Thursday, September 30, 2010

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Jill's Journal: The girls and I headed to nearby Concord today – what a beautiful town. The stately, historic houses had me swooning at every turn. Our destination, however, was the home where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women” in 1868. I remember absolutely loving that book as a little girl and look forward to our girls enjoying it someday soon. The tale of four sisters was loosely based on Alcott’s childhood and the setting for the book took place in this home, called Orchard House. The other people on the tour had fun with our girls, saying it made the house feel more authentic to them to have sisters underfoot. I’ve never been asked so many times if we were planning to add a fourth daughter to the mix!

The Alcotts lived in the home from 1858 to 1877. Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, borrowed money from his close friend, who just happened to be the renowned author Ralph Waldo Emerson, to finance the home. The house actually started as two: a manor house and a tenant house, both built circa 1690-1720. Alcott’s father and his buddy (who just happened to be another renowned author, Henry David Thoreau) lifted up the tenant house on logs and melded it to the manor house to increase the size.

Orchard House has about 80% original furnishings, so it looks very similar to the way it did when the Alcotts lived here and is like stepping into the pages of the storybook. The small built-in desk in Louisa’s room, where it’s believed she wrote “Little Women,” is still intact. Do you see those two upstairs windows on the right? Her desk was built in between those windows. At 300 years old, the house is in some disrepair and the tour guide mentioned that they just try to keep it pieced together as it was not the most well-built home of its time.

Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was lovely and comfortable. Not fancy and not Spartan – somewhere around what middle class must have been at the time. One interesting note: one of the daughters was an artist and got private art lessons in the house along with another aspiring artist named Daniel Chester French. A sculpture in the house of the Alcott patriarch was done by French, whose later, more famous works include the seated Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Literally next door to the Alcott home is Wayside, which was actually the Alcott’s first home in Concord. They sold it to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose “The Scarlett Letter” is still required reading in high school literature classes, when they moved briefly to Boston. Hmmmm…Concord is not a large town, but it is a beautiful one, and it’s stunning to realize a huge percentage of America’s greatest literaries -- Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson (whom Alcott confessed to having a crush on in her journals), and Henry David Thoreau – were all living here at the same time and were in the same circle. There must have been something in the water!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Salem Witch Trials

Jill's Journal: The history courses offered at the junior high and high school I attended were anything but compelling. Yet, in spite of the bland textbook presentation, I do remember finding two things really interesting: ancient Egypt and the Salem witch trials in Puritan Massachusetts.

Probably because of this, I was so excited to go to Salem. My expectations must have been too high, however, because I'm sad to say I found it to be the most disappointing stop on our entire trip thus far! I must have expected a quaint little seaport town still smarting from the hysteria of 1692 when several teenage girls accused many women (and men) of witchcraft. Well over a hundred people were imprisoned and 20 were put to death. Years after the hysteria, one of the girls involved, then a grown woman, issued an apology and confession, claiming to have made up the whole thing for sport.

What I found was something very different from my expectations: Salem today feels more like a big, busy city, not the quaint little town I envisioned. It has a very large modern-day Wiccan (witch) and New Age community and very few mementos from the past. Gallows Hill, for instance, where the accused were executed (19 were hung and one was pressed to death), is now a skateboard park.

What Salem does have, however, is one kooky and macabre museum and show after another, most capitalizing on the witch thing. There’s a wax museum, umpteen witchcraft museums, and even a Lizzie Borden museum (called 40 Whacks!). Absolutely none were appropriate for little ones. Salem milks the sensationalism and one local said the month leading up to Halloween is their busiest time of the year.

I did take the girls to the official “Salem Witch Museum,” which told the basic story in a theatre-type presentation without adding in extra gore. It also had precisely one artifact: the beam which hung over the doorway of the Salem jail (which was razed in 1956).

The dead were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground (in a cemetery), but there is a Witch Trials Memorial in town. It’s almost like a stone garden, with the name of each of the condemned, their date of execution, and method of death on individual benches jutting out from the wall. The entrance bears the words of the condemned and their pleas of innocence. I heard a woman next to us call it the “Wailing Wall” for witches. Many people still pay respects and leave gifts.

The girls did get a kick out of the “Bewitched” statue. They have no idea who Samantha is, but they loved that she was hovering over the moon on a broomstick. This picture is from the back of the statue because the girls thought it was absolutely wonderful I let them sit on the moon!

