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.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 2, 1857.  I left Meadville this morning at six o’clock in a stage-coach for Erie.  I had, early in life, a love for staging, but it is fast dying out.  Nine hours over a rough road are enough to root out the most passionate of that kind.

This trip was her return, likely from her meeting Prudence Swift and her father, to discuss the possibility of Maria being Prudie’s chaperone through the South if the United States and then Europe – adventures I have recounted via Maria’s words numerous times in this blog.  I can see where the adventure of staging might be fun but after a while not so much.  Like a long car trip that’s fun a few times but not so much once you keep doing it.  I know those trips!  But I have to say, still far more comfortable in a car – Maria recounts the bumps and falling onto people next to her – and popping up to the roof, hitting her head, and then falling forward on to people across form her.  A little too close and personal indeed!


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.


Hoop Rolling

Know what this is?  (Apologies, the image isn’t too good.  You can see that I’m trying to root Peleg Mitchell’s grapevine shoots again this winter.)  It’s a good old-fashioned hoop that is awaiting its playtime this summer.

Hoop rolling or hoop trundling were popular from very early on and well into the twentieth century.  By early on I mean Ancient Greece even.  It’s on ancient pottery and was not limited to children!  Native Americans, ancient Rome, 16th century England – it’s been known by different names, taken various formats, played by various ages, and played through various ages.  In the nineteenth century, both boys and girls did hoop rolling – and it was likely seen as a more “ladylike” active game that girls could play.  I’m assuming that is likely the reason why several women’s colleges still have I tradition of rolling hoops.

We will be using these this summer with our all new week-long Mitchell House children’s program.  Don’t be too surprised if you see me out on the lawn on Vestal Street practicing on warm days this winter and spring!  Got get up to speed!


The Lily Pond

I love this view.  It seems like a never-ending tunnel of swamp, decking, and plant-life.  This particular day, I could hear children at the other end – it was an unseasonable warm day for February and parents and daycare providers were bringing children to picnic and enjoy the warmth and sun.  I also love seeing the Congregational Church and Academy Hill School when in the Lily Pond – it’s a bit of a jolt – you forget you are in Town almost.

What you might not know is that this “pond” as it is referred to was for lack of a better word, destroyed by a child.  Oops!

You see, Lily Pond was once an actual pond with at least one mill.  We do not have rivers or powerful streams here that can power mills but the Lily Pond once boasted at least this one water mill.  The Pond had an outlet that ran to the harbor and islanders built a dam to control the flow of the water.  This was in the late 1600s/early 1700s.  But one morning, people awoke to find that the Pond had emptied overnight.

A young girl named Love Paddock, who lived nearby (I’m assuming at what is today the Oldest House as Paddocks lived there but I haven’t delved into that research), decided as all children do, to play in the water one day – she likely did it quite a bit.  I myself remember playing with water that drained from our basement.  We lived in a wonderful 1920s colonial revival when I was young and I suspect the area was filled with springs but our house had the most amazing drainage that brought water out through our “woods” – a wooded corner – and down to the neighboring street where I could dam it up and play with it among the rocks.  In any case, Love decided to play and carved tiny rivulets that led away from the Pond.  When finished with playing, she left and went home.  It was not until the next day that she saw what her “harmless” playing had done – the Lily Pond was no longer – all the water was gone.  But as many a child would, she kept her deed to herself.  Until, she was on her deathbed.

Love lived to be a very old woman.  She had created the rivulets when she was about ten years old or so – about 1720.  It was not until she lay dying that she made her confession and people learned of why the Lily Pond was drained to basically become what we see today.  I am sure that Maria Mitchell was well-aware of this story.

The story is further enhanced that the Town tossed pieces of the former Nantucket Railroad into the Pond area when the railroad was dismantled.  Thus clogging it up a bit more.  The area is basically a marsh, not a pond, now but it attracts an incredible array of bird, plant, and wildlife, including human life.  So I guess we cannot be entirely dismayed by Love’s actions, though I think the people of her time may still hold a grudge wherever they are!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Feb. 18, 1854.  If I should make out a calendar by my feelings of fatigue, I should say there were six Saturdays in the week and one Sunday.

