Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1883, July. I heard Mr. Adams at the Universalist Church . . . I was most surprised at his fear of Tyndall, Huxley and Spencer. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the searching after it?

I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence and while their live sensualists and despots and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bare to have these sincere workers help up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the Earth.

Wow! Not much to comment here but somehow Maria already knew about the world in 2016, including the U.S. presidential contest! Goes without saying, some things never change.


The Finer Points of Cleaning New Donations

Cleaning new donations

On July 12th, I introduced the Mitchell House intern to the finer points of cleaning artifacts – in-depth curatorial cleaning. Nikki Lohr (a Vassar College senior this year, this summer’s intern, comes to us via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship funded by a Vassar alum. The artifacts were recently donated to us from Ginger Andrews out of her family’s home on York Street which has been in the family since it was built about 1830. We were given several child-related items which had been living in the attic for a very long time and due to being so close to the roof were quite dusty and dirty from things sifting down through roof shingles and sheathing boards from wind and even re-roofing projects. She is wearing the delightful particle mask to protect her from any mold and dust. Since we do not have an indoor conservation workplace, we have to rely on a nice day outdoors to get the job done and the 12th was a perfect day – a gentle day and no humidity! We also worked on photographing the items and labeling them as we get them ready to put into our collections database.

In this image, Nikki is working on a child’s potty-chair. It is unfortunately missing its pot, but it is a wonderful mid-nineteenth century chair with hand-painted details. This chair along with a child’s rocking chair, a child’s doll cart, and an image of the astronomer Loomis will now all be on display at the Mitchell House so come see what’s new!

More Activities on Vestal Street Than You Shake a Stick At!

Painting Hinchman House

When you visit Vestal Street you may begin to notice some more changes at the Maria Mitchell Association. We continue our work to the MMA’s former Science Library which hopefully – by late fall – will be up and running as our new Research Center. The building largely remains as it always has but now it will have a state-of-the-art climate system and an improved classroom space. It will also serve as the Natural Science Department offices and continue as a collections storage site this time with the biological collections, as well books from the former circulating collection of science books. We have even removed that very old unsightly oil tank and the garbage bins as well. The mason is currently working in the basement to replace the support posts with new posts with proper footings rather than just sitting on top of the concrete floor as they have been doing for many decades. We want to make sure that the main floor is properly supported! Yes, things are looking much nicer at Number 2.

And, if you look closely, Hinchman House has a brand new roof which I posted about a few weeks ago. And soon, the Astronomer’s Cottage at 3 Vestal Street will have a new roof. We have improved drainage in the backyard area at Hinchman House, we will be painting the exterior of Hinchman House – in fact it began on June 24th, and the Astronomer’s Cottage trim and sashes will be painted soon as well. The work on these two properties is funded largely thanks to a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund. It is a 1:1 matching grant for which we are still raising the remaining matching portion so please let us know if you would like to help!

I am happy to report as well that our Executive Director, Dave Gagnon, who just celebrated his one year of working for the MMA and living on Nantucket, has moved into the Astronomer’s Cottage. He and his wife, Shelley Dresser, and their youngest daughter, Hope, have all moved in – along with friendly and sweet dogs Maddie and Winnie (Winston, yes after Winston Churchill and this Winston is a male Papillion), and lion-maned rabbit, Sebastian. And with a few new coats of paint and some other spiffing and repairs they are making 3 Vestal Street their home.

So please, if you have not done so already, come take a look and while you are at it, visit our sites!


Like Small Clams at the Bottom of their Chairs

Mushrooms at Mitchell's

I came across this beautiful little line-up the other day when I went to drop off more of my books at Mitchell’s Book Corner for them to sell and a certain line immediately came into my head. “ . . . . that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.” I am hoping that you will recognize that as the early part of the chapter on Nantucket in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. And all the more appropriate because it was at the bookstore! Yes, they are not clams but mushrooms but that is what I immediately thought of. Perhaps there is another book out there that refers to mushrooms all in a row but I was taken by these when I saw them. Proudly standing up along Orange and Main Street; squished between brick wall and sidewalk. And I have recounted before the connections between Melville and Maria Mitchell. And add to that too that Mitchell’s Book Corner was founded by Henry Mitchell “Mitch” Havemeyer, the only grandson of Maria Mitchell’s youngest brother Henry Mitchell, in 1968.

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.