Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 4, 2012

Dalton column on 1932: When Andover almost became place for 'feeble-minded'

Bill Dalton
The Andover Townsman

---- — Over 80 years ago, on Jan. 29, 1932, Penobscot Chief Needahbah went canoeing on Fosters Pond.

This was notable for two reasons: no one remembered an Indian rowing on the pond, and the pond had been ice free all winter. It was so warm that Mr. and Mrs. Willard Davis, whom the chief was visiting, had stayed at their summer cottage on the pond every weekend since summer ended. However, a few days after the chief’s row Andover received a wicked blizzard.

Chief Needahbah (who was born Roland Eugene Nelson) lived in Old Town, Maine, where much if his tribe lived, and he was the tribe’s librarian. He owned a cottage on the shore of Moose Lake, was a legendary guide, and lectured at colleges throughout the country. Until his death in 1954, the chief was a feature attraction at sportsman shows, often acting as the master of ceremonies.

In addition to his famous loon call and native songs, recordings of which can be purchased online, the chief had a famous trout fishing fly named after him.

In 1932, Andover was struggling with unemployment caused by the Great Depression. Given the difficult economic conditions, some town workers volunteered to accept a decrease is salary. A Town Meeting voted down an appropriation of $15,000 to allow town departments to hire 200 of the town’s unemployed. Miss Lotta Johnson, the town’s public welfare worker, asked that anyone needing work done, such as chopping wood or painting doors, call her at telephone number 19 to help relieve the unemployment situation. The Finance Committee slashed $60,000 from the town budget due to a loss of revenue and recommended a lower tax rate to encourage people to pay their taxes.

In the same year, the State Department of Mental Disease was attempting to obtain options on 1,130 acres of land around Bellevue, Argilla, Osgood, and Dascomb roads in order to build a big facility for the “feeble-minded.” Many people refused to grant options, but the state threatened it had other ways of getting the land.

There were several farms on the land. Most townspeople and the Andover Townsman were opposed to the school because they didn’t want Andover to be known as the place where the “feeble-minded” were kept, nor did the town want to see so much farmland disappear.

Although the state sent representatives to the town to garner support, they gained no ground. The matter faded away as the Depression deepened and the state ran out of money.

No one uses “feeble-minded” anymore, and I know it’s offensive. I use kinder words when I can. However, when words are contextually important, as “feeble-minded” was in the above story, I use them. I once used the word “squaw” in a column, taking it from an old history, and was chastised by a woman from Idaho. She said that word insults Native Americans. I researched the word, and she was partly right: some people think it’s insulting and some don’t. As a matter of good manners I try not to needlessly offend, so I won’t use the word again unless it’s contextually important.

Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is