Friday, September 25, 2009

4: Littleton and Franconia: Frost in the north woods

This trip more than any of the others so far demonstrates the benefits of staying open to the unanticipated. The main literary attractions are always set (in this case, Robert Frost’s home in Franconia), but the rest of the itinerary is flexible. I had found an interesting restaurant I wanted to try, but when I called a few days ahead to check the hours, I discovered that it was going to be closed the day of my field trip. Bummer. But I also received an email from my friend Maureen with an important question: Did I know that Eleanor Hodgman Porter (author of Pollyanna) was from Littleton, New Hampshire?)

Boy, was I glad to hear that!

(That’s a Pollyanna reference for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story. The book, originally published in 1913, is still in print, so you can find it if you’re curious. It was also adapted as a classic Disney film starring Hayley Mills—and the adorable Kevin Corcoran.)

Littleton was a wonderful surprise. Maureen and I had been through the town at the beginning of the summer when we had made an expedition to northern New Hampshire (another story perhaps for another time), but then it had been just a passing view out the window.

First off, lunch. After the drive from Massachusetts munching was definitely in order. We chose Miller’s CafĂ© & Bakery. You know the food has to be good when the folks who work there are looking in the display case and eagerly discussing what they’re going to have for lunch. The worst thing about a good sandwich (and more) shop is having to make that all-important decision. We finally opted for a Grilled Provence Panini (chicken) and an Athena Wrap (lamb), and the day was perfect for eating them outside on the deck overlooking the river.

We actually made two stops at Miller’s, because after we walked around town, we came back for our dessert: strawberry rhubarb pie. The pie, like the sandwiches, was as good as it looked. (I’d go to this place a few times a week if it weren’t two and a half hours away.)

Our walk took us first to the local bookstore (of course) and then up Main Street to the library. Right out in front of the building, arms thrown wide, is a statue of Pollyanna in honor of Eleanor Hodgman Porter and her most famous creation. The character even inspired a new word: A “Pollyanna” is an excessively optimistic person. And the word even turned up in one of Robert Frost’s poems, “New Hampshire”—

“It’s Pollyanna now or death.”

(It’s a very long poem, so I’m only quoting the one line. Besides the line is just plain fun to see or say out of context. Get over it.)

On our way back down Main Street we just had to investigate a sign we had seen earlier—the awning outside a store called Chutters declared that it had, according to Guinness World Records, the world’s longest candy counter. Now I ask you, who could resist that? We poked our noses into many of the many, many jars that lined the wall and were so overwhelmed by the scent of sugar that neither of us actually looked to see what the record-setting measurement was—112 feet if you really care (I checked later). To me, statistics don’t matter when candy is involved.

One other thing had attracted our attention as we came into town, and we decided we just had to check it out before we left. There was a small, plain sign pointing down a side road that said “Horse Cemetery.” These are the sorts of things that just call out for a side trip. So, tangent it was.

Robert Frost would have understood. Following that sign certainly took us down a road less traveled. And we discovered a small fenced cemetery with three grave markers and a small plaque that explained them. In 1889 a man named Eli Wallace bought his wife a matched pair of Morgans, Maud and Molly, and the childless couple were devoted to the horses. Twenty years later, when the horses had to be put down, the Wallaces had them buried with their feedboxes, blankets and all their tack. After Mrs. Wallace died the following year, a friend gave Eli another horse, Maggie, who was later buried along with the others.

Robert Frost lived in Franconia, only a few miles from Littleton, from 1915 to 1920. I wonder if he ever saw the Wallaces out for a ride with Maud and Molly.

The sign in front of Frost’s house says, “The Frost Place Museum and Poetry Center.” I like that. We have plenty of building centers and automotive centers and nuts-and-bolts centers of all sorts—it’s nice to see a poetry center, and I’d like to see more of them. The house, owned by the town of Franconia, is both a museum and a residence; each year the organization awards a fellowship to a poet that includes living in the house for the summer months. In addition the center hosts several writers’ conferences and workshops, so creative energy works on in the same rooms, fields and woods where Frost worked during his time here.

The Frost Place is casual for a museum (compared to most I’ve visited on this adventure). The small barn out back houses the visitor center and a space for poetry readings. The docent there didn’t offer to take our admission fees and simply directed us to the screen door on the front porch if we wanted to view the house. The screen door had a homey squeak to it, and just inside was a basket to receive our money if we chose to make a donation. Gotta a love a place that still stands by the honor system.

We stepped into the living room and saw Frost’s leather Morris chair with lap desk. An old cast-iron stove stood next to it, and several display cases lined the walls. Upstairs were several more display cases in the hall and in one bedroom. The effect was minimalist rather than lacking, since the museum is but one element of the Frost Place. The items gave a sense of Frost’s presence rather than a recreation of his life here.

Providing a contrast of indoor/outdoor and natural/manmade was the nature trail that wound from the back of the house out into the woods. No video touch screens or push-button audio tour, but rather wooden plaques hung on trees showcasing some of Frost’s poems. Summer flowers lingered in the tangled grass even as the first red leaves of autumn fell to the ground. The path, sometimes wooden planks or stepping-stones or just mossy ground under the trees, invited us and several other groups of visitors to meander along it. Identification markers labeled the plants along the route for a combination literature/botany lesson.

Frost bought the Franconia property when he returned to the States after several years in England. He was forty years old but really only recently established as a poet. His first two books had been published in England, and he received positive notice there. American editions came out the same year he moved to Franconia.

I think he had a notion of the sort of place a New England poet should live, and he went looking for it. His poetic account of it in “New Hampshire” says:

The farm I made my home on in the mountains
I had to take by force rather than buy.
I caught the owner outdoors by himself
Raking up after winter, and I said,
“I’m going to put you off this farm: I want it.”
“Where are you going to put me? In the road?”
“I’m going to put you on the farm next to it.”
“Why won’t the farm next to it do for you?”
“I like this better.” It really was better.

He had liked Franconia when he summered here in the past, partly to escape the torments of hay fever that plagued him farther south, and he probably had a romantic notion of living among the mountains—Mount Lafayette dominates the view from the front porch. But year-round living is different from enjoying the summer months here; Frost and his family left this house after just a few years, because the winters were too cold and long (and because he had an offer to teach at Amherst College).

Frost, like more than a few of his New England literary predecessors, moved pretty frequently. This, of course, presents me with the opportunity to visit several of his residences—and there will be more Frost to come.

Heading south, we decided to stop in Franconia Notch State Park and visit The Basin. This beautiful pothole carved from granite by a waterfall on the Pemigewasset River is a short, easy walk from the parking lot—just a chance to stretch our legs before the drive home. And whom should we meet at the edge of The Basin but that footloose Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. A marker at the railing informs visitors that Thoreau was also a visitor here—among his myriad New England wanderings—and gazed on the sight that we were viewing. The afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch across the path so we didn’t linger long.

After all, we had miles to go …

No comments:

Post a Comment