Sunday, April 17, 2011

Virginia Watermen Families (Part 1)

Aerial Shot of Ditchley in Northumberland County, Virginia (


Along the 1100 miles of crooked coastline delineating the Northern Neck of Virginia is a small jag of land known as Ditchley, population 70.  The story of this small waterfront community encompasses both the evolution of one of the world’s most bountiful and beautiful estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay, and the evolution of an old American family. The generations of family members and inhabitants of the point have included Indians, colonial settlers, American Revolution officers, indentured and enslaved people, plantation families, Civil War commanders, farmers, and Chesapeake Bay watermen. 

Dividing Creek (
Driving down Ditchley Road on an afternoon in early March the air is filled with the sound of spring peepers. There must be thousands of the tiny chorus frogs opening their throats in an unabashed primordial symphony heralding the spring equinox. The pulsing tempo of the sound is echoed in the reddening tree tips of the hardwood forests along the road, gathering their life force into another concentrated annual burst of buds, blossoms, fruit, and leaves. Farther down the road the horizon opens up into fields filled with large flocks of Canada geese placidly feeding on the remains of the fall’s harvest.  Hawks and buzzards swoop watchfully above. Beyond the conifers and hardwoods edging the fields lies the broad bright blue of the Chesapeake with all of its hidden treasures.

 Driveway to Ditchley

The driveway to the old plantation curves away to the left beckoning the visitor through a generous yard and gradually revealing the great house that rises serenely up through the centuries. An enormous Magnolia grandiflora sprawls over the lawn with multiple petticoat branches swaying out from a massive trunk.  The magnolia is joined by a cotillion of historic trees including Black walnut, American holly, Osage-orange, and America sycamore. The majestic trees add grandeur to the grounds  rolling into acres of fields and forests. 

Magnolia Petticoat Limbs

Osage oranges (Doug Hornsby)

Ditchley flanked by Sycamore and Magnolia Trees
Besides the big house and the caretaker’s house to the side, there is a symmetrical pair of old smokehouses flanking the house like two faithful old guards.  The smokehouses are the only remaining plantation outbuildings dating back to the late eighteenth century and both structures have pyramidal roofs.

One of two old smokehouses

The house is constructed of handmade bricks that have mellowed with age and rests in a protective nest of old English boxwoods encircling the foundation.  The bushes emit a powerful, evocative scent I recognize from a lifetime of visiting old homes, it is the smell of history. This beautiful, idyllic corner of the world is where family, home, and nature intertwine for my dear friend, Virginia Lee Loudenslager Adams.  Recently, I ask Lee about her family memories.

“When I was a little girl in the Northern Neck, I had the most wonderful grandparents in the world. My grandmother was a school teacher and my grandfather was a waterman. In the late fifties and sixties, my three little sisters and I would take the bus from Warsaw down to Kilmarnock where they would be waiting for us.  They would whisk us right to the drugstore for sodas and milkshakes, and then home to Ditchley.  Every weekend through the summer my parents would come to pick us up and we would shriek, NO! NO! and beg and plead for just one more week, and then another week, and then another.  Our grandparents loved having us visit, and we never wanted to leave.”
Indeed, the family had not wanted to leave this beautiful piece of coastline for over three hundred years. Around 1650, Colonel Richard Lee of England sailed up the Virginia coast and cast his shrewd gaze over a parcel of land bounded by the Chesapeake Bay and two large tidal creeks. Lee purchased the land from the Wicomico Indians and called the area "Dividing Creek".  Since 1651, the house site and the surrounding acreage have been owned by members of the Lee and Ball families, and most recently a trust established by the Jesse Ball Dupont Foundation. 

RIchard Lee built a home between the two branches of Dividing Creek with a wide view of the Chesapeake Bay. He established a prosperous tobacco plantation which he left to his widow and three sons.  When the house burned seventy years later, his descendent Hancock Lee built a fine brick Colonial style home in 1759, just two hundred yards from the original house site. The plantation, now known as Ditchley, was named after an ancestral Lee estate in England.

The National Historic Register's description of Ditchley notes the architectural importance of the structure.  “Only a small number of houses of this quality were built in the Virginia colony and only a handful survive.  Nonetheless, they have come to symbolize the grace and elegance of high-style colonial Virginia design, and have had a profound impact on American taste, inspiring hundreds of twentieth-century imitations across the country.  As such, Ditchley and related works have become icons of our architectural heritage, a distinctly Virginia contribution.”

