About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Some of us are always ready to go exploring.  This usually means hitting the back roads, always looking for an old house to admire or a derelict house with no particular destination in mind.  My friends and I have covered many miles and many back roads.  Our new cars have grown old with high mileage as we covered the back roads of New England.

Usually my attention is only drawn to old houses but there are exceptions.  One exception was the First Church in Old Bennington, Vermont.

One December day years ago we hit the road for Vermont.  We drove and drove admiring the landscape and toured a brick Federal.  About the time we should have been arriving home we were still looking at houses.  Nine o’clock found us in Old Bennington.  Snow was falling and the old church built by Lavius Filmore in 1806 was stunning in the snow. 

The First Church in Old Bennington, Vermont
 Next to the old church was a graveyard…the final resting place of Robert Frost.  As the snow deepened we searched for his stone.

I guess it was a little bit crazy.  We were not dressed for slogging through a cemetery in the snow when we should have been at home in Massachusetts in our warm houses.

 It was a long drive home.  Route 9 over Hogback Mountain to Brattleboro was a little hairy but the trip was memorable with the snow falling and George Winston's "December" playing in the car as we drove. I never hear that music without remembering that day.

Years later I was invited to a wedding in that beautiful church.  I was ecstatic to see it in the daylight and see the inside.  The box pews, the high pulpit and the elegant woodwork were breathtaking.   I was not disappointed.

One day my old house friends and I heard about a first period house about an hour from home that was dilapidated, unoccupied and going to be sold.  We had to see for ourselves.

We found the house.  It was quite overgrown.  It had been restored many years earlier but everything needed to be done over again.  

We really wanted to see the inside.  With a little effort a front window was pushed open.  Two of us then shoved the thinnest and most agile of the three of us through the open window. (Not me!) We then hurried to the front door and the person inside proceeded to the front door inside to open it for the rest of us.

She found the door but when she opened it she hadn't noticed that the hinges were no longer attached and the heavy door fell forward temporarily pinning  her beneath its weight until the two of us outside could squeeze through and rescue her.  

Then we had to figure out how to get the door propped back into place.  We did that but I don't even remember how we got out of the house.  I think I was too nervous to notice much about the interior.  I was too worried about getting out of there without being caught in the middle of this disaster we had created.

By the way, the house was purchased by people we knew.  It became a beautiful restoration.  I'm not sure whether or not we ever admitted to our caper but we did visit it several times by invitation.

On another trip to explore some of the hill towns of central Massachusetts we came upon a very tempting looking house in terrible condition.  We stopped and approached the front of the house to peer through the windows.  We then wandered off in different directions.

Suddenly my companion called to me.  "Come on in." she said.  

"How did you get in?" I replied.

"Come around to the back." she called out.  

So I went around to the back of the house to look for the door through which she entered.  Well, I did get in.  But I never found the door.  Why?  There was no door.  There was no back on the house!

In another adventure with a different friend also in central Massachusetts we explored a beautiful but ruined old house built about 1790 with a gorgeous front door. My traveling companion knew I had an abnormal horror of rats.  We waded through shoulder high weeds making our way around the old house.  Suddenly my friend shouted, "Pru, look out!"  as something flew through the weeds in my direction.  My heart skipped a beat.  I stopped dead in my tracks. No, it wasn't a rat.  It was a gray shoe winged at me by my so-called friend!

Another memorable wreck of a house was in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire.  Driving along a numbered highway you could see the old house off on a side road.  Over the years its condition worsened as we watched the downhill spiral of a good old salt box  house.  

One day we got off the highway and went for a closer look.  The house was wide open.  We entered the house and it appeared that mayhem had taken place inside.  It was trashed beyond recognition.  Household items, some antique, were flung around helter skelter.  Pieces of furniture blocked the staircase.  It was creepy and one couldn't help thinking that someone had gone mad in there destroying everything possible.  It was a disturbing scene.  I believe the house is no longer standing.

Then there was the house in southeastern New Hampshire.  It was a stately three story house built in the Federal period that had been empty.  We stopped and peered in the front windows admiring the rooms and the woodwork.  We moved from window to window looking inside and then went around the corner of the house.  Here we stopped abruptly.  Parked in the back yard were at least four cars.  Someone lived here. They were at home!  We ran for our car and got out of there as fast as possible as my friend's young daughter reported that she had seen sleeping bags on the floor.

Not all our experiences have been quite so crazy.  Sometimes we would head out and just sort of drive aimlessly until an idea took shape.  And it usually did.

Such was the case one day when with no destination in mind we turned onto a dead end road where I knew there was a great house.  We found the house and paused in front of it.  The house was occupied by monks one of whom came outside and invited us in to see the house.  It was one of the most beautiful Georgian houses and our chance to see it was a most positive and rewarding event.

Another positive impromptu tour was in the Town of Phillipston.  I remembered a beautiful house that was restored many years ago.  We found it and once again were invited inside for a tour.  This, too, was memorable.

Once while out on a hot summer day  "rubber necking" with a friend while looking at houses we stopped for ice cream cones.  We then proceeded to the end of a dead end road staring at a house.  We didn't see the bump until we hit it.  The result was that we were both now wearing ice cream all over our faces!

By the way, pictures of my traveling companions and the houses we entered are deliberately omitted to protect the not-so- innocent!

Over the years I have taught classes  for Realtors on selling antique and historic houses as well as many slide presentations all over the area.

One day as I stood at the check out counter in the market a lady I didn't recognize at the end of the line burst out with, "That's the lady that almost caused me to have a car accident.  Since hearing her speak I have been driving around looking for big chimneys."

I probably inherited this urge to see old houses from my  mother who was following old roads looking for old houses early in the 20th century nearly 100 years ago in a horse and buggy and old maps!.

One story she told was stopping at an ancient and seemingly abandoned  farmhouse on a dirt road way out in the country.  The house was wide open so she walked in.  Suddenly an old man with a long beard appeared at the top of the staircase and asked what she wanted.  Thinking quickly she responded that she was looking to buy eggs.  He then directed her to the next farm where eggs were sold.  She beat a hasty retreat and hurried home...without eggs.