Nathaniel Hawthorne (celebrated author of “The Scarlet Letter”) was born in Salem and one of his most popular books was “The House of the Seven Gables.” That actual home which inspired his tale still exists, but the girls were far more interested in something across the street: Ye Olde Pepper Companie. It is the oldest candy store (1806) in America and still makes some of its candy the old-fashioned way. It is best known for Salem Gibralters, the first commercially-sold candy in the U.S. and apparently known the world over. Hawthorne himself mentioned the delicacy in more than one of his books!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hot Water…or Not

Jill's Journal: We’re finding it surprisingly uncomplicated to live in a fifth wheel and it gets easier every month. However, I did find an unexpected and big drawback to chilly mornings.

In a house, hot water is generally at the ready within seconds. But in an RV, the hot water heater must be turned on each time it’s needed. In hot weather, it takes only 5-10 minutes to heat up a tank of water. In cold weather, not so much. It can take 30-60 minutes to heat up enough water for a quick shower (and we’re not anywhere near freezing temperatures yet)! This is fine, with one grand exception: there is most definitely no jumping in the shower moments after getting out of bed in the morning!

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Foliage is Coming!

Jill's Journal: Maybe it was the cold, then hot, then cold-again weather, but suddenly, overnight it seems, the leaves are turning. This picture was snapped in a parking lot next to a grocery store today --so no place unusual-- but you can see hints of brilliant colors. We can’t wait to see what sort of feast for the eyes is in store for us!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Indian Summer?

Jill's Journal: It had been growing progressively warmer the last few days until yesterday was downright hot. We’re talking shorts and t-shirts and definitely some sweating. It was a bit of a shock to be so warm after such cooler weather the last few weeks. But, just to make sure we’re on our toes, the weather did an about-face today. We’re back to sweatshirts and had to add in hats and mittens for the little ones! There’s things to like about all four seasons, but just one at a time, please. :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Jill's Journal: Boston. Wonderful, vibrant, historic, glorious Boston.

The Boston Tea Party. Harvard. Fenway Park. Boston Cream Pie. The Boston Massacre. The Celtics. Boston Baked Beans. Beacon Hill. The Kennedys. Boston Red Sox. MIT. Boston Harbor. Samuel Adams (the beer and the patriot). Boston Pops. The Cradle of Liberty. Boston Marathon. Cheers.

As the unofficial capital of New England, Boston’s contributions to the entire country are countless. It is a marvelous, proud, dynamic place. I love it, absolutely and completely love it.

During a visit to Boston in 1996, I thought then it just might be my favorite major city in the U.S. Today confirmed it. What a marvelous place, with the exquisite mixture of a tremendous past and a bustling present. It just has such a great feel to it.

As much as I’d like to spend countless hours exploring Boston, we have to consider our audience and it just isn’t possible with such young kids. So, we picked what we thought might work best -- the Freedom Trail, a self-guided walking tour of historically important downtown sites. The three mile trail (not counting the return walk!) is marked with red bricks or red paint, just like the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. I’ll just share some of the highlights.

We started in Boston Common, America’s oldest park. The land was set aside for public use in 1634. Criminals were hanged here, Boston’s militia trained here, America’s first subway was built underneath here, Amelia Bloomer campaigned for women’s rights in 1851 here (while wearing her shocking “bloomers”), and everyone from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope John Paul II have spoken to massive crowds here.

The Park Street Church: in 1829, the hymn America was first sung here on these steps.

The Old Granary Burying Ground; what an amazing, surreal place. It’s tiny, but graves include those of Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin’s parents, in addition to the victims of the Boston Massacre.

Also buried here is Mary Goose, also called Elizabeth Vergoose, and best known as Mother Goose. Her son-in-law published her work after her death in 1757. She was the mother and stepmother of 20 children.

The Omni Parker House, an 1855 hotel, pioneered the dinner accompaniment the world knows as Parker House rolls. Two extreme figures served them to guests as waiters here in the 1900s: Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh.

The 1713 Old State House, the seat of Britain’s Colonial government and where the despised Stamp Act was debated with great fire. See that balcony in front (at the left of the photo)? On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians from that balcony. Two hundred years later, Queen Elizabeth II spoke from the same balcony to celebrate America’s independence! It was also in front of this building that five civilian colonists were killed by British soldiers in 1770, an event that helped spur the Revolution and became known as the Boston Massacre.

