We love oysters. Even better, we’re spoiled by some great offerings from five of our six New England states. (Sorry Vermont.) What’s so interesting is that even though most of our oysters share a common ancestry, they truly take on the characteristics of where they grow. Call it “bivalve terroir.” For us, it provides a different dining experience, as we taste offerings all the way from Damariscotta in Maine to Ned’s Island in Connecticut. We find that mignonette sauce, rather than cocktail sauce, amplifies these regional characteristics and brings the oyster experience to a new level.
Because we can reach the coast of all five New England oysters states in less than 90 minutes, getting fresh shellfish is never an issue. Having children who know how to shuck makes it even better because we can relax on the deck with a bottle of Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a local craft brew such as a Harpoon Brewery UFO Hefeweizen. Not surprisingly, our children love oysters too, so our “shuck tax” is about 50 percent. (Note: (1) we only buy from trusted sources and (2) our children were held off until they were older.)
This all sounds great, right? We can end our little oyster tale now on a positive note, but we’re not going to do that. Why? Because we also like going out for oysters. Here’s the rub: we are seeing escalating prices – $3.50 per oyster – at many venues that have raw bars. Let’s do some math. We pay $0.99 retail per oyster, which means wholesale price is likely around $0.50. Even with labor and reasonable discard, how can establishments justify a 600% markup? Restaurant wines don’t command this premium. We’ve been paying about $2.50 per oyster in New York City.
C’mon folks, why such a “raw” deal on one of our regional specialties? You’re doing those of us who love oysters a disservice. Thank goodness there are still plenty of places with raw bars that offer a fair price and give us some great New England oysters.
Childhood memories, unlike other thoughts, have strong emotional dimensions that include amplified aspects of sight and smell. I discovered that food, because of its social and sensuous qualities, unlocks a treasure chest of childhood memories. With this in mind, I decided to use food to probe into the childhood memories of my in-laws and garner insight into ethnic New England during the Great Depression. So often we think about our region and its colonial past, town greens, and white church steeples, yet we forge many of the ethnic threads that combine to form the broader New England fabric.
From Old Italy to New England
My in-laws, Umberto and Isabel (Celani) Ciampa, grew up in Boston’s Italian North End during the Great Depression. They rarely speak about their past unless they are reminiscing with their contemporaries at some gathering such as a wedding or (more frequently) a wake. I found the best way to gain any insight into their childhoods was to be direct and use their culinary memories as a catalyst. For the most part, after some prodding, they appeased me. I’m not quite sure why it is so difficult to get them to share their stories; perhaps they consider their lives nothing special or extraordinary. Nonetheless, they just can’t understand why someone would find their lives interesting.
Once they begin articulating these fascinating, often-humorous childhood stories, the details innocently reveal a side of them rarely seen. Their tales not only shed light on a generation, but also introduce me to friends and family who seem to exist only in old photographs. I’ve had the privilege of subsequently meeting some of them, but their numbers are diminishing, a loss for all of us. These stories fill in missing gaps and explain the idiosyncrasies and unique views of my in-laws, particularly when it comes to food.
My father-in-law, Umberto, “Bert,” was born in the North End on Charter Street, the third child of six children and second of four sons. His parents were from the villages around the southern Italian town of Avellino. His immediate family moved often and lived in various apartments in either the North End or the nearby Boston suburb of Medford.
Pepper and Egg Sandwiches
As a child, his mother would make him pepper and egg sandwiches for his school lunch. Frequently he would trade those sandwiches for a friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Why?” I asked. (I would have preferred the pepper & egg myself) “Because,” he replied, “it was something we never had at home and I loved it.” Then the stories began to flow.
Bert immediately spoke of tripe, one of his favorite comfort foods. He laments that unlike during his youth, tripe appears less often on both kitchen tables and contemporary restaurant menus. He still enjoys it when he is fortunate enough to find it.
He then spoke glowingly about his mother making pasta every week and laying it upon their beds to dry; a favorite was fusilli, prepared by dexterously wrapping the dough around a dowel.
