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Friday, December 28, 2007

Theatre in New England, December 1884

According to the “Byrne’s Dramatic Times” of Saturday, December 27, 1884, the theatre world in New England, and maybe in general, was hitting a rough patch. New Englanders had always been known among traveling players as being a region where people sat on their hands. On this date 123 years ago, it was lamented that the people weren’t even showing up.

“The Dramatic Times” was kind of like the “Variety” of its day. It gives us an interesting picture of what was happening on the boards, when the theatre world and its performers were considered exotic, and sometimes of questionable virtue. In New Haven, Broadway’s perennial anteroom, “Three Wives to One Husband,” which the Dramatic Times labeled an “extravagantly absurd comedy” played to “wretchedly small houses.”

Up in Bangor, Maine, “Prof. Mohr in legerdemain” played “to poor business” on the 12th and 13th. Over in Fall River, Mass., Callender’s New Minstrels played to a poor house.

Perhaps it was the material. In Boston, “Desiree” was performed at the Bijou, where “some extremely pretty and fascinating music is saddled to the worst rot imaginable, and the affect on the audience is to send them out in disgust or put them to sleep.” In the cast of this comic opera, we note of the popular 19th century actor and comedian DeWolf Hopper, “To Mr. De Wolf Hopper, the greatest praise is to be given, for in spite of his exaggerations, he is a true comic artist, and made all the success. Miss Rose Leighton, on the other hand, was the worst. What possible excuse she had for appearing is beyond me.”

Then again, maybe it was the critics who made theatre of the day so dismal.

Playwright, actor Dion Boucicault was in town with his “The Shaugraun” which would be followed by his “Colleen Bawn.” This is an interesting hint to us that the well-received Irish melodramas of this Neil Simon of the 19th Century indicates that in the twenty or so years since the Civil War, the Irish in New England had reached middle class status. Mr. Boucicault did a good business.

It is noted that after the performance of Boucicault’s play at the Museum, “Pique will follow.” One assumes this refers to the card game, and not the critic’s disdain.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This is the First Congregational Church of Chicopee, Massachusetts, built in 1825, though the congregation was organized in the previous century. The pastor of this church, Reverend Eli B. Clark, hid slaves on the Underground Railroad in secret rebellion against the Fugitive Slave Law in the 1850s. Several farmers in the neighborhood did the same.

In 1862, Reverend Clark helped to organize a rally in town to recruit soldiers for the Union Army. The early years of the war were bleak for the North, suffering defeat after defeat. That December, the Union forces were defeated again by the Confederate forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

It wasn’t until the Civil War years that Christmas began to be celebrated in some parts of Puritanical New England, prompted in part perhaps by the influence of hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants in the previous couple of decades, and perhaps by the example of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who championed the Christmas tree.

New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had during the Civil War years lost his wife due to a tragic accident, and whose son was wounded on the battlefield, was moved both by his despair and by his hope for better days to pen “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” in 1864.

Later set to music, the song adapted from Longfellow’s poem as it is heard today does not usually contain all the verses which refer to the war. Here is the poem in its entirety.

Christmas Bells

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

When news of the fall of Richmond reached Massachusetts in the spring of the following year, Reverend Clark rang his church bell at midday, and the sound carried for miles.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Orchard House - Concord, Massachusetts

Louisa May Alcott was escorted in the gray December twilight to the train depot in Concord, Massachusetts by her sister May and their friend Julian, who was the son of their neighbor, author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was 1862, and she was on her way to nurse Union soldiers.

The Civil War was a chance to test the idealism instilled by her parents and their Transcendentalist community, as well as a challenge to her own physical stamina and courage. Unexpectedly, it represented a turning point in her fledging writing career. Her identity as a writer, more than as a nurse, was forged during a traumatic taste of war in a Washington hospital.

One day in her classic novel Little Women, Alcott wrote of the war, “very few letters were written in those hard times that were not touching, especially those which fathers sent home.” Her own letters home to her family at this time formed the basis for a slim book called Hospital Sketches. With its detail of everyday events in the hospital, the book became a forerunner for her style used in Little Women, also set during the Civil War.

In “Little Women”, she drew the portraits of the four March sisters, their selfless mother and idealistic father from her own close family. The first part of that book was written in this house in Concord, called “Orchard House.” She had not grown up in the home; her family moved here when Louisa was already a young woman. It remains closely identified with the home of the fictional March sisters. It is an interesting contradiction that Alcott could not in the book which became her most important work, reveal the intensity of her war experience.

She arrived at her post time to help care for the mostly Union, though a few Confederate, wounded from the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She tended wounds, assisted at amputations, comforted soldiers in agony during long hours on night duty.

Miss Alcott caught typhoid there, and was treated with calomel, a mercury compound whose side effects were debilitating. She left her nursing post in January 1863, a delirious invalid, as her father brought her home on the train. Her mother met her here at the Concord station. Unlike many other nurses and soldiers who contracted typhoid, Miss Alcott lived, though suffered from ill health the rest of her life and died at 55 years old.