World-famous Faneuil Hall (Faneuil rhymes with “Daniel”), Boston’s marketplace since 1742. Even today it’s packed with merchants and food venders and a gazillion people. It’s known for free enterprise on the first floor and free speech on the second floor, which is affectionately called the “Cradle of Liberty.” Samuel Adams (and other patriots) stirred up fiery rebellion here in 1772 and controversy has continued over the centuries: everything from slavery to alcohol to women’s rights to the Vietnam War have famously been debated here.

It was a hot day and the girls enjoyed a break with some ice cream on the back steps of Faneuil Hall across from the also historic Quincy Market (built in 1824 when merchant demand outgrew the space available in Faneuil Hall). It’s pretty awesome to think of the patriots who might have enjoyed a cool treat on a hot day on the exact same steps.

Rob and I had a treat too – beans, of all things. It sounds like a silly thing to try on a warm day, but Boston is called “Beantown” because it is the original home of real baked beans. Puritan housewives were not allowed to cook on the Sabbath, so they traditionally prepared white haricot beans, ham hocks, and molasses the day before and stewed them slowly in a big pot to eat after worship. Durgin-Park at Faneuil Hall is a legendary Boston restaurant –over 180 years old– which is known for its baked beans done the old-fashioned Boston way, with molasses in stone crocks. We had to try them and they were delicious. The canned version will never compare.

Haymarket is not far from Faneuil Hall. This giant Farmer’s Market has hosted fruit and vegetable venders for 300 years (and generations of these vendors are still going strong)!

The British are coming! Paul Revere’s house. He was a talented silversmith, bell-maker, and engraver, but he’s endured through history because of his midnight ride. On the night of April 18, 1775, he slipped out of Boston on a rowboat, borrowed a horse in Charlestown, and rode madly to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were advancing with plans to arrest them. His wooden home, which was built in 1680 and he bought in 1770, also happens to be the oldest surviving home in Boston. After Revere sold the house in 1800, after owning it for 30 years, it became a tenement and it is said hundreds of immigrant families lived in it for the next 100 years. In 1902, Revere’s great-grandson bought the building and restored it back to its original state. It has been preserved as Revere’s home and museum for over a century now. Ninety percent of the structure is still original.

“One if by land, and two if by sea.” Probably the most fascinating thing we saw today was the Old North Church. It was on this 191-foot steeple that sexton Robert Newman hung lanterns to warn patriots across the Charles River of British troop movements. The steeple was the tallest thing in Boston until the 1800s and can still be seen from many parts of the city. The Old North Church is also the oldest church in Boston (1723) and is still an active congregation. In the old days, families rented their pews from the church and could decorate their box at will. Stepping into the church is like stepping back in time. History positively drips from the walls.

One of the major early battles of the Revolution was the Battle of Bunker Hill, right within walking distance of downtown Boston. The colonists rallied to the cry, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” The site is now marked by a massive stone obelisk. The British technically won the battle when the colonists ran out of ammunition, but the colonist causalities were far less than the British and the battle proved the inexperienced colonists were willing to give their lives against the fearsome Redcoats. George Washington, who was on his way to Boston as the new commander of the Continental Army, gleaned hope from the conflict that his army had the heart, if not the numbers or the experience, to prevail.

It was an unseasonably warm day and unfortunately (but understandably), the girls lost interest in all the history and sights. They were far more focused on the promise of hitting the playground at Boston Common at the day’s end. They won’t appreciate for years yet what they missed, but at these ages, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. So, we headed back to the Common for some playground time and then to the adjacent Boston Public Garden, a gorgeous 1837 park. The duck sculptures are the characters from the book “Make Way for Ducklings,” a book by one of our favorite children’s authors, Robert McCloskey, in which “Mrs. Mallard” shepherds her ducklings from the Charles River to the pond at the Public Garden, stopping Boston traffic along the way.

Across the street from the Public Garden is the old Bull & Finch Pub, made famous as the setting for the beloved TV show Cheers. Remember the characters going down stairs to get inside the bar? It really is on the lower level. We didn’t go in with little kids, but apparently everybody knows your name!

One side note: our darling Madelyn, whom I thought was a country girl through and through, turns out to be a big city girl at heart. She was hilarious. It was like walking around with a celebrity. I don’t know how many people she high-fived and said hello to, but it was in the dozens. I’ve never laughed so much in a major city as I did watching her charm the pants off everyone around her, no matter where we went. She had everyone from homeless men on the ground to tourists with cameras to businessmen in suits smiling and saying hello or waving to her. And she ate it all up, just completely in her element. She’s certainly never met a stranger and after today, half of Boston knows her!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Massachusetts’ “Other” Cape

Jill's Journal: North of Boston is Cape Ann and at Cape Ann are world-famous fishing communities like Rockport and Gloucester. We began our Cape Ann excursion with Rockport -- what a darling community it is, with a super quaint ambiance. Charming to the core.