The Christmas season reminds me of the year my friend and I decided we had to go to Paris Hill, ME for their Christmas house tour.  We left Gloucester on an unseasonably warm December day.  The sun was bright, grass still green and we were wearing light jackets.  We were in great spirits.

As we crossed from New Hampshire to Maine in the blink of an eye we were in a terrible snow squall.  Cars were careening off the road in every direction.  We crept along until we saw a sign for Kennebunk and knew we had to get off this road.

We had a friend who lived in a wonderful restored 18th century gambrel cottage on the river so we made our way there and took refuge for a couple of hours in this charming house until the snow squall passed and everything was back to normal.

We proceeded north once more until we got a little beyond Portland.  We caught up with the storm!  Being determined, we forged ahead thinking we would at least get as far as New Gloucester and stock up on herbs from the Shaker colony there.  I didn't occur to us that they were closed for the winter.

Oh, well.  We were now within shooting distance of Paris Hill so we forged slowly onward.  The snow stopped and at 4:00 PM we pulled into South Paris.  The house tour ended at 4:00  but we drove up the road to Paris Hill anyway.

What a sight!  The new fallen snow blanketed everything.  Candles glowed in all the windows.  It was the most picture-perfect sight imaginable.  We drove all around this village with peeks inside the lighted houses. After soaking up the wonderful scene we headed back down the hill to South Paris and the long trip home.. We missed the house tour and in our tour around the village we had not seen one single human being in Paris Hill!  All were tucked into their warm and cozy houses.

I urge you all to explore but stay out of trouble, try to keep your eyes on the road when driving, check the weather report before leaving home and don't get caught trespassing!  Old houses can be dangerous!




Wednesday, December 18, 2013


When I first decided to go into real estate I went to work in an office in Ipswich, MA.  I knew little about the town other than it had a huge number of early houses.  That appealed to me. The manager of the office took me on a tour of several neighborhoods. Then he sent me off to explore by myself to be better acquainted with the town that was spread out over somewhere around thirty square miles.

Before long I found myself on a long country road leading to a dead end.  As I got near the end I passed a run down industrial building that had protein in its name.  I later learned it was referred to as the “dog food factory”.  Here they cooked up something that was an ingredient in dog food.  On the opposite side of the street was what was left of a slaughter house. There were areas of swamp. Pretty unsavory neighborhood.  Then I saw it!   An ancient house, overgrown, but with a saltbox lean-to roof reaching almost to the ground.

I hurried back to the office to ask my manager about this incredible old house.  He didn't know anything about it but suggested that we go back down, look at it and maybe talk to the occupants.

The long low saltbox that originally caught my eye.
Gable end of the house where it was cut in half..  There are no windows.
We jumped into his sharp BMW and drove back down this creepy road.  We parked in front of the house, got out of the car and were immediately surrounded by several large dogs.  My manager, David, was plastered up against his car not daring to move. 

Being very much of a dog person I plowed through the pack and knocked on the door of the dilapidated house.  Here I was greeted by more large dogs leaping at the glass in the door from the inside.

No one was home!

A couple of years went by.  I responded to a call for volunteers to help with a house inventory for the Massachusetts Historical Commission.  I was assigned to research the old house.  No one had ever been inside.  No one knew much about it although, suspecting that it might be very old, they wanted to know.

I began to do the research at the Registry of Deeds but was diverted to another old wreck  that was in more of an emergency situation.

The front of the Day house showing the added bay on the right
 A man named Mark had purchased the salvage rights to this other ancient house and was dismantling the paneling, staircase and whatever he could get save for resale.  Part of the back right hand corner of the house had already collapsed into the cellar.  He needed to be convinced that he should sell the house, return the materials and that someone have the opportunity to  restore the house on its original site.
To make a long story short, Mark agreed.  I found a buyer for the land. The house would be sold separately by Mark as personal property, selling his salvage rights thereby enabling a buyer to acquire both house and land.  The new buyer set out to save the house on its original site and he did save it.

After having facilitated the sale of the other old house  much time had passed and  I never did get back to researching the old house at the end of the road.  No one else did either.  In fact, most people in this town didn't even know the existence of this neighborhood at the end of the road so far off the beaten path.

More years went by.  There was a new manager in my office…Joe. Everyone knew how curious I was about the old saltbox.  One day Joe told me that his little boy had been invited to a birthday party at the old house.  He would have to pick up his son after the party and would ask the tenants (it was non owner occupied) if we could go inside.

Joe was successful and I went back with a camera to look at the house.  It was clearly first period with very heavy framing and a beautiful summer beam with a wide flat chamfer and carved lamb's tongue chamfer stop..

The tenants were very nice people and accommodating so I was able to go back another time with an expert in tow.  I also had several sets of prints made to give to the historical commission and the historical society so there would be a record of what was inside.

There was a story about this house that was well documented and true.

The house at some time in the past was owned by two brothers.  They didn't get along so did something drastic about the situation.

They removed the chimney and cut the house in half right down the middle. One brother took his half and moved it into the Willowdale Forest where he lived in it until it burned down.

The remaining half on it's original site no longer had its chimney and in the space where the chimney had been was a narrow, straight staircase accessing the second floor. There were no windows on the side of the house where its other half was missing.

There was some evidence that the house was built in two halves.  I don't believe if it was ever determined whether this was the oldest half or whether the other half was even older.

The only neighbor was a frightening looking man who bragged that he as he built his house he insulated the walls with the bottles of the beer he drank while working on his house.

Large summer beam with a flat chamfer
More years went by and the tenants moved out.  The man with the protein company also owned the house.  He was ready to retire and move to Florida and wished to sell the factory, the house and the acreage.
Developers were attracted to the property because of the acreage.  I envisioned someone restoring the old house as a centerpiece of a small development with houses compatible with the antique. perhaps even reconstructed antique houses.

Unfortunately, the man who bought the property didn’t want anything to do with the old house. It would be bulldozed.  I called Jim and Janet of Smith Place and told them what was going on.  Jim ultimately obtained salvage rights to the old house from the developer and began to systematically dismantle the house with numbers and photos of everything needed for re-erecting the house at his new location.

