Whisker rebellion whets writer’s curiosity

Shared history

By Pamela H. Sacks

Once Paul Della Valle started digging in the archives, eccentric Massachusetts characters seemed to pop up everywhere.

Mr. Della Valle first got interested in quirky historical figures when he was a reporter for the Telegram & Gazette. He happened to notice a tombstone in Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster that bore the image of a man with a long beard and the words “Persecuted for his beard.” It marked the grave of Joseph Palmer, who, Mr. Della Valle discovered had the gumption to wear his whiskers – and the courage to withstand all sorts of abuse – in the mid-19th century, an avowedly beardless era.

Mr. Della Valle is an award-winning columnist and humorist, author and former newspaper publisher. Palmer’s story brought a smile to his face – and a rush of curiosity. He eventually went on to research 20 “original thinkers,” whose tales he has compiled in a collection titled “Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State.”

People who walk to the beat of a different drummer often have grit. Mr. Della Valle’s “20″ were living proof. He tells of Lucy Stone’s fight for women’s rights and Deborah Samson’s courage in bearing arms during the American Revolution. He recounts the battles of David Walker and Major Taylor for the rights of African-Americans. Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War hero, led a rebellion against high taxation, while Horace Mann championed public education and Dorothea Dix backed decent treatment for the mentally ill.

n a recent interview, Mr. Della Valle said he delved into Palmer’s life when he owned the Lancaster Times and decided to write a story about area oddities. He soon discovered that Palmer’s beard was only part of his story. He had been a crucial presence at Fruitlands, the 19th-century communal farm in Harvard that was populated with intellectuals and philosophers. Palmer was the only farmer.

After Mr. Della Valle sold his newspaper business in 2005, he approached his publisher, Globe Pequot, with a proposal for the book.

Two years later, Globe Pequot gave him the green light. He consulted with Sunday Telegram columnist Al Southwick, whose historical pieces were an inspiration. Mr. Della Valle started reading old books and other material online. He would start with one person and discover someone else even more interesting.

“I thought, `Boy there’s a lot of contrarians from our state,’” Mr. Della Valle said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.”

Nowadays, Mr. Della Valle, 56, teaches creative writing at the Mary E. Wells Middle School in Southbridge. He said that he was moved to enter the educational field by an admonition by Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Mr. Della Valle said of teaching. “It’s very fulfilling. I am in great admiration of people who do it well. I don’t do it well yet.”

Mr. Della Valle lives in Sterling with his wife, Karen Sharpe, a journalist and poet who is the interim director of development at Fitchburg State College. His publisher has asked him to write a book on women in the White House. He said he is considering titling it “Crazy in the White House.”

“A lot of our first ladies have been troubled,” Mr. Della Valle noted.