Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Edward Custer, Swiss immigrant to Manchester, shines as an artist
On the east side of the Valley Cemetery, facing Pine Street is an unusual carved stone monument. It looks somewhat like a Gothic crown. The lettering on both the main monument and on the individual grave markers is highly decorative with a Germanic flair. Buried in this plot are several members of the Custer family, Swiss immigrants who came to Manchester in the late 1840s.
The mother of the family was Nannette Tollman-Spann Custer, who was born in Switzerland in 1813. When her husband Henry M. Tollman-Spann died, she was left to care for their four young children. She later married Doctor Emil Custer, who was seven years younger than her. Dr. Custer had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1820, of a Swiss father and German mother. His family moved to Switzerland when he was a small boy, and he later studied medicine in universities in both Switzerland and Germany.
Emil Custer was a kindly man who loved children, and he thoroughly embraced his instant fatherhood. He adopted Nannette's four children, Ann, Edward, Frank and Carolina. In 1847, he was inspired to bring his family to America to find a better life. The Custers spent a few months in Syracuse, N.Y., before making their way to Manchester, where they would remain.
Here Emil and Nannette would have two children of their own, but sadly they both died as infants.
Dr. Custer practiced medicine in Manchester for nearly 50 years. He was known as an excellent physician who pursued modern methods for curing diseases. His patients enjoyed his company, as he was a cheerful and charming person, with a sharp wit. When he died in 1896 at the age of 76, he was the oldest practicing doctor in the city.
The older of the Custer's two sons, Edward Luke Custer was nine when he arrived in the United States. Once in Manchester he attended public schools. He took up drawing and painting as a boy, and often entertained his schoolmates with his artwork. When he was 15 he painted scenes of Switzerland, which he exhibited in City Hall. As a young man he was hired by the Manchester Locomotive Works to do decorative painting on steam engines. He also worked for a time in Lawrence, Mass., doing the same type of work.
In 1858, the city directory lists Edward as a "sign and ornamental painter." Two years later his enterprise had expanded, and his ad now touted that he was a "…Banner and Decorative Artist, also, Teacher of Drawing and Landscaping Painting."
At that time Edward had his own office in the Museum Building, a structure located directly across Elm Street from what is now Veterans Park. The Museum was a private enterprise that displayed a variety of curiosities to entertain the general population. This included the skeleton of a right whale that was mentioned in Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick" published in 1851.
Edward was growing restless. He yearned for a formal art education, so he traveled to Europe in 1860. He spent about two years studying at an art school in Dusseldorf and at the Royal Academy in Munich. He took a particular interest in landscape painting, and spent summer months with his teachers in Switzerland, sketching scenes from nature. When he returned to Manchester he was eager to begin earning his living as a fine artist. He rented space in a building on the corner of Elm and Lowell streets and began taking portrait commissions. He also exhibited his works in different locations in the downtown, and selections of his best paintings were displayed in a commercial art gallery in New York City.
Edward so enjoyed sketching landscapes from life that he spent a great deal of time in northern New Hampshire and Vermont, particularly along the Connecticut River Valley and its tributaries. He would draw scenes of natural beauty including mountains, farmhouses and animals, as well as the local "rustics," and from these studies would produce exquisite paintings. His works, both landscapes and portraits, sold well, and he gained a loyal following. He began to look toward setting up a studio in Boston as the next logical step in his promising career.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Edward Custer moves to Boston and his career is made.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org