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Thomas C. O'Donnell Papers

An inventory of his/her papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: EL
Date: Oct 1977

Biographical History

Thomas Clay O'Donnell (1881-1962) was an American magazine editor and author of books on upstate New York history and folklore.

Born on 29 July 1881 in a lumber camp near Saginaw, Michigan to George and Vesta O'Donnell, he received his early education in Vestaburg, Michigan, and later attended a business college in London, England, where he married another Michigander, Bertha May Smith, in 1905.

After returning to the United States, he lived from 1909-1919 in Battle Creek, Michigan where he taught at Battle Creek College before beginning his varied career as a magazine editor at Good Health, a magazine of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Later he edited Cartoons magazine in Chicago. From 1923 to 1927 he was editor of The Writer's Digest in Cincinnati, where he also wrote and produced for radio station WLW, the Crosley Radio Corporation station there. An active Freemason for most of his life, he was for many years the editor of the monthly New York Masonic Outlook for the Grand Lodge of Masons of the State of New York. He edited the magazines Outing and Wayside Tales as well. From 1943 to 1945 he was production manager of Robert M. McBride & Company, publishers in New York City.

During his retirement, first in Boonville, New York, and then in Winter Park, Florida, O'Donnell wrote on the history of upstate New York. The publication in 1948 of The Sapbush Run: An Informal History of the Black River & Utica Railroad was followed by Snubbing Posts: An Informal History of the Black River Canal (1949) and Tip of the Hill: An Informal History of the Fairfield Academy and the Fairfield Medical College (1953). Of an intended trilogy on the history of the Black River, two books were completed: Birth of a River: An Informal History of the Headwaters of the Black River (1952) and The River Rolls On: A History of the Black River from Port Leyden to Carthage (1959).

His other works include several children's books, The Ladder of Rickety Rungs (1923) and The "Tell Me Again" Bible (1936), as well as plays for children and children's verse. Among his writings on the home are the books The Family Food (1911), A Garden for You (editor, 1946), and The Healthful House (1917, written with Lionel Robertson). O'Donnell wrote under numerous pseudonyms, including James Radley. He died at the Masonic Home in Utica, New York, on 11 November 1962, survived by his wife of 57 years and three children.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Thomas C. O'Donnell Papers comprise correspondence, memorabilia, notebooks, scrapbooks, writings in both manuscript and published form, and two small sections of biographical material and other writers' manuscripts. Principal items in the papers date from 1900 to 1962, with the years 1919 to 1955 most heavily represented.

Biographical material includes news clippings and other printed items about O'Donnell.

Correspondence dates from 1900 to 1962 and amounts to 556 letters, both incoming and outgoing. The earliest letters date from 1900 and are signed by "Clay" to his mother; the 37 family letters in these papers, mostly written by O'Donnell, extend to 1956. Besides 502 incoming letters from 1915 to 1962, there are 17 outgoing letters (mostly retained carbons) from 1915 to 1957.

Prominent among the correspondents are literary figures with whom he was associated, especially during the 1920s. Notable correspondents include Samuel Hopkins Adams (1), Conrad Aiken (7), C. W. Anderson (5), Richard Atwater (4),Marjorie Barrows (26), Henry Bedford-Jones (5), Ralph Bergengren (2), John Peale Bishop (1), Maxwell Bodenheim (5), Harold Brighouse (2), Abraham A. Brill (1), John Burroughs (1), Carl Carmer (1), Padraic Colum (4, including annotated typescript of the poem "Shall I Go Bound & You Go Free"), Albert B. Corey (19), Homer Croy (5), Jay Norwood ("Ding") Darling (3), John Drury (3), James W. Earp (13), Walter D. Edmonds (24), Edna Ferber (1), Richard Austin Freeman (2), John Merriman Gaus (2), Charles Dana Gibson (1), Arthur Edward Hamilton (14), Cassius Jackson Keyser (2), Alfred Kreymborg (2), George Barr McCutcheon (1), Thomas F. O'Donnell (1), Manuel Rosenberg (7), Vincent Starrett (10), and John Van Alstyne Weaver (2).

A name index and a topical index to the correspondenec are provided at the end of this inventory.

Manuscripts submitted to magazines edited by O'Donnell contains four items. The undated typescripts of the three Conrad Aiken poems "Clear Evening," "The Old House," and "Red Petals" were submitted to Cartoons, and Cassius Jackson Keyser (1862-1947), the Columbia University mathematician, contributed to Outlook the essay "How To Think Mathematically." Besides those manuscripts, there is in the correspondence section the annotated typescript of a Padraic Colum poem, "Shall I Go Bound and You Go Free," an enclosure in an undated letter of Colum.

