Falling for New England

When I was a child I had a special fascination for a small desk calendar that came in the mail each year from our insurance company. Each glossy page flipped to a bucolic New England scene -- July was usually a Maine lighthouse on a rocky promontory, May a white colonial house framed by wisteria, February a Vermont covered bridge spanning a frozen river, and October, the best of all, a hillside view of a blazing autumn woods with a white church steeple peeking through.

To a California accustomed to a gentle blurring of the seasons such contrasts were wondrous, the only evidence I had that the earth was indeed revolving around the sun. But what was more wondrous still is that when I grew up and moved to New England, the scenes I saw with my own eyes were not much different than the ones on the calender. The most amazing thing about a New England village, I discovered, is that it looks like a New England village should look.

If you're planning first-time trip through foliage country this fall, don't be surprised if you, as I did, experience a sense of homecoming or even a little deja vu.m "A lot of visitors remark that they feel at home here," observes one native. "It's probably because all Americans share our history, no matter where they're from."

Or it could just be the homey, nostalgic aura of the place. Amble down a New Hampshire dirt road leading to a solitary farmhouse and you're back in the '20s -- of the 18th or 19th century. Drive up Route 1 into Maine and the gaggle of souvernir stands and tourist cabins, interspersed with breathtaking views of rocky coastline, put you back 25 years. (That many years ago E. B. White observed of the stretch: "You can certainly learn to spell 'moccassin' while driving into Maine." You still can.) Stay at a classic New England inn -- the Red Lion in Stockbridge, Mass. or the Whitehall in Camden, Me. are two personal favorites -- and it's like visiting the cozy, antique-filled home of a favorite aunt.

During the remainder of this Jubilee year commemorating the 350 years since Boston was founded it is especially appropriate to pay homage to the historic sites which over the region as thickly as fallen maple leaves. The following are a few recent discoveries that are well worth enjoying during the weeks ahead:

* Almost everyone is collecting something these days, but few have gone the lengths of Electra Havemeyer Webb who founded the fabulous Shelburne Museum as a showcase for her mammoth collection of Americana. Located off Route 7 a few miles south of Burlington, Vermont in the village of Shellburne, the 35 museum buildings, mostly vintage houses moved from somewhere else, are spread over eight rolling acres dotted with apple trees, ponds, and weeping willows.

At first glance Shelburne appears to be a museum village not unlike those at Sturbridge and Williamsburg, but it soon becomes apparent that it is its founder's own unique creation. The 17th and 18th century furnishings that adorn the museum's historic houses are still as they were when Mrs. Webb arranged them in the late 1940s adn early 50s. As such the rooms fall short of accuracy (no colonial home would have contained so much), but do well in presenting an abundance of choice furniture and artifacts.

For those interested in early American antiques and folk art there are outstanding collections of just about every form, each housed in a building as interesting as what it contains. Mrs. Webb's collection of maritime art and antiques, for example, is sheltered in an 1871 lighthouse which once guided the vessels sailing on nearby Lake Champlain. General store items such as fabrics, baskets, cheese, brooms are found -- where else? -- in what was once the general store, post office, and meeting place for Shelburne villagers.

But even the most devoted of collectors may find the displays of early toys, dolls, tools, cigar store Indians, wooden eagles, weathervanes, carriages, bandboxes, quilts, rugs, samplers, duck decoys, kitchen utensils, pottery, apothecary items, furniture, and nearly everything else pertaining to early American life far too overwhelming for one visit. At that point a change of pace can be afforded by visiting the museum's S. S. Ticonderoga, a 1906 vertical beam, sidewheel steamship which is the last of its kind in existence. Up until 1951 the boat had taken passengers of day excursions around Lake Champlain. When its cruising days were over, Mrs. Webb bought it and, through a moving process of unprecedented engineering maneuvers, brought the boat to its present site at the museum.

On board the graceful, red and white vessel visitors can get a glimpse of a bygone era of excursion travel, evident in the equisite paneling and ornately-carved, plus upholstered seating in the lounge on the top deck. Equally interesting is a trip below deck to view the massive one-arm engine and coal boilers that ran the ship at speeds between 15 and 25 m.p.h.

Children as well as circus enthusiasts will especially delight in the museum's horsehoe-shaped Circus Building. The reason for its shape soon becomes apparent: a 518-foot long miniature circus parade intrioately carved out of wood follows the curve of the building. Roy Arnold began carving his horse-drawn band and cage wagons all meticulously copied from actual parades in 1925 and, when he was finished some 25 years later, sold it to Mrs. Webb for public display. On the curving wall opposite the parade hang vintage circus posters advertising the wonders promised by Ringling and Barnum & Baily.

In addition to its massive quantity of folk-art, the museum also boasts some outstanding examples of American and European paintings. Inside the Webb Gallery is a broad range of American paintings spanning three centuries, from anonymous works to those by Erastus Salisbury Field and Andrew Wyeth.

