Getting There

Last fall, you may remember, we received a gift that allowed us to work with our landscaper on re-doing the garden on Vestal Street in front of the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory.  I wrote a blog about it and then filled you in this spring on some of the planting.

Well, it needs some more work – onion grass is a BEAST to pull out – but we are getting there!  I’m happy to say that the mallow transplanted well, as did the Joe Pye Weed, and the Milkweed is popping up in all its random places.  I have also weeded out and planted some natives along the accessibility ramp at Hinchman House Natural Science Museum.  One will find regular garden plants mixed in – they are nice to still have and offer food to some of the visiting animals.  And along Mitchell House, I focus on heirloom plants, what was in William Mitchell’s garden and the other Mitchell family members who inhabited the House, and plants that were found in gardens in the nineteenth century.

I have installed plant tags to help identify the plants and I have two bigger garden signs that I created and are currently being fabricated (ah, the Internet).  They will be very small, printed signs on bamboo plaques but they will note why our gardens look a little messy.

We do want the milkweed – it’s a happy host to milkweed beetles and even more importantly to monarchs which are fast losing their habitat – in fact it’s gone in many places.  We used to have thousands of monarchs every year on Vestal – not anymore.  We are lucky if we see a few dozen.  So, a wildflower and native species garden – as it has been for decades and decades in that same spot – is very important for the bird, insect, and mammalian life that needs it and also supports the MMA’s mission – just look to our Hinchman House Natural Science Museum and Department and you understand.

So come take a look, and cheer on some of our teeny, tiny seedlings as they grow.  Feel free to pull the onion grass – but leave everything else!  But oh – you can chase the bunnies away – they are back and eating everything including all my Morning Glories and they have just about taken down two gallon-sized cardinal flower plants!


Stone Monument Conservation

On Saturday, June 1, we had our yearly stone monument conservation workshop.  We had some students from Preservation Institute Nantucket join us and these are some of the stones we worked on at Lot 471, the Captain Henry C. Pinkham Lot.  The captain, his first wife, and his second wife had their stones cleaned with a special cleaner specifically made for stone conservation.  One must be trained in cleaning and use the proper tools and cleaner.  One must also have permission form the cemetery to clean a stone – even of one’s own family – and one must never clean stones without permission from family members or descendants. 

There are several other people buried in the lot – their stones either never existed or unfortunately and sadly, went missing.  One of these family members was a carpenter who died in his early 50s in the Boston-area.  My theory about (at least) his lack of a stone is this: since Nantucket by the time he was in his 30s was in a deep economic downturn – there were only about 2,000 people left on the island – he left the island to find work.  There would not have been much for a carpenter here on island.  Perhaps he has no stone as he and his family could not afford one.

There are two other stones we chose not to clean during the workshop as they are loose and wobble where they attach to the foot.  But, another stone, the small lamb, we also cleaned.  It is the burial site of young Arthur, a one-year old child, the grandson of Henry Pinkham.  A lamb of course was a common symbol used for children who died.  At some point recently, someone planted a daffodil bulb at the base of the stone.  And, I wonder, if this person has been doing the same for other burial sites of children.


Like Candy Drops or Sourballs

A few weeks back, I noticed these growing over a picket fence and it just looked like candy to me.  I little dewy.  A bit of a blossom’s “fur” for lack of a better word – all reminded me of the dusting of powdered sugar over old fashioned sourballs.  It is actually clematis – which is now fully in bloom – gorgeous pink flowers!




Streetscapes are an important component to historic preservation.  What people seldom realize is that alterations anywhere in their yard or on their land will alter what a historic view has been.  This has happened all over Nantucket – and throughout the U.S. – and I often wonder what a person from the nineteenth century might think when houses have been demolished, moved on the site, or small ancillary buildings have been removed.  It really changes how a place looks – not just one particular lot – bit the whole historic feel of a street.  One things that we have lost a lot of on island is the secondary or ancillary buildings – outhouses, sheds, chicken coops, small barns.  Nantucket was not all lawns – yards had multiple uses and I believe I have written about this before.  They served as barnyard – for chickens and other small animals and sometimes even a cow; laundry washing and drying; candle manufactory; work yards  ̶  if a shop such as a boatbuilding shop, carpentry shop or some other small shop was located on a house lot; play yard; schoolyard; fish drying yard; etc.  The list goes on.

Each neighborhood on island functioned as a small village with coopers, cobblers, blacksmiths, boat or carpentry shop, shops in houses run by women out of their front sitting rooms, small factories – if you lived on Gay Street you had a straw works at the top of the street! – it was a cacophony of sounds and smells!

And so it brings me to this image.  A house on Main Street was recently renovated and a small garage – that likely was an old carriage house at the rear of the yard – was removed.  What it did was open a view shed to the back of the Maria Mitchell Observatory that was never this exposed ever before.  You could see a piece of the dome at a glimpse over the old carriage house but not like this ever – the MMO was built in 1908.  Interesting how now, that view from Howard onto Main, has been altered.


