Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sam Walter Foss

Most days in the first decade of the 20th century, a handsome man with close-cropped, curly hair and a twinkle in his eye would hop on the Highland Avenue trolley in Somerville, right in front of his house, and ride the scant mile to the Somerville Public Library at the other end of Highland Avenue. Once there, Sam Walter Foss assumed the duties of Head Librarian, a job he held for the last 13 years of his life, and one which gave him time to do what he loved—mingle with the common man, give help to others, hone his sense of humor, and work on his poetry and essays.

Part of a plaque dedicated to Foss at the Somerville Public Library.
At the time of his death after a failed surgery in 1911, Sam Walter Foss was heralded by the Somerville Journal as “the most beloved man in Somerville,” and was the author of over 700 poems and five published books of poetry. In addition, he pioneered many modern innovations in library service, and had built the library’s circulation to the second largest in New England—lagging behind only that of the Boston Public Library. (This, despite the fact that Somerville was only the 14th largest city in New England, outflanked by other cities with Ivy League universities, such as Providence, Cambridge, and New Haven.)

Sam Walter Foss was a product of three New England states: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. He was born in Candia, NH, son of Dyer Foss and Polly (Hardy) Foss, on June 18th, 1858. Sam’s fifth great-grandfather, John Foss, had emigrated from England to New Hampshire in the 1630s, and Sam was the eighth-generation scion of hardy New Hampshire farming stock.

His mother died when he was only four years old, and he was toughened up early—working on his father’s farm and going to school in the winters. But he had his mind set on education from an early age. When the family moved to Portsmouth after Dyer Foss’s remarriage, Sam walked three miles each way to attend Portsmouth High School, and hatched a plan with a high school classmate, Arthur Gage, to attend college. Gage recalled these events in a 1921 letter: “At the end of our second year in the high school, Foss and myself made up our minds that we wanted to go to college. To enter college at that time Latin and Greek seemed to be necessary. Classes in Latin were given in high school but there was no Greek class and at our request the principal gave us instruction in Greek.”

Their rudimentary efforts to master the classical languages were not sufficient for the college entrance exams. Despite having been the class salutatorian at Portsmouth, Arthur went to work as a bookkeeper in town, and Sam went to what is now The Tilton School, at the recommendation of the Portsmouth principal, to do a year of postgraduate study. In mid-October, Gage recalls that he “received urgent letters from Foss urging me to come [to Tilton], that by doing janitor work we would be able to earn one-half of our tuition and board.”

After their year of postgraduate work, both young men were accepted to Brown University with scholarships, and a 50% tuition break. A math teacher at Tilton, Prof. Dixon, was uncle to Prof. Nathaniel “Toot” Davis at Brown, and the two appeared to have had some influence on this outcome. Arthur Gage’s family took the unusual step of moving to Providence, and Sam Foss boarded with the Gage family during much of his time there. “At other times,” continued Gage, “he obtained jobs like taking care of furnaces and did not board with us.” Sam also worked on a farm during the summers to earn his tuition for each subsequent academic year. [1]

Foss graduated from Brown in 1882 and was named class poet (as he had been at Portsmouth HS). Writing was the career path he selected, and with a partner he took over the Lynn (MA) Saturday Union. By 1883 he was the sole proprietor and editor of the paper, and started a weekly humor column, which met with great success. The paper was sold a few years later and he moved to Boston in 1887 to edit the Yankee Blade and write editorials for the Boston Globe. It is said that he wrote a poem a week for the Blade, and in the last two years of his tenure there also wrote a poem a day for a syndicate. He contributed to Tidbits, in New York (where he wrote most of the jokes and poetry in the paper), satirical magazines Puck and Judge, Youth’s Companion, The (NY) Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Tribune.

