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Half of one of my bookshelves is taken up by journals written three-quarters of a century ago by my great-grandfather, Jesse Brewer (1888 – 1971). He writes about daily life in a small Massachusetts town before things like the internet, cable television, smartphones, and pre-grated cheese were daily realities.
Jesse worked as a caretaker for the Hornblower family, keeping their home in Plymouth, Mass., in working order when they were out of town. The Hornblowers eventually donated their land to become Plimouth Plantation. Jesse and his wife, Thelma, had four children and many family and friends within walking distance – Jesse is forever stopping at people’s houses for games of cribbage, or spending the day hunting rabbits with a friend, or seeding trout ponds with fish eggs. He is also driven by his passion for archeology and is forever on the lookout for arrowheads. Jesse Brewer the current says of his grandfather: “The thing about the land near where your mom lives (most of the Cape) is that it’s so sandy the soil doesn’t build up over time as elsewhere. The dirt you walk on is practically what the natives were walking on. A good rainstorm away from being exposed. On the beach below the cliffs the artifacts would loosen up at the top because of erosion and tumble down to where Jesse would frequently check.”
This project began in January of 2019 and is still going strong in 2022. I’m trying my best to post one entry per day on the corresponding date. (But I’m pretty busy with my own writing/editing career and family, so please forgive if I skip a day.)
My mom, Anne Verre, is an invaluable source of family history and typing skills.
We’d love to hear what you think.
Notes from David, Jesse’s son. This helps clear up some of the family branches.
February 28, 1989
My name is David Lewis Brewer, born January 15, 1917, to Jesse and Marie Brewer in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
My father came to this country from England with his family when he was eight years old. My mother’s maiden name was Covelle and she had lived with her family in the town of Plymouth before meeting him. They married in the year 1913 and had their first child, Victoria, in 1915. Two years later when I came along we lived in the west half of an old two family house on Cliff Street, in the South side of Plymouth. Dad had worked for a neighbor named Bill Henry Finney as a dairyman, caring for a small number of cows and delivering milk to customers in a horse drawn milk wagon. About the time I was born or soon after, he changed his job and became a caretaker of the summer estate belonging to Ralph Hornblower. I guess I was too young to remember my father working as a milkman but Victoria does. She must have been a favored child by Bill Henry and his widowed sister who lived with him, for I recall our receiving an old upright organ from them after Bill Henry died. He had promised Victoria she would have it one day, and sure enough, one day it was given to her. I do vaguely recall walking over to his house with Victoria when we were small children to visit. When I was a little older, probably about seven or eight, I used to go to the lot in back of Bill Henry’s to help myself to some of his Concord grapes. They grew all along a six foot high board fence that ran the full width of the back of his lot. The vines grew up and over the top of the fence leaving a space beneath like a long tunnel that a child could crawl into and be hidden from view. Many’s the time I knelt beneath those grapevines and ate grapes until I could hold no more.
Being two years older than I, Victoria was considerately more intelligent than I when we were small children. The two of us played together and occasionally got into some mischief for which we were scolded or punished. For some reason or other I don’t remember Victoria getting punished but I do remember that I did. I think she must have been clever enough to think up these bits of mischief and then instruct me how to do them. Of course I did what she told me to do so I was the one responsible. My second sister, Eleanor, was born when I was two years old. Her name was Marie Eleanor, but we must have started calling her Eleanor from early on. When I was four, my mother became pregnant again and went to the hospital and gave birth to my brother Robert. Something went wrong with Mama and she became ill and died while still in the hospital. We children never saw her again and the tragedy was so traumatic for Dad and all those who loved her that I suspect we children were not informed of the details because they could not bring themselves to talk to us about it. I have a few vague recollections of my mother and some things that happened while she was still alive. We went down to Dennis on the Cape a few times to visit our great Grandma and Grandpa Terry who lived in a house on Route 28, about one half mile or so beyond the Bass River Bridge. For some reason I can still remember the house, the barn in back, Grandpa’s garden and the bridge quite well, even though I could not have been more than four years old. I also recall both Victoria and Eleanor having scarlet fever. They both went to the hospital and were in the contagious ward when Mama had to go. I might have had a touch of the disease at the same time but if I did it was such a mild case that no one realized I had it until the skin peeled from the backs of my hands and I was apparently over it. The last time I recall Mama was the day before she went to the hospital. She was sitting in her rocking chair beside a round parlor stove in the dining room in the old Finney house.
