I heard an intriguing story about Clara Barton — the kind that they didn’t tell us in school — while visiting the Clara Barton National Historic Site at Glen Echo, Maryland.
Julian Hubbell was a 29-year-old chemistry teacher and school principal in Danville, New York, in 1876 when he met 55-year-old Clara Barton. Barton was in Danville recovering from exhaustion after three years directing relief work in Europe in the Franco-Prussian war. Hubbell heard Barton speak about her experience in Europe working with the International Red Cross and her desire to establish a Red Cross in America. Hubbell, obsessed with Barton since his mother read him stories as a child of Barton’s exploits on the Civil War battlefield, asked Barton what he could do to help her cause. Barton told him that she could use a doctor. So off he went to medical school.
The information pamphlet that I got from the ranger at the site before the start of the Clara Barton house tour had another small but interesting bit about Hubbell. He inherited the property from Barton, but then was “swindled” out of it. Who, why, how? The pamphlet didn’t say.
Clara Barton was founder of the American Red Cross and inventor of First Aid kits. She first came to national prominence during the Civil War, as the first and only woman to receive a pass to go onto the battlefields. Early in the war, she collected medical supplies for the Union and having gotten the supplies, was allowed to deliver them to the front line. Dorothea Dix, the official Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War, was not allowed. Dix was royally peeved.
Some lesser known but equally impressive Barton accomplishments: When she learned that New Jersey didn’t have public schools, she started one (just to have the local government install a male principal over her once the school became a success). She was the first woman to get a “man’s job” in the federal government and the first one to receive the same pay as her male coworkers. After the Civil War, she founded the first MIA organization and spent four years tracking down missing soldiers.
When the Baltzley brothers – the ones who created the Glen Echo Chautauqua program — decided that what their Glen Echo residential development needed was a celebrity resident, they offered Clara Barton a free house. She took them up on their offer and the house served as her home for the last 15 years of her life, as well as headquarters for the American Red Cross and a warehouse for Red Cross and First Aid supplies. The house stands next to the Glen Echo amusement park and has been restored to what it looked like during her tenancy.
I was the only one there for the first tour on a hot August morning. The NPS ranger let me into the house early, to wait in their only air conditioned room – an exhibit room of Clara Barton memorabilia. The rest of the house isn’t climate controlled because the pine walls are insulated with Clara’s old newspapers and the ceilings are made of (original to Clara) muslin – Clara was very, very frugal — which would not accommodate a CVAC. I guess they restructured the one exhibit room, for the sake of the objects. The NPS website even warns visitors (more than once) that there’s no air conditioning and it can get pretty bad inside. They weren’t kidding. We (a few more visitors joined me about half way through the tour) grouped around oscillating fans whenever there were stand-and-talk moments.
The chair in her office has no back because she didn’t want her detractor’s to say – when she was in her 80s — that she wasn’t up to the job. They pushed her out as President of the Red Cross in 1904 anyway, after 23 years, when she was 83. She went on to establish the National First Aid Association of America the following year.
Dr. Hubbell and other Red Cross employees lived at the Barton house with Clara. The difference between Hubbell and the other employees: there’s a connecting door between Clara’s suite and Hubbell’s room. But it seems that anything beyond a professional interest went only one way: he was obsessed with her; she thought he was useful. He was Clara Barton’s closest, most trusted advisor and assistant, and the first field agent for the American Red Cross. The ideal field agent should possess, wrote Clara, “…a willingness to subordinate his/her self. “ Hubbell did that. Clara, on the other hand, liked adulation. A story from the ranger about her final years: she would wear, all at once, the many medals that she’d been awarded and go out to garden.
I looked up the “how Hubbell lost the house” story once I got home. When Clara died in 1912, she left the house to Hubbell. His rather sad obsession went so far that when a medium, Mabelle Hirons, told him that she had received a message from Clara from the great beyond and that Clara wanted him to turn title of the house over to Hirons, he did. Hirons promptly threw him out and started selling off Clara’s things. About 30% of the objects currently in the house belonged to Clara, and much of that has been purchased back in recent years. Hubbell’s friends took him in and convinced him to take Hirons to court to get the house back. After a five year fight, he did. He died in the house in 1929.
Hubbell left the house to his nieces, who sold it to a friend. The friend, in turn, sold it to a nonprofit group, the Friends of Clara Barton, in 1963. The group deeded it to the NPS in 1975. It became the first NPS historic site dedicated to a woman.