MassConn Island

Posted January 30th, 2009 at 7:33 pm (UTC-4)
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After reading my last post, Geraldo in Brazil sent along some flattering comments and closed with a suggestion: “How about writing something about Massachusetts or the whole New England?”

I’ve been meaning to, Geraldo. I was waiting for the place to thaw! You provided the impetus for me to do so. But I must say that, compact though this northeasternmost region is —17 individual states are larger than the six states of New England put together — it will take me two postings to even begin to scratch their diverse geography and rich history. Fortunately, New England breaks into two convenient tiers: three states to the south clustered around Boston, and three to the north, packed with trees and moose and offshore lobsters. Let’s look at the lower three this time.

But first, an overview:

Tightly Packed
Bailey's Island
Rock meets sea on Bailey’s Island, Maine, where we also observe a typical New England lobster shack

New England is America’s most defined region. I have already wondered in this space just where the “West” begins, and the Midwest and South are hard to get one’s mind around as well. But there can be no doubt about that six-pack of crusty old states – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. One can live 10 meters across the Vermont line in New York and not be a New Englander – and likely not have the same independent ways or emotional attachment to the past. Or to New England’s thin and rocky land. Vermont is loaded with dairy farms, but the rest of region has been largely subsumed by pines, highways, cottage estates, old and crumbling cities, postcard-quality villages, and those moose.

This is the view across a small lake to the town green in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Note the requisite white church

Named by British sea captain John Smith as he poked around the Massachusetts coast in 1614, New England is a society that was built upon the town. And the towns rose around pleasant, British-style strolling grounds called “greens,” or squares, usually anchored by a dazzlingly white, high-steepled Congregational church. New England’s earliest settlers – other than the indigenous Wampanoag, Nauset, and Pennacook Indians – formed small communities, surrounded by a hostile forest and guided by a stern religion that encouraged isolation, spare conversation, and a deep respect for privacy.

When Americans moved west in the mid-1800s, it was the New England village model that they copied. And the idealization of New England as a hardscrabble, pastoral haven of feisty individualists, rooted in reality, hasn’t changed much.

That’s why I must confess that it’s not my favorite U.S. destination. While New Englanders are not hostile, they practice wariness, as if they’ve never seen a visitor before. Don’t expect animated tales and flourishing hand gestures, and certainly not hugs. “Nope” and “Ah-yup,” can pass for a New England conversation.

A Veritable New England Gabfest

In fact, one of my cherished tall tales is set there:

Two old Downeasters – or residents of downstate, coastal Maine – are rocking on a porch, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, without saying a word.

After about an hour, one of them points to a far-off tree. “Look there,” he says. “That’s a pileated” – a big, red-crested woodpecker.

The other fellow squints in that direction, shakes his head slightly, and replies, “T’aint.”

Nothing more is said for 15 minutes, as the codgers rock on, back and forth, back and forth.

Finally the first old guy struggles to his feet, stretches, and starts down the stairs.

“Well, got to be goin’,” he says.

“Can’t stand an argument.”

Distinguished Company
Daniel Webster
Many observers believe that Daniel Webster’s oration in a debate over tariffs in 1830 was the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress. Maybe his stern New England stare helped, too

New England has been called “the conscience of America” because of its history of great orators (Daniel Webster), emancipationists (Frederick Douglass), and statesmen (father and son presidents named Adams). But it is a region full of complexities and contrasts. Massachusetts thinks of itself as the place where America began, but its Plymouth Colony was founded long after St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia. Rhode Island is steeped in tolerance, its founder, Roger Williams, having been banished by doctrinaire Massachusetts Puritans in 1636 for flouting their religious orthodoxy. Yet Rhode Island investors financed the Triangle slave trade (more on that in Wild Words at the end of this blog). New England’s long, snowy winters and gray, muddy springtimes may cast a pall over its people – making the reticent even more dour – but no other region on earth can match the fire of its fall hillsides.

