A Tale of One Family

A Review of Meg Ferris Kenagy’s Book The House on School Street: Eight Generations. Two Hundred and Four Years. One Family.

Not many people can say their family lived in the same house for eight generations, and even fewer strive to uncover the lives of these ancestors. Meg Ferris Kenagy is one of these rare individuals as she dives head first into this challenge and presents her discoveries in her book The House on School Street: Eight Fenerations. Two Hundred and Four years. One Family. Kenagy brings the history of her family’s house to life through numerous stories about her ancestors. We experience their lives and deaths, births and marriages, and the resulting joys and heartaches that accompany each event.

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Martha Sprague Litchfield, left, and Sarah Trowbridge Litchfield. Circa 1890. Photo courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society.

Kenagy’s vivid descriptions of her family, the house, and Hingham make it feel like she is sitting down with us and flipping through pages of a photo album while sharing her family’s story. We see Colonel Charles Cushing building the house in 1785 after fighting in the Revolutionary War, and we watch subsequent generations move into and out of the family home. We learn of the successes and struggles of the family as they find ways to make a living in a changing world. As Kenagy shifts the narrative’s focus to each owner chapter after chapter, she recognizes the unique relationship each family member had with the house on School Street. She successfully sees the house through each of their eyes.

Although Kenagy admits there are gaps in her family’s story that research cannot fill, she does not let this obstacle frustrate her. Instead, Kenagy embraces what she does not know and proposes answers to the questions she cannot answer. By doing so, she becomes more attuned to the motivations, fears, and struggles of her ancestors. When Kenagy does know the answer to certain questions, she occasionally quotes letters and other sources to add another layer to her family’s story.

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A large barn can be seen to the left of the house in this 1889 photo. A carriage house is to the right of the house. Photo courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society.

While this book presents the story about eight generations of a family, it also provides an overview of the history of Hingham. Through Kenagy’s detailed descriptions, we see Hingham’s transformation from a small village to a bustling wartime shipyard. Selected quotes from sources like the History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts and the Hingham Journal bring the town’s history to life. By acknowledging the history of the town, we can clearly recognize the family’s influence on Hingham’s community.

You can sense writing this book was a deeply personal experience for Kenagy. Not only does it document how she confirms family stories, but also how she uncovers family secrets. We are excited to learn more about Meg Kenagy’s experience writing this book and researching her family’s history when she comes to the Hingham Heritage Museum at Old Derby for a talk and book signing on Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 3:00pm. Please join us!

Our Autograph Albums

Autograph albums were all the rage in mid-19th century America—and Hingham was no exception.  We have a collection of the small books in which Hingham boys and girls exchanged signatures, messages, and verse during the 1860s and 1870s.  The albums themselves came in all shapes and sizes–the boys’ albums more conservative  and the girls’ more elaborate, with illustrations, decorations, and fanciful covers.  Willie Leavitt’s album was compact and business-like,

Willie Leavitt's Autograph Album

Willie Leavitt’s Autograph Album

but the photograph below does not do justice to Minnie F. Burr’s autograph album, which was covered with deep-pile, chartreuse green velvet with the word “Album” inlaid in shiny celluloid letters.

Minnie F. Burr’s Autograph Album

Some boys and girls (mostly boys) simply signed their names in their friends’ albums but many penned a few lines of poetry or prose.  As would later be the case with high school yearbook inscriptions, there must have been some pressure to write memorably, and to meet this need, collections of autograph album inscriptions were published.  The Album Writer’s Friend, a copy of which is in our archives, helpfully asked,

Who among the readers of this preface has not been invited to write a few words of sentiment in the Albums of a friend? As an aid to the many thousands who have received this invitation and have not known what to write, we offer this collection of choice verse and prose . . . embracing sentiment, affection, humor, and miscellany . . . .

Its offerings ranged from the florid–

Our lives are albums, written through
With good or ill—with false or true—
And, as the blessed angels turn The pages of our years,
God grant they read the good with smiles
And blot the bad with tears

to the light-hearted–

In the storms of life
When you need an umbrella
May you have to uphold it
A handsome young fellow

The young people of Hingham did not appear to have needed much help, and the entries they made in their friends’ albums sound original and genuine, whether penned in verse (like Maud Cushing’s entry in Lizzie Hersey’s album, April 8, 1876),

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Lizzie Hersey’s Autograph Album

or with a touch of sophistication (like Eliza Cushing’s perfect French in Hattie Cushing’s album, August 14, 1863).

