From social activists to nut collectors, new book explores Old Lyme’s ‘Remarkable Women’

Artist and suffragette Katharine Ludington, circa 1890. (Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum)
Artist and suffragette Katharine Ludington, circa 1890. (Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum)

Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson admit that being residents of Old Lyme was a major reason for choosing historic women of Old Lyme to feature in their new book. 

But it also happens that the small shoreline town has produced more than its share of accomplished, artistic, innovative women throughout history that affected not only Old Lyme, but played an important role in influencing socio-political change throughout the nation.

Lampos grew up in Groton and summered in Old Lyme for 30 years. After 10 years in New York City, the couple moved to Old Lyme full-time. In 2010 they co-wrote “Rumrunners, Governors, Beachcombers and Socialists,” about the history of Old Lyme’s beach communities, published by the Old Lyme Historical Society. Their research led them to some very interesting women that inspired “The Remarkable Women of Old Lyme,” published by The History Press. 

“When we started looking into the history of Old Lyme, we (discovered) that some of these women had pretty unique stories and were empowered early on,” Lampos says.

He attributes this to the fact that Old Lyme was originally part of the Saybrook Colony founded in 1635 by the followers of Oliver Cromwell. They were the “parliamentarians” of the English Civil War, who fought against the monarchy and sought to establish a more representative English government.

As a result, Lampos says, “There was a sense of liberty in Old Lyme and men shared a lot of economic power with women, who became more of their own people early on. Women were part of the fabric of Old Lyme history. They played a big role in the governing of daily life and economic decisions.” 

In choosing the women to feature in the book, Pearson explains that some women were obviously on the short list, such as Florence Griswold, Phoebe Griffin Noyes and Evelyn MacCurdy Salisbury. 

“People at least know the names of those women, and we wanted to flesh out their stories more,” she says. “People know their legacies but don’t know a lot about them. Not only did we discover facts about these people, but the scope of their work. It’s really kind of shocking that these women weren’t better known.” 

Pearson uses Phoebe Griffin Noyes as an example. She was an artist who opened one of the first art schools in the country on Lyme Street. But most people only know her as an educator for whom the library was named. 

“Even 100 years before Florence Griswold there was an artistic (tradition) in Old Lyme, and Phoebe was part of that,” Pearson says. 

In their research, Lampos and Pearson came across women who paved the way for other women, and among them was Katharine Ludington, the granddaughter of Phoebe Griffin Noyes. 

“No books were written about her and she had a story that wasn’t often told. We read newspaper articles of the time, and we learned so much about her that’s just not well known,” Lampos says.

Like her grandmother, Ludington was an accomplished artist. She was one of Old Lyme’s most influential figures who gained national recognition fighting for women’s rights. 

“She was a leading person in the suffrage movement,” Lampos notes. “And, she was co-founder of the League of Women Voters (established in 1920) and became the New England director. She was a pacifist, social activist — someone on the left-wing of politics of the time.”

Dr. Alice Hamilton is another fascinating woman featured in the book. 

“She was the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School and she was essentially the founder of industrial medicine," Lampos saus. "People were dying of all kinds of diseases and there were no studies or government regulations whatsoever. Single-handedly, she found out what the problem was, found the cause, and came up with the solutions. She worked under three administrations and the work she did really led to our modern economy — OSHA and all these regulations.

“She also saw first-hand what Hitler was doing and reported her findings to FDR,” he adds. “She predicted the Holocaust.”

Despite all their accomplishments, there wasn’t a lack of humor among these women.

“They were characters and they were individuals and they were funny and quirky and high-spirited — from the 1600s right through to today,” Lampos comments.

One of the earliest women described in the book, Phoebe Griswold Parsons, born in 1797, was renowned for her beauty and devilish humor.

“She would pull practical jokes on her minister husband while he was giving his sermons,” Lampos says.

While the congregation wondered why he seemed to have completely lost his train of thought, Phoebe would be in the front row of the church fanning herself with a page of the sermon she ripped out of his book. 

And then there’s Elizabeth Tashjian, artist, composer and TV personality, who opened the Nut Museum in Old Lyme in 1972, featured on the Connecticut tourism map and in many guidebooks.

“She considered herself a performance artist. She was very eccentric,” Pearson says.

Some other remarkable women featured in the book include Ellen Axson Wilson, a resident artist at Miss Florence Griswold’s boarding house and President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife.

Then there are the “The Daring Lady Flyers,” all 20th-century pilots, who included Louise Macleod Mitchell Jenkins, Cecil “Teddy” MacGlashan Kenyon and Shirley Whitney Talcott — the only aviator still alive at 96. 

“They all knew each other, despite their age differences, they would talk to each other because they all had this crazy flying history,” Pearson says. 

Ella Grasso, the first elected woman governor in the U.S. also had ties to Old Lyme. 

“Ella Grasso spent her summers here at Sound View Beach and always referred to herself as a beach girl in her political career,” Lampos says. 

“This goes beyond local history,” Pearson notes. “Some of these women, like Alice Hamilton and Katharine Ludington, were very important; they had an effect on a national level. They were fascinating people in their own right that goes beyond gender roles.”

“Remarkable Women of Old Lyme” (History Press) by Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson is $21.99, softcover, illustrated.

What: Talk and book signing with Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson; tea and refreshments will be served.

When: Sunday, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme. Event is included in museum admission price.

Info: florencegriswoldmuseum.org or call (860) 434-1272

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