Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 19, 2011

Andover Stories: Town owes much more than amusement to one-of-a-kind Bessie Goldsmith

Andover Stories
Jane Cairns, Andover Historical Society

In an era when most women in Andover wouldn't wear pants in public, it was Bessie Goldsmith's custom to take long walks through town sporting an army-style shirt, baggy knickers, stout boots and a beret. She spent many of her days walking alone in her family's woodlands above Foster's Pond, and was known to challenge trespassers and uninvited blueberry pickers with a pointed shotgun. She wore a badge, serving as an Andover policewoman until the age of 72, and was known to sometimes participate, with her pipe, in the nightly smoke ring contests at the police station. She trapped, and euthanized, the squirrels in her garden and bragged about using them as fertilizer for her prize-winning tomatoes.

Stories of Bessie Goldsmith's eccentricities, her wit and her gruff public demeanor, are told and retold by long-time Andover residents, but the town owes a lot more than amusement to the woman who spent most of her 92 years in service to the town.

"Bessie was not a nut," remembers Andover resident Al French, who boarded with Bessie for a time at her home at 60 Elm St. in the 1960s. "She was a feminist, and an independent thinker, who didn't like to be told what to do."

At the time of Bessie's birth in 1882, her father William was the principal of Andover's public Punchard Free School. He gave to his students the honor of naming his newborn daughter and she was thus christened "Bessie PUNCHARD Goldsmith." She was educated in the Andover School system, and also at the School of Domestic Science in Boston, where she enjoyed the cultural advantages of two years in the city. She attended cooking demonstrations by Fannie Farmer, the gala opening of South Station terminal, a John Philips Sousa concert, and many theater performances.

She returned, joyfully, to Andover after her graduation in 1901, and took a job with the Lawrence Gas Company, teaching housewives how to use their new gas stoves. She later taught cooking and sewing in the Andover schools, and also worked as a dressmaker. She worked in a local gas mask factory during World War I and helped to sell Liberty Bonds.

Her primary employment was serving as a reporter and assistant editor for the Andover Townsman and the Andover Press. She edited a column called "Siftings" for eleven years. In 1964, a collection of her articles was published by the Andover Historical Society as The Townswoman's Andover. In addition to her paid employment, Bessie was an energetic and organizing force behind a number of Andover institutions including A.V.I.S., the Andover Natural History Society, the Andover Garden Club, and the November Club. She was active in amateur dramatics, and was also interested in basketry, painting and stamp collecting.

But it was to her beloved woodlands that Bessie continued to devote most of her passion, clearing brush and planting trees as long as she was able. The French family - Al, his wife Mary and their children - remained close to Bessie toward the end of her life, and enjoyed taking her for picnics near the blueberry bushes that she had so zealously protected.

Her final gift to the town - Bessie died in 1974 - was to leave her ancestral tract of land, to the Fund for the Preservation of Wildlife and Natural Areas. The instructions in her will were explicit: "It is my desire that this woodland be held forever in trust in its natural state as a sanctuary for wild animals, birds, flowers and trees." She didn't include hikers - or blueberry pickers - in this list, but we can be grateful nonetheless.

"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in celebration of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.