An Odd Character, Andover 1821

By John A. Hodgson, Andover Historical Society

In the early 1800s, stagecoach service to and from Boston had come to Andover, but the journey was still a significant undertaking. The stage from Boston to Concord took eleven hours. Travelers could then continue on the stage to Hanover, New Hampshire (another day’s travel) and then to Burlington, Vermont (yet another day). So anyone traveling this way from Boston might well feel, after spending a day and a half on a series of stagecoaches, that Andover was a pretty remote place – and might suspect it was also a pretty hardscrabble one.

One Boston gentleman making this journey for the first time was thus particularly surprised by an individual he encountered when his stagecoach stopped in Andover. When he returned to Boston, he wrote a lighthearted account of the meeting, which soon appeared in the New England Galaxy, one of Boston’s more fashionable newspapers. Here, in full, is that account of one of Andover’s early leading citizens:


Near the turnpike road in New Hampshire, in the town of Andover, stands a habitation at a great distance from all others, which is occupied by an individual of remarkably eccentric character. The building is ten feet in height, extremely rough in its external appearance, and to it are attached several sign boards, denoting the various employments of the occupant within. One, projecting a little beyond it, represents the place to be a “Post Office,” where our stage accordingly stopped, and the driver delivered his letters. Another, veering to the left, announces a “Printing Office and Bookstore,” while below it, appears a shop window extensively lined with watches, and the instruments of workmanship usually pertaining to that profession. The name of the singular occupant of this building is Ebenezer Chase – a man of about forty years, of a serious visage, and strikingly indicative of a mind given to fasting and devout contemplation. He appeared at the stage door for the purpose of receiving whatever packets might be consigned to his care, and while doing so, our driver asked for one or two of his pamphlets for the perusal of the passengers. He immediately went into the printing office and returned with two of them, which on presenting to the driver, he observed were refuse numbers of the work, having already disposed of every fair copy in his hands, evidently showing they were in great demand. These pamphlets were entitled the “Religious Informer,” and purport to be a publication issued once a month, and consisting of 16 pages, devoted to the cause of the free will Baptists. In fact, we learnt that this distinguished personage was himself not only editor, publisher, and printer of the work, but a free will Baptist preacher; that he made the ink, set the types, and carried on the entire business of publication individually and alone.
But these were not all his professions. While engaged with the driver, we were informed by our fellow passengers, that he was master of a variety of other occupations, which were then carried on in the same edifice. It turned out that we had neglected to notice many of his most important employments, and that in addition to those we had first remarked, he was Painter and Glazier, Engraver, Shoemaker, Maker of Patent Wheels and Spools, Psalm Singer, and Poet; in fact a complete counterpart of the renowned Caleb Quotem. Judging by appearances everything went on like clockwork. – As a preacher, he prayed for the salvation of souls, and as a cobbler he mended them – As a painter he glossed over their deformities, and as a printer he never failed to make a favorable impression on the hearts and consciences of his numerous and devout patrons. In short, “he was up to everything,” and wherever versatility of genius was required, he proved himself equal to any undertaking whatever.

The Boston gentleman was having gentle fun with his story, of course. But we can also sense his genuine fascination with this rural postmaster who routinely pursued, not merely a multiplicity of trades (this was not unusual for rural farmers and mechanics at the time), but a multiplicity of typically urban trades – writing, editing, publishing, printing, bookselling, glazing, engraving, and watch repair. Mild mannered, serious Mr. Ebenezer Chase’s “versatility of genius” was impressive indeed!

The Boston gentleman’s witticisms were nothing special, puns on “soles”/”souls,” on “glosses”, “clockwork”, and the like. But his subject – “a complete counterpart of the renowned Caleb Quotem” – did seem to be very special indeed. Caleb Quotem was a well-known comic character in a popular English play of the time, George Colman’s The Review, or, the Wags of Windsor, who came to exemplify the jack-of-all-trades. It was surely for this reason that the brief essay An Odd Character began to circulate more widely. Within the next two months it was picked up and reprinted by newspapers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York (both NYC and upstate), and South Carolina. This was the 1820s version of “going viral.”

Eventually, Chase, who doubtless had received considerable chaffing for his sudden notoriety, was moved to respond to this “satirical piece going the rounds in the papers.” The editor of the Galaxy, while protesting that the original story “did not appear to us to contain any thing intended to ridicule the gentleman for the number of his callings,” allowed “that its publication may have given an unpleasant shock to the feelings of Mr. Chase,” and so “with cheerfulness” printed his letter – under the title of AN ODD CHARACTER, AGAIN. The editor also published an excerpt from one of Chase’s most recent religious publications as evidence of his “spirit of mildness and candour, very desirable among all Christians, but unfortunately too little cherished at the present day.” In other words, the editor had gone to the trouble of vetting Chase a bit before deciding to publish his letter.

He had hitherto declined to respond to the article, Chase now wrote, “as I am not in the habit of writing in a style which would well correspond with that, and was fearful I should not be able to comply with the advice of Solomon, Prov. 26, 4, 5.” This was a shrewd stroke, in several ways: it not only pits Biblical against theatrical allusion (Caleb Quotem), but it plunges readers who bothered to check the cited passage into one of the Bible’s many subtle conundrums. Proverbs 26:4-5 advises,

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

But as Chase then proceeds to mildly challenge the original character sketch, he gives us one of the very rare thumbnail sketches of Andover Centre that we have from this period:

For the sake of the town in which I reside, I would inform the publisher that we are not so destitute of inhabitants, as the gentleman appears to represent; neither am I entirely destitute of neighbors. . . . He said my building stands “at a great distance from all others.” I would inform the public, that there are 14 dwelling houses, many of them two stories high and decently furnished, and contain 18 families, besides a large number of outhouses, shops, barns, &c. within about half a mile of mine. If the gentleman made such a mistake about my neighbors, is it not possible that he might make some mistake about my occupations?

Think of this for a moment: including Chase’s own home and family, in 1821 all of Andover Centre and its immediate environs had a population of nineteen families living in fifteen houses – approximately 130 people altogether (Jacob B. Moore calculated the Andover population of 1820 as averaging “about seven persons for each family”). East Andover, Cilleyville, the piece of eastern Andover later split off to become part of the new town of Franklin, and probably even West Andover were all at the time much more populous.

Ebenezer Chase was indeed a remarkable and many talented man, a true Yankee original, and I will return to his story for other insights into early Andover life in later columns. For now, it is worth savoring this vignette of Andover Center in 1821 as a thinly populated collection of widely scattered homes and outbuildings, very loosely clustered around a small dwelling beside the post road where a hardworking, devout, efficient postmaster/preacher/printer/publisher/tractarian/bookseller/engraver/watch repairer/cobbler – “odd” in the sense of “exceptional” – quietly lived and pursued his intertwined vocations.