The Haskell Free Library and Opera House: A Century of History on the Canada-U.S. Border

The laying of the cornerstone of the Haskell took place in 1901. The ceremony was presided over by Masons from both Canada and the United States, including Col. Haskell himself. Martha Haskell may be seen in this photograph, seated at the centre. Col. Haskell (wearing a bowler hat) is standing directly behind her. (Photo - Haskell Archives) Martha Stewart Haskell (1831-1906), the grande dame of Derby Line, Vermont, co-founded the Haskell Free Library and Opera House with her son, Col. Horace Stewart Haskell. Through her parents, Horace Stewart and Catherine Hinman, of Beebe Plain, Quebec, and her husband, businessman Carlos Haskell, who died in a tragic accident at a young age, Martha Haskell inherited a considerable fortune. It was her idea to establish a public library and opera house for the benefit of the border communities, which, accordi Col. Horace Stewart Haskell (1864-1940) co-founded the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, along with his mother Martha. Stewart, as he was known to his friends, was a businessman, a philanthropist and a colourful figure in the local border communities. (Photo - J. J. Parker / Haskell Archives) The village square, Derby Line, Vermont, c.1900. The area directly beyond the gazebo would become the site of the Haskell Free Library. The property on the right hand side of the street belonged to the Haskells. (Photo - J. J. Parker / Haskell Archives) The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, c.1910. (Photo - Matthew Farfan Collection) Nathan Beach, a local building contractor, built many fine homes on Lake Memphremagog and in the surrounding villages. He also built the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. (Photo - Haskell Archives) Unidentified painters in the balcony of the Haskell Opera House, 1903-1904. (Photo - Haskell Archives) The decorative wall paintings in the opera house, including this one on the balcony level, were the work of artist John Giorloff. (Photo - Philip Prangley) The Haskell, seen here c.1910, has been at the centre of life in the border villages for over a century. In 2004, the Haskell celebrated its 100th anniversary. (Photo - Matthew Farfan Collection) Ora Carpenter (1861-1932) was Col. Horace Haskell's cousin, right-hand man and close personal friend. He was also the very first librarian at the Haskell Library, taking on other roles as well, including those of secretary-treasurer and janitor. Remembered affectionately by all who knew him, Ora Carpenter worked at the Haskell until his death in 1932. His funeral was held (appropriately) at the Haskell Free Library. His obituary in the Stanstead Journal said it all: his contribution to the border community The staff at the Haskell are international. The moose, seen here overlooking the circulation desk, is sporting the latest in border fashion -- a Haskell baseball cap! (Photo - Matthew Farfan) The front door of the library, seen here from the circulation desk, is in the U.S.! (Photo - Haskell Free Library) The library interior, from the front door. The circulation desk is in Canada! (Photo - Haskell Free Library) In 2009, the Haskell's international board of trustees abolished the library's century-old 2-cent per day late-book fee. The stacks at the Haskell are located entirely in Canada. (Photo - Haskell Free Library) Regular activities for adults and children take place within the cozy surroundings of the library's reading room. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) The elegant reading room has changed very little over the past century. Note the black line on the floor, which indicates the path of the international border as it traverses the building. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) An 'illuminated manuscript' honouring Colonel Haskell is displayed on the wall of the library. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) Stained glass windows in the reading room memorialize Col. Haskell's parents and grandparents. This one was dedicated to library co-founder Martha Haskell. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) A poster from opening night in the opera house, 1904. 'Black-face' was a popular form of entertainment at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) American musicians, c.1910, entertaining an international audience from a stage in Canada. (Photo - Haskell Archives) The curtain, scenery and props in the opera house are complete and all-original. They are the only known surviving work of the Boston stage artist Erwin LaMoss. The magnificent main drop curtain, seen here, features a view of Venice. (Photo - Whipple Studio) This program from 1914 featured the Grand Minstrel Jubilee, given under the auspices of the International Cornet Band. (Haskell Archives) J. C. Rockwell's Sunny South Company, with their 'Band and Orchestra of 25 Colored People presenting Colored Musical Comedy,' appeared at the Haskell in 1918. (Haskell Archives) A ballet recital, early 1970s. (Photo - Haskell Archives) In 1999,  'P. T. Barnum,' a made-for-television movie starring Beau Bridges, was filmed in the Haskell Opera House. (Photo - Haskell Archives) Generations of performers have scrawled their names for posterity on the dressing room walls of the opera house, a practice that continues to this day. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) The view from the balcony. (Photo - Haskell Free Library) The ticket booth on the mezzanine floor. (Photo - Haskell Free Library) A production of Emily Dickinson's Belle of Amherst, 2000. (Photo - Haskell Archives) Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward, one of a number of classic plays produced in recent years by QNEK, the resident theatre company at the Haskell. (Photo - Courtesy of QNEK) The Haskell has been classified as a historic site by the governments of Canada, the United States, and the province of Quebec. In 1993, this plaque was presented to the Haskell by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. (Photo - Haskell Archives) International crossroads: the Haskell, from near the Canada-U.S. border. Although visitors to the Haskell do not need passports when they enter the building on foot, they must park their vehicles on their own side of the border. (Photo - Matthew Farfan) The Haskell is now into its second century...

