Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
May 14, 2008

Growing up in Peterborough, New Hampshire during the 1940s-1950s

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
The Great Gatsby, 1925

"Just specimens is all New Hampshire has,
one each of everything as in a show-case
which naturally she doesn’t care to sell.”
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
“New Hampshire”
New Hampshire, 1923

Like a pack-rat, my mother saved and hoarded letters, drawings, photos and other remnants from an earlier time. Like her, I have done the same. There are a couple dozen letters and half dozen telegrams heralding my birth: “Am thrilled to hear about the little boy;” “Can’t wait to see you and your son;” “Three cheers for Sydney.” It’s pretty heady stuff, even from a distance of sixty-seven years. While there is so much promise in each new life, there must have been many times when my parents wondered at God’s purpose for mine. Nevertheless, there are myriad reminders of my early years. There is a collection of drawings I did when I was five or six years old, packed away in manila folders. I come across an Easter post card from my father from 1945 when he was serving in Italy; “Buona Pasqua” is printed on the front depicting three elves, each carrying a large egg; on the reverse is written, “Dear Sydney, I wonder if you’ll find any Easter eggs as big as these. Love, Papa.” There are thousands of photographs. One pictures me as a new born held lovingly and gently by my father. Another depicts me struggling in the arms of my great-grandmother. A third photo, a few years later, is taken in front of the kitchen door in Peterborough: “Judy,” one of the horses, is hitched to a sledge on which lies a freshly cut spruce. My father holds the reins. Around are sprinkled Mama and six of us children; Stuart, born three weeks earlier, is not in the photo. It is Christmas Eve 1950. That evening my father will light real candles that will adorn the tree – a bucket of water placed within easy reach. These photos, letters and drawings provide a vital connection to my early years. While we live in the present and prepare for the future, we are products of the past. Genetics and environment largely determine who we become.


The farm was known as the Dodge Place, named after a family who conducted a small business making mercury-filled thermometers in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. My paternal grandparents bought the place as part of a larger property around 1915. When my parents moved to the farm in 1938 shortly after they were married it was still known as the Dodge Place and was so known during my early years. In fact, rooting around in the dirt near the house, my brother Frank and I often came across, and played with, pieces of mercury left behind forty or more years earlier. Despite all the warnings about the devastation that mercury can cause, we never suffered any ill affects. The house sat on about 150 acres of the rocky soil so well known to New Hampshire farmers. My parents, who had become sculptors, were raised in privileged surroundings – my mother in New Haven and Madison, Connecticut, and my father in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Peterborough, New Hampshire – but this was nine years into a depression that seemed to be without end. The Dodge Place was adjacent to, and a little over a mile from, my father’s parents’ summer home. That is, it was a little over a mile via an old logging road that passed through the woods, but about six miles by car. (I do recall once, not long after World Ward II, watching my grandparents emerge from the woods in their Oldsmobile.)

The place was four miles from the village, a town of 2500. The house, the size of which must have seemed comfortable when my parents moved in as newly-weds, appeared progressively smaller as children kept appearing. With respect to his children, my father, in his twenty-fifth college reunion note in 1957, referred to his “nine ideas”.

Into this environment, in their late twenties, my parents arrived and, with the exception of eighteen months during the Second World War, it was where they would live, while raising nine children, for the next thirty years. In 1968, at the age of fifty-eight, my father died of cancer on December 2 – my brother Stuart’s birthday. On the same date, twenty-two years later, my mother died at home. Though they died on the same date, the deaths were very different. My father suffered the agonies of lung and brain cancer for almost a year, while my mother’s death was peaceful. Two days earlier she had attended a showing of her and Stuart’s art. The day before she died she was visited by all of her children. The next night she wrote a letter to her youngest son, George, spent a long time on the phone with her life-long friend, Jean Kaiser, and went to sleep.

The Town

The first white settlers came to what is now Peterborough in 1738, occupying land that had been hunted by the Penacooks, a member tribe of the Algonquins. Today it is a village of 6000 and is the commercial center to the eight towns which abut it – Harrisville, Hancock, Greenfield, Lyndeborough, Temple, Sharon, Jaffrey and Dublin. The town sits at the juncture of two highways, U. S. Routes 202 and 101, and at the point where the Nubanusit River flows into the Contoocook – a north flowing river, which then merges with the Merrimac River and thence to the Atlantic at Newburyport, Massachusetts.

