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Wish You Were Here

I live in the central village of a seaside New England town old enough to celebrate a 375th anniversary this year. Those of us who live beside tidal bodies on or near historic places like Sandwich, Massachusetts come to expect new discoveries as an ordinary course of events, not by way of invention, of course, but through a diary or letter found beneath attic floorboards or foundation stones uncovered to reveal the outline of a 17th century house. In places like this, unimagined discoveries await you on a beach or in a closet or inches below the grass of your backyard. When we were replacing a small porch at my house with a large deck, for example, we dug up an 1868 coin and a small pale blue-green glass bottle with a one-inch tall circular neck atop an eight-sided container presumably for ink. I’ve often told company that “it may have been made right here at the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company.”

Some forty years ago my friend and neighbor Carol, then editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, attended a selectmen’s meeting when the discovery of a unique piece of Sandwich’s glass industry history was announced. The official 1879 stamp of the Glass Blowers Union had lain undisturbed in an attic until the property’s change of hands brought it to light. For the small gathering the seal was inked one final time and a few prints were made. Knowing my interest in town history Carol saved one for me. It’s in a small frame in my living room, along with other treasures of great interest and dubious value.

Recently I was at the Sandwich Glass Museum talking with Katie Campbell, director of the Sandwich Glass Museum and the Sandwich Historical Society, about my recently published biography on Sandwich native Thornton W. Burgess, an influential naturalist and children’s author. In fact, many members of Burgess’ family were well-known in the historic glass factory’s management and production – Watermans, Spurrs, and Chapouils ─ and Burgess as a boy sold his mother’s popular molasses candy to factory workers. On the way out of the museum I stopped to chat with staff members Robert and Caitlyn. Casual mention of my little ink well and the seal imprint produced an unmistakable gleam in their eyes. So I walked home, retrieved my prizes, and brought them to the museum for curator Dorothy Hogan-Schofield to inspect when she returned to work.

Yesterday I went to collect them and learn her opinion. The glass ink well was manufactured, Dorothy reported, but, alas, most likely not at the Boston & Sandwich Glass Factory. (No more entertaining speculation!) The stamped imprint was interesting, but, in fact, the museum had at some point acquired the union seal itself which she kindly offered to show me along with other exciting pieces, including the small, dark utilitarian desk at which the seal had been used.

“Have you seen the post card exhibit?” Dorothy asked, and escorted me around the corner for a quick look at the museum’s newest exhibit which is based on early 20th century postcard views of familiar town locations. Many items are organized by street, so residents, homeowners and tourists alike can easily relate to the contents. “Look, here’s School Street,” I said exclaiming anew at my favorite postcard scene that shows Thornton Burgess’ birthplace on a lovely, broad tree-shaded street.

“And there’s the Casino!” I said, pointing out postcards of the large town’s community building that once stood on School Street. “Thornton Burgess was the keynote speaker there at Sandwich’s 300th anniversary dinner. “For the 250th they set up a tent behind the Casino big enough to accommodate 2,000 people,” remarked Dorothy. “Really?” I said. “Oh, here’s the boardwalk!” I leaned closer to the display case to read its construction date: 1875. I realize that it was still fairly new when Thornton Burgess crossed it in March 1879 with other townspeople hurrying to see the gigantic blue whale that had washed up on the town beach.

“This is one of my favorites,” commented Dorothy. We stopped before a scene at the Town Beach showing several completely clothed women on dry land standing near a passel of children in the water, none fully immersed, which reflects nothing but common sense to anyone familiar with the bay’s ridiculously cold temperatures. Nearby are images of the now highly desirable residential Town Neck area when it was a cow pasture. I recall Burgess’ story of herding cows there as a young boy in the late 1800s. One got onto the nearby railroad track and to his horror was run down by an approaching train.

I’m aware of imposing on the curator. But it’s early on a gray winter morning and there are few visitors. We can spend a few more conscience-free minutes savoring this marvelous collection of images and items that capture the classic, tranquil beauty of our town, a place she and I know and love well. Here is documentation, not that we need it, that so much has been unchanged by the passage of time.

I came to the museum with two small discoveries in hand, and left yesterday with a wealth of discoveries of a different kind, thanks to a collection of commercial art, collectibles, and handwritten messages on simple postcards. Whatever you do, make time between now and June 2014 to visit the Sandwich Glass Museum’s special exhibit “Wish You Were Here.”

And if you experience one gasp of surprise, one thrill of discovery while visiting this special exhibit, ask the staff to pass along your thanks to the curator who will undoubtedly be upstairs completely engrossed in assembling the museum’s next major exhibit.

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