Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

1881, June 6
I have been clearing up drawers. A sad business when it comes to burning letters or not burning, of those who have passed away . . .

After the Great Fire of 1846 that destroyed much of the lower core district of the Town of Nantucket, including the all-important wharves, Maria Mitchell destroyed many of her private papers after witnessing those of others blowing about the Town laying bare their most intimate feelings and words. For us, it is most unfortunate. I am sure burning happened quite a bit with private papers that no one wished to keep but when I read Maria’s own words about burning letters and papers I always wish she had not! Some of the things she may not have thought appropriate for others to read would likely not be inappropriate in our eyes today. But as she notes, it was also a hard process – especially when those letters served as the tangible memory of someone lost – the actual paper, their words, their writing that was still on the page even though they were no longer of the Earth. Her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall to whom Maria left her personal papers and which Phebe compiled into a book, additionally did a good job of destroying things she felt were not appropriate for others to read. She bladed out pages from Maria’s journals, pasted pages together so that if pulled apart (even by a conservator) all the words would be obliterated, or she crossed out passages with ink. She developed a very good hatching system with her pen and ink! You cannot make out one word! It is infuriating but they both accomplished their goal, that’s for sure!



Every year we have quite a few leaves but very rarely do we actually get a flower! So I was very excited the other day when I spied this from several feet away. I was actually having a fairly serious work discussion with the MMA’s Executive Director when quite frankly, I pretty much shushed him by throwing up my hand and saying “Wait! It’s a Mayapple!” Thoroughly confusing him of course because what the heck is a Mayapple? My son was also present and at age two is now into mimicking things he thinks sound fun so then he started yelling in two-year-old speak, “We have a Mayapple!” Of course, it typically flowers in May – thus its name – but on Nantucket that would be the beginning of June.
For those of you not familiar with what one is, here is some information on it from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Podophyllum peltatum
Podophyllum peltatum L.
Mayapple, Indian apple, Wild mandrake, Pomme de mai, Podophylle pelt
Berberidaceae (Barberry Family)
USDA Native Status: L48 (N), CAN (N)
Mayapple is unique in that It has only 2 leaves and 1 flower, which grows in the axil of the leaves. The large, twin, umbrella-like leaves of mayapple are showy and conspicuous. They remain closed as the stem lengthens, unfolding 6–8 inches across when the plant has reached its 1-1 1/2 ft. height. The solitary, nodding, white to rose-colored flower grows in the axil of the leaves and has 6–9 waxy white petals, with many stamens. The nodding fruit is a large, fleshy, lemon-shaped berry.
Mayapple colonizes by rhizomes, forming dense mats in damp, open woods. The common name refers to the May blooming of its apple-blossom-like flower. Although the leaves, roots, and seeds are poisonous if ingested in large quantities, the roots were used as a cathartic by Native Americans. The edible, ripe, golden-yellow fruits can be used in jellies. The alternate popular name Mandrake rightly belongs to an unrelated Old World plant with a similar root.

Cleaning Historic Gravestones and Author’s Tent at the Nantucket Book Festival: A Busy Saturday

Lot 106 MMA PHC Historic Preservation Workshop

On Saturday, June 18th, I may feel, by the end of the day, that I need several of myself to accomplish everything. As a mother of a two-year-old with a fulltime job and the business of sitting on several boards, it would be nice to have three – or four! – of me; or me, myself, and I.

In all seriousness, this is a little promotion for our Stone Cleaning Workshop from 10-Noon on June 18th. I will again be joining forces with Paula Levy, Prospect Hill Cemetery historian, to demonstrate the proper way to conserve stone monuments – aka gravestones. We have been doing this for about ten years now and it’s an interesting way to learn about Prospect Hill and how to conserve these beautiful stones, while at the same time helping to preserve them! I just ask that you call the Mitchell House to reserve a spot – 508.228.2896. It is $10 for MMA Members and $15 for Non-Members which helps to defray the cost of supplies. Just wear clothes that can get dirty.

And on another note, I have been asked to be one of the local authors at the Nantucket Book Festival’s Local Author’s Tent this year and I am very honored to do so. It runs from 9-12 and 12:30 – 3:30. Since I will be cleaning stone monuments in the morning, I will be at the tent for the afternoon session. Lots of interesting authors will be there at the different sessions so come check it out. I will be representing my book, The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women. So please stop by and say hello!



At the beginning of May, I spoke at a unique gathering in Chatham. ChathamWISE was developed by Cape-native Judith Colombo as a gathering of women in the science, technology, medicine, and government. It’s a women’s think tank.

“The multi-generational and cross-discipline model provides a unique blend of perspectives as well as opportunity for rich discussion regarding strategies for career success in the various ‘gender challenged’ professions. A good number of participants are in the midst of ‘finishing strong’ and offer a wealth of knowledge regarding career transitions, ‘capstone’ projects, etc.”

