A Snowy Owl Irruption


It has been an exciting early winter for bird watchers here in Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast, along the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the Great Lakes region, due to a plethora of Snowy Owl visitors.  For our final Musings entry of the year, we are delving further into the owl theme introduced in this month’s Featured Find.

snowy owl


Every so often birds that normally live year-round in the Arctic make their way south in large numbers during the winter months.  This past summer researchers reported high breeding productivity among Snowy Owls in the Arctic.  Their primary food source – the lemming – was plentiful, so adult owls laid as many as 8-9 eggs, about twice their usual clutch size.  But when the hordes of hatchlings became hungry adolescents later in the season they started to disperse southward, presumably in search of more abundant food supplies.

Since Snowy Owls actively hunt during the day and prefer wide-open, tundra-like expanses such as salt marshes, sand dunes and hay fields, they are relatively easy to spot.  When we’ve seen them in past winters, however, it has been across an expanse of estuary where even through a spotting scope they appeared miniscule.

But we recently had the pleasure of watching a Snowy Owl for an extended length of time from only 30’ away.  This was in Biddeford Pool, Maine, an old settlement along a large tidal pool at the mouth of the Saco River in southern Maine, where as many as ten Snowy Owls have been seen at a time this winter. The one we viewed was sitting on the arm of an Adirondack chair, no less.  We were mesmerized gazing through binoculars at its large yellow eyes and swiveling head.  Since we had neglected to bring a camera, we only got a poor cell phone photo taken from a respectful distance, so you’ll have to use your imagination to turn the blob on the right arm of the middle chair into a magnificent Snowy Owl.

snowy owl

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Rare Indiana Hickory Steamer Chair


Hickory steamer chairThis hickory chair evokes the leisure lounging of passengers on the deck of a steamship, yet it is much sturdier than traditional steamer chairs which typically had light open cane weave or flat slats on the seat and back, and thin, collapsible mahogany frames.  In contrast, this chair has a sturdy hickory pole frame with solid double stretchers along its length, and a tight herringbone weave rattan cane seat and back.  It does, however, have the basic shape of a steamer chair with a long leg rest and a slightly inclined back rest, as seen in this vintage photo of passengers relaxing aboard a steamship.

passengers in steamer chairs

Photo postcard available on eBay

Despite Indiana’s proximity to the Great Lakes where passenger steamers were a popular means of transportation from the 1890s through the 1940s, these heavy hickory chairs would not have been manufactured with steamships in mind.  This circa 1930 ad for an Old Hickory steamer chair indicates that a more likely target audience for these chairs was institutions such as sanitariums, hospitals, hotels and resorts.


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Room Design Tools for Placing Antiques, Part 2


This article is a follow-up to my previous posting on a quest for design software that could easily be used to place footprints of unique antique furniture in two-dimensional room schematics.  While the previous software I reported on fell short of ideal, I have recently found a more useful tool.

It has become common for mega home furnishings stores to provide an on-line tool that allows customers to place footprints of their products in a diagram specified to the size and shape of their own rooms.  But many of these tools only allow a user to insert furniture of the exact dimensions of the products the company sells, so are not adaptable for people wanting to try out unique antique furniture in a virtual room setting.  One tool used by these stores, however, is much more flexible, because it provides templates of generic furnishing (sofas, chairs, tables, lamps and the like) whose exact dimensions a user can specify.  It is room planner software developed by Icovia which different companies customize with their own logos and homepages, but the inner functioning across all of the stores’ applications are the same.

I tried this software as provided by Ballard Designs (download the free app at by first creating an accurate dimensional outline of a recently renovated room in our home that we are ready to furnish.  Although I first tried to use the tool as an app on a mobile device (an iPad) I found that it lacked some key features that function on a standard desktop or laptop computer, which I suspect has to do with Flash not being functional on iPads.

Once I got going with this app on my pc, however, it was quick and fun to use.  I created a diagram of our 34’ x 14’ library, and moved walls to create the fireplace, bow window and entry doors to their actual dimensions.

room layout

room layout

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Large-scale Birch Bark Canoe Model


Native American birch bark canoe models that were made in the 1800s to early 1900s were accurate replicas of a tribe’s full-size birch bark canoes.  The scholarly book titled The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle (Smithsonian Institution, 1964) has numerous detailed drawings and descriptions of traditional birch bark canoes and their construction.  The authors document the characteristics of many different tribes’ canoes, which makes it possible to attribute a birch bark canoe model to a particular tribe.


birch bark canoe model


This early 20th century model has the shape and characteristics of an Abnaki canoe. The Abnaki Indians included some Malecites and Penobscots, as well as members of southern and central New England tribes including those in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Eventually this group settled on the St. Francis River in Quebec, so Abnakis were also known as St. Francis Indians.

