March 03, 2021REGION — "Let no words of discouragement prey upon you, and in the end you are sure to succeed."
These words spoken by our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, could not be more relevant to the story that you are about to read.
Artifacts from history have always been, documented, treasured and sought after. A window into the past that we can hold in our hands is, to some, quite magical. It is Lincoln himself whom this story is based.
Most items of value from the Civil War era have been found and are well known among historians, especially in regards to President Lincoln, but not all items.
This writer received an email inquiring about a local woman who was said to have once owned a set of dining room chairs owned by Abraham Lincoln. This set was in the White House during Lincoln's administration. Of course, this email raised an eyebrow. The sender of the email was 18-year-old Ethan Afshani of Buffalo, N.Y.
Attached with the email was an old article from the Littleton Courier dated 1962. The article was an interview with Pearl Williams Conn and her husband Archie. The couple owned an antique shop during the 1950's and into the '60's across the street from the Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem.
"Bethlehem Antique Dealer Possesses Chairs Once Owned by Lincoln" was the title of the story. The chairs are of walnut, upholstered in brown satin. Williams knew she had found something quite valuable and jumped at the opportunity to make the purchase.
Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of the President, had possession of the chairs and brought them from his mansion in Chicago to Hildene in Manchester, Vt., the Lincoln summer home. He had the chairs reupholstered in silk, which is still on most of them. It is here that the chairs continued to take on a journey of their own.
Lincoln's great grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, of Manchester, Vt. sold the table that matched the chairs, to Owen Moon of Woodstock, Vt. in 1922 in New York. After Moon passed away, the table was left at his farm. The farm was then purchased by the Woodstock Country School. The school then sold the chairs to a local antique shop called Whitney's Antiques, and this is where Williams found her treasure.
The chairs, however, were so sought after that Jackie Kennedy, in her attempt to maintain a sense of history at the White House requested the chairs from Williams. However, Kennedy wanted them donated, something Williams could not provide given the cost they had paid for them. In 1976, the set of 14 chairs was sold to an antique dealer in Concord, Roberta Carr, for $7,000, which would be equivalent to $32,000 today.
From there, the set was separated. Afshani along with celebrity Tyler Perry each have a Lincoln chair, (Perry owning four). Afshani obtained his in 2020 from an antique dealer out of Florida.
Trying to connect the dots, the questions Afshani had was, 'Is Pearl Williams still alive?' if so, 'what does she know about these chairs.' It was after these questions were asked, that the search began.
It wasn't easy to track down Williams; however, it was discovered that the she had passed away in 1999 at the age of 92, and is buried at the Glenwood Cemetery in Littleton. Her husband Archie had predeceased her.
But what became of the table that once accompanied these beautiful chairs? There was no record of the table to be found anywhere, and no one to ask. No Google search even mentioned that it ever existed. It seemed to have just disappeared. But it became more and more apparent after countless conversations between this writer and Afshani, that a table of this value, simply does not just disappear.
Lincoln once said, "Determine that the thing can and shall be done and then...find the way."
The hunt for the table was on. Days went by and no new information from this writer's end turned up. A few more days went by and no new information turned up from Afshani in Buffalo either.
"Do you think the table is in an attic somewhere? Or a basement?" Afshani asked. "Do you think someone is using it, and doesn't realize it's Lincoln's table?" he joked.
The speculation on the whereabouts of the table were endless.
Alas, we had a hit. Afshani made a call to a historian in Woodstock, Vt., who gave him the name of a local author who might have some information. Finding that elusive author took on a hunt all its own, but eventually a connection was made.
It was relayed that the table was given to the local museum in Woodstock from the headmaster of the school, however the table was no longer there.
Days later a new message came in from the author mentioning a Rhoda Teagle, a once prominent resident of Woodstock. It was said that she may have bought the table from the museum, however had passed away. Old newspaper articles led us to the names of her children, who are now in their 80's. Finding their names was easy, it was finding their contact information that would prove just about impossible.
"Determine that the thing can and shall be done and then...find the way." Lincoln's words once again offering us a reminder to keep searching.
Falling down a rabbit hole led us to the names of possible grandchildren and other relatives that could help us locate one of Teagle's three children. A search on social media came up empty, however one profile led to a potential relative who we agreed looked helpful.
This writer, along with Afshani, each sent her a message. Days went by and there was radio silence. Finally a message came through.
"She wrote back!" said Afshani.
The helpful relative said that Teagle's son, John French was on social media but isn't very active on it.
She was right, we had tried that route prior. About an hour later, another message came through from the helpful relative who said, 'Find Mrs. French, she may be able to help you.' It was in that moment that we knew we had hit the jackpot. Of course, there would be another roadblock. French was not active on social media and had no contact information listed anywhere. We didn't want to push our luck by asking for a phone number so decided to pursue yet another search.
We were able to find the phone number of French, however it was an old listing out west. Afshani made the call, however there was no voicemail and no answer.
"Try texting the number," this writer said.
"What should I say?" responded Afshani.
We crafted the perfect text, for someone in search of a dining room table once owned by Abraham Lincoln.
Within hours, Afshani received the response we had long been hoping for.
French wrote, "I have the table! At least I am assuming it's the same one. I have a paper describing it's provenance. I did not know there was a chair. What do you know about it?"
"She has the table!" Afshani said.
"Excellent!" this writer responded.
French sent Afshani another message, "There are some receipts about the restoration my mother had done in 1981. She was very big on refinishing stuff and I have no doubt Antiques Roadshow would be horrified. I expect though that after being in the Country School for years, it may have been in rough shape."
French then shared the following paperwork on the table, from 1956, that read, "The table was in the catalogue of the Crim Sale in Baltimore in April of 1903, and was described as follows: The Abraham Lincoln Extension Table. A double column solid mahogany extension table used by President Lincoln at the White House during part of his term. It came into the possession of Gen. O.E. Babcock from who Dr. Crim obtained."
"Do you think she will sell the table?" asked Afshani.
"Do you think she uses it?" he added.
French sent a photo of the table. There it was in her dining room, strong, beautifully crafted and loaded with history of a time gone by. A time where the country was gravely divided, and at the head of that exact table, sat the one man whose job it was to unify the country against all odds. Was it here at this table, when he thought about what he would say at his second inaugural address, the weight of the country's strife on his shoulders?
On the steps of the Capitol in 1865, Lincoln said, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
French made a promise to Afshani to stay in touch, should new information surface.
"You know, they never discovered the exact spot Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address," said Afshani.
A clear hint that the young historian's research is just beginning.