Basil and Gravy
His mother grew many things, including basil, which decorated windowsills and fire escapes. I would imagine if you closed your eyes, you’d smell the tomato, garlic and basil wafting from their open window to the street below. Sunday was “gravy” (tomato sauce with meat) day.
My mother-in-law, Isabel (Lisa Bell on her birth certificate due to a poorly interpreted Italian accent) was also born in the North End, in a third floor walk-up apartment above Parziale’s Bakery (est 1907) on Prince Street. She was the sixth child of seven, and third girl of four daughters. Ironically, she and her sisters were not taught to cook by their Italian mother, who also came from a village not far from Avellino. This surprised me. One can only speculate the reasons: safety, duty, and impatience.
My mother-in-law has an aversion to basil, which surprised me, but she could never explain why. She learned how to cook from her mother-in-law after she got married, who, ironically, loved basil, but it didn’t matter. She speaks fondly about her father, a waiter at the Cantina Italiana (est 1931) on Hanover Street. He always cooked on Tuesday, his day off, while drinking wine and listening to Enrico Caruso.
Over lunch last fall, I asked her if she remembered having a favorite dish. “Oh, I loved the snails my mother would cook in garlic and oil.” Purchased by the bag from Giuffre’s Fish Market at the corner of Cross Street and Salem Street, the snails would constantly crawl out of the bag in the sink and up the kitchen walls. Members of the family would pluck them down and place them back into the bag until dinner.
After the snail account, she moved to speaking of eels. Prior to becoming part of a family meal, the eels occupied the family bathtub. This description evoked audible gasps from her grandsons, whichs turned into a discussion they won’t forget and will likely share with their own children.
Pigeons, locally grown and caught (meaning snatched via an open window from a windowsill) were another culinary delight in the North End, though not to my mother-in-law. I found this out the hard way. As a new bride, I carefully and meticulously prepared a special dinner for my new in-laws that would include Rock Cornish game hens à la Silver Palate. Four lovely, brown, succulent birds came out of my oven. When I placed upon the table, my mother-in-law proclaimed that she would not be able to eat dinner. Why I asked? (Shocked and disappointed for I knew she ate chicken- although never on the bone) “I cannot eat them because they remind me of the pigeons from the North End.” Wait. Wasn’t this the same woman who expressed such passion for snails?
Both of my in-laws will not eat a lentil in any form. I discovered that they were not alone among many of their North End peers. The reason? Apparently there was a pasta and lentil dish from Campania that all the southern Italian children in the North End would be forced to eat regularly. How often? Enough that the mere taste of a lentil elicits a gag reflex. I surmise that this pasta and lentil dish comprised a protein-filled meatless meal, very economical for large families during the Great Depression.
And We Weave
Ironically, this is not just an Italian-American story, but also a New England narrative. Our region is home to many ethnic groups (Native American, French, Portuguese, Irish, Eastern European, Latino, Asian, Indian, African etc.) which share their history along with our colonial forefathers.
New England’s ethnic diversity is a true gift, one that is easily taken for granted, but noticeably absent in many areas of the country. Failing to capture these sometimes-quirky snippets from long ago means the human side of life gets buried with the storyteller.
Gather those family memories, stories and recipes from whichever New England state was home. For it is these seemingly insignificant threads that when woven together, create our regional, historical fabric. A fabric so strong, durable, and rich it can only be found here.
Historic city. Esteemed seafaring heritage. Some say she has seen better days. A pretty girl with a dirty face. Very proud people.
The description could apply to either Naples, Italy or New Bedford, Massachusetts. Having spent time in both cities, we see the similarities even though thousands of miles separate them. Both, in our humble opinion, are worthy destinations and offer far more to the visitor than may be apparent on their often tired facades. They also have an intoxicating vibrancy, fed by well-needed renewals. That’s why we keep going back.