This is the grave of Louisa May Alcott. The flag holder by the headstone is marked GAR, denoting her service to the Union in the Civil War, from which she could be considered a delayed casualty.
For more information on Orchard House, see this website.
Been there? Done that? Bought the T-shirt? Let us know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

1101st CCC Camp, New Hampshire

This is the 1101st CCC, Thornton camp, West Campton, New Hampshire. These photos, from the CCC, were taken in the mid 1930s, part of a collage of several photos printed on a single 19½ x 12” sheet, as a souvenir for the young men and boys who were members of this unit.

Here are only a few of the boys and their commanding officers and kitchen staff. To quality for the Civilian Conservation Corps, what has been called the most popular of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, one had to prove neediness, such as a father who was unemployed. A hitch was six months long, and one could rejoin for as many as four hitches, for a total of two years.

These fellows worked on the dam in this photo. They built access roads. They worked in the White Mountain National Forest and made it a place we can enjoy today.

Sometimes they got to leave camp for church or to play baseball against a local town team. They earned $30 a month, most of which was sent home to their families. Some fellows were promoted to group leaders and earned a little more. Some finished their education in the C’s, and some didn’t like the military-style discipline and left. It was an experience none of them ever forgot.

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps, have a look at this website.

Been there? Done that? Served in the CCC’s or know somebody who did? Let us know.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tobacco Shed

Imagine a typical New England farm and usually one might not place a tobacco shed there. Currier and Ives probably never thought so. However, it is as New England as that big red barn.

For thousands of years, native people gathered leaves from wild tobacco plants that grew along the banks of the Connecticut River in what would become Connecticut and Massachusetts. Today, tobacco farming is still an important industry. The shade tobacco variety typically grown here is used for the outer wrappers of cigars.

To a great extent, the story of tobacco agriculture is the story of America. The southern settlements in Virginia and the Carolinas in the colonial era were driven by tobacco production, which put the new European planters in conflict with the native people, and which relied on African slave labor.

Early New England colonists got the habit of smoking tobacco in pipes following the example of the native people, and began cultivating the plant. The Puritans, seeing evil in the plant, outlawed tobacco in Connecticut in 1650, but in the 19th century cigar smoking became popular, and tobacco farming became a major industry and a major employer. Many western New England teens of the 20th century and today may recall their first jobs in the tobacco fields.

There is less demand for the product now, and more demand by real estate developers for the land on which tobacco sheds like this one in western Massachusetts stand. But the industry, like most agriculture, continues at the mercy of the weather, the competition of foreign markets, and the whim of the consumer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Quoddy Head and Passamaquoddy Bay

This is the Quoddy Head Lighthouse on Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, whose 49-foot tower flashes light visible over 14 miles at sea, one hopes even on a foggy day like this. It was automated in 1988, and has been run on electricity since the late 19th century. The first wooden tower, built in 1808, was lit by sperm whale oil. This tower replaced it in 1857, with a lamp lit by kerosene in the 1880s.

Passamaquoddy, the name of the bay, comes from the native Passamaquoddy people. It is a Micmac word referring to the area of fertile pollock fishing.

During the War of 1812, the British occupied the area of what is now the Eastport, Maine. Just before and during this war, our boundary with Canada was not clearly defined, and establishing our presence with a lighthouse was part of making a claim as to where the border should be. The 1817 treaty established the lighthouse as being within the United States border, but the exact course of the boundary line in the area was still not settled until the early 20th century. West Quoddy, Maine is the easternmost point of land in the contiguous United states at 44° 49' N 66° 57' W.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Pearl Harbor Monument

Joseph Alfred Gosselin was an electrician’s mate on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, he was likely on duty in the radio communications center when the Japanese planes flew in, wave after wave, to attack the naval base.

Over one thousand sailors on the USS Arizona died that morning, and “Fred” Gosselin was one of them. He had already served nearly six years in the Navy, and was six weeks from being discharged. His family received official word, three months later that Fred was killed. They had held out hope until that moment. He was 27 years old.

This monument dedicated to the first man from Chicopee, Massachusetts to be killed in World War II, at the moment the war began for the United States, is located at the junction of Memorial Drive and Montgomery Street in Chicopee, now called Gosselin Square.

Remember Pearl Harbor? Let us know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ships and Subs of New London

This is the Eagle, a tall ship on active service with the US Coast Guard. She is harbored here in New London, Connecticut, and the juxtaposition with the Electric Boat Company in the background of this picture on the Thames River is as complimentary as it is ironic.

The tall ship had been launched in Germany in 1936 as Horst Wessel. Taken over by the United States, it was commissioned in 1946 into the Coast Guard. The Electric Boat Company’s history goes a bit farther back in the past, and a bit farther ahead into the future.

Financier Isaac Rice founded the Electric Boat Company in 1899, and in 1900 the US Submarine Force was established with the Holland, the world’s first practical submarine being built here.

Here is a magazine ad for Electric Boat during World War II. During World War I and just after, Electric Boat built 85 submarines for the U.S. Navy. During World War II, 74 subs and 398 PT boats were built here. In 1951 they began work on the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, completed in 1954.

New London, founded in 1646, was a navel base of operations as far back as the Revolutionary War. Today, it is home to the United States Coast Guard Academy, and home to the Eagle, and home to several nuclear-powered U.S. Navy submarines.

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