While my mom was visiting we drove up to Maine and toured a couple of historic houses and their gardens. My mom doesn't walk very well anymore, but with her walker in tow she was game to at least try to see as much of the tour as she could. And whenever she got tired her walker very conveniently turns into a seat so that she could rest.
We drove up to South Berwick, Maine, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer. The high ended up being 95F, which is crazy in this part of the country. It slowed all the tour-goers down a bit. People just aren't used to those kinds of temperatures up here. My mom probably fared better in that respect that the rest of us. 95 is no big deal when you are from St. Louis!
South Berwick is close to the Salmon Falls River, right over the New Hampshire border. It was originally located on the river, but was moved to higher ground when the railroad came. An interesting factoid that we found out on the tour was that when passenger trains went to Maine regularly, back in the 19th and early 20th century, it was actually easier to go to Boston for the day than it is now! No traffic congested freeways to negociate, and no worries about Boston parking! I was more than a little jealous.
The first house we visited was right in the center of town. Sarah Orne Jewett was a very popular writer from the late 19th and early 20th century. She wrote over 100 books, essays, poems and magazine articles, but have I ever heard of her? Nope. One of the nice things about this tour was the way the guide would incorporate some of her writing into the tour itself. Sarah Orne Jewett used the features of her surroundings in many of her books, so of course that worked well, since the excepts often described what we happened to be seeing.
The house we saw actually belonged to her grandparents, but when they passed away it was given to Sarah and her sister and they lived there together their entire adult lives. Sarah loved the house both inside and out. The tour was sponsored by the New England Wildflower Society, so there was an emphasis on the gardens, which have been lovingly recreated by the caretakers. They have tried very hard to use flowers and plants that were used at the beginning of the previous century, so there were many heirloom plants.
I have never really thought about the decisions that have to be made when a house or garden are historically preserved. Older houses and gardens have often gone through many different stages and the preservationist has to choose which era they want to reclaim. In the case of the Jewett house it was relatively easy to decide to reclaim the house as it was when Sarah lived there as an adult and how it was described in her books. In the case of the second house we toured, this issue was more problematic.
The Hamilton House is located outside of South Berwick on a magnificent piece of land along the Salmon Falls River. It really was astonishing to drive up to the house and then walk up the path leading to the garden. You rounded a curve and suddenly a wide vista of water appeared. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful, even in the hazy heat.
We gathered in a shady spot in the garden and heard the history of the house. It was built in the 1700's and was used by a shipbuilder and then later a sheep farmer before it was bought by two women, a mother and daughter, in the late 1800's. Emily Tyson and her daughter Elise loved flower gardens. In the era a style called Colonial Revival was very popular and the two women proceeded to make the grounds of the house the height of Colonial Revival style. Fountains, symmetrical paths, arches, vases and flowers popular in the Colonial period dominated their design.
When the Hamilton house was bought by the Historic New England preservation society, they had to decide which era of the house to recreate. Should they pick the original era, when the ship builder and the sheep farmer had a barn right next to the house? Or should they try to recreate the Colonial Revival gardens of Emily and Elise? Even that was a little difficult to decide, since the mother's style and the style later chosen by the daughter were also different.
Eventually the preservationists decided to try to gradually recreate the style the daughter used. They have done a lot of the work, but there is still more to do.
My mother and I had a great time on this tour, but by mid-afternoon we had both had enough. The heat had gotten to me, and my mother had walked more than she normally does in a day and was pretty tired. We were ready to call it quits.
There are a lot of historic houses in New England, of course, many with beautiful gardens, and none of them very far away. I wouldn't mind doing another house tour sometime, especially if it involved a garden or two!