Thursday, November 22, 2018


When the Conway Public Library reopens after the Thanksgiving holiday, you will be able to see a newly installed artwork that was painted, donated and installed by the artist Ernest O. Brown of Conway, New Hampshire.

Shown here with the artist on the left and Library Director David Smolen on the right, the painting entitled "Postern Gate No. 4" is acrylic on canvas and 48 x 48 inches square. The location on the stairway allows a great opportunity to view the painting from afar to appreciate the fine atmospheric and linear perspective and up close where you can examine the incredibly detailed brushwork. Mr. Brown has provided a label to help explain the painting (click on the image to enlarge it). 

Mr. Brown points out that the subject of the painting is on the West Side Road in front of the Hale House (looking east). While he acknowledges that the landscape in the painting is "artistic license" the layout and details of the posts as seen in the photo below are quite accurate.

Mr. Brown presents each of his granite posts as a unique palimpsest with a layered history. He demonstrates a miraculous ability to capture shadows, light, reflections of and on the granite posts as well as the lichen, rust and water stains, and subtle variations of color in the granite itself due to the surface color and the way the light hits the coarse grain texture of the granite's component parts - quartz, feldspar and mica.

Here is a view of the granite posts from the street looking towards the west with the historic Hale Farm House beyond. 

Here is a view of the five posts from above showing how they are arranged.  

It is quite probable that posts were originally used as a "squeeze stile" type livestock gate that allowed people to pass freely but which livestock avoided pasing through. Here you can see holes for fencing and a metal ring attached to one of the posts.

According to his label for the painting, stone posts are a common subject for Mr. Brown. They are everywhere in our landscape. They reflect a Yankee resourcefulness of "making something out of nothin." He explains that "The farmer/landowner usually was the "quarryman." The evidence for how these posts were made can be seen in the painting.

The five short horizontal lines seen in the post on the left are tool marks left by the drilling and splitting of the stone.

A hammer and star tipped bit was used to drill a series of holes about three inches deep along the line you wanted to split the stone.

Then a pair of "feathers" was inserted into the drill holes and a wedge or plug was hammered between the feathers. The pictures below illustrate the process.


If all works out well the stone splits along a relatively straight line. The stones were fashioned into foundation blocks for cellar holes, cemetery fence walls, door stoops, hearth stones, and so on.

A few more stories about local quarry work can be found at these links here and here.

As Mr. Brown points out the "trimmings" were used as posts.

However, things did not always work out for the quarryman. Throughout the woods, you can find examples where they started to quarry a boulder...

 ... and for some reason, they abandoned their work...

 ...and left the drilled holes filled with the feathers and wedges that rusted in place over time.


Mr. Brown explains the title of the painting "Postern Gate..." comes from an architectural term for a small gate, "usually one person wide, set in a castle wall to allow leaving or entering a castle, not thru the main entrance." 

In this case the postern gate is opposite the main entrance as identified by the drawbridge and portcullis.

The idea of a postern gate goes way back in military fortifications. One of my favorite examples is the postern gate at the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in what is now Turkey (the city also has the remains of one of the earliest known buildings built specifically as a library - so that makes me fond of the site as well).  

It is a small unassuming gate that can be accessed through a long tunnel or sally port.

Speaking of military history, Mr. Brown says the figure in the painting is "a self portrait of the artist..."

On the day he came to install the painting, he was wearing the hat that can be seen in the painting with the insignia (crossed sabers) of the 9th Calvary in which he served. 

As they say in the 9th Calvary "We Can, We Will" and in this case Mr. Brown did!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Mapping the Seasons

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. At their most basic level, our major holidays are based on seasonal changes and especially to our historic seasonal food cycle.

While our American Thanksgiving has deep ties to New Hampshire thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, it is essentially a harvest festival like those celebrated around the world and throughout history back to the ancient world.

To further explore this theme the Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room has developed a free outreach program for local schools and community groups about the history of holidays.

Growing up in Florida where crops are harvested year round, the idea of celebrating the changing seasons was always something of a mystery to me. The deeper understanding of the motivation for these holidays always eluded me. We used to pick fresh citrus off the trees at Thanksgiving.

We were more aware of the hurricane season than the harvest season. Our culinary traditions were  somewhat different too. We have had swamp cabbage, cooter, armadillo, gator, rattlesnake, possum, and frog legs on the menu. Some southern traditions go back before the well know New England  traditions of turkey and cranberries. After all, an early Thanksgiving meal was held between Europeans and Native Americans in Florida in 1564 between the French and the Timucua.