Recently, on a beautiful, spring Saturday, we headed down to Massachusetts’ South Coast for some research and relaxation. For those of you not familiar, South Coast is the term used to describe the non-Cape Cod coastal section of Massachusetts that extends from the canal to the border of Rhode Island. Like much of coastal New England, this region blends natural beauty, hardscrabble living, local rituals, and rich American history. It doesn’t have the crowds or the kitsch of the Cape, but offers travelers a rewarding, yet accessible experience to explore New England. On this particular day, we covered the entire length from Wareham to Westport and included our regular, requisite stop in New Bedford.
Our destination in New Bedford was Travessia, an urban winery in the heart of the city. Travessia is run by Marco Montez, whose love for the vine flows as beautifully as his wine. Marco is reinstituting the ancient tradition of vinification in a city, rather than in a remote, rural setting. He chose New Bedford and frequently uses locally-harvested grapes for his array of wines. Though he does business sixty miles from the capital of Massachusetts, Marco is well-known by the Boston wine community and justifiably so: he’s a passionate New Englander who cares deeply about his product and his ties to the South Coast. But we digress. Travessia was our expected destination, but another place in New Bedford became our unexpected destination.
On the way to Travessia, we passed what appeared to be yet another, undifferentiated pizza establishment. Laura grabbed my arm, pulled me to a stop and pointed me to the name, “Brick Pizzeria Napoletana.” I tuned out immediately, which is normally uncharacteristic for me (and Laura), except when it comes to pizza. We’ve had so many lackluster pizzas over the years despite searching endlessly for great ones. For some bizarre reason, we take our pizza seriously – very, very seriously. I’m trying rather hard not to turn this into a pizza post because that one is already in the works. Nonetheless, being too often disappointed, I find that the Naples designation applied to pizza only exacerbates my angst because it’s almost always not like real Naples. Hence, we moved on to Travessia for a pleasant tasting with Marco.
After sampling some great wine and purchasing some nice bottles, we headed back to the car. Again, Laura stopped me in front of Brick. “They’ve got a real wood fired oven in there!” she exclaimed. “Wood-fired bad pizza is still bad pizza,” I responded. She was undeterred and dragged me in. I’ve been married too long and know when resistance is futile. Once inside, my nose reacted to the aromas immediately. They registered “Naples, Italy.” Wow. Interesting. I thought it was fluke and fought what my senses were telling me.
I saw the Caputo Flour in the kitchen, so I instantly knew they took their dough seriously. Then I saw the fresh mozzarella, the San Marzano tomatoes, and the sprigs of fresh basil. I started a conversation with John Goggin, the pizzaiolo, who was kind enough to give a skeptic like me history of the restaurant, a description of the ingredients, and a review of the baking process. In fairness to John, I did tell him that I spent many years in the North End of Boston in a famed pizzeria, so we had some common ground. John informed me that his son Jeff, whom we just missed by a matter of minutes, was the owner.
I capitulated to both Laura and John and ordered a classic Margherita pizza. Though one of the simplest of pizzas, the Margherita is the true test of a pizza establishment. More ingredients only serve to mask imperfections. And that was the challenge because there would be no room for error and it would confirm my anticipated disappointment.
Then the pizza arrived.
It was visually stunning. It was cooked to perfection. It was delicious. I was wrong – dead wrong. And I admitted it to Laura. (Another reason we’ve been married for 20 years.) This pizza was Naples, Italy-caliber. No kidding. I wanted to give John a hug. This was an unexpected experience. Right away, I wished I lived nearby so I could stop in regularly, perhaps pairing a great Margherita from Brick with a nice red wine from Travessia.
In the meantime, Laura and I will continue our trips to the South Coast, somehow knowing there will be more visits to New Bedford, to Travessia, and to Brick Pizzeria Napoletana. And what about Naples, Italy? We’ll head back there as well. It’s a jewel like New Bedford. Fortunately, we can now experience some Neapolitan pizza without the hassle of a long flight.
Are there take-aways here? Absolutely. In fact, there are several.
Great things are happening in older New England cities like New Bedford.
Entrepreneurs like Marco Montez and Jeff Goggin infuse life into our historic cities.
