|Title||Life In the Countryside: A Drama in Three Acts|
|Author||John E. Worrell|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Visitor Article|
Transplanting the Bixby Family from Barre Four Corners into OSV's Mill Neighborhood
Work continues this Summer and Fall on the restoration of the Bixby House and the preparation of the landscape to add a new dimension to our interpretation of family life when the exhibit opens in the Spring of 1988. Far from being "just another residence," the vernacular structure itself and its history in its original agricultural/crafts neighborhood, as we have been able to discover it, allow us to present a way of life appropriate to the Mill Neighborhood. In complement with the Freeman Farm, therefore, the house, barn and lot of this rural blacksmith's family will exhibit how living in the countryside differed from the Center Village.
The early 19th century was a time of ferment and change but the acceptance of new styles, technologies, products and modes of thought did not sweep evenly across the rural landscape. The implications of the transformation which we, in retrospect, lump together under such potent labels as the "industrial revolution" or the "conversion to market production" actually seeped into individual communities and households quite irregularly over a long period of time. OSV researchers have been studying rural change on a case-by-case and locality-by-locality basis, however, and have come up with some interesting patterns that the Bixby House will enable us to interpret more fully.
The distinctions between living in the center and in the scattered agricultural and mill neighborhoods provide a set of patterns that may be readily observed and interpreted. Again, even this distinction is not pat. Exceptions are the rule when we begin to try to fit any particular neighborhood, family or site into these otherwise helpful classifications. Nevertheless, it is clear that the closeness of residences, the immediate presence of the parson, the meetinghouse and of heightened social interaction combined to shape center village life in ways that only secondarily influenced remote rural families. Our Bixby exhibit in the Mill
Artist's rendering of the new Bixby homelot when the project is completed. The house is scheduled for opening in the Spring of 1988, fences and the garden will be laid out and constructed at the same time. However, the barn will be built after the house exhibit has opened.
Neighborhood will present a slice of time in the life of a family having one foot in more traditional lifeways and the other stepping out into more "modern" styles of living.
The siting of the Bixby house and lot across the road from the blacksmith shop also makes visible statements about historic patterns that have not been evident in the museum. This physical situation approximates the original one in Barre, where Emerson Bixby purchased a tiny parcel of land across the Petersham-Hubbardston Road from his house. The foundations of the rural smithy that he constructed on that lot have been the object of our recent archaeological investigations, greatly increasing our understanding of the technical details of that craft. Once the Bixby exhibit is opened we will be able to demonstrate the world of the rural craftsman and his family in one appropriate setting. The house, barn, garden, fields and shop of such a family were all one unit so far as the economic life and regular routines of a farmer-craftsman and his family were concerned. A family living in the area will convey the 19th-century Mill Neighborhood more accurately.
This phenomenon is important but it is not easily conveyed to the modern mind. Small clusters of agricultural industries grew up around water courses at thousands of points throughout rural New England during the decades preceding larger scale industrialization. Most of the towns of upland central New England were first
Fig. I. The house was constructed about 1807 and the site probably looked much like this until 1813.
settled in the 18th century following a similar pattern of settlement and growth. Initially, a handful of families, usually from a single locality nearer the seacoast or in the Connecticut River Valley, would move into a new inland area over a relatively brief time span. They would settle into farms in a dispersed neighborhood pattern that has been characterized by geographers as having no single residence within hailing distance of more than one or two others. Often a sawmill would be among the first cultural features to appear on the landscape. That is not surprising, considering that the first necessities included clearing land and building houses and barns. The trees that were cleared had to be converted into the boards and timbers for the structures, and a water-powered sawmill expedited that process tremendously. The sawyer was frequently a farmer living near an adaptable water course. His special contribution to the mix of agriculturally related crafts which were nece
One of the most costly aspects of developing such a mill site, in both capital and labor, was the preparation of the hydrological system. Often, thousands of tons of stone and earth had to be moved to prepare the dams, ponds, raceways and millyards for even a small country sawmill. And roadways needed to be constructed leading in and out of the site, which was otherwise often remote. Once those features were in place, the site was attractive for gristmills or trip hammers that might utilize the same water privilege. Blacksmiths, woodworkers and stone masons could take advantage of those trafficways, and their services were needed regularly by both the millers and the farmers who came to the mills. So, within a generation or two of settlement, small clusters of agricultural millers and craftsmen commonly dotted the landscape of New England towns, living and farming land adjacent to their shops and mills. The growth of such mill neighborhoods was paralleled
The countryside residents, however, were usually affected more slowly and less regularly by both the social and material changes in the general culture than urban residents or even those in the center villages. They were not completely shut off from those forces of
The letters "NH" inscribed on several boards and one timber in unexposed locations of the first part of the house probably identify Nathan Hemenway as its builder. Only "RH" was found on the first addition, indicating that Nathan's brother Rufus made that improvement.
