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Published: June 16th 2017
Flying is always a risky business. I’m not talking about safety risks, but the risk of missing your connecting flight. As I set out from Sioux Falls, my flight was, of course, late. The plane was mostly filled with a group going to Israel, who had a three hour layover, but a handful of us would have – at best – ten to fifteen minutes to make it through O’Hare to our connecting flights. Once we were all hitched up to the terminal, it was off to the races. Thankfully, I made it to my gate just as they were starting to board. On the flight to Portland, we saw some awesome clouds, thanks to bad weather below. I happened to be listening to the Dear Evan Hansen cast recording – if you have not yet done so, go do it now – and had to smile at the line, “All we see is sky for forever.” Literally true for me at that moment.
Wednesday was my first full day in Portland, and after a misadventure to find the bus stop, I made it to Monument square to eat an excellent crepe at the Public Market (the Billy
Goat crepe if you’re interested). I should perhaps say that the reason for this trip is research. I am currently working on a young adult historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution, which begins in Falmouth (now Portland). I mention this because I spent the next five hours researching in the Maine Historical Society library (Brown Library). It was here I read way too much cursive from the 1800s and 1900s – handwritten copies made of first-hand accounts from the 1700s or earlier 1800s. I don’t know if teaching students how to write cursive is necessary anymore, but teaching them to read it certainly is. If we could tie it to first-hand accounts instead of boring textbook sentences, they might also be more willing to learn... Anyway, the staff there was great and the resources just what I was looking for.
Researched-out for the day, I went next door to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House – the poet’s birthplace and where he spent some time as an adult. It was his sister, Anne, who really ran the house – taking care of their ailing mother and ultimately donating the house and land to the Historical Society,
with the proviso they build a research library (thank you, Anne!) The highlights of the house were the rocking horse that the children played on (most of the furnishings are original); the fire brigade buckets (numbered and printed with Stephen Longfellow’s (Henry’s father) name); Henry’s trunk, which may have been the size of a normal backpack, and he used it to travel in Europe for three months; and Henry’s traveling writing desk. The house survived the great fire of 1866, stopping – the docent informed me – basically right outside their door.
By this time, I needed food. So, I worked my way down to Old Port area and found the Flatbread Company – great location, great food (I considered going back on my second day). Exhausted and my head brimming with research, I headed back to my hotel.
Thursday I had set aside for sightseeing, but each location was, in some way, tied to my research. I had thought after Wednesday that I would not need to go back to Brown Library. Thursday proved me wrong, so today (Friday) will be mostly spent researching again. Well, Thursday started in Eastern Cemetery, officially started
in 1668. Though owned by the city, a group known as Spirits Alive has taken over the restoration, maintenance, and preservation of the cemetery. I had the privilege of being shown around by Ron Romano, who has done extensive research about the cemetery and written two books (his second comes out in the fall). When Spirits Alive took over the care of Eastern Cemetery, it was in sorry shape – stones knocked over, broken, buried, missing – which reminded me of Pioneer (Bellevue) Cemetery that my dad had worked on and helped restore. Spirits Alive has done great work so far, so if you find yourself in Portland, contact them and schedule a tour!! This cemetery, once simply knowns as the Burying Ground, was at the very edge of town and the land originally owned by the minister Thomas Smith. Ron took me down Funeral Lane (the main thoroughfare of the cemetery) and explained that until Bartlett Adams arrived in 1800, Portland didn’t have a stonecutter. That meant families either used found stone or a wooden marker or – if they were particularly wealthy – sent down to Boston to have a stone carved. Boston stones have a distinctive winged
Gravestone of Daniel Tucker in Eastern Cemetery
skull, while Adams was known for his urns and willow trees. A unique feature of this cemetery to the New England area – at least as far as Ron knew – was the existence of family crypts that could hold up to 30 bodies under one main stone/monument. Near the oldest part of the cemetery, I found the grave of Daniel Tucker, who is a character in my novel! In the cemetery, you also see the divisions that existed in life. The graves of the African Americans, Catholics, and Quakers are along the edges. This cemetery is also home to the graves of Captains Burrows and Blyth who were engaged in a naval battle – both dying in or of wounds from that battle – off the coast. It is amazing that they – a US and a British officer – were given the same amount of honor and respect by the town and laid side by side. That wouldn’t happen today.
I next visited the Tate House, built between 1751 and 1755 and owned by George Tate, an English mast agent. Maine was a prime place for the British navy to acquire the masts they needed
for their ships, and Tate was a part of that. Any pine that was at least two feet in diameter and 75 feet tall was marked with the King’s Broad Arrow and then was considered owned by the King of England. Though the family was mostly loyalist – one son went to join the Continental Army in 1775 – they did not lose the house during the war (the docent suggested that the Tate’s gave money to the cause but stayed out of the fighting and politics) but lost it to debt some years later. Everything was sold off, so, unfortunately, nothing in the house is original to the Tate family, though the pieces are time period. My favorites included the candle box – where you store your tallow candles so the pests don’t eat them – the courting candles – if dad likes the guy, he raises the candle and it burns longer; doesn’t like him, lowers the candle – and the teacher’s room – note the absence of a fireplace... Desserts were smaller then because sugar was expensive – one way to watch your weight – and lots of flowers and spices would have been spread throughout the
house because people did not bathe often or wash their clothes often. While I sometimes think it would be great fun to have lived long ago, it is facts like these that make me happy to be alive now.
Then, it was back downtown for a walk up Munjoy (once called Mountjoy’s) Hill where I found the Portland Observatory. Though once used to watch for incoming ships, it now offers great views of the town and a knowledgeable staff/volunteers to walk you through the history of the Observatory and the town.
Hungry once more, I veered off the main drag to a place called Silly’s – excellent food in large portions and with great music playing when I was there – and discovered that right across the street was Maine Mead Works – makers of HoneyMaker and Ram Island Meads. Of course I had to stop (after I had eaten) and do a tasting. So good! Good enough that I had to buy a bottle of their Iced Tea Mead to bring home with me.
The last stop of the day was with the Portland Schooner Co. for a sunset sail.
Awesome old books and silver writing set. The writing set is thought to have actually belonged to the Tate's, as it was found hidden in the basement.
It was a beautiful evening, though perhaps a bit too calm at times. While we sailed, I kept trying to judge which islands my antagonist – both in real life and my novel – had anchored his ships at both before and after he destroyed Falmouth (Portland). Sail over, I speed walked up to the bus station and back to the hotel, too tired to blog. Today (Friday) is my last full day in Portland – research and ending with a ghost walk!
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