Marriage of Royal Barry Wills Cape, c. 1950 and the old Day house, c. 1700
Barn built to go with the Day house
This couple had recently purchased a Royal Barry Wills cape in Boxford.  Jim envisioned rebuilding the old Day house and attaching it to the cape.  The cape would then become the ell to the Day house.

After acquiring salvage rights to the old house, Jim and a crew began to carefully take the old Day house  apart.

This project was highly successful as seen in the photographs.  The chimney was rebuilt by master restoration mason, Richard Irons.  Jim and Janet had saved another house!

Julianna stands in the newly rebuilt walk-in fireplace

Along the way some land across the street came up for sale.  A new broker in our office had never made a sale but he had a live customer for the property which was opposite the protein factory.  The potential buyer made several appointments as he moved toward an offer on the land.

One Saturday morning the buyer was coming for a last look and hopefully to make an offer.  We were all rooting for the new broker, Ed, and hoping he would finally break the ice and make a sale..  He left the office

with a measuring wheel, boots for the wetland area and whatever else he might need.  A lot of time went by and Ed hadn't  returned. 

Finally, the buyer burst into the office visibly upset and announced that we should tell Ed that he was very sorry but he could not buy the land.  Why not?

It seemed that as the buyer made his way that Saturday morning to the property to meet Ed the road was blocked in the next town by an accident and he couldn't get through.  The protein truck with its ugly liquid cargo had overturned on a major highway and spilled its contents all over the road.  No one could pass.  The buyer was stuck behind the overturned truck.  "Please", he said, “Tell Ed I am terribly sorry but I don’t ever want to smell that smell again.  I want nothing to do with that neighborhood.”

Soon the dejected broker returned to the office, shoulders sagging, thinking he had been stood up.  We never saw that buyer again and that was it for the new broker, as well.  He packed it in, deciding that real estate was not for him.

I recently drove down that long road for the first time in years.  The vestiges of that scary neighborhood are long since erased and there are many new houses including four or five on the property where the old house once stood.  They are typical builder's houses but the landscaping has matured, everything is well kept and the country neighborhood is home to families living in comfortable homes.  These new proud homeowners can't have a clue as to what went on there 20 or 30  years ago.  An air of respectability reigns over this once derelict rural land.

Few houses can top the trials and tribulations of the old Day house next to the “dog food factory”.  But old house heroes,  Janet and Jim, had saved another house.  It wasn't their first and it wouldn't be their last.

Here is a selection of photos shared by Jim and Janet showing many of the steps along the way toward the saving the Day house in its new location.  It was an ambitious project with a spectacular outcome.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Jim and Janet for sharing their photos and for always being there with energy and enthusiasm to save distressed old houses.


Monday, December 16, 2013


My city, Gloucester, and the village I live in, Lanesville, are mourning the loss of our local historian, Barbara Erkkila.

As a somewhat recent writer, blogger and historian of sorts, the person I would most want to emulate would be Barbara.
Barbara took on the task of preserving the previously unrecorded history of the granite quarrying industry that represents a huge chapter in the history of Cape Ann.  Years after the quarries closed, the pits filled with water and nature turned the scarred landscape into beautiful scenes of sparkling water, greenery and sheer granite walls, Barbara undertook to record the history.

She was an expert.  She could look at a piece of granite and know from which quarry it was mined.  She could also write with wit and accuracy.  She could hold your attention.  Without her history of the quarries, “Hammers on Stone”, the details and stories of the industry would have been lost.  She had seen it, lived it, remembered it, knew who to interview and completed a task that could not be duplicated today.  The history of the quarries will always be alive because of her.

Butman's quarry pit starting to freeze on a cold winter day.  December 16, 2013
This cape, Cape Ann, is sitting on granite ledge.  The stone quarried here paved the streets of every major city from Boston to Havanna.  It provided the granite for Bunker Hill Monument, the Boston Post Office, Custom Houses, statues, fountains at Union Station in Washington and infinitely more major landmarks.

The quarries attracted Irish stonecutters, followed by Finnish stonecutters as well as Italians, all leaving their mark on the community, especially the Finns with their back yard saunas, nisu, their cardamom flavored coffee bread and their braided mats.  Barbara recorded it all.

Stone cutting was dangerous.  Death and injury from black powder explosions were frequent as was silicosis affecting the health of so many.
The woods are laced with paths and old roads that led from one quarry to another.  Locomotives helped move the granite to the cove for loading onto the stone sloops.  Track beds still survive as paths including one beside my house.

All of this was recorded by Barbara and no one else.

She then went on to write “the Village at Lanes Cove”, about my neck of the woods.  She recalled the characters, the old businesses, the artists that flocked here, the writers and sculptors and every imaginable facet of village life in the midst of the quarries and the fishermen who for 300 or so years had been making their living from the little coves dotting the shoreline.

It would have been tragic if no one had recorded all of this but Barbara did record it.  We do have it.  The legacy of the recorded history she has left will be here for all time.  Where would we be if she had not stepped up to the plate?

Small in stature but gutsy, determined and strong was this daughter of Cape Ann.  We all knew her, loved her, were proud to have her in our midst. She was a great story teller and told the tales with great humor. She will be sorely missed
Rest in peace, Barbara.


Erkkila, Barbara, Hammers on Stone, Peter Smith, Gloucester, MA, 1980

Erkkila, Barbara, The Village at Lanes Cove, Ten Pound Island Book Company, 1989

These books may be available through The Bookstore in Gloucester or Tem Pound Island Book Company. They are also available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  If you buy one be prepared to pay dearly. They are well worth the investment.  Anyone who loves Cape Ann should have them on their bookshelf.

Thursday, December 12, 2013



Following my trip to Maine and its fruitful encounter with an unknown third cousin we returned to Massachusetts.  I couldn't stop mulling over this extraordinary chance meeting with Roger.  I knew I had to return to Back Street to visit with Roger again.  This time I would take a couple of friends for company hoping they would be able to recall details of our conversation with Roger. Before leaving for Maine an old story told to my mother by my grandmother, Myra, and by my mother to me came back to me with a jolt.  Myra and my mother were both reliable reporters and usually got things straight so I didn’t doubt the story.  Here is the tale.

