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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year's Eve at the Movies

Here's a movie ad that will run as well on my other blog this week, Another Old Movie Blog. A special one performance preview of "Meet Me In St. Louis" is to be shown 11:30 p.m. New Year's Eve, 1944, and this splashy ad for "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" announces the New Year's Day movie at the Loew's Poli in Springfield, Mass. You can the see the price, 85 cents, for the evening show is a bit steep, reflective not only of the Poli's exhaulted status as the place to see MGM films, but perhaps also illustrating wartime inflation. We are urged to buy war bonds and stamps as well.

Not everyone wore paper hats and formal wear to usher in the last year of World War II. Many "swing shift" war workers got off in time to spend New Year's Eve at the movies.

Happy New Year to all of you, and thanks for your company in 2008.

Friday, December 26, 2008

First Congregational Church, Nantucket

Here is the First Congregational Church of Nantucket, or more precisely, the interior of the Summer Sanctuary. This is used for worship during the warmer months, as it is unheated. In use during the winter is the Old North Vestry. It seats far fewer worshipers, but there's heat.

The church's tower offers a lovely and unique vantage point for seeing Nantucket, and is open to the public. It is a practical matter of historical study that many of our New England houses of worship are also tourist sites. It may be that sometimes we forget they are also sacred sanctuaries and refuges for reflection. Below, a poem by Anne Brontë, who here ponders the sacredness of "Music on a Christmas Morning." The younger sister of the more famous Brontë girls, Charlotte and Emily, she was also the daughter of poor Anglican clergyman.

"Music On a Christmas Morning"

By Anne Brontë

Music I love--but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine--
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes borne.

Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music KINDLY bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel's voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;

To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.

While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.

With them I celebrate His birth--
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good-will to men, and peace on earth,
To us a Saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan's power is overthrown!

A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell MUST renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed,
And Satan's self must now confess
That Christ has earned a RIGHT to bless:

Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive's galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.

For more on Nantucket's First Congregational Church, have a look at this website:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wartime Christmas, 1862

(Cannon surrounded by Union graves on the top of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg.)

Christmas, in 1862, was a holiday only just beginning to gain acceptance in New England. For the first two hundred years of our Puritan English settlement, the holiday was ignored. By the Civil War, when a large influx of Irish immigrants brought the holiday with them, and they, like the holiday, were struggling for legitimacy in a still-Puritan New England, the holiday began to take root here.

An advertisement ran in a New England newspaper that autumn:

“Ladies of the right spirit and proper capacity are constantly wanted to act as nurses…” read the ad in the Chicopee Journal. It was an unusual ad for a time when the nursing profession, like the Irish, and Christmas, was struggling to gain acceptance in a skeptical New England. A new field for women, it was considered unrespectable because of the unpleasant conditions of the work and the intimacy of caring for male patients.

But the new profession offered adventure and the opportunity to contribute to the national cause. The ad warned the women would be required “to labor all day, and sometimes all night, performing duties always difficult, and sometimes extremely unpleasant; to live in the midst of suffering, disease, and death; to check the impatient, cheer the despondent, and pray for the dying….”

For many suffering soldiers, prayer was the only comfort as the field hospital conditions of the day were barbaric by our standards.

The Civil War was embarked upon with waving banners and noble slogans from both North and South. There was much at stake, and such social and economic upheaval in so short a space had not been seen anywhere in the world up until that time. Northern halls echoed with fiery orations and determined ladies’ sewing circles. Patriotic fever ran high even as somber reality set in when the letters from the front were received.

The first two years of the war were especially bitter for the Union, prospects discouraging, progress slowed, battles lost. Christmas of 1862 came in on the heels of the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The ladies who answered the ad for nurses were witnessing awful scenes in the Washington, D.C. hospitals.

Western Massachusetts was kept abreast of the news from the frontlines through telegraph dispatches, and from letters from the soldiers. Many of the men volunteering from Chicopee, Westfield, Springfield, and Holyoke, and surrounding towns, served with the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit was formed in Springfield in 1861.

The Westfield Newsletter of December 17th carried a letter from a Westfield soldier in the 10th, written to his parents:

“I am on the supply train now, and there is a prospect that I shall remain here for some time to come…On the 26th of November, we started from our encampment with thirty odd head of condemned horses and mules, broken wagons, and dilapidated harnesses. The horses and mules were all so worn out with hard work and by disease that they could not trot and some of them could hardly walk. We went to Aquia creek Landing, and found night upon us…We started Thanksgiving morning, after breakfast (which consisted of a cup of coffee, two crackers and a small piece of pork) for Bell Plains -- camped after dark, then hunted for the yard -- found coffee, pork and crackers but no yard -- started the next morning and went to Falmouth and then about two miles further to Gen. Burnside’s head quarters. There we were told to take some food, which order we obeyed without a second notice. We were so hungry that we could not wait for our pork to be cooked…the worst part of the whole was in lifting and pulling the worn out mules from the mud. Sometimes we had to wade in water and mud up to our knees. That is the manner in which I spent my Thanksgiving day -- also the day before and after it.

“It begins to look like stopping here for some time. It is too bad, as I want to see this war finished.”

The Springfield Republican’s correspondent was attached to the 10th Mass, who signed himself R.W.B. He recorded the battle as the Union forces in their disastrous campaign at Fredericksburg, Virginia, finally crossed the Rappahannock River.

“About 10 this morning the firing commenced in front of us, and now, about 1 p.m. the shells are bursting all around us as I write. Gens Newton, Devens and Cochrane, Col Eustace, Major Parker and several staff officers went out in front of us a few minutes ago to take a look, and the rebs trained a gun on them and exploded a few shells near them, inducing them to leave that place, which they did with some witticisms, not the least of which was one by Liet. Knight that ‘There were too many stars in that constellation….’”

It grew closer to Christmas, and stereopticons, hair receivers, and books were advertised for sale, as well as Christmas fairs to aid the soldiers. After this one Fredericksburg campaign, 1,284 Union men were killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,760 were still missing.

(Above, the Sunken Road at the bottom of Marye's Heights, Frederickburg, where hundreds of Union men were killed.)

“A report may be spread that Chaplain Fuller of the 16th Massachusetts, was killed yesterday while accompanying his regiment as a volunteer in an attack upon the houses. It is not true; the deceased was a man resembling him.” Small comfort to the family of the man resembling Chaplain Fuller. Among the men of the 10th Mass: John Hazlett of Company A, whose spine was severed.

On Christmas Day, the Republican contained a report from RWB sent from Virginia the week before. The battle over…

“…there is prospect of our resting a little. We had a large mail yesterday and were made very happy thereby. We can write to our friends now, a privilege we have not had for a long time.”

