Where Was The Maria Mitchell Association In 1918?

As a historian and curator, I am often thinking about the past and how it affects the present day, how it affects different situations, and the similarities.  I also like to look at how people react to the same or similar situations in different eras.  The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic situation is no different for me.

I peruse our old MMA annual reports quite often for various bits of information whether it be from a standpoint of something that happened at the MMA, perhaps work that was done on the buildings or information about staff members of many years ago.  While I have been around for quite a bit of time (thirty years plus), I was not obviously around in the 1920s or 1940s (even though I may seem of a different era to some) and thus need to take a look back.  The annual reports are always a good place to start before I head into the Archives.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at our annual reports of the early 1900s and through the 1930s because of the more recent work we have done on our Science Library – now our Research Center re-opened in 2018 – and the conservation and restoration work that we are hoping to complete to the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory with several grants.  So, I took a walk back to 1918 because I do not remember reading much about the “Spanish Flu Pandemic” of 1918-1919.  On Nantucket, the 1918 Pandemic was prevalent – most notably during the “second wave” in the Fall of 1918.  I only found one mention of the 1918 Pandemic in the annual reports and that was in our first astronomer’s, Margaret Harwood, report on the Observatory.  In it, she mentions having to cancel the open nights in November 1918 due to the flu on Nantucket.  That’s it.  No other mention.  The Boston-area was hard hit during this “second wave” – with a belief that Fort Devens was one of the major places to see the resurgence in the Fall of 1918 as soldiers came from across the country on their way to and from Europe.

Miss Harwood did focus on the war in her reports of the time – she had taken quite a bit of time off to assist the Red Cross and other entities in the efforts to support the troops.  Of note, in articles that I have read about this period, the war did continue to –  obviously – take center-stage keeping the flu pandemic relegated to interior pages of the newspapers.  Most of the people who survived the flu pandemic – my great grandfather, a pharmacist, caught it and survived – are gone and if they are still with us today they were infants or young toddlers.  One woman who recently passed away at 102 years old, survived the Pandemic of 1918 only to lose her life to the current Pandemic.  What was curious – I’m not even sure what word to use – is that she lost her infant twin in the 1918 Pandemic.  Both lost to a flu pandemic – but 102 years apart.

I guess my point here is that we as an island, a country, a world, have been through quite a bit to put it mildly – both then and now.  The MMA survived through the pandemic of 1918-1919, the Great War, the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, and World War II among many other catastrophic and world-altering events.  The MMA moved and renovated William Mitchell’s former schoolhouse into the MMA Science Library in 1918 and 1919 and added a Wing to the Science Library in the midst of the Great Depression.  My friend and mentor and the MMA’s former Ornithologist, Edith Folger Andrews, stepped in as the biology teacher for Nantucket high school students when their science teacher was drafted in World War II.  The MMA made it through other uncertain times and stock market recessions and lows, including the Great Recession of 2008.  After this, no one will be untouched, our world will be different, but we will all still be here – including here at the MMA where we will continue to be to help you learn more about the world around you – from land to sea to sky.

Wash your hands.  Cover your mouth and nose.  Be well.  Stay safe.  Stay at home unless you are an essential worker.



My Latest Visitor

This was my latest view out of the window by my desk at the beginning of February.  At first, just a “LBJ” (little brown job) and then I realized exactly what LBJ he was – a Carolina Wren.  There once was a time not long ago that they really didn’t spend the winter with us.  But as their feeding areas have been altered by climate change, they tend to stick around much more in the winter and there are greater numbers in the warmer months than I ever remember.  They have a wonderfully LOUD song.  A distinct one.  We once had one on our deck in the summer that was so loud, we had to close the door onto the deck as he continued to sing because my husband and I couldn’t talk over him.

Maria Mitchell likely only ever saw them during her trip to the South in 1857.  One of our birthday speakers this summer, Drew Lanham, is from South Carolina.  He awoke in his hotel room at dawn to the singing of a Carolina Wren and for a moment he said he was totally confused as he thought he was home until he really looked around his room.  He was surprised to hear one on Nantucket – and he is an ornithologist!

