Isaac and Susannah’s lives are as clear a juxtaposition of ‘history’ and ‘herstory’ as we have.
Isaac Lord was a figure of sufficient notoriety to fuel many legends that have persisted in one form or another for this same quarter-millennium. Many of these bear the stamp of Isaac’s own hopes for remembrance, and ignore many of the more fascinating parts of his complicated biography. We have tales of his entrepreneurial arrival in town, a barefoot and intrepid pioneer. These situate him as a Horatio Alger figure, and a self-made man – perhaps toward the goal of justifying his eventual monopolistic presence in several sectors of business in town. Most of these renderings omit the vital facts that he was grandson of New Hampshire’s wealthiest citizen and yet himself fatherless, with an unsettled childhood.
Similarly, one of the stories of his later life presents his wife in a light that doesn’t do justice to her own experience and character. Whether you are new to Effingham or have been circling Green Mountain for generations, you may have heard of Mrs. Isaac Lord and the great houses of Lord’s Hill. There are variations to the tale, but its essence is as follows: Isaac Lord, having found a charming and advantageous setting to build a home for his family, attempts to bring his wife to Effingham so she may share in his dream of a quaint and prosperous village centered around their family and his businesses. Mrs. Isaac Lord is not impressed, and does not want to leave Portland society. Isaac promises to build her the grandest house in the county, one that would rival the mansions of Portland. As further proof of his generous spirit and commitment to the goal, he offers to build houses for her society friends so she may bring them with her.
This last bit is often specified as being six such houses, all of the finest construction in the Federal style of the day. With the merest timid scratching on the veneer of this tale doubts can form. Of the likeliest half-dozen two-story Federal homes that could be invoked as evidence, only one was built by Isaac. Fully four of the others were built and occupied by Dearborns who had ancestors on the Hill fifteen years before Isaac’s first appearance. Isaac did build his impressive three-story mansion of many rooms, importing wallpaper and furnishings from Europe, and employing an army of tradesmen in execution of its unique features. Alas, despite this promise and its ultimate fulfillment Mrs. Isaac Lord never deigned to live in Effingham. Isaac’s story ends with him living a lonely existence in his commodious house, needing to seek company in his store, where villagers felt more comfortable to engage with him.
As to Mrs. Isaac Lord, let’s agree to call her Sukey, as she was known by friends. Further, let’s imagine Sukey’s own lived experience without her being an adjunct to her husband’s saga, or the antagonist to his dreams. Sukey Leavitt was one of eight children born to James and Betty (Rowe) Leavitt in Exeter. We don’t know the circumstances of their meeting, but by age 19 Sukey and Isaac were engaged to be married. Once Isaac had set up a humble homesite in Effingham on land owned by his mother and stepfather, he invited Sukey to join him. She not only agreed to do so, she lived in Effingham with him for 25 years. During that time she bore him six children and raised 5 to adulthood. For 23 of those years she was mistress of a tavern on a busy by-way. Isaac will frequently be termed the tavern-keeper in the historical record. However, just as would have been the case in his stores, lumber mill, potash, and toll bridge, his concerns were largely managed by others. This would have Sukey in all likelihood overseeing and carrying out the many responsibilities of a tavern host. We would be well to consider the more than twenty years where she would maintain bed and board for an ever changing roster of visitors, while raising her children and caring for sick relatives. Often would be the night that she would not know how many people would be staying under her roof until well after dark.
We do know that it was at Sukey’s behest that she and Isaac moved to Portland in 1818. This was following the three brutal years beginning in 1816 – the year without a summer. With a killing frost each month of the year, and her husband proprietor of the main stores in the village, she would have seen the effects of this period of privation on her neighbors. These years also saw several deaths in their extended family, perhaps to include periods of nursing and palliative care. Sukey’s wish for ‘society’ may have been more a yearning for friendships and a social life free of the ever-present burden of being wife to a controversial and polarizing figure, than for fancy dress or cultural offerings. She may have been attempting to chart a course toward a better married life for them both. They lived together only a few years in Portland. During this time we know Isaac traveled extensively and returned frequently to Effingham to oversee projects. Sukey’s days in Portland may not have been quite as expected, given Isaac immediately set to hiring workmen to transform their house from a two-story to a three-story structure. Once completed, Isaac sold the house back to the gentlemen from whom he purchased it, and returned to Effingham.
It is at this stage in their life that Sukey did not agree to return to Effingham, and went to live with family instead. Isaac felt a lack of acceptance in Portland society, and explained his return to Effingham by saying he would rather be a Lord among hogs, than a hog among kings. One can’t imagine this did much to repair his strained ties with townfolk. A sentiment attributed to Sukey, though, perhaps gives us a better understanding of her story and character. She remarked to friends and family that the happiest days of her life in Effingham were when she and Isaac lived in their first humble house near the Ossipee River, cooking a meal together over a crude hearth built by his own hands.