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Winter 2006

When opportunity Knox

by Kamissa Mort ’06
Photos by Ben Magro. Images courtesy of the General Henry Knox Museum.

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Portrait of Henry Knox, after the style of Gilbert Stuart, date unknown

 

A summer internships awakens new interests

Turn-of-the-century print of Montpelier

I grew up going to museums. So when the opportunity came to work at one, I applied immediately. As an art history major at Franklin & Marshall, I thought an internship at the General Henry Knox Museum would be ideal. It is a living museum, dedicated to the memory of one of America’s most unsung heroes, a man who “Cinderella’d” from bookseller to Secretary of War; it is filled with early American art and artifacts; and it is located on the rocky coast of Maine, a place I essentially consider heaven.

The Knox Mansion, named Montpelier, is a reconstruction of his retirement home, built originally in 1795. After it was torn down in the mid-1800s, the Henry Knox chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decided to rebuild it. These feisty ladies had a tall order to fill. The house had been, and would prove to be, the largest structure in the coastal area. The original site of the house had been on the edge of the Thomaston port, but that spot now contained other buildings. So they put the house up the road, right off U.S. Route 1, where many tourists would see it.

Montpelier, the Knox Mansion

The Knox Mansion has been a visual fixture of my life for 21 years. My family has a summer home on the St. George Peninsula in Maine. I was thrilled about the idea of returning to my second home. But I had no idea how much my time there would change the course of my summer and even my life.

My job description consisted of office and clerical work, gift shop duties, tour-guiding around the 17-room mansion, and completing a research project. The office and register duties I knew I could handle, but I was definitely nervous about explaining our nation’s essential history to the public. And, with my chosen research topic of Knox’s wallpaper, I was pretty sure I was in over my head.


May 30, 2005: Today I shadowed a few tours given by our volunteers. I was amazed at their comprehensive knowledge of Knox’s life and our unbelievable collection: a traveling kit given to Knox by French ally Lafayette, a medallion worn by Knox from his quasi-Masonic club, a bookcase that once belonged to Marie Antoinette? Okay, the bookcase wasn’t really hers, but you had to give Knox credit for a good story. Of all the objects in the house, visitors are drawn to the wallpaper. Was it based on evidence? Is this scrap true to the time period? These questions echoed in my head, and I knew that I wanted to focus my project on the wallpaper.



June 2, 2005: Today I gave my first tour. It wasn’t as terrifying as I expected. I was still learning all the stories behind each piece of furniture and painting, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve learned a lot. One of the most intriguing figures has to be his wife, Lucy. A renegade Brit who married Knox against her father’s wishes, she had wanted to turn the small fishing village of Thomaston, Maine, into a social capital like Boston. A gambler and a drinker, she weighed almost 300 pounds, while being barely over five feet tall. Despite her spunky character, she led a tragic life, as only three of her 13 children survived to adulthood. Following Knox’s untimely death—lacerations on his throat from choking on a chicken bone—Lucy lived isolated in the Knox mansion for almost 20 years.

All the volunteers are very supportive, but they seem to think one thing is missing from my tour: a period costume. They whisked me into the dressing room and gave me an outfit: a long white undershirt called a chemise, a blue skirt that would have been considered scandalous in the 1790s because my ankles showed, and a cream-colored jacket. No bonnet . . . yet.


June 8, 2005: I started my research project this morning. The mansion has 17 rooms that all need to be decorated with the appropriate wallpaper. While several rooms have reproductions of original wallpaper from the mansion, none has the right borders. I have studied a bit of wallpaper history and styles at college, so I was familiar with early American preferences and some of the manufacturing tactics.

Detail of Pompeian wallpaper border from the original Montpelier,
ca. 1800

The archivist, Ellen Dyer, gave me a list of Knox’s financial papers and a catalog of historical wallpaper. I settled in. If there was one thing I learned at F&M, it was how to learn. I started reading everything I could about American wallpaper, and facts I had learned in Art 270 flooded back to me. Knox was an interesting case because he couldn’t stand buying from English manufacturers after the Revolutionary War. His financial papers showed he bought from Boston dealers, some of whom may have imported English and French wallpapers, but he rarely dealt with European dealers directly.

The wallpaper in the drawing room has one of my favorite anecdotes. After the entire Knox family died and the home was left vacant, it became a gold mine for lone travelers and souvenir hunters. Anyone could go through the house and take anything they wanted—and many took wallpaper. A few years ago, someone anonymously sent a package to the museum. Perhaps the person had found it in the attic or maybe it was a treasured family heirloom, but inside the package was a piece of Knox wallpaper, a link to history. From that scrap of paper, the museum was able to commission the entire room to be decorated the way it had been during Knox’s lifetime. Now if only we had 16 more of those, I’d be set.