A very close friend of my mother, Bertha Lee, came forward following Mama’s death and offered to care for the new baby, Robert. I don’t know any of the details but I know from a few things Dad told me many years later, that this was a really hard time for him, being grief stricken over the loss of his wife whom he loved so dearly and faced with the problems of raising his children, he accepted the offer. Bobby was adopted and raised by George and Bertha Lee. We children thought of them as Aunt Bertha and Uncle George and we saw them often over the years. We children knew from a very early age that Bobby was our brother as did he, but this never seemed to hurt our family relationship. In time Bob and I grew to care a great deal for each other.
The Finney family that lived in the other side of the duplex house were the owners. There were three older folks, Jim Herbert, his wife, and Rowette, his sister plus two boys, George who was about twenty and Jimmy who must have been in his thirties living there.
Soon after Mama died Dad’s sister Alice came to live with us and take care of us children. She was about my mother’s age and we already liked her very much so we got along well. Looking back now I imagine this must have been a difficult job for her. She took on the responsibility of caring for a ready made family of four plus Grandpa Covelle who lived with us until he built his own house across the street. Certainly I must have given her some trying times. I recall many experiences I had through this period of time when Aunty May cared for us. They were exciting times. I was an adventurous kid who liked to wander off alone or with a friend, Ralph Rogers, who was about four years older than I. We would walk to the beach and play in the sand, climb though the rocks in the breakwater, wade in the ocean, hunt for shells, skip stones on the water and just have a grand time. I had such good times that I seldom was aware of the passing time and often did not get home until after dark. Of course everyone was worried about me and would be searching for me when I arrived. Needless to say they would be upset and a little angry and once in a while I might have been punished a little but I guess it had little effect on me for I was apt to wander away on another adventure the following day with no thought of the consequences.
Grandpa Covelle owned a sailboat for a while and kept it moored at the mouth of Eel River about one half mile from our house. I recall his pulling it out of the water and working on it but I don’t remember ever having sailed in it. He also owned a small summer cottage at White Horse Beach in Manomet, about ten miles south of home. Occasionally the whole family would go there for a weekend. We children had a great time there. This was where I first experienced sleeping in a hammock. It was hung high enough over a cot so that Victoria could sleep under me. Eleanor slept in another cot at the end of the room. I curled up in the hammock and quickly went to sleep. The next thing I knew, I fell from the hammock on top of Victoria, who protested profusely. I crawled back into the hammock and went to sleep again, only to later fall on top of Victoria once more.
The fondest memory I have of Grandpa was a weekend that the two of us had together. Dad had a small flat bottomed skiff that he kept in Eel River. One day Grandpa and I went down to the river and he pulled the boat from the water, across the sand, over the breakwater, and down across the beach to the ocean. From there we rowed south along Plymouth Beach, out around Rocky Point, past Priscilla Beach to White Horse Beach. Gramp rowed most of the way although he let me row for a while. The boat was only about ten feet long. I was only seven or eight years old and not very heavy. Grampa however was a little portly and probably weighed well over two hundred pounds. When we exchanged our center and stern seating positions, the stern of the boat settled so low and the bow rose so high that I could hardly reach the water with the oars. We spent the weekend on the beach and in his cottage. He was a great cook and he cooked a mess of mussels we picked up on the beach. He also made two large apple pies and we managed to eat them both the last day we were there. The following day we rowed the boat back to Plymouth Beach, dragged it back to the river and returned home. It was to me, a perfect weekend.
One day Grampa bought a house lot of land directly across the street from the house we lived in. During the next couple of years he built a house at the north end of the property which was the highest elevation. The view from the enclosed front porch was beautiful. One could see down the valley to the ocean and beyond to the horizon. To the northeast one could see across Plymouth Harbor to Duxbury, east to the Gurnet and it’s lighthouse and southerly to Rocky Point and the Pine Hills. This must have been his dream house. It was a typical Cape Cod cottage style house, having two bedrooms and bath upstairs and three rooms downstairs with an enclosed porch the full width of the front. About one half way up from the street to the house he built a two car garage where he kept his 1927 Willys 77 sedan. The garage was just large enough to close the doors if the bumper of the car was touching the opposite wall. The Willys was so small that some years later when we tried to store out 1936 Ford sedan in the garage, we couldn’t close the doors.