New England
Beautiful scenes such as this get old after four or five months of New England winter

Much of New England is still pastoral. A few of its cities harbor some of the nation’s most dreadful slums, yet its scenic valleys and small towns come as close as anyplace else to being “America as it used to be.” It is the home of that Puritan strictness and the vigorous Protestant work ethic, but also Irish and Portuguese and French Canadian joie de vivre. Indeed, there are 600,000 or so more New Englanders of Irish than British descent, so it’s hard to figure where the fabled stoicism comes from. Hard, that is, until a rain-sotted Nor’easter comes howling southward out of Atlantic Canada, or an ice storm from the other direction sweeps over you. Shivering under your slicker, you wouldn’t feel much like talking, either.

Why bother, anyway, if you believe the late American journalist and author John Gunther. He once wrote that New Englanders just “love to be agin’ things.” Agin’ as in “against.”

Quaint and Quirky

But heritage tourists, in particular, go to New England anyway, seeking what’s lacking at home: genuine and abundant history, quirky local color, and plain dress, architecture, and speech. Ask a New Englander if he’s lived there all his life, and he’s likely to answer . . . . “Nope. Not yet.”

Although the region is condensed, it’s a chore to explore. Its cities were built for walking and carriage rides, not the modern automobile. Alien labyrinths in a cornfield are more drivable. Almost all of northern New England’s superhighways, and most of the state roads, too, run north and south, connecting busy Boston with Canada. You can get up and down Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine with alacrity, but it can take forever to go from one of those states to the other.

Bustling Boston is New England’s hub, especially when it comes to sports. Its Red Sox (baseball), Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have regionwide support. And football’s New England Patriots play just outside of town

Resentment by rural and small-town people of the resources lavished on big cities is endemic nationwide, but it’s especially strong in New England. In Massachusetts, for instance, you still hear occasional, fanciful murmurs of another Shays’ Rebellion. In 1787, a former Revolutionary War officer, Daniel Shays, led an assault on the federal arsenal at Springfield in an uprising against high taxes and declining farm prices. His outcry was directed against state courts and tax collectors; today, the dissatisfaction is with Boston, which, it is asserted, has drained an unfair proportion of the state’s money, water, and brainpower. And who can argue with that last point, since there are something like 67 different colleges in the metro Boston area?

Red Sox Nation
Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth, perhaps baseball’s greatest player ever, began his career as a pitcher for the Red Sox. But in a trade that will live in New England infamy, the team’s owner sold him to the accursed Yankees, where he became a legend as a home-run hitter

But anti-Boston sentiments stop when it comes to sports, where passion for “Beantown’s” teams runs as deep as the region’s stubborn streak. The baseball Red Sox, or “Sawks,” as they’re called regionally, have a cultlike following from Connecticut’s capital, Hartford, all the way into Canada’s maritime provinces. I single out Hartford because there are a few misguided New York Yankee fans southwest of there, along the New York border. They must endure the same evil eye that Puritan preachers cast upon the men and women who were branded as “witches” in late 17th-Century Massachusetts and subsequently hanged. And one man was crushed with large stones. Ask a Sawks fanatic, and he – or she – will tell you such treatment is too merciful for a Yankee fan.

Once again so you’re clear: Yankees in New England and Yankee fans in New England are not one in the same.

This statue of a Revolutionary War “minuteman” patriot stands at the center of Battle Green Square in Lexington, Massachusetts. A minuteman was a militia member who would join the fight at a moment’s notice

Yet, ironically, New Englanders themselves are often called “Yankees.” The name came to be associated with hardworking, resourceful people who were stingy with their money. Their ingenuity in the face of hardship came to be called “Yankee ingenuity.” These northeasterners had to be clever, because it was tough to wring a living out of the stony terrain or the sea. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, the British general James Wolfe mocked native New Englanders, even the loyalists in his army, as “Yankee rabble.” But the rabble were roused. They co-opted the term and applied it to a favorite Revolutionary War song: “Yankee Doodle.”

(A brief aside here: In the song, Yankee Doodle goes to town, riding on a pony. Then, of all things, he sticks a feather in his hat “and calls it macaroni.”


We know that a lot of Italians arrived in Boston a century later, cooking pasta, but there weren’t many around in the 18th Century. Turns out that back then, “macaroni” was a word for fancy Italian clothes. By sticking a feather in his cap, our Yankee Doodle fellow was making a fashion statement.)

One day, and for more than 40 years, a fife version of “Yankee Doodle” would be the Voice of America’s theme song.

