Friday, July 26, 2013


This little fellow is Rollo Holiday, the principal character of Jacob Abbott’s multi-volume series of books for children, first published in the 1850s and reprinted periodically during the last half of the 19th century.
Rollo lives with his parents (Mr. and Mrs. Holiday, of course, who don’t seem to have first names) and Jonas and Dorothy (who don't seem to have last names), the household’s outside/inside domestic help; he’s got a cousin James and a friend George, whose father is a local farmer. The stories are selectively sprinkled with other town characters that pop in and out of Rollo’s life; the books are chock-a-block full of morals, ethics and drama.

In his “Notice to Parents,” Abbott explains that although his Rollo Books for children are meant primarily for entertainment, he also intends they will stimulate thinking, expand linguistic skills and, perhaps most importantly, cultivate “the amiable and gentle qualities of the heart...”

I have an odd sense of connection to this Jacob Abbott. He was born in Hallowell, Maine in 1803 (about 30 miles north of me), graduated from Bowdoin College (two blocks from my house). He studied at Andover Theological (where my brother lived for twenty-odd years) and was later pastor of a Congregational Church in Roxbury, MA (where my Howell ancestors lived, although they were staunch Unitarians!). 

 I’ve got ten Rollo books. They were purchased by my great-grandfather Selah Howell (1840-1910), who read them to his children; in 1880, he mentions Rollo in his diary:
Read Rollo to dear Will after supper and before his bed

In his last will and testament, Selah states:
The Rollo Books I give to that one of my children who has the most children. If none of them has children, which God forbid! the Rollo Books are to be divided equally among “the joys of my life,” the said Fred, Fanny and Will.”

(Don’t you just love the “God forbid!” in there? Talk about drama!)

Well, Fanny (see “The Face,” posted May 25) and Will each had two children, and Fred had none. Somehow, my line (Will’s) got the lion’s share of the Rollo Books, and they now live on the top shelf in my living room bookcase.

It’s amazing to me that Rollo, although he’s a child of a lost time and place, still has relevance. He learns life’s lessons as we all learn – by parental guidance (hopefully) and by personal experience (definitely). He does chores, learns his manners, rescues baby birds, carves jack-o’-lanterns, builds bridges and catches squirrels.

And learns the importance of keeping promises.
          “Why, father?”
          “Because I want you, when you grow up to be a man, to be bound by your agreements. Men will hold you to your agreements when you are a man...”

Hmmmm. Really?

Perhaps, one hundred fifty years after publication, the Rollo Series should be required reading for all politicians...

...and they’re just for starters!

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Saturday, July 20, 2013


Remember that song from the 60s?
“Grazin’ in the grass, it’s a gas, can you dig it?”
Hugh Masekela, a trumpet player from South Africa, recorded it in 1968; the Friends of Distinction carried the vocal version of it into the Top Ten in 1969. I thought the lyrics were silly then (still do), but the instrumental is great.

 Well, here’s another slant on Grazin’ in the Grass, this one from an article in the 1884 Annual Report of the Maine Board of Agriculture – an extensive inventory (with detailed accompanying plates, two of which I’ve included here) of The Grasses of Maine.
It is astounding...

“The grass family is, without doubt, of far greater importance to mankind than all the other families of plants combined,” wrote Professor C.H. Fernald, Maine State College, Orono.

According to the (Agricultural) Census report for 1880, there were 1,107,788 tons of hay cut in the State of Maine in 1879; there were ninety identified species of grasses in Maine at the time.

Their common names read like song lyrics:
          White grass, prickle grass; meadow, common and floating foxtail; timothy, herdgrass, thin-grass, fly-away grass, tickle grass, mountain red top, wood reed, Canadian small-reed, Richardson’s feather grass.
          There’s salt grass, marsh grass, fresh-water cordgrass; Bermuda grass, scutch grass, orchard, meadow, quaking grasses.

Each is described thoroughly: There are details of stems, leaves, panicles, spikelets; descriptions of habitats (“grows in wet meadows, bogs near the coast, wet woods and the margins of ponds”); month of seeding, stock preference (“floating manna grass is relished by cattle...”).

The Hon. J. S. Gould (I have absolutely no idea who he was, but with that surname, I’ll run with him) recommends flat-stalked grass; he says that “cows fed upon it, both in pasture and in hay, give more milk and keep in better condition that when fed on any other grass...”

There’s one grass with a series of common names that leaves me as tongue-tied as its Latin Agropyrum repens – remember, these are 1880s common names for one particular grass in Maine.
Here goes... witch, twitch, and quitch grass, quick, and quack grass, quake grass and squitch grass.

Say those ten times fast, then fire up the John Deere and get mowing!

Friday, July 5, 2013


Doctors? Monuments?
I have a couple of those....

This, known affectionately as the “Ether Monument,” consists of a statue and a fountain; it’s planted in the Public Garden near the corner of Arlington and Beacon streets in Boston, Massachusetts.

It commemorates the first successful public demonstration of the use of ether as an anesthetic on October 16, 1846 at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It was exactly one hundred years before I was born.

I remember going to see this monument when I was about six or seven and still lived in the Boston area. My grandfather – William W. Howell, a pediatrician and Harvard Medical School graduate (Class of 1900) – thought that, since I was (firstly) a doctor’s grandchild and (secondly) born on the 100th anniversary of this event, it was only proper that I be familiar with the monument.
          He told me that, before ether, many people actually died during surgery – not from the surgery itself, but from the pain of surgery! Ether changed the course of modern medicine, he told me; it saved lives, it allowed for new medical procedures.
I really didn’t care about the ether business; I was mostly fascinated by the beasts carved on the lower panels of the monument!

William Thomas Morton (1819-1868), an American dentist, first learned of the effectiveness of ether in 1844 from his Harvard Medical School chemistry lecturer; he dabbled in experiments (probably using his dental patients and/or himself as guinea pigs), but it wasn’t until 1846 that a truly public demonstration occurred at Massachusetts General Hospital – Dr. John C. Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a patient who had been anesthetized by the administration of inhaled ether.

Later, William Morton joined the Union Army during the Civil War; he used ether to help more than two thousand wounded soldiers in several battles, including the dreadful Wilderness Campaign.
Interestingly, one of the other soldiers who served in the Wilderness was William W. Howell’s father – my great-grandfather, Selah Howell – who drove an ambulance for the Sanitation Commission.
I wonder if they ever met.

The monument was designed by William Robert Ware, a Boston architect. The sculptor was John Quincy Adams Ward (now there’s a solid Boston name!). It’s about forty feet tall.

"To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain," it reads. "First proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. MDCCCXLVI."
Just think: A monument dedicated to a medical breakthrough that occurred exactly one hundred years before I was born.

I’m honored to share the date.

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