Harriette Merrifield Forbes Exhibit & Program in the Library

By Kathy Bell

Last winter I was asked by member and former Board President (1964-1968) Linwood Erskine, Jr. to verify a longstanding family belief that his grandmother became a member of the Worcester County Horticultural Society (WCHS) at birth. A quick review of our earliest member records reveals the family was a few years off:  Harriette Merrifield, born in Worcester in 1856, became a lifetime member along with her sister Maria, in 1859. She lived until she was 95 making her a member for 92 years!

This discovery, along with a kind offer from the family to lend her books and artwork made the prospect of an exhibit enticing.  The more I learned about Harriette, the more I realized hers was a life well-lived and one that should be better known.  And what better time to tell her story as we celebrate Tower Hill’s 30th anniversary this year, and the 175th anniversary of the Worcester County Horticultural Society next year? Theirs is a family connected with the Society from its inception right through to the present.  Can you top this?  Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951) — author, artist, gardener — and a WCHS member for 92 years opened in July and will remain on display through December in the Library.  Linwood Erskine will share family stories about his grandmother on Sunday, October 23rd from 2-3 pm in the Tower Hill Library.  Click here for more details.

A portrait of Harriette Merrifield’s father, William T. Merrifield (1807-1895) hangs just outside the library. He was one of the early founders of the WCHS, one of the most prolific fruit, flower and vegetable exhibitors, and served as a WCHS President from 1876-1879.  An industrial builder in Worcester, his company erected many of the expanding city’s largest structures.  His first wife died and daughters Maria and Harriette were born to his second wife, Maria Brigham, and they grew up on his property (which today makes up part of the WPI campus).  Harriette is often described as unusually attractive and very bright. Apparently she wanted to go to Wellesley College but her father preferred she stay closer to home and attend Oread Institute.  She studied art and on display are several of her botanical paintings and china, and an image from her herbarium made around the same time.  Her interest in and knowledge of botany is evident in this beautiful work, now a part of the Harvard University collection.

A sample from the ‘Hattie Merrifield’ Collection; Harvard University Herbaria and Libraries

Our two exhibit cases can barely do justice to Harriette’s many talents and accomplishments.  She married William Forbes (1850-1931) and continued to paint until she got busy with their 4 children.  When their doctor suggested she try photography instead of painting, photography became her new passion and led to an interest in documenting old houses and gravestones.  Those interests cascaded to research, writing and the publication of several works on local and New England history.

To learn more about this remarkable woman, stop by the Library any Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday from 10 to 4 to see the exhibit, and don’t miss the exhibit program Sunday, October 23rd from 2 to 3 pm to hear her grandson’s reminiscences.

Kathy Bell is the Tower Hill librarian.