"Pensez a moi, ma chere amie"

“Pensez a moi, ma chere amie” — Hattie Cushing’s Autograph Album

Otis Remington’s humor, penned in Minnie Burr’s album on April 23, 1879, is corny but funnier than The Album Writer’s “humorous” suggestions:

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And inside jokes must have been as prevalent then as they are now:  who knows what Frank Pollard meant by this vaguely ominous note made on April 4, 1872 in Willie Leavitt’s album?

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These Hingham young people left often-endearing reminders of their daily life and friendships in their autograph albums.  They never imagined that their schoolroom would become an historical society’s archives or that these notes exchanged among themselves would survive as “artifacts.”

As the Hingham Historical Society turns 100, a look back at its first year

2014 is the Hingham Historical Society’s centennial year.  Riding the tide of a national Colonial Revival movement, which began in the last years of the 19th century and reached a peak in the 1920s, manifesting itself in a fascination with colonial architecture and furnishings and an often romanticized vision of an heroic Revolutionary past, a group of Hingham’s leading citizens formed an association dedicated to preserving the past of one of the nation’s oldest towns.

1917 photo of Society founder and benefactor Susan Barker Willard, posed in 18th century dress

1917 photo of Society founder and benefactor Susan Barker Willard, posed in 18th century dress

The Hingham Historical Society’s organizational meeting was held on June 11, 1914 at the Town Office Building.  Those present included Clarence H. Knowlton, William W. Lunt, Henry W. Cushing, Walter C. Shute, Susan Barker Willard, Edith Andrew, Oscar W. Stringer, Elizabeth L. Crosby, and Allen P. Soule.  John D. Long, former Governor of Massachusetts, representative in Congress, and Secretary of the Navy, was voted our first President.

After several additional organizational meetings, the Society hosted Dean George Hodges of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge for its December 1914 meeting.  Dean Hodges’ topic was “The Hanging of Mary Dyer.”  Meeting minutes note that this “most interesting paper . . . was much enjoyed, it being regretted,” however, “that his audience was not larger.”  After the paper, the minutes go on, “an informal discussion among the members brought out some forgotten facts regarding witchcraft in Hingham.”

At later meetings during its first year, the Society relied upon local talent for its programming.  Papers presented to the Hingham Historical Society during 1914-1915 included Mr. Samuel A. Cushing on “The Cushings of Rocky Nook,” Mr. Walter B. Foster on “Old Local Names,” Mrs. Henry W. Cushing on the old Cushing houses, and Thomas L. Sprague on “Hosea Sprague and Sprague’s Chronicles,” an early Hingham newspaper.  Mr. Clarence Knowlton gave a well-received tribute to local scientists Isaac Sprague, Charles J. Sprague, Thomas T. Bouve, and the Rev. John Lewis Russell.

At the first Annual Meeting, held on June 30, 1915, the Society once again looked abroad for its speaker.  Brooks Adams, author, historian, brother of Henry Adams, and  grandson of John Quincy Adams–but billed for this appearance as “President of the Quincy Historical Society,” addressed the membership on “the relation of the past to the present democracy.”   While Mr. Adams is reported to have presented his subject “in a most lucid and entertaining” manner, it seems that his views on history and democracy did not go down easily with his Hingham audience.  The meeting minutes note that “in the discussion following the speakers did not altogether agree on some of his address.”

The Society accepted gifts of books, manuscripts, and antiques from Hingham residents, recording its thanks in the monthly meeting minutes.  It lacked a place to keep its acquisitions, however, and a prime early goal was to raise funds to build a secure, fire-proof building for its holdings.  At the December 1914 meeting, Susan Barker Willard, an early benefactor who served on the Building Committee, suggested that “post cards representing the ‘Old Garrison House’ be placed on sale, the proceeds to go toward the creation of a building fund . . . .”

If the capital account grew slowly, the Society had ample operating funds after its first year.  At the first annual meeting in June 1915, the Treasurer reported that the Society had $61 in income (all from membership fees) and a scant $21.60 in expenses, which covered expenses of incorporation, purchase of record books, stationery, and postage, and the speakers’ expenses.

As the Hingham Historical Society enters its second century, much has changed and much remains the same.  The Society salutes these founders and the efforts they set in motion to collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret the history of the town of Hingham, Massachusetts.