Portrait of Mary Ball

Descendants of Colonel Richard Lee include a Revolutionary War general, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert E. Lee, Chief Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, five other Confederate Generals, President of the United States Zachary Taylor, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, and Maryland Governor Thomas Sims Lee.  Lettice Lee, a direct descendent, married Colonel James Ball, a relative of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington. He purchased Ditchley in 1789.  Yet another descendent of Colonel Lee and the Balls of Ditchley is my friend Virginia Lee Loudenslager Adams, who cares not one whit about history or lineage, but loves her family and the landscape of her childhood.

Front door of Ditchley

“My mother, Elizabeth Eleanor Ball Loudenslager, was born in one of the upstairs bedrooms of Ditchley in 1927.  Her family lived there, but the house was owned by her cousin, Jesse Ball Dupont.  When I was a child my grandparents lived in a frame house within sight of the big house. My Aunt Edie lived out on the point, and we had other relatives who lived at Ditchley.  There were also several African American families who lived there who shared the name Ball.  The family cemetery has graves going back to 1694. There is a little baby grave in the cemetery with a little headstone.  We would always look at that little grave when we were children, it seemed so sad, and of course, there are several children’s graves in the family cemetery.”

Lee Family Cemetery

There is no trace of the homes or graves of the enslaved people that worked the property for generations.  Like the Indians before them, time has folded their labors, tears, triumphs, and struggles seamlessly back into the old earth, but the history of Ditchley and the Tidewater bears testimony to their existence, and their descendants have become some of the oldest surviving families of the Northern Neck.  Even Ditchley house has narrowly escaped from being destroyed by fire on at least one occasion.

“One night we were sitting at the dinner table at my grandparent’s house and there was a big thunderstorm.  We saw the lightening come down and hit Ditchley. BOOM! And then suddenly, there were flames leaping out.  The men got up and ran out of the house.  We weren’t allowed to go, but we watched everything through the windows.  They got the fire out and saved the house, but it was very exciting!”

Ditchley - West Facade

The old home was saved, a beautiful architectural relic of a time gone by. The great wealth generated by the original tobacco plantations dissipated with the generations.  Continuous tobacco cultivation exhausted the soil and by the mid-eighteenth century much of Virginia’s farmland lay fallow.  Plantation owners turned to other crops and livestock, but no other crop grown in Virginia created the wealth of the early tobacco cultivated during the Colonial era.
“My grandfather was Charles Flexmer Ball Jr. He knew his grandfather, who was born in 1816 and who fought in the Civil War.”
When the Civil War erupted an entire generation of Southern men joined the army or the calvary.  Many never returned and those that did found that the the tide had turned irrevocably for the old Cavalier families. A new era began for both the African American and the white families, who now lived a subsistence lifestyle side by side at Ditchley; separated more by culture than by circumstance.  Black and white people in the little community farmed the land, hunted, and for the first time, started to intensively farm and harvest the abundant life of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Historic Virginia Homes and Churches" (Lancaster) 1915
The Bay had always offered up an astounding natural bounty. Colonial settlers described flocks of waterfowl so large that they blocked the sun. Large reefs of oyster shells stacked like stones lay just below the surface of the water.  Crabs, menhaden, rockfish, oysters, clams, shad, herring, and even salmon were there for the taking.  By the 1870‘s, with the opening of the western railways during the war, trade was booming across the vast American continent.  Suddenly, there was a insatiable national market for seafood, and a hardworking waterman could make a living. In 1872 the Chesapeake Bay yielded oyster harvests one hundred times larger than the current harvests.  However, a life lived by and on the water could be dangerous and difficult.
“Some of our family lived in a frame house near the water at Ditchley.  One of the big hurricanes blew the house over, and Father, my great grandfather, stepped out of the second story window right into the field.  An oil lamp was turned over, and the house was soon engulfed in flames and completely destroyed.  Everything was burned.  All the family stuff and the family silver. In my grandparent’s china cabinet was a misshapen goblet that was all they had left.”

Northern Neck Shoreline
“Aunt Betty’s father and brother drowned in a boating accident on the Bay in the winter. Everyone always knew it was dangerous on the water. Everybody had a story about falling out of the boat, most of the boats had a steering stick with ropes that ran the engine, and there was many a story about falling over, catching the stick, and having the boat go in circles.  They were the good stories.”

