by Joe Sheppard . . .
With a little help from his friends.
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal and as an assistant to the faculty advisor of the student newspaper - Spectrum. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
I've mentioned before in this column that my first home at LA, back in the 1960s, was, as Mr. Ferguson described it to me in a summer letter, "a single room and bath in Waters House." For the first year or two it was just that. No kitchen, one room, one closet—with a trap door. It was bright and sunny, though, and there was a nice fireplace. After a year or two I did persuade Fergie to give me a small adjoining room, a single that was originally part of the hallway, so that at least my bed didn't have to be in the living room.
Cramped quarters notwithstanding—I had shared a huge suite of rooms with three friends for the last couple of years of college—I quickly became fond of the old place and all its faded glory. The inlaid oak floors creaked, the ancient radiators clanked, the wind rattled the loose and dried-out window frames. But the house was full of mysteries and stories, and it didn't take long for the kids, with help from Jack and Peg Burckes, who lived downstairs, to bring me up to speed on Waters lore.
Many of you know the stories. The house was a stop on the Underground Railroad after the Civil War, and the builders had included hiding places for former slaves on their way to freedom. The trap door in my closet opened to reveal one such space, a cubbyhole next to the chimney that could hold two or three people. I used it to store stuff I had confiscated from the kids. There was another one downstairs, and probably more that we never found. Sadly, my trap door was covered with subfloor when the closet was made into a small kitchen after I moved out, so that little bit of history is lost.
A couple of blocked-off stairways were the stuff of legend. The broom closet in the upstairs hall had once been a staircase leading to the third floor, where the maids had lived back in Miss Waters' day. Apparently she was a cantankerous old woman who gave her poor maid a hard time. My living room was her bedroom. The story goes that Miss Waters, who was ill, called her maid to bring her medicine. The maid, out of spite, didn't bring it, and Miss Waters died. In my living room. Where I slept every night. The maid was so despondent over her own cruelty that she hanged herself in the hall stairway. So there was a ghost in my apartment, and another one right outside my door. Great.
This brings me to the second staircase, the top end of which is closed off in the rear of the second floor, in the original part of the house. The kids called that area the Jungle. The steps once led down into a kitchen, as I remember. Anyway, there was a freshman named "Freddy" who lived in a single room in the Jungle. He was a nice boy, kind of slow-moving, quiet, and, as it turned out, supremely gullible. Early in my first year, the older kids had filled Freddy with Waters ghost stories, properly embellished. One night around ten o'clock, as I was checking everyone in for the night, I heard a horrible, gut-wrenching scream. Freddy came galloping up the corridor from the Jungle, breathless, saucer-eyed, face drained of color. He didn't need to say anything, and probably couldn't have anyway. Someone had popped out of a doorway wearing a bed sheet and shrieked at Freddy. Nobody heard much from Freddie after that.
Then there was Norm, near the end of my time in Waters. Same deal—bolting out of the Jungle as if he'd seen a ghost—but no one had done anything to scare him. He swore, between gasps, that something shapeless and ghostly had risen up in front of him out of the boarded-over stairs near his room. That one we left alone. It was a little too freaky to investigate.
The other great Waters House legend, of course, has to do with a tunnel, built for the Underground Railroad, that supposedly connected the house with the basement of the Groton Inn. I remember going down to the cellar with kids on more than one occasion to examine the massive stone walls, in search of a bricked-up entrance or some other sign that there had ever been such a thing. We even looked outdoors around the bay window facing the Inn, and I once was sure I had unearthed the remains of a brick arch. There might have been all of four bricks, but the "discovery" gave the story a bit of new life for a while. Alas, according to Dick Jeffers, who has done a great deal of research into town history, the tunnel theory has been "pretty much disproved." It was fun while it lasted.
The most surprising story of all, however, concerns the house's former owner, Miss Yssabella Waters. You’ll have to check in next month for that one. Meanwhile, check your closets for ectoplasm and click here
on Friday January 16 at 10:01AM
For many years we lived in Butler House, that fine Federal-period edifice next to Loomis on Main Street. Apparently Caleb Butler (1776 - 1854), the second principal of Lawrence Academy (or preceptor, as they were called then), had a good deal of money, as the house is beautifully built, with chamfered indian shutters for all the ground-floor windows, elaborate ceiling mouldings, fancy door and window frames, etc. It also boasts a large kitchen and a lovely, spacious dining room, on the front of the house. I noted in a Butler family history that Caleb and his wife had a number of children—hence, perhaps, the need for the large space devoted to nourishment.
When we moved into the main part of Butler House in the mid-1970s, a few years after the school had purchased the property, the kitchen, as in Caleb’s time, was still equipped to feed a large family: There were two ovens, one gas and one electric, and the long cooktop island had fold-down counters at stool height, designed to feed four or five kids at a time.
Almost as soon as we had unpacked the last suitcase, my parents presented us with the massive mahogany dining room set that my great-grandfather had had built in the 1880s. Dad had just retired, and their new house didn’t have the space, but we did. The huge oval table and its seven matching chairs fit perfectly into Mr. Butler’s dining room, as did a 1920s sideboard, also of mahogany, that Mom and Dad could no longer use.
The table has four leaves; using all of them, we could seat eighteen people and still have plenty of room to move around. This fact was not lost on my mother, who informed us, by some telepathic means I’ve never figured out, that henceforth we would be in charge of Thanksgiving.
And so we were. For fifteen years or so, we were up at crack of dawn to put the bird in the oven, set the great table with newly-polished silver, and start cooking all the vegetables that we should have done ahead of time but hadn’t. The day, like the meal itself, was always the same. Mom brought a dish of celery and olives that nobody ate; the pre-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres lasted far too long, so the kids didn’t get naps and were cranky.
After a few years I got sick of getting up early and roasting the turkey and then smelling it all over the house. One November in the late 1980s, shortly before we moved to Pepperell, we had the brilliant idea to forget about turkey for a year and buy a ham from Blood Farm in West Groton instead. I called my parents to tell them that we were having ham for Thanksgiving instead of turkey. Mom answered the phone. The conversation went something like this:
—Hi, Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know about Thanksgiving.
—Hi, dahling. Shall I bring the celery and olives?
—Sure. By the way, we’re not getting a turkey this year. We’re going to have a ham from Blood’s. They’re fantastic. And it’ll be a lot less work.
—That’s all right. I’ll bring the turkey.
—Mom, we’re not having turkey. We’re having ham.
—That’s fine. I’ll bring the turkey.
—Mom, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. We’re tired of turkey and want to do something different for a year.
—Well, I’ll bring the turkey. And the celery and olives.
—Really, Mom, you don’t have to…
—That’s all right, dahling. We’ll bring the turkey.
I said good-bye and sat down at the kitchen table, vanquished. She has to have gotten the message, I thought to myself. She wouldn’t…
She did. In the front door with my parents on Thanksgiving morning came a foil-wrapped, pre-roasted, pre-plattered specimen of meleagris gallopavo. I carved the ham. Dad carved the turkey. No one ate the celery and olives.
on Monday November 24, 2014 at 10:24AM
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