Perhaps some of the letters from the men of the 10th Mass found their way to their friends and families in time for Christmas. The Westfield Newsletter’s war correspondent reported on Christmas Day from Washington:

“The wounded soldiers in our hospitals have been treated to-day to a Christmas dinner -- Benevolent ladies and gentlemen here have had the matter in hand for sometime, and the result has been a sumptuous dinner for the invalids. There is some difference of opinion in regard to whether it will benefit them…

“The day has been beautiful -- such as one would be appropriate to the month of April.”

Two days before, on the 23rd, RWB also noted the break in the weather, and described a funeral. It is an interesting letter, thoughtful, and touching in its simplicity.

“This is a beautiful morning, the sun is warm, and the out of doors life is quite agreeable today. I can sit by a campfire and write without overcoat and gloves. How nice!...

“…Day before yesterday we buried D.A. Buswell of Company H. The members of his company speak highly of him, and he is believed to have died a Christian. Oh, how solemn are these funerals of our comrades, and how soon do we forget the admonitions. We perform the last rites with sorrow, and turn away to mingle with the others in what first attracts our attention, with the same heedlessness as before.”

RWB and the men of the 10th were human, even under inhuman conditions. According to the regimental history, “Christmas day in camp was not a merry one though some brave hearts attempted some betterment of their regular rations by resorting to the sutler. The general tone of the army was low.”

In such conditions, one finds comfort where one can. In the same dispatch, RWB noted that the troops of the 37th Mass were kept amused by a four-footed member of their unit. He was a cat named Picket, who belonged to a soldier from Pittsfield.

“It is amusing to see her on the march, perched upon the top of the shoulders of the captain’s servant, or on the roll of blankets he usually carries, where she jolts along when he runs, and reposes quietly when he walks. ‘Picket’ feeds from the same plates and drinks from the same cup with the officers, not always being particular to wait until they have finished.”

This is how Christmas of 1862 was celebrated by some New England men far from home. It was the second wartime Christmas of the Civil War, and the people back home were adjusting to privations and becoming hardened to losses and bad news.

The year before, on the first Civil War Christmas, an editorial in the Westfield Newsletter reflected on the task at hand and the hope that was necessary in times like these.

“The people of the free states are in great measure exempt from the horrors of this war, and enjoying their Christmas festivities in comparative quiet…Our friends and relatives are on the tented field, or, perhaps engaged in deadly conflict, and for this our hearts may be sad. But we will yield not to despair! In this distant future we behold the fulfillment of the promise to the shepherds, and the advent of the Messiah, of ‘Peace on Earth and good will to men’ Then, let us be joyful to-day, for rich blessings are in store for us and for our children.”

It would be months until spring, years before the war’s end, and many miles for the soldiers of both armies to trod. But a letter, a few days warmth were momentary blessings enough to dispel the gloom. They were hopeful, and the spirit of Christmas which represents a great hope, brought comfort to those of the 10th Mass, and the folks at home on Christmas Day.
An earlier version of the above essay was published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. Sources for this essay include:

The Chicopee Journal
The Springfield Daily Republican
The Westfield Newsletter

“Tenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-64” by Alfred S. Roe (Tenth Reg. Veterans Assoc., Springfield, Mass., 1909)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Milton Bradley's Toys and Games

Gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, let's have a look at one of New England's foremost makers of toys and games, Milton Bradley.

An earlier version of the following article was originally published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. The images belong to the Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

In the 1860s, an era when what few idle hours there were in the day were left to sleep, self improvement or prayer, Milton Bradley applied the Puritan work ethic to defying the Puritan work ethic, by encouraging the playing of games and having fun. His games were toys not merely for the amusement of children but to entertain the family, yet still tinged with guilt-edged propriety, such as his first game The Checkered Game of Life. With board moves toward “Honor,” “Disgrace,” and “Happy Old Age,” the game was more like a morality play than sidesplitting fun, but it was the shape of things to come.

Milton Bradley was born November 8, 1836 in Maine . When his father’s business failed, the family traveled from town to town and eventually came to Lowell, Massachusetts where his father found work in the mills. Milton graduated from high school in Lowell in 1854, and with his love of drawing, became apprenticed to a draftsman. Two years later, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and Milton headed up river to Springfield, Massachusetts to find work.

He was 19 years old, and found a job at the Wason Car Works because of his drawing abilities. After that firm failed in 1858, Milton decided to open his own office in mechanical drawing. His biggest success for the Wason Company was to have designed a railroad car for the Pasha of Egypt. Now he applied his drawing to securing patents for his mechanical designs, and in 1860, bought a press for lithography, a new art in the United States.

His largest venture at the time was to publish and sell copies of a portrait of a then beardless Abraham Lincoln, who had recently been nominated for President. Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and a Lincoln supporter, brought the project to Bradley. Bradley sold thousands of the portraits. Unfortunately for Bradley, Lincoln then decided to grow a beard. The picture was now outdated. Bradley destroyed most of the remaining unsold prints, but the beardless Lincoln photo is now a rare historic piece.

The story goes that his friend George Tapley tried to pull Bradley out of his despondency over the bearded Abe incident with a parlor game. This got Milton Bradley’s creative juices flowing again, and he decided to invent and print his own game, which was The Checkered Game of Life. He took the first of many trips to sell his inventions in New York City.

During the Civil War, Bradley worked at the Springfield Armory as a draftsman to help design the new model Springfield Rifle. The sight of a group of encamped soldiers in Springfield, far from the battlefield and idle in the fall of 1861, gave him the idea to make game kits for the Union Army. When not engaged in battle, most of army life in camp was tedious. Bradley filled the void with a small light kit of games which included chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and the good old Checkered Game of Life. A success, the “Games for Soldiers” was ordered by charitable organizations to distribute to the troops.

After the war, leisure time was pursued, and by some people, found. Bradley invented more games like Patriot Heroes and Curious Bible Questions, and a card game that was a forerunner to the latter-day Easy Money called What Is It or How to Make Money.

Bradley also manufactured croquet sets and developed a set of rules which are still used today. One of his most unusual toys was the “Myrioptican,” a series of pictures drawn on a paper roll in a drum device. The drum was turned by a crank and the produced the effect of illuminated scenes before a lamp. This was precursor to the “Zoetrope.” Additional scenes could be purchased for $2.50, and included the animated actions of a woodchopper, a hurdle race, a rope jumper, and a trapeze artist.