Northern Neck Coastline
There was other boat traffic on the water besides the watermen and their workboats. From the Colonial and Antebellum Eras throughout the 1920's boats continued to be the principal form of transportation for people in the region.  You could travel by boat up the bay to Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland or down the Bay to Newport News, Hampton, and Portsmouth, Virginia, or across the Bay to the Eastern Shore.  In the late nineteenth century steamboats were an important part of life in the Northern Neck. 
There was a steamboat wharf in almost every waterfront town, where ships stopped to load and unload goods and people in a lively flow of commerce and visitors around the Bay.  People in the Northern Neck were far more connected to Baltimore than to Richmond, or other inland cities.
My grandmother was a school teacher in Baltimore, and she came down on a steamboat, and that is how my grandparents met.  They were so devoted, she would always say, “Don’t you die before me!” and he didn’t.  At the funeral my grandfather said, “No one loved her children or her grandchildren more than Eleanor.“ I couldn’t stop crying.  I remember walking down the lane to the cemetery at Ditchley.  I wanted to be by myself. I was wracked by loss.”

Ditchley - Southern View
"My grandfather was so smart and so patient.  He had gone to the University of Virginia, but his education was disrupted by WWI. He was a Chesapeake Bay waterman, and as brown as that wooden coffee table over there from being out in the sun for so many years.  In the summer as children we would get up before dawn and be sitting in the wooden skiff being rowed out to the big boat by 4:30 am.  The big boat was named the 'Slow and Easy', and she was tethered to a piling in the deep water outside the cove.”

Chesapeake Bay Deadrise Waterman's Boat (Greg Vassilakos photo)
“My grandfather had built, or had commissioned to be built, all of his boats on the property. His big work boat was a Chesapeake Bay Deadrise with a center cockpit. Every year he would take the boats to be hauled out on the railroad.  The barnacles would be scraped off of the bottoms, and then they would be painted with copper paint. He had a wharf with a crab shack out in the water, and a net shed.  He repaired his own nets, and his hands were scarred and beaten from years of working with the nets and the boats. The tips of his fingers were stained copper from dipping the nets in copper sulfate to keep them from being eaten by marine organisms."
"Before copper paint there would be a great big tar pot dug out on the side of the creek bank so you could reach under it to put wood on a fire.  When the tar was heated and was thin enough you could put your nets in the pot and coat them with the tar.  He would dip the nets into the hot liquid tar and then hang them over big stakes in every direction to dry every year or two. We were not allowed to run under them because we could get burnt!”

“Summer mornings at dawn the water was often so still and quiet. As the sunrise lit up the sky, my grandfather would steer the boat over to the poles where his pound net was strung. Then he would start slowly drawing the net in, draping the surplus net over the poles as he gathered it closer. As he brought it in, he would be leaning over the net, culling the catch, tossing creatures back into the bay. The water drops on the net sparkled in the early light.  There would be little seahorses stuck to the ropes; and all sorts of fantastical creatures like gar fish, skates, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, eels, and all sorts of fish. Crabs were tossed into the barrel if they were the right size.” 

Pound Net (

“I remember the first time I saw dolphins flashing out of the water at dawn. In the shallows, the boat  passed over the shadows of giant rays, sliding silently and swiftly as clouds below the surface of the water.” 

Loggerhead (

“My grandfather caught blues, croakers, and rockfish to eat, but he thought the best eating was the blow toads or puffer toads.  The Northern Puffer was little with a face like a parrot fish.  They were not puffed all the time, and they had two little pieces about the size of your fingers behind their head, that was the real “Chicken of the Sea”! We all loved sugar toads because they were so sweet!  They were delicious!"

“The Chesapeake blue crabs were there from the spring through the autumn.  The crabs dwell on the flat channel bottoms, and in winter they leave the bay for deep offshore water. The soft crabs were all around the shores.  You would look for the crab shedding floats and then the crabs under it.  He would catch peelers, then put them in the crab floats until they shed.  The men would pack the soft shell crabs in wet sea weed to keep them alive.  The hard crabs were packed in baskets.” 
“My grandfather always had lot of treats and sandwiches packed for us. When we got restless, because we were still little girls, he would stop what he was doing and take us over to a wild stretch of Bay beach where we could dig in the sand and play and swim.  We swam with the sea nettles for years, but we didn’t care. He would just wait, patiently watching over us.”

