Birds, Birds, Birds!

I was very happy to recently receive several emails concerning a wonderful essay written in 1886 by a student graduating from the Coffin School.  Two of the author’s grandchildren had happened upon it and shared it with several of their family, friends, and acquaintances.

This essay piqued my interest for several reasons.  It was, for one, about birds and obviously my MMA antennae went up.  Then, it’s of a historical nature given it was written in April 1886.  And then, I am a Coffin School Trustee, wand while the School no longer functions as a school, the Trustees still maintain the building, its archives and collections, and allow other island non-profits and other entities to use the space to varying degrees.  It also provide me with another link to the Mitchell family as Maria was given a small observatory that islanders helped to build for her nearby the School and her sister was the language teacher at the Coffin School.  Anne Mitchell Macy taught languages at the School for several years and married the school principal, Alfred Macy.  And, the library located in one of the spaces is names for their daughter, Frances Mitchell Macy.  So, it all comes home to roost for me (haha)!

So I read it with great interest with all those connections being activated and humming.  What made it even better is that the two grandchildren asked if the Maria Mitchell Association would like it for its archives because of its topic!  I jumped at the chance with great enthusiasm and after a COVID-safe exchange via a car trunk, the MMA is happily in receipt of this little treasure.  It serves not just as a historical record of the birds on the island during that time but also of the history of the island and education.

With a very big thank you to the donors!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellFeb. 5, 1882. We have had two heavy snow storms since Feb. came in. We have twice been unable to get out of the Observatory without help. The first time 6 men, two horses and a girl came to our rescue; today four men and two horses and a girl came.

Phebe’s picture, painted by Fanny came; it is far the most pleasing she has done.

In 1882, Maria Mitchell had been teaching at Vassar College for approximately seventeen years. At that point, the Vassar Observatory was fairly remotely located in relation to Main Building where all of the college’s activities took place. One can image how hard it was for Maria to get out of the Observatory, but also how hard it was for her “girls” to get to her.

This entry is one of those gems I come across. Actually, there are many gems. For many, many years before I was curator, there was a portrait stowed away and the inventory was listed as “Unknown Woman.” Finally one day, as I was again looking at it trying to figure out who she was, I realized it was Phebe Mitchell Kendall, one of Maria’s younger sisters! Now, I come across this in Maria’s journals and it really makes me wonder if this oil portrait was painted by Frances (Fanny) Mitchell Macy, the daughter of Anne Mitchell Macy and her husband Alfred Macy. Fanny was an accomplished artist, maybe taking after her accomplished artist aunt, Phebe. I don’t recall any artist’s signature on the painting, but this could be one in the same! I am very excited to investigate further!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell1857 Jan 22. Hard winters are becoming the order of things. Winter before last was hard, last winter was harder and this surpasses all winters known before. We have been frozen in to our Island now since the 6th. No one said much about it for the first two or three days. The sleighing was good and all the world was out trying their horses on Main St. – the race-course of the world. Day after day passed and the thermometer sank to a lower point and the minds rose to a higher, and sleighing became uncomfortable and even the dullest man longed for the cheer of a newspaper. The Inquirer came out for a while, but at length had nothing to tell and nothing to Inquire about and so kept its peace . . . .

Inside the houses we amuse ourselves in various ways. Frank’s family and ours form a club, meeting three times a week and writing machine poetry in great quantities. Occasionally something very droll puts us in a roar of laughter. Frank, Ellen and Kate I think are rather the smartest, tho’ Mr. Macy has written rather the best of all.

Some things never change and Maria Mitchell and her family were confronted with a cold and snowy winter, rendering them – and the island – house-bound due to the bitter weather. Maria writes in her journal of the sitting room at the Pacific Bank − where the family lived on the second floor − not getting above forty degrees in the evening, though she implies this was fairly snug which helps you get a better feeling for what winter home interiors were like in those days. With constant clouds, Maria found that she could not observe but it seems she likely got to know her sister-in-law Ellen much better (Ellen married Francis “Frank” Macy Mitchell – younger brother of Maria in April 1853), as well as Mr. Macy – Alfred Macy – a lawyer and the head of the Coffin School for several years. Alfred would marry Anne Mitchell (younger sister of Maria) in May of 1857 – perhaps the confined quarters help to kindle the romance all the more!


Mitchell family's entry at Pacific National Bank.  2014.

Mitchell family’s entry at Pacific National Bank. 2014.