Bradley died in 1911, but his company continued to produce games, some of which, like Flight to Paris which fed on the excitement of Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo Atlantic flight did not stand the test of time. Others, like Yahtzee, are classics. One game died and was reborn. The Civil War era Checkered Game of Life was brought back in 1960 as part of the Milton Bradley Company’s centennial celebration, now called The Game of Life. The object of the 1860 version was to live a clean and moral “life.” In 1960, it was about how to end up at Millionaire Acres and not the Poor House. Priorities change.

Been to "Millionaire Acres"? Let us know.

Sources for this article include:
Springfield Homestead. May 31, 1911.
Charles Mercer, Springfield Sunday Republican. February 21, 1960, p. 2A.
Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brigham's Ladies Apparel, Springfield, Mass.

Perhaps you remember shopping at Brigham's in Springfield, Mass. This ad is from a 1940 Springfield Daily Republican. I'm not sure when the store closed, but it was a fixture in the first half of the 20th century. Apparently from the number of years it had been in business noted in the ad, it had been present in the latter part of the 19th century as well. Ladies' apparel, hats, and general notions was their business, though I wonder if today we would casually use the term "Mecca" to describe a store as the best place to shop for Christmas.

Been there? Shopped that? Let us know.

Friday, December 12, 2008

First Congregational Church, Woodstock, Connecticut

Here is the 1st Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Woodstock, Connecticut. Though we may view such buildings as something that should be slapped on a Christmas card, there is more here than is just picturesque. The beautiful old church is the heart of a vibrant congregation just as connectect to the present as to the past.

This "quiet corner" of Connecticut was settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony pioneers around 1690, bringing with them the "New England Way" which subscribed that each individual congregation should govern itself. This meeting house, the third one to be constructed, was built in 1822.

For more on this church and its congregation's activities, have a look at this website.

Been to the "quiet corner"? Let us know.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breck's Shampoo

(A World War I-era advertisement in a Springfield, Mass. theater program.)

An earlier version of the following post was previously published in History Magazine (July 2006).


There was a time when a Massachusetts firefighter learned firsthand the axiom, “necessity is the mother of invention”. It served John H. Breck well, though not in the manner he intended, when he developed his Breck Shampoo.

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1877, Breck was only 14 years old when he started work in one of Holyoke's factories. When he was about 19, Breck's family moved across the Connecticut River to Chicopee, where he joined the fire department. At the age of 21, he was reported to have been the youngest fire captain in the country.

It was about this time that Breck began studying chemistry in his off hours under an Amherst professor, which led to Breck developing a formula for shampoo. He was really searching for a scalp treatment for himself. Still in his 20s, Breck was going bald.

The first commercial shampoos had been developed some 10 to 15 years earlier in Europe, but they had not gained much popularity in North America. Washing hair, when it was done at all, was usually accomplished with a bar of gray-colored soap. This soap was obtained from the wandering neighborhood soap-and-bone man. This fellow went door to door for bones, to which the women of the neighborhood responded with their saved meat bones to trade for hunks of soap, which was produced by local rendering companies. The animal fat was treated with an alkali, and presto, gray soap. Some people, especially in rural communities, continued to make their own soap at home.

The soap was used on dishes, the floors, the dog, and humans, including their hair. Breck blamed in this soap for his hair loss.

In 1908, John H. Breck decided to give up firefighting, and opened an office in Springfield, Massachusetts. As a “hair specialist”, he began with three employees, and by 1920, local hairdressers began using his preparations in their salons.

When Breck's pH-balanced liquid soap shampoo was marketed, it was one of the very first in the US, and it revolutionized the cosmetics industry. By 1929, the company was incorporated as John H. Breck, Inc. The business grew rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s as hair care products became a major industry, and went on to gross millions of dollars in more than 70 countries.

Breck still went bald, though. One presumes that his success made him rich enough not to mind.

Remember the "Breck Girls"? Know any? Let us know.

For more on the Breck Girls Collection of artwork at the Smithsonian Institution, see this website.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Season of Anticipation

Here's the Mt. Tom Range across the river in Holyoke as we travel north through the Connecticut River town of South Hadley in western Massachusetts. It's late November, some years ago, and we're in that season of anticipation like we are now. Not anticipation over the holidays, but over when and how much it will snow. The gray naked trees need covering, and the bare ground is unseemly, and even if the sky is blue, those gray and purple clouds that streak over us this time of year make us New Englanders wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. The shoe that brings a foot or more.

It's a deceptively pretty scene. There's more to it you can't see, and we know that. Any minute now. Yes, sir, any minute now. Can't fool us.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One by Land, One by Sea

Two state capitals, one view by land and the other by sea, were established at roughly the same time. The Dutch trading post on the Connecticut River begun in 1623became a thriving English colony a decade later. The pennisula settled in 1625 became the City on a Hill and to future generations, the cradle of liberty.

Hartford has the oldest continually published newspaper in the country, the oldest art musuem. Boston has the oldest school and the oldest college. Somewhere along the way, Saukiog became Hartford and Shawmut became Boston, and both are wrapped in confusing ribbons of superhighways now. Parking might still be a challenge, but getting to these cities has never been easier.

Been there to the Freedom Trail or the Wadsworth Atheneum? Let us know.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Massasoit of Plymouth

Here is a statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Mass. Massasoit was the sachem of the Pokanoket, part of the Wampanoag Confederacy, and his place in history is to be a hero of two opposing nations. It is a unique position, few men ever achieve the position of being hero to both sides, and he leaves a complicated, but equally important legacy to both.

This man visited Plymouth in 1621, with the allegiance of a handful of other Wampanoag sachems behind him, negotiated a treaty with the English settlers who were tenuously, and so precariously attemping to establish themselves in the tract of land they called New England. Their sea crossing on the Mayflower was hellish, and their first winter here even moreso.

In exchange for the promise of the English to ally themselves with the Wampanoags against the Narragansetts, Massasoit promied them security and land. He also prevented them from dying of starvation during those early years of settlement. There was peace, an often uneasy peace, but still peace, between the new Plymouth settlement and the Wampanoag all the remainder of Massasoit’s lifetime. After his death, the bloody King Philip’s War altered the political landscape, which is a subject for another time.

For now, between the rather classic Roman-like monument with its gates that shields Plymouth Rock from further damage by tourists, and the magnifcent Mayflower II, the replica of the ship that brought the English settlers, Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims, we have somewhere in the middle the statue of the man of the hour. He determined that his people, who had been descimated by smallpox in the handful of years before the treaty with the English, would not be left helpless. Because of him, they, and the English settlers survived, both for that day, and in history.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cadillac Mountain - Maine

Here the morning mist shrouds the top of Cadillac Mountain. Watch your step on the bare granite face, and watch everything around you. There is a serene stillness.