Smokestack Cities
Here’s a big mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that thrived for a time before closing

Industrialization in mills along the falls of the region’s plentiful rivers, and immigration – those Irish, along with thousands of East Europeans who came to work there and in cities – drastically changed Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in particular. The former became one of America’s most urbanized places. Almost half of Massachusetts’ citizens live in the Boston area. Lowell and Lawrence became teeming cities of bells:

This is the bell tower on the Boott Cotton Mill No. 6 in Lowell. The looms are quiet below, but the National Park Service has turned the mill into a monument to the Industrial Revolution

not church bells, but those in the belfries of giant mill complexes, which pealed from 4:30 a.m. until evening to signal shift changes and mealtimes. Thousands of people, including young women called “Lowell girls,” aged 14 to 30, left the farms for the mills’ appealing $3.25-a-week wage. But Lowell and Lawrence and other mill towns deteriorated precipitously after World War II as mill owners succumbed to the blandishments of southern promoters who dangled nonunion labor, inexpensive land, ice-free rivers, and tax incentives.

So by 1980, Massachusetts – and other New England places built on the four post-colonial pillars of textiles, paper, boots and shoes, and fishing – were in dire straits.

But along came the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the mid-1980s, when a sudden and simultaneous explosion of the computer and high-tech defense industries and Wall Street-type financial services ignited a boom that drove up employment and tax revenues. Housing prices doubled in many locations.

Then, just as fast in 1988, came a bust. Desktop and personal computers, developed on the West Coast, rendered New England-made mini-computers almost instantly obsolete; the Defense Department began closing bases; and dozens of banks, including the fanatically expanding Bank of New England, simply collapsed.

History and Ecology
Rose Island Lighthouse
Rose Island Lighthouse, off Newport, Rhode Island, is more properly called a light station, since it had a keeper (and family). Visitors can now stay in the keeper’s old bedroom

Since then, the region has crawled back to life on the shoulders of tourism, biotechnology, higher education, and health services. New England leads the nation in “environmental tourism.” Guests at the Rose Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, for instance, get quite an ecology lesson. The light station is now a museum and travelers’ hostel where electricity use is strictly monitored, showers are short and chilly, and every guest joins in the daily composting and beach clean-up. “It’s a mind-altering experience without the drugs,” the lighthouse foundation’s executive director told Carol and me when we visited.

Block Island
Block Island, Rhode Island, is a time warp to slower, frillier days

And there’s another Rhode Island island worth noting, if you’ll forgive all those “islands” back to back. (Ironically, Rhode Island itself is not one. It’s a weensy wedge of a state stuck between Connecticut and Massachusetts.) On Block Island, about 25 kilometers out into the Atlantic Ocean, visitors can step back into the Victorian Age at hotels that date to the 1880s, wander marshlands, stroll past freshwater ponds, and soak up history that recalls the days of pirates and smugglers as far back as our Revolutionary War. The Nature Conservancy has designated Block Island “one of the last great places in the Western Hemisphere.” And as one whose house is Victorian in décor, and who sometimes pines for the civilized pace of that era, I’d have to agree.

In the fall, New England bed-and-breakfast inns are crammed with “leaf peepers,” come to see the autumn glory

Massachusetts can hardly fend off the tourists who come to see its Revolutionary War landmarks; the sandy shores of the Cape Cod peninsula and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard islands; quaint homes and villages along the Mohawk Trail; and an entire Black Heritage Trail in Boston.

Rhode Island – “Little Rhody” – is smaller than many American cities. Since it was such a haven for people of religions who felt persecuted elsewhere, Italians, Portuguese, French Huguenots, southern blacks, and Jews of many nations settled the tiny colony. The young nation’s most industrialized state early on, it became predominantly ethnic, Catholic, and Democratic in composition.

In the Manner Born
Cornelius Vanderbilt's dining room
This is the sumptuous dining room of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s summer-home dining room in Newport. It was patterned after the Salon of Hercules at Versailles in France

In the 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Rich Boy, a character remarks that “the rich are different from you and me.” Yes, observed novelist Ernest Hemingway years later. “They have more money.” And a good place to see what money can buy is the genteel Rhode Island city of Newport, which boasts one of the greatest concentrations of magnificent homes in the world. In the 1880s and ’90s, wealthy industrialists from New York and Boston and Philadelphia began building “summer cottages” there. Cottages, as in ornate and gargantuan mansions. Most famous of all was The Breakers, built in the style of an Italian palace by Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Newport, but not the rest of Little Rhody, endured New England’s industrial booms and busts quite well. (I doubt that’s true in today’s economic downturn, where much of the evaporated wealth emanated from paper deals rather than mills or fishing fleets or assembly lines.)