In 1887 he married Carrie Conant, whom he must have courted while he was at Brown. She was the daughter of the Rev. Henry W. Conant, a Methodist minister and a temperance advocate in Providence, and was a successful woman in her own right—she had graduated from the RI State Normal School (now Rhode Island College) and served as principal of the Potters Avenue School in Providence at the time of their marriage. The Fosses had two children—a son, Saxton Conant (named for Carrie’s brother) in 1888 and a daughter, Mary Lillian, known as Molly, in 1893.

By 1893 Sam had accumulated a growing reputation and enough poems to bring out his first book of verse: Back Country Poems. He was able to quit his job at the Yankee Blade in 1894, and turn to writing full-time, publishing four more books of poetry in his too-short life. These included Whiffs from Wild Meadows (1895), Songs of War and Peace (1898), The Song of the Library Staff (1906), and Songs of the Average Man (1907).

In his poetry, he uses the voice of the common man, and many are written in a New England vernacular—Sam was never far from his country roots. They are largely optimistic, often nostalgic, and champion the power of the individual and a strong work ethic. He is sometimes critical of societal institutions, and pokes fun at organized religion (though he was married to a minister’s daughter, and was a church-going Methodist himself). He is supportive of science and technology, and, 26 years before the Scopes “monkey” trial, wrote a poem entitled “The Yeast of Evolution” in which he discusses how evolution moved the earth from volcanoes, to dragons, to hairy savages, to Moses, Homer, Plato, and Shakespeare.

One of the most significant moves in his career was when he was unanimously elected head librarian of the Somerville Library in 1898, a post he would hold for the next 13 years.

Sam Walter Foss's house in Somerville MA.
Sam Foss was not trained as a librarian, but he was certainly a lover of books, and honed his craft on the job. During his tenure in Somerville, he initiated many revolutionary programs and policies which spread to other New England libraries through his advocacy. He was an active member (and frequent speaker) of The Association of New England Librarians of Public Libraries, and was accorded the respect of his fellow librarians when he was elected president of the Massachusetts Library Club in 1904. In Somerville his innovations included opening the stacks to patrons (allowing them to select their own books); installing a children’s room, a reference room, and a school department; adding books to the collection that “ordinary” men and women would enjoy reading; stocking multiple copies of popular books; establishing traveling collections for schools, factories, nursing homes, and hospitals; and opening the library every evening.

In 1908, Brown University awarded him an honorary degree, “master of arts, librarian and man of letters, singer of kindly songs in many keys, spreading by the poet’s art the elemental virtues of courage, sympathy, and faith.”

He was a frequent speaker at many clubs and meetings, and his speeches, neatly hand-written on the backs of his Somerville Library stationery, clearly state his point of view on writing, books, libraries, and many other topics of the day.

On books:

A lecture on books is like a lecture on the universe—a very large subject for any small man. I shall consider books as a device, an invention for bottling up human thoughts and passing them about from hand to hand and from generation to generation. Books are the canned fruit of the intellect—human ideas, as it were made into portable jelly—preserved thoughts for man to feed on in the winter of his mind.”

On reading:

“I don’t know much about Campbell’s condensed soup and I am not in Campbell’s pay as an advertising agent. But I like his advertisement which we see in the street cars which reads: 'Just add hot water and serve.' Now that’s what you’ve got to do with a book when you read it. Put work into it, grapple with it, give mental sweat and intellectual wrestling to it. 'Just add hot water and serve.'"

On the role of the librarian:

“Don’t stay in the library all the time yourself and stagnate in the musty atmosphere of your dead books. Be a public and not a private man. Get out and feel the dynamic thrill that comes from contact with live men. The club, the exchange, the street, the philanthropic and economic organizations that are feeling out for the betterment of mankind are the places where the librarian should be found frequently. He should be the best-known man or woman in the city. A dollar bill that never circulates is not worth as much as a copper cent that keeps moving. Nearly every librarian ought to double the circulation of his books and treble the circulation of himself.”