It is by invitation only, twenty to thirty brilliant women, and they do not know who will be there until they arrive. “A ‘think-tank’ experience offered for a select few whose work has a far reach. Providing an opportunity to make cross discipline connections and explore new ways of approaching innovation together. This is not a conference with multiple speakers, but rather a time to get away with other amazing women and reflect on your career…”

And what an amazing group of women whom I was honored to speak to about concerning legacy, specifically using Maria Mitchell as an example of a legacy that lives on today whether that be her approach to learning and teaching, those she influenced – and that Maria Mitchell influence touches all of us whether you realize it or not – and even the words and papers she left behind. All of the women present have a legacy that will live on and influence others even when they are gone. We all leave a lasting legacy whether we realize it or not. What surprised me is that these women did not realize the rich legacy they were creating and what they would leave behind. Simply amazing, brilliant women who have touched all of us in more ways than they – or we – will ever know. Truly an inspirational visit for me as well!


More Work on Vestal Street

Re-roofing Hinchman

It may be something that you will not even notice but we certainly will! Another move to protect our historic properties – a new roof on Hinchman House our natural science museum located at 7 Milk Street. This beautiful circa 1810 house has a roof that has served more than its time! The roof is at least forty years old on the main part of the house and has been starting to show just how tired it is. With a recent matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, James Lydon and his crew are now hard at work on the roof.

Hinchman House came to the MMA from a descendant of Peleg Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s uncle. Hinchman House’s front entryway is unique for Nantucket. While it boasts side lights and a transom which are typical features of a Nantucket doorway, it also has tapering pilasters and a cornice reminiscent of a Federal-style doorway. However, unlike many Federal-style doorways, the decoration on Hinchman House is restrained. The builder and homeowner, Thomas Coffin, wanted to have a doorway that still made a presence on Milk Street, but wanted to keep this entryway within the parameters of the Quaker ethic of building.

Lydia Hinchman, daughter of Peleg Mitchell, purchased the house from the Woodbridge family in 1929 in order to protect the Mitchell House and the new MMA Library at 2 Vestal Street. She furnished it so that her son, C. Russell Hinchman (who was the MMA’s board president in the early 1940s), and his family and descendants would be able to use it as a summer home. She asked that upon his death, it be given to the MMA. He would die sooner than ever expected – in 1944. He left it in his will to the MMA and the MMA Board of Managers accepted the gift in August 1944 naming it the Lydia S. Hinchman House in her honor. It opened to the public in 1945 as the Department of Natural Science and the Natural Science Museum.


How Lily of the Valley Opens Memories

Lily of the Valley

It is that time of year – Lily of the valley is blooming. Here I will re-post a blog I wrote a few years ago.

The Lily of the Valley at Mitchell House is in full bloom. It is just about the earliest Lily of the Valley to make its appearance on island and at Mitchell House it lives in full, blazing sun which is fairly unusual. When you walk into the rear yard, it is all you smell. It is calming and sweet and the air is full of it. I look forward to being greeted by this heady scent and to picking tiny little bouquets of it. I am not sure how old it is – I would say at least the 1930s when the cottage was added but it could date back to the nineteenth century – at least that is what I would like to believe!

Lily of the Valley was found outside the porch of my childhood home, transplanted there by my Mother I think from the home of a close family friend. This friend – more like a great aunt to me as she was my Nana’s best friend from about the age of 10 – also had French and white lilacs blooming in her yard so our home always had big bouquets of lilacs at this time of the year – one of my favorite scents. We also had two lilac bushes in our yard – the lighter purple color. One of them was extremely tall – reaching all the way to the middle of the second floor right outside the bathroom. So, when it was blooming, you could smell it through the open window but also, my Mother would simply open the screen and lean out with her clippers to cut the blooms.

My mother-in-law’s favorite flower was Lily of the Valley. She had a bit of it along the side of the garage. She and my father in law also had a very large, old Bleeding Heart plant in the backyard alongside the fence. It was beautiful. When the house sold, my husband dug it up and brought it from upstate New York all the way to Nantucket. We were nervous that the trip and transplantation of it would bring it to an end. Supposedly, Bleeding Heart plants don’t like to be transplanted. But I am happy to report, a year later it is in full bloom and makes us happy and sad to look at it. I think it may have actually been transplanted before – from the farm where my mother-in-law grew up. Unfortunately, we will never know. I have other Bleeding Heart plants in the yard at home but the New York one is much heartier – I think given its age and because the strain is more pure.

