No better token of our love and esteem can be expressed for you, Mrs. Katherine W. Atkins, than by joining with every other resident of Belmont and your hundreds of outside friends and relatives, in this tribute to you on your 80th birthday, July 11, 1940:
We have learned that this is your eightieth birthday.
It must be wonderful to be eighty and to be able to look back over years crowded with kind acts, unfailing charity and understanding public service; to know of all those who are healthy and happy today because of the helping hand you have been ever ready to extend; to know of all the burdens you have lifted from weary shoulders; to know that you have made your worldly wealth a blessing to your town and its people.
We want you to know that we are happy today because it is your birthday. We want you to know that you have done much to make Belmont the town it is and that Belmont is a better town to live in because it has been your home.
It is the earnest wish of your Town that there be many more birthdays and many more years of happiness awaiting you.
Inhabitants of Belmont
By J. Watson Flett,
Chairman of Selectmen
As a consequence of her marriage to Edwin F. Atkins on October 11, 1882, in the old Unitarian Church in Belmont, Mrs. Atkins would become his partner as well in the operation of Soledad plantation, near Cienfuegos, Cuba, which E. Atkins & Co. acquired in 1884, and where the couple spent every winter save when their children were young and Mrs. Atkins remained with them in Belmont.
Among the many visitors to Soledad was Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who vacationed there for several weeks in the winter of 1890, taking the opportunity to pen a number of letters that later provided grist for an expose on his racial views. R.J. Scott, “A Cuban Connection: Edwin F. Atkins, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and the Former Slaves of Soledad Plantation,” 9 Mass. Hist. Rev. (2007). But even this polemic could not hide the extraordinary kindness of Mrs. Atkins, for as Adams wrote (ibid, pp. 23-24):
Yesterday afternoon, towards sunset, we rode out and went to what they call “China-town,” or the place set apart for the freed slaves, who yet remain about the plantation. It is a piece of refuse land, largely ornamented with field stone, and the children of Africa live thereon in habitations of palm-bark and thatch. They were a strange sight. Nearly all of them seem to have been born in Africa, they had the pure negro features, most unnaturally ugly, and many of them were old, rheumatic and broken.
They were evidently the refuse of the place, like a troop of old, broken down and used-up horses, turned out to take care of themselves and die. They all knew Atkins, and approached us with strange attempts at salutation, making eager inquiries after his wife, who seems, in her visits here, to have been kind to them, a mode of treatment to which from all accounts they were not much accustomed.
Her writ covered all of Soledad, which by the time she could return in the winters had absorbed several neighboring estates. As her husband reported (E.F. Atkins, Sixty Years in Cuba (privately printed, Riverside Press, 1926), pp. 342-343).
Since our children grew up, Mrs. Atkins has been at Soledad once more. She has devoted her time to work among the Soledad people. A number of years ago she sent out to the estate a nurse, Miss Winifred Pingree. Miss Pingree started work under the most difficult conditions, but with Mrs. Atkins’s help, her work increased each year, and now families from all parts of the estate are under her care. Mrs. Atkins, assisted by Miss Pingree and my daughter-in-law Mary, has started classes in sewing; teaching the smaller girls to make their own clothes and the older ones to do embroidery. With their embroidery, the Soledad girls are enabled to earn quite a little money and many of them have a rapidly increasing sum in the bank.
At the School Mrs. Atkins is perhaps best remembered by the story Charlie Jenney loved to recount (Duncan, p. 45):
I will always remember Dr. Howe’s admonition to us new teachers. “Conduct every class as though Mrs. Atkins were going to walk in at any minute.” It was really good advice, and kept us on our toes; and the dear lady did happen by at almost any minute, usually with a bunch of flowers from her greenhouse for Mrs. Howe or the library table. Even today I find myself saying, “Now if Mrs. Atkins were to walk in, what would she think of this class?”
Mrs. Atkins first came to know Dr. Howe when her older son, Robert, was a student at Middlesex during its first decade. In the two years prior to founding Belmont Hill, Dr. Howe on sabbatical from Middlesex was engaged in graduate research at Harvard’s Bussey Institution, then informally and later formally connected to the Atkins Garden and Research Laboratory in Cuba. See 7 Arnoldia 3 (Apr. 4, 1947). So it is quite possible that these connections provided other points of contact between my grandfather and the Atkins family during the period immediately preceding the School’s founding.
In any event, Mr. Robert Atkins became the first president of what was then the School’s Executive Committee. When business difficulties resulted in his removal to New York, Mrs. Atkins took her son’s place on the Executive Committee and Mr. Henry Hixon Meyer, also a former Middlesex student of Dr. Howe, was named president. But whatever the titles and formalities, from the start it was Mrs. Atkins who wrote the checks to get the School under sail. And for that, the whole Belmont Hill community will forever be in her debt.
In 1956 her daughter, Helen A. Claflin, published A New England Family (cited above), tracing from their arrival in America the families of her four great grandfathers, to the end that “…present and future generations may enjoy looking at the pictures and becoming acquainted with their ancestors.” The concluding chapters focus on her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Atkins, who being enthusiastic horseback riders first met at a horse race in Lexington, soon followed by engagement and marriage.
During the horseback era Mrs. Atkins “…drove a phaeton, a low slung affair with the horse about three feet in front of the dashboard.” But with the arrival of the automotive era, the phaeton was replaced with a Model T Ford, which as it aged along with Mrs. Atkins gave rise to as many “little incidents” as had the phaeton.
Mrs. Atkins was past 80 when I first saw her in the Model T in Belmont Center. My only conversation with her, which I recall quite vividly even today, took place in my grandmother’s (now my) living room at 49 Tyler Road shortly after the end of the war. When I got home from school, she was having tea with my grandmother and sitting on a couch in the bay window, kitty-cornered to the double steps leading down into the room. I sat on the steps, putting me at age 6 or 7 about six feet from Mrs. Atkins and at the same eye level. She tried several times to engage my shy little self in conversation, finally giving up with the expression “cat’s got your tongue” and re-engaged with my grandmother. That was the last time that I saw Mrs. Atkins, and I believe that during her last years declining health confined her to home. Indeed, I rather think that that visit was among her last to my grandmother.
Of course growing up I heard many stories about Mrs. Atkins. Among the older members of our family who knew her during the School’s formative years, she was always regarded as the key financial backer without whose support the School simply would not exist.
At the end of A New England Family is a 1954 Claflin family photograph showing Mr. and Mrs. Claflin (“Pa” and “Ma” Claflin) surrounded by progeny, including ten who went to the School: Bill Claflin ‘37, Tim Claflin ‘61, Billie Spring ‘69, Sinnie Weeks ‘71, Neddie Claflin ‘68, Johnie Weeks ‘64, Prennie Claflin ex-‘65, Johnie Spring ‘67, David Weeks ‘69, and Stephen Weeks ‘74 (missing). Pa Claflin (William H. Jr.) was an original incorporator of the School and its treasurer for the first 15 years. Son Bill ’37, who also served a term as the School’s treasurer, received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1966. The School’s first covered hockey rink was named in honor of William H. Claflin Jr., whose many positions during a long and active life included head coach of Harvard hockey from 1919 to 1923, winning three national championships in the old Triangular League.