The various tribes making up the Abnaki group each had its own traditional style of canoes, but by the 1850s when they were living together in settlements along the St. Francis River they produced distinctive canoes that were an amalgam of different tribes’ designs.  Known for their excellent quality, these canoes sold well to sportsmen who used them for hunting and fishing.


Abnaki birch bark canoe

Fisherman and guide in a St. Francis Abnaki canoe (Adney & Chapelle)

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A Design Tool That’s Quick, Easy and … Inadequate



It can sometimes be hard to buy furniture without knowing how it will fit into a room, so I (KH) thought it would be useful to introduce our customers to a quick tool for inserting furniture footprints into a scale drawing of a room.  Huge companies such as Pottery Barn that sell mass-produced furniture online now have tools that let you draw your room dimensions, then insert two-dimensional outlines of their furniture to get a basic idea of how their products might fit your space.  This article reports the initial results of my quest to figure out how Cherry Gallery could adapt such a tool to assist buyers of unique antique furniture.

Fortuitously, we are completing renovations on an old (original portions built circa 1800, with major 1890s additions) house, and are nearly ready to furnish the final room that was gutted and refurbished over the past several months.  This room provides our real-life case study for testing online tools for drawing a floor plan and experimenting with adding furniture to scale.  My two main criteria were that the tool be free (not requiring purchased software), and so friendly that drawing the initial room outline on a computer screen would take no more time than it would to draw it on a piece of graph paper.

That quick-and-easy criterion pretty much ruled out using 3-D design tools, even though there are some good ones available online for free.  When designing our kitchen a few years ago, I was inspired by a 3-D rendering our brother-in-law had made of their kitchen plan using free but powerful modeling software called SketchUp.  I saw his rendering while visiting the completed kitchen in their new house, and was impressed by how well his plan evoked the actual space I was standing in.

Kitchen plan from Sketchup's sample renderings

Kitchen plan from Sketchup’s sample renderings

Deck plan from  Sketchup's sample renderings

Deck plan from Sketchup’s sample renderings

So I diligently set about trying to use SketchUp to transform our mental images of a new kitchen into a snazzy architectural rendering.  Suffice it to say that I flunked my self-taught course in SketchUp, being impatient to produce a product rather than master a process.  I resorted to making a 2-D floor plan on graph paper to give to our cabinet maker who then created elevations.

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Micmac Quillwork on Birch Bark


Micmac quilled shair seat

This saddle-shaped birch bark panel is elaborately decorated with geometric designs fashioned from dyed porcupine quills.  It is a stunning example of traditional Micmac Indian quillwork dating from circa 1850-60, and has the provenance of past ownership by a distinguished British collector of tribal art.  That this graphic artwork was fashioned as a seat for a formal Victorian chair, and that it ended up in the hands of a European, both make perfect sense in light of the history of how this Native North American Indian craft evolved.

A Bit of History

Micmacs in the Nova Scotia region of Canada have used dyed porcupine quills as decorative ornamentation for hundreds of years, practicing this art long before their contact with Europeans.  Explorers and fishermen who first encountered Micmacs recorded observations of decorative quillwork, such as in this sailor’s account written in 1606:  “…the maids and women do make matachias (bracelets) with the quills or bristles of the porcupine, which they dye black, white and red colours, as lively as possible may be.”  (Whitehead, 1982)*

Given that there are 20,000-30,000 quills on a single porcupine (yes, somebody counted them), they were an abundant source of raw material for handicrafts.


Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol (

Not long after white people started living and trading among them, Micmacs turned their craftsmanship skills to making objects to sell to Europeans.  They had traditionally used techniques such as stitchery, loom weaving, wrapping and plaiting of porcupine quills to decorate objects for their own use.  They also decorated their birch bark canoes with porcupine quills, so inserting quills into birch bark to make decorative designs was another technique within their traditional repertoire. By the mid-1700s, when the souvenir industry was in full swing, the bark insertion technique had become the Micmac’s dominant form of quill ornamentation.

Birch bark boxes decorated with geometric mosaics of dyed porcupine quills were a staple of the Micmac’s trade with French and English settlers.  European entrepreneurs began buying up these crafts, and ships’ captains would resell them at their ports of call.   By the early 1800s, the sale of quillwork and other Indian crafts in Great Britain had become lucrative enough that their importation was taxed by the British government.

