She Floats!

On Saturday, June 3, 2017, Finger Boatworks launched a Haven 12 ½ christened Hijinks. This is the first boat that Finger Boatworks has built and the lionshare was completed by Tyler Winger. Finger Boatworks does of course have a connection to me – its owner is my husband, Eric, a former U. S. Coast Guard officer who is also a naval architect. Finger Boatworks (FBW) also maintains many island wooden boats and a few others as well. Currently, FBW is building an Alerion – a boat originally designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” – Nathanael Herreshoff – in the early twentieth century. Herreshoff designed the Alerion so that he could sail the boat himself – this in the day when they wore suit and tie, and hat of course! By then, Herreshoff was an older gentleman who had designed many boats.

Boat building on Nantucket is now few and far between. There are a few who have built for themselves, but very few who now build for specific clients or to sell. Boat building did happen historically on Nantucket. A large boatyard located in the area of Brant Point with a marine railway existed – even building a few whaleships. Whaleboats were also built on the island. In fact, in the early eighteenth century, they lifted the laws banning the cutting of trees on the island so that men could head out to Coatue to cut cedar for the whaleboats. The issue with building on Nantucket was that it was too expensive and boats could be built more easily and cheaply off-island since that is where all the wood to build island boats was coming from to start!

I like to think of Maria, and her brothers and sisters, wandering around the yards, picking up shavings, smelling the fragrance of wood shavings, specifically the cedar, and listening to the rhythmic noise of the saw. Just around the corner from them was a small boatshop – likely whaleboats – and up the street, a cooperage. The eldest Mitchell child, Andrew, would run off to sea at a young age and found himself on a naval ship during the Civil War. He later left the life of the sea and became a farmer – not the first time we had heard that one. He could have been greatly influenced by the boats surrounding him and the sailors and officers of whaleships and merchant and fishing ships. He could have also been influenced by his father with his rating of the chronometers and his work with the US Coast Survey. The Mitchell family had many ship captains through their front sitting room. He could have been influenced by spending his time in a boatshop. And, he could have been further influenced by the fact that his maternal grandfather, a whaleship captain, was lost at sea when Andrew’s mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, was just fourteen years old.

Boat building is an ancient craft. Whether it be small or something like a freighter, it is still a craft that we rely on for multiple purposes whether it be transportation, pleasure, livelihood, food.

Look for Hijinks in the harbor this summer.


We Are Open!

For the season! Come by for a tour. Come by to say hello. Come by to meet this year’s Mitchell House intern, Sabrina Smith, a 2017 graduate of Mount Holyoke College, who is already hard at work on several projects and eager to share. Come and check out the baby camlet and infant cap passed down through the Mitchell family since the 1700s and which was donated just last July.


Vestal Street Update

Toscana begins sewer line replacement.

Toscana Corp is back on Vestal Street! This time, it’s one of the Hinchman House sewer lines that needs replacing. It’s the old one I mentioned quite a few posts ago – January 9, 2017 to be exact. It’s the line that connects to the basement where there was once a toilet but now we connect to a lab sink – and the third floor where the MMA interns live in the summer, as well as off-season visiting groups like Worcester Polytechnic Institute among others. So, the replacement is desperately in need! A matching grant is making the work possible. Yes, you can find grant money that can be used for a sewer line!

And, work to the Research Center continues. The Wing has been painted inside and the sashes in the Main Room, as well as the first coat on the walls in the Main Room. The HVAC installer is working away and the cabinetmaker has completed the microscope station top and is installing its wooden braces, as well as the braces for the other lab tops. Once the HVAC is completed, the carpenter can begin the process of framing up the bathroom and the furnace room and then we will be bringing in the floor finisher for the basement. The light is getting bigger at the end of the tunnel!

Labsink area with temporary support.



Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

May 20, 1882. Vassar is getting pretty. I gathered lilies of the valley this morning. The young robins are out in a tree close by us, and the phoebe built, as usual, under the front steps. I am rushing dome poetry, but so far show no alarming symptoms of brilliancy.

The steps she refers to here, are a wonderful and rather grand wrought iron sweep of a staircase that comes down from the center front of the Observatory. Having stood on them, walked down them, and photographed them rather in-depth (I am something of a photographer of architectural elements – ask my husband – if I have a camera on a walk, it takes FOREVER for me to get down a street), I can tell you that they make a wonderful home for a bird! Just in those few simple words (from a woman who was a natural scientist as well), you get a sense of warmth. The smell of flowers – including the freshly picked lily of the valley which has such a fragrance as to perfume the air outside all around them – the peace and quiet with the gentle rusting of the birds in the trees and their songs, and the gentleness of late spring.

Her dome poetry is, of course, for her renowned Dome Parties she held for her students at the end of every school year in which they had celestial refreshments under the dome and Maria would write poems about each of them – and they would of her and one another. I can feel the gathering.


Honoring Our Veterans

Work begins.