Bay Beach (Doug Hornsby)

 Sea Nettle or Jellyfish in early spring

Tidal Beach in the Northern Neck

“One day we were in the boat when he was taking his catch to the buy-boat to sell.  As we neared the other boat he called out “Hullooo”.  There was no answer.  He called out again, “Hulloooo”, and then again, “Hulloooo”!  There was still no answer.  It was very quiet and the waves were slapping against the side of the boat.  My grandfather frowned a little staring at the boat.  He said, “I’ll tell you what girls, let’s go find someone else.”  And he did, and just as he must have suspected, the Captain of the buy-boat was found on the floor below deck, where he had fallen through the hull and broken his neck, dead.”
In the winter my grandfather tonged oysters.  I remember watching him open the oyster shells with his sharp oyster knife.  I would love to have his old knife sharpener, but it is long gone.  It was wooden with a wheel and a treadle which he pumped with his foot while he held his knife against the spinning sharpening wheel.  He would shuck the oyster into mason jars in his crab house. I remember he would count the oysters as he shucked them.  One, and he would slip the oyster into the mason jar, two, three, four, five, all into the jar, and then six, into his mouth!  Then he would start counting all over again.  I still don’t like raw oysters to this day.”
There were always eels around and sometimes he sold eels in a good market.  Once I remember we were in the little skiff and he was checking crab floats for soft shells and I was just a child, dangling my fingertips in the water.  My trailing fingers attracted an eel, and before I thought about it, I grabbed the eel and flung it across the boat and smacked my grandfather across the head!”
“The men would also go fishing and hunting. We would have wild goose for Thanksgiving.  My great grandmother wrote a little piece for the local newspaper for years.  I remember one whoops moment, when she wrote that, “Master Charles Ball got a fine goose for the table”, only it wasn’t hunting season.  This didn’t even occur to her, because of course, when she was a girl growing up, there was no designated hunting season.”

Northern Neck

“My grandfather didn’t farm the land, he was always working on the water year round, and it was a subsistence life.  During really lean times people would fish someone else’s pound net on the sly, and that was really bad.  It was stealing the food from your children’s mouths.  I remember during bad times that my grandfather would take food to some of the other families on the point that he knew were going hungry.  The bay was not always abundant.  There were ebbs and flows in a waterman’s life, times when the red tide came.  My grandaddy was still fishing in the early seventies, and there was already a rockfish crash then, and of course, MSX killed the oysters.” 
“One of the rites of passage was when you were finally a big girl, you could take the skiff around the edges of the cove all by yourself.  I stood on the seat and poled around, it was a big moment.  What I remember about our lives was that we were so family oriented, with Ditchley house, the field, Aunt Edie's, my grandparents, and out on the point, my great grandfather's house.  We read voraciously, all of the time, when we were not outside or on the water.  I remember the fireflies lighting up the fields at night, the bob whites, and the white throated sparrows singing in the holly trees in the early spring. I can remember the sound of those sparrows, and then they would go away.  My grandfather and his father and his grandfather and so on, they lived their whole lives at Ditchley on Dividing Creek."


Friday, February 25, 2011

Walks Along the Washington Ditch of the Great Dismal Swamp

The deep amber colored water of the Dismal Swamp is tinted from the tannic acid of the surrounding cypress, gum, and juniper trees which prohibits the growth of bacteria.  In past centuries ships carried barrels of this pure swamp elixir which was believed to cure illnesses.  Captain Cook is reputed to have filled his ships water barrels from Lake Drummond before embarking on his world voyage. The dark, mysterious water is the most distinctive characteristic of the Great Dismal Swamp; one of the last remaining great wild places along the Eastern Seaboard.

The Washington Ditch, constructed by George Washington's Land Company circa 1768, may be the nation's oldest artificial waterway.  The canal,  almost five miles long and ten foot wide, was dug by slave labor  to transport log rafts and drain the canal. The enslaved people who worked as lumber men lived in a vanished settlement located at the western origin point of the canal called "Dismal Town". Recently, I have been enjoying walking the trail that runs beside the ditch.

The land was eventually sold to the Union Camp Company, who constructed the road bed beside the canal. In 1973, the company donated the 49,100 acre tract to the Land Conservancy, for transfer to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The tract is now part of the 107,000 acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, created to "protect and restore" the great swamp; home to bobcats, otters, deer, birds, turtles, and one of the largest black bear populations on the East Coast.

"The Great Dismal Swamp has long been considered a place of natural beauty, mystery, and legend.  The swamp is an integral part of the cultural history of the region and remains a place of refuge for people and for wildlife." (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Washington Ditch empties directly into Lake Drummond.  The Ditch is fed by several small streams, probably from springs in the swamp.  Often the air has a wonderful, sweet smell.  There is a deep, calming silence in the swamp, broken only by the splashes of frogs and bird calls in the forest.

The refuge is open from dawn to dusk for naturalists, photographers, bikers, walkers, and those who may occasionally feel the call of the wild ~

Monday, February 21, 2011

Better Read Than Dead!

