Still Going


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the morning glories and nasturtiums in the Mitchell House front garden were still going.  Well, they still are!

Granted the morning glory blossoms are small but the nasturtiums are still happy.  Yes, fewer buds but they keep on trucking along happy with the warmth and sunshine they get from the south and the protection of Mitchell House.

I have to admit though, the morning glories vines and leaves were sad and wind whipped so I finally pulled them on November 18.  We still have not had a hard frost – or much frost at all for that matter – so once that comes along then they will be slime.  I will leave the nasturtiums and see how long they get.  I actually picked a bunch for my desk!



Is a time of and for thanks.  I have quite a few people to thank and I fear I won’t capture all of them here.  I am giving my thanks to the women and men who do a lot of things for MMA and for me on a daily basis, particularly where it concerns my work on the MMA facilities.  These are the people who have been working on our buildings and grounds, keeping things looking nice and improving upon things that are broken, rundown, and not looking so nice frankly.  And many of them have been doing it for many years already.

Some of our projects this year have been grant funded and we are greatly appreciative to those people, foundations, and granting agencies for their confidence in and support of our work.

This year’s projects – and repairs – have included things like new gutters on some of our buildings – including Hinchman House – painting of Hinchman and the Astronomer’s Cottage, work on turning our former Science Library into a Research Center, roofing Hinchman, installing a new (not leaking) shower and bathroom floor in the Hinchman dorm, and installing new drainage and a sewer line.  These are just a few of the “biggies” but there are also things like washing windows, cleaning dryer vents (we have five of those!), and fixing the lighting which are just as important and may get overlooked sometimes.

So here goes the Thanks part which also includes the crews of these contractors, craftsmen, and artisans – all of my heroes! –  as well.  The MMA and I are eternally grateful!


Wayne and Andrea Morris, Wayne Morris Mason                   

Matt Anderson, Anderson Carpentry

Pen Austin                                                                               

Jim Badera, Badera Engineering

Jon Vollans, Vollans Electric                                                   

Bob Butler, Marden Plumbing  

Mickey Rowland, Milton Rowland Architects                            

Greg Maskell, Maskell Landscaping

Kevin Wiggin, Kevin Wiggin HVAC, Inc.                                   

Mike Freedman, Cabinetmaker

Jim Tyler, James Tyler Painting                                               

Marine Home Center

Burton Went, WMW Tile, Inc.                                                   

Sharon Cross

Pioneer Cleaning                                                                    


James Lydon and Sons and Daughters Roofing                         

Visco Pumping

Island Carpet                                                                          

John Wathne, Structures-North

Matt Ireland                                                                            

Jonathan Miles Window Cleaning

Taylor Butler                                                                           

Chris Miller

Eric Finger                                                                             

John Daly Plumbing

Island Cleaning Services                                                          

Greenwood Alarm       

Valero Locksmith Service

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Nov. 23 {1870}

My dear Lizzie {Williams, Vassar Class of 1869},

 . . . And you are so all over a radical, that it won’t hurt you to be toned down a little.  And in a few years (as the world moves) your family will have moved one way and you the other, a little and you will suddenly find yourselves in the same plane.

It is much the way it has been between Miss Lyman {Vassar’s Lady Principal} and myself.  Today she is more of a Women’s Rights woman than I was when I came here, while I begin to think that the girls dress better at tea time . . .

I have learned to think that a young girl better not walk to town alone even in the day time.  When I came here I should have allowed a child to do it.  But I never knew much of the world, never shall, nor will you . . .  we are both a little deficient in worldly caution and worldly policy . . . .

Lizzie is Elizabeth Williams Champney, a Vassar College student of Maria Mitchell’s who would become a close friend.  Her artist husband would paint a portrait of Maria later in her life – the couple had named a daughter after Maria Mitchell – and at least one of Lizzie’s books was dedicated to Maria Mitchell.  While a student at Vassar, Lizzie wrote a mock-biblical account of the life of Vassar’s founder, Matthew Vassar, that was claimed to be “shocking” and banned from the campus by Principal Lyman.

Lizzie was raised in Ohio by abolitionist parents – more than likely Quaker – thus she and Maria  shared a somewhat similar upbringing and also one of some sheltering.  This is noted throughout Maria’s letter to Lizzie – the trusting nature of non-worldly people as Quakers were – their trust for one another and “worldly” people (non-Quakers).  But also the equality factor – that a young woman should have no qualms of walking freely as Maria and other women did on Nantucket; as Lizzie did in her Quaker community at home.