On May 16, 2017 from 6-8PM, I had the honor of working with Nantucket Girl Scout Troops 80978 and 81174. For over a decade, I have been working to clean the stones of not just the Mitchells, but other Nantucketers buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery with the Prospect Hill Cemetery historian, Paula Levy. She and I first crossed paths when I offered a stone cleaning workshop via the Mitchell House and she was one of the attendees. Since then, we have cleaned roughly twenty or so stones and worked on a restoration project to restore the fences at two family plots, one of them being the Mitchell family plot.

Work continues.

Our work together brought about a discussion of Memorial Day services. The Sons of the American Legion and the island Scouts all come together to put flags and red geraniums at the graves of island veterans. The Memorial Day Parade ends with a service at the Soldiers’ Lot burial site. We thought it would be nice for the Scouts to play a larger role in attending to the veterans and also to provide them with some background on them and a sense of ownership. So, I reached out to some scout leaders and the Girl Scout troops noted above joined in. The Legion provided the funds for the supplies and Paula came and spoke to them briefly about the Soldiers’ Lot and the men buried there. And then, I gave them another brief overview of how to clean – this time hands-on rather than explaining it at a meeting. Then, we got to work – Scouts, Scout leaders, mothers. We managed to clean the stones of all the men interred there – Civil War veterans, WWI veterans, VietNam veterans and more. About eighteen monuments were cleaned of their lichen and mosses and protected from further damage. The stones will lighten some – the point is not to make them pristine or bright white. And the lichen has been removed thus stopping further damage from it. You will note a few that are whiter than others – several are newer stones and others may have been cleaned in the past by others though it looks like they were done with harsh chemicals unfortunately. Remember, never clean stones without permission from the cemetery sexton. DO not clean stones of people other than your family. And most importantly, make sure you have been trained first and have the right tools, specifically a cleaner that is appropriate for the work (bleach is a BIG no-no).

Thank you to the Scout and the Legion, as well as troop leaders and parents!


Work completed.

A Swatch of Fabric

1830s Chinese silk to be exact. It literally floated into my lap as I sat reading a letter.

A letter from a young Nantucket girl to her grandparents. A young girl who just several years before had moved from tiny Nantucket Island to San Francisco with her mother to join her father. He had moved for better work and a better life. Nantucket was in an economic decline.

Reading this treasure trove of letters – loaned to me by a friend who is a descendant of these people I mention – was like spying on them. Now, when I read Mitchell family letters and writing it is slightly different for me. Having worked in the Mitchell House for so long, I feel like they are a part of my family. This batch of letters was different however. I felt like they know I read their letters – as if they were looking over my shoulder or sitting on the other side of the room aghast. I felt like they thought no one ever would – or at the very least an outsider – read this correspondence.

The worse letter one was the son writing to his mother upon receipt of her letter telling him of his father’s death. That was hard. Made harder because he thought his father was fine – he was as of the last letter a month or two before. Made harder as I lost my own Father a little over a year ago. I knew how he felt – but cannot imagine receiving a letter that is about a month old telling one of such horrible news. He had not seen his father in several years. I could speak to my Father, visited him monthly, and was there with him. That was not an easy letter to read.

The silk fabric piece is quite beautiful – and still pristine – as if it was just folded into the letter yesterday. She wanted to share with her grandparents the dress that her cousin had brought to her directly from Hong Kong. A cousin, who was likely pregnant – or “sick” as was written but it was obvious what “sick” meant (yes, pregnancy was looked at as an illness in a way – and there were high rates of infant and mother mortality during and immediately following birth). The cousin had travelled back and forth to Hong Kong on the China Trade with her husband it seems but due to the pregnancy had to be put off with family or others until the baby was born. This was a common practice for the wives of whale captains who might go to sea with their husbands. They were put off with other whaling families or missionaries in far off ports so that they could have their baby where others could help. Sometimes they were put off months in advance. And, did you know that Nantucket whale wives were the FIRST to go to sea with their captains husbands? They set the trend – after all, we were the whaling capital of the world. At least, until we lost that title for multiple reasons.

I digress.

The other piece that leads one to realize that money was to be had – at least for the cousin – is that she didn’t bring fabric – she brought the dress already made in Hong Kong. Yes, it would have been less costly there than in the United States but it shows there was extra money for spending. And, there was enough excess fabric inside the dress for this young girl to cut off a piece of it and send it to her grandparents. Making them feel as if they were a part of her daily life – and making her feel that way too. So far from home. On the other side of the continent with Nantucket Sound in the midst, to boot.



I happened upon this lovely nest at the end of April. As I was walking to my car at the end of the workday, I noticed something in the hedge that had not been there before and realized it was a new bird nest! I believe it is that of a robin given its shape and construction and size. What I love is that when I took an interior photograph – I could not see it without taking an image – it revealed a lovely little soft bed of rose leaves. Nice, soft, and snuggly for baby birds – and eggs!