New Englanders like John Goggin make a huge difference for customers.
Massachusetts’ South Coast is a rich and evolving destination with no canals to cross.
The key to a happy marriage is listening to your spouse and admitting when you’re wrong.
Life is too short to eat bad pizza and drink lousy wine.
-Rob Ciampa, Palaverer
Photos credits: City-data.com (Wikipedia Commons), Travessia Urban Winery, Rob & Laura Ciampa
We love a great beer or ale, but finding an equally-great venue that serves them up properly is often a challenge. That’s why the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA had been on our radar since we heard about its opening in 2008. They are serious beer connoisseurs. Unfortunately, our schedules over the past couple of years only permitted a few quick stops in “The City of the Seven Hills.” Last week, after a recent run through the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, we had a window of time to explore Worcester in greater depth. Stopping at the Armsby Abbey was the obvious choice for some light fare and some extraordinary brews. Several years back our expectations of a specialist pub were set by one of the finest in the country: The Brick Store Pub in the Atlanta, GA suburb of Decatur. They knew their Belgian ales; they knew their other European brews; and they knew their American artisinals. We soon discovered that our new place in Worcester did too – and then added some New England flare.
The Armsby Abbey, though a relatively small establishment, boasts a rich selection of American microbrews and craft European offerings. Beer enthusiasts will find many things to savor, but novices need not worry because the staff is quite generous with their assistance. We ordered Malheur 10 and Malheur 12 Belgian ales. Joe Scully, or any of the other talented members of the Abbey team, freely offer direction and recommendations. We spent time chatting with Joe during our visit about the selection and pairing processes. He is passionate and knows his beverage and menu offerings in great detail, something we’ve come to expect from better destinations in New England. Many of the Abbey’s brew selections change regularly, with current draught choices posted on a large, prominent black board across from the bar. The Abbey catalogues bottled beers separately, many with impressive pedigree and others lesser known, but equally good.
Beers and ales are not the only things the Armsby Abbey knows well. They also specialize in boutique distilled spirits and limited-production American wines. On the dining side, their “Farmhouse Menu” consists of fresh, artisan products, many of which are locally sourced and organic. Rather than make a substitution of lesser quality, the Abbey will simply not serve an item should they run out of a small purveyor’s ingredient. We were impressed by the menu’s variety, categorization, and especially taken by their “slates,” which are carefully chosen selections of farmstead cheeses, meats and various condiments. The “New England Slate” is a cornucopia of New England products from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont, that also includes local honey from Princeton, MA along with mustard from Worcester.
It was great to find a world-class pub like the Armsby Abbey in Worcester. Their bias toward locally-sourced, New England fare made it even better.
April in New England. Seasonal dissonance exemplified by days of cold and snow followed by seventy-five degrees and sunshine. A Red Sox game at Fenway Park with a ski jacket. One part of April remains consistent: Patriots’ Day. Though many outside New England don’t celebrate (or even know about) this holiday, many here in the six states (especially Massachusetts) do. For others, Patriots’ Day is also “Marathon Monday,” the day of the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest, famed race from Hopkinton, MA to the heart of Boston.
This historical significance of Patriots’ Day is difficult to miss. It commemorates the start of the American Revolution in 1775. Visit The Old North Church in Boston to see where the lanterns were hung. Wake very early and witness the first shots on Lexington Battle Green. (Arrive early and bring a stepladder.) Head to the Old North Bridge in Concord and view the Minuteman response and the turn of the battle. While there, visit the Old Manse, home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne and garden of Henry David Thoreau. Be sure and look through the windows of this beautiful building from the vantage point where our ancestors witnessed the shot heard around world and saw the birth of a nation.
When the day is done, head back to Boston and explore the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street. The emotional impact of standing by the graves of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock is hard to describe. Contrary to some contemporary sentiment, we New Englanders are fiercely proud of our history — our American history. Perhaps the events from the 1770s in Massachusetts will remain a beacon of political discourse for many more generations.
