Thursday, January 26, 2012

New Hampshire in 1762

Here is a sneak peak at Chapter Two of Pyte:

In 1762, Patterson, New Hampshire, consisted of some ten houses clustered around a common pasture. The school hadn’t been built yet, and even the meetinghouse was nothing but a few sketches and a dream. Old Lady Abbot did have a store of sorts: her son made the trip to Boston every month, and she sold the goods from her house. It was one of the nicer houses, with a summer kitchen and a birthing room, and it was in the birthing room that she stored the goods until they were sold, both because it was warm there and some of the goods could be damaged by freezing, and because neither she nor her sons were likely to have a baby anytime soon.

The worst house in Patterson was definitely James Davenport’s, and it was also the oldest. It was a simple affair made of logs, with a thatched roof, no windows and a dirt floor. A stone chimney had been built to replace the original mud one, and now the chimney was the only sound part of the structure.

James’ grandfather had built the house with nothing but his two hands and an axe, in two weeks one fall on a settlement grant. He’d chosen a great spot on the river where boats could land safely, and when the house was finished he’d built a dock there. Nowadays the dock was rebuilt every year by the Abbots, because they needed it for business.

The house wasn’t as cold as one might think in the winters, since James and his wife Sarah had eight surviving children and the cabin was only about ten feet by twelve. But James worried every time the wind blew.

The problem wasn’t that he and his sons couldn’t build a new house. It was that there were houses on every side, and the old house was smack in the middle of its yard. There just wasn’t enough space left on any side to build a decent house--not and have room for a kitchen garden, and Sarah insisted that she couldn’t cook properly without a kitchen garden. They could knock the old one down first, and then start building after they’d cleared it away, but James didn’t like the idea of the little ones being without shelter during the building. This house was going to be a proper one that an Englishman could be proud of, and a house like that took a lot more than two weeks to build.

There were plenty of trees to cut down for lumber. He’d have to take them to the sawmill in Pennacook, of course: you had to have beams and posts and planks and boards for a proper house.

What he needed was a new piece of land. The old house was in a prime location; any of his neighbors would jump at the chance to take it in trade for any nice lot on the edge of the village.

So James Davenport rose early on a June morning in 1762. He dressed in deerskin breeches and moccasins, strapped on his knife, his musket and his powder pouch, grabbed his satchel and filled it with smoked venison, bread, cheese and wild strawberries. Then he kissed Sarah and the babies and went quietly out the door. He always kissed the babies: you never knew how long they’d be with you.

He headed into the forest on the north side of the village, the river to his right. Southward there was no soil for growing things, just gray granite ledge with a little grass and lichen on it. In a few spots there was enough soil for a blueberry bush to take hold, and the berrying was good there. But it was no place for a house. And westward was the bog.

Sarah would have preferred to build a wigwam instead of a house, and he had to admit that a wigwam would have been much more practical - warmer in the winter and less buggy in the summer, and easier to build, with no lumber to mill, no expensive imported hardware to buy. But luckily it was out of the question and he could have his beautiful English house. Then he could show off to Mr. Steade and his rich Boston friends that he, too, had a fine home. Or at least his children could show it off to Mr. Steade’s grandchildren; it might take a while to build.

The reason building a wigwam was completely out of the question, besides the fact that it wouldn’t win him any goodwill from Mr. Steade, was that it was now illegal - not just technically illegal, but very definitely, totally and impossibly illegal. The law had officially been passed some time ago, decreeing that the wigwams in the Colony settlements were to be demolished, and word of it had gotten to Patterson eventually. Of course most of the villagers pretended they hadn’t heard until an official messenger came from the royal Governor’s office, and then nobody could deny knowing anymore. Yet still those who lived in wigwams continued living in wigwams. They had already built their frame houses, as prescribed by a previous law, but that law just said that everybody had to have frame houses; it didn’t say they had to live in them. This time, with this law, the wigwams were banished altogether, and any still in existence were to be destroyed. But there were plenty of people who hadn’t gotten around to destroying then when a band of redcoats came and got rid of the wigwams for them. They threatened to burn the whole village, too, but James and Mrs. Abbot and Parson Merrick managed to calm them down and, by recruiting enough villagers to help pull the wigwams apart, they prevented any torching.

Sarah Davenport was a Pennacook, like James’ mother and most of the rest of the colonists’ wives. The Pennacook were an Abenaki people, and they took their name from the spot, south of Patterson on the Merrimack River, where there were a lumber mill and a village and, more importantly, waterfalls and sand banks.

