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Restoration Tales

September 7, 2018

This year our 1890s restored farmhouse was really starting to show her age. After all, it's been nearly 15 years since her last paint job. So, following a relaxing spring sojourn in our old stomping ground, Sag Harbor, we decided it was time to 'pencil her in.' And what better time to 'pretty her up' than to coincide with the celebration of our adopted hometown's 200th birthday. The history of our landmark house, will be included in the commemorative Town of Perry Bicentennial book.

While tackling the complete restoration of our two over two windows, we squeezed in a much-needed restoration of a window sash that hailed from the tiny hamlet of Hollis, Maine. This ailing six pane sash was from an impressive red brick Federal home built in 1820 by Ellis B. Usher; in his time the largest mill owner and lumberman on the Saco River. Usher married Rebecca Randall who died only a few years later. He remarried and the couple named their first child, born in 1821, Rebecca Randall Usher.

Her father insisted Rebecca be educated and free thinking, the same as the boys. After his passing in 1855, the fiercely independent Rebecca took over most of his business activities. During the Civil War she distinguished herself as a volunteer nurse under the supervision of the activist reformer, Dorthea Dix, tending to the injured and sick Maine soldiers. In a letter home she wrote, "I am delighted with hospital life. I feel like a bird in the air or a fish in the sea, as if I have found my native element."

In 1862 a prescient Rebecca wrote of her wartime president, "I am delighted with the President's message: that part relating to emancipation. I think Abraham Lincoln has left his impress on the nineteenth century which will go down to the latest generation making him immortal with Washington." On her second trip south in 1865, she was stationed in Washington D.C. where she would meet her immortal hero. While there she visited the unfinished capital and attended a reception at the White House where President Lincoln shook her hand saying, "How do you do, dear." On hearing of his assassination just three months later, she penned, "I could not believe it at first, but when the terrible truth was forced upon me, I was almost paralyzed. It seemed as if the sun would never shine again." After the war she returned to her family home in Hollis where she tended her business and managed the stately brick residence until her death in 1912.

Enter the progressive educator and author, Kate Douglas Wiggin. Around the turn of the century, Wiggin, who grew up near Hollis, purchased a c.1797 summer writing retreat there, which she affectionately dubbed "Quillcote." It was her friend, the formidable and forward-thinking Rebecca Randall Usher and her red brick house, that provided inspiration and two central characters for Wiggin's classic,1903 children's novel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The novel concludes with the story's heroine, Rebecca Rowena Randall's, memorable exclaim, "God bless Aunt Miranda! God bless the brick house that was! God bless the brick house that is to be!"

Concurrent with our other shop work we also completely restored the Roman styled balustrade from the front portico of the Calais gem known as the 'Holmestead." This stately, 1850, Italianate, you may remember, is notable as the former home of Vesta Hamlin Holmes sister of Abraham Lincoln's first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin. After a painstaking analysis of old photographs, we will be finishing Phase II of the Italianate portico/front steps project in the spring of 2019.

Other upcoming projects include a bath renovation in a cottage on the Passamaquoddy Bay and a kitchen and pantry renovation that will bring back some 1890s charm to this home on the St. Croix River. Check out the September issue of Old House Journal where our own bath is featured in the article, Sophisticated Salvage by Mary Ellen Polson. "For restorers, the best use of architectural salvage is to replace missing architectural details that should never have been lost in the first place."

Thanks to the Maine Historical Society, Buxton-Hollis Historical Society and Falmouth Library

(click photo to view larger image)

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