William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

My whole life has been a struggle, subjecting thy patient mother to much endurance.

–  William Mitchell in his autobiography, 1868

Born to longtime Nantucket Quaker families, William Mitchell (1791 – 1869) and Lydia Coleman (1792 – 1861) first met as young teenagers.  William was sent by his father to Lydia’s home to retrieve pumpkin seeds brought back from Patagonia by Lydia’s father, Captain Coleman who would be lost at sea soon after this meeting.  In the words of William Mitchell in his autobiography – written at the insistence of daughter Phebe Mitchell Kendall – it was love at first sight and it was his love for Lydia – starting when he was 14 and she was 13 – that kept him from attending Harvard College.  The paths were prepared for his application but he could not follow through and leave Lydia behind.  Instead, he would join his father in his whale oil and soap business which, with the War of 1812, quickly put the island into an economic freeze, especially with the halt that came to whaling.  The two married in December 1812, and like many newlyweds and islanders confronted with the war at their shores, they struggled financially.  The newlyweds eked out a living in Siasconset, where William farmed and Lydia ran a small library in this fishing village at the eastern end of the island.

In his autobiography, William compiled a list of all his occupations, which included: schoolteacher, state senator, soap boiler, cooper, schoolmaster, farmer, surveyor, chronometer rater, and astronomical observer for the United States Coast Survey.  William appeared to be most fond of teaching and astronomy – perhaps not just because he was from a sea-going family and community that relied on celestial navigation to travel – but also because he was close to his much older cousin, Walter Folger Jr., the renowned scientist and island clock and telescope maker.  William would also serve as the Pacific National Bank’s cashier – essentially being in charge of the entire bank – from 1836 until 1861.

Of her mother, Maria Mitchell once wrote that she never saw her sit with a book when the children were young.  With ten in all, she likely had no time.  But it was Lydia who examined every book they brought into the house, looked out for their educations, and knew, as one daughter wrote, their “every fault and every merit.”  Quite, dignified, and a woman of strong character, she played the foil to William’s gregarious and fun-loving behavior.  According to the same daughter, Lydia was, “honest almost to an extreme, and perfectly self-controlled.”


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

May 6, 1878 Between the clouds, Miss Spalding obtained 7 photographs of Mercury on the Sun.  It is a comfort to me to be able to plan and do a new kind of work.  The large telescope worked better than usual, Clark having just been to the Observatory.

Maria Mitchell and her students photographed the Sun on every clear day and as such were able to photograph the transit of Mercury and the rarer transit of Venus – the planet for which Maria had calculated the ephemeris for the US Nautical Almanac for many years.  She was the first woman computer for the Nautical Almanac and likely, the federal government.  In its archive collection, the MMA has several images that Maria and her students completed of transits of the sun, including the one of Venus which was taken by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, an artist of some renown and also a child of two Nantucket Quakers.

Apparently, Alvan Clark had recently visited Maria and the Vassar College Observatory and made some adjustments to the telescope.  He was the premier telescope maker in America – and the man who made Maria’s five-inch – monies for it were a gift from the Women of America – a subscription overseen by Elizabeth Peabody.


Waking Up

Well, it’s that time of year.  I always feel like I have ALL this time – and I do – but I always panic too.

After the 200th’s festivities – there were a LOT – I felt like it would be a bit quieter this year but frankly, it is not.

I have been contending with the weather so finally bit the bullet so to speak and basically gardened in the rain and wind and cold.  I have lots of native plants and heirloom plants coming for both the Mitchell House garden and to finish up the garden in front of the Vestal Street Observatory which we were able to re-do last fall – thank you to our landscaper and a donation.  The onion grass grew in with wild abandon – and I thought I would get a spring off! – Ha!  But I did have a sunny day to do that garden thankfully.  The wintergreen has arrived – that is the image you see here – for Mitchell House.

Now, it’s “off to the races” for the Mitchell House – some minor winter mildew remediation as always is my first step. Then the vacuuming, moving of furniture, cleaning, moving in fine art and instruments, and putting everything back into its place.  I may have said it before but I kid you not.  Everything I do at home, I do at work!  Just with a MUCH closer attention to the historic artifacts and collection items.

And I do have a few events coming up for the House.  On May 4, I am leading a “Daring Daughters of Nantucket” walk at 10am.  Please call me to register – 508.228.2896.  The cost is $10 Member/$15 Non-Member.  And then on May 11, I have the Four Centuries Walk with Nantucket Preservation Trust and the Nantucket Historical Association.  Suggested donation is $10.  We meet at the Oldest House – no reservations necessary – and walk through Town needing at the Hadwen House.  The point of the walk and talk is to show how the neighborhoods, streetscapes, and architecture changed – or did not change – over time as life changed.  It’s a lot of fun and we always have a huge crowd.  And then June 1, I will be doing another stone monument conservation workshop with the Prospect Hill Cemetery Historian.  Reservations are also necessary and it’s the same pricing as the Daring Daughters Walk.  All the info can be found on the MMA website and calendar.