.When I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s Peterborough still had regular rail service. There were two grocery stores, the IGA and Lloyd's; two drug stores; a hardware store; Derby's, a department store; a movie theatre, in which the films were changed three times a week; Steele's, a variety store where comics could be bought; a feed store adjacent to the depot; a couple of banks; assorted auto dealers, the largest being the Nichol's Ford Agency, tucked behind the Peterborough Tavern; and six or seven churches, one Catholic and the rest a variety of Protestant denominations, including the Unitarian Church, a beautiful and centrally located edifice. The Peterborough Tavern served as an Inn for travelers and dated back to stagecoach days. We bought our gas at O'Malley's, skied at Whit's Tow and read The Peterborough Transcript, printed every Thursday. Albert “Del” Picard was the chief of police and knew every teen ager in town. New Hampshire Ball Bearings, the largest employer in town, and The Noone Mills, just south of the village, provided factory employment. The most imposing building in town was the headquarters of the Guernsey Cattle Club, recently (and surprisingly) relocated from Iowa, on Main Street. The population was virtually all Caucasian and generally Protestant – and still is – though there was a large contingent of French Canadian Catholics, most of who lived in West Peterborough and worked for the Verney textile factory, which produced rayon parachute cloth and subsequently closed after the War. The one Jewish family in town, the Goldman's, owned one of the two drug stores in town and contributed to what little the town had in terms of ecumenicalism. It was, at that time, a strongly Republican town. The MacDowell Colony, the Peterborough Players and the Sharon Arts Center provided artistic stimulation, and were all run by friends of my family.

Geographically the town is in south-west New Hampshire, about twenty miles from the Massachusetts border and is bound to the east by Crotched Mountain and North and Pack Monadnocks’, and to the southwest by Mount Monadnock, perhaps the most climbed tree-less summit in the United States. On a clear day, from its peak, the harbor at Boston – seventy-five miles to the south and east – can be seen. To the south is the Contoocook Valley and to the north and west the land slopes gently higher. While steeper and more rugged, the Apennines, which my father saw as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, reminded him of the hills around Peterborough.


During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries summer visitors were drawn to the area by its proximity to Boston, by the beauty of the rolling hills, lakes and streams and by the majesty of Monadnock. My paternal grandparents were part of that migration, arriving early in the second decade of the 20th Century. My father's mother was raised in Boston and Wellesley, Massachusetts in very comfortable surroundings. Her father, as a recent Harvard graduate, had accompanied Louis Agassiz on the Thayer expedition to the Amazon in 1865-66. She inherited his interest in the natural world and spent several years studying at M.I.T., but was refused a degree because of her sex. Her husband, my grandfather, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts to a family of educators. For two years, following his graduation from Harvard in 1894, he taught French at Milton Academy before becoming a bond broker. Several years later, with the prospect of marrying into a wealthy family, he wrote his bride-to-be, "For several years I have helped my aunt and my sister…Last year, on account of the panic (the letter is undated, but I presume he is referring to the Panic of 1907), the firm’s profits amounted to practically nothing; so living expenses took the two or three thousand that I had saved up to that time. Today, therefore, I’ve nothing but a probable income of $2500 to $3000, and an optimistic disposition." One wonders, in similar circumstances, how such a letter would be received today. While they wintered in Wellesley, in the house in which my grandmother had been born, Peterborough offered a place away from the confines of the family compound and a place my grandfather could truly call his own; it provided a wonderful venue for a growing family. My father spent every summer there and, during winter holidays, he would often bring a group of his Harvard friends for cross country skiing tours in the nearby hills.

My mother was the daughter of a banker-industrialist from an old New Haven family and my grandmother, who had grown up on a large tobacco farm in central Tennessee and in Washington, D.C. where her father served as a U.S. Congressman. My mother graduated from the Foxcroft School and then studied sculpture with William Boni in Rome before returning to Middleburg, Virginia where she taught art at her Alma Mater for two years. The fraud and subsequent collapse of Ivar Kreuger and his financial empire in early 1932, which included most famously the Swedish Match Company, caused considerable financial losses for my maternal grandfather. My grandfather considered Ivar Kreuger a friend and invested heavily in his enterprises. It is my understanding that Kreuger stayed with them at their home in East River. Following the collapse, my grandfather, along with his family, sublet Greta Garbo’s apartment in Stockholm , while he attempted to recoup losses incurred by the Irving Trust Company – of which he was a director – and himself. On the mantle of our home in Peterborough was a silver cigarette holder which, as my mother would point out, was the sole asset my grandfather recovered from that fraud . My grandfather had to give up retirement and he became President of the Cambridge Rubber Company, but the house in New Haven (now the administration center for the Yale School of Management) had to be sold and they moved full time to Madison and to their home, ‘Wyndham’.