As a final tribute to this historic day, allow us to share Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’sPaul Revere’s Ride, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and later included in his Tales of the Wayside Inn in 1863. Historians are aware of some of the inaccuracies of the poem, along with lack of credit to the the other riders William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. Prescott was the only one to make it to Concord and deliver the warning. History will forever contain such inaccuracies, but one can’t miss the healthy vein of truth either. Happy Patriots’ Day.
-The Two Palaverers
Paul Revere’s Ride
(a.k.a. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
In the early 1980’s, a wave of small independent cheese shops sprung up in the suburbs around New York City. It worked out well for those of us not in the city because traveling into Manhattan was often challenging and – as it is today – very time-consuming. Until then, we were limited to the choices at our local grocery stores, which consisted mostly of the processed, pre-packaged or generic uninspired varieties.
I had the privilege of working at The Better Cheddar Cheese Shop, one of those new, avant-garde purveyors in northern New Jersey. Located at the historic Tice Farm in Woodcliff Lake, the small shop carried cheeses that were exotic and sophisticated to our unseasoned and unrefined palates of the time.
Over time, we became rather busy and our clientele grew. We had both regular local customers as well as those from the city who were escaping for a day in the “country.” (It always seemed more like suburbia and less like “country” to me.) Richard Nixon was a frequent visitor to the farm, having settled in the area after leaving Washington, D.C.
With great enthusiasm, I learned all that I could about cheese, albeit the hard way – by tasting and talking with wholesalers. We didn’t have the books, training or internet so prevalent today. We were excited by our “large” number of imported cheeses, now paltry compared with contemporary cheese counters. On the domestic side, I remember cheddars (Wisconsin, New York and Vermont), some fresh mozzarella, feta, and assorted spreads with cheddar and cream cheese bases.
Sadly, the farm and many like it were replaced by large corporate buildings and homogeneous mini malls. Though I saw many of the small local cheese shops quietly close their doors, I never lost interest in cheese. It is always a thrilling sight and a culinary pleasure for me, whether home or abroad, to walk in to a well-stocked, knowledgeable and friendly cheese shop. It feels like home to me. When I moved to New England decades ago, I was immediately impressed by the regional, budding cheese culture. Surprisingly, it dates back to the English and Dutch settling of North America.
Today, I am especially pleased to see so many more New England cheese artisans practicing this wonderful art, which is a true labor of love. Increasing numbers of these cheese makers travel the globe learning from world renowned cheese masters and incorporating classic styles while leveraging their own unique terroir and indigenous fare. Many are winning national awards. Comparing this growing specialty cheese industry to the evolution of the US wine industry, I think we have much to look forward to as these artisans develop and refine their craft.
New England artisan and farmstead cheeses come from all six states; some producers have been doing this for years, while many are new. I applaud their efforts. Though I haven’t yet tried all the New England cheeses, I am determined to do so. Perhaps it is the locavore in me, but I feel a strong connection, an inherent sense of pride and a good deal pleasure from enjoying cheese produced in my own region of the world.
I encourage cheese lovers to sample and enjoy these creations from New England. Serve them along side your old standbys and international favorites. Ask your cheesemonger to point you toward the local and regional varieties. The more we seek out New England cheeses, the more readily available they will be.
Be sure to take advantage of local cheese offerings when you see them on restaurant menus. Remember that many of the farmstead cheeses are produced from the farm’s own herd and yields are justifiably low. Some are sold exclusively to local restaurants, but many are available retail to the general public.
Though my cheese shop in New Jersey is a fond memory, I am fortunate to benefit from the cheese purveyors and cheese artisans of New England.
As a follow-up to our post on museums, we subsequently came across this somewhat dated, yet still relevant article from the Wall Street Journal. We’ve decided to post it in its entirety, concerned that it may get permanently archived and its message lost. It was written by Bruce Courson, Director of the Sandwich Glass Museum on Cape Cod. We soundly applaud Mr. Courson’s efforts and insights and wish to add a few more points.
