Political Portrait of N.H. Governor from North Haverhill to Hang in Statehouse

Tuesday, November 27, 2012
North Haverhill — After a 75-year absence, former New Hampshire governor and three-term U.S. Senator Henry Wilder Keyes will have a homecoming of sorts next week at the Statehouse in Concord.

A committee made up of descendants and admirers of the North Haverhill Republican will present a newly minted portrait, commissioned by North Country painter Craig Pursley, to the governor and Executive Council Dec. 5 in a traditional ceremony to officially recognize the painting’s new home.

The portrait of Keyes, who served as governor during World War I, will replace a different picture, which used to hang in a second-floor Statehouse hallway with other oil paintings of former governors. It was mistakenly identified by Statehouse curators as Keyes in 2005, but instead turned out to be a photograph of Civil War era Granite State Congressman Jacob Hart Ela, of Rochester, N.H.

Dean Dexter, a former state representative and self-described history buff, discovered the error when he was walking the hallways of the Statehouse’s second floor in late July.

“I’ve seen many pictures of Keyes,” said Dexter. “So when I went by that portrait, I said, ‘This is absurd.’ ”

Following his discovery, Dexter notified Keyes’ granddaughter — Frances Parkinson Keyes Keidel, of Haverhill— who wrote a letter to the joint legislative history committee informing them of the mislabeling.

When Keyes Keidel decided she wanted to commission a portrait of her grandfather to rectify the situation, she was recommended the name of Pursley, a painter of landscapes and portraits who lives in Bath, N.H. and whose portraits hang in the national Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as well as the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Keyes Keidel uncovered some sepiatone photographs of Keyes for Pursley to work from, but Pursley said that the writings of Keyes’ wife, Frances Parkinson Keyes, were equally crucial in shedding light on the former politician.

While living in Washington, D.C., Frances Keyes had written several novels, including one about being the wife of a senator that was a national bestseller.

“At some point, she wrote a very good description of her husband that described his ruddy complexion, and how any place the sun didn’t get on his skin was really white,” said Pursley.

Peter Keyes, grandson of the late governor, said he never had the chance to meet his grandfather, who died in 1936 when Peter Keyes was just a month old, but that he and his cousin, Keyes Keidel, will be attending next week’s meeting in Concord. He added that when he first heard about the portrait mix-up, the whole situation struck him as “funny.”

“How in the world did that happen?” asked Peter Keyes, a Newbury, Vt. resident.

According to Dexter, a plaque attached to the frame of Ela’s portrait indicated that the picture was a gift of the Keyes family, which led curators to assume the portrait depicted the likeness of the former senator.

He said the Ela portrait was presented to the governor and Executive Council in 1891 and ordered to be put on display in the state library, but it ended up in the basement of a legsilative office building, before it was discovered, misidentified, and placed in the Statehouse hallway in 2005.

Dexter said he met last week with the joint legislative historical committee and that they still haven’t decided what to do with the Ela portrait, but he views the situation as “killing two birds with one stone.”

“We’re taking care of Keyes and now we’re bringing this poor guy Jacob (Ela) out of the trash barrel of history,” said Dexter, whose grandparents were friends with the Keyes family.

Ela was New Hampshire’s banking commissioner, a state representative, and was appointed United States Marshall by President Abraham Lincoln.

Aside from serving as governor and senator, Keyes operated his family farm in North Haverhill, where he raised prize-winning cattle, and was among the first to import Friesland Holsteins into the country after he traveled to Europe to select the stock himself.

Keyes organized the Woodsville National Bank in 1897, which is now the Bank of New Hampshire, and also held jobs as a railroad and paper mill executive. But according to Dexter, Keyes was most proud of his 25 consecutive years as chairman of the Haverhill Selectboard.

“He was not bombastic,” Dexter said of Keyes. “He was not a colorful political figure, but he was a very popular person among the agricultural community at the time.”

Dexter said that while Keyes was a Harvard graduate who came from a wealthy family, he also had a very prosperous farm which is still in family hands.

“He was a low-key guy, but he was very steady and kept real close to his agricultural roots,” he said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.