And so we turned to museum therapy. In the next 7 days we visited 2 history museums and 6 art museums. Six of the eight museums were actually in our original biking plans, though the faster transportation provided by our rental car did allow for more leisurely visits.
The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester NH was a major surprise. It had a large and amazingly diverse collection, plus it had some of the best curation we've encountered. Most paintings had commentary, not just the names of the painter and painting, offering insights about the work or its creator that made the experience much more fulfilling. We also joined the daily tour of highlights from the collection, led by an assistant curator who told marvelous stories about one or two paintings in each gallery, sometimes even about how the museum got its hands on that particular work. For example, in 1948 the museum commissioned Charles Scheeler to do a painting, and he created this wonderful image of the Amoskeag Canal in Manchester, NH showing just a few of the cotton mills that made Manchester a major actor in the Industrial Revolution sweeping through the US in the 19th century. As long as he was in the area, Scheeler then decided to paint a second scene of the mills. The museum trustees liked it so much, they dug deep and came up with yet more cash so they could buy both paintings.
Jasper Cropsey's An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains was one of the first large-scale paintings of American landscape shown in Europe. He brought sketches done in NH with him and actually painted the work in England, not New England. It was a huge hit, in part because Cropsey played to his customers' desire to see images of that untrammeled Arcadia across the sea that they imagined America to be. Cropsey conveniently omitted the roads, boats and crowds that were already appearing en masse and making the area somewhat less than Arcadian.
For a small museum, the Currier had an amazing number of top-notch paintings, but we'll limit ourselves to sharing just three more and let you get there someday on your own to see the rest of the collection. We'll start with a seemingly casual image by Childe Hassam that is actually a carefully planned study of color and light, "The Goldfish Window" from 1916; then Edward Hopper's 1925 "The Bootleggers;" and finally an intriguing self portrait done in 1988 by local NH artist James Aponovich.
Our next destination was one the rental car let us add on, Lowell National Historical Park. In 1814 Francis Cabot Lowell built the first factory in America that brought every process in the textile business under one roof, from fulling and carding and spinning to weaving. It was in Waltham MA, a small town on the Charles River next door to Weston, the town where Louise grew up. But the Charles did not have enough water power. A few years later his business partners purchased a canal that brought boats around some rapids in the Merrimack River, plus as many nearby farms as they could get their hands on. They were not interested in transportation or farming, however, but in creating a city full of textile mills powered by the 30-foot drop of the large river. They named that city after the now-deceased Lowell. It was a spectacular success story. For the first 20 years the average profit was 24% per year! From soon after its founding to the Civil War, Lowell was the largest concentration of industry in the entire nation. A million yards of cloth per year was sent from its mills to consumers not only in America but also in South America, China, Russia and elsewhere.
Competition dispersed the textile industry all over New England in time, and then off to the South in the 20th century as mill owners found cheap labor more enticing than cheap power. Preservationists helped put some old mills to new uses, and Congress created Lowell National Historical Park in 1978 to save still more. While some mills have been demolished and a few are ghostly ruins, there is still much to see here.We started with a park ranger led tour up the canal to the upper end of the rapids on the Merrimack River, through locks still opened by hand. The dam above the rapids is supposed to look insubstantial, designed to partially give way in a flood in order to prevent a larger catastrophe were it to fail all at once.
We then rode a former New Orleans streetcar (yes, formerly operated on Desire Street and therefore "A Streetcar Named Desire") to the Suffolk Mills, where another park ranger showed us how the factory turned water into power with turbines, and then transferred it around the factory using belts and gears. They actually do open the spigot, and the building had a deep vibrato from all the spinning of the turbine and large gears and a high hum from all the whizzing of belts.
We finished the day with a tour of the Boott Mills, where a model showed how various parts of the making of cloth took place in different parts of the factory. We then picked up free earplugs and walked through a room full of loudly chattering weaving machines being tended by a handful of operators.
There once were numerous operators, as in the old print, but inventors kept finding ways of mechanizing more and more of the repetitive parts of the process. To the right is a single machine, then below are the views left and right that a single operator would have from standing in front of just one of the 100s of machines. At one time she would have had only that single machine to tend, and by a hundred years later it might have been all the machines in either view, perhaps even in both, though of course with fewer things to do at each machine as they became increasingly self-reliant.
After all that industry, it was time to step into the countryside. The next day we stopped for a few hours at Fruitlands, a museum that preserves the home that the Alcott family lived in for a year, when Louisa May Alcott was herself a "little woman" just shy of her teen years. No photos allowed inside, but we can report that it looked like a typical country home for a family of moderate means in the 1840's, as atypical as it was in who stopped by for visits, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Branson Alcott was a famed philosopher and educator, but his plan to have his family live the vegan lifestyle out in the boonies was too much for his wife, who demanded to be brought back to civilization. A year after moving into Fruitlands, they were gone.
Village life in the early 1800s was the focus of our next destination, Sturbridge Village. It began when a weathy collector purchased and moved some historic buildings to some land he owned here, primarily to create a place where he could show off his large stash of historic odds and ends. But by the time Louise visited on a school trip in the Fifties and Jeff on his own in the Sixties, it was a well established museum village. In the half century since, it has gotten a few more buildings and a lot more professional. It truly gives visitors the impression they've stepped into a New England town somewhere between 1835 and 1850, a time when town and country were not as distinctly separate from each other as they have since become.