Montpelier’s dining room


 

Q&A with K-Mort

Q What is the quirkiest fact you learned about the Knox family?

A There are many strange and interesting facts, but I think my favorite has to do with Knox’s wife, Lucy. While he was off fighting the Revolutionary War, she was confined with Martha Washington to play cards all day. She did not play refined games like other ladies of the day; she was a poker-playing card sharp, obsessed with gambling. Some local Thomaston legends say that she lost all Knox’s land in her bets, and that her addiction was the reason they were bankrupt by the time of Knox’s death.

Q What day at the museum was the most fun?

A We had a weekend-long event celebrating Henry Knox’s birthday in the middle of July. It was phenomenal because David McCullough, author of 1776, came and spoke about Knox and the importance of his legacy. It really helped put into perspective the work we were doing at the museum, that his memory is important to American culture and needs to be cherished. There was also cake and a live band.

Q Did you have any embarrassing moments as a tour guide?

A One? Numerous? Some of my favorite tours were with visitors who knew more than I did, but I loved giving tours to kids. One of the wildest objects in the house is Henry Knox’s chamber pot—we were always pulling curious kids off it.

Q What do you want to be when you grow up?

A In many ways I am not sure yet. I know I have certain criteria for what I want my career to entail. Of course, I want my career to be interesting (and maybe even mobile), but mostly I want to make an impact. I am thinking about studying culture law, learning all the red tape behind collections and then combining that with a specialized knowledge of American historical objects. Think of it as Antiques Roadshow with more research.

Q What would people be surprised to learn about you?

A I play goalie for the women’s lacrosse team here at F&M. I think some people might look at me and think I’m not too tough, but I can take a hit.

 

Knox’s Society of the Cincinnati medal, ca. 1783

Travel kit presented to Knox by Lafayette

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June 17, 2005: “We are here to see the land-burner’s house!” I always love giving tours to people with preconceived opinions about Knox. These visitors thought Montpelier was George Washington’s home, not Knox’s. After we got that fact out, I found out these visitors were Mohawk Indians who came back to the area where their ancestors had lived. This was one of those tours where I learned more than I taught. These two women told me about their amazing history and deep connections with Maine. Many of the names in our area, such as Magunticook Lake and Monhegan Island, were taken from the Mohawk tribes. Here was a history even older than the one I was teaching.


June 25, 2005: The wallpaper project has advanced a lot. Ellen and I traveled to Boston today to look at the holdings at Historic New England, which houses archives of hundreds of years of art, furniture, and of course, wallpaper. We drove to Boston hoping to get a look at some Knox originals. We didn’t expect to find out anything we didn’t already know. But in looking through the files, there was a strangely marked fragment of paper that was the right time period and had even come from our area. Someone had marked the file from the “KNOZ” mansion. I am beginning to really enjoy this research. It is almost like detective work, and we were thrilled to find another link to Knox’s past.


August 4, 2005: I have been doing a lot of research in online databases. It helps me gain a general feeling of wallpaper styles from different time periods and regions. Today, I was looking at ground papers, trying to find options that were appropriate to Knox’s time, even if they weren’t certainly from his home. I had passed a particular piece a number of times, not thinking too much of the gray-and-black print, with little figures of farmers and apple pickers. But this time, I opened the picture onto a larger screen, zooming in on a tiny scribble the archive had listed as “unidentified mark.”

If you looked at it upside down, it almost looked like Knox’s initials! Knox had a special way of signing his name with a simple HK, written so that the right side of the H and the left leg of the K were the same. If you hadn’t spent the entire summer looking at his signature, you never would have noticed it. I quickly printed the image. Showing my fellow intern and the archivist, they all agreed that the mark looked like Knox’s distinct symbol.
The description from the database said that the fragment had been made into an envelope for financial papers from 1807. Knox had died in 1806, and by 1807 his wife would have been organizing his records. It was very likely that this was another piece of our history.


By the end of the summer we had compiled enough information to outfit the entire house with new wallpaper. With the exciting discoveries of two more Knox wallpapers, the house would be even more authentic.

I was thrilled to be a part of sharing this important piece of American history, and I felt I had a better idea of what I wanted to do with my life. The museum is able to educate by making the information accessible and interesting, and, to me, this seemed like the ultimate achievement. Focusing my research on the decorative arts aspect of Knox’s home allowed me to discover how he lived, and searching through his daily life gave me an understanding of what it meant to live in the late 18th century. Hunting for new information or new angles to understand old information made me realize that I had learned how to learn, and that I could take these skills and apply them to every aspect of my life. I could not wait to get back to F&M and continue my journey.

 

 

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