Cute little stores and shops are everywhere, and it is very touristy and very busy. Bearskin Neck and the little wharfs jutting off it make Rockport Harbor one of the most picturesque in the country. The red fishing shack known as “Motif #1” is one of the most photographed and painted spots in all of New England.

Lobster pots and fishing boats are at every turn. The fish here is as fresh as it gets and the ground was littered with the remnants of just-eaten lobster legs.

A little off the water is the Paper House, a 20-year project started in 1922 by a Swedish man. The house has a traditional frame and roof, but the wall material, interior lining of the roof, and all the furniture are all made out of newspapers.

The builder, Elis Stenman, covered the papers with a marine-grade varnish and actually lived in the house during summers with his family. He used approximately 100,000 copies of newspapers (mostly from Boston) for construction and furniture-making.

This clock was built from newspapers from the capital city of each of the 48 states at the time. A cot was made from World War I papers, a radio cabinet was made with 1928 Herbert Hoover campaign newspapers, and a writing desk was made from newspapers about Charles Lindberg’s flight.

It is a stone’s throw to Gloucester (pronounced “Glosta”), which could not be more different from the charming Rockport. Gloucester is big, corporate business. This is little of the romance and all of the business behind fishing, with massive docks and massive operations (one pier covers eight acres!). Gorton’s, who ships frozen fish products all over the world, is headquartered here, along with their main processing factory. This is the nation’s oldest fishing port, first settled in 1623. There’s a gargantuan building just for fish auctions! It’s impressive, to say the least.

There’s more to know about "Glosta." First, the George Clooney movie “The Perfect Storm” is a true story about an event which took the lives of several Gloucester men in 1991. Second, a major New England landmark is right here -- the Fisherman’s Memorial, often called “The Man at the Wheel.” It’s dedicated to all the Gloucester seafarers who lost their life in the dangerous trade, over 10,000 since 1623, and includes a wall of remembrance with each lost soul’s name and the year the sea claimed them. “They that go down to the sea in ships…”

After all that fabulous sea air, just one more thing was on our agenda for the day. We headed just a couple of miles over to another bay community called Essex and a preserved 1728 farm named Cogswell’s Grant. The girls love horses and have been fascinated by Lipizzans lately. There just so happened to be a casual outdoor Lipizzaner show today. An Austrian family who has bred and trained the horses for 300 years tours the country and puts on displays of the exquisite creatures’ “Airs Above the Ground,” fancy maneuvers first developed in battle. The girls call it “horse ballet.”

Rob and I had seen wonderful Lipizzaner shows before and this was extremely amateur in comparison, but it was still fun for the girls to get up close and personal to the unique breed of horses. Plus, they made some friends during the intermission and had a ball running in the open fields.

Since we were in Essex, we made a quick stop on the way home at Woodman’s, which has won numerous awards for the best seafood in America. This restaurant is especially known for fried clams, which they “invented” over 90 years ago. Rob and I got a plate for the way home and they were definitely tasty. Fried food is not our thing and we’ll probably never have them again, so I’m glad we had the chance to try them (but once was enough)!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Butterfly Kisses

Jill's Journal: What little girl doesn’t love butterflies? After school this afternoon, I took the girls to The Butterfly Place in nearby Westford, Massachusetts. Not only did they have a homeschooling discount, but the wonderful lady gave us a short private tour since she said when you homeschool, everything is an education.

This fantastic place has a large atrium with hundreds and hundreds of free-flying butterflies of all shapes, sizes, and species. There were SO many butterflies and we got so close that we could literally see them sipping nectar from flowers. The girls were awed by butterfly eggs and all stages of the insect from caterpillars to cocoons to chrysalides (all alive).

The girls thought it was “awesome” and to be honest, I did too! The koi fish, quail birds, and Gouldian Finches living among the butterflies completed the “awesomeness.”

Here’s Madelyn having a conversation with a butterfly. Victoria didn’t love it when the big ones got too close. And Erika was smitten. She told me hours after the fact that she wants to have her wedding there someday! I didn’t know she was thinking of such things yet…

This is Bob, who is surely the most kid-friendly butterfly expert in history. All three girls --even the notoriously standoffish-to-strangers Victoria-- were ready to take him home with us. Photo by Madelyn. :)