Memorabilia includes advertisements and promotional brochures, photographs, and five folders of miscellanea. A group of eight caricature portraits includes several of O'Donnell, one of Padraic Colum that is inscribed with one of his poems, and four drawn by Manuel Rosenberg. Other photographs and caricatures will be found in the scrapbooks. There are three poems by Edwin Markham that are inscribed to O'Donnell, one of which, "Our Israfel," contains annotations in the poet's hand. Among the miscellanea are invitations, membership cards, other ephemera, and fragments.

The five Notebooks in Box 3 are undated, but contain material from the 1920s through 1957. Each of the four notebooks in small format contains diary fragments, clippings, quotations, and jottings; entries signed "Nicodemus" are O'Donnell's own. The first notebook is a commonplace book with lists of names and phrases. The second has on pages 58-87 and 90-91 a 1953 autobiographical sketch of his early years. The third contains sketches, dated 1927, for a children's book "The Road to Cuddledown," idea notes from 1946 to 1957, and the carbon of his letter of 9 January 1956 to Thomas F. O'Donnell. The fourth notebook, mostly from the 1950s, carries quotations and reminiscences. The largest notebook is a ring binder with notes on canals, apparently research material for the book Snubbing Posts.

Loose Scrapbook pages of general items, Masonic material, and clippings of O'Donnell's writings are arranged in boxes 3 and 4. Many of these pages carry his annotations. Seven folders of general material from 1910 to ca. 1953 contain clippings, cartoon sketches, and photographs. Another folder contains a Masonic scrapbook of programs and clippings. Approximately one hundred magazine articles, often written under pseudonyms, were clipped from magazines and mounted on pages that once constituted a scrapbook; arrangement of these printed articles is alphabetical by title for those from Cartoons, as is the arrangement of those from other magazines. Copies of published editorials and plays, also from the author's scrapbooks, complete the section.

Writings in manuscript contains manuscript version of both published and unpublished works. Many of these manuscripts carry notes of circa 1953 by the author. Of his books there are three folders of research notes and one folder of miscellaneous material for Birth of a River; the undated, unpublished typescript of A Jazz History of the United States, a whimsical account of some events in colonial American history; and the annotated typescript of a lengthy, unpublished autobiographical work (possibly with the working title"Aged in Wood") that centers on the lumber camp life of the author's childhood in northern Michigan. The typescripts of seventeen plays include a dramatic version of The Ladder of Rickety Rungs dated 1921. A complete file of the author's verses and poems -- published and unpublished -- are mostly typescript carbons, often annotated. An alphabetical list of all 250+ poems is available in the Manuscripts Division.

Writings, published include articles, books and plays, contributions to anthologies, Masonic writings in the Transactions of the American Lodge of Research of Free and Accepted Masons, and poetry. There is also a Masonic songster to which he contributed lyrics. These copies, presumably the author's own, occasionally carry his holograph corrections. A few odd items of published material follow at the end of the collection. (For a larger selection of the author's articles, see the scrapbook pages in box 4.)

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged chronologically; undated items are at the end, arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Manuscripts submitted to magazines edited by O'Donnell are arranged alphabetically by author. Memorabilia is arranged alphabetically by type. Notebooks are in no particular order, being undated. Scrapbooks are in alphabetical order by subject matter. Writings are arranged alphabetically by type and within that alphabetically by title.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Aiken, Conrad, 1889-1973.
Anderson, C. W. (Clarence William), 1891-1971.
Atwater, Richard.
Barrows, Marjorie.
Bedford-Jones, H. (Henry), 1887-1949.
Bodenheim, Maxwell, 1893-1954.
Colum, Padraic, 1881-1972.
Corey, Albert B. (Albert Bickmore)
Croy, Homer, 1883-1965.
Earp, James W.
Edmonds, Walter Dumaux, 1903-
O'Donnell, Thomas C. (Thomas Clay), 1881-1962.
Starrett, Vincent, 1886-1974.


American literature -- 20th century.
Authors, American.
Folklore -- New York (State)
Periodical editors -- United States.

Genres and Forms

Clippings (information artifacts)
Scripts (documents)



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Thomas Clay O'Donnell Papers
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Mrs. Kathleen O'Donnell Springer, 1964-1968.

Table of Contents

Biographical material


Manuscripts submitted to magazines edited by O'Donnell




Writings in manuscript

Writings, published

Selected index to correspondence - Names

Selected index to correspondence - Topics


Selected index to correspondence - Names

Selected index to correspondence - Topics