After the Revolution, my great great great grandfather, David Bryant, was given a grant of land by the government for his service in the war. (the red ranch  farm)  In addition to this, so the story goes, the wives received a string of beads. As they left for their new home in the wilderness Lucy Bryant had her bead

These are not the beads that belonged to Lucy Bryant but are antique
beads from the Internet that are represenative of old beads
Myra told my mother that the beads had been passed down from generation to generation, daughter to daughter, and that they were at the time she told the story (c.1930) in the custody of an unknown cousin in MaineMyra thought this was very important and my mother did, too.  From a young age the story of these ancient beads intrigued me.

The farm was established, the “real” house built and the family grew.  After the death of Lucy in 1840 at the age of 96 her precious beads went to her daughter, Zilpha (Bryant) Pratt..  She in turn passed them to her daughter Amanda (Pratt) Merrill..  Just maybe?  I wonder?  From Amanda did they go to her daughter, Roger’s mother, Kate (Merrill) Bearce?  Of course!  Kate was the only daughter of Amanda and Roger was Kate’s only child.

As we drove north I repeated the story of the beads to my companions and told them how eager I was to ask Roger if he could confirm this story.

Roger, his always polite and gracious self, ushered us in to his charming little house filled with family things about which I knew nothing.  So I wasted no time in bringing up the beads.  Did he have any knowledge of some very important old beads in the family?  Yes, he did!  He jumped up and ran to open a drawer.  After rummaging around for a minute he reported with regret that he had the beads but must have put them in a safe deposit box.  He knew they were important and had been passed down for several generations but didn’t know why they were important other than being very old. He was aware that his grandmother, Amanda, had them restrung in 1920 and he thought she got them from Zilpha.

I then filled him in on their real source and original owner, Zilpha's mother, Lucy Bryant (1744-1840). He was as excited as I was and commented that he would have to change something in his will.

It was bitter sweet. The old story was confirmed.  The beads had survived.  I now knew they were real.  I now knew where they were... but I couldn’t see them!

A few years went by.  Roger entered  a rest home in Norway, ME.  I visited him and he was as handsome and gracious as ever but he didn’t remember me.  He didn’t remember another cousin.  But when I spoke of Myra he brightened and even remembered my father.  It was useless to question him.  I did know that another very elderly cousin, Sumner, was his conservator. I never saw Roger again.

His house was emptied.  The contents sold at auction.  If only I had known this was happening!

 The portraits of Desire and Zebulon went to an historical society where they are safe and sound.  I will probably never know what happened to the beads.  I hope there is one more miracle in this saga and that Roger labeled them or told someone of their significance and that they are somewhere safe.  I did write a letter to the elderly cousin who handled Roger's affairs but the letter was returned.  He has also since passed on. 

Maybe this is the end of the story but who knows?  Maybe there will be more coincidences to follow.  It would make me so sad to have the beads slip away after finding them and knowing they survived  for almost two hundred and fifty years. There’s always hope.

I have been back to Hebron, Oxford and South Paris many times and can’t help but feel a connection.  These country places never lost  importance in the hearts of those that were born and lived there.  I guess I was imbued with sentiment for these hills by osmosis as my grandmother who made sure  her memories were kept alive.  In that she succeeded.  And who knows when I might someday step over a threshold into the home of another relative that I have never met or even heard of.

Old house hunting and genealogy can lead to adventures and in the years I have chased houses and ancestors this is not my only experience involving  unimaginable coincidences and just dumb luck.

So just get out there and snoop around.  Who knows what miracle; what bit of history, architecture or genealogy is there waiting for you to discover.  You’ll never know if you don’t hit the road and explore.

I would head to Maine in a heartbeat right now.  How about you?

These distant relatives, even my father and grandmother, products of small town, rural Maine, were dignified and educated.  They were proud of their pioneer ancestors who helped to  settled the "District of Maine". They lived in the country, in the foothills of the White Mountains, but the quality of these people and the way they conducted their orderly lives belies their humble roots and the hardships they endured in the early years after leaving the homes of their Pilgrim ancestors and relatives behind in Massachusetts.  

Thanks for letting me share these stories with you.


Monday, December 2, 2013


Part one of this story ended when on the spur of the moment I decided to turn around and return to Hebron to look for the man named Roger who knew about the history and genealogy of the area.

Retracing our steps we returned to the little road called Back Street as we looked for the house where Roger lived. Once again we passed the red ranch house, the old cemetery and drove on until we found Roger’s house. It was a charming country place with a sunken garden in the space that had once been the cellar hole for an old house long gone.  In the yard was a hand  pump on top of an old well.
This is the country house Roger built on the site
 of an old farm.  He stayed  here in the summer only.
On his  mailbox it said Shepardsfield.  I wondered why it would say that on Roger's mailbox.  I already knew where Shepardsfield was.  Shepardsfield was the name of the rural neighborhood where my grandmother, Myra, and my father had lived in the Richmond house built in 1798 by our ancestors,  I knew Shepardsfield was about four miles distant. Why would it say Shepardsfield on Roger's mailbox?  This neighborhood was not Shepardsfield.  Maybe he simply called his house Shepardsfield.  I thought that a bit odd.  I was mulling that over as I approached his door.

A handsome elderly man opened the door.  My exhausted sister remained in the car. It had been a very long day and I guess she thought this was a “wild goose chase" if ever there was one.  This attractive elderly man quickly confirmed that the red ranch was indeed the Bryant homestead.

I couldn’t resist asking him why it said Shepardsfield on his mailbox.  It took a moment for me to absorb his answer.  “I always liked the name." said Roger.  "That was where Cousin Myra lived.”

 " Cousin Myra!  Myra who?”, I asked?  "Cousin Myra Paine”, said this gentleman..

“I’m Myra’s granddaughter.”  I managed to stammer.  Now it was his turn to be momentarily stunned!.
Cousin Roger at the age of ninety, a distinguished gentleman
He told us this story.  He grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  His father worked for the Bureau of Standards in Washington.  Each summer they returned to Maine by car, stopping both going and coming for a brief stay with my grandmother, Myra, in Massacusetts before proceeding on to Maine and on the return trip to Maryland.  Roger’s grandmother, Amanda, who always lived and traveled with them, and my grandmother, Myra, were very close first cousins.  Roger knew my parents!  He had been in my house!  His mother and my father were second cousins.  He and I were third cousins.  My brain was having a hard time processing this sudden turn of events.