The Somerville Public Library.
Sam clearly took this last bit of advice to heart. When he died in 1911, the Somerville Journal reported that flags were flown at half-mast; the mayor was an honorary pall-bearer; and the city clerk, city treasurer, building commissioner, and engineer were ushers. The church was filled to overflowing. The public library was closed for the afternoon, and the city hall from noon to 2:30, to honor “Somerville’s most beloved citizen.”

Despite his years in Somerville, he was buried at the North Burial Ground in Providence, RI.

Sam’s poetry would go on to gladden hearts and make speakers’ points for years to come. In 1929, his poem “The House by the Side of the Road” was named the second most popular poem in America, and it was frequently memorized by school students through the 1930s. It is said that the repeated chorus of the poem: “I want to live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man,” was embroidered on more samplers during this period than “Home Sweet Home.”

For many years, the opening three words of his poem “The Coming American” graced the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, engraved in stone over the portal on the “Warrior Ramp.” (During the time the words were engraved there, it became known as the “Bring Me Men” ramp.) The words of the entire verse are appropriate to both the mountainous setting and the academy’s purpose:

The Brown University mace with Sam's name at the bottom.
“Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose
And new eras in their brains." [2]

The full four lines are also engraved on the South Wall in the American Adventure Pavilion at Walt Disney’s Epcot’s World Showcase.

And Sam Walter Foss is also remembered every time a ceremonial occasion takes place at Brown University—since he is one of 12 distinguished alumni whose names are engraved on the Gorham silver mace carried by the Brown President.  (His fellow engravees include Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe, and John Hay.) The mace was given to Brown in 1928 when Foss, 17 years deceased, was at the height of his popularity.

[1] Arthur Gage also graduated from Brown in 1882, studied law at Ropes, Grey in Boston; and was admitted to the bar in 1887.

[2] These words remained there until 2003, when allegations of sexual assault at the Academy forced an examination of the culture there, and they were removed as one part of a broad Agenda for Change.

Illustration Credits

Photograph of Sam Walter Foss is public domain.

All other photos by Catherine Beyer Hurst.


Brown, Janice. “Candia New Hampshire Journalist, Editor and Poet, Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911).” Cow Hampshire, 6 Nov 2006. Web. 22 Oct 2014.

Capace, Nancy, ed. “Foss, Sam Walter.” Encyclopedia of New Hampshire. North American Book Dist. LLC, 1 Jan 2001.

“Class of 1882.” Brown Alumni Monthly, Jun 1922.

Foss, Sam Walter. Sam Walter Foss Papers. “Addresses and Essays.” John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

Gage, Arthur E. Letter to Prof. W. E. Jillson. 13 Oct 1921. Somerville Public Library, Somerville, Massachusetts.

“Given Honorary Degree at Brown: Sam Walter Foss Honored by College—Will Deliver Address Here.” Portsmouth Herald, 18 Jun 1908.

Hoad, John. “Sam Walter Foss: Minor Poet with a Major Message.” Ethical Society of St. Louis, 11 Jul 1999. Web. 22 Oct 2014.

“Imperishable Words.” Food Marketing in New England. Autumn, 1966.

MacQueen, Peter. “Sam Walter Foss: Yankee Poet.” National Magazine, Vol. 30, 1909.

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Morris, Dee and St. Martin, Doris. Somerville MA: A Brief History. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

“Mourn for Dead Poet: Sam Walter Foss, Somerville’s Beloved Citizen Passes Away After an Operation—Wonderful Tribute Paid to Him at Funeral Services.” Somerville Journal, 3 Mar 1911.

Robinson, J. Dennis. “Sam Walter Foss was NH Poet Laureate for the Common Man.” Seacoast NH, 2007. Web. 22 Oct 2014.

“Sketch of His Life.” Somerville Journal, 3 Mar 1911.

“The House by the Side of the Road.” Yankee Magazine, Jan. 1989.

Woodman, Mary. Sam Walter Foss: Poet, Librarian and Friend to Man. Somerville MA: Public Library, 1922.