change, to be sure; but they were not daily reminded of how the Townes had painted or wallpapered. Nor were they constrained by the neighborhood gaze of the parson or the social elite to the degree that those in the Center would be. The people on the scattered farms and in the tiny mill neighborhoods participated at a social distance from the center of change that paralleled the spatial distance.
The remote neighborhood called Four Corners in Barre, Massachusetts, was just that sort of rural community when the newly married Bixbys set up housekeeping there in 1823 and Emerson began blacksmithing. His account books demonstrate an elaborate web of interchange with neighboring farmers, millers, craftsmen and households. Our archaeological, architectural and documentary researches of the Bixby houselot and shop, the neighborhood and the surrounding context have provided us with an abundance of material with which to develop the new exhibit. We shall interpret the life of this rural family at a period in which the cultural and economic forces at work in their surroundings and in their own family combined to precipitate a response in the countryside.
Seeing the Sites: Extensive archaeological excavation at the Bixby site has revealed the major activities which shaped the landscape and left telltale clues regarding the inhabitants. As the house was being partially dismantled in preparation for the move to the Village, we noted all clues regarding its construction and changes — interior and exterior — in a system modelled after elaborate archaeological field recording. Merging these two sources of information and fitting in clues from a variety of documents, a drama of change in three acts emerged. They tell a tale which is more than mere physical alteration of structures and yards. The material evidences provide a graphic demonstration of what was transpiring in the lives of actual people, supplementing theory with biography.
The lot was first developed (Figure I) and the small, squarish house built by a son of the Hemenway family who initially settled that area. The Hemenways were house builders, and the initials "NH" inscribed in secreted places on several timbers suggest that Nathan Hemenway was the builder.
Archaeology reveals that the initial configuration was a tight complex. Paths led from the rear door of the kitchen to an enclosed well, barn and shed. A door facing the road led directly into the kitchen, but the formal entry, with a stone doorstep, led into the best room on the south side, away from the road. Ashes from the hearth, broken ceramics and other scattered refuse were confined to the area near the well and between the house and the barn. Archaeological traces of livestock in the dooryard testify to the tightly clustered — perhaps cluttered — living and working area. The house was unfinished, neither clapboarded outside nor plastered within at the initial stage. All evidences of activity during this phase were confined entirely to this restricted area.
The second phase of development at the site (Figure II) was highlighted by the addition of an unfinished ell to the house, enclosing the well and including a large shed. The entire exterior was clapboarded. This construction was likely undertaken by Nathan Hemenway's brother, Rufus, judging from an "RH" discovered etched into a board in the addition. The barn was moved back from the road, and a barnlot was fenced in immediately behind the house and barn. A stone drain was dug and installed to relieve an apparent flooding problem in the cellar. It ran to, and probably across, the road. The net effect of all this activity was to expand the frequently used space. However, as the plan illustrates, the domestic and agricultural activities are still tightly clustered in the center of the lot. Outlying areas were reserved for separate and specific functions. The larger end was plowed; the smaller ev
The young Bixby family grew with three daughters born during the next decade. There is little evidence from the archaeology or the architecture that the Bixbys made any changes in their close living and work patterns. It
Fig. II. The ell and woodshed were built in 1813 and connected to the house. The barn has been moved back. The fence at left marks the separation between the Bixby lot and Ethan Hemingway's carriage shop which Bixby purchased in 1841.
was, indeed, a small sphere of activity. The interior house arrangement remained unchanged. The best room, with its entrance on the south side, away from the road, probably served multiple functions: it had the only papered walls in the house, and they surrounded the parental bed, the family dining and dishwashing space, and the place of entertaining visitors. The kitchen and the small sitting room were primarily domestic work spaces. Evidences of disposal of household waste were found thrown outside the best room door and near the barn. Both of these areas are also in the direction of livestock quartering. Emerson's blacksmithing work was basically undertaken in his shop across the road and in Hemenway's vehicle shop immediately adjacent to the house. Both the material evidences throughout the site and the system of mutual transactions that the accounts record with neighbors indicate a very traditional economic and living style for the Bixbys during this period.