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, located in Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, was constructed intentionally astride the boundary line separating Canada from the United States. Over the past century, this unusual institution has attracted visitors from all around the world.

The subject of an ongoing fascination on the part of the media, the Haskell has been featured on network news around the world and in publications such as Life Magazine, Canadian Geographic, the New York Times, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and countless others. The Haskell has been classified a historic site by the governments of Canada, the United States, and the Province of Quebec.

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House was the gift of Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell. It was dedicated to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos, a prominent merchant. The family’s aim was to provide the border communities with a centre for learning and cultural enrichment. The opera house, located on the second floor of the building, also had a practical purpose. According to the original charter, dated 1908, it was to be “forever managed and used for the support and maintenance” of the library, located downstairs.

larger_haskell_003.jpgThe cornerstone of the Haskell was laid on October 15, 1901 by members of Stanstead’s Golden Rule Lodge, assisted by prominent Masons from both sides of the border, including Col. Haskell himself. The building was designed by Stanstead architect James Ball and his partner, Gilbert Smith, of Boston. Construction was supervised by Nathan Beach, of Georgeville, Quebec. After a number of delays, the building was completed in 1904 at an estimated cost of $50,000 – a princely sum for that time.

The Haskell was long said to be a scale replica of the Boston Opera House. This, however, has proven to be quite untrue. The building is, in fact, unique. Nowhere else in the world can one sit in an opera house that is literally split in two by an international border, where most of the audience sits in the U.S. to watch a show on a stage in Canada. Nowhere else can one find a library whose door is in the U.S., but whose check-out desk desk is in Canada.

The Haskell’s two street facades are splendid examples of late Victorian architecture, and combine elements of various building styles.

larger_haskell_004.jpgIn the library, there are fireplaces and artwork on the walls. In the opera house, upstairs, with its decorative proscenium arch, cherubs, murals, and splendid scenery, the mood is one of gaiety. The drop curtain, scenery, props, and stage machinery are all original and well preserved. The scenery is believed to be the only surviving work of the celebrated Boston artist, Erwin LaMoss.

The opera house has been known for its acoustics since the Columbian Minstrels performed an old-fashioned black-face routine on opening night on June 7, 1904. Over the past century, the Haskell has hosted an array of performing artists and public speakers.

larger_guy_brothers.jpg.jpgHundreds of performers have left their signatures on the dressing room walls, and these are preserved to this day. The opera house has never been the money-maker the Haskells intended it to be, but it has certainly provided the border communities with some interesting entertainment.

From 1993 to 1997, the opera house was closed due to government requirements involving handicapped access and fire safety. After a year of construction, and the addition of sprinklers, an elevator, and a fire escape tower – all respecting the historic character of the building – the opera house was reopened amid much fanfare.

larger_h4.jpgSince 1997, a full schedule of shows has been held in the opera house each season, from the spring through the fall.

The trustees and staff of the Haskell are doing everything in their power to make sure that this wonderful old institution continues to serve the public well into the distant future.

The expense of running the building, however, is proving to be a challenge, and the Haskell is no longer shy about asking the public for help. The Haskell is a registered non-profit organization, and all donations are tax-deductible. In Canada, donations may be made out to the Haskell Library Foundation, 1 Church St., Stanstead, QC, J0B 3E2. In the U.S., they may be made out to Haskell Free Library Inc, P.O. Box 337, Derby Line, VT 05830. All donations are welcome and will be acknowledged on the wall of the library. Donors of over $1,000 will have their names etched in granite.

Matthew Farfan