When you think about Norman Rockwell, you think about hundreds of cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and many other magazines from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.
Imagine a half-century of illustrating life in America. Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” exemplified life as the nation fought its way through the Great Depression and World War II. There are countless other examples of well-known images that have spawned countless calendars, prints, collectible figurines and other items that continue to perpetuate what many consider the heart of America.
Norman Rockwell’s work was based out of his studios in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He used real people as the models for his paintings. Some would sit in-person for Rockwell, while many others were photographed, and those photographs became the basis of Rockwell’s studies for the illustrations and magazine covers.
Occasionally, Rockwell would participate in contests from one magazine or another to select one person with photographs exemplified the goals of that contest. That is where our story begins.
In 1921, Curtis Publishing Co. sponsored the “Beautiful Boy Contest.” Curtis published the Saturday Evening Post, as well as Country Gentleman and other magazines. Cora Hamilton, from her Chenango Street farmhouse in the Hillcrest area of the Town of Fenton, thought her son George was the most beautiful boy. She grabbed her Kodak Brownie camera and took two photographs of 12-year-old George Hamilton.
One photograph showed young George in a sailor hat with a grin, while the in other, George was holding two fox terrier puppies. She sent those two pictures to Curtis Publishing, which received them along with another 500,000 photographs from around the country. Half a million images of young boys — sons of countless families from around the country. The odds were stacked against Cora Hamilton and young George.
Yet somehow, they won. One day after the end of the contest, several men from Curtis Publishing showed up at the front door of the Hamilton farmhouse. Norman Rockwell would use the photographs to create a cover for the March 1922 cover of Country Gentleman magazine. He combined the best aspects of the two images to create his model boy. He also changed the fox terriers into beagles — why? Because Rockwell liked beagles.
More Spanning Time:The brief heyday of the summer home community of Columbia Grove in Windsor
The cover illustration was completed, and as the prize for winning the contest, the painting of the idealized George Hamilton, with all of his freckles and infectious grin, was delivered to the Hamilton home.
It would seem things were going well for the Hamiltons, but George was unhappy just milking cows and never having fun. A year later, at age 13, he left home and moved into a boarding house in Hillcrest. He peddled milk in a horse-drawn wagon. When he was 18, George went back to his parents. He drove trucks, and the family moved to Quinneville, near North Fenton.
The painting moved from place to place with the Hamiltons. After George’s father died in 1950, George Hamilton took the painting from the wall and brought to his home in Chenango Forks. There the painting hung — darker from years of soot and smoke. Through the years, George would look at the painting, never thinking about its creator and significance.
In the late 1970’s, a man approached George and offered him $35,000 for the Rockwell painting. George turned him down and put the painting in a bank vault for protection.
As the years went by, George Hamilton began to realize that life has an end date, and in 1983, he made the decision to auction the Rockwell painting off to have enough money to handle some bills and for his own funeral.
On April 30, 1983, that auction was held with David Mapes auction services. More than 200 dealers and buyers crammed into the auction house to have a look at that painting and many other items up for bid. When the dust settled that evening, Donald S. Trumbull, of Florida, won the painting with a bid of $37,500. George Hamilton and his wife, Bea, were sorry to see the painting go, but happy about the incoming funds.
A piece of Americana hung on the walls of local farmhouses — a piece of history.
Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at email@example.com.