Speaking of oranges, one can think of an orange as a model of the earth and use to math out and map out the reason for the seasons. If you cut the orange in half it could represent the plane of the ecliptic.

An orange sliced in half this way does not usually lay flat, instead it tips at an angle. Likewise the earth tilts at a precise angle 23.5 degrees of its access perpendicular to the ecliptic.

Now imagine other circles representing latitudes on the orange or globe that represent specific astronomical events that define the seasons.

If you look at an antique globe you will find these circles representing the equator, tropics, and polar circles drawn on them.

So it is the angle of the earth's tilt and its rotation around the sun that creates the seasons in the temperate zones and the lack of seasons in the tropics and subtropics.

Now back to the orange  and our next major holiday Christmas. During the early Victorian period
Christmas was not celebrated the way we do today with such pomp and circumstance. In those days, a simple orange wrapped in tissue paper was considered a significant gift.

The artist William Joseph McCloskey painted many still lifes around 1890. This one is at the Fine Arts Museum San Francisco.

He did quite a number of these. They can be found in museums all around the country. A similar one sold at Christies a few years ago for over $500,000. Check you attic to see if you have one. That would certainly be a significant Christmas gift.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Happy Pickle Day!

As I am sure you all know, today is National Pickle Day.

It is a good time to get your pickle flavored candy canes in preparation for the holidays. To have the traditional red and green colors of the season, you can also make your own koolickle (Kool-Aid soaked frozen pickle treat). Who knew that was a thing?

Image result for Koolickle, frozen pickle

There is in fact a wide range of pickle colors that are available to celebrate this holiday. Items that can be pickled include beets, olives, peppers, carrots, cabbage (sauerkraut), garlic, celery, green beans, pears, lemons, tomatoes, pineapple, corn, eggs and of course cucumbers.

People also pickle fish, beef (corned beef), ham, and pig's feet.
Image result for pickled fish

The pickling tradition goes back at least 4,500 years. It was a way of preserving the harvest and making food last during the winter to come. It harkens back to a time before refrigeration and the food transportation system we have today. In this day and age, we can get fresh grapes, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables year round. Back then, hunger and even starvation was a real possibility if you did not preserve foods for the lean times of the year.

It got to be a lot easier to pickle things when Scottish chemist James Young invented paraffin wax in the early 1850s that helped seal the pickling pot. In 1858 John Mason of Philadelphia patented the first glass Mason jar.

There are pickle ornaments for the tree.

Pickle ornament in Christmas tree.

If you need more ideas to celebrate pickle day, or want to know more about the history of food preservation, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Eyewitness to History

History Room Volunteer Marvin Swartz discovered this fascinating letter yesterday in the Morey papers collection he is processing.

It is a Civil War era letter between two sisters. We are still trying to figure out all of the details but wanted to share it now. The letter is hand written on one piece of paper, stationary marked "U.S. Sanitary Commission."  (click on images to enlarge them)

According to Wikipedia, the USSC was a private relief agency created by Federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. An interesting article about "Antiquarian Suppers" held to raise funds for the USSC in Bethel, Maine can be found at this link.


Let's look closer at the letter in the order it was written. It is a little hard to decipher all of the hand writing especially as end of the letter is written sideways over top of the start of the letter.

It starts with the address to which it was written "St. John's Hospital, Annapolis Md. March 8, 1865" and follows with "Dear Sister, Yours of the ..." acknowledging the previous letter, goes on about hens, making butter, etc.

Then it reads "I have been to Washington to the Presidential Inauguration." 

"When we got to W. (Washington) we went directly to the Capitol, and Such a crowd I think I never saw, all eager to get into the Senate Chamber where the chief rulers of our land were to meet."

"President Lincoln sat in front of the desk, where we had a good opportunity of seeing him, a plain unassuming main in appearance. His inaugural ..."

"... address was worthy of such a man as he has proved himself to be, The procession was very imposing.

The letter continues, "The Bishop spoke of the day previous, that is commenced with darkness and gloom, but at noon-day, when the President took the oath, the sun came out in splendor & brightness, he hoped it might prove a true sign, & symbol of coming events...

came last April

The letter ends with the salutation, "My love to all you, Sister Nancy"

You won't find this kind of documentation and commentary coming from today's twitter and facebook posts. You won't even have a physical piece of paper as evidence of history. My how times have changed.