My Turn: Dorothy Raleigh Wheeler Sanborn embodied the spirit of Boscawen
To the average person reading the obituaries in the Concord Monitor on July 2, the life of Dorothy Raleigh Wheeler Sanborn read like a lot of people who are good citizens and active in their community; however, to the residents of Boscawen this meant they had lost the matriarch of their town. Sanborn not only served as trustee for the Boscawen Library, trustee of the Cemetery Trust Fund, and member of EVE, the women’s guild at the congregational church, but she participated with bull dog fervor to look out for the benefit of the average citizen, make sure town funds were used with Yankee frugality, and preserve the old time values and history of the town.
Sanborn was somewhat of a transplant to rural life having grown up in Worcester, Mass. Her parents had a summer home on the old family farm on Raleigh Hill in Boscawen, and she spent two years in New London getting her degree from what was then Colby Junior College in 1936, which gave her a love for the area. In 1942, she married Roger C. Sanborn and started her life as a farm wife.
She told the story that she had wanted to participate on the farm and help her husband, so one day Roger decided to give her the job of harrowing a field with a tractor. He had a level piece by the Merrimack River, and he got her positioned on the tractor and gave her the instructions for the task. With excitement she clenched the steering wheel with a firm grip and stared straight ahead to do a good job. A little later Roger came by to check on her, and she asked him how she was doing, and he said, “Dorothy, about three rounds ago your harrow unhitched.” She turned around and sure enough nothing was behind her and the ground was undisturbed. After that she found her delight in gardening and preserving food for the family; raising her two children, Elizabeth (Betsy) Sanborn Millard and son Roger W.; and participating in town politics.
At town meeting Sanborn was always seen in the front row in her usual spot to be prepared to jump in on the action. She was the first to correct any infringement of the Robert’s Rules of Order, demand a microphone so people could be heard, correct the wording in a warrant article, and of course stand in defense of any articles which affected her committees. She spoke with authority and knowledge, and people listened.
Dorothy was also a walking encyclopedia of town history. Not only did she know the decades of history she had experienced in Boscawen, but she knew the details of things that happened generations before her. She spent tireless hours researching genealogies, digging out old maps, reading diaries, and studying in the libraries to know the many inter-connections of families, town properties and details of historic events.
She had tattered pieces of paper and newspaper articles scattered throughout her house. Although it might look unorganized, she could go to just the right stack to find the information.
After her husband, Roger, passed away in 1989, she continued to live in their old farmhouse on King Street and spend summers at the Raleigh Hill farmstead. Upon pulling into her driveway at dusk, you would see a single light bulb dangling from a wire in her kitchen and she would be nestled in a corner surrounded by books and papers and guarded by a yappy little dog that stayed close to her side. For the past four years, she lived in an apartment adjacent to her son Roger’s house, and passed away in her own bed as she had desired.
Sanborn was known for championing several causes for the town. One she was famous for was bringing Uncle Sam to his knees when he tried to close the Boscawen post office several years ago. Sanborn had a long-standing post office box, and she wasn’t about to lose that and the convenience of have local postal services for the town.
The government soon realized what they were up against, and after a brief closure, the post office was reopened in the building by the historical society. Unfortunately, the post office was permanently closed in the most recent cutbacks.
Sanborn was definitely the “go-to” person in town to get information. If someone wanted to find the history of a piece of property, locate land boundaries, check the background of town warrant articles, etc., they showed up at her house and she diligently sought an answer. Sometimes new folks weren’t sure how to handle her first appearance of a slight scowl and a stern voice, but they soon experienced the smile that would flood her face and the twinkle in her eye when they landed on a subject of mutual interest related to the town. She also interacted with many townspeople with temporary stints she had helping the town clerk and assisting in the post office.
Sanborn will be missed and a lot of institutional memory was lost when her ashes were buried on her old farmstead in Boscawen on July 5. A group of nearly 200 townspeople, family and friends gathered that day for a memorial service in the field with bagpipes playing in the background as they met to pay their final respects for this dear lady who embodied the spirit of the town of Boscawen.
(John C. Porter is a Boscawen resident and alternate member of the Boscawen Agricultural Commission.)