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An 1830 winter evening brought to life in Peterborough

  • Brigham Boice, as Augustus Prescott, reads a local legend to visitors as part of a shadow puppet show. Costumed volunteers invited the public into the Phoenix Mill House on Friday night to experience an 1830s winter evening. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Costumed volunteers invited the public into the Phoenix Mill House on Friday night to experience an 1830s winter evening. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Costumed volunteers invited the public into the Phoenix Mill House on Friday night to experience an 1830s winter evening. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Catherine Brown, as Georgiana Prescott, shows off a shadow puppet to a visitor. Costumed volunteers invited the public into the Phoenix Mill House on Friday night to experience an 1830s winter evening. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Costumed volunteers invited the public into the Phoenix Mill House on Friday night to experience an 1830s winter evening. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/6/2020 11:10:05 PM

In a smoky room lit by a single candle and a fire in the hearth, Mr. and Mrs. Prescott greeted visitors and offered them cider from a kettle over the fire. Sounds from the other room marked the presence of the Prescott children, performing a shadow puppet show. It was a typical Peterborough winter night in 1830, acted out by volunteers for the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in the Phoenix Mill House on the first Friday of 2020. For actors and visitors alike, it is a satisfying trip to another era.

The Prescott family really did live in the Phoenix Mill house in 1830, when it stood fifty yards away from its present location behind the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. The eponymous Phoenix Mill was a textile mill that stood at the Guernsey Professional Building’s current location from 1829 to 1922. According to volunteer Lorraine Walker, patriarch Samuel Prescott worked as an overseer at the mill six days a week for 69 cents a day, and his wife, Nancy, raised their four children in the home.

These days, Walker herself plays Nancy Prescott at events in the historic home, volunteer John Patterson acts as Samuel, and teenagers Brigham Boice and Catherine Brown play Prescott children Augustus and Georgiana. “We are all in charge of finding our own costumes,” Walker said. “My sister made mine, John made his own. Catherine's dad took her to a consignment shop,” she said, where they assembled an appropriate look. 

Typically, events at the Phoenix Mill House center around historically accurate hearth cooking demonstrations. Friday’s event was light on cooking besides popping corn and mulling cider, but Walker said they were encouraged to repeat the evening event after its positive reception last winter.

“People came in and they didn't want to leave,” she said. Walker believes visitors are attracted to the unique experience of wintertime as it was before modern heating and lighting. “It’s just so different, much different than I thought it was going to be. … How dark it is, how cold it is when you’re not sitting near the fire.”

As the Prescotts, Walker and Patterson answered questions from a rotating group of visitors, from when the family would have dinner and go to bed, to the dangers of tending a fire in long skirts. Through a chilly, dark hall, Boice, Brown, and other volunteers entertained visitors with old Peterborough folktales, acted out with shadowy silhouettes on a sheet in the corner of the firelit room.

Boice, 17, is a junior at ConVal and an avid researcher of local history. He said he knows little about Augustus Prescott besides what school he went to, and the work he did –  Prescott became a mill worker at 14 – but Boice develops his character’s narrative from research he’s done on children’s lives in the industrial era, relating how much work children had to do, both inside and outside the home.

“What I would have done back then was carry the water buckets,” he said, and that the household would have needed thirty gallons a day for cooking, cleaning clothes, and bathing. Boice lets visitors put on the yoke he’d use to carry the water.

“One of my favorite things is doing the schoolhouse tours,” he said, where he teaches visiting children about how classrooms were run in the past. During the summer, he said he teaches visitors how to play games popular during the 1830s, like the Three Graces: a game he said that was intended to improve the grace of the typically female players as they used sticks to toss and catch a hoop.

Walker researches the skills and recipes necessary to cook historically authentic dishes for the hearth cooking events. “Pork, apple, and sage pie has got to be one of my favorite things. They did a lot of savory pies,” she said.

“Some of the desserts are so different and I love them,” she said. The recipes (or receipts, as they used to be called) are typically less sugary than modern fare, she said, and some food terminology is different.

“Every once and a while there are some real disasters,” Walker said, describing a Christmas pudding they attempted to make once. “We didn’t have enough time, was the problem,” she said. The recipe involved boiling the dessert inside a cloth bag until it cooks into something resembling a cannonball, she said, but they took it out early and “It just went – blech. A brown, slushy mess,” she said. Many visitors have come back to Walker to say they successfully made demonstration recipes in their own fireplaces, she said.

“I can't tell you how rewarding of an experience this is,” Walker said of the demonstrations. She said to look out for hearth cooking events at the house in February and March. February’s theme will be sweets and confections, and March’s theme will be maple, she said. 




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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