Presentation Notes: 2004-2005

Alex and Mamie's Attic

Presented by Herb Skelly

Presentation Notes by Jeanne Carley

Herb Skelly, a retired Episcopal priest in New England, took Cape Cod Genealogical Society members back in time through his ancestors' barn, attic, and sheds. Raised with a "depression mentality," meaning one doesn't throw anything away, his family left the New Hampshire native a homestead full of unusual antiques. He brought many of these to share with his audience and to explain their uses, mostly unknown to urban people today. The people in New Hampshire have a word, "skulch" for stuff you don't throw away. After ministering in Massachusetts, Skelly came to the Cape and then retired here.

He began by introducing us to the Civil War period when America was turned upside down. A student of American cultural history, Skelly said our ancestors' lives were changed radically whether they were pro-slavery or against it. He spent some time learning and teaching about that time - our social, economic and demographic past.

During the Pre-Civil War era, many items were made of wood as iron was expensive and hard to find. The colonists made cannonballs out of small deposits of iron ore and Cape Cod shells. Tin cans were used to patch tools. He showed many wooden items, such as an old hand-carved brace with a permanent drill bit and a hand-crafted coffin-shaped plane. He shook a baby rattle made of wooden rings. Children had few toys then so they played with simple concoctions like cat's cradle made with buttons and string.

Later the transition was made to metal tools with the introduction of iron foundries. He found an example - a cast iron miniature gas stove-in his family's attic which would have been used in a dollhouse. With the evolution to iron products, tools could be made with removable drill bits.

According to Skelly, there was a general depression in the 1870s, and the Cape was especially hard hit. The saltworks disappeared when salt was discovered in upstate New York. Wood was difficult to find, having been used extensively as charcoal to make Sandwich glass. Tourism finally saved Cape Cod. Railroads came to the Cape bringing people for vacations. It became more agricultural and fishing had picked up.

Life was changing, not only in industry, but in the home. People now began using the Sears Roebuck catalog. Skelly brought a replica of the old familiar catalog which featured everything from machinery to pianos, all shipped from Chicago. Children were selling tickets to Magic Lantern shows and their parents were looking through stereopticons.

People began moving to the cities for jobs, not only the freed Blacks, but former farmers. They moved to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston, and Chicago where the jobs were to be found. Roads were not good. They used the railroad to move west to the Mississippi or to the South and would then take a horse-drawn wagon.

By the end of the Civil War, the railroad had come as far as Eastham. Wealthy Bostonians came down to Falmouth and built homes along the coast since they could commute by train through Middleboro to Falmouth.

Major migrations ended at the Mississippi River, but by 1865, the railroad was completed across the country. Skelly also mentioned the windmills as the salvation of the Midwest. Migrants could not have farmed without this iron invention and iron machinery.

He also discussed the innovation of the washing machine, a major labor-saving device to make life easier for women. This came with the advent of the 1850 Women's Liberation movement. Another big change began when women started to work outside the home. Several colleges were being founded for women known as the Seven Sisters to compete with the men's colleges. But surprisingly, Boston University was in the forefront of co-education, he claimed. His grandmother, who knew five languages, graduated from BU in 1903, a great feat for a woman of her time.

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.