Part of the Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, Cadillac Mountain at just over 1,530 feet is the highest point on the US Atlantic coastline.

Here you stand not only on a rugged rocky crest, but on the topmost part of an island on which there are 16 other hilltops to explore, and ocean all around. An auto road built in the 1930s will take you to the top. The weather will grow quite inhospitable soon. If you want to be one of the first in the US to see the sunrise, better do it while you can.

For more on Acadia National Park and Cadillac Mountain, have a look at these websites.

Been there? Done that? Let us know.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mineral Springs at Stafford Springs, CT

Here are some views of Stafford Springs, Connecticut. It is a quiet community now, but long before the quiet of this autumn day, long before its rise as a manufacturing town, even before it became known for the mining of bog iron ore, this place had the interesting reputation as a resort town based on the healing properties of its mineral springs.

The young lawyer and future President John Adams traveled west from Braintree on horseback in 1771 after overwork and exhaustion left him in a precarious state of health. He wrote in his autobiography,

“I was advised to take a journey to the Stafford Springs in Connecticutt, then in as much Vogue as any mineral Springs have been since. I spent a few days in drinking the Waters and made an Excursion, through Somers and Windsor down to Hartford and the journey was of Use to me, whether Waters were or not.”

One of the first published accounts of Stafford Springs as resort location is noted in Connecticut Historical Collections by John Warner Barber, (self published, New Haven, 1836). “The Indians first made themselves acquainted with the virtues of these springs…It has been their practice, time immemorial, to resort to them in the warm season, and plant their wigwams round them. They recommended the water as an eye water; but gave their own particular reason for drinking it, that it enlivened their spirits.”

By 1899 when another account of Stafford Springs was published in The Minerals Waters of the United States and Their Therapeutic Uses by James K. Cook, A.M., M.D. (Lea Brothers, NY, 1899), we are informed that the area was known as a resort since at least 1750 for travelers seeking to restore their health. The author notes, “During the latter part of the last and for many years of the present century the place was held in high favor throughout New England and the neighboring states.” At the time of this publication, the author notes that the spring water was now being bottled.

“The water is clear and sparkling and excellent for table purposes. It has attained its greatest reputation in the treatment of blood and skin infections. It is said to be actively diuretic.” This publication lists the mineral contents: sodium chloride, potassium sulfate, sodium sulfate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium phosphate, iron peroxide, iron protoxide, alumina, lime, silicic acid, and magnesia.

By 1938 when the WPA state guidebook for Connecticut was published, the heyday of the mineral springs were long past, and we are informed only that there had been two mineral springs around the Hyde Park area from which the town got its name, and which were “in the early 19th century the center of a flourishing health resort.” The unique feature which brought native people, colonial settlers and future Presidents to visit on a health pilgrimage is reduced to a single line of type.

Stafford Springs is still as charming a town as you will find on a country drive, but there is no longer a flourishing health resort to restore you to vigor. But a quiet walk across the bridge up along Spring Street to Hyde Park and the remnants marking an old springhouse may certainly enliven your spirits.

For more information on Stafford Springs, have a look at this website.

Been there? Done that? Let us know.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hammond Castle - Gloucester, Mass.

Here is the Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Mass. This museum, once a home to inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr., was built in the late 1920s. A replica medieval castle, it remains one of the most unusual structures on the New England seacoast.

Reportedly second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents awarded him, over 800, Hammond worked on the development of remote control radio waves. The Hammond Castle website refers to him as “The Father of Remote Control.”

The castle, which you enter through a drawbridge, houses a collection of Roman, medieval, and Renaissance artifacts. Just closed for the season, however, you’ll have to wait until next May to visit. In the meantime, play with your remote control toys and plan a trip to the Hammond Castle.

For more information, have a look at this website.

Been there? Done that? Let us know.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Poets Seat - Greenfield, Mass.

Here is a view of the Poets Seat tower in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The rocky ridge that bestows a lovely view of the Connecticut River Valley has a reputation of being the inspiration of poets and writers.

An original wooden tower constructed in 1873 was replaced by this sandstone structure in 1912, and is dedicated to one poet in particular, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. You can see on the plaque that Tuckerman is lauded for being “a gifted, solitary poet much admired by Emerson, Hawthorne and Tennyson.”

Tuckerman (1821-1873), though known to these giants of 19th century poetry and literature and corresponding with them, appears to have had only one volume of his own poetry published in his lifetime, along with several poems as contributions to magazines. A minor poet in his day, perhaps, but anybody who climbs to the top of the spiral staircase in this simple tower reaches a very pleasing perspective on the world, and becomes a kind of giant, as perhaps Mr. Tuckerman was in his own way.

Located at Mountain Road and Maple Street as part of Rocky Mountain Park in Greenfield, the Poets Seat is a fine place to visit on an autumn weekend drive.

Been there? Done that? Let us know.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

World War I - 90th Anniversary

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Pictured above are nurses outside Evacuation Hospital #1 in Sebastopol, France. The photo is taken from the World War I Collection of the Massachusetts National Guard Museum and Archives in Worcester, available through the Digital Treasures of The collection is part of the Massachusetts National Guard 26th Infantry Division.

This was taken on May 7, 1918, at the beginning of those last horrible months before the Armistice. In two weeks, the American forces would make their first offensive at Catigny. That summer, battle after desperate battle brought more men under the care of these women. The Second Battle of the Marne, the shattering of the Hindenberg line. As Europe calls out separate declarations of independence from new or re-born countries with the crumbling empires, there is still Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne to be endured.

Then on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, we had the still and silent end of the war to end all wars, not as much as by mutual agreement as by mutual exhaustion.

We may remember the battle names, and armies, and empires that fell, and the new countries that took shape on the new map of Europe. Remember also the women, whose nursing service was bleak and bloody and fraught with danger.

As we can see by this memorial plaque on Nantucket, by World War II, there were not only nurses, but WAVES and SPARS flanking the list of names of male Marines. All together, one nation, indivisible, but in a second world war that was not supposed to happen. The biggest legacy of World War I seems to be its failure to be the last war fought. We may forgive that generation its naïve idealism. We might envy it a little, also.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Berkshire Ramble

It is already brown, gray, leafless and November-y in New England, but here is a last look at the color of autumn, and word by Herman Melville, former resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who ruminated on life in the Berkshires in his 1855 novel based on the autobiography of Revolutionary War soldier Israel R. Potter: “Israel Potter: His First Fifty Years of Exile.” The character finds himself a soldier under Washington, a sailor, a captive of the British, a Rebel spy, who longs above all to return to peace, seclusion, and isolation of the Berkshires of western Mass.