European art and furnishings adorn the neo-classical Electra Havemeyer Webb building. After Mrs. Webb passed on in 1960, her sons, now active in managing the museum, had seven of the rooms from her sumptious Park Avenue apartment dismantled, 18th century English paneling and all, adn reconstructed in this new setting. Mrs. webb's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer, were great collectors of European, particularly impressionist, art and thought their daughter's interest in Americana little short of shocking. Her portion of the Havemeyer collection of works by Monet, Manet, Mary Cassat ( a close family friend), Rembrandt, Courbet, and Degas is on splendid display in these rooms.

The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., mid-May through mid-October.

* Few people know that the family home of the only descendents of Abraham Lincoln is located on a rolling stretch of southwestern Vermont countryside in a neo-Georgian mansion called Hildene. On 412 acres commanding impressive views of the Green Mountains just outside of Manch ester, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the President, built his home in 1904 and lived there until his passing in 1926.

Open only since 1979, the imposing gray and white structure is a noteworthy example of a lavish turn-of-the-century country home as well as a showcase for assorted Lincoln family memorabilia. Visitors first stop at the carriage barn where they can browse among such items as a rack of 1865 newspapers carrying stories of the president's assasination and admire one of his stove pipe hats displayed alongside the floral papered hat box that contained it.

After viewing a short slide shw on the life of Robert Lincoln, visitors then take a short walk up hill to the main house where the Lincoln descendents lived until 1975. Most impressive is the intricately carved, multi-spindled winding staircase and elaborately molded landing which houses the 1,000 pipes of the player pipe organ down below in the center hall. The tour guide is happy to demonstrate how the instrument's magnificent tones flow through the house.

Most of the rooms are comfortably -- not grandly -- furnished, and are worth seeing chiefly for the vanished lifestyle and historical anecdotes they convey. What exists for pure visual pleasure, howeveR, are the gardens just out the French doors to the rear of the house. At the tour's end visitors can walk around the maze-like hedges and admire the wide vistas just beyond. Down a ledge to the left of the garden are caves once used in the Underground Railway whcih provided hiding places for runaway slaves escaping to Canada.

Hildene is right off Route 7, just south of the attractive village of Manchester, and open each day except Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

From there, it's a lovely two hour drive south through the Berkshires to Chesterwood, another lovely turn-of-the-century-estate with a Lincoln association. Located two miles west of Stockbridge, Mass. off Rt. 183, Chesterwood, like Hildene, is a splendid example of a Georgian Revival residence surrounded by gardens and lush acreage.

Here sculptor Daniel Chester French made his summer home. In the adjacent studio, he created his famous statue of Lincoln that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC using himself, a cast of Apollo Belvedere, and his hired man as models. Touring the fanciful studio designed by Henry Bacon (who also designed the Lincoln Memorial) is a highlight of a Chesterwood visit; on display here are over 100 examples of the sculptor's plaster work, including three smaller versions of the Lincoln statue that French created before working his way to the masterpiece he completed in 1922.

Railway tracks lead out of a pair of 22-foot-high double doors into a pasture where French could wheel his large extrior projects outdoors to see how they looked in the sunlight. Currently adorning the outdoor spot is his magnificent statue, "Andromeda."

Chesterwood is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from May 1 to October 31.

* Quite a different side of history has been preserved in the industrial city of Lowell, Mass. at the Lowell National Historical Park, open only since June 1978. While Lowell is not the first national park to be located in a city, it ism the first to use the Industrial Revolution as its theme. Some seventeen tours winding through the red brick city criss-crossed with canals bring the world of the 19th century mill workers to life.

If you have time for just one tour, the 3-hour Mill and Canal Tour is the best bet. Starting at the little grey stone St. Anne's Episcopal Church, the guide explains the structure was built in 1825 for the Yankee farm girls who were the main labor force operating Lowell's textile mills at that time. The famous "Lowell System" also provided housing, food, schooling, and occasional lectures for the young workers. In return, the girls worked at the deafening textile machiens for 13 hours a day, 6 days a week at salaries of $2-$4 a week. Out of that $1.87 went for living expenses, with the rest usually paying for a brother's education. As grim as that system might seem by modern standards, those familiar with British industrial conditions, including Charles Dickens, praised it as exceptionally humane.

After that bit of historical introduction, the tour goes on board a red wooden trolley that chugs alog at 5 m.p.h. to the Lowell Museum. Here the entire history of Lowell is unfolded through portraits, time-lines, exhibits, and narrative. Starting with a portrait of Francis Cabot Lowell -- the man credited with bringing British industrial techniques to the US -- the display traces the building of mills and canals, the hiring of the mill girls, and their eventual replacement with immigrant labor towards the middle of the 19th century. The exhibit reveals the life of the immigrants -- mostly Irish, French-Canadians, Greeks, and Portuguese -- most vividly through family photographs and a room furnished as a tenement kitchen.

From the museum the tour switches to a boat that plies up the Norther Canal to the Merrimack River, once among the nation's most polluted waterways. Now considerably cleaner, the park is planning to build a swimming beach along its banks. Here is where the Pawtuckett Falls, with two drops totaling 30 feet, generated the power that made the mills possible. Stops ar made at two gatehouses where the guide explains how the water power was harnessed and put to use.

The Mill and Canal tour is offered seven times daily from May 24 to September 27.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.