Cousins Amanda Pratt Merrill (L) and Almira Bryant Paine (R) in front
of Myra's pillared house on a visit with Myra on their way to Maine .
The surprises didn’t end there even though our visit was very brief.  He was off to have dinner with yet other unknown cousins of ours in Lewiston. My head was bursting. But the best was yet to come.

“I have something you’ve never seen,”  said Roger as he scooted back into the house returning with two oval  gold frames; portraits of my great great grandparents, Desire Richmond and Zebulon Bryant, the couple whose house we had been searching.  These ancestors were born in Massachusetts shortly after the Revolutionary War but, incredibly,  they had lived long enough to have had their pictures taken.  How lucky could we be?
Desire Richmond Bryant
In the ensuing weeks Roger sent me photocopies of these portraits along with the picture of his grandmother with my grandmother.  They are not great copies but they are beautiful in my eyes. Prim little Desire Bryant and kindly looking Zebulon stare out at me every day from their antique oval walnut frames hanging on my wall. How could I ever have imagined that there were actual extant pictures of these ancestors, born so terribly long ago, or that I would ever find them in the hands of a complete stranger on a back road in Maine at dusk?

Such are the rare coincidences or lucky breaks that seem to happen in the pursuit of ancestors and old houses.

There is one more surprising story yet to be told  in the next post.  Stay tuned for the last chapter to follow with more revelations from Roger!.

Zebulon Bryant

Thanks for reading.




Some of you must like prowling around back roads looking for ancestral houses or any interesting houses, sometimes with an ancient family cemetery nearby.  That is what I like to do; especially to head to Maine in the fall when the leaves are falling and there is the smell of wood smoke in the air.

I had never visited the towns in Maine where my ancestors, including my grandmother, Myra, had settled until I was an adult and my children were not so little anymore.

One nice autumn day in the 1970s I determined that it was time to get acquainted with this place I had heard about all of my life. I loaded three resistant kids into the car and headed to Maine from my home in Newburyport, MA.  I had already obtained a copy of a map, circa 1870, that included family names.  It seemed to me that it would be easy to locate the homesteads of the Richmonds and the Bryants.  If you read the posts about my grandmother, Myra, you know a little of what I am referring to.

After making some inquiries in the small town of Hebron, someone told us to talk to a local historian.  An accommodating resident in the local store even called ahead and the homeowner/historian was awaiting us. Much to my immense surprise she knew my grandmother and even my father. She, Lucy Eurydice Henderson, (called Aunt Dicey by another relative)  was related to us!  I had no idea we had any relatives up there.  Myra had left almost about eighty years before.  How could anyone here possibly know us. How could I have known how many people my grandmother had kept in touch with after she left in the 1890s?  Everyone was aware of  Myra through her correspondence and reputation as an authority on genealogy of the region.

Lucy showed us her house including the niche in the kitchen wall made for a clock when the house was built circa 1860 by her grandfather, Abiel Bowman..  The original clock was still ticking in its niche!  After giving us apples this  83 year old jumped into her Scout and led us to the little family cemetery where the Bryants are buried.
House built by Abiel Bowman in 1860
From there we took off on our own and readily found the location of the Richmond homestead although the old house had burned long ago.  Here I was, driving around unfamiliar roads with a map from 1870.  It seemed normal enough to me!  The kids thought it was insanity as I referred to the map and looked for curves and cross roads.  Actually, it worked out quite well and I loved the countryside and views, feeling a real attachment to this unfamiliar place that held my roots.

Perhaps fifteen years later when my sister came from Ohio to visit we headed out again for Maine.  She had been there once as a young woman and had even spent the night in the old house. Hospitable people lived there at the time. With my old map I retraced my steps driving uphill for several miles out of South Paris on East Oxford Rd.  We revisited the Richmond homestead site and the old cemetery next door.  Then we headed four miles to where I had searched for the Bryant homestead without success.

According to the map it should be right here.  But right here was a 50s ranch house.  It seemed pointless to keep looking but there were people in the yard of the red ranch so we stopped and approached them.  We asked if this had been the Bryant place years ago.  They responded that, no, this was not the Bryant place but named another family name that was unfamiliar.  We said that we were looking for an old house to which they responded, “This is an old house.”  We stared in disbelief.  Next they added, “You should see all our big beams.”
The red ranch house on Back Street in Hebron , Maine.  Would you
believe that it is hiding a two hundred year old cape and that the front used to
be on the gable end or that the ridge pole used to go in the opposite direction?
After that came the inevitable old wives tale.  It seems, reported the owner, that in early days they added on another room every time a new child was born.  This house, they said, had a really strange room.  It was right in the middle of the house.  It had no outside walls.  There were only windows into other rooms. It must have been from adding on in a strange way after another child joined the family.

Bingo!  I got it.  Old house… huge chimney in the middle… removed…a windowless room where the big square chimney once rose through the center of the house. These people didn’t offer a house tour which we would have liked but they did bring out an ancient photo of an old center chimney cape facing south, not facing the road like the red ranch.  This was the Bryant homestead!  The south facing front of the house was now the gable end of the house.  The roof had been removed and the ridge pole was now going the opposite way so that the house would face the street. I felt sure I had found it at last.

Before leaving we asked if there was any historian or old timer around we could talk to.  They told us about Roger who had always been there in the summer but they weren’t sure we would get anywhere. Roger, they reported,  had spent his working career in the CIA and kept to himself; and was only there in the summer months.

We were tired, it was late, we were a long way from home.  We were convinced we had found the house we were looking for, let’s forget about Roger.  We headed south toward Massachusetts

After a few minutes I abruptly changed my mind.   I was thinking we might never get back there again.  I thought we should turn around and look for Roger and we did.

The story of the red ranch and the visit to Roger will continue in the next post so please check back in a few days to find out what happened.   We did find Roger and the outcome was one of those events so unbelievable that, as the saying goes, "I could not have made it up!"