"The traveler who at the present day is content to travel in the good old Asiatic style, neither rushed along by a locomotive, nor dragged by a stage-coach; who is willing to enjoy hospitalities at far-scattered farmhouses, instead of paying his bill at an inn; who is not to be frightened by any amount of loneliness, or to be deterred by the roughest roads or the highest hills; such a traveler in the eastern part of Berkshire, Mass., will find ample food for poetic reflection in the singular scenery of a country, which, owing to the ruggedness of the soil and its lying out of the track of all public conveyances, remains almost as unknown to the general tourist the interior of Bohemia."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Palmer's Washington Elm

On this voting day, no views of polling booths or campaign signs. Instead, the photo of an elm tree taken in Palmer, Massachusetts in 1906. Locals called it the Washington Elm.

It was part of local lore that George Washington rested under this tree while traveling the Boston Post Road, now Route 20. The magnificent old tree toppled in the Hurricane of 1938 (see blog post here).

The photo, part of the Palmer Public Library collection, was taken by D. L. Bodfish of Palmer. George Washington was a man who became an icon. The tree became folklore. The democracy represented by the icon and the folklore outlasted both.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Salem Witch Museum

The Salem Witch Museum is an excellent source of information on the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692. It is also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Salem, Massachusetts. And October, not so coincidentally, is one of the most popular months to visit Salem.

Because the victims of the 1692 trials were not witches, it is curious that the folklore of the “Halloween witch” has found such a home here. One must not begrudge a source of commerce, however, especially in days like these. Just ask the Village of North Tarrytown, New York, which has changed its name to Sleepy Hollow, another good Halloween spot, and where the local police sport the emblem of the Headless Horseman, just as they do the witch on a broomstick in Salem. When it comes to public relations, I suppose you have to run with what you’ve got.

Giving the candy corn and black and orange balloon celebration at this time of year in Salem its due, let us not forget the victims whose infamous executions brought us this curious October festival environment in this historic town. The innocent people named below were hanged.

Bridget Bishop
George Burroughs
Martha Carrier
Martha Corey
Mary Easty
Sarah Good
Elizabeth Howe
George Jacobs, Sr.
Susannah Martin
Rebecca Nurse
Alice Parker
Mary Parker
John Proctor
Ann Pudeator
Wilmott Redd
Margaret Scott
Samuel Wardwell
Sarah Wildes
John Willard

Giles Corey was pressed to death.

For more information on the Salem Witch Museum, have a look at this website.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Silsby Free Public Library - Charlestown, NH

Here’s a look at the Silsby Free Public Library in Charlestown, New Hampshire.

Designed by Hira Beckwith, the Romanesque structure built in 1891 is typical of its era, constructed of stone and brick, and slate, of course, granite from the Granite State.
Beckwith, a local building contractor from Claremont, erected many other public buildings in the area, and built several homes in Claremont. A contractor, he also attended the Asher Benjamin School of Design to study architecture.
Libraries are the life’s blood of small communities, even if they are small libraries.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Apple Picking

Here’s a look at the fall apple crop, and a view of apple picking as a life lesson by poet Robert Frost. It’s been a good year for foliage, hasn’t it?

After Apple-Picking (1914)
By Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nathan Hale Homestead - Coventry, CT

It has come down to us that Connecticut schoolteacher-turned-rebel spy Nathan Hale remarked, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," only moments before he was hanged by the British.

While it is probable these may not be his exact words, his death in 1776 moved deeply both the British military present, and the Americans who for generations would use these words as a rallying cry in times of national crisis. He was only 21 years old at the time of his execution.

Above is a photo of the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, Connecticut, where Hale’s family farmed 400 acres. This is where Hale spent his life before attending Yale, before volunteering to obtain military intelligence for General George Washington as a First Lieutenant in the Continental Army, before he died in the service of country yet to be born.

Today the Nathan Hale Homestead, staffed by costumed interpreters, is a quiet place to reflect on how big a sacrifice it is to give up one’s life, and irresistible peace of one’s own home for no guarantees of success or even that one’s sacrifice will be remembered.

For more information on the Nathan Hale Homestead, have a look at this website.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Summer Sunset - Last Look

One last look at a summer sunset, in this new era of chilly mornings and leaves the color of flame. One of the interesting things about living in a place with four distinct seasons, is that the season just gone past can seem as distant as the Pleistocene age.

Was it ever really that warm, the sky that golden? Or did we just dream it? Farewell then, as the old movie travelogs used to say, to summer sunsets off Cape Ann, Mass.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Christopher Columbus Statues

From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, here is a 1904 photo of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston, one of many statues dedicated to the 15th century explorer about whom we still know rather little, and what we do know has been so couched in myth.

Vandalism, rather than floral tributes, have befallen some Columbus statues, including Boston’s over the years, due to protest over the treatment of native peoples, and their decimation as a result of colonization.

There are a great many Columbus statues in the northeast, a product first of Italian-American pride, the holiday later adopted by the nation to celebrate American cohesiveness.

Here are sites with interesting notes on the many monuments to Columbus in this country, and a site with photos of most of them.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Autumn at Old Sturbridge Village

Here are some photos of Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum replicating life in New England from the late 1700s to about 1830. With farm, village, and over 40 buildings in its little world, it makes for a remarkable place to visit. Here, the self-sustaining community prepares for autumn, harvesting from the kitchen garden, from the fields and orchards, stacking the woodpile, and closing the shutters that bang in the wind.

James Whitcomb Riley of Indiana, born middle of 19th century, who reached his zenith of fame at beginning of 20th century, wrote folksy poetry no longer in fashion. Though he was not a New Englander, his Hoosier dialect likely fits the sentiments of this man and this woman in these photos as they set themselves for was used to be called “puttin’ by.” Like squirrels storing their acorns, people once set a great deal of importance by preparing for the winter. They used to have a lot more to do than just buy a new plastic windshield scraper for the car.

Now, in this season of glorious autumn, a reminder of our frailty as well as nature’s immortality, which currently hits us with precarious economic tides, we may as well sit back and remember the virtues of “puttin’ by.”

A word then, from James Whitcomb Riley:

“When the Frost is on the Punkin”

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here --
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock --
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries -- kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below -- the clover over-head! --
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...
I don't know how to tell it -- but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me --
I'd want to 'commodate 'em -- all the whole-indurin' flock --
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

Kindly have a look at this website for more on Old Sturbridge Village.

Been there? Done that? Let us know.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Whitehall Inn - Camden, Maine

This is the Whitehall Inn on High Street in Camden, Maine. If you’ve not been here or even passed by, you may recognize it from the movie “Peyton Place” (1957).