My parents met in 1937 as students of George Demetrios, a sculptor with studios in Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts. They were married a year later and, after a short honeymoon, moved, in their late twenties, to the Dodge Place on my grandparent’s property.

The House, Barn and Property

The house was built around 1825, probably as a cape. It had been expanded with an ell and a second floor. The east facing house was set back about a hundred feet from the road with a row of lilacs separating them. The ell extended toward the rear and housed the stairwell, a dining room, two pantries, kitchen, shed and wood shed. The front, facing the road, included the living room and what we called the “end room”, a room into which were dumped works of art (completed and in-progress), un-used wedding gifts and the like. As children, we rarely entered the place. Upstairs were four bed rooms and two bathrooms. Two of the bed rooms and both bath rooms were above the ell, all facing south and off a long, narrow hallway, while my parent’s room was above the living room. A large, screened-in sleeping porch faced north off the hallway. At the far end of the hallway, above the shed, was the fourth bedroom, a room we called the “purple room,” generally reserved, in early days, for guests, especially my maternal grandparents.

There was no central heat (insulation was added about 1950); a coal-burning furnace provided hot water for the taps and the radiators in the bathrooms. Air conditioning was achieved through opening windows. A wood stove in the kitchen served both as heat in the winter and a place to cook year round. A second wood stove in the dining room and a fireplace in the living room provided heat. Until 1953, an ice chest in the shed off the kitchen served as refrigeration and a lone hand-crank telephone was located in the stairwell. The telephone line was a party line, meaning we shared the line with a half dozen other families. Snooping on neighbors was frowned upon, but often too tempting to resist. Our ring, on this party line, was three longs and two shorts.


We lived on Middle Hancock Road. At the time my parents moved in the road was dirt; the Hurricane of 1938, a few months after they arrived, washed out the road half a mile north. So for the first few years they lived at the end of a dirt road. By the time I remember it, the road was paved and the wash-out repaired.

My earliest memories are of living with my maternal grandparents at ‘Wyndham’ in East River, CT. East River is the western most part of Madison, and it is where they had had a home since early in the second decade of the twentieth century. My father was drafted in March 1944; so my mother, pregnant with my sister Betsy, returned to her home with three children, a couple of goats, two dogs and a cat or two. I had just turned three. My memories are spotty and few: my older sister, Mary, dressing me in a jumper and Mary Jane shoes; my sister Betsy’s arrival in August; playing on the beach in front of the house; my father’s departure for overseas duty in September; Christmas that year and a red fire engine I received, and the death on the cellar stairs of Julius the gardener.

By the end of July 1945 we had returned to Peterborough. My father was expected to be home on leave for a month before being shipped to Japan for the invasion anticipated for that fall. As it turned out, he arrived on the 15th of August, V-J Day, a day etched in my memory – my father coming toward us, having exited the troop train; horns blaring and car lights flashing. We all knew the long war was over and that there would be no invasion.

What I remember best about our home in Peterborough was the activity. As I got older, and sought solitude, I would take to the woods on foot or on skis, but it was the noise – the talk, laughter, crying – that pervaded the place, both inside and out that I remember best. Likewise, the barn hummed: horses, stamping feet and neighing; leaping and bleating goats; clucking and scurrying chickens. My father enjoyed playing with names. Our first rabbit was named “Peter”. The second became “Repeat”. A tom cat he named “Henry”. Henry was joined by a female, so my father named her “Henrietta”. The third cat became “Gladiator”.

Births and deaths provided a cadence for the years between my father’s return from Italy and my departure for boarding school eleven years later. Five children were born: Charlotte in 1946, Jenny in 1948, Stuart in 1950, Willard in 1952 and George in 1955. Dogs and cats were born, died and were replaced. The first two horses my parents owned (actually, previously owned by my paternal grandparents), “Nona” and “Jill”, died during those years. While “Mitzi”, a Shetland pony had been bought by my mother in Connecticut, she was soon joined by “Judy” – half thoroughbred and half workhorse and, a couple of years later, “Winnie” – a Welsh pony, a gift from the headmistress of my mother’s school. “Winnie”, who became my pony, was bred to an Arab stallion and then foaled “Star”, a lively filly who became Frank’s. Additional horses arrived over the years. The goat herd increased (to about ten) and we always had a dozen chickens, a few ducks and a couple of rabbits. Two peacocks, a gift from my mother’s oldest brother, arrived in the early 1950s; I can still hear the eerie, almost human-like, shrillness of their calls.

