Unnatural Settings

MonsonYesterday I received this book in the mail. I don’t know how we missed it when cleaning out my mother’s home but apparently we did.  This is the story of the town where my mother’s family has lived for well over one hundred years.  It’s also the setting for the flashback scenes in Flipka 2 which I’m currently working on and so its arrival was mundo fortuitous.

I could say Monson is your typical small town in New England and in many ways it is, particularly back when I was growing up.


My great grandfather watering the dirt roads (one of his many jobs).

During summertime visits, I’d run wild through the town, picking blackberries and scoring free cokes at a garage owned by the town’s wealthiest man whose hobby was stock car racing but whose son had been “born bad.”  On his estate there was also a baseball diamond, a swimming pool and a pond with a boat and so the gang of poor locals I ran with happily tolerated the murderous son.


“You wild heathens better not drag mud through my kitchen!!!”

In the evenings the sticky heat of the day was generally alleviated by cackling t-storms and regretfully we’d head inside to get chewed out by Gram.

However idyllic as it seems, the town and the surrounding area were also the setting for the Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft, one of the core stories of the Cthulhu Mythos.


H.P. Lovecraft, Master of the Macabre, 1934

Lovecraft felt that area of Massachusetts was a “lonely and curious country” whose residents had “come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding.”  There were a couple of reasons why he felt that way.  First, the original settlers were from Salem Massachusetts and were therefore the descendants of witches.


Most likely the rock piles were used by the Native Americans for cooking and not orgies.

Second, there are many mysterious rock piles in the hills. Preachers of the 1800s postulated they were “the unhallowed rites and conclaves of the Indians” who “made wild orgiastic prayers” which were in turn answered by “loud cracklings and rumblings” in the earth. According to Lovecraft, they were the ancient ones demanding to be freed from the bowels of the earth so they could rape the locals and create monsters.


Another of great grandpa’s jobs – milliner. He is the seventh man from the left.

Hum, I wonder if the Monson library stocks any of Lovecraft’s books.  Somehow I doubt it. 

IMG_1114What is your hometown’s claim to fame that the city fathers probably would not include in a history book?

Bobbins, Shuttles and Shekels


My only claim to fame! Looks like a jolly fellow, doesn’t he?

My great-granduncle Henry had a wife who spent most of her later life in museums and churches transcribing documents.   Her intent was to prove a link back to Henry’s famous ancestor, Deacon Samuel Chapin, one of the founders of Springfield Mass. However because Chapin arrived in this country in 1635 and fathered seven wildly fertile children, the family tree is split into a thousand tributaries. Still Henry’s wife persisted. It was an endeavor that took her all over New England and even across the pond to St. John Baptist Church in Paignton, England which houses Chapin family records dating back to the 1500s .


Family history written in 1910 by Marie Jameson

Once she completed her investigation she sat down to write an account of the family history. The problem is, she was a genteel lady of her times, devoutly religious and intent on writing a glorious account of the family that would make us all proud.  For this reason certain not so glorious moments were carefully wrapped in delicate lace and sweetened with lavender, such as this account of my great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Jameson.     

Permit me to say one thing: he was a man of strong intellect and reasoning powers: but few men had such a memory: he could repeat any passage of Scripture you might mention.    

Wonderful! Sounds like another jolly fellow to hang out with!  However, reading on we learn that this scripture spouting dude went south “for his health” leaving his wife and four children to fend for themselves:

Note:  Mrs. Samuel Jameson became housekeeper for Dr. Lucius Wright of Westfield, working for her home and from time to time the Dr gave her money for what clothes she needed, in lieu of wages.  The children were placed in homes and had to work for their board and living. Mrs, Jameson died in the Dr. Wright’s home.

Hebrew Skehel courtesy of Bing images

I don’t know why this detail is in a note.  Perhaps so we won’t think unkindly of one of our noble ancestors.  Who knows.  

On the next page she details the fate of the poor children of Mrs. Samuel Jameson:  Philander (what a name, hey?) became a manufacturer of bobbins and shuttles* who married – what else? – a dressmaker!  Samuel Jr went west in search of gold and was never heard from again. Abiezer married Mahala Chapin, evidently in an attempt to improve the gene pool.  Lastly there was poor Calvin.  After being “mustered” and then injured in the Civil War he became a collector of rare coins, including: “a Hebrew shekel of a very high antiquity and 2 cent English pieces of the years 1001 and 1098.”  Who knows what happened to those rare IMG_0677family gems?  At this point she’d reached Abiezer, my great-great grandfather, and thus proven the connection between the Jamesons and Chapins.  Hurrah! My claim to fame has been validated. 

Despite my sarcasm, it is a truly wonderful document, even if the interesting and telling sections are housed in notes.

* bobbins and shuttles = parts of a sewing machine

**muster = to call the troops to action  

Reindeer Herders and Lovesick Photographers

Sorting through old pictures and documents has left me in a funk, primarily because they detail lives I know were hard, where victories were probably few and disappointments many.  However, given the fact that over half my ancestors came to this country in the late 1800s, a time when travel was arduous and a future uncertain, I have to conclude that conditions in the countries they left – Ireland, Norway and Sweden – were much worse. 


Citizenship papers circa 1880

The Irish diaspora has been widely analyzed.  As anyone who’s read Angela’s Ashes knows: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” So no mystery there.  However, over one million people migrated from Norway between 1880 and 1920, which represented almost a ninth of their population. Can you imagine?  One in every nine people suddenly disappearing?  And to where?  Some barely settled land across an endless sea. 

The number of Swedes fleeing the motherland was far higher, however they had more folks to piss off and so Norway wins the distinction for the biggest brain drain of the north. There’s only one explanation officially given as to why Nordics fled the land of cod liver oil in hordes: crop failure.  Really?  In a land of long dark winters and never-ending summer days, what crop could have survived in the 1800s?  Other than cod, that is. 

I suspect there were other reasons such as lack of opportunity,  however you’d think those poor souls who left behind beloved grandmas, mothers and cousins would yearn to return to the warm hearth of youth for at least a visit, wouldn’t you?

Well my ancestors never did.  Once in the US, they turned their backs on the old world including its customs and languages.  As a result I never heard tales of the old country nor did I hear mother tongues being spoken. And so, I did what any ordinary child would:  I made up stories.


Just a couple of wild and crazy reindeer herders from Lapland!

These two love birds supposedly stole away on a merchant ship from Stockholm in the 1880s.  Because they had the same last name my mother theorized they were cousins who fell in love and had to run away in order to get married.  I went a little further and decided they were brother and sister.  (I’d been reading far too many Swedish novels and plays at the time.)


Lars and Helga won’t you please come home? Mother misses you!

Someone who knew the real story wrote a letter to my grandmother in the 1930s.  Sadly the letter is in an obscure Swedish dialect that no one can translate.  This has lead me to conclude my great grandparents were not Swedish at all but incestuous reindeer herders from Lapland.

My great grandfather on the other side was from Vang Norway but the only way I found out anything about him was through a google search.  


Ran off with a Sioux Warrior Princess?

He had the misfortune to die just after my grandmother’s birth and, after his widow married The Judge (by all accounts a man sans any sense of humor or love for children), Gilbert Flaten’s memory was left to wither on the vine.  When I asked my father what happened to his real grandpa I got this answer, “he just died.”  No matter how much I nagged him, I got the same response, “he just died.” When I asked what he did for a living all I got was “he was a photographer.” 

And so naturally I assumed that while photographing prairie life around his home (Fargo North Dakota), young Gil fell madly and passionately in love with a Sioux warrior princess and, unable to resist the temptation to ride the plains on horseback chronicling the lives of the noble Sioux, he soon abandoned the restraints of Victorian life.  

My version of his story seems logical, doesn’t it? 

Well, that’s not exactly what happened. After my father’s sudden death, I sat down at the computer and out of nowhere got the urge to google Gilbert Flaten.  Here’s what I found out. 

saloonThe real reason they  never spoke of him is that he ran a saloon during prohibition.  Horrors!

signageBut he also ran a successful portrait studio and worked for the volunteer fire department before his premature death at 40 from some ungodly flu.

Okay – now that I’ve got ancestors on both sides rolling in their graves, I’ll sign off with a salute to all those wonderful folks who left family and homelands to travel to this crazy country!  Happy Fourth everyone!