But its film stardom is only a footnote in this famous inn, founded in 1901. Among its famous visitors was at least one nobody who started on her road to fame here. This of course was the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote her watershed poem “Renascence” on the top of nearby Mount Battie and recited it before guests and staff at the Whitehall Inn in 1912. One impressed guest helped send the talented girl to college, and a giant in American poetry was that guest’s gift to all of us.

From the final stanza of “Renesscence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, --
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.”

For more on the Whitehall Inn, kindly have a look at this website.

Been there? Done that? Wrote a poem in the dining room? Let us know.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Raising Sheep

The above photo shows a flock of sheep in an Amherst, Massachusetts meadow. Things have changed a bit from the days when a 1664 law in the colony "required youths to learn to spin and weave." But wool production and the raising of sheep for food as well as wool continues to be a an important part of agriculture in New England. More than 500 farms in Massachusetts alone raise sheep.

Here's a site with interesting information on the history of sheep raising in New England and its place in farming today.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chatham Commercial Fishing

Above is a photo of what goes on at the Chatham, Massachusetts wharf on an average day. The commercial fishing boats come in, unload their catch, and seagulls swarm over the treasure.

Chatham and Provincetown are the two towns on the Cape in which commercial fishing remains as an important local industry. These days the fishermen have to seek their catch farther and farther out to sea.

Here is a link to a site for more interesting information on the history of Chatham commercial fishing and a way of life that is not just a part of some colorful past, but as important now as ever.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hurricane of 1938 - Part 3

In Hartford, there were 4,000 homeless, (30) but by the weekend, cleanup was advancing and the railroads would announce some new schedules on Sunday. (31) The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that 250 million trees were lost in the region. (32) Five years later, the U.S. Forest Service in Williantic, Connecticut announced that the last of the hurricane timber in the state was finally salvaged, and so closed its office there. (33)

The trees were a heartfelt loss. Recollections of the tumbling trees bowled over by an unseen hand is foremost in people’s memories. The terrific wind lasted only for about four hours, but in that time the landscape was forever changed. Trees which had stood since the Revolution were toppled. The dunes along the beaches would build up again, but it would take fifty years, it was said at the time, for the trees to return to their former glory.

It has since been 70 years, and we know now that those scenes are gone for good. An editorial in the New York Times by Elmer Davis noted, “The first thing almost everyone said was that it didn’t matter about the houses, they could be rebuilt; but the trees…would never be restored in the lifetime of anyone now living here.” (34)

The city of Springfield, Massachusetts lost 16,000 shade trees. The lumber pulled from the city streets was piled up at the City Infirmary, most of which was distributed to welfare recipients to use as fuel. The price of wood then was $6.50 per cord. (35)

About a week after the storm, First Lady Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt arrived in Springfield to deliver an address at the Municipal Auditorium on behalf of the Springfield Teacher’s Club to help raise money for the Child Welfare Fund.

Mayor Roger L. Putnam and two of the committee met her in Harford, Connecticut to personally escort her because of the “precarious travel conditions.”(36) Her address on the “Problems of Youth” was standing-room only. In his welcoming speech, Mayor Putnam asked Mrs. Roosevelt to convey their gratitude to the President for so swiftly sending out Federal aid, and help from the CCC, the WPA among other agencies to help in the crisis. Reportedly, Mrs. Roosevelt phoned her husband and kept him abreast of the conditions she witnessed in New England. Evidently, Eleanor’s efficiency could rival FEMA’s. (37)

The high death toll, nearly 700 lives lost, was the result of the storm crossing with no warning what was, and still is, a densely populated area. One note of good fortune was that though some 369 cottages were destroyed on Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island, the death toll there was held at 41, as the New England beachfront properties were populated mainly in the summer months, and in late September, had already been boarded up and closed. (38)

The injured numbered over 1,700. Homes completely destroyed amounted to nearly 9,000, with damaged to nearly 73,000. The total economic loss was set at $3 million 1938 dollars. (39) Over 93,000 families shared in this loss, and over 15,000 families required, or at least sought, assistance. Many delayed requesting aid “with typical New England reticence” until they had exhausted resources of their own. (40)

Some thirty-two immunization centers were set up to curtail the spread of illness from cholera and other such diseases when water and sanitation systems are impaired.(41)

Of the New England states, according to the Red Cross, Massachusetts led in the most storm damage and injuries, though Rhode Island suffered the highest death toll. (42)

More relief funds were required in Massachusetts than in the other states, and western Massachusetts was harder hit than the Boston area because the storm precariously traveled up the Connecticut River valley. Fund raising was slow, although there were contributions from sympathetic donors through the country, including a group of California hoboes who collected $2.10 specifically for the City of Springfield.(43)

Hurricanes, as it happens, are not new to New England. Governor William Bradford, Massachusetts Bay Colony leader, recorded a severe tropical storm in August 1635, and there was also the Great September Gale of 1815. However, the people who suffered those storms did not rely on man-made infrastructure.

In 1938, almost all telephone and telegraph communications were crippled between Boston and New York. Train and bus service was hampered, and air travel, rarely used, enjoyed a brief if desperate deluge by stranded business people. The use of short-wave radio helped during the complete loss of communications in many places. The tracks of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad were blocked for two weeks. (44)

About 240 communities, it was estimated, were virtually isolated. Trains, steamships, telegraph. It sounds rather archaic today, but New England was heavily populated and therefore was one of the most sophisticated in terms of communications and city infrastructure.

One should not attempt to draw too many parallels between Hurricane Katrina and the New England Hurricane of 1938. They were both unique in the breadth of the damage they brought to the lives and the cultures of each stricken area, and both inevitably to become part of the folklore of the region.

The lesson appears to be that if it happened once, it can happen again. New England has had a span of several years, even decades to recover after each hurricane since the 1938 storm. New Orleans may not be so lucky, as evidenced by Hurricane Gustav. The area around Houston and Galveston, Texas are currently grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. If the warming trend of the ocean continues, perhaps New England may not be so lucky, either.

This concluces our three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.