Many recollections of those days come to mind. They pop in at odd moments. A person, an activity, a place triggers the mind. Once, about 1951, we were in our second hand 1941 Ford wagon headed for my grandmother Hotchkiss’ place in East River where we would be spending a few weeks. In addition to a car loaded with luggage and strewn with six or seven children and assorted dogs and cats, we hauled a trailer which housed a pony and a few goats. We pulled into a gas station near Belchertown, Massachusetts. The attendant came out, surveyed the car and the trailer, and queried, “Where are you heading?”

“To my mother’s,” replied my mother.

“Does she know you’re coming?” he asked laconically.

My parents laughed heartily.

At the age of three, I received my first pair of skis. My father was overseas and I just walked around on them in the snow. By the time I was six, I was going up the little rope tow at Whit’s in Peterborough. The engine that powered the tow was the discarded motor from a retired Ford or Chevrolet. Whit had placed it in a shed at the bottom of the hill and attached it to a rope which, once grabbed, hauled skiers upward. Once, when I was six or seven, I skied down the little slope and, unable to stop, right into the shed and broke one of my skis. In tears, I sought my father who did not punish me as I feared and, in fact, saw humor on the situation. However, by the next season, the shed had been moved to the top of the hill. In terms of sport, skiing was my father’s passion. He had been skiing since the late 1920s and his enthusiasm infested his children. During the War, as already mentioned, he served with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. When he returned he brought with him two pairs of German skis and a pair of German ski boots, confiscated from German Mountain Division troops, the Gerbisjager. Those white skis and brown ski boots became a trademark of his and lasted several seasons. By the early 1950s, watching my father lace up his boots and put on his skis, I recall the embarrassment known so well to a pre-teen whose parent is non-conformist. How, we children wondered, could we make him get rid of those boots and skis? Events dictated a solution. One morning, skiing down the Lift Line at Stowe, Papa (as we called him) took a header. As he fell forward, his boot peeled from the sole. Once we saw that he was uninjured, we applauded the fall. New boots were purchased, followed shortly by new skis. Our embarrassment was placed in abeyance.

A wonderful annual event was the Children’s Circus, conceived and master minded by my older sister Mary and our cousin, Mary Fyffe, for the benefit of the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield. The first circus was held in 1947 and was comprised of us children, a few cousins and a small number of friends. The audience consisted of neighbors and parents who paid a nominal fee, along with a few children from the rehabilitation center. I forget what we raised that first year, but it was probably about $20, an amount that seemed enormous to us at the time. As the years went on, the Circus became larger and more elaborate. We assembled – horses, goats, clowns, floats and tumblers, with dogs racing around, barking – and, under the two Mary’s extraordinary organizational skills, paraded into the backyard before an audience seated on rented chairs. The 1957 10th Anniversary Program lists sixteen events, beginning with ‘The Grand Parade’ and ending with ‘A Mad Brawl.’ Events included a ‘Dancer Devine’ (Polly Hotchkiss, a cousin), ‘Equestriennes with Equilibrium’ (with Betsy and Jenny and two friends), ‘Thousand Legged Worm – Terrifying’ and ‘Terrific, Tumultuous, Tumbling Tumble Weeds.’ Lemonade and cookies were sold to the guests. As the 1950s came to a close, so did the Circus; but memories persevered, as did lessons about giving. Mary continued to volunteer at the Rehabilitation Center. In the summer of 1959, newly graduated from high school, I recall visiting her there. A young boy, confined to a wheel chair, admired my new class ring and, because of lessons learned from my sister and cousin about caring and giving, I removed the ring and gave to the young boy.

After the War, with my parents persistently producing more children (my father’s older sister incessantly barraged them with information from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which my parents blithely tossed into the woodstove), the need for additional income became imperative. Commissions for pieces of sculpture ($75.00 for a bust of a child, involving two months of work) and dividends from my father’s skimpy portfolio did not cover the rising costs of increasing populations in both house and barn. Fortuitously, the artist in my parents emerged and in 1947 they began to produce realistic toy animals made from rubber. The Gosling School, where I was a student, became the first customer. In 1950 the Educational Equipment Company – later to become Creative Playthings – headed by a man named Murray Shapiro, and run in conjunction with Bank Street Nursery School (from which my daughter, Linie, received a Master’s Degree in 1998) became the largest customer. By 1955 Red Shed Rubber Animals were sold in most every state and Alaska. They were sold in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan. Initially they were produced in my father’s studio and in the kitchen. Soon the back porch was converted for production and eventually operations were moved to the upstairs of the Red Shed. I have a copy of an Annual Report issued in 1955 prepared and written by my mother – the capitalist, who lay beneath the veneer of the artist, emerged! The cover shows a photo of newly-born George. At this point they were making 75 different products. In the report the owners are indicated as Mama and Papa Williams; shareholders are the nine children. My mother expresses dismay at the lack of investment made by shareholders. She is searching for investments such as dishwashing, barn cleaning and wood gathering. It is pointed out that “preferred” stock could be had through “cheerful and willing cooperation.” In conclusion she writes, “The demand continues. The future looks good. Now is the time to increase your investments in this growing business and write this year’s liabilities in next year’s asset sheet.” The business continued for a few more years, but by the time my father died in 1968 it had run its course. However, the product survives and my grandchildren today play with rubber animals created in that Red Shed so long ago.

