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Gail MacDonald's book 'Hidden History' takes a look at Mystic, Stonington

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"Hidden History of Mystic & Stonington," local author Gail B. MacDonald's second book published by The History Press, takes readers on a rambling ride through the byways of local lore rather than dwelling on major events and milestones.

MacDonald, a longtime Stonington resident now living in New London, said the book is part of a series of "Hidden History" publications put out by the Charleston, S.C.-based company, and each author who is published redefines the meaning of the term. She finds interest in the breadth of history spanning from Pawcatuck to Stonington Borough to Mystic Village that goes "well beyond the stock images on tourist brochures," as she says in her introduction.

"I tried to emphasize people not tied to mainstream history books ... immigrants, women, African Americans, people who were everyday folks but did something unusual or quirky," she said in a May 20 interview.

People such as the P.T. Barnum-like character Charles Q. Eldredge (the "Q" invented out of thin air), an Old Mystic man who in 1917 created Riverside, a museum of curiosities culled from his world travels as a lumberman. Among his finds: a glass eye from a swordfish and an egg cup purportedly negotiated from cannibals.

"In his autobiography, Eldredge said his brain was impacted when he fell off an oxcart as a child, hitting his head on a stone," MacDonald writes.

Some of MacDonald's most interesting portraits of local characters involve women who broke the mold. One of her sketches revolved around adventurous Mary Jobe Akeley, a woman who spent her early life traveling solo and writing magazine articles and books on African wildlife. She later established a girls' camp off River Road near the Mystic River in the 1920s that for years introduced young people to the wonders of the outdoors until the economic damage of the Great Depression forced its closure in 1930.

She died in 1966 a bit of a recluse, leaving her Great Hill property for preservation eventually as a Peace Sanctuary now managed by the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. Akeley, who in midlife married famed natural scientist Carl Akeley, is now a member of the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.

Another strong-willed woman, sea captain's wife Mary Burtch Brewster, went on her own adventures while spending months on whaling voyages with her husband, William. Along the way, she kept a journal that noted a whaleman's ritual: "Men all singing and bawling doughnuts, doughnuts, doughnuts tomorrow," anticipating a treat upon harvesting the first 1,000 barrels of whale oil.

MacDonald's 126-page book with more than 40 black-and-white photographs offers a Nickelodeon glimpse at local history often ignored, such as rumrunning during Prohibition; religious bigotry against the growing Irish Catholic population, many of whom were employed in local mills; and the widespread acceptance of slavery among the area's wealthiest landowners into the early 1800s.

"It was really an eye-opener," MacDonald said of the extent to which slavery was practiced in the area. "It wasn't just sugar and cotton plantations in the Antebellum South. Slavery existed throughout the colonies from the earliest days.

"From the 1600s to the early 1800s, 200 years of history, most of the wealthy families here had enslaved people, at least one or two," she added. "Obviously, we need to really think about how many years it existed."

MacDonald said she also was surprised at how many Native Americans after the Pequot War became indentured servants, and the extent of anti-immigrant feelings that bubbled up during the Industrial Revolution when many were discriminated against by those who saw themselves as American "natives."

In addition to offering snippets of conflict, "Hidden History" lingers on iconic places from the past, such as the Wadawanuck House, a sprawling summertime hotel built in 1837 that once sat in Stonington Borough's Wadawanuck Square and later became a short-lived women's college, the first in Connecticut. It was demolished in 1893 to make way for what is now Stonington Free Library.

MacDonald regrets she couldn't find more information or even a single photo acknowledging another building from the past: White House Inn, later renamed Orchard House on Liberty Street in Pawcatuck. It was run as a summer lodging house catering to African American professionals.

And there is a humorous sketch of the summer Peace Meetings held in Mystic over four decades right after the Civil War, attracting the likes of women's rights activist Belva Lockwood. While early meetings, organized largely by Quakers, inspired hundreds to attend, the later gatherings sometimes devolved into drunken brawls, MacDonald reported.

MacDonald, a University of Connecticut journalism faculty member and part-time copy editor at The Day, also included a section describing battles over the placement of Stonington High School that pitted the old Yankees of Stonington and Mystic against the upstart immigrant population of Pawcatuck, a cultural divide that still exists to this day, as she could recount from her own stint as a former member and chairwoman of the Stonington Board of Education.

"I was surprised at how deep the roots of that feud were," she said, "and that it was connected to anti-immigrant feeling."

l.howard@theday.com

 

 

 

"Hidden History of Mystic & Stonington"

AUTHOR: Gail B. MacDonald

PUBLISHER: The History Press

PRICE: $21.99, soft cover

PAGES: 126

AVAILABLE: Savoy Book Store, Bank Square Books, Amazon, Books-A-Million

 

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