Living with the Ghost of Ichabod Goodwin
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Ichabod GOodwin of the 19th centuryHISTORY MATTERS

Harvey Bennett is cheating a little. He has been dutifully turning the spit over the roaring fire in the "keeping room" of his South Berwick home. The giant brick hearth is huge. Three or four people, stooped over, could huddle inside it-- but not now. The flames are licking up the blackened walls toward a fragrant joint of meat impaled on an iron rod. ( Read more)

 

 Every 15 minutes Harvey has been turning the spit that holds the meat. He and his wife Paula are cooking a meal the old-fashioned way, without electricity or modern tools. The Bennetts have been up since five a.m. preparing the meal. They have made a barley soup in a black caldron. They have baked the johnny cakes in a beehive brick oven. But when no one is looking, Harvey has been timing himself on a digital watch.

Paula is cheating a little too. What appear in the dim light to be pewter plates are actually made of plastic. But the guests are not complaining. We’re here to celebrate the completion of Paula Bennett’s first book, Imagining Ichabod. . 

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Cover of the book Imagining Ichabod by Paula Bennett

Obsessed by the past

I’ve never seen a book quite like this. It is a memoir, intimate at times, about the Bennett’s desire to live in the past.  It is the story of two successful philatelists, people who buy and sell postage stamps for a living. They long to trade their hectic urban life in Maryland for the quiet rural life in New England. They buy their dream home, a rambling Georgian on a country road in South Berwick. For the next decade, Paula and Harvey restore the oldest part of the Goodwin House to its late 18th century glory.

The Bennetts are possessed by the spirits of the Goodwin family, who bought the property from the Spencer family around 1740. There may have been a fort here in the 1600s, at what was the  heart of  Newichawannock, an early English settlement later named Berwick. The Bennetts live across the street from the long unpaved lane that leads to the stately Hamilton House museum, now operated by Historic New England. There was a dock for sailing ships  here at the upper end of the Salmon Falls River, and a successful trading post, a tavern, and meetinghouse.

This isn’t your Amityville Horror or Stephen King kind of possession. The spirits of Ichabod Goodwin, his wife and their many descendants don’t rattle chains or leap out from under the bed. They appeared, slowly at first, through Paula’s methodical research. They materialized, bit by bit, out of letters, journals, inventories, deeds, ancient newspapers, and town records. There were at least three Ichabod Goodwins here, known to Paula,chronologically, as the Captain (in the French and Indian War),  the General (in the American Revolution), and the Governor (during the Civil war.). The most recent Ichabod was a nephew who lived at the house while attending Berwick Academy in the 19th century. He went on to become the New Hampshire governor and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. His Portsmouth mansion is among the historic houses at Strawbery Banke Museum. 

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Paula and Harvey Bennett authors of IMAGINING ICHABOD

Furnishing facts 

Imagining Ichabod is also an antiquing adventure and a decorative arts lovefest. The book details the Bennett’s passionate search for the perfect furnishings to restore the keeping room, the best parlor, the dining room, and the study.  We join them on the hunt for two slightly wounded Chippendale-style chairs. We scour the Atlantic seaboard for  the ideal 1780-era English walnut tea table, and delight in the discovery of a 1795 Broadwood square piano. Each item is delivered with an infectious burst of joy, then installed with a ceremonial toast of fine old madeira, as if in homage to the watchful household spirits.

The more the house looked like it did back in the days of the Goodwin family, the more often Paula Bennett visualized them there--cooking at the hearth, arguing town affairs, attending to livestock, frolicking in the yard, and hosting great parties. That’s why Imagining Ichabod is in large part a history book. The author traces the evolving wars, economics, politics, fashions, and customs over  three centuries on Old Fields Road.

In one chapter, Paula is sitting at the gate-leg table in her keeping room, carefully checking for pebbles among a bowl of dried beans. She has been reading Cotton Mather’s 1702 account about Mehitable Plaisted Goodwin, the mother of Captain Ichabod Goodwin. Mehitable was captured by Indians in 1692. Separated from her husband, her child murdered by the natives, Mehitable was abducted to Canada where she was enslaved for four years. Returning to Berwick, Mehitable was re-united with her husband. Their son Ichabod was born five years later.  

These are the things Paula Bennett mused about as she cooked baked beans over an open fire, working to glimpse the life of her post-Revolutionary War predecessors. Like characters in a private reality TV show, the Bennetts dedicated days to living without phones, the Internet, electric lights, and refrigeration. Her book is sprinkled with tested recipes for colonial meals like stuffed leg of veal with chestnut fricassee, plus assorted soups, stews, and pastries. So it is a cookbook too.

Cooking fireplace in the Keeping Room in South Berwick Maine

Digging deeper 

This is a book about architecture, interior decorating, and archaeology. The digging began in 2009 after the restoration of the keeping room turned up a fragment of redware pottery, most likely used, as early insulation. The fragment led the Bennetts to archaeologist Dr. Neill De Paoli, who has been conducting summer field schools on the Bennett property ever since. Clues unearthed each summer are filling in the missing history of the Goodwin home, that was rebuilt after a 1797 fire.

De Paoili’s summer teams, in cooperation with the Bennetts and the Old Berwick Historical Society, have uncovered evidence of the original tavern where Capt. Ichabod Goodwin enslaved four Africans. Artifacts include animal bones, a shattered German stoneware tankard, melted window glass, iron hinges, chamber pots, old coins, Caribbean coral, and an early foundation wall. The search continues for a 17th century garrison that may have sheltered as many as 100 frightened colonists.

Fast forward. The time, once again, is 2016. Back in the dining room, the table now cleared, Paula and Harvey are passing out tall champagne flutes brimful of syllabub. The frothy British dessert contains milk and wine or liquor. The mixture, Paula notes in her book, needs at least eight hours to set before serving. By my count, it takes about eight minutes to consume her day’s work.

The March sun is fading, and with it, the light in the old half of the house. Our hosts, who have been up since before dawn, are still buzzing around, tending to their guests. Living in the pretend past, they admit, is both rewarding and exhausting. After 12 years in South Berwick, they are planning to return to the city and the 21st century. The Bennetts have picked out a compact condo in Boston. The Goodwins, however, plan to stay on. They await the next tenants at Old Fields with quiet curiosity.  

AUTHOR NOTES: Imagining Ichabod ($29.95) by Paula Bennett is available from Bauer & Dean Publishers, with 60 color photographs by Sandy Agrafiotis. The Bennett-Goodwin House at 1 Old Fields Road, South Berwick (7,400 square feet located on 4.6 acres) was listed for sale at $965,000.  

Copyright © 2016 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book, MYSTERY ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS, closes the case on the 1873 ax murders and is available in local bookstores and Amazon.com.