Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Ezekiel Straw's legacy is one of achievement
Historian George Waldo Browne wrote of Ezekiel A. Straw, “Not alone in his devotion to the exacting duties of his responsible position on the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…Mr. Straw found opportunity, as the busy men always do, to lend his sustaining ability to affairs of the city and state, always exerting a healthy influence.”
Ezekiel served on various city committees and commissions. He was one of the first trustees of the Manchester public library, and remained on that board for many years. He was involved with the creation of Manchester's water system, and was president of the Manchester Gas Light Company for two decades. He was the first president of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company and was instrumental in its development. He had financial interests in several Manchester enterprises including the Amoskeag Axe Company. He was also a founder of the Unitarian society of Manchester.
An early member of the Republican Party, Ezekiel Straw had the honor of meeting Abraham Lincoln when he visited Manchester in March 1860. He was elected as a state representative four times, and twice to the state Senate, serving as Senate president in his second term. He was on the staff of Governor Onslow Stearns (elected 1869 and 1870), and in 1872 Ezekiel himself was elected governor of New Hampshire. He was reelected in 1873, and was later appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the New Hampshire delegate on the commission that organized the 1876 centennial celebration of American independence in Philadelphia.
In 1870, Ezekiel Straw built a large house on Brook Street for his family. The Straw mansion was designed by George Washington Stevens, who was a civil engineer and talented architect employed by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. This impressive brick building was inspired by the Italianate style of architecture popular in that period. It has low-pitched roofs with prominent eaves typical of this style, and a massive square tower reminiscent of the towers of Italian buildings of the Renaissance. On the exterior, decorative granite bands delineate the floors. The interior featured an abundance of carved wood varnished in dark tones, and fine marble details. Stevens would later design another architectural masterpiece, the Ash Street School. The Straw mansion was eventually converted into apartments. It and the adjacent motel were redeveloped by NeighborWorks Greater Manchester in 2006. Many of the historical elements of the mansion were preserved.
Ezekiel Straw was forced to retire from public life due to ill health in 1879, and he died in 1882 at the age of 62. Tragically, his long illness affected his mental abilities towards the end of his life. He was buried in the family plot on Pine Avenue in the Valley Cemetery. He was fondly remembered as a brilliant man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Although one of the busiest and most productive people in the state, he was known for never being in a hurry. He enjoyed conversing on many topics, and was respected for his judgment in matters of business and public policy. Ezekiel was also known for his generosity in contributing to institutions that helped the poor in Manchester.
Ezekiel Straw was married to Charlotte Smith of Amesbury, Massachusetts. She died in 1852. The Straws had four children. Their son Herman Foster Straw and their grandson William Parker Straw both followed in Ezekiel's footsteps by also serving as Agent of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.
In 1895, the City of Manchester acquired a 32,400-square-foot lot adjacent to the Straw property from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company for the sum of $1. The city hired the local architectural firm of Chickering & O'Connell to build a new school on the site. This was not a typical project for partners George W. Chickering and Timothy G. O'Connell, as they focused mostly on designing churches for Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes. Manchester contractor Head & Dowst built the brick school at 608 Chestnut Street, which could accommodate 200 students. A bronze plaque was installed in a hallway that read, in part, “The Straw School — In honor of Governor E. A. Straw, who was…a leader among those to whose sagacity, enterprise and public spirit Manchester owes her prosperous and honorable past and promising future.”
Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Abby Sage McFarland Richardson.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her firstname.lastname@example.org
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