Caleb Fellowes and the Fellowes Athenaeum / by Jason Turgeon

Every once in a while life tosses you a bone.  Such is the case with the story of the Fellowes Athenaeum, Roxbury’s first library.

Fellowes Athenaeum

The Athenaeum, a gift of the estate of Caleb Fellowes, opened with much fanfare on July 9, 1873.  How much fanfare?  Enough to warrant printing up a 30+ page guide to the services with all the info an armchair historian could ever want about the building and the man it’s named after.  Thank you Google Books!

The capsule version is pretty entertaining.  Caleb Fellowes was born in Gloucester on July 9, 1771, 102 years to the day before the dedication of his athenaeum.  His father married Sarah Williams of the well-known Roxbury clan.  The Fellowes family had many other ties to Roxbury, and there were various cousins and other relatives of Caleb living in Roxbury at least into the 1860s.  His uncle Gustavus Fellowes was the sort of fellow (sorry, I had to do it) we’d call a “shipping magnate” these days.  He married Hannah Pierpont, whose family owned the gristmill on the Stony Brook about where Roxbury Crossing is now, and for years that branch of the Fellowes family lived in the legendary Pierpont Castle, also called Dearborn House, that sat where the Mission Church now resides on Mission Hill.  There were plenty of other Roxbury connections in the family, but for now we’ll stick to the story of Caleb.

Young Caleb picked up a love of the ocean and against his parents’ wishes hopped a boat bound for China when he was about 16, which would have been about 1787.  The Fellowes genealogy picks up the story nicely:

[He] was working as a mate on the ship “Fair America” out of Boston under command of Captain Lee when for reasons unknown he was set adrift in the middle of the ocean near Cape Good Hope around Apr/May 1792 with one other man. He was picked up by a ship bound for the East Indies where he became a pilot in the China seas. Under the name “Captain John Williams”, he met a native east Indies woman, who fell in love with him. She promised her fortune to him if he would marry her. They may have had several children. To the great surprise of family and friends, who thought him long dead, Caleb returned to Boston and later married Sarah Carver, his land lady in a marriage of conveince. They settled in Roxbury, MA in 1816. While living in Philadelphia he received a letter requesting him to come to India to take possession of the property left by the woman he had lived with. 

Caleb got his name into the Journal of the House of representatives from 1811 when he wanted to bring his stuff back from India, and since Nathaniel Ruggles also apparently had some stuff on the same boat it’s likely that they had been in communication for some time before he returned:

Rev. Putnam tells us that Caleb came back to the states in 1812, so the fact that he was able to disappear for about 25 years then send a letter back home asking for his family to help him come home and have that family make arrangements in the US Congress to do so should give you a bit of a sense of the type of people the Fellowes were.  Definitely not your lower class merchants.

Anyway, Caleb came back, but spent a few years in Philly where he married Sarah Carver.  This is contrary to what the genealogy states but I’m trusting Reverend Putnam on this one, even though the reverend botched the math and reported Caleb to be 53 when he was married - he would have been 43 in 1814.  In 1816 the couple moved to Roxbury into a house on the corner of Washington (then called Shawmut) and Bartlett, right about where the old Cadillac dealership is now, across Washington from the new police station.  

Mr. and Mrs. Fellowes hung around Bartlett Street until 1834, and during those 18 years he evidently became great friends with Supply Clapp Thwing.  Keeping in mind that Thwing was born in 1798, 27 years after Fellowes, the circumstances of this friendship are a bit murky.  Then for some reason Fellowes got the urge to go back to India, and so at the tender age of 65 he sold his house, packed his bags, and sailed halfway around the world with his wife.  Apparently you can’t go home again, because the next year he gave up on India and moved back to the US, but this time to his wife’s hometown of Philadelphia, where he lived until he died at the age of 82.

Fellowes Athenaeum Branch of the Boston Public Library

At this point in the telling of the story of Caleb Fellowes, Reverend Putnam took the time to ask why on earth an 82-year-old man living in Philadelphia who had lived less than a quarter of his life in Roxbury and hadn’t been there in nearly 20 years would leave $40,000 (a massive sum in those days) to start a library in Roxbury.  The answer, it turns out, is his friendship with young Mr. Thwing.  Apparently Fellowes originally intended to leave the money to Thwing instead and Thwing talked him out of it and asked him to use it to found the athenaeum instead.  Think about that for a moment.  If a dear friend of yours, who happened to be much older and filthy stinking rich, wrote you a million dollars in his will and you found out about it, would you tell him to give the money to charity?  

But there’s a final chapter to the story.  Fellowes made very specific instructions in his will that the building be built within a half-mile of the First Church, be modeled after the Philadelphia Athenaeum, and that the leftover money be invested with the returns used to buy books.  But there’s a bit more to the story.  It turns out that by the time Caleb died, $40,000 wasn’t quite enough money to do what he’d asked.  So the trustees of the fund, which read like a virtual who’s who of Roxbury citizens including JF Osgood and William Whiting along with Thwing, Putnam, and others, sat on the money and tried to invest it wisely.  They were for a time planning to have the building somewhere around Bartlett Street.  And then suddenly the long-awaited merger with Boston happened, and with it came the improvements that Roxbury had been begging for - like public libraries.

And here something remarkable happened.  Common sense prevailed, and the Fellowes trustees and the City of Boston came to an agreement.  The Fellowes fund - by then augmented by further money after Sarah Fellowes died and left more to the trust - was used to buy the land and building.  The City rented the library and the trustees used the rent to pay for insurance and other expenses.  Both parties bought books, marked them in case the agreement ever fell apart, and shared the space as one library.  So the City was able to get a magnificent new library to place in the heart of the wealthy new suburb it had just acquired at a fraction of the normal cost, and the Fellowes Trust was finally able to achieve its goals.

The agreement lasted for over 100 years until 1978, when the City opened the Dudley Branch on Warren Street and closed both the Fellowes Athenaeum and the Mt Pleasant branch library.  Today, the building is the home to the Refuge Church of Christ and is sadly in need of renovation in spite of a recent grant to perform some work.

Refuge Church of Christ