But James owed a lot to Abijah Steade. The Steades had been, for three generations now, the patrons of Patterson in general, and of the Davenports in particular. They'd provided the capital to start the town and grow it, and bound themselves with the duty to send up “meate and sundrie provisions” if ever a disaster threatened to wipe out the entire village. In turn they received a tribute of furs and maple candy and birch beer, a monopoly on the sale of molasses and rum, and the right to name the Town. Or, more accurately, Abijah Steade’s father Elias had named the Town, and he had named it for his mother, Dorcas Millisante Patterson.

Abijah Steade, like any true gentleman, had time for leisure, and his favorite leisure pursuit was the astounding field of natural philosophy. Once when James had paid a visit to his patron at the grand house in Boston, Mr. Steade had proudly shown him a crude-looking homemade box hiding under a skirted table in a corner of his office. James had reached out immediately to open the box, but as soon as he'd touched it, he had jumped back with a yell. The box had bitten him. Well, not bitten exactly. It was really indescribable, what the box had done, but whatever it was, it was sudden and painful and thrilling and loud. It stopped your lungs from breathing and even your heart from beating, but only for an instant and then it left you alone, euphoric and quivering.

“What is it?” James had asked, when he could find the words to speak again.

“Electricity,” came the answer. “The box is lined with certain metals of high purity, and contains strong vinegar. The result makes a very nice parlor trick, don’t you agree?”

Abijah Steade and the legendary Abenaki Chief Passaconaway may have come from two different worlds, yet both performed wonders that seemed impossible. Some said that Satan’s power was behind these wonders, but James didn’t think so. How could such good things come from evil? Didn’t the Bible say that good fruit could only come from good trees? Mr. Steade was fond of saying that creation held many secrets, and marvelous works could be accomplished by any student determined to learn them. And that made sense. James’ own grandfather and everyone else from his boat would have died of starvation and exposure if the Indians hadn’t shown them the secrets of creation they needed to survive in these parts.

Speaking of surviving, it was a special dispensation of Providence that Patterson wasn’t on the Merrimack, because these days the French had been sweeping down the Champlain Valley and trekking across the territory of the Western Abenaki to raid villages all along the Merrimack and carry away captives to New France. The ransom for just one captive was beyond the means of ordinary people, even if they could have paid in goods. But the French insisted on coin. If the raiders ever did come up the Blackwater, James had firmly decided already, he would give his life in Patterson’s defense. If any of his family were taken, then without the means to get them back, his life would be meaningless anyway.

With an act of will, James turned his attention to happier subjects. He thought of his grandmother and his mother, who had taught him how to hunt, how to catch and preserve fish and how to build a wigwam. (The Davenports themselves didn’t have a wigwam, but they did help their neighbors build them.) They taught him the importance of washing sick people, although his grandfather used to laugh and quote his own grandmother, back in England: “With washing comes the malady. The Lord has ordained a protection about the body, and by washing the protection is removed.”

In the bigger river valleys, where there were ancient flood plains, they grew a lot of corn, and as a child James had gone with his mother to help his cousins plant the corn and to help them harvest it, and so he had learned that, too. Patterson bought a lot of corn from the corn-growing towns, mostly from Pennacook where vast fields of it grew in the flatness of the Merrimack plain, but they didn’t buy it with currency. Currency was a rare thing in the Colonies, and whether it was pounds or galleons or francs didn’t make much difference; it was Crown policy that coinage belonged at home and the Americans should be content with goods. So the people of Patterson set traps, and traded furs for the corn, and the furs doubtless continued down the Merrimack to the sea and ended up warming the soft white necks of fashionable ladies in England.

And of course in the spring everyone went to Sewalls Falls for the fish run, and the fish were so thick in the falls that all you had to do to catch them was to put a bucket in the water and pull it out. Everything teamed with life at the fish runs, with the water so full of fish and the land so full of people. You got to see all your cousins again, you caught up with friends you hadn’t seen since the last run and made new ones, you made business deals and marriage deals. He’d met his own Sarah there.

And then there were the swallows carved in the rocks. Pennacook, which in Abenaki meant Place of Falling Sands, was named for the place where the swallows lived. The sand bank swallows were the symbol of the Pennacook people, the symbol of the renewal of life in the spring, of the annual banishment of the death that came so easily in the leanness of March and April. Because in May, when the moon was right, the fish would run and the yearly famine would be over. And when the fish ran, the swallows were active in the sand banks; the swallows always announced the running of the fish.