Wrens can be a little mean which I’m not too fond of.  They’ve been known to kick other birds and their eggs out of a nest and take it over.  But the male wren builds a few nests to a certain level, the female picks the one she likes, and then they complete the chosen nest.  That, I like!

The Carolina Wren was also a favorite of my friend and mentor, MMA Ornithologist Edith Folger Andrews.


Looking at Nasturtiums in A Different Way

EFA, ca.1950

The Mitchell House nasturtiums I sowed directly in the ground as I always do in late May are now blooming. They are mainly heirloom varieties – so something akin to what Mary Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s aunt who lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria’s family did, would have planted around “Neighbor North” – their name for the outhouse.

I love nasturtiums. They were also the favorite flower of a friend and mentor of mine – Edith Folger Andrews. I have written about Edith before. She was for many, many years curator of the Mitchell House – working at Mitchell House even before that. She was also an ornithologist who was instrumental in creating the MMA’s bird collection and driving the ornithology arm of the Natural Science Museum. When she first started at the MMA, the natural Science Department was still located in the Mitchell House and some of the curators and directors she worked for here at MMA were cousins of Maria Mitchell’s. One of the curators, in fact, painted this image of Edith in the sitting room of the Mitchell House in William Mitchell’s arm chair in the late 1940s. It is my favorite image of Edith – and the chartreuse of the hydrangea outside and Edith’s dress, along with the blue of the chair, are so vivid.

I look at nasturtiums a little bit differently now that Edith is gone. They have a tinge of sadness to them for me now. And I know that now, after many months, it’s time for me to make a trip to the cemetery to bring her a posey of nasturtiums.


Significant Embroidered Narrative Joins Collection

EFA's embroidered narr.

In 2002, Susan Boardman – known on the island for her incredibly detailed embroidered narratives – created one of my friend and mentor, Edith Andrews. As you may recall, edith passed away on October 31, 2015. On January 15th, Edith’s daughter, Ginger brought the embroidered narrative of Edith to me at MMA. She has donated it to the Mitchell House and I am so very touched and proud that she saw it as the home for this amazing work of needlecraft. (The image does not do it justice.) But you will be able to see it on display this summer in the Mitchell House.

The words are Edith’s. It says: Birding is a challenge. It/ offers a wonderful feeling of/ discovery. It is exciting to/ actually see a bird well. I have/ a feeling that I am holding/ that moment in my hand. You have to go and look./ If you don’t look, you don’t see.

Thank you, Ginger!


Edith: My Friend and Mentor

Edith Banding at Mothball Pines.

Every time I see a Yellow-rumped Warbler, I hear Edith say, “I call them Butter butts.” I don’t think I ever look at one and don’t hear her say that. I don’t think I will ever not hear her say that until I don’t see one anymore.

I was probably nine or ten when I first met her. My parents took my brother and I on a MMA nature walk. I think there were probably some groans from the adults who saw two children coming along – little did they know how enthusiastic we were about this walk. Clint was there as well and my brother made some discovery that got a very excited response from Clint, a quite and shy man.

I quite literally learned at her knee as she sat in the old black rocker in the Mitchell House. I was twelve, she was in her early seventies. What people tend to forget, or simply don’t know is that Edith Folger Andrews began her MMA career in the Mitchell House, as an assistant to the curator; herself working with Maria Mitchell’s cousins. That unique touch – that connection to the family is what I grew up with learning from Edith when I first began volunteering in the Mitchell House at age twelve. Over time, Edith became curator and served for many, many years and at several different times as curator – into 1980. She knew about the Mitchells and the House inside and out.

Yes, ornithology is more than most certainly her life, her passion, but she was also passionate about the Mitchells and the MMA. Her life was very much about those two things – and her family; her husband, Clint; her daughter, Ginger; and all the birds, dogs, Barn Owls, auks, owls, and other animals that had the good fortune of being a part of her life.

