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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New England State Symbols

There is an astonishing collection of state symbols in New England, most of which most of us probably have never heard of, until reading trivia lists like this:

The state shellfish of Connecticut is the Eastern oyster. Massachusetts has the New England Neptune as its state shell. Vermont seems to do all right without a state shell or shellfish.

Birds are popular state symbols. Rhode Island has its Rhode Island Red chicken, Connecticut took the robin, which departs in winter so one wonders how reliable a state bird that is. Both Maine and Massachusetts of course have the Chickadee, mainly or Mainely because Maine was once part of Massachusetts -- which also explains the coincidence of the mayflower being the state flower. That and Patriot’s Day.

Vermont has red clover for its flower, and milk for its state beverage. Three cheers and a milk mustache for the dairy industry in Vermont. Maine’s state beverage is Moxie, which you need to drink the stuff.

Berries are awfully important, too. The cranberry belongs to Massachusetts, and Maine’s is the wild blueberry.

The state rock in New Hampshire is granite, of course. It’s marble in Vermont, and cumberlandite in Rhode Island. Don’t suppose there are too many countertops or statues made of the slightly magnetic cumberlandite, but maybe some of our readers can educate us about that.

Unusual in the world of state symbols is the category of state folk art symbol -- Rhode Island has the Crescent Park carousel. Not to be outdone in fringe symbols, Massachusetts has a state donut -- the Boston Crème, and a state cookie, the Toll House, or chocolate chip cookie to you.

Both Massachusetts and Vermont have chosen the Morgan horse for its state horse. And for its state ship, Connecticut adopted the nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Vermont has a state flavor -- maple, of course. Massachusetts has a state children’s book author, Dr. Seuss, who lost out to state children’s book -- which is Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings”.

Many of these symbols are references to aspects of our history or culture, though one may be hard pressed to discover why Connecticut required the praying mantis for its state insect. There’s a lot of important voting going on in the state houses. They might do some of it if there’s any time left over after voting on state cat, state fossil, and state polka.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"To Dakota and Back" - Orphan Trains Memoir

Once upon a time, New England children were forced into indentured servitude in a wide and vastly unpopulated West that needed laborers. They had lost one or both parents, and the bulk shipment of these children were called “orphan trains.”

Judith Kappenman, director of the Irish Cultural Center at Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts, has recently published, “To Dakota and Back - The Story of an Orphan Train Rider”, a memoir about her grandfather, John Donahue, who along with his brother, were two such children taken without their consent, and without their knowledge of what was really happening to them, to Dakota Territory. They were separated, sent to different farms, and spent the rest of their childhood until the age of their legal emancipation, as indentured laborers.

It is a story rich in detail that brings us from the impoverished South Boston neighborhood where the boys began their lives with their parents and younger sister. A series of events utterly beyond their control brings them to the Great Plains. John endures bitter experiences, and discovers with astonishing insight, how to thrive in his helpless situation. He is elderly when he returns to New England in a circle of life that is as triumphant as it is sad.

The organizing of “orphan trains” began in the 1850s and continued until 1930. The book is a fascinating history lesson as a personal account from this little-remembered episode of America’s past.

“To Dakota and Back” is available in paperback here from

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jean Arthur at the Westport Country Playhouse

The Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut has drawn, aside from appreciative audiences, luminaries from the world of stage and screen to perform, including one night in 1934.

“The Bride of Torozko”, in its English translation world premiere, featured Jean Arthur, who was still working out her metamorphosis from the dark-haired silent screen ingénue to, when she returned to Hollywood, the blonde comedienne with the unique voice that seems to defy accurate description. Sam Jaffe co-starred, and a young Van Heflin. According to the correspondent to the New York Times reporting July 9th on this out-of-town tryout headed for Broadway, among those “first-nighters” in the audience were producer Max Gordon, crime novelist Dashiell Hammett, and lyricist Ira Gershwin, among other society glitterati.

The play, written by Otto Indig, and adapted from Hungarian to English by Ruth Langner, was an old-world comedy of social commentary about relations between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in a small Hungarian village.

The production hit Broadway a couple of months later in September, but also ended in September. It was Heflin’s Broadway debut, and Jean Arthur’s fifth crack at bat. We’ll discuss their work together in the movie “Shane” (1953) on my “Another Old Movie Blog” on Thursday.

Despite its short run, more typical that we might believe, the cast were mostly lauded. Sam Jaffe gave “a performance that may be too mannered but that it is warm, skillful and comic,” said Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times in his review on September 14th.

“As Klari, the beautiful Jean Arthur may still be a trifle too heavy for ideal comedy acting, but this is the best acting of her career, and it is modestly enchanting.”

We can see here a snapshot in time of the metamorphosis of the silent ingénue on her way to becoming the sassy actress with the perfect timing and delivery who, in a few more years, was said by directors and her colleagues to be the best at screwball comedy.

One wonders what Ira Gershwin and Dashiell Hammett thought.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You Are Here: West Cornwall, Connecticut

You are here in West Cornwall, in the quiet hills of northwestern Connecticut, nine miles from Goshen if you’re going that way, and a variety of other options as conveyed on this signpost if you’re not.

Now Available