Growing Up at the Red Tower
Gertrude Smart Wells
My grandfather, John H. Smart, was the caretaker at the Onderdonk Estate which included the main house "Red Tower," the Billiard House, the Stable, the Chapel, the Laundry, the Herdsman's House (referred to in 1907 as the Dairy) and barn, the Gardener's House, the Pump House and the Wright House. Grandfather died in 1925 shortly before I was born and my father, Forrest H. Smart, assumed his duties, bringing me as a newborn and my mother, Elizabeth Batchelder Smart, to live in the Coachman's Quarters at The Stable in July 1925.
It was a wonderful place to live. My playground was made up of all the fields and woods of the Estate best depicted in Memories of Red Tower (see slideshow) in the pictures entitled "Looking south from Red Tower" and "View from the Chapel." The large bird house was still there but on the ground rather than high in the air. A beautiful stone wall was at the end of a path leading from the Stable past the Pump House separating the upper grounds from the lower fields. Large granite slabs were placed on each end of the wall raising the height of the wall by about two feet. These became
forts and my friends and I conducted many acorn battles there. All of the paths through the woods and in the area of the Chapel were easily recognizable. The gazebos, though beginning to deteriorate, were still beautiful places to spend a summer afternoon. The iron fence on the right
hand side of the Red Tower driveway was ornamented with a horse's head. I rode many imaginary miles with that horse as my faithful steed.
The Tack Room became my father's workshop. Where carriages once were garaged my father kept the c. 1929 Packard touring car provided for the use of the Butler sisters, his car and his truck once he began his trucking business. One of my delights was being asked to go for a ride in the Packard and being allowed to sit on a jump seat between the back and front seats. It was a convertible and had removable side curtains. Big bearskins were required in the winter to keep warm. The billiard table from the Billiard House was stored at the far end of the garage and there were two rather moth eaten stuffed animal heads hanging there also. Between 1925 and 1944 when we moved, The Stable looked much as it is pictured in Memories
of Red Tower. Vines covered the front porch where I slept from late May until late September and my parents maintained a flower garden in the same spot. (One night, I was awakened in the middle of the night by Chief Louie Bourgoin who had come to get my father, a Special Policeman, to help him calm some disturbance at the University. The Chief knew I slept there and was very careful to reassure me.)
My father faithfully maintained the grounds, mowing the lawns with a very large power mower with me by his side using my tricycle as my mower. He burned the fields on either side of the tennis lawn each year and kept the tiny dog cemetery southwest of the Billiard House in good shape. The formal rose garden was across the street from Red Tower adjacent to the Valentine Smith House. The Gardener's House was occupied at one time by football Coach Biff Glassford who led UNH to the Glass Bowl.
In back of The Stable was the Water Tower. The machinery to pump the water from the well to the Water Tower was housed in the Pump House and it was our responsibility to turn the pump on and off as needed. I felt so grown up when I was allowed to throw the switch all by myself. A huge thermometer like device was attached to the back of the Water Tower to determine how much water was in the water tank. It was visible from our living room and we would watch it to make sure we shut the pump off before it overflowed. I'll have to admit my mother and I had a few mishaps over the years when water would flow over the top and down the outside of the tower. As I remember, we provided water to the Community Church and the Ellison family.
During my early childhood, Red Tower was occupied by two sisters, Margaret and Esther Butler, distantly related to the Onderdonk family. They were always referred to as Miss Margaret and Miss Esther. As you face the house from Main Street, they occupied a suite of rooms on the second floor right. To the best of my memory, they remained at Red Tower during the time the Pennells rented the mansion, running it as a rooming house and serving meals in the magnificent dining room. When Red Tower was sold they moved into one of the rental units in the Wright House.
I was allowed the run of the house and loved to spend time curled up reading in one of the alcoves in the Library. While all the furnishings pictured in Memories of Red Tower were no longer in the house, it was still very impressive. Another favorite spot to read was in a huge elm tree just outside the servants entrance at the back of the house. To my knowledge, the great ballroom was never used in those years. To a little girl from a small town being in that room was like being on top of the world — it was a marvelous place to play "let's pretend."
The Billiard House was occupied by professors Philip Marston and Paul Schedinger followed by Professor Bergethon and his family. I studied violin with Mrs. Bergethon in the big billiard room with their Chow dog constantly nipping at my ankles. However, the dog and I became friends and I spent a lot of time dog sitting at the Billiard House. It was later occupied by the lovely lady who took such good care of Robin McGregor.
Living at Red Tower had other advantages. Mill Pond was just a short walk away and the whole town gathered there to skate. My mother used to hang an old pair of red ski pants in the window when it was time for me to come home. In back of the Billiard House were the fields belonging to the Chesley family. They were very kind to us as children and allowed us to use the hill for tobogganing, skiing and sliding in the winter and other parts of the property for games like King of the Hill, Red Rover Come Over, and Hide and Seek during other times of the year. One winter day, I lost control of my sled and ended up in the brook. Fortunately, the walk home was brief.
Another memory I have of growing up at Red Tower is the reshingling of the roofs. Lloyd, Clyde and Kenneth Fogg, all good friends of my father, were doing the job. To get the shingles up to the roof they used a basket on a pulley. The basket was just the right size to pull a little girl, squealing with excitement, up to the rooftop and down again.
Alice Onderdonk Quinby owned the estate and visited it occasionally. I remember one visit when a famous singer of the day whose name I believe was Lawrence Tibbets was a guest. He performed in the music room to the delight of all who heard him.
One year Mrs. Quinby invited my parents and me to come and stay in their home at Rochester, New York. To a little girl who loved to read A Little Princess it was easy to pretend the huge brick mansion with beautiful landscaping was "her" home. Mr. and Mrs. Quinby were away but Dean and Congreve Quinby were there with the housekeeper who treated us as very special guests. The highlight of the visit was a trip to Niagara Falls driven by the Quinby's chauffeur. Dean was just my age and we had fun playing together.
Those of us who grew up in Durham during the 20's, 30's and early 40's were indeed fortunate.
And I was most fortunate of all to have lived in and known Red Tower.
Special thanks to the Durham Historical Association.