Join us!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

April 20 {1858}  Mrs. Somerville told me that an English gentleman named Joule had advanced the idea of late that heat is motion and that she has enlarged on this in her book and she gave me various anecdotes illustrative of this doctrine.  She remarked also that the science of magnetism had made strides in the last few years . . .

As I have noted here before, Mary Somerville was one of Maria Mitchell’s heroes.  The chance to meet this Scotch woman scientist and science writer was a dream come true for Maria.  Somerville welcomed her with open arms and they met several times during Maria’s visit in Italy where Somerville lived.  The joule is named for English physicist James Prescott Joule who funnily enough lived the same years as Maria – 1818-1889.  He was also – a brewer! – like Matthew Vassar.


Plain and Simple

Know where this door is?  It’s about to become a part of history.  It’s not that old but we are losing some of our more utilitarian-type architecture.  This batten enters into a patio area and it can be found on Coal Alley.  Don’t know where Coal Alley is?  I encourage you to seek it out.  No, it’s not much.  It is an alley after all but it’s one of my go-to cut-throughs especially in summer.  I’ve already been teaching my son how it takes him from one place to another.  I like to think of Maria using is sometimes.


What Lies Beneath?

(Or, Adjacent To?)

Beneath this frozen beachscape or just adjacent to it in the dunes there may have once been tunnels that led to smuggled goods or perhaps even stashes of gold.

Given climate change and erosion, I’m sure that the dunes were possibly quite a bit further out into where the water is frozen.  And, I’m sure this is a delightful legend that was passed on from generation to generation – and quite possibly grew – though most people today I don’t think are aware of it.

This legend has to do with Nantucket’s “she-pirate,” Kezia Folger Coffin (1723 – 1798), a cousin of Benjamin Franklin.  She was at least two generations older than Maria – but Maria would have known her story and her descendants.  I once included her in an exhibit on Nantucket women (about a dozen years ago – oh, make me feel old) and got some push back for it.  Yes, she was nasty, yes she took advantage of her fellow islanders, but she was smart, crafty, creative, and ingenious.

Kezia was an island merchant.  She had many real estate investments, had shops, and actively traded and sold goods.  She was largely in charge in her family – her husband was not very successful.  He had been at sea but seemed to come home to happily let Kezia manage and earn the family’s bread and butter.  It was not an unusual position for women on Nantucket – I’ve written about that quite a bit here.  With men away with whaling, coastal traders and fishing, with the heavy influence of the Quaker faith that believe in equality, and with the life of a frontier – a theory that I developed and wrote about in my book The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island – Kezia was joined by many other women in her pursuits on Nantucket – just not maybe in a “not-so-nice-way.”

With the American Revolution, Nantucket tried to do a bit of fence sitting – she had to.  With a harbor the only source of bringing goods in and sitting in the middle of an ocean, Nantucket had to play nice to the British and the Americans.  Kezia was a loyalist and as such she played to the British.  With blockades on the harbor, she began to develop a monopoly with her British “friends.”  She began to loan money to people, extend them credits in her shops and on other areas of services she provided.  Kezia developed a monopoly over trade on the island and held her fellow islanders captive.  She came to have liens on their properties and she became the only place in town to buy needed goods.  Kezia and her close male cohorts saw nothing wrong with working with the British in order to secure goods for the island.  Kezia in particular would take advantage of her fellow islanders by charging high prices for goods that only she could provide due to her connections.

Finally, Nantucket claimed neutrality – it was forced to stop its fence sitting when it became apparent to the American side what was happening.  Kezia was devastated financially – bankrupted.  Her properties, goods, everything, were put on the auction block and islanders came to bid – at super low offers in order to punch back at Kezia and what she had done to them.

When her home was repossessed, Kezia was supposedly carried out on her chair when she refused to leave.  She and the others (she was the only woman) were charged and tried at Watertown, Massachusetts for smuggling and aiding the British.  If they were found guilty, death was the punishment.  The charges were finally dropped and Kezia returned to the island with one purpose: to sue the Town and its people for taking away all of her possessions.  Her lawyer son-in-law told her that her plan would never succeed but Kezia supposedly said that she did not necessarily want to win.  The legend is that her intent was to tie everything up in court and allow it to drag on for as long as possible.  One scholar believes she may have been the inventor of the harassing lawsuit.

While an infamous figure, Kezia is a perfect illustration of the strength of character and the independent nature of Nantucket women.