I also grew up with Bleeding Heart plants in the yard. And one we had was also a transplant. It was given to my Mother by a woman who worked at the butcher shop she used to shop at when we were young. It’s amazing how simple things, even a plant, can bring up so many happy memories of people, events, places, and seasons.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

May 16, 1870
President Raymond,
We desire to call your attention to the fact, that, after nearly five years of what we believe to be faithful working for the good of the College, our pay is still far below that which has been offered at entrance, to the other professors, even when they have been wholly inexperienced. We respectfully ask that our salaries may be made equal to those of other professors.
Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy
Alida C. Avery Professor of Physiology and Hygiene

As I have noted in several posts before, Maria Mitchell was grossly underpaid for her work, as was Alida Avery though she would later be paid a bit more. The Trustees of Vassar College used Maria Mitchell’s housing situation to claim her smaller pay – she lived in the Observatory with her father (thus having “two homes”) while everyone else lived in Main Building. They claimed she had a private residence – with all her students studying and observing on top of her she had no privacy in her “own” home – and her building also used a lot of coal! This was a constant battle for Maria. When they did increase the salaries of Alida Avery and Maria, the Trustees raised the room and board fee on the two women! Equal pay for equal work was frankly never settled for these women. Today, it still isn’t as we have been seeing it screaming in headlines as women athletes are stepping up – such as women soccer players. Ever noticed how professional women basketball players need to have jobs outside of basketball? The men don’t! In 1878, under a new president, Maria presented a summary of the salary disputes to a Vassar trustee and in this summary it was revealed that both Maria and Alida Avery were so upset by the discrepancy they thought about resigning from the College. Vassar would have been a very different place without these two women.



Eric from Toscana in the beginnings of a dry well hole.

Feast your eyes on these photographs! Thanks to Toscana and Marden Plumbing, we now have a new sewer connection at 2 Vestal Street – our soon to be new Research Center! Additionally, Toscana has been creating a new drainage system for 2 Vestal Street and our Natural Science Museum at Hinchman House located adjacent to 2 Vestal. We also need to thank the engineers who designed the system, Blackwell and Associates, and to our ever wonderful landscaper and his crew – Greg of Greg Maskell Landscaping – who came in to remove landscaping right before Toscana moved in. Thank you!! The drainage system will pull the water away from the Research Center into several dry wells and it will also pump water away from Hinchman House where it tends to flood down by the pond in heavy rain. The ditch that was dug for the drainage was about eight to nine feet deep. A foot of gravel was laid, then the plastic (orange) chambers put in, then more gravel to about two feet below the top, then sand, then fabric, then more dirt, and then hopefully a restored lawn! So, once we get a new roof on Hinchman and new gutters, it will be a nicely sealed envelope there too.

Dry well chambers.

Dry well chambers.

One other happy note – this week I picked up our Building Permit from the Town – finally it is in hand! Soon, we will begin work to the interior – a very light touch which will look like we have not done much inside. We are attempting to preserve the interior and not just the exterior. A thanks to Jim Badera of Badera Engineering for his help with code issues and Mickey Rowland our architect. Without them, it would have made my path through code and access issues very long and dark!

Trench by Hinchman House for pipes to bring water up from pump to dry wells.

Trench by Hinchman House for pipes to bring water up from pump to dry wells.


The Tallest of Us All

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My Dad, decorating the table for Easter 2014. About a week later, he was hospitalized for a massive infection, a side effect of his chemotherapy, that almost killed him.

A short time ago, my nephew finally talked about my Father who died on February 13th this year. He had not mentioned him before that. As my Mother was putting him to bed he said, “Grandpa was the tallest of all of us in the family, right Nana? He had to bend to get under some doors.” He is right. My Dad was the tallest – in many ways. He always stooped or bent his head a bit to the side when he went through a doorway. It was something he did automatically. And living, in a 1750s tavern, reinforced that habit. But he was the tallest too as the heart of our family. He and my Mother together. I love that in his mind’s eye, my nephew sees him as a giant because he was. A giant in our life; a giant in the lives of everyone he touched. You can’t say that about everyone. He was a protector; a quest stable force that so many relied upon, that we relied upon. But he taught us well; I think he gave us a very good map to follow. His guidance is there.

Maria and Father, William Mitchell (Photo)

William and Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

The Mitchell family had the same in their father and mother as well. When Lydia Mitchell died in 1861, Maria and her father, William, were just about all that was left on island of the immediate Mitchell family. They could not take it; they could not remain here without her. It was too painful. And so, in a way, they fled their island home to a small city where they were close to family and friends, but where every turn did not remind them of what they had lost. When she lost her father, she was even more adrift. Maria cared for both of her parents but her father was also her mentor and in many respects a “co-worker.” She felt even more abandoned when she lost him.

Everyone reacts differently. I think that fleeing is just burying your head in a way, but I certainly understand it. I live in the house that my Father designed and that my parents built and it is painful. But I am removed from the Town in which my parents live and our family house and the reminders at every turn – though there are many here on island as well since my time here goes back to the age of one and a half – my Dad to 1964 and my Mom to the 1950s.