To be continued.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013


This year, as in many other years, I will enjoy my Thanksgiving dinner in the perfect setting; a red 18th century country farmhouse.  You already know the house.  It is the red house that you see at the top of my blog.
Moses Jewett House, 1759

No, it is not my house.  It is the Moses Jewett house located in Ipswich Village near the Rowley line.

Built in 1759 it is the oldest of a string of Jewett houses along this old post road, all of them old and all representing different generations of the Jewett family.  One or perhaps two even earlier houses are no longer standing.  The location of the very earliest house is known.  It was quite some distance from this house near the Egypt River and a spring..  There has been a suggestion that perhaps another house existed closer to this one but I am not aware of any concrete evidence.

My acquaintance with this old house goes back to the 1980s when I was a partner in a restoration project involving this house and barn.  It was intended to be just a quick fixer upper but as soon as we owned it we knew it was a serious antique and that we had to do it right.  With that revelation we watched our profits fly out the window. In fact we each lost a small amount.

Was I sorry?  Not at all!  This experience of uncovering, evaluating what we had, and making the decisions that were necessary to be made taught me more about old houses than I could possibly know without having gone through this experience. We started out as spec buyers but this exercise in preservation turned us into restoration purists.

We did make some mistakes but looking back I think we did fairly well.  The project was complicated by the fact that we were going to sell the house and tried to keep in mind the various scenarios for appealing to a cross section of buyers.

One of our best decisions was keeping the kitchen and the first floor bath/laundry in a lean-to that was 19th century but not very significant.  This kept the old part of the house free of modern intrusions.  We kept a small upstairs bath where it had always been rather than rip out walls to change it.  Sometimes accommodating the old house can mean eliminating the idea of extravagant bathrooms and kitchens. As you know by now, I am always talking about accommodating the house instead of trying to make the old house accommodate extravagant kitchens and baths or anything else when it means ripping out walls and original fabric.

The house had an exterior door in the Beverly jog that was not going to be used.  The laundry and first floor bath were planned for the other side of the door. Our solution was to leave the door intact.  The wall on the inside was sheetrocked and plastered and no evidence of this door remained on the interior.  We gained the wall space we needed but the door is still there if sometime down the road someone has another plan for this space.  In other words, what we did is easily reversed.  No original fabric was lost or even jeopardized.

Several floors had to be replaced.  The original floors were painted as they had long been but we stained the floors we replaced knowing that refinished pine floors are popular and would appeal to some buyers, while the old worn floors with paint would be acceptable to another group of buyers.

We ripped out one terrible looking ceiling before we were stopped in our tracks by our contractor,  That's when we found out that all of those ugly, peeling ceilings could be saved without loss of any more original plaster.  Initially I thought the ceilings resembled lumpy oatmeal.  They were so rough I never dreamed they could be saved. (Important lesson learned.  Don't rip out the plaster and  lath.  It is original fabric.  It CAN be saved!)

One of the mistakes that is a common mistake is leaving the hinges and thumb latches black.  These should have been painted to match the woodwork and made to disappear.  They shouldn't stand out..  Black hardware is "phony colonial" but that's what we did! I know better now.  Never again!

The new windows should have had heavier muntins.  We knew this but it just wasn't in the budget.

So now, many years later I think we had remarkably good consensus among ourselves.  I believe that many of our decisions were tough decisions and I still feel good about most of the things we did.

Anyway,  we sold the house to people from New York City looking for a taste of New England.  This house was perfect; just what they were looking for. The closing was conducted at a big table in front of the fireplace in the old kitchen with a fire burning.  This was followed by a trip to the Registry of Deeds to record the deed.  This was hardly the traditional closing taking  place in a lawyer's office!

Huge cooking fireplace in the old kitchen
For me, it has worked out well.  I have been a very frequent guest back in the old house ever since.  My family is not nearby so the owners always make sure I have an invitation for holidays if they know my family won't be around.  In addition to holiday dinners a small group of friends has celebrated  New Year's Eve in the old house ever since our buyers took up residence.
Elegance in the old house for New Year's Eve

 Often there are others in attendance that have no idea that I had anything to do with the restoration.  So I quietly listen to the reaction of newer attendees who are in awe of the ambiance of this house decorated for the holidays with fires in the fireplaces, especially the fireplace in the old kitchen that approaches ten feet in width.

It seems as though this house was built just for the holidays.  It is the quintessential Currier and Ives "Home to Thanksgiving" kind of house.

The host

                                                     Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers wherever  you are. Looking at the statistics it appears that many of you are reading this blog from distant lands around the world. May your holiday be a good one !

"Home to Thanksgiving"  Currier and Ives, circa 1860
Thank you for visiting.  Look for new photos the day after Thanksgiving.  This year's pictures will be added to these old photos from years past.



Late afternoon sunshine.  Thanksgiving 2013

Inside was warm and cozy as dinner was prepared

Unfortunately I ruined the photos of the big fireplace with blazing logs.  Sorry!


Sunday, November 24, 2013



My family and I moved to Newburyport, MA in 1971 just after the demolition of urban renewal had been abandoned for a program of rehabilitation and restoration.  This was a very exciting time in the life of this old city.  The buildings throughout the city were interesting, many untouched and opportunities for preservation and restoration were rampant.

The house we moved to was a three story house built in 1800 in the Federal style.  It had most recently been used as a rest home and all the signs were still there.  Bars to hang onto were everywhere.  Most rooms were painted green,  that nice restful color advocated years ago.  There were red fire alarm boxes and we later found we had the only residential house in MA at that time that was fully sprinklered.

Between unpacking, decorating and turning this fourteen room house into a home I dashed to the library looking for information on my house, its occupants and learning everything I could about Newburyport.

One of the books I found with references to my house and it occupants was a book that was to become a life-long favorite.  It was called “Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian.”  Published in 1879 by Sarah Anna Smith Emery,  born in West Newbury in 1787 on Crane Neck Hill,  it recorded with infinite detail, her life in the home of her ancestors during her childhood.  Later after her marriage while Sarah was living  in Newburyport in the Rawson-Pillsbury  house on High Street, she described the streets of that city, the houses and the people that occupied them including mine.

