Focus on History: Frothingham lived a life of useful service
The Rev. Washington Frothingham would be pleased to see how active is the library in Fonda that bears his name.
A recent visit to the Frothingham Free Library at 28 W. Main St. found young and old reading books, using computers and discussing topics including local history.
A blue and gold historical marker outside the library pays tribute to Frothingham, who was born in 1822 in East Fonda and who died at his home in Fonda in 1914 at age 92.
“My long cherished purpose is to establish a reading room and library in Fonda,” Frothingham wrote. He left money in his will that helped establish the library.
Frothingham had a “useful career,” according to stories about his death printed in numerous New York state newspapers. Called the dean of American journalism, he was a syndicated newspaper columnist, book author, clergyman, missionary and philanthropist.
A full life
Frothingham’s family — he was the third of 10 children — moved from Fonda to Johnstown when he was a young child. Frothingham’s mother was a niece of Washington Irving and his father was a New York state judge. Young Frothingham wanted to be a writer, but to please his father and help the family, he moved to New York City and worked in a Broadway store for $1.50 a week, living on bread and water.
He secured a better retail job with Edwin D. Morgan, who proved a valuable friend. Morgan later was elected governor and then U.S. senator. After working some time for Morgan, Frothingham and a friend opened their own store.
In 1850 at age 28, Frothingham felt called to the ministry. He sold out his share of the business and took a course at Princeton, developing skills as a speaker. His first position was at a Presbyterian Church in Guilderland. He opened a Sunday school and preaching station at an Albany machine shop. That effort led to the founding of Albany’s West End Presbyterian Church.
During the Civil War, Frothingham was invited back to Fonda to restore the declining Reformed church.
He succeeded, although his pro-Union political stance ran counter to the secessionist views of some church members. He was then called to serve the Tribes Hill Presbyterian Church where he was pastor until 1905.
In 1862 at age 40, Frothingham married Mary Middlemass, a native of Scotland who was a Sunday School teacher. Apparently they had no children.
In the 1860s Frothingham began writing columns on current events for newspapers throughout New York and Massachusetts including The New York Times, Troy Times and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He used pen names, most notably “The Hermit of New York” in Troy and “Macaulay” in Rochester.
He was the author of several books, including “A History of Montgomery County, N.Y.” He was friendly with newspaper men and writers including Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant.
His writing kept him financially solvent as Frothingham was generous with the poor and active in creating public benefit institutions. He started a public bath in Fonda and even a bowling alley.
When his work made him a frequent train traveler, he distributed religious tracts to the passengers. He held religious services at the Fonda jail.
After his first wife died, Frothingham married a woman who had been his wife’s nurse, Ella Leavitt of Tribes Hill, a school teacher and correspondent for the Recorder. One source said among his first wife’s last words were these, “Take care of Ella.”
Ella, a brother and a niece were with Frothingham when he died two weeks after suffering a paralyzing stroke.
The funeral was held at Fonda Reformed Church and his body was cremated in Troy.