When Grampa moved into his new home he brought his mother, my Great Grandma Terry and Aunt Tirzah to live with him. He provided for them for the rest of his life and left the house to be their home as long as they lived. They both lived many years after he died.
When I was eight years old Dad married again. Needless to say, this brought about a big change in our lives. Aunty May, who had been caring for us for four years and had become like a mother to us, left. Eleanor, who was now about six, went to stay at Grampa’s for a period of time. Victoria and I found ourselves trying to adjust to this new situation. Because she was two years older than I, I imagine she found it more difficult that I did. Our new mother was only about thirteen years older than Victoria, so there is no doubt that she has bought herself a difficult task.
Her name was Thelma Christine Holman and she had lived in a house on the same street as ours. She had known Aunt May when they were in school together and I think it was through their relationship that Dad came to know her. I don’t recall having any ill feelings toward her. I just accepted that Dad had married her so she was my stepmother and would have to respect her and try to behave like I was her son. I remember her saying to us one day, “I wish you children could call me Mom or Mama or something other than calling me Thelma.” For the next few days Victoria and I talked about it until one day we reached the big decision. We’d call her Ma. We were standing in the yard outside the kitchen where we knew she was working. The big question now was, who would say it first? “Go ahead, you do it” said Victoria so I looked up at the kitchen window and called out in a loud voice “Hey Ma..Hey Ma”. Then we both ran around the back of the house as if to hide from her. From that time on we always called her Ma. Once when I told her this story some years later she said that she had remembered it well and that it had been a happy moment for her.
Not long after they married, Ma and Dad bought one half of the duplex that was on the east side of the next house west of us on the same side of the same street we had always lived on. They had some renovations made to the house, adding two bedrooms and a bath upstairs and increasing the kitchen and dining room area. Victoria and Eleanor would share the large bedroom in the front of the house. I would have the small room next to theirs and Ma and Dad the new room between mine and the bathroom. There was a small room off the front bedroom that would be used as a nursery later when my sister Jessie came along. This was a very old house and had many interesting features. There were two large chimneys,, one in the front of the house and one in the back. The one in the front provided a fireplace in the living room, a fireplace in the dining room and a fireplace in the upstairs bedroom in both sides of the duplex, making six in one chimney. Similarly, the back chimney had a kitchen fireplace, a built in dutch oven and a bricked in large iron kettle for heating water over a small fireplace in our side of the house. I imagine there must have been similar fireplaces in the chimney on the other side of the house. When we first moved in we had a large cast iron, coal burning kitchen range. This was our only source of heat as we didn’t dare use the fireplaces because the flues were badly in need of repair. The kitchen fireplace was sealed with a sheet of metal through which ran the smoke pipe from the kitchen range. The previous owners must have used firewood for fuel and accumulated a large amount of soot in the chimney flue. One day our fire must have been too hot and we had a chimney fire. We ran a hose from the pantry faucet to the roof and ran water down the flue until the fire was out. The next day Dad ripped out the shield from the fireplace and sent me up the flue to clean out the soot. I was thin enough then so I was just able to make my way up to a shelf on top of the dutch oven. From there I shoveled the soot down into the fireplace where Dad scooped it up and into a large trash can and carried it outside. It was an experience that must have raised some questions in my mind about Santa Claus. Even if he had made it down either of our chimneys, his suit would never have been red again.
There was a small building in the back of the house that had been used as a carriage shed and workshop. In the years after we moved it we used it for a workshop, a storage shed, a garage for our car, a barn for a saddle horse and for many other purposes. Eventually it deteriorated until it was beyond repair and so Dad tore it down. The barn must have been approximately twenty by twelve feet. It had a shed type roof that sloped from a height of about ten feet on the front down to about five feet on the back. There was a fence about two feet in back of the barn that separated our property from that of the neighbors, the Frasers, who lived in the other half of the house. A healthy grape vine covered much of the fence and had a good crop of red grapes each year. I recall that we children ate most of them, leaving very few for Mr. Fraser to harvest. When I was about ten years old some friends were playing follow the leader with me. One of our daring stunts was to climb to the high ridge of the barn roof, run the full length of it and leap as far as we could to see who could jump the greatest distance. We had all jumped except one boy we called “Monkey” Raymond. He was a little timid about leaping from such height but after some teasing from all of us he mustered all his courage, ran as fast as he could and flew through the air, landing some three or four feet beyond the point any of us had reached. This feat surprised us but his landing really stunned us. When he jumped from the barn he spread both arms straight out horizontally. When he came down his feet pierced the ground and his body disappeared into it up to his armpits. After recovering from the shock we pulled him out and found him to be unharmed. Then upon investigating, we discovered that there was an abandoned brick cistern that had been covered some time in the past with some wood boards and a few inches of topsoil. The wood had decayed and “Monkey” had landed exactly in the center of the opening of the cistern.
