Mark Twain and His Southcoast Benefactor

At 45 Center Street in the center of nearby Fairhaven stands the historic Millicent Public Library. It is named after the library’s primary founder Henry Huttleston Rogers’ daughter who died at the young age of 17. It is a monumental memorial of architecture by Charles Brigham in Romanesque and Renaissance architecture.

On the wall of the reading room today is the masterpiece of a brass panel memorial replica of Mark Twain, a friend of Rogers. He is etched forever in time, sitting in a comfortable chair and reflectively smoking his pipe. Therein is a monument to the consequential meeting and lifetime friendship of these two prominent figureheads. Twain had become a world-famous writer, and Rogers had become a magnate in the oil business and principal financial benefactor to the Town of Fairhaven.

Rogers was born in Mattapoisett and grew up in Fairhaven to become the most successful and famous native son, a member of the first graduating class of Fairhaven High School. As a youth, he worked as a town clerk, and then a railroad baggage handler. But at the age of 22, his career turned the corner toward fortune when he went into the oil business, founding the Wamsutta Oil Refinery in Pennsylvania, and then eventually was made vice-president of Standard Oil.

Still, despite amassing a fortune of more than $100 million, Rogers never forgot who he was or where he came from. He had a grassroots quality that both he and Twain shared together, which was solid common ground for their friendship, as portrayed in my illustration.

Mark Twain was from an even more humble background as a laborer on the steamship docks of his birthplace, Hannibal, Missouri. He rose to apprentice captain of a Mississippi riverboat to begin a literary journey to meet William Dean Howell, editor of American magazine. Editor Howell would provide stewardship as Twain’s remarkable editor and writing mentor for almost Twain’s entire career. With Howell, The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnwere published in 1876 and 1885 respectfully. These and other works such as Pudd’nhead Wilsonand A Yankee in King Arthur’s Courtbegan to skyrocket.

Twain’s works have been taught, quoted, and reprinted more than any writer other than Shakespeare. However, by 1893 when he met Rogers, he was nearly bankrupt.

Like many national celebrities, he had fallen for too many get-rich schemes that profited only the false perpetrator of the investment. Rogers immediately untangled the gnarled web of Twain’s misfortunes and financially bailed him out. It was a momentous favor to be returned by Twain’s frequent appearance in local town events in Fairhaven as an indentured friend. He spoke during the commencement ceremony for the first graduation of the new high school, as well as dedication of the Millicent Library. Speaking to library board of trustees there, he can be quoted in his remarks, “This public library and others can be the most enduring of memorials because the literature of its temples are sacred to all creeds and inviolate. If other things pass away, there will still be libraries. When by mutations of language, the books that are in it now, will speak in a lost tongue to our posterity.”

May my concluding tribute to his immortal words be appropriate and simply, Amen!

By George B. Emmons

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