The World and Works of the Nelson Brothers 

130-year-old kids' art rivals most TV series

William J. Little, an alter ego of one of the Nelson boys and a central figure in many of their  stories.

William J. Little, an alter ego of one of the Nelson boys and a central figure in many of their stories.

The Nelson boys—Walter, Arthur and Elmer—were probably the most precocious kids in Goshen, N.H., circa 1880. Avid readers of adventure stories and subscribers of The Youths' Companion magazine, they were also the sons of a modest farming family. Their rural upbringing, combined with their varied reading habits, came together in a richly imagined fantasy world that they documented and explored through more than 60 hand-drawn books. The body of work, which includes an illustrated guide titled Gazetter of the World, includes histories of made-up wars, imaginary colonies, tales of wilderness and high seas adventures, and biographies and portraits of the brothers' alter egos.

They also had a keen eye for the real. In addition to their books, the brothers took more than 500 photographs and penned musings about their daily lives on the farm. Taken together, the Nelsons' creations give a glimpse into the daydreams, interests, ambitions and personalities of 19th century farm boys—a rare, comprehensive find from any historical time period, but especially interesting for its portrait of rural childhood.

The Nelson books, photographs and other writings have been compiled and digitized by Amherst College, which describes the archive as a "testimony to the magic of the ordinary."

It certainly is that, as well as a reminder—more than 130 years old—of the "curiosity, pleasure and deep engagement" that young minds are capable of if given the time, space and tools to exercise them.

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