Dramatic changes in the material and social elements of the life of the
Fig. III. Between 1838 and 1845 two rooms were added to the Bixby House. The roofline was extended integrating the ell with the additions. The Bixbys probably used the former carriage shop as their barn.
Bixbys become evident, however, when we piece together all of the clues regarding the third phase (Figure III). The site arrangement and its activities become noticeably less constricted.
Ethan Hemenway, the carriagemaker, who had continued to employ Emerson Bixby's metalworking services, went bankrupt and moved away. The small end of the lot on which Hemenway's shop stood was eventually purchased by Bixby, who apparently converted the shop to a barn and then cultivated a garden near the site of the old barn. Early in the 1830s a parcel of land about a quarter mile up the road was acquired, probably for cultivation and pasture. Animals do not appear to have been kept near the house again after this reordering of the site. Trash and waste are disposed farther from the living space. One cache of broken ceramics and glass — the archaeologist's favorite treasure — was found thrown back under the house, well out of sight and far from underfoot. The doors that had once provided direct access to the two primary activity spaces of the house — the kitchen and the best
The ceramic fragments here drying while being processed by the archaeologists are part of a large cache recovered from beneath the ell of the house. They were deposited in that inconspicuous spot near the time that the site was undergoing a clearing and brightening that was also evident in the architecture and in changes in the use of space in the lot. They will be matched as closely as possible in the furnishing of the house exhibit.
room — were closed up and replaced by windows. All traffic now entered the primary living portions of the house indirectly, through the ell. Previously unplastered ceilings in the kitchen and sitting room were finished and closets were added, suggesting the intention of keeping clothing and other personal and functional items out of sight. Finished rooms were added, apparently for bedrooms. The parents now likely moved their bed out of the best room, and the daughters for the first time had a finished bedchamber. The new additions also created a more balanced symmetry to the house, bringing it closer in line with contemporary styles. This architectural improvement included the addition of more up-to-date fenestration and trim and the addition of new clapboards all around. The interior, which had previously been painted in various dark colors or left with unpainted sheathing, was uniformly brightened. A single light paint color was applied to all woodwork and light wall
Both the house and the site, therefore, were consciously expanded and uncluttered. The blacksmith shop may have been altered about this time as well, by adding wooden flooring.
It is probably not accidental that this awareness of and response to newer styles of living and patterns of material culture enter the world of the Bixbys just as the daughters are becoming adolescents and young adults. They were surely instrumental in introducing new ways and notions into their countryside residence. Archaeological and documentary clues to household industries such as weaving palm leaf hats and sewing uppers for Cheney Lewis, the shoemaker across the street, and the architectural evidence for the addition of a dairy or cheese room about this time all strongly suggest the important economic contribution of Laura Bixby and her daughters to the transition. At the same time Emerson's account book shows a sharp decline in his blacksmithing transactions with his neighbors that fits well with a documented decline throughout the school district, but it hardly squares with the costly expansion and upgrading of the house and site. However, one of
Beginning in the spring of 1988, the Bixbys will be found at home in our Mill Neighborhood. Our interpretive scenario will vibrate with evidences of the confrontation between tradition and innovation. It will depict the house and the site, as well as the residents of all ages, actively caught up in both the traditional life of the countryside and in making their initial responses to its transformation.
Our exhibit will draw on the exhaustive information about the Bixbys and their site in Four Corners. It will be tempered somewhat, as all exhibits must be, by its museum location and concerns for visitor access. It will be fleshed out for interpretation by further information about similar rural families and the culture in general. Agricultural practices and site appearance will be traditional drawing heavily on the data from the site in Barre but not attempting to make an exact reproduction. The house, however, is being restored faithfully to a point at the beginning of its major transformation by the Bixby family, incorporating as visibly as possible the diversity of details forth-coming from all branches of our research.
A privy in the garden and next to the pig lot, and the best room performing its multiple traditional roles may seem strange to modern visitors. But they will be among many features and activities which differ from those witnessed in the Center Village and which anchor the new exhibit in an evanescent traditional way of life.