As the fur trade declined throughout the early 19th century, quill work became a primary source of Micmacs’ income. This explains their motivation to adapt quickly to European tastes, which during the Victorian era included fancifying even everyday household items such as tea cosies, straight-edge razor cases, comb boxes and napkin rings.

quilled wall pocket

19th Century quill decorated comb box wall pocket (Whitehead, 1982)

Sometime around 1840, a European fad for furniture inset with panels of quilled birch bark emerged.  Micmac women began to add chair bottoms made of birch bark ornamented with dyed porcupine quills to their wares.  In 1851, the Nova Scotia Industrial Exhibition offered a prize for “the best quill work chair bottoms.”

Solitary chair seats were produced for years prior to the production of matching sets of chair seats and chair backs, which helps us date our lone chair seat to the earlier production timeframe of the mid-1800s.  Single quilled chair bottoms sold for $2-$5 to homeowners and merchants, as well as directly to the cabinetmakers who mounted them on hand-crafted chairs.

The chairs into which quilled panels were inserted were fashioned in styles popular among Europeans of the time.  Several years ago, we sold a formal hall chair that had both a quilled back and a quilled seat to an American museum.  That chair (pictured below), had been purchased by James Du Pres, third Earl of Caledon, on a trip to Nova Scotia during the 1800s – an example of the vibrant trade that existed between Micmacs and enthusiastic British collectors.

Micmac quilled chair

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Simple + Rustic + Beauty


Kathadin Lake Wilderness Camps

In our business, rustic is a style of design, craftsmanship and décor.  When used to describe desirable antiques, the word “rustic” in our vocabulary can just as easily be interchanged with “refined” – at least in reference to a furniture maker’s or an antiques owner’s aesthetic sensibilities.  Yet in everyday parlance, rustic also describes something more primitive, whether living conditions or artifacts, which can have their own very tangible appeal.

More in the spirit of the latter than the former meaning of rustic, we recently spent a few days at a remote lodge in Maine where rustic would be an appropriate adjective to refer to a simple – some might call it rugged – lifestyle without electricity, running water, roads or motorized vehicles.

Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps (KLWC) was established in 1885, and the main lodge and some of the guest cabins date from that time period. While our last article titled “Rusticator Repast” featured a style of late 19th century rusticating in the lap of luxury, camps such as KLWC would have catered to rusticators more interested in hunting and fishing than in dressing for dinner.  This photograph (from our inventory) of a city couple with their hunting guide is the type of scene we imagine unfolding in a place such as KLWC in its early days.

rusticators with hunting guide

Katahdin Lake and its surrounding land are now within Maine’s Baxter State Park, and can be accessed via a 3.3 mile hiking trail.

Baxter State Park Sign

Katahdin Lake Trail Sign

The start of the hike

The start of the hike into KLWC

Crossing Roaring Brook

Crossing Roaring Brook

Emerging into a grassy clearing after a mesmerizing hike through mossy woods is unexpected, as are the sights of cabins, garden phlox and apple trees.

 Katahdin Camps

Katahdin Camps lodge

While we thoroughly enjoy visiting grand old Adirondack camps and sophisticated contemporary rustic abodes, the old, unadorned cabins at KLWC also have their charms.  In fact, thinking of these structures as primitive is relative to your point of reference – simply having four snug log walls, a roof, beds, and a wood stove are downright luxurious after a few nights of camping in tents or lean-tos.

Our cabin

Our cabin

Our porch had a view of the lake

Our porch had a view of the lake

The cabin interiors have simple quilts on the beds and miscellaneous old furniture around the woodstove.

Katahdin cabin interior

Katahdin cabin interior

There are lots of camps and cabins like this throughout Maine (and undoubtedly throughout the country), whether hunting and fishing cabins or family camps.  A number of years ago at a Maine camp where we spent a week, Jeff was surprised that almost everything, especially the things that would be easy and inexpensive to replace, was broken or downright shabby – an ornery crank can opener with the rubber coating peeled off the handles, dated lamp shades sporting old light bulb scorch marks, a footstool with electrical tape repairing a tear in its naugahyde upholstery.  But it all seemed quite normal to Kass who grew up in northern Maine where most folks had some kind of a camp on the water or in the woods.  When something in your town house had seen better days, it went into reserve to take “up to camp,” “over to camp,” or “out to camp” depending on the compass direction from home to camp.

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Decorated Indian Snow Shoes


Although antique Indian snow shoes make appealing wall art on a purely aesthetic basis, they also embody history and cultural identity, a combination intrinsic to all good antique Native American art.  Since tribes across the northern expanse of North America made and used different styles of snow shoes, there exists a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials and forms of decoration.