1939 Funeral Home/Library Offices dubbed "The Hereafter"

Every day many strange and wonderful stories happen in public libraries.  Lives are changed.  Destinies are shaped.  Discoveries are made.  Sometimes these stories center around the librarians. 
In the winter of 1990 the library where I worked was overdue for a total renovation. The library was located in a 1917 public school building composed of several large classrooms, all outfitted with beautiful big windows, wood floors, ornate iron radiators, slate chalk boards, and millions of dust motes. The Director was concerned that the wood floor joists beneath some of the book stacks might be giving way. The determining moment came when the Library Board and the Director all went down to the classroom housing the biography collection and jumped up and down. The floor moved. 

Up to that time we had adapted bravely to the status quo, as library people tend to do.  The secretary worked in the former coat closet of her first grade classroom.  The outreach department worked out of the former kitchen, the nonfiction books were shelved in the cafeteria, and so on.  The massive old four floor brick building lacked an elevator, but sported an old wooden ramp covering the stairs leading down to the cafeteria addition.  Generations of children gleefully stampeded noisily up and down the ramp to the resignation of parents and the stoic staff.
For one brief shining moment in the annals of library history, the staff took to rollerskating in the mornings before the library opened.  The daring members could shoot down the ramp and then weave through the tables and stacks of the nonfiction room.  If the children had only known!

The Library (source:

The plans called for a renovation with a capital R. The library would need temporary space for an interim library onsite; and offsite storage for approximately another hundred thousand volumes and staff work space. The town fathers, not wishing to expend any more tax payer capital than absolutely necessary, searched their collective minds for a temporary offsite location. Voila!  A novel solution was found.  The City had just purchased a recently vacated old funeral home in town for future court space.  The library could use the funeral home!
Another co-worker and I were given a tour for planning purposes. This was my first glimpse of a mortuary establishment behind the scenes.  We struggled to maintain a professional demeanor as we swung from nervous laughter to a morbid fascination and a distinct unease. 
As we walked through the spaces we were able to identify some solid design advantages.  There was a huge hearse garage capable of storing thousands of books. The garage was connected to the building with a ramp that was perfect for rolling book carts, as were the strangely long elevators.  The downstairs viewing room could become the law library, and the director and assistant could fit nicely into the funeral director’s office suite.  The chapel could be used for staff meetings, if one could creatively adapt the coffin shaped platform located at the front, a decorating challenge not normally addressed in women’s magazines.  We would also have to ignore some rather disturbing past revelations in the local paper.
It seems that the chapel’s voluminous red velvet drapes, which could have outfitted Scarlett several times, had not been disturbed for many years.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when a body was discovered behind some of the drapes, neatly embalmed, but apparently forgotten by some long ago busy staff member.  When I gingerly peered behind these very curtains I discovered several wall vaults, presumably storage for those busy times like the plague. I chose not to investigate further.
The going got tougher as we toured the second floor. As Hunter Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”  We saw another large viewing room which could be subdivided into offices.  There were more small offices and a bathroom complete with a shower and a cache of smelling salts in the closet, which could have come in handy for the rest of the tour.  Next was a long unheated room, which the assistant city manager cheerfully explained had been the coffin storage room.  Now, it was an empty dusty room with a strange dark stain on the wood floor.  None of us chose to comment or speculate on the stain’s origin.
We passed down a narrow twisting hall that led to the back of the building, past a suitably gothic window, and ended at the door of the embalming room.  My compatriot is a very calm and rational person, but when the door opened I saw the hair suddenly stand at attention on her arms. I will spare the reader the lurid details, except to note that there was mysterious equipment that made my dentist’s chair seem like a beloved rocking chair.  The windows were frosted glass. The assistant manager quickly assured us the special features would be removed promptly.  We decided the long counters and sinks would come in handy for the cataloging and processing department, and hastily departed.
And so the project unfolded.  We wrenched the collections out of that old school building using a combination of trustees from the local jail, temporary workers, staff, and volunteers. Men heaved the law collection up through the basement windows on makeshift ramps using brute force.  After we moved the massive book collections from the lower floors, we spent another two weeks staggering down the flights of stairs carrying years of stuff squirreled away by conscientious librarians. 
At one point we gave up and started throwing items through the windows into the enormous dumpster positioned below.  This quickly stopped when we discovered much of the town was checking out the treasures in the dumpsters, and we were risking an accidental road runner /wily coyote flattening type of incident.
Then there came a point during the several week long process when most of the trustees decided that the extra time off for good behavior really wasn’t worth this much effort. Instead, they elected to stay home in their cells, relax, and read some of their recent acquisitions.   Over the next few years I would occasionally see a man in a convenience store or somewhere around town and they would look at me in horror, and then mutter, “You are that woman from the library!” Then they would hasten away, apparently terrified I would somehow force them to return to the library and work.  A few of the trustees and temporary workers soldiered through the entire process, gaining the respect and friendship of staff, and a sense of solid accomplishment and belonging that I hope they carried forward in life.
So we persevered on with a constantly changing cast of characters. The sheer physical labor of a major library move can be staggering without a professional moving crew doing all of the work. We did have two library moving consultants with a tractor trailer and industrial carts who were invaluable. Moving tens of thousands of books in order, taking apart and reassembling tons of steel shelving into new configurations, and setting up temporary library spaces out of a hodgepodge of salvaged stuff is a big undertaking. However, like other momentous occasions in life, such as multiple birth or running a marathon, participating in a library move can be an empowering learning experience.
There is something wonderful about working with dozens of people on a major endeavor, brainstorming, problem solving, and sharing the simple satisfaction of hard physical labor.  The move turned out to be one of the best of times of my life.  Friendships were deepened, new friends were made, creativity flourished, and countless challenges were overcome by teamwork.  The library staff adjusted to the changes gallantly and humorously.  Slogans were coined including, my  personal favorite, “Better Read than Dead!”  The temporary library was dubbed the “Here”, and the funeral home the “Hereafter”.
When that enormous old school building finally stood empty a friend and I climbed up through the attic and out on the roof and sat staring out, exhausted and euphoric, into the early evening.  Disturbed pigeons beat their wings furiously in the air all around us, and the old town lay far below like a faded postcard in the dusk. The river curved sweetly around the bend, edged with giant old sycamores, the bare white branches like old bones against the sky.  The memory of that moment  in time still burns bright and clear.

