Anna May Cole was a favorite Hampton Academy teacher. Born in Maine in 1865 and brought to Hampton, New Hampshire as an infant, she lived for much of her life on the Winnacunnet Road homestead of her Page ancestors who had settled in Hampton in 1639. Teaching ran in the family line—her mother Susan Page Cole had taught at the North End School in Blakeville (a Hampton neighborhood abundant with Blake family members), aunt Mary Page had taught in Exeter, great-aunt Matilda Leavitt Harris had been Preceptress of Hampton Academy, grandfather Josiah Page had trained as a teacher, and, like Anna May’s great-grandfather James Leavitt, had been a trustee of the Academy.
After high school in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Anna May attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Before coming to the Academy in 1892, she taught at schools as far afield as Connecticut and as close to home as East Kingston, New Hampshire. Single her entire life, she was a fizzy cocktail of spunky, early twentieth century adventurer and prim Victorian schoolmarm—who once recoiled in horror at being present on election day in the all-male domain of the town hall. When she retired from teaching she funneled her love of botany into a greenhouse business, for which she cheekily advertised to the flower-loving public, “Come and See My Bloomers.”
As she completed her degree at Mount Holyoke, her younger brother Ernest enrolled in the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Hanover. The siblings promised to write to each other once a week. We know that Anna May, at least, kept her end of the bargain, because Ernest faithfully saved her letters, which are a treasure trove of social commentary on daily life in 1880s Hampton. Once, after tagging Ernest with the soubriquet “erythrocephalus” (red-headed), Anna May chided him for his “gloomy letters,” his meanness to his friends, and, in a day when fashionable young men loaded their hair with Macassar oil, his disgusting laundry (“especially the pillow cases”), which he sent home 100 miles by stagecoach to be washed and returned.
Prince Rules the Kingdom
Anna May was born, as she put it, “with a properfied streak.” This didn’t stop her from accepting Ernest’s offer to teach her to ride Prince, the handsome but spoiled Cole family nag, whose job it was to pull a buggy for their father. In a series of letters which ran from the fall of 1888 to the summer of 1889, Anna May—recently graduated and not yet employed full-time—reported her progress in the equestrian arts.
“My dear Ernie boy,” as she would often start her letters, “I have not tried riding yet, but [our brother] Wes wants me to ride with him tomorrow if we can have Prince.” She would soon find out that Prince greatly resented this gnat of a girl who dared to perch on his back, kick his ribs, and issue foreign orders.
In October the weather turned foul. Anna May could only write that “I’ve not been riding horseback at all, for it has rained most of the time, and when it hasn’t father has been using the horse. I’m looking for a chance now, though.”
The rain turned to heavy falls of snow. There was no riding, but Anna May kept an eye on Prince. “I saw him go trotting out of the yard today when he was sent for a drink,” she reported. “As no one went after him and the snow was deep, he decided it was no fun to run away and so returned.”
In March fair weather returned. Anna May was ready to ride, but with spring in the air Prince proved to be a mighty contrary piece of horseflesh. One day, just as she had worked up the nerve to ride him to the other side of the road, a visitor arrived at the house. Anna May managed to get Prince turned around (a maneuver he had inexplicably forgotten how to execute over the long winter), and then asked him to walk just a little faster. Whatever sense of control she gained by crossing the road rapidly deteriorated. “He began to trot,” she wrote. “I began to say ‘whoa!’ I tried to stop him, but he went all the faster.”
The visitor fled to the porch as Prince sped toward the barn at the back of the house. Luckily, someone had closed the low door while they were out, otherwise Anna May would have been smashed in his rush to get inside the barn.
“I felt glad and he sorry when I found the barn shut up,” she wrote with relief. “I had quite a shaking up and bounced up and down like a rubber ball. I did not dare to ask him to walk faster when headed toward home afterward.” Score round one for Prince.
From then on, Anna May’s “private opinion” was that Prince was an unmanageable tyrant. But she was determined to succeed, gathering the courage to ask for the trot, but not too far, “for I can’t stop him.”
In April as she was riding “quite a while” and trotting “enough to shake my hair down,” her friend Edith Livingston was just learning to ride. The Livingston horse, named Baby, bucked and kicked and slammed her down on the horn of the saddle so hard that, as Anna May reported, “It rather discouraged her.”
Prince must have picked up some behavioral pointers from Baby. With Anna May’s friend Bessie astride he bolted “from the bushes on one side of the road to the ditch on the other.” Bessie, an experienced horsewoman with her own saddle, afterwards decreed that “she would not be hired to ride him.” But Anna May refused to give up on the only horse available to her. She got the “fidgets,” as she called her youthful restlessness, and at those times she wanted to ride a “fast horse.”
Prince’s Rule Is Overthrown
Over spring break Ernest gave Anna May another riding lesson, which she later wrote “had done me good. I now venture to ride without holding myself on with the reins. I let Prince canter all the way from our house down to Lawyer Charles’s and several other stretches nearly as long.” She had a proper riding dress of blue broadcloth made, “so I am that much nearer being fitted for riding.”
Ever the optimist, she held out hope that Prince would willingly cooperate, but the chances of that grew slimmer every day. Sterner measures were called for. “I am getting to the point,” she wrote in May, “where I want to have a stick he can feel. When he insists on drawing up before some house where father calls and I never do, I’d like to be able to insist on my view – which is that he shall canter straight by – and a good whip would enforce my opinion.”
In mid-June she wrote triumphantly, “I cleaned him and saddled him; I knew I’d make him look as well as father did. I have a new whip which does quite well.” Prince’s rule had at last been overthrown.
As anyone ensnared by the equine mystique knows, it doesn’t end there, nor did it for Anna May. “I want a hat next and then a saddle,” she wrote. “After that I’ll want my own horse I suppose.” We don’t know if Anna May ever got that horse. If she did, hopefully he was easier to ride than Prince.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on November 18, 2016.
Images — (1) Anna May Cole high school graduation, 1883, (2), Ernest G. Cole, c. 1890, (3) Page-Cole house on Winnacunnet Road, c. 1880, (4) Anna May Cole, Ernest Cole, Edith Livingston, and Prince of Winnacunnet Road, c.1890. Photos courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including Marked: the Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole and The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015 (coming summer 2017). Her website is lassitergang.com.