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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

There and Back Again


For the last nine months, I’ve been in charge of developing activities for the non-profit where I work part time.  Key phrase: nonprofit.  Translation: we need programs for seniors but we don’t have any money.  Find a way.

As a result, I am working with the historical society to produce a “then and now” presentation featuring our town.  This involves sifting through overflowing files for old pictures, then driving around and taking current photographs of the same locations.  Once I pull it all together into a PowerPoint, we’ll show it.  It’s a proverbial win-win.  The town’s elders get some entertainment and the Historical Society (even more of a not-for-profit than Elder Affairs) gets a copy of the final product to do with as they see fit. The process has been educational for me and fun, but more than anything else, eye opening.

You see, our town is old—as in, discovered-by-John-Smith old.  Driving around in 2012, I think nothing of passing houses that have been standing for over two hundred and fifty years.  The area is a treasure of antique buildings and winding roads that began as cow paths, and for as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve had the sense the place hasn’t changed much since the beginning. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  After digging through the files, I am overwhelmed by all that no longer exists.  Three ornate Victorian hotels of the same name all burned to the ground.  Grandiose estates, torn down and replaced with suburban colonials, a catholic church, too small for the congregation, obliterated in favor of a vanilla (albeit larger) 1960’s version, a row of stores demolished by the town improvement society at the turn of the 20th century. I would have never suspected the quiet grove now housing a war memorial across from our town common was the former site of a dry goods store, a bakery and a “public market.” Gas stations, car dealerships and guest houses—all gone.

Even much of what endures, is barely recognizable.  The inn at the heart of town has undergone so much restoration, only its address offers a clue that it’s been in business since 1704.  The harbor, the home of a flourishing mackerel fleet and a healthy shipping-building industry, now supports a commercial base made up of a handful of lobster boats.  They bob at their moorings amidst an array of recreational vessels. 
 
Early history remains in the geography I pass daily, sure, but now I realize nothing is really the same.  I’ve learned, through this process, that growth cannot come without loss.  Back at home, as I listen to slick and desperate-sounding advertisements for the pen industry during back-to-school-season, I get that the personal computer has prompted the loss of handwriting, the private phone—the loss of the party line, email and texting, and video conferencing, the loss of letters—and through all these improvements, we’ve gained, right? 

Would I want to traverse muddy roads, while avoiding horse “deposits” along the way?  Probably not.  Would I want to wash my clothes via a washboard before lugging them out to dry?   Well gosh, I have a hard enough time doing laundry as it is.  Imagine having to heat water on the stove in order to take a bath?  Would I want to return to a time when I couldn’t vote? To live in an era when I’d be considered my husband’s property?   Are you kidding? 

And yet, I can’t help but be sad for that which no longer is.  For polished mahogany stair rails and carriage houses, for local butcher shops, blacksmiths and fish mongers, for neighborhood schools and linen dresses and long, slow cooked Sunday suppers enjoyed with extended family.  For barns and open fields and brick train stations, for wooden hotels peering over the sea and for fisherman delivering their catch to stores less than a mile away.  It was a way of life, and there’s no one left to tell us about it.  All that remains are the clues we find in old photos. 

The most I can hope for I guess, is that someone figures out how to time travel before my life is over.  If they do, I’m going back with whatever the digital camera equivalent is at that point in time —and I’m turning the setting to “video.”

If you could time travel, where and when would you visit?

17 comments:

Juliann Wetz said...

I can relate. Every time we go to a town like Savannah, or Gettysburg, or anywhere with a rich past, we take walking tours. As I listen to the tour guides, I picture how the town must have been and wish that some of that history still remained.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's sad how much we've lost and destroyed over the years. I've visited and lived in Europe and they seem to preserve their history better than we do.

glnroz said...

you do have a lot of history in those parts. I am intrigued by any old building. I often drive off the main roads just to see the dying settlements. It's a shame to see an old structure of any kind being torn down. The history of that building may not be so colorful and important but it has history none the less.. kinda like us Old Codgers "down here",, lol

Bish Denham said...

The Virgin Islands have manage to keep a lot of buildings, but the aura of the places has changed dramatically. If I could go back in time I go back to St. John in the 1950s and take WAY more pictures.

Carol Kilgore said...

We normally tend to forget about things like horse deposits when we think about traveling back to the past. I would like to travel back to visit with my grandparents when they were young and talk to them about what their grandparents told them.

mshatch said...

I know exactly how you feel. When I was doing research for the time-travel books I wrote (one complete, one not) it was so interesting looking at the old pictures and comparing them to the present day. I DO bemoan the loss of architecture combined with well-made, the thank-you note, and the more leisurely pace of the 'olden days.' I am very happy to have central heating and hot water, and the freedom to do as I like more or less. I would like to visit the two times I wrote about: 1881 (ending my journey in Tombstone in time to see the famous gunfight) and 1804, so I can see what life was really like on Cape Cod, and walk through some of the houses as they were then.

Gina Gao said...

I can so relate to this post! I really enjoyed reading this.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

'Yellow Rose' Jasmine said...

What a cool project! I feel as if one thing we lack on the west coast is the history that the east has so much of. You've made me realize there's probably more there than I know.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Like you, I would like to visit the past but not live there. I would love to see the country in the days when travel was by horseback and ferries across the river.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I'd hate to give up conveniences and women's rights, but I'd love to be in Paris at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th when it was filled with artists and writers.

Jan Morrison said...

What a glorious project you're working on! I too live near an Atlantic fishing town that is over four hundred years old. It is much tinier though and very little remains of that time past. When we've had Europeans visiting they laugh at our idea of age and I loved going to England and visiting Abbeys that were from the Middle Ages. What remains of those lives? We are all dust.
As to where I'd go on my round-trip time travel ticket - I kind of liked the sixties so I might revisit them. Not so adventurous I know. The other time I'm fascinated with is Elizabethan England. As to a time when women didn't do to badly that would be Chaucer's time when women commonly owned businesses and travelled. Poverty wasn't good in any of those times ... or now.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

What a fantastic project! Who knows? The information you dig up about historical sites in your area might even end up being the starting point for a book or article. At any rate, it should be a lot of fun.

If I could travel into the past, I'd like to spend time with my mother and her family back in the '30s.

Lydia Kang said...

So many places! I'd love to see the big cities in the early late 1800s, for example.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'd love to visit the 40's or 50's for the music, fashion and culture. At least we can time travel in our mind when we write and read :)

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J. B. Chicoine said...

If I could time travel, where and when would I visit? That's one of those impossible questions, but with lobster at 25 cents, well, that's when and where I want to be!

Seriously though, it's so cool to see places from long ago--and sad at the same time, especially if a structure has become dilapidated or no longer stands at all. You've gotta love New England for it's early American history. Not too many places can boast history anywhere near the 1700's.

Really cool post, Liza.

Mary Sullivan Frasier said...

Love this post, Liza. Living in a part of New England myself, I also pass by structures every day that date back to colonial times. Sadly, there was a wave of "urban renewal" in the late 60's and even though I was just a kid, I can remember feeling a sense of loss as what seemed like half of the historic buildings in the city, were torn down and replaced by "modern" monstrocities. If you ever do get your hands on one, I'd love to step into a time machine with some sort of video camera in hand, too. :~)