A View of Town (source:

I also recall that the former funeral director came back to visit during the year the funeral home was our temporary home.  He seemed genuinely stricken at the changes, and I suddenly understood that the funeral home had been a beloved institution and the center of his life, just as the library was the center of ours. I sensed that there had been a rhythm, a dignity and a gravity in the daily operations of that building that were gone forever now. 

My time there also made me think some about the funeral home business;  the culture, traditions and people.  One of the most capable public administrators I have known came from an old funeral home family on the Eastern Shore.  C.M. Williams was unfailingly courteous, a formal and reserved gentleman of the old school.  Over the years he was kind to me, and in the end I like to think we were friends.  I have met several other kind and gentle funeral directors, descended from generations of funeral home families, some with historic homes and funeral buggies dating back to before the Civil War.  

Often the funeral director is a respected community member such as Sid Oman who was the beloved Mayor of Chesapeake, Virginia and Elizabeth City, N.C.  during his career. Many of these old families have been bought out by new chains, and like many business models, the era of the family funeral home is drawing to a close in many places.  There is a third generation small town Michigan funeral director who gives voice to the profession. Thomas Lynch, poet and writer, writes humanely, movingly and eloquently about his experiences and thoughts.  His books have been widely and critically acclaimed and the subject of two award winning documentaries.

The Library Director always claimed the year spent in the funeral home was her favorite, presumably because it offered a peaceful respite from the usual beehive of a busy public library.  I have more mixed emotions.  There always seemed to be some palpable emotional resonance of sadness in the space that made me uncomfortable. 
Late one evening I stopped by to pick up a forgotten item from my desk upstairs.  I unlocked the door and stepped into the hallway with the red damask wallpaper, pulsing with the faint orange glow of a night light.  I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. The air felt throbbing, thick, and oppressive.  I made my way to the bottom of the staircase. I felt as though I was wading very slowly through high water. My heart pounded. It was difficult to breath and I felt as though I was suffocating. I gazed up at the dark second floor yawning above. I simply could not make myself climb up those stairs. I turned and left the building. 
No doubt my own imagination and emotional psyche triggered my reactions, but I certainly understood when I heard later that one of the General Distict Court judges flatly refused to have his office in the former embalming room, despite a total renovation. Since that time I have gone on to move many libraries and be involved in many large building projects, but none have involved adapting a space quite as unusual as a funeral home.  No project has ever rivaled that first big move for sheer audacity, magnitude, and complexity.
However, I have discovered that wherever you go, people who work in libraries are very good people with willing hearts and hands. I have learned that libraries are a lot like families. They are created with sweat and tears, worry, humor, leaps of faith, and confidence. Creating and maintaining libraries requires a bold shared vision, a lot of hard work by dedicated staff, and a great deal of help and support from many people in the community.