What I fear is that it is very exposed and very low to the ground so we will have to see how she – and they fair – if she indeed uses it and has not already abandoned the idea. Again, it is right on the street. I am concerned about cars, trucks, and people disturbing them but also how exposed it is to predators. We had a robin who decided to nest in the roses on our garage a few years in a row. We felt so bad when we had to open the garage door – it always scared her away. And then, a few other times, a robin – perhaps the same – tried to have multiple broods on the side of our garage only to have her babies ravaged by a hawk several times. Very upsetting.

I will keep you posted on what transpires at the new nest.


Spring Has Sprung

Or at least the tulips and daffodils have! I planted these in the fall and while tulips do not seem to have been in William Mitchell’s list of garden plants – I think he may have had them. The list, which I have mentioned before, was written in summer by John Quincy Adams – the season after that of daffodils and tulips. I am particularly fond of the ones I planted this fall – “Beauty of Spring.” While not a historic variety, tulips are an incredibly old bulb. Are you familiar with the Dutch craze for tulips in the 1600s? At its high point, some tulip bulbs sold for more than some people earned in a year! There are numerous books written about the history of the tulip, including some fictional accounts for children, and it’s an incredible tale. Tulips were supposedly first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire in the tenth century. By the 1600s, during the “craze,” some of the bulbs were used as money until the craze crashed later in the 1630s. Today, tulips are still synonymous with Holland.

Daffodils are ancient flower – older than the tulip. My favorite variety which I have planted in the past at Mitchell House is “Poeticus” or Pheasant’s Eye – it is white with a dark ring at the very center – sort of looking like an eye – and it has the most wonderful scent of any daffodil. They come out later in May or early June. But this year, I opted to add in some of the big bright yellow daffodils that everyone thinks of. Why? Because William Mitchell, though a Quaker, loved bright colors and I think he would love to see this shocking yellow on Vestal Street.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Ap 30 {1882}. I am very well, but age tells on me. My feet are lame if I wear old shoes, my new teeth make my gums sore. It is useless to try to console myself with the recollection that when I was young new shoes harassed me and old teeth kept me awake; the pains of youth are easily forgotten and quickly remedied; those of age cling to you and must be borne. I am thankful to have nothing worse of physical ills.

Even America’s first woman astronomer faced the challenges of getting older. Her description makes me smile – it’s spelled out in typical, forward, no bones about it Maria “speak.” Frank and to the point but also somewhat philosophical if I may say that. The grass is always greener on the other side! When you are young, you want to be older. When you are older, you want to be younger. But as you age, well, playing on the floor with your three-year-old gets a little more creaky. Your child starts to think all mommies moan when they get up from sitting on the floor – and that it takes a while. I wonder what MM would think of me?

JNLF (AKA Old Mommy)

Curator Almost Eaten By Large Lobster

Well, not quite. But, part of my job is to also take care of all of the MMA properties. So, I headed over to check on one and what cleaning supplies are needed for the summer and for our staff spring clean-up of the site. In one room, some of the animals from the Aquarium over-winter. One of those is “our” lobster, Clementine, so-called because she is orange in color. (Orange lobsters are five times rarer than blue lobsters and only one in ten million lobsters are orange.) She is fairly active and though the hope is that she “sleeps” a bit for the winter, she doesn’t seem to.

So, enter curator into room who glances over and hopes the lobster does not “run” to the side of the tank asking to be fed. Yes, she really does that – she has gotten used to people. I always hate it because I feel guilty – I do not feed her because that falls to the Natural Science Department and I do not want to hurt her or her schedule in any way. In any case, “Whew!” She actually seemed quiet at the back of the tank. Maybe she was “sleeping.” I kept moving to the next room and glanced back. Low and behold, she was at the front of the tank waving her claws! Seriously? So I kept moving on – after telling her, “I can’t feed you,” – and she went to the back of the tank again! Another, “Whew!”

Eating a shrimp for lunch.

I decided to text Emily, our Director of Natural Science, and relay what happened. I get a text back. “You can feed her if you want.” “Really?” I texted back. “What do I give her?” So, Clementine then ran back to the front of the tank when she saw me opening the freezer and taking out the mussels and a shrimp. I got another text from Emily: “Use the forceps to hand them to her.” Well, I wasn’t about to put my hand in there! So, I get the shrimp, put it in the forceps, open the top of the tank and start to put my hand down, and INSTANTLY two HUGE lobster claws come out of the tank and grab not the shrimp but the forceps! I wish I had a picture. I was afraid she was going to take the forceps. And then, I was afraid my hand was going to be her lunch. I could not get her to release the forceps – it was a battle royale though the battle was more on her part because I was afraid I would break her claw! After some twisting of the forceps and tugging, she finally relented, took the shrimp, and began her lunch. Another, “Whew!” I was afraid I was either going to hurt her or I was going to be explaining to my three-year old what happened to Mommy’s hand at work. Veuve Clicquot with that, Clementine?

Apparently, someone else knew what transpired with the lobster. As I left the building, a male mallard duck was paddling around in the rather large puddle – if you can call it that – located on the property. We have recently had a large amount of rain. He was laughing (I mean quacking) at me.

In all seriousness, I have never met a lobster with so much personality. Yes, personality. Clementine may just have changed my tune on lobster rolls.