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In this week’s Carding Chronicle, there was a big spring cleaning event at the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts this past weekend. You’ll never guess what best friends Faye Bennett and Suzanna Owens found in the attic.
MISSING VICTORIA QUARTERMAIN ARCHIVE FOUND
by Wil Bennett
Carding, VT—Local volunteers Faye Bennett and Suzanna Owens discovered the journals, notes, book drafts and diaries written and collected by writer Hansen Willis about the controversial early 20th century spiritualist Victoria Quartermain in the attic of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts yesterday.
The discovery came in the midst of the “most thorough cleaning the Academy has ever received,” executive director Edie Wolfe said. “We are set to begin the last phase of our energy renovation so everything that’s ever been tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the original building is being unearthed.”
The Academy was started by two woman, Emily Willis and Kitty Wolfe, in the early 20th century in a building that now houses the school’s pottery studio. The main administration building, where the Quartermain archives were found, was the home of illustrator and artist Joseph Stillman Croft.
Croft donated the building to the Academy when he left Carding in 1930. Built before modern energy conservation methods were known, heating and cooling the Croft house has been the top line item in the Academy’s budget for decades. With a grant from the state of Vermont, assistance from the state’s energy commission, and donations from individuals, the Academy board started a three-phase program to insulate and replace windows five years ago.
The main structure of the Croft house—the lobby, his studio, several classrooms plus the original attic and basement—were left intact until two new buildings on the grounds were completed. These new buildings now house contemporary classrooms and temporary administrative offices.
“This means we can finally empty the original Croft house without disruptions to our education programs,” Wolfe explained. “And we started doing that with the biggest spring cleaning the Academy has ever seen.”
Volunteers Bennett and Owens were part of a small team assigned to the attic. “It’s really cramped up there,” Owens said. “So there was only five of us.”
The volunteers had formed something akin to an old-fashioned bucket brigade down the building’s main stairway, passing trash and treasures from hand to hand, and piling everything in the lobby for final judgement (keepers or junk) by members of the Academy board.
“We had the space empty except for a pile of trunks in a back corner,” Bennett said. “Suzanna and I picked up the smallest one on the top of the pile, and when we did, the bottom fell out. Some of it was stacks of paper tied together with ribbons, and when I saw Hansen Willis’s name on the top pages, I just started yelling.”
Every school child in Carding knows about Hansen Willis, one of the most famous American authors of the early 20th century. Hansen and his wife, Emily, first came to Carding in the 1880s, following the lead of Joseph Stillman Croft.
Several other artists and writers followed the Willises’ lead and for almost 30 years, Carding was recognized as an artists colony.
The Willis family divided their time between Carding in the warm weather months and New York City in the winter. It was in New York that Hansen met Victoria Quartermain, the most renowned and controversial spiritualist of her day.
From the 1870s until her retirement to Carding in 1911, Quartermain used what she called “her gifts” to solve cases of blackmail, fraud, corruption, and even murder. Several prominent women banded together with Quartermain to protect her from prosecution. The group called itself the White Iris Society.
Quartermain’s methods often put her at odds with the city’s police, and made her the scourge of less-than-ethical public officials and what the spiritualist liked to call “blackguard husbands.”
Hansen Willis often interviewed Quartermain for newspaper and magazine articles. Because of this, Willis was considered the authority on everything Quartermain. When the spiritualist died, she left her estate and all her papers to Hansen and his wife.
In Carding as well as in New York’s publishing circles, it was widely assumed that Hansen Willis had written several books about Quartermain’s exploits during her lifetime, and would publish them after her death. But the books never appeared and were not found among his papers when he died in 1939.
“We have contacted the current heirs of the Willis estate about the unpublished books’ existence,” Wolfe said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before they can be published.”
Wolfe believes that the Quartermain books may have been deliberately hidden in the Academy’s attic by the Willises. “Quartermain’s work led to the unmasking of several members of prominent families in New York at the time. She also contributed to Theodore Roosevelt’s investigation into the city’s police corruption. Over the course of her lifetime, Victoria made a lot of enemies. Hansen and Emily may have thought it was too dangerous to publish the books.”
Emily Willis was as popular a figure as her renowned husband. She was an outspoken suffragette and heiress to the American Sugar Company fortune. Like her forebears, Emily was an art collector. But unlike her parents and grandparents, Emily collected American, not European, art.
During her time in Carding, Emily added what many call “Americana” to her treasure trove—quilts, lace, woodcarvings, pottery, glassware, and furniture. Eventually, she teamed up with Kitty Wolfe, the wife of the local newspaper owner, to start a school to keep these traditional arts alive.
Today, the Carding Academy is renowned as an educational institution at the forefront of the contemporary craft movement, and students come to our town from all over the world to take classes here.