A Star Turn at Birchbay for a Storied Organ

 

John Scott gave this talk at an outdoor worship service at Birchbay on Sunday, August 30, 2015.

 

To begin, I invite you to come with me to the city of Boston, to its north end. I imagine that many of us have an image in our minds of the graceful steeple of the Old North Church. This was where the lanterns were hung in 1775 to tell Paul Revere that the British were coming.

 

Beneath the steeple lies the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the second oldest cemetery in Boston. It was once part of the homestead of the cobbler William Copp – the great, great, great grandfather of Georgeville’s founder, Moses Copp. There are no longer, alas, any descendants of Moses Copp living in the village. 

Sarah Hoblyn at the keyboard, with her choir. Photo by Charlie Scott.

So you will be pleasantly surprised to hear that we have three descendants of William Copp here today, not as it happens through Moses, but one of his siblings. The three are our hostess, Elizabeth Ensink Hill, Gerard and Elizabeth's daughter, Dierdre, and their grandson, Jack. Elizabeth only recently learned this from genealogical research by her brother. Yes, it is a small world. 

 

We are gathered this morning to raise our voices in praise, in a tradition that began on this historic ground in August 1878. That was when the Rev. Samuel June Barrows and his wife Isabel, leading a small company of Boston Unitarians, first pitched their tents here. 

 

The Rev. Mr. Barrows' pulpit was, even by Boston standards, of great distinction. He was the minister of First Church on Meeting House hill in suburban Dorchester, now part of south Boston. The church was founded in 1630 and is the oldest in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of Mr. Barrows predecessors was Richard Mather, the father of Increase Mather and grandfather of Cotton Mather. All three Mathers were Puritan divines and all are buried in the Copp's Hill burying ground, along with a host of early Copps. 

 

June Barrows did not set out to become a minister. He was born in the lower East Side of New York and began his career as a newspaper reporter. Isabel was the granddaughter of a Scottish Congregational clergyman who moved to Stanstead Plain in 1829. After the Barrows were married in New York in 1867 – by Henry Ward Beecher – they moved to Washington, where he became secretary to William H. Seward, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State. 

 

Washington at the time, Isabel recalled, was a country village where cows and pigs still had the run of the muddy streets. "I have seen a cow turn innocently into the White House grounds," she wrote, "and snatch a mouthful by the sacred steps where Lincoln's feet had just but walked, but now, alas, the feet of Andrew Johnson went in and out." 

 

The small pump organ that Sarah is playing this morning is a reminder of the Barrows' Washington days. It was brought out of the main Birchbay cabin on Sundays for open air services in the grassy area where we are sitting. When Elizabeth first showed me the organ twenty-odd years ago, we found a bill of sale for it under the lid. It told us that the organ was purchased in 1870 by Samuel June Barrows for $90 down, with instalments over three years. If you were on hand for Georgeville's bicentennial celebrations in 1997, you may remember that the organ was a highlight of a bicentennial service held in a huge tent at the Murray Memorial Center. 

 

The Barrows moved the organ from Washington to Boston when he enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School in 1871. It was then moved on from Boston to here after this cabin was built in the summer of 1890. We will hear a little more of the organ in a few moments. 

 

By the time the Barrows arrived here with their tents, he was an experienced camper – albeit camping of a different sort. He helped to put himself through Harvard Divinity School by joining General George Armstrong Custer's expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874 as a reporter for the New York Tribune. 

 

On the strength of his colourful dispatches from the Indian country, the Tribune's publisher Whitelaw Reid pressed him to return with Custer to Little Big Horn the following year. Luckily for June Barrows – and for us, for that matter – he escaped the massacre at Little Big Horn because the Barrows' daughter, Mabel, had just been born, and Isabel persuaded him to stay at home. 

 

On their first camping trip to the lake in 1878, the Barrows found that – apart from what he described as "a few tasteful villas" built by wealthy Montrealers south of Georgeville – the lakeshore was still virtually a pristine wilderness. Arriving by train at Newport, the campers hired a 40 ft. steamer, the Gracie to ferry them, with a borrowed skiff, to Lord's Island. 