Quakers were not just the leaders of slaves’ rights, they were also the leaders among women’s rights having been raised in families, religious meetings, and communities where women were treated as equals.  But being more radical in one’s views and actions would still bring some consternation among Quakers as no doubt Lizzie’s family was.  And Maria, as she noted to Lizzie, was not so radical nor such a woman’s rights woman.  Her upbringing had taught her that everyone was equal so it was a shock for Maria when confronted with a different way of treating women as she found off her Nantucket home.  This letter to Lizzie seems to serve as a gentle reminder or a gentle guidance to keep that in mind.


Lyon Pride

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Mary Lyon was the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  Frankly, she wanted it to be a college but given the times, she had a hard time convincing people (read: funders) of that.  Thus, the word “seminary” was chosen and the school opened in 1837 becoming the first women’s college in the country.  In 1861, the three-year course of study became four and then in 1888, the college was given its collegiate status.  The development of women’s colleges is a fascinating subject – cloistered as they were away from the hustle and bustle – and influences! – of towns and menfolk (of course!).  They were modeled in their design and basic daily running after insane asylums of the early nineteenth century – I kid you not.  I could go on but that is not the focus of this blog’s subject matter today.

There is a little arguing over just which college was first for women but it has been agreed that Wellesley and Vassar Colleges both modeled themselves after MHC as it is referred to by us alums – yes, I graduated from MHC.  There have been quite a few MHCers who have crossed the threshold at MMA I am happy to say – via internships in all the departments, fellowships that helped to begin the Astronomy Department back in the early twentieth century, and staff positions.

Mary Lyon smiled a bit more back in August when new Director of Natural Science, Emily Goldstein Murphy, joined the MMA.  Emily graduated several moons (pun intended) after I did from MHC but nevertheless that sisterhood spans generations and I am happy to have her join   us – as I am sure Maria Mitchell and Mary Lyon would be.

Welcome, Emily!  Roar!


My Visitors

Grape Arbor Sans Grapes or Leaves

It’s cold again.

Last week, I began to put the Mitchell House garden to bed.  With no frost yet though, the morning glories and nasturtiums are still going.  I didn’t have the heart to rip them out so I will let the frost get them and then, I will pull them out.

The rest of the MMA landscape is tended to by our wonderful landscaper and his crew who has been working for the MMA for over thirty years, Greg Maskell.  I believe we are the recipients of some generously discounted work at times.  Recently, Greg just put in a dry well and re-graded the area to the south of Hinchman to help us with our drainage issues.  I also asked him to put some gravel down in that work area – the old driveway – and it looks so much better and will be much nicer for the Natural Science Department to work over there – instead of working in mud!

One thing Greg and his crew did yesterday was cut back Peleg Mitchell’s grapes on the arbor at Mitchell House.  Always sad – and I fear another cold winter that might damage even more than last winter.  But now, its stark once again with just the close cut vines and no more straggling- hanging on-not yet fallen-or-eaten off grapes.  (This year the grapes were super sweet!).  The grapes have been a boon to a male cardinal who has been on them for weeks now.  I was upset to see him this morning though – and he was upset to see the grapes were gone.  I feel badly for him – those were nice meals he was having!

But, the cutting of the grapes did yield two more visitors today!  A Downy woodpecker and a White-breasted nuthatch were hopping around on the vines searching out a little sap and most definitely some bugs.  Such stark contrasts in color compared to the cardinal – all blacks, whites and greys save for the downy’s little red tuft on the back of his head.

So, I guess fall is here.  I finally had to drag out my heater since I have no heat over here at Mitchell House!  Brrr!


Research Center Update

Main Room shelves

Work to the Main Room has begun as of Monday, October 17!  The cabinetmaker, Mike Freedman, and his team has come in to begin working with the existing 1920s shelving.  We will be keeping the major components, removing some of the shelves, and where absolutely necessary, making alterations so that we can fit in the large equipment needed, including a sink, chest freezer (for all those pre-processed skins), drying oven (to dry specimens), fume cabinet (for working with chemicals), refrigerator (for specimens not lunches!), and counter space.  You can see in these images some of the first steps.  In one image, you can see that underneath the shelving we revealed the original planks for the flooring of William Mitchell’s schoolhouse as the Main Room was once his school. Then in the 1920s, the MMA placed lovely pine flooring over it.  Then in the 1960s/1970s, we unfortunately put down a plywood sub-floor over the pine and then the tiles you see today.  In order to conserve money however, we are keeping the tiles (for now).  We will clean and wax them.Original Floor boards under shelves and tile and pine!