This year the valiant staff of the Chesapeake Public Library is looking forward to several big building projects.  This spring we will be moving the South Norfolk Library to make way for a beautiful new building and setting up a temporary library down the street.  In October, we are planning a month long, low budget, and creative re-adaptation of the Russell Library by staff, trustees, and volunteers.  After the new year we will be moving back into the new South Norfolk Library.  Once again, we will have an opportunity to utilize all of those combined talents and skills gleaned from life experiences, and to learn some new ones, because every project is unique. So, once more into the breach, dear friends and co-workers, once more, or in this case thrice more.  Now, where is my rubber mallet?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Secret Life of Snowstorms

The Snowstorm
Chesapeake, Christmas Evening, 2010

“Silence in the terrible beauty of the snow and of the Sphinx and of the stars...”
(The Snowman by O. Henry)
The snow is falling, wrapping the landscape in a soft white cloak. In the morning we sleep late, snuggling deeper into our beds.  The highway is quiet, the alarm is silenced, and the bustling world of commerce, productivity, and motion is abruptly halted.  We have entered the altered dimension of snow time.
Life is restricted to our interior landscape; cooking in the kitchen, gazing out the windows, sitting by the fire and around the table, reading, and taking long naps under downy comforters.  Occasionally we take a walk through the neighborhood.  The snow takes us back to an older rhythm of life, when families lived in close proximity during the long winters and life had a slower, deeper pace.

“Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.”
(The Snowman by O. Henry)
When I was a child we made snow cream.  We scooped up enough clean snow to fill a big chilled bowl, and mixed it with a cup of whole milk or cream, a dash of vanilla, and sugar to taste, or just sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. Crushed frozen fruit or chocolate syrup could be added for the young snow gourmand.  Winter also brought the tradition of cutting intricate and elegant paper snowflakes out of folded paper that were taped to windows by loving mothers and teachers.  

The magic and joy of snow storms shine brightest when viewed from young eyes.  The Snowy Day, a wonderful Caldecott Classic by Ezra Jack Keats, shows how little Peter’s urban world in transformed by a big snowstorm.  Peter goes out to play and makes snow angels, a snowman, and then he pretends to be a mountain climber.  Peter tries to preserve some of the magical snow by carefully putting a snowball in his pocket.  The snow melts in the house during the night, but the next day brings fresh snow and happiness.  One of the most important picture books of the last century, The Snowy Day was a groundbreaking work when it debuted in 1964, and the book is credited with introducing multicultural images and characters to mainstream American children’s literature.  

Today, the Chesapeake Public Library catalog lists almost four hundred entries for children's books about snow, but snow has always been popular in stories for the young.  In 1812, the Brothers Grimm published a collection of seventy-four fairytales. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were studying and researching linguistics when they recorded and preserved many old folktales including Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, the Frog Prince, and Snow White.

“Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the snow flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony.  And whilst she was sitting and looking out the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow.  And the red looked pretty upon the white snow and she thought to herself, I wish that I had a child with skin as white as the snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony wood of the window- frame.” 
Hans Christian Anderson brought us the story of the Snow Queen in 1848, often considered one of his finest stories.  The Queen of the snowflakes, or “snow bees” follows the snow fall around the world, but her palace is in the land of the permafrost.  Anderson also wrote The Snow Man in 1861. "It is so delightfully cold," said the Snow Man, "that it makes my whole body crackle. This is just the kind of wind to blow life into one."
In the Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes family life during the 1800's on the northern prairies with long weeks sitting by the stove together sewing, doing lessons, and reading aloud while the snow piled up even with the second story window.  Her stories were my first glimpse into life in extreme Northern climates as she described a  Dakota winter where blizzard followed blizzard.
“But even after Laura was warm she lay there listening to the wind’s wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow with not even the light of the next house shining through. And the little town was alone in the wide prairie.  Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a white blankness.”  ( The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Another wonderful family film and novel, LIttle Women, includes images of the snowy weather encapsulating the cozy family life of the March family. The author,  Louisa May Alcott, described one scene as, “....a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within."  The March family were based on Louisa's own family, growing up without much money, but with a lot of love in the old Orchard House in snowy Massachusetts.