In this book I learned much about my neighborhood and the people who owned my house. (My house was built by a merchant, Robert Dodge, who owned a vessel called the Citizen and had a warehouse on Ferry Wharf.) But more than that, I found the entire book including the descriptions of her original home and neighborhood riveting.  I really had to see this house for myself.  I was a brand new resident of the area but with the help of a map I knew approximately where to look for the house.  I drove around trying to find it but after not finding it I reluctantly concluded that it was probably gone.  After all, the book had been written  almost one hundred years earlier.

The years passed and I was now a Realtor with a specialty in antique houses.  One day in the summer of 1993 someone came into the office and urged me to check out a very early house that had just come on the market in West Newbury.  By this time I practically knew the stories in Sarah’s book by heart.

An appointment was made and I met potential buyers, the Fullertons, at the property.  Sited way back off the road with a long salt box lean-to facing the driveway I was beginning to hope that it might be Smith Place, the homestead of Sarah's family.  A few minutes later I was positive it was Smith Place.

Sarah (Yes, I feel I am on a first name basis with her!) had described the front entryway.  She recounted that in the fall the loaded wagons would back up to the front door with its great door stone.  A trap door in the floor allowed stores for the winter to be lowered into the cellar.  Barrels of apples and cider were lowered by a rope strung through an iron ring she called a stanchion, in the "unplastered" ceiling.  I was prepared to look for these clues. 

The first thing that I noticed was that the hall ceiling was now plastered.  There was a lighting fixture in the center of the ceiling.  And right there next to the lighting fixture poking through the plaster was a heavy  chunk of iron.  It was the bottom of the iron ring!  A tug on the rug revealed the expected but long unused trap door beneath our feet.  It was the Smith house!

The buyers who saw it that day did not buy the house but the next buyers, a young energetic couple, Janet and Jim, who were not afraid of a huge amount of work and had a passion for first period houses, did buy it. They saved it.

The location is truly remarkable.  It is near the top of Crane Neck Hill and faces south with the long lean-to facing the road. Although the location is many miles from the coast, from its height Ipswich Bay is visible.  In the opposite direction is Boston and looking to the right is Boston Hill in North Andover and beyond.  The panorama takes your breath away. Sarah recounts hearing her family talk of the townspeople who gathered on top of the hill to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill being played out at the time of the Revolution!  Today you see planes flying into Logan Airport in Boston.
An immense tree stands guard over the old house.
The condition was pretty awful.  There was cordwood in the parlor and chipmunks running around inside.  The great center chimney was falling apart and it was a small wonder that the house was still standing.
Ancient trees in the summer
Other details were discovered. There was evidence of the cupboard that was filled with pewter (shining like silver) in Sarah's time and much more.  The book was tantamount to having a blueprint guiding restoration of the house.  There were many descriptions of events in the life of the family living there but one event stands out.
Close-up of house and Smith family and old fruit trees
In the 1790s the farm was devastated by a tornado that took everyone by surprise in the middle of the night.  Dozens of fruit trees (70-80) were uprooted.   At the height of the tornado something crashed into the corner of the house terrifying the occupants as they frantically searched for candles in the pitch darkness in order to see what was happening.  Children and adults alike were terribly frightened and one child was hit by a flying missile.

With the light of day came the awful realization of the extent of the damage. The roof of the house was gone, all of the fruit trees were uprooted, the barn was in tough shape. A piece of the barn had struck the house. The farm seemed ruined. Word of the disaster spread and help came from areas untouched and outside of the swath carved by the tornado.  Many from the village arrived  to replant the fruit trees.   Gradually repairs were made and the farm recovered.

Another happy ending is that all of the fruit trees that were replanted that day survived!  Some are still visible in the old photograph of the house above.

Fast forward again to 1994.
The new owners of the house, Jim and Janet, well into the restoration, needed to have the workmen open up a wall in the corner of the parlor.  It was reported to me that there was a big patch on the wall and it was extremely old being held together with 18th century rose head nails.  What could have caused this serious but ancient damage to the house?
Winter at Smith Place after restoration with well sweep as described in the book
The tornado, of course!  A piece of the barn had struck the house!  The details were in the book!  It was true.  What was revealed to human eyes for the first time in two hundred years was the damage to the house caused by the tornado that terrible night.

The old landmark has been saved. The house was identified positively as Smith Place, the ancient house where the author, Sarah, had grown up and written about so interestingly when she was ninety years old.  It is a remarkable marriage of house, book and historical document revealing the smallest details of an old dwelling house before and just after turn of the 19th century.  Few houses, if any, are as well documented.

At the time of our country’s bicentennial  (1976) Sarah’s book was reprinted and indexed under the new name of “Reminiscences of a Newburyport Nonagenarian.”  Another generation of readers, historians and preservationists discovered what I had known for years,  It is a book I turn to over and over in my research or just to pick up, open to any page, and start reading.  It’s that good!

Discover this gem for yourselves. It will become one of your favorites, too.  Mine is usually on my bedside table, ready to pick up at a moment's notice or just to grab on a sleepless night.

Reprints are available through Amazon.  Here is one person's review found on Amazon's site.

I absolutely love this book. It is my family's history and I am honored to have it.
This book provides a view of history when people were benevolent, God-fearing, and caring. The author provides amazing details of everyday life between 1787-1879 that would otherwise be unimaginable. The fashions, transportation, food preparation, public meetings, the Revolution, George Washington who came to town, oh, this is a gem of a book!

I agree!

Thank you for reading.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I guess it is inevitable that in a community that is pushing 400 years old that much has been lost.  For example, John James Babson's History of the Town of Gloucester, circa 1860 states that in  years past there were about 350 gambrel cottages of a story and a half that were home to the Gloucester fishermen and farmers.  Now even though they are not as old as the first period houses there are fewer than 60 remaining and some of them are merely fragments.
This is a watercolor from around 1890 depicting the last days of
a Cape Ann Cottage, the vernacular houses of the  Cape Ann fisherman.
Original watercolor is at the Cape Ann Museum.
That means that the first period houses that are even older would have an even higher attrition rate.

