The Bolster Pond Tragedy, 1912

 The Fifield Family
The Fifield family portrait taken by an unknown photographer, probably before Frank’s marriage to Charlotte Wallace. From left to right, Ida May Fifield (1877-1935)(never married), Rua (Palmer) Fifield (1850-1911), Ola Ada Fifield (1874-1953) (married Frank Ball in 1892), Horace Fifield (1844-1925) and Frank Fifield (1869-1912). The photo is a gift from Elva Frazier who is Ola’s granddaughter.

On 9 December 1912, Frank Fifield walked from his house on Bowlder Road down the steep slope to Bolster Pond. Snow had not yet fallen that winter but it had been cold enough to freeze the pond in most places. Frank was an expert skater and had enjoyed the sport for many years. He believed the ice to be safe enough and returned to the farm to organize a skating party for that evening. It was to be a simple diversion for friends and family before the winter truly set in.

Frank Leslie Fifield was the son of Horace and Rua (Palmer) Fifield. He and his father owned the farm that was known as the Deacon Josiah Seward place which stood to the north of what is now Seward Mountain Farm. By all measures, the farm was successful. Its south facing slopes contained fruit trees, abundant hay fields, and its maple sugar bush could produce as much as a ton of sugar in a season.

Frank had married Charlotte "Lotte" Wallace on 25 March 1902 and they settled into the second story of the farm house. They soon had two daughters—Bernice Louise who was born on 15 July 1902 and Rua Palmer who was born on 1 May 1904. The entire family was active in town affairs. Horace, Rua, Frank, and Lotte were all members of the local Grange where Rua served as secretary and Horace as a second master and Frank a master. Lotte was skilled at composing poetry for special celebrations around town—often with her daughters reciting. Horace served as a selectman and as a library trustee.

As the sun set, the skating party made its way from the farm to the north side of the pond. Large lamps were brought to give some light and a bonfire was built to provide warmth. In addition to the Fifield family, Lotte’s sister Sarah Wallace was there as well as Wilmer Barrett and his friend Mr. Choate from East Sullivan, and Grace Barker who was teaching at the #3 school and boarding with the Fifields.

The Fifield house on Bowlder Road. It was built in 1788 by Deacon Josiah Seward and was identical to the house at Seward Mountain Farm. Horace Fifield purchased the place in 1883 and sold it in 1918. It was never occupied again and was taken down in 1941. The photograph was taken during the 1920s by Carleton Nims.

For a couple of hours, the party skated around the north end of the pond. For those who didn’t skate, Frank had rigged a chair with runners which he pushed along the ice. At about 8 PM, it was Lotte’s turn to ride in the chair. The two skated about and then moved toward the east shore of the pond. They followed the shore until they reached the point and then skated out around the large rock that protrudes from the water. From there, they rounded the point and headed along the shore toward the outlet. Bolster pond is famous for its quiet, so the sound of Frank pushing the chair could be clearly heard by the party at the north end. When they rounded the point, the sound was masked and the quiet returned. The party waited to hear the sound of the skates as Frank and Lotte moved across the cove leading to the outlet, but they heard only the silence of the night. The party called out, but there was no sound from the south end.

Wilmer Barrett and Mr. Choate grabbed two lanterns and ran toward the outlet. The rest of the party ran up the hill to the Barker Farm (now Seward Mountain Farm) where the hired men grabbed ropes and axes and headed toward the pond. Someone mounted a horse and rode to East Sullivan to sound the alarm. When Barrett and Choate rounded the point they quickly stopped, for ahead of them lay open water. When the rest of the rescuers arrived, the party tested the ice as they walked cautiously forward. It was decided that it was too thin to proceed.

Soon after dawn, the grim search resumed. Lotte’s cloak was recovered first followed by the chair. A few hours later, the bodies were located. As was the custom in those days, the bodies were taken to the Fifield home and “laid out.” A little after noon on 12 December 1912, the bodies were carried to the church at Sullivan Center where Rev. Orrin Gordon Baker conducted the service and the eulogy was presented by Rev. Josiah Lafayette Seward. Burial followed in the Center Cemetery.

The town was greatly affected by the tragedy and would mourn the loss for years to come. Horace Fifield never recovered from the loss of his only son and heir. The farm declined and was finally sold for its lumber and pasturage. The house was taken down in 1941. For years afterward, the story would be told and retold along with whispers of gossip that it was not an accident. After all, Frank was an experienced skater who knew the dangers of thin ice and must have seen the open water when he had inspected the pond. Such talk often follows an unexplained tragedy as people seek to understand the unexplainable. A far more likely explanation was that Frank and Lotte wanted to circumnavigate the pond as they had done before. The plan was probably to round the point and cut across the small cove to the west shore. In the darkness, Frank probably could not see the open water and went too close to the thin ice near the outlet. When the ice gave way, their heavy clothing dragged them to the bottom in water that was too cold to allow survival without immediate rescue.

However, there was something of a happy ending to this story. Bernice and Rua came under the guardianship of Arthur Rugg who lived for many years at what is now 64 Centre Street in East Sullivan. He saw to the girls’ schooling and had them sent to Kimball Union Academy. From there, they went to Keene Normal School and went on to distinguished careers in teaching. They were both married in a double ring ceremony on 1 October 1927—Bernice to Edward McKeage and Rua to Edwin Ridley.

The tragedy of 1912 has now been largely forgotten except in our historical record. Today, Bolster Pond is one of Sullivan’s treasures. The land around it is largely in conservation easement. The farms that surrounded it in the 19th and early 20th century are gone and the land has reverted to forest. It is a great place to canoe or kayak or try to catch the elusive fish. Occasionally the call of the loon pierces the stillness.

A view of Bolster Pond from the north looking toward the outlet. The point is to the left and the area where the accident occurred is in the upper center of the photo. The photograph was probably taken by Carleton Nims and is in the Carleton Nims collection.