Keeping Up With The Raccoons

Letters from Nella Braddy Henney to Helen Keller during the summer of 1959

woman sitting on a rock, holding a brimmed hat in her hands

Nella Braddy Henney sitting on a large rock under a flowering tree near her house on Foss Mountain.

August 9, 2019

Nella Braddy Henney was a prolific letter writer. As a friend, literary agent, power of attorney, and editor to Helen Keller, she wrote to Keller frequently as she updated her about business matters, inquiries, and dealings. The letters contained commentary about current events and family matters as well. But these letters were not all business and updates, Braddy Henney often included updates about the animals that joined her at her summer house on Foss Mountain in Snowville, New Hampshire. During the summer of 1959, there was a particularly persistent and present family of raccoons. 

On June 17, 1959, Braddy Henney wrote that they “saw the coon twice again.” Apparently, the creature had gotten stuck in the rain and, “was so wet and bedraggled and his fur sticking so close that his normally round little face was as sharp as an ant-eaters.” He came back, however, and she says that he, “cleans up all the bread crumbs that the birds and chipmunks leave and then wanders off into the woods to find something else to eat.” 

Later that month, on June 30, Braddy Henney and her husband, Keith, thought that the raccoon may “disappear” while they were back home in Garden City, New York and no one was on the mountain to leave out food. Alas, “late Saturday night here she came, dainty as ever, greedy as ever, and we fully expect her to bring her children with her before long.” Braddy Henney does warn that once the baby raccoons join the group, “indeed, we’ll have a problem, for there is a limit to the number of coons one can tolerate.” They didn’t just have raccoons around, though, as Braddy Henney writes that she believes that, the meadow mice are “very bad little citizens” in her opinion. 

A few days later on July 2, Braddy Henney reports that the raccoons now “come to the back door every evening and beg for food.” “They seem perfectly fearless,” she observes. After the update, she goes on to relay business about The Miracle Worker.

Braddy Henney begins her July 16 letter with business matters and then goes on that, “we still have trouble with our animals.” The vegetable garden of beets, chard, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage was “flourishing” until “a deer came in one night and shaved them to the ground.” Still a problem, the meadow mice, chipmunks, and woodchucks took “choice bites out of the flower garden and seem to have a special appetite for our rarest plants.” And finally, the raccoon family continues to show up. Braddy Henney writes, however, that “we have learned that papa doesn’t like mamma--snarls at her if she comes near him when he is eating and drives her away if she insists upon hanging around.”

On August 30, Braddy Henney includes business, concerns about family member’s health matters, and news about current events before reporting that “the coons have not appeared in a long time and we think they may have gone into the deep woods to find a hollow tree where they can spend the winter in comfort.” 

Alas, on October 25, Braddy Henney writes again before returning to Garden City for the season. She tells Keller about the weather (heavy rain, enough to damage dirt roads), and provides more updates about business relating to The Miracle Worker. Finally, she provides an update about the raccoon family and how they are getting on: “The coons have been coming back at night -- five of them now, mother, father, and three young ones, all fat and glossy, ready for the winter hibernation. I am sorry to report that their family life is not entirely harmonious. The young ones gruny like little pigs as they gobble up the bread we throw out. Now and then one decides that another is getting more than his share; a fight ensues during which they scream like cats, but the fights are not very serious, no one gets hurt, but they are very noisy. They don’t mind when we turn on the outside light, they don’t even stop fighting, and when they food is gone they put their little black feet on the stone step, look up and beg for more. They are absolutely irresistible and every time we go down the hill we buy extra loaves of bread for them. If the rain doesn’t stop I’ll have to bake biscuits for them tomorrow!” 

Braddy Henney’s letters served to connect Keller to the world through the descriptions of current events, weather, and family matters alongside the necessary business reports. While Keller was at home in Connecticut, or traveling abroad, she was able to share in Braddy Henney’s summer adventures through vivid descriptions -- and these descriptions could benefit almost anyone. 

Beyond fun stories of animal families, Braddy Henney’s detailed letters provide valuable information to researchers as well. Reports of weather, what plants were growing, what animals were present (and how many), and other natural happenings on Foss Mountain allow researchers to know what the environment was like at a given time. Her letters serve as a, probably unintentional, record of the natural environment of the area for  that summer -- and all the summers she wrote to Keller and others. Never let it be said that any detail is too much. 

You can read more of Nella Braddy Henney’s letters, including more stories about the raccoons (who came back in the summer of 1960!) in the digitized collection from the Perkins Archives.