 

After 24 hours on the island, the campers abandoned it because, he explained, "there was no view, no spring, no beach, no field, no henery or milkery." So the campers loaded their tents and kit into the skiff and, scouting the shoreline, soon found "Bedroom Point", as Birchbay was known until the Barrows built the main cabin here in 1890. 

 

The legend is that "Bedroom Point" was so called because Amasa Merriman, a homesteader from Connecticut, slept here when he arrived as one of the first settlers on the eastern shore in 1794. By now the Point was part of the 130-acre farm of Amasa Merriman's son, Lucius. He graciously allowed the Barrows to set up their tents, and here they camped until 1883. 

 

The Shaybacks, as the Barrows called themselves, next camped a hop and a skip closer to Georgeville at Anthemis Bay. Late in 1889, they joined the Holbrook and Pearse families and bought the Lucius Merriman farm, each family choosing a stretch of the lakeshore. The Barrows naturally chose the middle section, including their first love, Bedroom Point. 

 

Eventually, in 1898, they bought land for a larger camp they named Cedar Lodge, turning over Birchbay to their daughter Mabel and her husband Henry Mussey, a Columbia University economist. Birchbay remained in the Mussey family until it was bought, in 1940, by Elizabeth's parents, Benjamin and Faith Hill.

 

Isabel Barrows once calculated that, over the years, the Barrows introduced more than five hundred friends and colleagues to the lake. Many, like the Barrows themselves, were leading figures in the progressive reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whether the cause was women's suffrage, child labour, temperance, prison reform or health care. 

 

Not a few of the Barrows' visitors elected to build camps of their own, between Georgeville and Oliver Corner. They included the Rev. Christopher Rhodes Eliot, who succeeded June Barrows in the pulpit of the First Church in Dorchester when Barrows was drafted, in 1881, to become editor of the Unitarian weekly, the Christian Register. One of Mr. Eliot's daughters recalled that her father was "gentle in speech, unassuming in demeanour. A ministerial colleague once said of him, "˜Wherever he went, the air was clean.'" 

 

The Eliots bought land for their camp, Maple Hill, at Judd Point in 1903. As at Birchbay and Cedar Lodge, Mr. Eliot's outdoor services were well attended by fellow campers and neighbouring farmfolk.

 

Here are a few reminiscences: 

 

From Mary P. Wells Smith, in her day a popular author of children's books: "A little before 4 p.m. [on Sunday] all the campers at Cedar Lodge take to their boats and row a mile to Birchbay…We convene in "˜the Chapel', walled on every side by tall pines and cedars…Mrs. Shayback presides at a small organ brought out from the cabin.

 

From Alice Stone Blackwell, a daughter of the suffragist Lucy Stone and editor of Boston's weekly Women's Journal, writing of Maple Hill: "Boat after boat of campers came gliding around the wooded point and landed their passengers on then beach…People sat on shawls, waterproofs, rocks or the green grass…No cathedral could have furnished surroundings half so grand…”

 

And, finally, from Maurice Wilcox, a son of farmer Willis Charles Wilcox, who built many of the camp cabins and kept the campers supplied with fresh vegetables: "Among the memories I most cherish are Sunday evenings at Birchbay around 1903. Religious services were held under jack o'lanterns hung from tree branches. Music was provided by a small portable organ played by a pig-tailed girl and we stood to sing. In the years that followed I have heard famous organists and world renowned choirs, but none have moved me as did that organ and the young untrained voices ringing through the trees and out over the night water."

 

The last word belongs to Samuel June Barrows. "The hills are full of echoes," he wrote. "We have tried them with voice and trumpet: they do not fail us. But we know also that they are full of echoes for the mind the heart. They respond to the reverence, trust and praise which the soul sings to them."

 

To which we can say, amen. 

Photo by Charlie Scott.