I always knew Edith in connection to the Mitchell House. After all, that is my world. It was not until maybe four or five years ago that I became more involved in the bird world of Edith Folger Andrews. She and Ginger asked if I would help to organize and compile Edith’s journals – written in composition books, to small little purse sized day planners, to scribbles on an envelope if that’s all she had with her when she saw something. For several hours a week, we organized together, found all sorts of treasures, and dug through wonderful photographs. I typed up journal entries, Edith reading many of them to me aloud, took dictation about certain birding events, and learned all about the Reef Heron, Rocket, and of course dear, sweet Owlbert. I quickly learned her short-hand for different birds and got better about my own amateur birding – it helps that when you get a name or bird identification wrong the ornithologist yells at you – not meanly of course! We birded from the living room, sitting in front of the sliders looking at the feeders. Those feeders that have fed birds for over sixty years I believe. The mulberry tree where I finally got to compare a Hairy to a Downy woodpecker as they sat there together on the same tree, a Flicker there for good measure. I learned more about birds during those several hours a week over those few years than I could have imagined. I also learned more about Edith, her life in her younger years, all sorts of great stories about the old days at MMA, and some of the other things that made her tick like mallomars – which we laughed about one day when we realized they were actually older than her! My Mom and I even learned how to help a hummingbird to recover from cold when we found one one day in the driveway, lying in the gravel. Edith told me, “X and I used to put them between our bosoms to keep them warm!” My Mom and I just looked at one another. We chose the other option Edith gave us – a brown paper bag under a lamp (and it was not because we had a fear of putting the hummingbird where Edith suggested – we just didn’t have much to provide warmth!).

This is not an easy post to write, and it’s a bit rambling. There is so much I would like to say about Edith. One thing is for sure though; she had a good and very long life that was very active almost to the end – very much like Maria Mitchell herself.

Thank you, Edith for everything you have given to all of us with brain, with heart, with hand. You have left a tremendous legacy and a path to follow. I love you.


The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands. – Maria Mitchell

If you would like to learn more about Edith, you should read her book: Excerpts from a Nantucket Journal.

Hot Off the Presses!!

Excerpts from a Nantucket JournalIt’s been many decades in the making but it is finally here! I am speaking of Edith Andrews’ new book – Excerpts from a Nantucket Journal.

Edith is an island ornithologist who worked for the Maria Mitchell Association for many, many years starting about 1940 as a nature teacher. She would also serve for many more years as the MMA’s ornithologist, as well as in the Mitchell House as an assistant to the curator and the curator as well. She taught at Nantucket High School and also taught at Miami University and that is just the beginning.

This book is a compilation of some of her journal entries concerning her observations on various island birds with lots of island tidbits and stories as well. Whether you are a birder or not, this is a MUST read! It is incredibly interesting and full of all sorts of wonderful information. I will disclose that I helped Edith to put it together – typing up journal entries and taking dictation, working on getting the photographs in, and putting it together − but I learned so much in the process! I have known Edith since I was maybe ten or younger – first going on a bird walk with her. I am sure the adults rolled their eyes as my brother and I arrived with our parents. But my brother made a big hit with some of his natural specimen finds along the way so I think they wound up being okay with us coming along, we were after all very quiet children. I of course got to know her better as I began to volunteer and then work at the Mitchell House starting when I was 12 (yes, believe it or not, age 12) and even better sitting with her at Ice Pond working on helping her to put the book together. I consider myself a novice in the bird world – my parents bird – but I learned so much with Edith over the last two or so years that we were working on this – and not just about birds. And you will too, when you read this – it is a not to be missed book for birders, ornithologists, locals, visitors, and even people from very far “away.”

You can find the book on the shelves of the MMA’s gift shop (and local stores). You need to learn about and observe the world around you – as Maria Mitchell once said, “We see most when we are most determined to see.” Edith’s book will help you learn, see, and appreciate (and even laugh).

P.S. Tuesday, October 29th is Edith’s 98th birthday!!!!