Whenever I read one of Jennie Copeland's historical columns occasionally reprinted in the Mansfield News, I realize how little I know about this old town. Jennie was an inexhaustible walking encyclopedia of local history. By comparison, I'm a dabbler.
We had others who wrote of our town's past. The most prolific of these was William G. Davis, whose quaintly-spelled notebooks, dated 1905-1925, are filed in our public library. Dr. Roland Green in 1840 elegantly penned an account of the Congregational parish, and in 1875 J. R. Crosby compiled a town history; the library also has their manuscripts.
In the 1883 Mansfield News, Judge E. (for Erastus) Maltby Reed wrote a serialized "History of Mansfield." And Ethel I. MacDonald in the 20th century authored historical items in the News under the pen name Molly Mansfield.
But let me here state, as I make a U-turn back to our original subject, that when it came to Mansfield's history none of the above writers could hold a candle to Jennie.
Jennie Freeman Copeland was born April 14, 1879, the only child of Elijah and Abbie (Freeman) Copeland, in a South Main Street Victorian farmhouse that was destroyed in 1977 to make way for Route I-495.
In an era when few students got as far as high school, Jennie in 1896 completed Mansfield High's Latin Course and in 1901 was graduated from Mount Holyoke College. Her father died while she was at Mount Holyoke, leaving her with his collection of local historical memorabilia.
After her graduation, being sufficiently well off that she had no need to work for a living, she devoted her life to the history of Mansfield.
Contrary to what you might think, Jennie was not a stay-at-home. She visited England and the Netherlands, and twice treated herself to South American banana boat cruises.
Her 305 weekly columns entitled "Mansfield in Other Days" appeared in the News beginning in 1929. In 1936 she self-financed her industrial history of Mansfield, "Every Day But Sunday, the Romantic Age of New England Industry." This was reprinted in 1956, just after her death. Her photo portrait in this second printing is so lifelike I can almost hear her speaking.
Jennie was a chatty lady who, to be honest, could be a bit hard to get away from. I remember glancing at my watch after more than once imposing on her hospitality for an hour, and saying it was time for me to be going. I was young, and didn't want to tire my elderly host.
She would exclaim, "Oh, but there's something else I must tell you about!" And my visit would be prolonged for another pleasant hour.
She had detractors who liked to meow, "Well, she makes mistakes, you know." Of course she made mistakes! So does everyone who does anything. She said to me, "I wish those who complain about my errors would tell me what they are so I can correct them. But they never do."
It's sadly ironic that this gentle lady, born before the automobile age, was fatally injured as a passenger in a car collision a quarter mile from the gracious Rumford Avenue home where she'd lived for a half century. [editor's note: Harry was mistaken. Jennie died of a heart attack in her Rumford Avenue home] at age 77, she had many useful and productive years left. I know that not long before her death she'd been planning a history of electric street car lines in New England.
You can bet that as long as Mansfield exists, those who write about its history will turn, as I have more times than I can count, to the voluminous writings of Jennie Copeland.
Lifelong Mansfield resident Harry B. Chase Jr. served on the town's first Conservation Commission and is a founding and charter member of the Natural Resources Trust of Mansfield.
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