To get a feel for how a visitor might arrive in town, we took our first ever carriage ride. All those actors in BBC/PBS dramas bouncing around in carriages only mildly bothered by the experience are faking it, folks. Our five-minute ride was enough to get the idea that we have it pretty cushy today. A later 15-minute ride around the grounds in a horse-drawn wagon only cemented the notion.
The village is populated each day by various folks in period dress who explain what sorts of things you would buy in a dry goods store and why, for example, or who demonstrate crafts of the day such as tinsmithing. Even the women out weeding a vegetable garden made a point of being both in character and in appropriate 1840s attire.
Even as hordes of New Englanders were rushing to jobs in the factories of Lowell MA, Manchester NH and other industrial cities, much factory work before the time of the Civil War was still done in small towns and on a small scale. The Carding Mill demonstrated, with much splashing of water below the mill and creaking of wood and metal within it, how cotton, linen or wool was " carded," i.e. pulled into straight loose wisps of fibers that a spinning mill would soon twist into strong thread.
Lowell and Sturbridge Village had each been day-long adventures. We finished our museum week with three art museums in a day and a half in an area known as the Five Colleges. The University of Mass., Hampshire College, Amherst College, Smith College and Mt. Holyoke College are all located in three adjacent towns, no campus more than a dozen miles from the furthest other campus. The last three have renowned art museums, and these colleges at last had exhibits worth seeing during the summer season.
The quality of the art was outstanding, such as this glowing Albert Bierstadt painting of Hetch Hetchy Canyon done in 1875, well before the city fathers of San Francisco drowned it behind a dam despite the impassioned pleas of John Muir. Equally impressive to us was Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn's "Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah's Butler and Baker." Each museum makes its art work searchable and viewable online, but there is something special about seeing art in the original, and we hope some of you our readers make it to the Five Colleges to see these collections in person.
We now headed into the Berkshire Mtns. where we would soon turn in the car and remount the bike. We drove part way up Mt. Greylock to what was once the farm of Ephraim Bradley. In the early 1800s it was farmed and grazed, but New England's thin glacial soil is not great for either. The Bradley Farm Trail showed us how the forest is reclaiming the farm since the Bradley family walked away from it over a century ago, most likely to farm on richer land in the midwest. A sign at the trailhead helped show how the stone wall came to be in the middle of the forest. As it explained, if you find an ancient stone wall in New England, it's fairly certain that the land on one or both sides was once either farmland or pasture.
Further up the mountain another trail looked out to dense forests now cut by a few downhill ski runs and topped by large windmills. Between farmers clearing the land for farms and others cutting what was left to make charcoal for New England's factories, those hills were completely barren of trees when our grandparents were young. Quite the change!
At last the road reached a parking lot just below the 3,491' summit, the highest point in Massachusetts. The last few yards were on the famed Appalachian Trail. From a tower at the summit of Greylock we looked down to the ancient factories of Adams MA to one side and to an inn that provides both food and lodging to hikers on the other.
To give Louise's back a full two weeks of recovery time since the accident, we had decided on one more day off the bike, to be spent in Bennington VT. It failed to excite, with no particular art, architecture or history of note. We paid a few dollars to ride an elevator (the stairs have been closed for decades) up the Bennington Battle Monument, but the view from the top was mainly of dense forest undulating up and down landforms debating on whether they were large hills or small mountains. The monument was indeed in Bennington, but not the Battle of Bennington itself. It was fought miles away, in Walloomsac, a small town in New York! Go figure.
All was not totally lost, as we did encounter a trio of covered bridges a few miles away, and then saw a flier announcing a piano concert that evening. Ten minutes before it started, two members of the audience sauntered up onto the stage to admire the highly polished piano, and pretty soon a crowd was up there jostling each other as if they had stepped out of the 16th century and had never seen one of these new-fangled, harpsichord-like things. The performer was 17-year-old Mackenzie Melemed, and he clearly has a future as a performer.
At last it was time to turn in the rental car and get on the bike. How Louise's back would like this was a big unknown, but she was determined to give it a try. But fate threw one more challenge our way before we could do so.We parked the rental car in a shopping center just behind the Hertz place to have a spot where we could take the various pieces of bike out of the trunk, reassemble them into a working tandem, then turn in the car. Jeff made a small miscalculation concerning the car keys. Louise made a small miscalculation regarding the car's locking system. Pretty soon Jeff and Louise were using words we try to keep out of our blog, the gist of which was that they expressed stunned disbelief and fervid dismay. Keys, wallet, clothes, even the bike tools needed to reassemble the pieces of bike sitting on the ground, all we're firmly locked inside the car.With the passage of 90 minutes and the spending of $72, we got a lesson from a garage mechanic on breaking and entering, plus access to all our goods. The car was turned in, the last bolt and nut on the bike tightened, and off we rode toward Tanglewood, where we had tickets to hear the Boston Symphony that afternoon. We'll tell you about that and our 175-mile ride from there into the heart of New York City in our next blog entry.