James spent a fruitless morning tramping through the woods, looking at the land. He just didn’t like the lay of any of it. Maybe he should have crossed the river and looked to the east. Or maybe he was being too picky. He shrugged and trudged northward.

Finally, he found it. It was the perfect spot, great terrain for a house and barn, a garden and hay fields and pasture land. The view from where the front porch would be was simply gorgeous.

But what was he thinking? He was several miles from the village by now, and besides, the river here was impossible. He would need to bring the lumber up by boat from Pennacook and no boat would stand a chance in this mess of rocks and foam and roaring torrents. Maybe he’d just have to have it delivered at the village dock and drag it up here by oxen.

The good thing about all these stones was that at least he could probably cross the river now. He turned for one last glance at his house site, saying goodbye, then stepped out onto a rock at the edge of the river and took a careful, calculated leap onto its neighbor.

He didn’t leap again immediately. For a long moment he stood staring down at the rushing water, imagining the lumber boat and how it would fare if it happened to be there. No matter that it couldn’t be there, that there was no way to fit such a large object into the narrow chasm he had just crossed. The pure power of the water scared him, fascinated him, held him entranced.

And that’s when he realized. This really was the perfect spot, and the rapids here were part of the perfection. Pennacook and its mill were far away, and Patterson was growing. James and his sons would build a sawmill here.

He smiled and jumped back to shore and walked home. He arranged with the Abbots for some illegal shovels (all-metal ones, not just metal-clad, made by a man named Mr. Ames who dared defy the law that such products were to be made only in England) and diverted some of that rushing water into a mill race. He bought a minimum of lumber from the Pennacook mill just to get started, and milled the rest himself, along with his sons and a hired man, built the house and the barn and finished the mill.

Over time, a village grew up around James Davenport’s mill, and the people called it Patterson Mills. And now, more than two centuries later, Dean Davenport Massilon lived in Patterson Mills with his wife and daughter and three grandsons, in a big white house with five bedrooms and a summer kitchen, next door to the Heikls who lived in the house that went with the sawmill.

In 2005, Fred Strage and his wife bought a piece of property two miles down a dirt road and four miles by road from Patterson Center, and built a rustic house there.

It was a timber frame house, built largely from local materials, including as much as possible the very trees that had been cut down to make room for it. Fred didn’t finalize the design until he’d looked at the trees, and the living room especially was a masterpiece of posts and beams as continuous wholes, trunks and branches left as they’d grown with only the bark removed.

The house was very small, little more than a cabin, with a composting toilet and a high-efficiency wood stove with an afterburner for the smoke and a heat-powered fan to circulate the heat. It was very bright inside, and the electric lights were cleverly placed and well-reflected, and the hot-water supply ran in coils of copper pipe around the stovepipe, all to keep the electric usage to a minimum.

Downstairs were a sitting room and a bathroom, a bedroom and of course the kitchen. Besides the wood stove in the kitchen there was a gas range for summer use, converted for propane, and besides the standard faucets there was a hand pump at the sink. The hand pump drew a lot of comments and even some criticism, but to Fred and his wife it was important. It was one of the things that had really brought them together, in fact: the odd coincidence that they both wanted hand pumps in their kitchens.

Upstairs, under a sloping roof, was a pair of water tanks, one for hot and one for cold, and another hand pump over the cold one in case of power outage, and a loft with four built-in beds with drawers underneath and two little windows, one in each end, in the gables.

The only flaw, perhaps, was in the insulation. Only after the fact did Fred begin to learn about thermal bridging and the possibility, not only theoretical but brought to reality in actual houses, of insulating so well that even in the cold climate of Canada a house can stay warm with nothing but the incidental heat put off by the warmth of bodies and appliance motors. But as it was, the house needed quite a bit of heating, and with only the wood stove that made it hard to go anywhere for very long in the winter.

The house project, overall, was a huge success and Fred went on to design three more, each better at preserving heat than the last. The marriage, though, did not succeed, and in 2010 they were divorced. As usual the wife got the house, but in this case Fred didn’t mind. He was already working on a design for another one, and for this one he wouldn’t have to compromise with anyone.

The wife, of course, was a red-headed freelance translator by the name of Jade Massilon.

1 comment:

  1. The wife always gets the house.

    Women! -- if ya don't watch out, they'll be expectin' it ta be WARM inside in the winter too! Then they'll be askin' fer a chimbley -- IN THE HOUSE!!