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Lotta's Legacy

Philanthropy: 19th-century danseuse Lotta Crabtree was a child star in 49ers' mining camps. She died the richest stage performer of her time, bequeathing a fortune to Massachusetts ag students.

February 15, 1998|TRUDY TYNAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

AMHERST, Mass. — She was the "Golden Girl" of California's Gold Rush, "La Petite Lotta," possessor of "the most beautiful ankle in the world" when a glimpse was still shocking.

Nearly 150 years later, the gold the 49ers tossed onstage when Lotta Crabtree danced is still staking young farmers to a start in the rocky soil of New England.

The little girl with strawberry-blond curls, singing so sweetly in such mining camps as "You Bet" and "Port Wine," grew into the most glamorous stage star of her time. And the richest.

When she died in 1924, Lotta left the bulk of her $4-million fortune to young farmers from a school she probably never saw--a small agricultural college that evolved into the state university in this small town in western Massachusetts.

"I don't know who she was, but we sure wouldn't have been able to do it without her," said Dennis Mareb, at the kitchen table of a family farm in Great Barrington. There, in the Berkshire Hills, sits the graceful shed Mareb built to house a nursery business offering 135 varieties of lilacs.

In 1982, Mareb, a gardener on an estate, and his wife, a schoolteacher, managed to buy an old dairy farm that the town of Great Barrington wanted to turn into a garbage dump. A $20,000 interest-free loan from the Lotta Agricultural Trust helped. But "the part that really made the difference," his wife, Judy, said, was that the first payment was two years away.

The story is familiar at hundreds of farmhouses around New England. The Lotta grants are not large, but their value is swelled by generous terms. "It's what has made the difference," said Richard Floyd, dean of the UMass School of Agriculture. He called Lotta's legacy "a generator of hope" in a region that has been losing hope, and young farmers, for three centuries.

Some of New England's farmers have become wealthy on Lotta's stake. Others are just hanging on. But through good times and bad, they have kept her trust. In 70 years, only one of the many hundreds of loans has not been repaid.

Lotta Crabtree, the biggest single benefactor of New England agriculture, moved from coast to coast. She was born in New York City. Her father, who had a bookstore just off Broadway, left for the California gold fields in 1851. A year later, her mother sold the shop and, with little Lotta in tow, bought passage on a steamship to San Francisco.

Her father didn't even meet them at the boat and reappeared only sporadically. Later, when he made off with a trunk of her gold, Lotta tried to prosecute. But the laws of the day gave women no control over their earnings, so she had to get rid of him by pensioning him off to England. Her reputation as a suffragette began to gel.

It was Lotta's mother who swept the stage for nuggets when her 8-year-old began dancing in mining camps. According to legend, when the satchel with Lotta's earnings got too heavy, her mother would buy real estate in the cities where they toured.

Lotta never married. Some said her mother wouldn't allow it. But the redhead, who mastered the suggestive double entendre long before Mae West, never lacked admirers. In 1883, the New York Times devoted much of its front page to "The Loves of Lotta."

While besotted young men would unhitch the horses from Lotta's carriage and pull her to the theater, her mother, always dressed in black, would walk the streets of cities looking for investments.

In 1875, Lotta's philanthropy yielded its first public art--a strange fountain--to the city of San Francisco. Ever since, sentiment triumphing over engineering, traffic on Market Street in the financial district skirts a 20-foot Victorian froth of bears and sea lions and griffins bearing bowls. And when the earth shook in 1906, Lotta's Fountain became a rallying point for a devastated city.

In New York City, Lotta was the belle of Broadway. "The face of a beautiful doll and the ways of a playful kitten," purred the New York Times, insisting that "no one could wriggle more suggestively than Lotta."

At 45, she quit the stage and retired to her New Jersey estate and the library that provided her education. Blackballed by a high-minded ladies' literary society, Lotta would only laugh--and shake the skirts that society matrons thought were scandalously short.

It wasn't until her mother died, and Lotta moved to Boston, that her serious side emerged. She lived alone in a hotel but regularly headed to Gloucester to paint seascapes, a dog at her feet, a cigar in her teeth.

After her death at 76, Boston papers recalled Lotta as a devoted animal-rights activist who wandered the streets putting hats on horses. She was also, they said, the city's second-largest taxpayer.

Though only 100 people came to her funeral, many more claimed to be relatives when her will was read. "It is my belief that the best method to reduce the cost and expense of living and to provide a generally more prosperous and larger employment for the people lies in the intelligent and active promotion of agriculture," she wrote.

She left veterans disabled in World War I income from $2 million, and smaller amounts, noted in her will, to "dumb animals," "destitute thespians" and "discharged convicts." Forty years later, what remained of her original legacy went into trust for ag-school graduates. Educated farmers, she wrote, would be kinder to animals.

Despite attacks on the will, the trustees prevailed, and Lotta's legacy stood. And even though today's trustees won't disclose its value in dollars, the university representatives know its real value. "She was of the West," said Deane Lee of the selection committee. "But it was to New England that she left a lasting, living trust."

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