Having handled pairs of snow shoes from many areas, we are usually able to readily identify their region of origin.  When in doubt, we consult the few references that anthropologists have written specifically about traditional snow shoes, and read collection histories on pairs of snow shoes in museum collections.


This pair (above) in our current inventory is an excellent example of Eastern Cree snow shoes.  A photo (below) in the publication “Central Cree and Ojibway Crafts # 8 – Transportation” (Indian and Northern Affairs, Ottawa, Canada, 1974) shows a pair having the identical shape and similar decoration that was made by an Eastern Cree tribe member in Eastmain, Quebec, a township on the eastern shore of James Bay that is about an 18-hour drive northwest of Montreal.  These snow shoes, which are in the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, were made for a child seven to ten years of age, so are only 36” long x 8.5” wide.


In contrast, the snow shoes we have are a whopping 58” high x 13” wide so would have been made for an adult, but still are quite a bit larger than average adult snow shoes that we’ve seen from other regions.  They date from circa 1900-1920, and their condition is very good with a few areas where the webbing has broken away from the frame.

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Rusticator Repast


Old Faithful Inn dining room in the early 1900s

Old Faithful Inn dining room in the early 1900s

From the mid-1800s through the 1920s, it became popular for well-to-do urbanites to vacation in remote locations of extraordinary natural beauty across the U.S.  Often dubbed “rusticators,” these tourists sought bucolic settings and opportunities for outdoor recreation, yet preferred comfortable, even luxurious, accommodations to retreat to at the end of the day.

While some establishments, such as the Old Faithful Inn, exhibited classic rustic architecture, many of the destinations were grand Victorian hotels.  Nevertheless, this style of vacationing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the popularity of the rustic furnishings that are at the heart of our antiques business, so all manner of historical details related to the original rusticator era are of ongoing interest.

One dimension of elegant adventurers’ vacation experience was the food served in the out-of-the-way locales they visited.  Could they expect simple local fare such as venison, beans and flapjacks, or upscale entrees such as Blue Points on Half Shell and Filet de Boeuf Pique aux Champignons?

The answer seems to be the latter, based on our exploration of the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” database.  Within its treasure trove of digitized restaurant menus from the 1850s thru 2008, we found numerous dinner menus from resorts that were popular during the heyday of country and wilderness vacationing at resorts that had both natural outdoor wonders and the amenities of home.

Here we present menus from five of these resorts, along with period photos of each:

1)    Kearsarge House in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with a menu from 1873

2)    Paul Smith’s Hotel in the Adirondacks, with a menu from 1891

3)    Poland Spring House in Maine, with a menu from 1891

4)    Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, with a menu from 1915, and

5)    The Balsams in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, with a menu from 1917.

It is striking how bountiful the fare was in most of these examples, with a wide variety of meats, fish, relishes, vegetables, pastries and the like.  We learned that top chefs in the resort industry prepared meals not unlike what visitors would experience at a fine restaurant back in the city.

Two things made this bounty possible in an era prior to paved highways:  railroads and on-site farms.  The White Mountains Express, Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad, Maine Central Railway, Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad, and Northern Pacific Railroad are some of the early rail lines that would have served these resorts.

The train depot was not far from the Poland Spring House in Maine, but in the White Mountains the station was 60 miles from The Balsams, so everything and everyone disembarking the train made the rest of the journey via stagecoach.  This may have inspired The Balsams to establish a huge farming operation on site to produce its own dairy, eggs, poultry, vegetables, livestock, and even trout from its own hatchery.  To augment its self-sufficiency, The Balsams also had (and in fact still has) its own power generator and water supply.

The Kearsarge House, also in the White Mountains, had its own farm as well, boasting in its 1887 brochure: “Possessing its own farm of almost 100 acres, the Kearsarge has every day fresh vegetables and fruit.  The excellence of its table has always been a source of special pride.”  Modern day locavores would approve.

The exception to the more sumptuous resort fare, at least as represented by the sample 1915 menu we found, was at Old Faithful Inn which had a much simpler table d’hote menu presenting a single multi-course meal with few choices.  The rail station for Yellowstone was 56 miles away in Gardiner, Montana, so guests and provisions alike were transported from the train depot to the Inn in 4 and 6-horse wagons.  Without a large farm on site or nearby, it is no surprise that the menu was somewhat limited in this wilderness outpost.