Land of Prosperity
The ornate, marble Connecticut capitol in Hartford, with its glittering gold-leaf dome, opened in 1879. It overlooks a 17-hectare park

Connecticut, which lies west of Rhode Island, south of Massachusetts, north of Long Island Sound, and east of New York State (remember those holdout New York Yankee fans), began as a string of tiny, independent Puritan colonies, including New Haven and New London. But its most entrenched settlers were squatters who had no legitimate business moving into the Connecticut River Valley. In 1639, they brazenly wrote a document called the “Fundamental Orders” setting up a government. It can be viewed as the oldest autonomous, self-governed entity in the world. That’s why many Connecticut license plates bear the motto “The Constitution State,” referring to those orders, not the nation’s founding document penned a couple of colonies to the south in Philadelphia.

Connecticut River Valley
The narrow Connecticut River Valley forms one of the state’s few richly fertile areas

After the Revolution, Connecticut kept its colonial charter, simply crossing out the name of the king. Because it had no deepwater ports or large cities until well into the 19th Century, it developed America’s first large-scale mercantile elite. In other words, a middle class. The wealthy who could not quite afford a Newport cottage built lovely estates along the sound or Connecticut River, leaving the rest of the stony state to the same sort of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization dramatics that beset its neighbors.

In many ways Connecticut has been an American microcosm. The first great Indian wars were fought there. It was in Bridgeport that the nation’s first sewing machine and gramophones were produced, and P.T. Barnum organized his “Greatest Show on Earth” circus and sideshow there during its heyday. Our first agricultural frontier, stretching westward as far as Ohio, was part of Connecticut’s “western reserve.” (My hometown of Cleveland sprouted on land owned by the Connecticut Land Co.) Connecticut never latched onto a memorable symbol like the patriotic “Minuteman” of Massachusetts or the lobster of Maine. But it has become a day-trippers’ paradise, full of quaint inns, out-of-the-way museums, symphony orchestras in six of its cities, and plenty of boating opportunities on Long Island Sound.

This enchanting photograph of the Stonington, Connecticut, Harbor was snapped in 1940

Not typical, though, are Connecticut’s wealth and high education levels. The “Nutmeg State” – I’ll explain the nickname in a moment – is routinely at or near the top in both, and in the price of the average home as well. That’s because many of the denizens of New York City and Boston’s executive suites live and play their polo there.

Connecticut got its nutmeg soubriquet not necessarily because of the nutmeg spice, a precious cargo the state’s sailors used to bring home from trade journeys to Asia. Connecticut Yankees have an especially shrewd reputation in business – so shrewd that it was said they could sell wooden — meaning phony — nutmegs to strangers.

There is no such a place as MassConn Island. But the three southern New England states do have a denser, more ethnically diverse, faster-paced character than the three charming, rural states to the north. I’ll give you their story, and my impressions, when we visit “New VerMaine” next time.

None for All

Given the proximity of each of New England’s six states to the others, it’s surprising that the place has so few regional organizations, save in esoteric fields like fly fishing and quilting. Idealists keep pressing for concerted promotion of the Northeast’s wonders, and for economic partnerships in search of new business, no matter which New England state gets the prize. Instead, each state tends to tell its own historic story, extol its own charms, and lay out its own case why it, above the others, offers the most authentic New England experience.

New England isn’t paradise, but it has its allurements, including sunsets like this one over Nantucket Island

“We aren’t Brigadoon [a lost and enchanted Scottish village],” Yankee magazine managing editor Tim Clark told me many years ago. “And we’re not Disneyland, either, although occasionally one worries that we fight so hard to preserve what New England is all about that there’s a danger of its becoming a kind of artificial, under-a-glass-jar exhibit.”

A Chill in the Air

Changing gears: Last time, I told you that President Barack Obama was quite a “city fella.” This week he showed that he’s a hardy one, too.

These are forms of snowflakes, the most dreaded sight in Washington, D.C.