We (our youth in particular) are losing the connection to our past. In order to have children visit museums, we need to have parents visit museums. We need to do a better job of engaging and teaching our children history, something that can be done both in school and outside of it – as a family or among friends. There is no better place to do that than here in New England. Once we fix our society’s connection to the past, our local museums will be the beneficiaries. What’s the contemporary challenge? Think about Old Sturbridge Village (a working museum) versus Grand Theft Auto (a video game). Fortunately, it only takes a brief afternoon to open up a whole new world. And that new world is in our own back yard.
-The Two Palaverers
Why Rural Museums Are Becoming Ancient History
by BRUCE COURSON
Tuesday, December 27, 2005 12:01 A.M. EST
It was disheartening to learn last month in the Boston Globe of Old Sturbridge Village’s recent layoffs and closure of several major facilities. The museum is a living history museum in central Massachusetts that depicts 1830s New England life on a 200-acre site with 40 period buildings. One thousand reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition since the 1950s, had to be canceled this year. A new tavern and motel, which were expected to generate much needed revenue for the Village when they opened in 2001, will be shuttered in January. Only 20 of the once nearly 70 costumed guides remain. A personally troubling fact, as I was a “tinsmith” there in 1971, a period when increasing attendance was a given.
It is a story increasingly common for rural Massachusetts museums within a day’s drive of major metropolitan areas. Many have current paid attendance numbers that are nearing 50% of what they were three decades ago. My own institution, the Sandwich Glass Museum, saw attendance drop from 84,000 in the early 1980s to 42,000 in 2000. Published figures and statistics I have gathered over several decades point to similar trends in nearby maritime and historical museums, not only in Massachusetts but along the Boston-Washington corridor as well. Considering all that we hear about “the museum boom” in major cities occurring during that same period, this might seem a surprising state of affairs.
Numerous causes have been cited for this precipitous decline, including the weather and 9/11. But one factor stands out among the reasons behind this consistent, decades-long trend: the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry and a new era of cheap air travel. Before deregulation, most vacations were taken in the summer and the automobile was the affordable, preferred means of travel. After 1978, however, inexpensive travel and free “frequent flier” tickets gradually became available. As a result, passenger counts more than doubled between 1978 and 1998. The vacationing public increasingly opted to leave their cars at the airport and, at any time of the year, fly to their destinations. Since 1978, the likes of Glacier Bay, Alaska, the Galapagos, or a Caribbean cruise have become affordable and popular attractions. Changing leisure-travel patterns among the American public are not a new phenomenon: A historic parallel occurred when Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park succumbed to the post-World War II “automobile vacation” in 1964.
How have most museums dealt with the financial downturn brought on by this decline in attendance? They’ve raised their prices. I know of one major, Sturbridge-like outdoor history museum in Massachusetts that, in 1971, charged the equivalent of $5.72 in 2004 dollars but, now, after its latest price increase, charges $21. Its many efforts to expand public programming have not kept pace with the 267% increase in admissions fees. This example is unfortunately not the exception but the rule. A museum will often raise its price slightly to help a sagging bottom line only to find that next year’s decrease in attendance requires yet another increase in admissions fees — a vicious cycle.
How many companies, realizing a serious decline in demand, merely raise their prices without substantially improving their product? Not many still in business. Unfortunately, a great number of museums are now perceived as too expensive, with potential visitors often choosing to go elsewhere.
Other institutions have tried a different tack, “improving their product” by means of major expansions. While some have been successful, all too often the results have been devastating. In many cases small operating deficits became large ones because of additional staffing, greater facilities costs and debt from insufficient capital campaigns. Increases in attendance revenues, if any, failed to meet unrealistic projections. Layoffs became necessary and some institutions ceased to exist altogether.
In 1992, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was forced to close its two-year-old Whale Discovery Center in nearby Plymouth, Mass., after attendance fell short of what was needed to break even. “We had hoped to have 75,000 visitors each year. We had 36,000 over two years,” stated then-director Anthony Zane.
