Ruth Sawyer, a fascinating history
|A fascinating history of the Sawyer family in Maine.|
Built in 1889 as a summer home for the wealthy Sawyer family of New York City, Victorian by the Sea, like many old Victorians in the area, has an interesting history, in addition to a unique literary connection.
Francis Sawyer was a wealthy Boston importer. He later made a home for his family on the Upper East Side of New York City – first on 61st St, and later on 59th St opposite Central Park. Francis and his wife Ethalinda had five children – four sons and a daughter. The youngest, Ruth, was born in Boston in 1880 and would grow up to become a popular author. We know much about the Sawyer family and their summer home, now known as Victorian by the Sea, from Ruth’s autobiographical novels for children.
During their marriage, Francis and Ethalinda traveled extensively in London, Paris and Rome, although not always with their children. Francis was a connoisseur and collector of beautiful things.
Mrs. Sawyer reportedly never read children’s books to her children. Instead, she read aloud from the Bible each night before supper, read them Shakespeare and often sang ballads for them. So, Ruth’s love of storytelling actually came from her Irish nurse who taught her to always leave a story “better than you found it.”
For about three years, until Ruth was sent to Miss Brackett’s school, the family had a French governess and all learned to speak French. For a while they were even required to speak French at every meal.
Ruth was nine the year Francis built the family’s ‘summer cottage’ on Haddock Harbor on the Maine coast between Lincolnville Beach and Camden. Ruth loved her summers in Maine, especially the surrounding woods and her “secret place” where she trained wild birds to eat out of her hand. Through her later writings, we learn that her brothers teased her endlessly but allowed her to sail, camp and hunt with them. She recalled some of the adventures of these summers in Maine in the book, Daddles, The Story of a Plain Hound-Dog (1964), which reflected her love of dogs and enjoyment of seaside pleasures.
When Francis died unexpectedly in 1894, the family was uncertain of their financial circumstances so they closed their home in New York City and were forced to move to Maine and live off the land. The experience brought the siblings closer together, practicing economy in their Maine ‘cottage’ while the family’s financial resources were low. Because they had to dismiss all their servants and Ethalinda had never had to do any cooking, Ruth, who was just 14 at the time, learned how to cook and loved it.
The Sawyer family taught themselves how to live off the land. Salmon and lobster were bountiful right off the shore, and they planted and ate from a large garden. The current owners have continued this with their own vegetable garden. Ruth later describes this experience in her children's novel, The Year of Jubilo (1940). An autobiographical tale, the book chronicles a year spent in Maine:
“Beds were cold at night, for all the bricks; heat from the stoves crept no farther than the margin of sheet-zinc that fireproofed them. Three and four times a night one of the boys made the rounds; cellar to second floor, and many nights Duncan sat up until daybreak; keeping a row of oil lamps burning under the water pipes. He would trust no one else to do it. What if that pipe froze? What if a lamp got upset and the cottage set on fire?”
Indeed, the un-insulated summer home made for a cold winter. At Christmas the family put their tree up in the warmest room of the house – the front hall – and even moved their dining tables there to eat.
Ruth Sawyer traveled to Cuba in 1900 to teach storytelling to teachers organizing kindergartens for children orphaned during the Spanish-American War. She returned to New York to study folklore and storytelling at Barnard College where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1904. During two summers in 1905 and 1907, she worked in Ireland for the New York Sun and spent time in the countryside collecting Irish folk tales. Using these tales, she wrote Old Con and Patrick in 1946.
Sawyer later married Albert C. Durand, an eye doctor, and the couple raised two children, Margaret (Peggy) and David, in Ithaca, New York.
Ruth’s first published work was The Primrose Ring (1915), of which a movie was made in 1917 starring Loretta Young. She won the Newberry Medal in 1937 for her best-known book, Roller Skates. Similarily, a number of Sawyer's books are autobiographical accounts of her childhood and reveal an interesting perspective on American life at the end of the 19th century. These include The Year of Jubilo (1940) and Daddles, The Story of a Plain Hound-Dog (1964), as well as Le berceau de Bo le Bossu ( a religious, Christmas folktale in Saint-Malo). Another tale, Journey Cake Ho!, written in 1953 and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, was a Caledcott Honour Book.
Sawyer also wrote non-autobiographical novels for children, such as The Enchanted Schoolhouse (1956) and The Year of the Christmas Dragon (1960), and a scholarly work, The Way of the Storyteller (1942). She published a number of collections of folktales, such as This Way To Christmas (1916) which featured an illustration by a young Norman Rockwell and My Spain: A Storyteller's Year of Collecting (1967). In 1965 she was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for her work.
Ruth’s daughter, Peggy, a children's librarian, married Robert McCloskey who later became a children's book author himself and is best known for Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. Collections of both Sawyer’s and McCloskey’s books are available at the Inn for guests to enjoy during their stay,
During the Sawyer’s ownership, the beautiful sunny breakfast room guests enjoy today was an open porch they called the “piazza.” And, interestingly, the Sawyer’s summer home was one of the first in the area to include indoor bathrooms.
The Sawyer home has been a B&B since the 1980s, at which time the owners added the Cottage Room and the summer apartment above it, as well as the owner’s quarters on the back of the building.
Jeanne and Rob have been the ‘caretakers’ of the Victorian’s fascinating past since June, 2008 and are always interested in reviving the storytelling history associated with Victorian by the Sea.
Below are two photos of the house prior to its conversion to a B&B.
|East Elevation from the Lot Line.||Close up of Piazza or open porch.|