GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP) â€” Nearly a century after bachelor farmer George W. Davenport left $10,000 in his will to help ``aged and deserving women over 55,'' his generosity is still brightening lives in three small towns in the hills of western Massachusetts.
In recent years, the income from Davenport's bequest â€” the principal is now worth more than $409,000 â€” has fixed porch steps, bought mouthfuls of dentures and even paid the veterinary bills for a retired minister's beloved service dog.
``This is the kind of fund that can help a grandmother just getting by on Social Security buy a plane ticket to visit a new grandchild in Ohio,'' said trustees chairwoman Irmarie Jones, who joined the three-member board more than a decade ago.
``Of course we don't think of 55 as being old today, but it was in 1905,'' Jones said.
The trustees are allowed to give up to $1,000 per person in a single year to eligible women living in either Leyden (population 660), Bernardston (population 2,000) or Greenfield (population 18,000). But most of last year's 30 grants, totaling $16,600, were for a few hundred dollars.
A woman dying alone of cancer got a television after her set stopped working. ``We decided it was a mental health emergency,'' Jones said. Another elderly woman got a new bed after hers was stolen along with the truck being used to move her possessions.
``It's just a wonderful program,'' said Myrtle Whitsett, 81. ``I'm very glad I was born in Greenfield. My back porch was falling down. My husband is 86 and we are just living on Social Security. It really helped us.''
Little is known about Davenport, a friendly, humorous small-town philanthropist, who lived to 66, and studied law, but never practiced. He inherited his money.
``A brief biography I found years ago said he was wounded in action during the Civil War and dabbled in farming,'' Jones said.
Davenport, who was fond of children and known for helping out in the community with both time and money, also left several small bequests of $100 or $200 to local widows in his will.
He left no wife or children when he died in 1905, but many of his other relatives fought the will, Jones said. It was years before the fund prevailed in court.
``He really just wanted to help elderly and needy folks in a practical way,'' Jones said. ``And that's what we are doing.''
Initially, the grants were limited to women born in the three towns near the Vermont border where Davenport had farms, but about eight years ago the trustees persuaded a judge to include women who'd lived in the towns a minimum of five years.
``With today's mobile society, it just didn't make any sense any more,'' said Jones, a columnist for The Recorder of Greenfield.
``It's peace of mind,'' said the Rev. Eleanor Kreiger. The Davenport Fund pays for her service dog's annual physical and shots and bought a special backpack the dog wears.
``I depend so much on Sheeba. She walks beside me and balances me,'' Kreiger said. ``The Service Dog Association helps with her training, but her medical care is my problem.''
The fund even provided Sheeba with a little sign the friendly shepherd-collie mix wears while she and the retired minister make their rounds. It reads, ``Please ask to pet me.''
Many of those being helped are widows. ``They have this big, old house they don't want to leave and all these things going wrong,'' Jones said.
But it's really lives that are being repaired.
``Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for the $1,000 you sent to my dentist to help with my teeth,'' one woman wrote.
Dentures aren't covered by Medicare, Jones explained.
``I am wearing my new dentures and they are absolutely perfect!'' another woman wrote. ``You will never know how thankful I am to you for what you did.''