Footnotes for this series:

1) Howard Koch. “War of the Worlds” radio play. (NY: Nostalgia Lane, 1982).
2) William Elliott Minsinger, M.D., ed. “The 1938 Hurricane.” (East Milton, MA: Blue Hill Observatory, 1988), p. 9
3) Federal Writers Project. New England Hurricane. (Boston: Hale, Cushman, & Flint, 1938), p. 7.
4) Everett S. Allen. A Wind to Shake the World. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976), pp. 347-348.
5) Providence Journal Company. The Great Hurricane and Tidal Wave - Rhode Island. (Providence: September 1938), p.1.
6) ibid.
7) New York Times. September 3, 1938, p. F-9.
8) Springfield Daily News. September 6, 1938, p. 5.
9) American Red Cross. New York-New England Hurricane and Floods - 1938 - Official Report of Relief Operations. (Washington: October, 1939), p. 1.
10) New York Times. September 20, 1938, p. 1.
11) Boston Daily Globe. September 20, 1938, p. 2.
12) Boston Evening Globe. September 20, 1938, p. 9.
13) New York Times. September 21, 1938, p.24L.
14) p. 51L.
15) Springfield Daily News. September 21, 1938, p. 1.
16) P. 2.
17) Ibid.
18) Photo Record - Hurricane and Flood - New England’s Greatest Disaster. (NY: New England Historical Events Assoc., Inc., 1938), p. 1.
19)Aubrey Parkman. Army Engineers in New England. (Waltham, Mass.: US Army Corps of Engineers, New England Division, 1978), p. 179.
20)Hartford Courant. September 22, 1938, p. 1.
21)Providence Journal Company, p. 1.
22)Newsweek. October 3, 1938, p. 13.
23) BDG. September 22, 1938, p. 9.
24) Newsweek. October 3, 1938, p. 13.
25) SDN. August 18, 1958.
26) SDN. September 22, 1938, p. 2.
27) P. 7.
28) American Red Cross, p. 5.
29) Federal Writers Project. New England Hurricane, p. 219.
30) Hartford Times, September 24, 1938, p. 1.
31) Boston Evening Globe. September 24, p. 1.
32) Army Corps of Engineers, p.179.
33) Allen, p. 95.
34) NYT. September 24, 1938, p. 10.
35) Springfield Union. April 2, 1939.
36) SDN. September 29, 1938, p. 3.
37) SDN. September 30, 1938, p. 13.
38) Robert L. Nichols & Alwyn F. Marston. “Shoreline Changes in Rhode Island Produced by the Hurricane of September 21, 1938” published in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 1939, p. 1362.
39) American Red Cross, Official Report of October 21, 1938, quoted by Nichols, p. 1362.
40) American Red Cross, Official Report of 1939, p. 24.
41) P. 52.
42) P. 78.
43) SDN. September 26, 1938, p.5.
44) Photo Record - Hurricane and Flood - New England’s Greatest Disaster, p. 1
45) Allen, p. 349.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hurricane of 1938, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.

The Boston Globe announced that the European powers were yielding to Hitler, and then somewhere on page two, a short note about a hurricane moving toward the Bahamas. Forecasters believed there was a “fifty-fifty” chance of the hurricane’s moving back northward or northeastward, but “in that event, its effects probably would not be felt along the Atlantic Coast.” (11)

Two disasters, war and a hurricane, both were shrugged off, but in time, neither would be averted.

Rainy weather in New England had defeated many sporting events and harvest fairs that month, and more rain was predicted. The Boston Evening Globe on the 20th reported the hurricane passing east of Hatteras, its exact location recorded at 28N, 75W. Florida did appear safe, so there was no more worry about the storm. It went out to sea. (12)

But it shot north, to an already rain-soaked New England that did not know it was there.

On Wednesday the 21st, hours before the hurricane struck, the New York Times ran a curious portent of an editorial. The article congratulated science on its advances in hurricane tracking and referred to our knowledge of the current hurricane which missed Florida.

“If New York and the rest of the world have been so well informed about the cyclone, it is because of an admirably organized meteorological service. From every ship in the Caribbean Sea, reports are radioed to Washington, Havana, San Juan, and other stations….” (13)

The weather report in the newspaper for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut was “rain, probably heavy today.” (14)

The Springfield Daily News reported that the Czech cabinet voted to surrender to Hitler, while the rain locally was such that flood waters created a “virtual state of emergency” in the South End of Springfield. (15) The Exposition in West Springfield stoutly declared they would not close despite the rising flood waters on the Westfield River which bordered the fairgrounds. The entire Connecticut River valley was in danger of flood.

That late afternoon, the intense low pressure and seemingly unending rain were relieved by that worse natural disaster in New England history. The hurricane which missed Florida and had been forgotten, slammed into Long Island and traveled up the obliging Connecticut River valley, with winds reaching over 180 mph. The evidence of something strange happening was discovered in spurts.

Families were evacuated from Athol, Massachusetts, a small town in the northern central part of the state which faced the difficulty typical to factory towns. (17) Its rivers, responsible for its industrial existence, were flooding the factories and the homes. Like islands at sea, these small industrial communities could not have been left more isolated if there had been walls built around them; and so walls were constructed, in swollen rivers, washed out railroad tracks, bridges, and in barricades of fallen trees. In some communities, notably Peterborough, New Hampshire and New London, Connecticut, fires started and quickly spread. The New London fire destroyed much of the business section. (18) Each town faced its own peculiar troubles, and faced them quite alone.

The railroads were impassible due to trees and debris, and in some cases the tracks were twisted wreckage. Then the body count began, but even the media’s sudden discovery of the situation would not be enough to fully realize the extent of the storm’s destruction. That job would be left to the Red Cross and government agencies, and that aftermath would take months.

Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was dry was moment and then under ten feet of water the next. (19) The wind tore roofs off buildings and downed power lines, and as the Hartford Courant reported, “caused theaters to be emptied in alarm.” (20) Over 300 people were killed in Rhode Island, the “Ocean State.” (21) At Watch Hill, a crowd examining the ugly, churning surf were swept away in a single huge wave. Sixty-nine were found dead, and sixty-one others were not found. (22)

Boston Harbor sailings were canceled in these days of trans-Atlantic ocean travel. The Eastern Steamship line canceled for the first time in fifty years of operation. (23) The steeple of the First Unitarian Church of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts was ripped off and dashed to its pews, only one of several church steeples that did not survive the storm. (24)

People in need were left largely to the hospitality of neighbors or their own beleaguered Depression-strapped town and city governments. People who were injured or stranded were at the mercy of the elements and time. Only the dead were without burden.

Many newspapers the day after the storm excitedly chased the scattered facts, but failed to note the magnitude.

In Springfield, where seventy trolley cars were stalled about the city, headlines of the Springfield Daily News raced but barely managed to keep pace with the rising Connecticut River. (25) Even the intrepid organizers of the Eastern States Exposition had to admit defeat when the roof of a building was hurled 100 feet through the air, and police ordered an evacuation of the fair, (26) and cattle were prodded up onto the bridge over the Westfield River to Agawam, to escape the flooded fairgrounds. (27)

A flimsy network of local police and adventurous Boy Scouts, which had comprised the vanguard of the rescue personnel, was bolstered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s calling out the Army, the Red Cross, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The coastal areas were worse hit by the combined and quite separate tragedies of the powerful winds and the very high tides. Inland, all major cities and populated areas were located on rivers, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. In Hartford, Connecticut, as in Springfield, Massachusetts, WPA, CCC and volunteers strived to save dikes along the looming Connecticut River.