Dad really loved the out of doors. He loved his work and was proud of the beautiful estate that he took care of. Every year he planted a large vegetable garden beside our house where he raised a good crop of vegetables. He would sell about $300 worth to the neighboring summer folks and still have more than enough left to supply our needs. Ma would preserve a large amount of vegetables, fruit, jams and jellies for use during the winter. Dad also liked hunting, trapping, and fishing. During the hunting and fishing seasons he brought home a great deal of fish and small game for us to eat.
IN MEMORIAM: JESSE BREWER 1888-1971
by Maurice Robbins
In the fall of 1939 a group of persons, interested in the formation of an archaeological society, met at the Peabody Museum, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. This was my initial acquaintance with Jesse Brewer, who was one of the founders of our Society, and has ever since been an active and most valuable member. He will be greatly missed by those who were associated with him. I don’t believe that Jess ever missed a meeting of our Society, as long as his health permitted. His genial greeting and hearty handshake was one of the joys of the Society gatherings.
Jess was a veteran amateur archaeologist, roaming from Bridgewater to the end of Cape Cod in his quest for information. His collection of Indian artifacts was large and contained many excellent specimens, and is now at Plimoth Plantation. At one time Jess was associated with Douglas S. Byers and Frederick Johnson of Phillip’s Academy at Andover, in their work at Blue Hill, Maine.
Jess was the founder and first President of the Massasoit Chapter of the Massachusetts Society and served that Chapter both as an officer and as a member during the rest of his long life. He will be missed by his Plymouth associated.
He contributed a number of papers, which were published in the Society Bulletin from 1940, Volume #1, to 1968, Volume #30. (These included) Sand Bank Burials; A Rock Shelter at Bourne, MA, Pits at the Nook Farm Camp Site, Excavating Without Damaging Property, An Important Burian from Plymouth, Mass, Camp Sites Near Plymouth, Mass, Workshop Logic, A Cape Cod Canal Pot, Eel River Sites, and Suwanee Point Finds in Florida.
Jess was one of the Old Guard, a group of 29 who founded the Massachusetts Archaeological Society. By alphabetical choice he became “Member#1” and so will he always be in the minds of those who knew him in the old days.
The following letter was sent by Conrad Covell. This is written by his grandmother, Elizabeth Jane Brewer, to her son David Brewer (Jesse’s brother) in August 1917. David was with the troops in Europe.
My Dear David
Marie got a letter from Lewis yesterday, he said he saw you on the march and just spoke to you. I hope you are well, there is some disease going on around called the Spanish influenza it is a dreadful, all the churches in theaters in every public place at clothes and had been for the month in Brockton a few families had died off in a few days places in Plymouth. Most of all our doctors are sick. Albert Davis’s family got it. Raymond, age 17, died. Royal Nickerson died and left a wife and seven children under the age of 14 years. Roland Vaughn and Martha Davidson are dead . Ada has got her baby a 10 lb boy. I kept the two oldest down here for three weeks. They are all well, Ada would like to hear from you sometime, her address is, 55 Bedford Street Whitman Mass. My Garden was better than expected, but had not so much as last year, I had very few beans, the frost got them, and no more to plant again. I had plenty of tomatoes and one bag of potatoes. Put up lots of pickles and jams and got my coal in for the winter at 11 1/2 dollars per ton. Mrs. Holmes and William H inquire very anxiously for you, they all want me to read your letters to them. I’m sorry you’re going to have to face another winter over there but cheer up boy a day at a time we must hope for the best. French have been at it for so long. But they have good courage. Well, dear boy, I wrote you a longer letter this time. If I don’t write every week, you are never out of my mind with love and best wishes from mother.
A note from Conrad:
Shortly after she mailed that letter, she received a letter from the Red Cross in Switzerland that he had been captured and was a prisoner of the German military. He spent the rest of the war in a German prison. He was released at the end of the war.