Friday, October 15, 2004
Hunting down the mystery man
In the last month I must have stared at the photograph a hundred times. A handsome middle-aged man with glasses, wearing a beret-like cap and smoking a pipe stands next to a blazing fire in a wood stove. Horseshoes line the wall to his right and various tools lie on a small table.
I found this compelling 8 x 10 black and white photograph at the Gleason Library in one of Martha Fifield Wilkins' 28 notebooks on Carlisle houses and old families. It was tucked into a page about Ingwald Otterson, Carlisle's last blacksmith, who died in 1936, but there was no identification or date on the back of the photograph.
I was assembling historical images for the Carlisle Historical Society's visual history of the town to be published by Arcadia Publishing Company early in 2005. Our editorial team, consisting of Ellen Huber, Helen Lyons, Conni Manoli-Skocay and Ginny Mills, worked hard over the summer to collect and research 202 photographs of old Carlisle. Although we had photographs of the old blacksmith's shop on Concord Street across from the Town Common, an image of Mr. Otterson eluded us, until, serendipitously, this photo popped out of Mrs. Wilkins' notebook. But was this really the blacksmith? Only a few old-timers remain in town who would have remembered him, so I began a curious, circuitous journey toward positive identification.
It seemed logical to start with Otterson's granddaughter, Helen Kierstead. She and her husband Paul moved to Groton last year — their small blue house across from the Transfer Station was swallowed up by the affordable housing units now under construction. I phoned the Kiersteads and Paul told me that Helen was in Maine for a week's vacation.
Facing a deadline
I'm pretty impatient, and I was facing a deadline. I began phoning some of our long-term residents to see if they could identify the mystery man. One regretted that he was unable to help, another is visually handicapped and two residents arrived in town just after Otterson died in 1936. Then Inga Macrae, now in her early nineties, said she would try to help.
I took the photograph to her South Street home. She looked at it long and hard, and shook her head slowly. "No," she said, "that's not Ingwald Otterson." She studied it again. "That might be Casper Nelson." I knew that Casper Nelson was not one of Carlisle's blacksmiths, and asked, "What would he be doing in the blacksmith's shop?" Inga replied, "He's waiting for his horse to be shod." I thanked her, and before I left, she showed me a small iron replica of Old North Bridge and a Minuteman that Mr. Otterson made for the Macraes.
Otterson or Nelson?
Okay, now I had two possible identifications. It could be Otterson, only because his picture was inserted in Mrs. Wilkins' notebook on the Otterson page. Or it could be Casper Nelson, per Inga Macrae, but I needed corroboration. Mrs. Casper Nelson lived next door to Marilyn and Ken Harte on Estabrook Road some 40 years ago, but there were no Nelsons in Carlisle today. Marilyn knew of a Nelson relative, Patsy Willard, Casper Nelson's granddaughter, who worked in West Concord — after several days, though, we learned that she was vacationing in Ireland for two weeks! My deadline was looming. What if the man in the photo was actually Casper Nelson?
Now I started on the trail that might lead to identifying Casper Nelson and eliminating Ingwald Otterson. I visited Irvin Puffer, Jr. on Bellows Hill Road — a cousin of Guy Clark's, Mr. Puffer grew up in Carlisle at the Clark Farm. I showed him the photograph: "Is this Casper Nelson?" I asked, hoping it wasn't. Puffer studied it. "No," he declared, "that isn't Casper Nelson." But he couldn't positively identify the man as Ingwald Otterson either. "I was 18 when the blacksmith's house came down [in 1936]," he recalled. He pointed out key details that he remembered about the shop, describing the bellows that controlled the size of the fire and the tools Otterson used to forge his own horseshoes. Mr. Puffer took Casper Nelson out of contention, but he didn't positively ID the blacksmith.
Discouraged, I waited for Helen Kierstead to return from Maine. When she did, a phone conversation with her was even more disheartening. "I was only four when he died," she said, "so I don't remember him." I asked if there were old family photos, and the answer was still more discouraging. "No, most of them were destroyed in a fire in my aunt's attic years ago," she reported. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, Helen mentioned that she might be able to detect a family resemblance between her father and Mr. Otterson, his father. I leaped at the possibility, and a few days later drove out to Groton with the photograph.
Seeking a positive identification
Helen brought out a few photos of her father for comparison. She looked at my photograph, shook her head, and said, "No, I don't think so." My heart sank. She looked again. She looked at the images of her father. Again, she studied my photograph. "Well, at first the nose put me off," she said slowly. The man facing the camera is shown in a three-quarters view and his nose is prominent. "But now I look at his eyes and I see my father's eyes, the shape of his head, and I think, yes, that is my grandfather." We all compared the men in the photographs — the father and son —and yes, there was a family resemblance. "Yes," said Helen with conviction, "that's him."
And with that I had the closest thing to a positive identification of Ingwald Otterson. Now the book, Images of America: Carlisle, Massachusetts, is in production with a full-page photo of Ingwald Otterson. It would be a strange twist of fate if, once the book appears, someone comes forward to challenge the identification. But no matter — I believe we've identified Carlisle's last blacksmith. Mystery solved.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito