A primer on those little ole wooden shacks out back


Blue Lake Ranch outhouse horse

Linda Nipp stands in front of the outhouse on the century farm known as Blue Lake Ranch where she and her husband board horses. She says the privy “is 100 years old at least and still in use.” It stands 8-feet high and is about 4-foot-square with a tin roof. The farm was once the Central Pike Dairy, operated by her grandfather, Dr. Lee Wright, a physician who also had a mule trading center and a tobacco farm in the community once called Dodoburg.

Many of you young whippersnappers may never have had the challenge of stepping into an outhouse to take care of business.

But for most of us in our seventh decade or more, spotting one of these vintage wooden structures along a stretch of country road may revive memories that do not carry the scent of nostalgia or sentimentality.

A century ago, practically every farmhouse, rural schoolhouse and church house had one or maybe two of these utilitarian sheds somewhere out back. The small building bore other names such as toilet, privy and latrine.

These often held a Sears and Roebuck catalog in lieu of toilet paper. If a catalog was not handy, then fresh, soft corn cobs would make do.

The 1950 census tallied 50 million outhouses in the U.S. By 2000, the number had trickled to…

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Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture, Saturday April 5th 2014: Historian & Author Geoffrey Ward

Looking around snow covered, frigid Boston you would never know it was March 5th, but it’s true! The Six Annual FDR Memorial Lecture is upon us!

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Geoffrey Ward

This year we are dee-lighted to welcome historian and television writer Geoffrey Ward to Adams. Geoffrey C. Ward, former editor of American Heritage magazine, is the author of seventeen books, including three focused on FDR: Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt 1882-1905; A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of FDR (which won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley. He has also won seven Emmys and written twenty-seven historical documentaries for PBS, either on his own or in collaboration with others, including Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “Unforgivable Blackness,” “Prohibition” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a seven-part, fourteen-hour series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” that will run on PBS this September.

His topic will be “The Roosevelts at Harvard”

We are equally delighted to welcome back Dr. Cynthia Koch, Former Director of the FDR Presidential Library and now Professor of Public History at Bard College (and our 4th Memorial Lecture speaker) who will introduce Geoffrey.

This year is a reception year, as opposed to a banquet year, and comes with all the trimmings: The famous Roosevelt raw bar will return, to accompany cocktails and a book-signing after the reception. (The question before us is which of Geoff’s 17 books we’ll offer!)

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the man behind three of the most important FDR bios ever written, not the mention, thanks to his work on PBS, one of the most influential and far-reaching American historians of the last century.

Tickets may be purchased easily on line by clicking the button below. Seats are limited to 50, so they will go fast! If you are unable to attend, please consider donating a place to an Adams student or tutor using the ticket options window below.

 Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture
Saturday April 5th at 4 PM
Adams House Lower Common Room
26 Plympton Street, Cambridge Massachusetts

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More Recent Acquisitions and Views

Hello All!

Thanks to your support and generosity, things keep marching along. Further additions for you to contemplate:


Just slightly crinkled from the crate: here’s the first piece of wall decoration in Lathrop’s bedroom, where the narrative theme will be hunting, horses and football: a ca 1890 tapestry depicting a Renaissance chase. Machine woven, this lovely textile measures 4 x 7′ and is in marvelous condition. It must say it really complements the lovely golden silk wallpaper behind it, or perhaps, the wallpaper complements it! Either way, it’s a terrific addition to the room.



Here’s another view of Lathrop’s room from the study, giving you a better idea of the scale of the tapestry. As you can see, we are slowly starting to hang the 500 or so expected items on the Suite walls, by wire,  as was done in the period. I can assure you that this hanging process is a real pain, precariously tilting and tipping at each turn, made all the more maddening by the knowledge that  each piece will have to come down for the eventual wallpapering and then be rehung. Ah well, no complaints: better than bare walls!



A delightful vignette: an ornate converted oil lamp (here shown with a somewhat miserable modern shade; we’re still looking for an etched period example), which keeps young Lathrop Brown and Harvard mascot John the Orangeman perfect company on a period parlor table. Above these, you may recognize from my March post the Harvard hazing print we ultimately managed to acquire, as well as another Charles Dana Gibson illustration “The Shore is Strewn with Wrecks,” in which the lovely lady you see striding so purposefully forward has just spurned the man barely visible in the distance, while cupids laugh amidst the hulk of an old whaler.



Now the above is one of my favorites! The wild-eyed taxidermy scene glowering at you from its elevated perch is a bobcat standing over its prey, a just-killed pheasant. While this is not something I would necessarily choose for my home decor, FDR most likely would have: our president-resident was quite the fan of taxidermy, especially birds, and this piece accurately reflects the Victorian love of such tableaux. The taxidermy was done by a well known wildlife artist in Michigan (using entirely documented specimens, for anyone wondering), and was first shipped to my house for safekeeping until I could bring it to the Suite. My dog growled at that cat for days! I’ve nicknamed the bobcat “Jack” (from John) and the poor bird “Eli,” as in “Sons of…” Poor Eli doesn’t seem to be getting up for the count… Ah well, what can you expect from a Yalie?! The leaded glass-front bookcase, by the way, (Lathrop’s case) is another gem that just arrived last week. Made in 1900, it is a Macey stackable. Quite ingenious for its day, the case is entirely modular; you purchased the base and top, and as many shelving units as you wished: height was fully adjustable to room, preference or circumstance. Once we locate a suitable example, a desk (Lathrop’s) will occupy the corner where the trunk now sits. (FDR’s will be opposite.) I’m thrilled to relate that these two desks are the final pieces of major furniture we’re missing!



Several of you asked to see more of the mantle time piece I hinted at in my last post. Here it is, in full glory: an adamantine Seth Thomas coffer clock. This lovely creature keeps reasonably good time, richly tick-tocking away, striking the hour and half hour with the most sonorous tone I’ve ever heard for a mechanism of its size – more like a tall case clock than a tiny shelf piece. The stone-like decoration is hugely clever faux painting, by the way – very much the height of fashion in 1900, but about to be swept away by the incoming rush of Mission style just a few years in the future.



Three new pieces: on the wall, above the period table, four mid-nineteenth century engravings: “Scenes of Kent”;  on the easel, an original charcoal, “Interior of 3 St James Place, London,” by 19th century artist Johnstone Briant; and the bamboo easel itself, an absolutely fantastic example of the Japanese-influenced Victorian design so popular in the last years of the 19th century.



And finally, beneath the bronze plaque dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1960, the carved walnut bookcase next to the mantle. On it you’ll now find period travel guides, team photos, club medals and a marvelous period English pipe rack, which you can just see here, in the form of a ship’s capstan, bearing the copper label “Made from the timbers of Nelson’s fleet.” A souvenir of things to come for our future assistant secretary of the navy and commander-in-chief…

A thousand thanks  again to all of our wonderful supporters – corporate, charitable, alumni & otherwise – who have made such progress possible!

Lathrop Brown and FDR: 1905-1920

(This is the fourth installment in a continuing series taken from the unpublished notes of filmmaker Pare Lorentz. For the introduction to these articles, click HERE.)

The Lathrop Brown Interviews: Part IV – 1905 -1920

Eleanor and Franklin in Newburgh, New York, 1905

Eleanor and Franklin in Newburgh, New York, 1905

On Eleanor

LB doesn’t know when ER first became important to FDR. Nor does he know what qualities in her first attracted FDR. ER was not a belle-of-the-ball type, but LB remembers her as the sort of person who would never let anybody down. He himself was impressed by her philosophy, her standards of conduct, speech, behavior, manners etc. plus her great personal integrity.

Years later LB asked ER how she had developed her own particular philosophy and to what did it lead? He was surprised when she said she didn’t know she had one, that she was always motivated by something that needed doing at a particular moment.

LB learned of the engagement when FDR sent him a note saying he was engaged to his seventh cousin and was very thrilled about it. LB and FDR lived only two blocks apart at the time and saw each other frequently, but writing letters – particularly about important things – was much more customary in those days than it is now. LB remembers being very pleased and telling FDR so.

On the Caribbean Cruise

LB remembers the Caribbean cruise as a superb experience, but he did not know that it was Mrs. Roosevelt’s attempt to separate FDR and ER. Nor does he think that FDR knew it, either. LB feels that FDR would have discussed the situation with him if there had been any sort of family row about it.

LB says both he and FDR had a fine time on the cruise. They were young, they had no responsibilities, life was all ahead of them and it was all good. They went from island to island, enjoying the shore excursions, and spent many evening playing cards in the smoking room instead of politely sitting with Mrs. Roosevelt on deck or in the salon. FDR was enthusiastic about everything he did, including playing poker. He over bet his hands at first, but usually slowed down.

The trip finished off with a visit to Cuba. LB remembers that the day was very hot and he spent it driving around with Mrs. Roosevelt, but FDR wanted to see San Juan Hill and did. He was interested in seeing where the battle had been fought and so, mostly likely with other shipboard acquaintances, he hired a horse and went to see for himself.

On Theodore Roosevelt

A TR campaign button from the Harvard University Archives

A TR campaign button from the Harvard University Archives

LB remembers Teddy came to visit Groton perhaps twice when he and FDR were there. He usually gave an informal talk on hunting or some such topic. The Spanish-American war had made him into a hero and he was the sort of man who would have appealed to any boy, what with his hat and spurs and boots.

LB feels sure Teddy had a very real influence on FDR – not in the technical sense of political legislation, but as an inspiration to take part in what was going on and to see that the decent thing was done. His was a philosophy of action – get in there and do something – and this had an effect on FDR.

When FDR was at Harvard, TR was president. Presumably the state of the union was good, everything was going on all right and there was little identification in college with national and political affairs. There was no need, says LB, for a kid in college to take sides.

LB feels FDR never lost his respect for TR. When FDR grew up politically, he disagreed with some of the things TR did and his way of doing them, but it did not affect his feeling for TR as a man.

TR gave Eleanor away at the wedding. It’s true TR, FDR and LB were chatting away in the vestry room, but LB doubts that they were talking about Groton. Usually, it was TR who picked the subject and did the talking, but he never had any trouble holding his audience.

Eleanor on her wedding day, 1905

Eleanor on her wedding day, 1905

As for TR’s monopolizing the wedding reception, LB doesn’t recall that it was that pronounced. He points out that most of the guests were of an older generation than the bride and groom, that once the ceremony had taken place, they had every reason to congregate around TR, who was then extremely popular with his own people. This was before they began to hate him. And certainly FDR and Eleanor, like every other bride and groom, were perfectly willing to stop being the center of attention.

Regarding FDR’s reaction to TR’s attempt to go overseas during World War I, LB says they never discussed it.

From 1905-1910, FDR was busy studying law at Columbia, being a law clerk and raising a family. He was still feeling his way around as far as his profession was concerned. The kind of law practices by the firm with which he was associated (Carter, Kilburn, etc.) was not the kind of thing that would interest him for long; it didn’t concern itself sufficiently with people. True, he was learning what made the wheels go round, but it was from the corporate angle – not from the point of view of the lady garment worker or the resident of one of New York’s firetraps.

His election to the State Senate in 1910 provided him with more human problems. He was kept busy in Albany and Hyde Park looking after his political fences. LB recalled one scrappy fight, wherein Tammany’s undisputed control of the State Legislature was broken up – with FDR on the winning side.

Washington During the Wilson Administration

LB was in Washington as Representative when FDR was there as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. LB as representative outranked FDR. On one occasion when Josephus Daniels was out of town and FDR was Acting Secretary of the Navy, FDR joshingly expected his new status to be recognized. There was to be a White House dinner and FDR was sure his temporary cabinet rank would result in his being seated next to an Ambassadress, at least.

LB and FDR aboard a destroyer, watching a sail boat race in Long Island Sound, about 1914. This photograph, discovered among the family papers of Pam and Elmer Grossman, was previously unknown; a copy will be deposited with the FDR Library.

LB and FDR aboard a destroyer, watching a sail boat race in Long Island Sound, about 1914. This photograph, discovered among the family papers of Pam and Elmer Grossman, was previously unknown; a copy will be deposited with the FDR Library.

Instead, he found Mrs. Brown next to him at table. She thought it was very funny and told him so. He evened up the score by insisting that what they were being served was not terrapin, but rat. It amused him to select those bones that were most rat-like in structure and point out the similarities to Mrs. Brown. He did such a good job that she was unable to eat her dinner.

The point should be made that FDR was sufficiently human, boyish and buoyant to want to be at the top of things, but that is was essentially a humorous situation and FDR enjoyed it as such.

FDR, Eleanor and family in Washington D.C,. June 12, 1919.

FDR, Eleanor and family in Washington D.C,. June 12, 1919.

FDR had and immense interest in political organization. He did not make a study of political philosophies from their beginnings, but he read a great deal on political economy. Because of his interest in political organization as such, during this Washington period he arranged to get proxies from national committeemen unable to attend meetings being held in Washington and to attend in their place. He liked to see and know what was going on and think out in his own mind how the situation could be bettered.

FDR and LB were very social during this Washington period, entertaining and being entertained constantly. They seemed to feel it was necessary to se as many people as they could. Their social circle centered on the Navy Department, but spread out to include other aspects of Washington social and political life.

Again, regarding FDR’s social consciousness, LB points out this was a period of change in emphasis in the United States. The Republicans had been having their innings for a long time and the people were tired of their methods and philosophies. Almost every in Wilson’s Cabinet had a sense of change and was in sympathy with it, Roosevelt among them.

In the Baltimore democratic convention of 1912, FDR didn’t amount to much. He was still pretty young in politics at the time. The convention of 1916 was not important, but the San Francisco convention in 1920 was a rip-roaring contest between William McAdoo and James Cox

cox rooseveltLB recalls a situation wherein FDR, then being mentioned as a possible candidate for the vice-presidential nomination, asked LB’s support and assistance. Prior commitments prevented LB’s working for FDR’s candidacy at that point of the convention. FDR demonstrated his usual good sportsmanship. If LB had given his word, that was that.

FDR received the vice-presidential nomination, of course. He was 38 at the time. He and LB had traveled west together and had shared a hotel room in San Francisco. On the way east, FDR, as vice-presidential candidate, now rated the lower berth.

The campaign tour developed FDR into a nation figure. He had undoubtedly been West before as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but now his role was different. He came in contact with all kinds of people and all kinds of problems on a national scale. He enjoyed campaigning and it was another experience which broadened him.