A host of other memories come to mind:

The time my mother sliced off a piece of my ear as she was cutting my hair. I was about four and I remember looking at that bit of flesh lying forlornly on the floor. I was upset, though my mother, once realizing there was no permanent damage, found it amusing.

There was the time on one of the rare Sundays when we attended the Unitarian Church. Squashed into two pews, we each had been given a nickel for the collection basket. Dutifully, though reluctantly, we parted with our coin and deposited it into the velvet collection bag – until it came to George who must have been two at the time. George, sensing that receiving was better than giving, reached in, grabbed a handful of money and promptly dropped it on the floor. At our parent’s insistence, the rest of us scurried under the seats, retrieved the lost coins and returned them to the basket still held by the patient, though stern looking usher.

In 1948, my sister Mary and I had to walk just under a mile to catch the school bus. Once, loitering on the way (Mary had gone on ahead), I turned the corner just in time to see the rear of the bus disappear toward town. Elated, I skipped home with the prospect of a school-less day. My mother had other plans. In a pique and in silence, she drove me the four miles to school.

We grew up with horses. We rode “English.” Often, five or six of us would go out together. Trails through the woods and dirt roads allowed us to ride for miles, cantering or galloping down little traveled roads, with “Mitzi” the Shetland – and the smartest and most cunning – out in front, cutting off those of us on larger horses, as we tried to pass her. We all took great pleasure in putting a “citified” visitor on “Mitzi”, because of her habit of taking her rider into a watering hole about half a mile from the barn and rolling. We got a laugh, as the rider had to quickly dismount before being crushed, or at least getting very wet.

Summers we would swim in Norway Pond in Hancock, taking time afterward to remove the two or three bloodsuckers (leeches) that clung to our bodies.

Winters, when we weren’t skiing (or doing chores), we often skated or played pick-up hockey on Fly Pond, about three miles back toward the village.

The hayloft was a wonderful place to play. I can still see the dust, highlighted in sun rays projected before the big door and can smell the mustiness of hay, heightened by aromas from the barn below. Once Frank, my cousin Sandy Greene and I built a trap by placing loose hay over an open trap door in the floor, through which my father would toss hay for the horses and goats below. Our intent was to lure my sister Mary and Sandy’s older sister, BAnne, across the floor and over the disguised opening. Frank and I were standing as lookouts for the girls when one of us called out, “Here they come.” Sandy dashed toward us and crashed through the trap he had helped lay. I turned just in time to see the top of his head, as he, with a cry, disappeared to the floor below. Other than his pride, Sandy was unhurt, and Frank and I had a story.

Growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s was to come of age in the wake of World War II and under the cloud of the atomic bomb. Memorial Day was a meaningful day in those years. Most of the veterans who marched in the annual parade had seen service in World War II; additionally, there was a large contingent from World War I, and even a couple of men who had served in the Spanish American War. The horrors of war were very much alive, not only to those who had been in combat, but also to the families of the seventeen from Peterborough who died in the two World Wars. Frank and I would ride our bikes the four miles to the village and, joined by several others, follow the parade to Pine Hill Cemetery. On the bridge that crossed the Contoocook, in front of the library, a wreath would be tossed to the waters below. We would watch as the current carried it away. Later, at the cemetery, where my parents and paternal grandparents now lie, taps were played with echoing notes reverberating back on somber, summer breezes. We were largely spared the scare of nuclear holocaust (other than the occasional, and futile, dive under a desk in school during a drill) by a family and a village that concentrated on the present and, while neither ignorant nor unaware of the risks in international brinkmanship, placed it in context befitting young and impressionable children. There would be time enough to confront the monster of realism. This was a time to be young.

Reliving these stories, I am reminded of the lines from The Wind in the Willows; “The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” Stories from our past are the best stories. They allow the reader to consume a slice of history. For my children and grandchildren they provide an opportunity to learn something of their heritage, along with the prospect of a better understanding of themselves.