There are no silver bullets in the museum business, of course, and every institution faces a somewhat different set of circumstances. The Sandwich Glass Museum on Cape Cod, aware of several failed expansions in the region, chose a different approach to the problem of seriously declining attendance. In 1998 we launched our first-ever capital campaign, raising $2.3 million — four times the institution’s operating budget. We built a glassblowing arena, a high-tech multimedia theater and new retail space. The difference was that our business plan included holding general admission fees to 1970s levels, $4.50 in 2004 dollars, and reducing group admissions fees to $1. Staffing numbers and operating expenses were budgeted at pre-expansion levels and only a stabilized attendance was anticipated, not an increase. In short, more bang for the buck, not more bucks for the same old bang.
The museum is now in its third post-expansion year. The number of paying visitors increased by 26% over that period and is now holding steady at that level, while attendance at similar area institutions has fallen by 19% during the same three-year period. A sizable operating surplus will be posted for the second year in a row. While these numbers are encouraging, the museum still has regained only one-third of the attendance lost over the past three decades.
As residents of the Boston-Washington corridor continue to favor airline over automobile vacations, the possibility of a broad uptick in attendance at rural locations is highly unlikely. Until museums face up to the real market forces at play, and cease blaming the weather or 9/11 for annual declines, we shall be reading more stories of those in serious trouble or ceasing to exist. Decades of hard work have gone into building these institutions and presenting their accumulated knowledge to millions of people. It would be a tragedy to lose even one of them.
Mr. Courson is the director of the Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich, Mass.
Growing up in Medford, MA, I often crossed Salem Street on my way to school and to visit friends. It wasn’t a very pretty street and like most major suburban thoroughfares, it had its fair share of gas stations, used car dealers, and home heating oil distribution companies. It did (and still does) have several good eating establishments and ethnic grocery stores. Salem Street, though, was famous for something else: one horse open sleigh rides in winter, which allegedly served as the inspiration for a local songwriter in the mid-nineteenth century.
As children, my friends and I would spend hours at the library and the historical society combing through the archives, amazed at how much the city had changed since the 1800s. In high school, I met Dr. Joseph Valeriani, head of the Medford Historical Society and chairman of the of the social studies department at Medford High School. Even though he was an administrator, Joe insisted on teaching one class: advanced placement history. Joe would interview every student applying for entrance into the course, but an applicant’s interest in local history went a long way in Joe’s decision. In that class, we read two textbooks and sixteen (no kidding) supplementary books including such titles as Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Profiles in Courage. We covered both American history and Medford history. It was in this class that Joe taught us about the origin of Jingle Bells.
James Pierpont (1822–1893), son of the minister of the Unitarian Congregation in Medford, MA, published a song called the One Horse Open Sleigh in 1857, a piece he was heard to play as far back as 1850 at Simpson’s Tavern in Medford Square. Like many old tales, details are always a bit sketchy and often contradictory. We do know, though, that he later moved to Savannah, GA and was living there when the song was officially published.
It should be no surprise that both Medford, MA and Savannah, GA lay claim to Jingle Bells. Having spent a good deal of time in both cities, I’ve tried to be impartial, but have to admit that I never saw snow in Savannah, but I can’t deny them “sharing” some of the claim either. Nonetheless, if it weren’t such an important and inspirational part of our culture, there would be no dispute.
Though my friend Joe is no longer with us, I often think of him this time of year, especially when I visit Medford every Christmas. Perhaps one day I’ll even see a one horse open sleigh on Salem Street. Until then, I’ll continue to tell my boys the story of Jingle Bells and recite the lyrics every year.
Best wishes during the holiday season.
-Rob Ciampa, Palaverer
One Horse Open Sleigh
James Pierpont, 1857
Dashing thro’ the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh,
O’er the hills we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob tail ring,
Making spirits bright,
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song to night.
Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.
Jingle bells, Jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.
A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And we, we got upsot.
A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.
Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls to night
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob tailed bay
Two forty as his speed.
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you’ll take the lead.