Determined Group Gambles on Last Chance to Preserve Hall and Kenyon's Iconic N.H. Home

Jun 3, 2019

The late poet Donald Hall had fans all over the world, but he was perhaps most loved here in New Hampshire. Many of his friends believed, as he did, that his small white farmhouse on Route 4 in Wilmot would stay in his family after he died. So it came as a surprise earlier this spring to hear the house was going on the market.

 The news triggered questions about how best to remember Hall here, in his home state. 

Among those working to preserve Hall's house - and his legacy - is a woman named Mary Lyn Ray. 

  

On the day of Hall’s estate sale, she stood at the front of the line of attendees that carved a neat half circle across his front yard and down to the street, where it joined a line of cars stretching along the pavement. 

Ray, in a grey raincoat, had waited through the night to secure her prime spot. She lives not far away, she explains, and she was close with Hall and his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. 

Ray was there on a mission: to save some of Hall and Kenyon’s most important items before they got dispersed. 

“We feel that we can, with certain things, tell the deep and important story of what Don and Jane — both as persons and in their work — have meant and mean to all of us,” she said. 

Mary Lyn Ray, left, is leading a small group that's trying to preserve Hall and Kenyon's old home and some of their possessions as a living memorial to the poets.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Hall’s writing for many people was a gravitational force. Ray actually moved to this area after hearing him read his poetry on the radio — he wrote so evocatively of his view of Mount Kearsarge, his life on Eagle Pond, his relationship to the land and the community. 

In Hall’s final years, they had many conversations about how important his house was to him, and how he wanted it to stay in the family. He believed his granddaughter would move in after he died, she said. 

That’s why it came as such a shock to Ray to hear earlier this spring that the property was going on the market.  

In panic, she called up her friend Lynne Monroe, who has worked for years in historic preservation. Monroe is also a longtime reader of Hall and Kenyon’s work.

“She said, we just found out that Donald’s house is going to be for sale and everything in it will be in an auction or in an estate sale,” Monroe said, “what do we do, what do we do!”

Monroe promised she’d do everything she could to preserve the property. 

“How do I say it?” She said. “It’s the heart of it — the things in the house, the house, the barn, the land. It’s the story of the place, and Donald’s poems and writings were all about place.”

Ray and Monroe quickly gathered more people together, people they felt would understand Hall’s legacy in New Hampshire. 

Monroe tracked down the realtor listing Hall’s farmhouse, and gave a call. “I said, do you have any idea how much it is?” she said. “And they told me, and I said alright, we’ll buy it!” It was $395,000.  

One item Ray and her colleagues hoped to secure was Donald Hall's blue armchair, where he often sat receiving visitors and going through the mail. They bought it at the estate sale.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

The small group also quickly turned its attention to the upcoming estate sale and auctions, where Hall’s more valuable artwork and furniture would be sold. 

That included his iconic roll top writing desk — the desk he’s pictured at, surrounded by papers and books, in his obituary in the New York Times. It also included his painted bed, the title of one of his collections, and a symbol of the loss of his beloved wife, Kenyon, to cancer before her 50th birthday. These were being sold at an auction in Plainfield. Another member of the group, Colin Cabot, volunteered to go. It was his first auction.

“People were milling around, looking at all of the lots that were for sale, and right in the middle of the room (were) Donald Hall’s desk and the painted bed,” he said. 

He took his seat, nervous, in the rows of chairs in front of the podium and sat there, for five and a half hours, making bids. He spent thousand dollars of his own money - but he got most of what the group wanted.

And, because the auctioneer had made some comments from the podium pointing him out and explaining his mission, people came up to him to talk. “They said, thank you for doing this,” he said. “This is what should happen to this stuff. It shouldn’t be all split up, especially since he - Donald Hall - had made such a big deal about it being a collection in his writings.”

With the auctions done, the estate sale was the last task to check off.

The line at Donald Hall's estate sale swept across his front yard and down the street. Only about 25 people were allowed in at a time to sort through his former possessions.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

“I had been adamant that I wanted to be nowhere near the sale. It felt to me like such a violation of Don and Jane’s life,” Ray said. “But then the story changed and it became necessary.”

The men running the sale opened the doors to Hall’s old home just after 9am. Ray and about two dozen others disappeared inside for first pass on the items inside. 

Waiting behind in line were friends and readers of Hall and Kenyon, and estate sale regulars — people who had no idea who the late poets were. 

Tom Morgan, an English teacher at a nearby school and reader or Hall’s work, said he saw coming to the sale as a way of honoring the poet, but nonetheless felt the tension of rummaging through what was left. “Here we are, all the gawkers,” he said. “Trying to get something from his private life.”

“With all the history of this, to have it look like it looks is tragic,” said Jack Kirk, Hall’s longtime physician. 

“It’s awful, it’s awful,” said Wendy Strothman, Hall’s literary executor, longtime publisher, and a close friend. “I mean, I’m weepy.”

The line moved quickly, though, and soon, Mary Lyn Ray and her team were out on the back patio, cataloguing their success. 

“I expected it to be chaos. I expected elbows — I didn’t expect a lot of generosity,” Ray said. “Instead, it was calm, it was cordial — people wishing each other well, people helping us find things that we were looking for.”

Now, it was time to get some sleep, to catch her breath. 

Hall's family home on Route 4 in Wilmot, New Hampshire was packed with possession dating back generations.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Since then, she’s absorbed the enormity of the task ahead.

“We knew already we were taking on something large, but it’s gotten way larger,” she said. 

That's because they're now setting out to turn the white farmhouse and some of the items they’ve collected into a living memorial to Hall and Kenyon. Many details are still being worked out, but they’re thinking of inviting poets or scholars to live or work on the property, and opening it to the public several times a year. 

The thing is, this requires starting a non-profit and raising enough money for staff and maintenance. They also want to raise enough to pay back Lynne Monroe and her husband who bought the house this spring as a short-term solution so it could be preserved. 

Plus, it’s not the first time a group has attempted to find a solution along these lines, according to Mike Pride, a longtime friend of Hall’s who delivered a eulogy at his funeral.  

“It’s not as though nobody thought about this,” Pride said. “Don had a real obsession with what was going to happen.”

Hall tried to make arrangements with existing institutions before he died to preserve the house and property, and keep some kind literary tradition alive there, Pride said, but nothing came together.

“He couldn’t make it happen. He and I and others couldn’t make it happen,” he said. “You beat your head against a wall for a while and then you just say, that’s enough of that. It’s not going to work.”

Pride admires the new effort to preserve the property, but in the end, he wonders if it’s really the house that matters. “I don’t think that’s really what a legacy’s about,” he said.

Bill Ross, special collections librarian at the University of New Hampshire, estimates the school's Donald Hall archive includes a half million records.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Hall and Kenyon touched so many people with their writing on place, on their home, he said. And rather than preserve that home, perhaps what’s more important is to share the writing. 

Here in New Hampshire, there’s a massive archive of Hall’s work in the special collections at the University of New Hampshire library. Estimated to total a half million records, it includes published works, drafts and voluminous correspondence. The library is hoping to hold a public celebration of the collection this fall, in time for what would have been Hall’s 91st birthday.