Out of the Maine Stream

The Saturday Evening Post, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Out of the Maine Stream


In front of the 19th-century ancestral home of a distinguished Maine family, I met my long-dead family members. The year was 1870, I was told, as I greeted my kinfolk and tried to remember everyone's name--including my own.

"Ma Pray [now that name would take getting used to because in real life I have no children], let me introduce you to your family," said Gabby Bimmon, my 20th-century guide. Wayne Bryant stepped forward in his newly adopted 19th-century role as my husband, Otis. He was a mill-wright, farmer, and captain of the Livermore (Maine) Cavalry company. He also had died in 1874 at age 85.

"Here are your sons Otis Junior and Albert, who just returned injured from the Civil War. Rosetta Chandler, your daughter, is here, too--step forward, Rosetta--down from potato country. Meet Bethiah Brig, your married teacher daughter. And here's your granddaughter Beth, a good scholar."

Comfortable with our new identities, my "family" and I walked to a hillside cemetery at dusk to visit our characters' graves and to learn our history. Ma Pray, I discovered from her weathered tombstone, was Eliza, who married Otis when her sister, his first wife, died. Eliza lived 71 years, dying in 1877.

We ambled back to the farmhouse, armed with our historical roots and careful not to divulge our 20th-century personalities. We took our sleeping bags and gear to our bed chambers and lay them on our feather beds. Claiming kerosene lamps, we returned downstairs for a dinner of corn chowder and applesass (applesauce). Everyone waited politely to begin until after Pa had eaten the first morsel.

Except for "Please pass this, please pass that," a nervous silence reigned until Aunt Ora, our hostess in gingham, heard a knock on the door. "Probably a critter," she said. "They get hungry this time of year." It was stooped-over Mercy Lovejoy, leaning heavily on her cane and trying to hide her face with the wings of her black bonnet. Nevertheless, she suspiciously resembled Gabby. She had walked over from the poor farm to complain that she had "no victuals at all. I'm cold and the table's full. I'm plumb put out."

Poor Mercy. She shared gossip about Jesse Atkins' "crossing the dark river" (dying) from diphtheria at age 84. His false teeth were to go to her, she explained. "It will be better than gumming my victuals." Soon she was in tears, sobbing because she was worried about her fate. Indigent bodies were sold for $100 to the medical college for research, she sniffed.

After Mercy's departure (much appreciated), silence resumed until bespectacled hired hand Wallace spoke. He was a religious young man, farming and studying for the bar exam.

"A man in New York won $100,000 in the lottery, but Maine folks are not interested in progress," Wallace said. He then talked about the ongoing Franco-Prussian War, the Cuban insurrection, prejudices ("the Irish hate the Irish"), the just-passed 15th Amendment, and recently published books (Alice in Wonderland, Uncle Tom's Cabin).

After supper, we washed the dishes with a chain-link pot scrubber and hot water from a kettle. Conversation was becoming easier because now my "family" could talk about the evening meal, Mercy Lovejoy, and the "sociable" that Aunt Ora had mentioned. The dialogue and activity added to the authenticity of our role playing. No longer did we feel we were outsiders but were part of the farmstead--Norlands Living History Center--and the social, political, agricultural, religious, cultural, and educational life of 1870. Ulysses S. Grant is president; the country has just bought Alaska from Russia for $7 million; and one in seven women dies in childbirth.

Norlands, whose name comes from the mention of northlands in Tennyson's "Ballad of Oriana," allows only two concessions to modern times: toilet paper and window screens. Gabby asked guests to leave their wristwatches, cigarettes, and flashlights behind. Wastebaskets are taboo because nothing was thrown away in 1870. …

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