Archive for the ‘Maine’ Category

Newcastle, Maine

Frances Perkins home
“The Brick House”
River Road

Frances Perkins (1880-1965), FDR’s secretary of labor, was the first woman ever to hold a presidential Cabinet post. The primary architect of some of the New Deal’s greatest programs, including Social Security and unemployment insurance, she played a major role in helping to bring the country out of the Great Depression. This 1836 house (see photo) on the coast of Maine was her family home; she and her sister inherited the site, and Perkins used it as a special retreat. It is still standing, and plans are in the works to transform it into the Frances Perkins Center, a place for students and scholars to work on projects that mesh with Perkins’ vision.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins was a lifelong social reformer and activist. Early in her career, she was part of the committee that investigated the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, who were trapped in the burning building. Following a career as a settlement worker and factory inspector, Perkins eventually held the post of N.Y. State Commissioner of Labor under Gov. Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president in 1932, he invited her to join him in Washington, and the rest is herstory. Perkins served in the Cabinet for the next 12 years. In her later life, she was guest professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Although she married economist Paul Wilson in 1913, a 2009 biography of Perkins by journalist Kirstin Downey reveals that she had a secret affair with Mary Harriman Rumsey, the sister of Averell Harriman. The book further examines how and why Perkins, surely one of the greatest Cabinet members and social reformers of all time, has slipped into oblivion.


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A Home by the Sea


South Berwick, Maine

Sarah Orne Jewett house
5 Portland Street

Fiction writer Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 in the smaller dwelling next door (“Haggens House”), but she lived much of her life in this comfortable frame house owned by her grandparents. Eventually, she inherited the house from her grandfather, who was a wealthy trader and sea captain. Jewett’s friend Willa Cather once wrote that she was “born within the scent of the sea but not within sight of it, in a beautiful old house full of strange and lovely things brought home from all over the globe by seafaring ancestors.” Today, the house – a national historic landmark that is open to the public – still contains the Jewett family furnishings, including many items Captain Theodore Jewett brought back from his extensive sea travels.

In the downstairs library hangs a portrait of Annie Fields, Jewett’s intimate companion of more than 25 years, with whom she lived half the year in Boston. (The two held a lively weekly salon at Fields’ home on Charles Street.) The months Jewett spent alone in South Berwick constituted her time for writing and contemplation. “Here I am at my desk again,” read one forlorn letter to Fields, “remembering that this is the first morning in more than seven months that I haven’t waked up to hear your dear voice and see your dear face.”

Upstairs in the writer’s combination bedroom and study is another picture of Fields, as well as a portrait of writer George Sand, given to Jewett by Cather. Next to her bed Jewett kept a container of pencils and pens so that she would have them at the ready in case she woke up with the desire to write. In this house, Jewett penned such novels as A Country Doctor (1884) and The Country of Pointed Firs (1896), which abound in local color. Inspired by the Maine landscape, her fiction focused on “the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart,” as Cather phrased it.

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Rachel Carson Sites

Environmentalist/scientist/writer Rachel Carson, the author of the historic Silent Spring, is generally credited as inspiring the modern environmental movement. She is also the most famous alumna of my own alma mater, Chatham College (when she attended, it was the Pennsylvania College for Women – see below).

Now, we can’t “prove” that Carson was a lesbian. It may be more accurate to call her a “woman-identified woman.” But see the story regarding her intimate friendship in Maine with Dorothy Freeman below.

Here are a few of the most significant sites associated with Carson:

Springdale, Pa.

Rachel Carson birthplace
613 Marion Avenue

Once surrounded by woods, this sweet farmhouse in the Allegheny Valley was the site of Carson‘s birth on May 27, 1907. Both her rural upbringing and her mother’s teaching instilled in her a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and mystery. “I can remember no time,” Carson wrote, “when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature.” Her childhood love of the natural world translated into a career of interpreting environmental science for laypeople and exposing the harm being done to the physical environment by humans. “The beauty of the world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind – that and the anger of the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” Carson wrote to a friend after the publication of Silent Spring, her attack on the use of pesticides. “I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could – if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature.” Each May, the Carson homestead hosts “Rachel’s Sustainable Feast,” featuring food and music in a day-long event.