“My children’s school was canceled today,” the president said on Wednesday. “Because of what? Some ice? . . . We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town.” Meantime, at his daughters’ former school in Chicago, the headmaster reported, “I’ve been here six years, and we haven’t closed [schools] yet.”

The weather forecast for Chicago on Friday, the day this is posted: High -8° Celsius. Low -10°. No snow, but just wait! So far, it has been the 10th-snowiest winter on record there. Cold warriors in Chicago. Wimps in Washington.

Which County ’Tis of Thee?
Marian Anderson
Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini said Marian Anderson had a voice heard “once in a hundred years”

If you happened to hear this year’s inaugural concert on the National Mall, and also to catch the swearing-in of President Obama the following day, you heard three different renditions of the patriotic song, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” One was just a snippet, seen on giant screens along the Mall, by acclaimed contralto Marian Anderson, from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson, who was black, was scheduled to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the auditorium, refused to allow her to perform before a racially mixed audience. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing on Easter Sunday on the Mall. She did so, spellbindingly, before an estimated 75,000 people.

This year, young performers Josh Grobin and Heather Headley sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the inaugural concert. Then Aretha Franklin, who’s known as “The Queen of Soul,” sang the tune – whose actual title is “America” but is better known by its first line – just before Obama took the oath of office.

Listening to all three performances, I realized that many, many Americans – myself included from time to time – forget (or do not know) that the musical score of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” is that of the longer-standing, and more famous, national anthem of Britain: “God Save the King.” (Or “Queen,” depending upon who’s on the throne.) I was curious how that song morphed into one about our “sweet land of liberty” across the pond, since that liberty was won at the hands of His Majesty’s government in London.

In 1832, Samuel Francis Smith was a theological student in Massachusetts when a friend asked him to write lyrics to some music the friend had found in a German school songbook. Though Smith could not read German, he could tell that it was some sort of stirring, patriotic tune. Even though “God Save the King” had already been adapted to other “God-saving” purposes in the young United States – “God Save the President,” for instance – Smith apparently never made the connection to the British anthem.

Samuel Francis Smith
Samuel Francis Smith was cheered everywhere he went for writing the words to “America.” Trading even stopped on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange when he visited so that traders could give him a standing ovation

“I instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune,” he later explained. “Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn ‘America’ as it is now known every­where. The whole hymn stands to­day as it stood on the bit of waste paper.” Little did he know when he wrote of the “land where my fathers died” that many of them died in rebellion against the nation whose music would accompany his words. (Click on this link to read the lyrics, and hear the tune, of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”)

Later in 1832, the new song was first performed at an Independence Day rally – no doubt doubling the indignity for the Brits, since it was they from whom our independence was won.

It would be 99 more years before the United States got our own official anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the meantime, “My Country ’Tis of Thee” served as the informal anthem on many occasions.

As beautiful and popular as it is, and as inspiring as are Smith’s lyrics, his song never stood a chance of becoming the official anthem. Can you imagine the band striking up “God Save the Queen,” followed by “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at a big British- American sporting event?


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Alacrity. Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.

Codgers and Geezers. Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.

Dour. Brooding or glum. One with a dour disposition isn’t enjoying life at the moment. By the way, the word is pronounced “DOO-er,” not “DOW-er,” for reasons that escape me.

Endemic. Present at all times in a country or people. Cheerfulness, for instance, seems to be endemic in the Caribbean Islands. The word also has a medical meaning, referring to the incidence of disease in a population.

Gargantuan. Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: “Godzilla Meets Gargantua.”

Hardscrabble. This word almost defines itself. It’s an adjective referring to a place that’s difficult to work or make money from. And thus, those stuck there have a hardscrabble existence as well.

Soubriquet. A familiar, rather than formal, name, often applied to a person. Thus, parents will call their son James “Jim,” and Jim often becomes “Jimmy.” It’s pronounced SOO’-bri-kay, after the French.

Snippet. A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.

Triangle Trade. Trade among three distant regions, notably this ungodly exchange of slaves from the late 17th to early 19th centuries: Caribbean merchants would ship sugar, tobacco, and cotton to mills in New England or Europe. Those owners would ship rum, manufactured goods, and textiles to Africa. And “slavers” would send captured tribesmen as human cargo to the New World.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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