This is a serialization of the new book written by Carl Flowers, owner of Silveus Plantation, the subject of “Groton’s Anonymous Mistress.” The 300-year-old home is accessed by Kemp Street near the boundary of Groton and Dunstable.
By Carl Flowers
This is the story of a fascinating old gal called the Mistress. That’s not her real name, but it’s the name I call her. The Mistress isn’t a real person. Instead, she’s a grand old house in Groton, Massachusetts, built in 1722 by Jerathmeel Bowers.
Back then, of course, she wasn’t called the Mistress. Instead, she was referred to as the Mansion House. Most of the houses built in the early 18th century were small, single story with only three or four rooms clustered around a center chimney. The Mansion House, by contrast, sported two stories with a real attic and a cellar that was a bit deeper than most cellars of the time.
I don’t mean any disrespect by calling the Mansion House the Mistress. It’s just that being a house, you understand, she needs a noun of the feminine gender, and being of a certain age, her demands on my pocketbook are unyielding. Equality and partnership don’t exist because our relationship is all one-sided. No matter what I spend on her, it’s never enough.
Living in a house that’s been around as long as the Mistress, I couldn’t help wondering about the people who were her masters and keepers. Jerathmeel Bowers was responsible for building the Mistress in 1722. Unfortunately, Jerathmeel was the Mistress’ master and keeper for just a short period time due to his death in 1724. Jerathmeel’s son, Samuel, inherited the Mistress.
My curiosity about the Mistress led me to the library to see what some of the town’s histories had to say. As it turns out, not a whole lot has been said about her or any of her caretakers. When one of the guardians of the Mistress is mentioned in a town history, the facts are usually wrong, incomplete or missing. Groton Houses is a good example of the striking absence of information, although it’s considered to be the last word on Groton’s historical homes.
Actually, it’s the only word. This historical account, published in 1978, identifies houses that were built as late as the 1870s. On a list called, “Dates of the Building of Houses in Groton, Massachusetts,” sixty-six houses are listed. Eight of them date before 1722; fifty-five are dated after. You would think the Mistress deserved to be number nine on the list. She had stood proudly 10 years before the last of the 13 American colonies was established.
Not being mentioned in Groton Houses may have been more than the oversight of an untrained armchair historian. After brushing away some of the surface dust, it appears the author of Groton Houses definitely knew about the Mistress. In the section of Groton Houses titled, “Reminiscences of Joseph B. Raddin,” the Mistress was referred to as the, “Fitzpatrick place.” This snub might have been the result of racial and religious prejudice. During the 1800s Irish Catholics were looked down on because they lived in huts seven to ten feet in height built of slabs, stones and turf in a section of Lowell called the Acre. By the 1840s Lowell’s Yankee residents complained about certain streets in the Irish district being unsafe. When 1850 rolled around the Irish presence in Lowell was considered a threat rather than a mere curiosity. The Fitzpatrick name may have tainted the possibility of the Mistress having any notability as an early Groton house.
The Mistress isn’t the only omission to be found. In both Groton Houses and Groton Plantation, John Woods’ first and last name were used. In Groton Houses, the Fitzpatricks don’t have anything but a last name, and in Groton Plantation, the Fitzpatricks aren’t even mentioned. It took some time for Groton to get used to other residents like the Fitzpatricks. You would think the missing first name of a Fitzpatrick would have been noticed. Everyone has a first and last name. After all, first names had been used in North America ever since Jamestown was started in 1607. Even the Pilgrims used first names when they came to Plymouth in 1620. Maybe the omission was an oversight, maybe it was intentional or maybe it just didn’t matter.
Irrespective of all this, one thing is certain: caretakers from three different families have loved the Mistress in ways most homes have never been loved. The proof can be seen by the fact that families who lived with the Mistress kept her for long periods of time and maintained her in ways most homes have never enjoyed. The Woods family took care of the Mistress from 1767 to 1843. Following the Woods, the Fitzpatrick family took care of her from 1843 to 1949. From 1949 to the present, a member of the Silveus family has looked after the Mistress. For 245 years out of the Mistresses 290 years of existence, three families have embraced her for the long-term. The short-term owners of the Mistress’ first 45 years of existence prior to the Woods family were the Bowers from 1722 to 1739, William Bennett from 1739 to 1746, Andrew Foster from 1746 to 1758 and Cotton Proctor from 1758 to 1767.
Just when it appeared the Mistress would finally become recognized as one of the town’s most lovely and enthralling belles-of-the-ball, her prospects fell apart. In 2003, she was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Only two other structures in town at the time shared that distinction. The Mistress qualified for not just one category, but for two. First she had great looks. You know, the way she was built. Architectural historians would call those looks; the Mistress’ distinctive characteristics. One eye-catching feature is the front facade with a single door and three windows on the first floor and four windows on the second floor. Most houses of the period have a front door with four windows on the first floor and five windows on the second. Another architectural feature is the Mistress’ post and beam construction. Equally important were the Mistress’ owners and their participation in significant events that contributed to the broad patterns of the town’s history such as providing a station in the underground railroad during the antislavery movement of the 1850s.
Once an invitation is extended by the State Historical Commission to submit a nominating narrative, listing of the structure in the National Register is normally a done deal. Several edits might be made to the narrative by the State Historical Commission to eliminate confusion and establish the nomination’s clarity. The process would usually take somewhere between 18 and 24 months. Once the edits were done, the narrative would be forwarded to Washington, D.C.
Then, I got a telephone call from a member of the Groton Historical Commission. The call caused me to bring a crashing halt to the Mistress’s impending glory by withdrawing her nomination. The Groton Historical Commission had just received word from the Groton Board of Selectmen about the Mistress. The caller mentioned how jubilant the commission was about the nomination and all the research that had been done. The commission would help in any way that it could because the town was always “looking for new ways to stop development.” The words, “looking for new ways to stop development” stopped me in my tracks. I concluded that the commission could potentially control any future changes I might want to make to either the house or the one hundred thirty-three acres of land surrounding the Mistress. The land and the Mistress were two separate entities, each having little to do with the other. Admittedly, keeping the Mistress’ environment intact would not be inappropriate, but I determined to be the sole decision-maker on that topic.
It seemed to me the Groton Historical Commission cared little about the history of the Mistress.
To be continued.