On Saturday, July 27, when visitors flocked to Belden Noble Memorial Library in Essex, NY, for its 120th birthday, many surprises were in store. Besides being treated to birthday refreshments, they were greeted by a couple who re-enacted the famous 19th-century couple who played major roles in Essex more than 120 years ago: Adeline Matilda Ferris Noble, born in Peru, NY, and her husband, Colonel Belden Noble. During the celebration, the Nobles were represented in real life by Essex residents Alexandra Noble DePinto (a distant relative of the Nobles of Essex) and her husband, Chris DePinto, a library board member. The couple wore period costumes and the effect was astounding, as “Adeline” and “the Colonel” introduced themselves, welcomed visitors, and invited them upstairs to see the Library’s new History Wall.
The idea of a History Wall began two years ago, when library board member Monica Rumsey, a professional book editor and researcher, was working as a volunteer at the library. While sorting through the fiction section, Mrs. Rumsey noticed a dusky image of a ghostly figure in a small frame between the shelves. A tiny label below the image identified “Adeline Noble, Founder of Essex Free Library, 1899,” and an artist’s name, François Flameng. After some internet sleuthing, Mrs. Rumsey was amazed to discover that this was a badly faded photograph of a full-size oil portrait of Adeline Noble that is now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. The painting was done in 1903, and the artist was a society portraitist with a studio in Paris, who had also done portraits of European royals, including two Russian princesses and England’s Queen Alexandra, queen consort of Edward VII. At Mrs. Rumsey’s request the Smithsonian sent her a large digital copy of the original portrait. She then had it printed on canvas and framed nearly full size, to hang in the library. But this was only the beginning.
The Library Board, under the thoughtful leadership of Colleen VanHoven, unanimously voted to allot funds to research and install a History Wall, now a vivid reality. “We were intrigued by what would develop from this idea,” she explains, “but we couldn’t wait to see how it might turn out.” Further research into the Noble family of Essex led Mrs. Rumsey to the Noble’s many business ventures, whose great success was offset by even greater philanthropy. The Nobles were involved in a leather tannery, lumbering, iron smelting, and shipbuilding. They not only gave Greystone Cottage, the building that housed their general store to the town as a library, but also donated sizable sums to build Essex Community Church, where Adeline and Belden were married in 1856.
Adeline Noble organized other likeminded people of Essex as the “Essex Free Library Association,” and a corner of the H & B Noble General Store was set aside to lend books to the public. A copy of a small flyer on the History Wall advertises a “programme of dramatic exercises . . . for benefit of library,” to be held in Essex on June 29, 1875. Obviously, her dream of founding a library in Essex began years before its official charter was granted in 1899.
Today, one question still remains: Though the History Wall illustrates how Adeline Noble was clearly at the forefront in founding “Essex Free Library,” why was it renamed for Belden Noble in 1981? At this point, no one knows.