Also, you will notice that over and over I describe the houses as being of plank frame construction.  Most of the first period houses on Cape Ann are of plank framed construction. (vertical two in thick plank sheathing) It has gradually become apparent to me that nearly all of these house ARE plank framed construction.  This is said to be found in areas with sawmills available.  However, plank framing in the first period is parctically unique to Cape Ann.


Last year a stereo view photo of a Gloucester house appeared on eBay .  Someone called it to my attention. I didn't purchase it but I did download it to my computer and the Cape Ann Museum did purchased it for their wonderful collection.

The old house in the photo was clearly on its last legs.  I had never seen such a dramatic picture of a distressed old house.  At the same time one could peer inside the house and observe some details.
This is the former home of Sylvester Eveleth (pronounced Everleigh) in its scenic location on the water.
The house was the Eveleth House overlooking the water at Presson's Point on Little River in West Gloucester.  It had an overhang in the front as well as overhangs on the sides.  According to all reports picnickers used to go over there in boats to enjoy the setting and the old house.

I believe this house to have been almost a twin to the Davis-Freeman house built in the same area about 1707. (see previous post)

Notice the double overhangs on the gable end wall and vertical plank sheathing indicating plank frame construction.  The chimney had long since fallen.


The old Dolliver house originally stood on Main Street in the heart of the city.  At the time it was built there was no commercial district as there was in later years.  It was surrounded at a time when the fishing industry took off and this became the center of business and fishing activities.  The house was called the oldest house in that part of Gloucester.  The Dolliver family was an old family who contributed much to the City.

The house was located about where Gloucester Music is today.
The Dolliver House before demolition, even before
the diner.  Notice the overhang on the left gable.
This house was also of   plank frame construction and had an overhang on the gable end as appeared in many of the first period houses of plank frame construction. 

In the twentieth century a diner was moved into the front yard obliterating the house from the street. Eventually the diner was removed and taken to Danvers about 20 miles away where it is still operational.

.This diner in Danvers was originally in the front yard of the
Dolliver  house on Main Street in Gloucester.  The name is
obscured beneath the bunting.
Sometime around 1940 (I don't have details available) there was a deal made for the Red Cross to take over the house and restore it for use as their regional offices.  Things were going along well until the idea was turned down at the Federal level and the deal was dead.  I'm not sure what the urgency was to get it out of there but it was demolished.

Unexpectedly, a few years ago, a Dolliver descendant from South Carolina saw my book on Gloucester houses and wrote to me, sending wonderful photos from inside and outside which I shared with the Cape Ann Museum.

An old newspaper clipping had described a McIntire fireplace mantle in the house.  (McIntire was the wood carver of the Federal period in Salem, MA who created the beautiful houses and furniture found there.)  One of the photographs I received confirmed the presence of what appeared to be a McIntire mantle surrounding a front room fireplace.  The newspaper of the day reported that a local man took the mantle from the house to install in his own house.  I would love to know where it is and if it still exists!
A Federal mantle in the style of McIntire,
the wood carver of Salem
The photos also showed some wonderful furnishings as well.


At 96 Prospect Street in Gloucester there was a little first period house of plank frame construction built around 1718-1720 when Prospect Street, originally known as Back Street became the route to the Harbor from around the green where farmers had settled.  Now fishing had taken on new importance and the people from the old neighborhood either moved to the busy harbor or traveled there frequently over the path called Back Street.

The Steel house at 96 Prospect Street before being moved.
After the first period the little house was enlarged to become a fairly large gambrel roofed Georgian.  The original house was still there, swallowed up inside.

A relative who was a housewright lived there around 1800 and replaced the front staircase with a pattern right out of Asher Benjamin's handbook, The Country Builder's Assistant.

 This staircase was very graceful and very modern at the time in this old house.

Staiccase right out of Asher Benjamin's
Country Builder's Assistant.

In the 1890s a later descendant wanted to build a new double house on the site of the old house.  The old house was moved to quite a distance to Fair St. and became two apartments.  Eventually it was sided and finally ready to be discarded to redevelop the lot.

This is the large double house built by the Steeles in the
1890s after the removal of the old house to Fair Street
When it was opened up there was evidence of casement windows, plank frame construction, a great summer beam, all from the first period not to mention lots and lots of unpainted feather edged vertical sheathing from the second or Georgian period; then the lovely staircase from the third of Federal period. Not to suggest that the condition of any of it was lovely. It was not.  Ravages of time and too many tenants had left their mark on this once nice house.
Gunstock corner and brace from corner
of the plank framed house.
A salvage man took the old doors, floorboards, sheathing and whatever he could get, then left the house cannibalized to be bulldozed and hauled off in dumpsters.

Cannibalized house
Before it was entirely removed Ann Grady from Historic New England photographed it and took samples back to Boston so that at least a record of the house would remain.  The full story is also in my book, Antique Houses of Gloucester.

This is not a Gloucester house but I am sliding it in here for several reasons.

The first is that I have alluded to it several times and referred to the fact that it is considered the oldest timber framed house that is still standing in North America.

Front of the Fairbanks house.  Notice the extremely steep roof pitch.
The other is that I wanted to share with you the two antique oil painting that I have found over the years, one of the front and one of the back of this house.  I feel very fortunate to have these paintings from another time when the scene was pastoral.  It is now near a very busy street with constant traffic.

Quite a few years ago I found an oil painting of the Fairbanks house, a house which particularly interested me as the most distinguished first period house.  It was very pleasing .  On the stretcher I was able to find a partial label for an artist' supply store in Boston in business during  the 1870s.  It isn't always easy to photograph a painting when the camera wants to use the flash and I can't remember how to turn the flash off!
Fairbanks house from the rear with the dramatic lean-to roof.
The other painting I found this summer at a flea market.  I thought it was the Fairbanks house but it didn't look just right.  Then I realized it was the front of the house seldom seen while most views of the house are from the back to feature the long, low lean-to roof.  I am very pleased with it.

The old Fairbanks house from the front.
There was an 1880 date on the stretcher of this one.  So even though neither painting is artist signed I have at least been able to date them approximately.  Believe me, the setting and land surrounding this house is entirely different today.

Anyway, I love both paintings and like that they record the house with the peaceful look of a Hudson River painting.

As always, for reading.