On a recent field trip to the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey, MA, I learned that the 1750 Georgian house was purchased in 1960 by Jack Hargis and David Brush. They became the owners/caretakers of the property and over 26 years restored the house with the aid of the 1784 probate inventory of Reverend Adonijah Bidwell.
Caretakers. It seems to me that anyone that lives in an older home is primarily a caretaker. We pass through, while we seek to bring out the best in the house and the land. In one sense, this seems too idealistic or romantic, for one has to live in the structure. I don’t think that the farmers living here in the late 1800s felt this way, for the photographs passed on to us by the former owner depict a hardscrabble lifestyle, the home and barn in need of repair and the landscape appearing rather desolate.
While touring the Bidwell house, one travels back to when Reverend Bidwell and family inhabited the house through the stories told by the excellent guide and from the objects that Hargis and Brush collected. They purchased period furnishings similar to the ones listed in the probate inventory and created a “still-life.” There are shelves filled with red ware and ‘treen’—small functional objects made from wood–as well as countless candlesticks lined up on the hanging shelf. The current “caretakers”—Barbara Palmer/Executive Director, Eileen Mahoney/Administrative Manager, and Rosalia Padilla/Resident Caretaker—bring the former residents’ lives to us through the details. When Rosalia took us through the ‘Keeping Room’—the kitchen of the day—she conjured up a scene of Ruth Kent, Bidwell’s third wife, baking bread in the beehive oven on a Monday morning. All that was missing was the smell of the bread.
These tangible “still-life dramas” are the ones that we time travellers seek out, for we long to experience and feel the days of yore. Perhaps the vision statement from The Bidwell House Museum sums it up: “Opening the past, serving the future.” It is this unique combination of then and now that opens the door for us.
NOTE: “Still life dramas” is from the website of the Dennis Severs house. He transformed a London, Spitalfields 18th century house into a living entity. Severs (1948-1999) wanted the visitor to look over their shoulder, to rush quickly to the stairs, to peek behind the door trying to catch a glimpse of the family that just left the room, thus providing the ultimate time travel experience for the visitor.