The wind had destroyed much, but while the sudden danger had passed, there was left a more insidious peril, the incessant floods. For New England, the four-day rainfall that coincided with the hurricane left up to seventeen inches of rain in more afflicted areas. The crops of the harvest season were destroyed, including the Connecticut and Western Massachusetts tobacco crops, (28) an almost total loss of the region’s apple crop, much damage to sugar maple trees and small truck farms. (29) Traveling to stores was impeded by blocked highways, and wrecked railroad tracks prohibited normal shipment of foodstuffs from other parts of the country.

As victims’ names were added to published lists, the regional tragedy brought nation-wide concern. Families from across the US had sent their children to New England colleges, and the semester had just begun.

For more photos on the destruction caused by the Hurricane of 1938, have a look at this website.

Come back Friday for the conclusion of this three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hurricane of 1938 - Part 1

This begins a three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938, as this September 21st marks the 70th anniversary of the storm. Above is a photo of a flooded Hartford, and it is from the collection of the Hartford Public Library. Rather than post photos of the storm's devastation, because almost all that I've found are still under copyright restrictions, I will instead include links where you can see some very dramatic shots of what the hurricane did.

I will also for the first time include footnotes at the end of this series, because there is a lot of material which requires notation. This is more an article than an essay, and the incredible facts of the Hurricane of 1938 fly fast and furious.

Sit back then, and remember. Or if you don't remember, then pull up a chair and imagine what it was like when the impossible happened. For some people, it was the end of the world.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on a helpless New Orleans, and the anxiety with which Hurricane Gustav was observed on its approach to that same area seems to have visited a new era upon us and a new relationship with these storms, once considered meteorological freaks. The New England hurricane of 1938 was considered a freak, and now in this new era of devastating possibilities, it illustrates how helpless an entire region can be when, unlike in modern hurricane forecasting, no one even knows a hurricane is approaching.

The autumn of 1938, a period of time that came between the depths of the Depression and the height of war, atmospherically was shadowed with fear that was the result of some peculiar current happenings, but the danger that ultimately materialized was the one never imagined.

As Orson Welles put it in his famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast that October, “With infinite complacence people went to and fro of the earth about their little affairs, secure in the assurance of their dominion over this small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood….” (1)

The events of the preceding month left the populace of this planet anything but complacent, and by the time Welles delivered his knockout punch, nobody, particularly in New England, felt safe anymore. One of those events was the Munich Pact crisis, reports of which were broadcast over the radio with staccato urgency. Both the Munich Pact crisis and the War of the Worlds were brought to us immediately, intimately, through radio.

The third big event which occurred that autumn, devastating to the northeast, was what came to be called the Hurricane of 1938, and unlike the two other crises, the danger it presented was real, the aftermath was severe, and it was not covered by radio. Clocked at 186 mph, today it would be called a category 5 hurricane.

In retrospect, the Hurricane of 1938 gives an interesting perspective on the resilience of human beings left to save themselves when infrastructure is suddenly made fragile, or wiped clean away, and when swollen rivers destroy what manufacturing had managed to survive the Depression. Millions of dollars were lost, miles of coastline were altered or swept away. Nearly 700 people were killed. (2)

In that murky late summer/early autumn when reality took a back seat to war with Germany and war with Mars, the hurricane is remembered clearly only by a generation of New Englanders and Long Islanders now in their 80s and older. Impressions of that storm were profound and they lasted, yet at the time war, even with Martians, was more easily believed than a tropical hurricane in New England. It was such a myth that the United States Weather Bureau assumed the east coast was out of danger once the storm passed Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The hurricane that began as myth became legend in the northeast. It was even lionized as the ultimate joke on a people who take their weather seriously. The feeling of unreality was what most remember about the storm, of a strange yellow-colored sky, of rain blowing across the air sideways instead of falling downward, of tasting the salt sea far inland, far from the shore.

After passing Cape Hatteras, the storm had gone out to sea. However, it headed north, increased momentum and covered 600 miles of ocean in just twelve hours, (3) an average of 50 mph. (4) At that time, ocean weather was gathered by voluntary reports from merchant ships and commercial planes. There was no hurricane-tracking aircraft, no satellite photos. This storm, in macabre coincidence, also hit at high tide.

The Providence Journal Company published a report shortly after the storm that lamented, “The story can never emphasize too much the element of people’s unawareness of the hurricane’s imminence…It was this very element of unawareness that cost scores of lives, the lives of those who stayed and thought they were safe, and were swept away when a sea whipped to great heights engulfed them….” (5)

Rhode Island suffered the highest casualty rate with 312 dead. (6) This special publication noted that the storm brought out the best in humanity in the desperate trials of rescuers and would-be rescuers. There were looters, too.

For others, disbelief and shattered confidence, loss of family, friends and home was the lasting souvenir. This was not yet an age of thick skin and sophisticated if somewhat benign response to tragedy.

It hit New England on Wednesday, September 21st. On the fourth of that month, Washington announced a new study conducted by the Navy would record data on the origin of hurricanes. Their “ringside seat” for observing was Swan Island, 150 miles off the coast of Honduras. (7)

The “European situation” was growing more urgent with the Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg. Western Massachusetts prepared its West Springfield fairgrounds for the 22nd annual Eastern States Exposition, an agricultural fair for all six New England states. The fair this year was scheduled for September 18th through the 24th. (8)

By September 10th, headlines in the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News warned that Britain and France were preparing for war, and it appeared that the immediate future had more to do with man-made crisis than natural disasters, but a hurricane was forming near Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. Its later discovery by the U.S. Weather Bureau would be compiled from a report by a ship at sea, six days later on September 16th. (9) Meanwhile, Germany was reported to be massing troops on the Czech border. War seemed a certainty.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 20th, the day before the hurricane struck, the first in-depth news of the hurricane was reported. According to Grady Norton of the U.S. Weather Bureau, the hurricane was heading for Florida, but it had turned out to sea.

“While this is reassuring,” the report concluded, “we urge that you stand by for another 12 hours…” It was impossible at that time, Mr. Norton felt, to say whether the whole Atlantic coast would escape the storm. (10)

Come back next Tuesday for Part 2. Here is a link to some very dramatic photos of the storm's wreckage.

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