George Kennan enthusiast travels from Arizona to Medina to honor the centenary of his death

Posted 12 May 2024 at 7:56 am

Kennan chronicled difficult conditions in Siberia in 1865-’67

Livia Hamel placed flowers on the grave of George Kennan in Boxwood Cemetery.

By Catherine Cooper, Orleans County Historian

“Illuminating Orleans” – Volume 4, No. 14

MEDINA – Livia Hamel travelled from Phoenix, Az. to Medina this weekend, specifically to honor the centenary of the death of her favorite author, George Kennan, who died on May 10, 1924.

The 23-year-old, who works at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert laboratory in Scottsdale, Az., was suitably dressed for the occasion in a striking Cossack outfit.

A voracious reader and history enthusiast, Livia’s introduction to George Kennan resulted from a reading of the Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment.

Intrigued by the novel’s references to Siberia, Livia sought out additional reading material on the region and chanced upon George Kennan’s two-volume book, Siberia and the Exile System. Published in 1891, Kennan’s vivid, heartfelt, and unforgettable descriptions of the horrors of the treatment of political exiles and prisoners in Siberia generated a public outcry in this country and established Kennan as the foremost advisor on Russian affairs.

Livia then read Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia, his lively account of his 1865-67 journey across the wilds of Siberia. He had been hired by the Russian American Telegraph Company as part of a team sent to survey the possibility of connecting North America and Europe by means of an overland cable route.

Livia was captivated by Kennan’s zestful retelling of the team’s many hair-raising adventures. They experienced extreme temperatures (68 degrees below zero), traveled along steep knife-edged precipices during blinding storms, encountered a variety of nomadic tribes, and sampled alcohol made from fermented toadstools.

By then, Livia was well and truly a George Kennan fan. She read and researched as much as she possibly could. She admires the energy of his written work, and the sincerity of his involvement with the Siberian exiles.

Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio in 1845, but came to live in Medina in 1871 since he needed employment upon his return from his Russian adventure. His brother, John, was president of the Union Bank in Medina at the time and George was hired as a bank teller there.

Livia was intrigued to walk in Kennan’s footsteps, from the home at 200 West Center St., where Kennan first lived with his brother to the Union Bank (currently Avanti’s). She also visited Bent’s Opera House, where Kennan lectured on many occasions.

“Welkenna” at 127 West Center St., the home of George and Emeline Kennan, was photographed in the late 1930s when the Post Office was being built.

George also met the love of his life on this West Center Street block. Emeline Rathbone Weld lived but a stone’s throw from John Kennan’s home, on the now vacant lot on the southeast corner of West Center and West Avenue. They were married in 1879 and then divided their time between the Weld home in Medina, Washington, DC, where Kennan was employed by the Associated Press, and a summer home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Throughout his career, Kennan maintained a hectic pace of traveling, lecturing, and writing. Ill-health and advancing age forced him to slow down and the couple retired in 1920 to their Medina home “Welkenna.”

George “suffered two strokes of apoplexy” in early May 1924 and died on May 10, aged 79. Reporting on his death, the Buffalo Times described him as a “noted lecturer, traveler and adventurer.” The Medina Tribune published some of the many telegrams of condolence sent to Emeline, including one from the National Institute of Arts and Letters which commended “his glorious and immortal achievements.”

The Kennan gravestone includes an emblem designed by George and Emeline.

Dr. David Fairchild of Washington, DC, a prominent botanist, and son-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, traveled to Medina for the funeral. He selected a burial site at Boxwood Cemetery for Kennan that peacefully overlooks Glenwood Lake. The grave’s flat marker was all but unreadable in recent years, until it was cleaned in 2023 by Friends of Boxwood organizers, Nikki and Todd Bensley.

It is gratifying to see a continued interest in George Kennan. Additionally, Gregory J. Wallance published a new book on Kennan in 2023, Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia. Wallance is another unabashed admirer of Kennan’s writings and adventures.

Accompanied on this trip by her parents, Robert and Grace, (Kennan devotees-by-proxy), Livia visited the Medina Historical Society and the Medina Railroad Museum.

Livia continues with a visit to New York, where she plans to access the Kennan papers at the New York Public Library and tour the Guggenheim Museum.

Incidentally, George Kennan performed a reading from Crime and Punishment at the home of Mrs. D.A. Acer at 212 Park Ave. in Medina, on November 3, 1922.

*The books referred to in this article are available for loan, free of charge, from your favorite library.