Friday, September 20, 2013

The Veblens and E.B. White in Brooklin, Maine

When not at their home in Herrontown Woods, the Veblens would often travel up to their cottage in Brooklin, Maine. While trying to find out if their cottage up there still exists, I found out that Brooklin is quite an interesting place. For one, it was the home of E.B. White, whose farm there provided the inspiration for Charlotte's Web. A member of the Paul Winter consort is also on the list of local notables (Paul Winter has a connection with Princeton open space. An archaeological site revealed that Brooklin's location once was an American Indian trading center. An amateur archaeologist is said to have found an 11th century Norse coin there

Though fewer than 1000 people live there, Brooklin is an important center for building wooden boats. Not sure how many people have memories of wooden boats, but a vivid memory for me as a kid was the spring sanding and varnishing of our C Scow sailboat. I remember the beauty of the wood and the fragrance of the varnish, rather than all the work that (mostly) my father, siblings and friends did to make the boat seaworthy each year. Sailing it was also a group effort, requiring a well-timed switching of the bilgeboards every time we came about, coordinated with a well-timed ducking of the head to avoid the boom. My role was to periodically pump water out as it accumulated in the bottom of the boat, seeping through whatever crack we couldn't completely seal in the spring. My older sisters came home one day, very wet and very excited, with news that they had tipped the boat over in a strong breeze. All mishaps should make us so happy.

I contacted the Brooklin Keeping Society--a great name for a historical society--to ask about the Veblens and their cottage. Richard Freethey responded with two emails:

"I am not sure whether the cottage he owned is still there or not- I remember my father worked for him down there on Naskeag (a part of Brooklin) just before Mr Veblen died. I was only 9 when he died so as far as I know they were very quiet folks, and I am pretty sure they did not do a lot of socializing with the natives here. As for Mr White, his place is about 4-5 miles from where there’s was (or is) and I have never heard of their socializing any."
"I asked one of our volunteers who knows more about Brooklin history than anyone. She is around 85. She says her grandfather Walter Crockett did some carpentry work on the cabin for the Veblens. She said they were very quiet and not at all public people who lived a very simple life while they were here. Of course the property was on one of the prettiest spots on Blue Hill Bay, with the lighthouse in the background and the mountains of Mt Desert Island in the background. His and other properties have been taken over by folks who were not so impressed with the simple life. None of us know but we all suspect that his cabin was  replaced by something not as rustic." 

I'm surprised there's no mention of socializing around the Veblens' strong tradition of serving tea, but the gravitation to a place of great natural beauty fits with their affinity for Herrontown Woods, as does the simplicity of their lifestyle.

Update, 11.05.13: Looks like there's more than one Princeton connection with Brooklin, Maine. Just heard a talk at Princeton University in which Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, told a story of his son going to Brooklin to build a boat with the son's grandfather.