Pittsburgh, Pa.
Chatham College
Woodland Road

Founded in 1869 and formerly called the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), this women’s college claims Carson, class of 1929, as its most celebrated alumna – the school’s science building and a scholarship are named for her. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Carson developed a love of writing early in childhood, which continued throughout high school and college. At PCW, Carson started as an English major but switched to science after an inspirational biology course with Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” she affirmed, “and biology has given me something to write about. I will try to make animals in the woods and waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”

And she succeeded at that. Carson‘s brilliant exploration of sea life, The Sea Around Us (1951), won the National Book Award and was an instant bestseller that made her a celebrity and earned enough royalties to secure her living as a writer. The Sea Around Us remained on the bestseller lists for 86 weeks and prompted a reissuing of an earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which also achieved success. The Edge of the Sea (1955) and her masterpiece, Silent Spring (1962), ensured their author a place in the annals of both science and literature.

White Oak, Md.
Rachel Carson home

11701 Berwick Road (private)

The phenomenal success of her book The Sea Around Us (1951) allowed Carson to purchase this Maryland home, “Quaint Acres,” and a summer cottage off the coast of Maine. It was at Quaint Acres that she feverishly wrote most of Silent Spring (1963), an attack on pesticides, while suffering from what she called “a catalogue of illnesses,” including breast cancer and heart disease. There has been speculation that Carson suspected environmental causes for her own cancer and that of a beloved college professor, which fired her to continue working tirelessly to expose the chemical industry. Between her hospital confinements, Carson worked late into the night on what was to be her final book. “No time for anything,” she wrote to her intimate friend Dorothy Freeman, “unless it is somehow related to the great projects that are uncompleted.”

Carson lived to see both the serialization of Silent Spring in the New Yorker and its publication as a book late in 1962. She was heartened by the public’s strong response and hoped it would bring about a ban on the use of DDT. But Carson quickly became too sick to enjoy the great acclaim that Silent Spring brought with it. “Now all the ‘honors’ have to be received for me by someone else,” she wrote to Freeman. “And all the opportunities to travel to foreign lands – all expenses paid – have to be passed up.” Carson died at her Maryland home in the spring of 1964. Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was born after a presidential commission corroborated Carson‘s findings about the hazards of pesticides.

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2

Beginning in the early 1950s, Carson spent summers in a cottage on Southport Island off the Maine coast, studying local ecology and wildlife. It was there that in 1953 she met Dorothy Freeman, a Massachusetts native who vacationed on the island with her husband and who was a fan of Carson‘s The Sea Around Us. Both women were intensely interested in sea life and the environment. Carson and Freeman became intimate friends who exchanged voluminous correspondence during the three seasons of the year they were not together, right up until Carson‘s death. As Rachel Carson wrote to her friend early in their relationship, “I think that the rapid flowering of our friendship, the head-long pace of our correspondence, reflects a feeling, whether consciously recognized or not, for the ‘lost’ years and a desire to make up for all the time we might have enjoyed this, had something brought us together earlier.” Those are pretty strong emotions for “friends.”

Freeman’s granddaughter was the recipient of the women’s correspondence, and she published it (hesitantly) in 1995. She explained that on one of Freeman’s visits to Carson‘s home in Maryland, the two women burned packets of Freeman’s letters together in the fireplace. In addition, each women independently destroyed some of the other’s letters. They were concerned how the intensity of their relationship might look from the outside. The “lesbian question,” however, was never raised by Freeman’s granddaughter.

In Wells, a wildlife refuge was dedicated to Carson‘s memory in 1970, six years after her death. In her best-selling Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement, Carson decried the “senseless destruction” of Maine’s natural beauty, its “evergreen forests, roads lined with bayberry and sweet fern, alder and huckleberry.”

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Camden, Maine

Edna St. Vincent Millay memorial
Whitehall Inn

52 High Street

A local girl born at 200 Broadway in Rockland, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) used to work at this tourists’ inn during the busy summer season. In 1912, “Vincent,” as she preferred to be called, did her first public reading here for guests and employees at the inn’s end-of-summer party. The first lines of the poem she read, “Renascence,” described the view of the Maine countryside from nearby Mount Battie, which Vincent loved to climb. “All I could see from where I stood,” the poem began, “was three long mountains and a wood.”

Fortuitously, a professor who was vacationing at Whitehall Inn was so impressed by Vincent’s poem that he arranged to have one of his wealthy friends pay for the girl to study at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1917 and where she wrote her play The Lamp and the Bell, the most overtly lesbian of all her works.

The “Millay Room” of the Whitehall Inn (shown above), which still operates as a bed and breakfast, contains a display of Millay’s books, a manuscript, and a facsimile of the original draft of “Renascence,” which was published in 1912. The exhibit also holds a scrapbook of articles about the poet and photographs of her at various ages. Just north of Camden, on top of the inspirational Mount Battie, an 800-foot tower bears a plaque honoring Millay. Though Millay lived most of her adult life in New York City and upstate New York, Maine remained a second home to her. (She and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, once owned a home in Camden at 31 Chestnut Street.)

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