Snow represents a break from normality and routine, an alternate reality.  In the beloved children’s book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the door in the back of the wardrobe opens into a winter forest, blanketed in snow, alien and magical.  Even without the fantastical creatures, snow is suggestive of a fantasy world, and the pure, icy evil of the Snow Queen transfixes even the most worldly adult reader.
Without the distractions and stimulation of the modern world, family and winter life in the past centered around conversation, singing, storytelling, reading, and the endless emotional nuances of human relationships.  This rich interior life is captured cinematically in Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s beautiful movie, Fanny and Alexander, set in the early 1900's in a Swedish town.  The extravagantly detailed Victorian rooms, the sleighs filled with fur bundled families, and the intense emotions and colorful characters of family life are celebrated in the beautiful opening scenes of this film from the far North.  I thought of all these storied families over the holidays as my own family stayed home together, building roaring fires, playing Scrabble and making pots of tea while we marveled over the curtain of snow falling outside the windows.

I also thought of outside pleasures in the snow. Some of the loveliest walks of my life have been through snowy landscapes.   Particularly walking through forests of conifers where the boughs are swagged and  laden with snow.  Once wandering through a snowy pine forest I heard strange clattering sounds.  Following the noise I came to the edge of a small clearing where two large bucks, heads down, hooves stomping, battered their antlered heads against each other as fierce as any two warriors locked in mortal combat. I crouched watching through the trees for a long time.  The deer were oblivious to my presence, consumed with battle lust, hormones, and power.

Growing up we spent much of our time in or by the creek that ran through the woods near our home.  The moving water was endlessly fascinating in every season.  In winter the granite boulders were capped with white and ice, the waterfalls frozen into glassy sculptures, the water crusty with frozen ice begging to be broken.   

Although snow promises a chance for domestic bliss and leisurely strolls, it also offers extreme adventure, hardship, and survival stories.  If you decide that traveling the icy roads of Chesapeake are not sufficiently exciting, then reading about those intrepid souls who pit themselves against the most severe elements can be very entertaining.  There are many extraordinary books on polar explorers such as The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctica Expedition by Susan Solomon or Admiral Richard Byrd's own account of his five months of dangerous and solitary survival in an observation camp in Antarctica entitled Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure.  
Photo: Frank Hurley

Another true story that has always fascinated me is the failed Ernest Shackleton Imperial Trans-Antartica Expedition between 1914 and 1917.  The ship, aptly named the Endurance, was crushed by ice packs, and the men were marooned for a year while Shackleton staged a heroic rescue by setting out in a lifeboat for help.  The tale is vividly brought to life by the astounding photographic record of Frank Hurley, who recorded the entire epic on fragile glass negatives. The photographs are haunting and awe inspiring, capturing the marooned men with their glittering eyes and frosted beards, the icebound ship reduced to a sculpture, and the  tiny figures juxtapositioned against the vast white wilderness.  Miraculously, they survived in the arctic landscape for a year and didn’t lose a single soul.  Somehow, united in the knife edge fight for survival, they fared better in the freezing wilderness than back in the civilized world, where alcohol and restless energy drove them to worst fates.

Photo: Frank Hurley

New Yorkers who found themselves stranded and angry in this snowstorm could gain perspective from one of the many historical accounts of the Great White Hurricane of March 1888.  Snowfalls of over four feet blanketed New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  The weather stations recorded eighty miles per hour gusts and sustained winds of over forty five miles per hour, which resulted in average drifts of thirty feet covering the roofs of many houses, with the highest drifts up to fifty.  Engineers tried to ram trains through the drifts and only succeeded in burying entire cars and trapping passengers  for days.  The temperature averaged nine degrees the day of the storm. The entire Northeast seaboard was totally immobilized from Norfolk to Boston and over two hundred ships were sunk or grounded.

Ironically, it was the city dwellers, newly dependent on modern transportation such as street cars and trains, grocery stores, coal and milk delivery who suffered the most.  Most farming families weathered the storms with their wood piles, root cellars, and stocked provisions the same way humans have weathered blizzards for centuries.

Hundreds died from blizzard related accidents and from exposure.  The monster storm changed America forever, resulting in the construction of the New York subway system, burying underground electrical and telephone lines in New York City,  the establishment of the National Weather Bureau, and even new laws regulating trash collection because of all of the  incidents that resulted from debris blowing around the streets like missiles during the blizzard.  SInce this storm there have been other storms just as huge, but the experience and knowledge gleaned from each new weather event has helped us prepare for the next.
Although we are better prepared in the modern world, a big snow fall still promises a time out, a time to think, a time to remember when life was different.  The phrase “going north” is still a metaphor for solitude, loneliness, and quiet.  For space. For room to breathe. Let it snow.