Stage coach to Old Faithful Inn

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Snow Snakes


One of the more intriguing artifacts of northern Native Americans sports and game culture is a long wooden rod called a snow snake.  It is the only implement needed for the game of snow snakes, which has been played by Native men and boys for hundreds of years, and is still played in winter tournaments on some reservations.  Snow snakes are also beautiful sculptural objects – an 8’ long snow snake over a double door in our house always catches the eye of first-time visitors who also love to hold it and imagine how its smooth surface glides across the snow.

The techniques and rules of the game of snow snakes varied among tribes stretching across the vast regions of the country where there are snowy, frozen winters.  The shape of snow snakes also varied by region, with some being short and broad, while others, like the Iroquoian snakes we present here, being long and narrow.  (See Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Culin, a 1993 University of Nebraska Press reprint of an ethnographic tome originally published in 1907.)


two snow snakes


The object of the game is for players to see how far they can slide a snake across the snow, usually within a trough that has been built up and then grooved by dragging a log along its length. Players stand back then take several steps towards the beginning of the track – similar to a javelin thrower – while trying to maintain balance on slippery ground. They then throw or toss the snow snake into the track with an underhand motion (although Penobscots used an overhand toss when the snow was soft).  The challenge is to power the snake to slide a long distance without using so much force that it jumps the track and gets buried in the sidelines.

Experienced elders have attested to the difficulty of playing the game well, saying that the most successful players are those who began throwing as children. Recently, snakes thrown by the most skillful players have been recorded as traveling more than one mile in less than three minutes, at speeds clocked at 108 miles per hour in the first mile.

Teams of men play the game using the same track, and in some versions will stand their snake upright into the snow after a throw to mark the farthest point it reached. After a winner of each throw is declared, boys are sent to retrieve the snakes.  There are many variations of the methods and rules of the game (e.g., the number of men per team, how points are accumulated, and how many points constitute a win for a team), as well as variations in track design (e.g., tapering wall height, moguls, and drifts of powdered snow that the snake has to break through).

Some ceremonial aspects of the game have been documented as well.  In the 1940 book Penobscot Man, the anthropologist Frank Speck recounts chants and songs that Penobscots used to accompany a throw, with lyrics such as “Go quickly, my little snow snake, and catch the old woman (or the name of the opponent’s leading stick),” and incantations to the totem inscribed on one’s own snow snake such as:  “Frog, rush ahead and kill them.”

Just as with any piece of sports equipment, a snow snake is designed to maximize the chance of accomplishing the game’s objective.  An Iroquois snow snake is a long piece of wood – 6’ to 8’ – which typically started as a 1” block riven along the grain of a hardwood log such as maple, hickory or birch, and then carved and shaped into the form of an elongated snake with a slightly bulbous tip. The back end of the stick has a notch where the guiding index finger is placed during a throw, and the tip usually has an inlay of pewter.

snow snake pewter tips

The snakes are sanded and polished, sometimes decorated, and then coated with wax (or “medicine” as one Seneca snow snake maker calls it), the composition of which varies depending on snow conditions, and which is often made from secret recipes that are passed down through families.

The two snow snakes we are offering were acquired on the Cattaraugus Seneca Indian reservation and are signed by their owners.  The writing on the snakes is comprised of stippled dots incised with a sharp implement.  One snake is signed “Kelly Lay,” a Seneca Indian who lived at Cattaraugus from 1877-1940.

signed snow snake

The 1940 U.S. Census shows that he was the head of a household that included eight other people – his wife, five children, and two extended family members.  His snake is dated 1900 when he would have been 23 years old.  It also says “Newtown” which is a community within the reservation.

Newtown on snow snake

This snow snake also has two old repairs, a groove on the underside of the head that is colored with red pigment, and a pronounced notch on the back tip.

anow snake pigment

snow snake back end

The second snow snake bears the name “Boston Jim,” which is also written in stippled lettering.

Boston Jim snow snake

This was presumably the nickname of a Seneca man who had moved to or came from Boston, NY, a community that is less than 30 miles northeast of the Cattaraugus reserve.  This snake has some additional decoration – three red pigment dots and some line drawings, which might represent the owner’s totem or some other good luck spirit.

snow snake decoration

snow snake totem drawing

It also looks as though it was notched on the back tip, but the notch is smoothed somewhat with wear.

snow snake back end

Both snow snakes have protective pewter tips and bulbous heads.  A Chippewa man describing playing snow snakes as a child in 1928 explained that the thin tail end of the snake cut into the snow, ensuring that the broad leading head stayed on top. “Even if you goofed and threw it under the snow, it would crawl back up to the top,” he said.

 snow snake heads

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