Most of the new supports have been completed in the basement and the structural engineer was on site recently and designed the final component – the doorway that we need to create between the two separate basements.  Yes, the 1830s schoolhouse has a completely separate basement from the Wing!

So, things are moving still.  Other things we are working towards – the cut between the basements, the installation of beams to “sister” along the old ones that support the first floor flooring members, and making the cuts to ready for the new HVAC install.  Stay tuned!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Oct 22, 1869
Chs. B. Trego, Esq.
I have your circular of Oct 15, informing me of my election as a member of the American Phil. Society of Philadelphia. You will please accept my thanks for the honor conferred upon me. Will you have the goodness too inform me if a complete set of the publications of the society can be obtained?
Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was one of the first women to be inducted into the American Philosophical Society. At the time she was inducted, Mary Somerville (one of Maria’s heroes) and Elizabeth C. Agassiz were inducted. Before that time, only one other woman had become a member – Ekaterina Dashkov in 1789. While she had asked her father, William, to write her letter accepting her membership as the first woman at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Maria wrote her own letter as seen above. By this time, she was at Vassar College and as an older woman and Vassar’s professor of Astronomy, more independent, comfortable, and accepted as a woman acting alone. Times had also changed – it was twenty years since the AAAS induction and while a very few things had changed for women – at least writing a letter for herself and not asking a man in her family to do so!


A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith

Peleg's coat peg

This was previously published in Yesterday’s Island this summer and on my Nantucket Chronicle column, “The Nation of Nantucket.” If you keep up with “Maria Mitchell’s Attic,” then you should know who Peleg Mitchell Junior is!

It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.

“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.

Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.

Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.


You Are a Rock!

Library Structural Rock

I have to say, I did tell this rock you see here, “you are a rock!” the other day. That was, after I had gone back over to the Mitchell House and I was alone of course.

For maybe eighty or so years, this rock was doing a serious job. It was a big support. I am not kidding you. The other day, I was handed this rock by the mason – Wayne Morris and his mason tender, his daughter Andrea – while I stopped in to check on the work in the basement of our soon to be Research Center. Andrea pulled the rock out of a bucket. Wayne said, “You know where that was?” Turns out this rock was filling a void between a support beam and a concrete block – basically acting as a filler to hold it all in place.

Now, before we all exclaim, “What?!” we have to think about when and how this was done. It was done in the 1920s, so the gentleman who did this was likely born in at least the 1870s. That – and his growing up and beginnings of work life – being a time when he would have learned from and been trained by carpenters and others who worked in the mid-nineteenth century. So this rock, while something we would not do today, was a perfectly acceptable building material in the 1920s still.

I have seen this before – not just in our historic MMA buildings but all around Nantucket and even off-island. I sit on the board of a very old organization here on the island and recently when we had work done to a building we found boulders and large rocks being used to hold up building and landscaping components from the nineteenth century. Heck, there are still many foundations on island that are rubble or even one rock holding up a long expanse of a sill. It works, still does, may very likely to continue to work even when we are all dead and gone. They knew how to build then – with limited building technologies compared to today.

Despite all this, the rock is not going back. But it will live on as a testament to the builders of our past!


Vestal Street Update

IMG_3271 3 Vestal Sash

Been a busy summer on so many fronts and boy, am I tired! Lots still to do though. Museums may close up but that doesn’t mean we stop working on any of our many fronts!

Hinchman House is now nice and sparkly with a brand new paint job thanks to Jim Tyler and his wonderful crew! After they finished Hinchman, they returned a few weeks later and painted the trim, sash, basement foundation, and the chimney at the Astronomer’s Cottage! I made a visit to the Historic District Commission for permission on a new front door at the Astronomer’s Cottage as well. The current one is circa 1965 or so and our neighbors very nicely donated a much older door they had in their basement. Thus, fairly soon, we will have a new door on the Astronomer’s Cottage at Number 3 Vestal that is not rotting away! The Astronomer’s Cottage is ca. 1830 and from some of the images I took of the window trim and sash, you can certainly see that.

Next up, shingling and re-roofing the Astronomer’s Cottage and repairing and replacing gutters and downspouts at Hinchman House. Much of this work on the two properties is being funded in part by a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (MCF) grant. It is a 1:1 match and we are still wrapping up that match amount should you wish to make a contribution. MCF provided $117,000.00 and MMA has to match the remainder.

More still to come – including work on the Research Center and a site visit by the structural engineer whom I have worked with for many years. He will be here to begin an assessment on the 1908 Vestal Street Observatory and 1922 Astronomical Study (the brick parapet addition) which will be another conservation project in the MMA’s future.