I sort of laugh when I read this – different century, same feeling.  Though in Maria Mitchell’s day, the only day of rest was Sunday – to some degree and depending on where you lived, what you did for a living, and your religion.  For Quakers, it was a day of rest.  Sometimes, people had half a day of rest on Sunday, if that.  Also at this time, Maria was caring for her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, an illness that would take a toll on the entire family – physically and emotionally but more so on Maria as her main caregiver.


At Rest

Under a blanket of cold.

When the ground freezes and seems like stone or metal, I am always reminded of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter – a poem later turned into a hymn that is most commonly sung during the Advent season.  It was one of my Father’s favorites but he found it very sad.  I once saw it making him cry when I was a child.  The line in particular: “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”  I was again reminded of this today (January 30, 2019) as I was the other day, and many cold winter days.  The line pops into my head often in this season.

Today, as I took my lunchtime walk, I went past Old North Cemetery.  Everything was  peaceful – everyone asleep under the blanket of a cold, iron-like earth.  Windswept, quiet, grey.  Grey clouds moving along the horizon with peeks of blue.

The cemetery is sometimes referred to as the Gardner Burial Site – some of the earliest who were interred there were from the Gardner family and originally the site was a private family burial site for the family.  Appropriate, since West Chester Street is just a few steps away and the Gardner clan as half-shares (in the early settlement of Nantucket by Europeans) lived along West Chester as they lived farther afield from the full-shares who lived closer to Washing Pond in Sherburne.  The road is basically the oldest on Nantucket – leading from the original settlement at Sherburne into Town and the later settlement at Wesco – which is basically Town and which provided a better harbor.

Maria was, of course, related to people on both sides of the aisle so-to-speak.


The Back Porch

I love this simple 1920s/1930s back porch.  It speaks to me of a simpler time but also a time in which even with a little addition, the remainder of the house is untouched – much of this house seems untouched.  It likely enters the kitchen.  It’s a place where you can come in, dust the snow of your shoulders, pound the snow off your shoes.  Take them off.  Hang your old plaid wool coat on the hook and maybe sit on the bench – if there is room for one – and pull off your boots before entering the warm kitchen.  In the kitchen, the potbelly stove still exists.  Now, a newer gas oven and stove exist in this kitchen but the potbelly still warms the space.  The table has an enamel top with a small red decoration along the edges that make it look like the top has a tablecloth on it.  The sink is a large, one basin square porcelain sink with built in porcelain drains on either side, at an angle, so water runs off of them.  Your mother washes her hair in the sink – every Friday evening in the winter and then dries it sitting in front of the pot belly, gently coming and toweling it dry.  She does the same to you.

On Nantucket, we have lost a lot of these little additions or warts as we call them.  Yes, its not original to the house but it shows the evolution of the house just like an outhouse and a scallop shack or shed or an early garage with a bi-fold door.  Outbuildings and warts are all important – it shows how the house was used and how the use of the house evolved as new inventions came to be and new ways of living developed.  It shows how we lived.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Jan. 1, 1855.I put some wires into my little transit this morning.  I dreaded it so much, when I found yesterday that it must be done, that it disturbed my sleep.  It was much easier than I expected. 

I have blogged later portions of this adventure before.  This is the earliest account in the line – I did it backwards.  Maria would try to fix the lines in her transit with her own hair, then her nephew’s hair, and finally found success in using spider webs – individual strands!  Talk about patience – but also ingenuity and need!  The transit was important to Maria’s work – transits are still used today including for surveying.  They are used to determine the relative position of objects and lines.  They are extremely precise instruments and are used to establish reference lines and provide readings of angles in precise measurements.  Until she made the repairs, some of her work would have come to a screeching halt.