Grace Potter Carroll, Part II: Bertha Honoré and Potter Palmer

After writing about Grace Potter Carroll, I expected my next post to be about her patron, Hattie Pullman. But researching Grace’s early life led me to information about the wealthy, socialite aunt, Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of Grace’s maternal uncle, Potter Palmer. The newspaper headline announcing Grace’s multi-day disappearance from Asheville’s Highland Hospital said she was the niece of the Chicago socialite, suggesting that even western North Carolinians knew about Bertha. With a teaser like that, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to learn more and share what I discovered, even though the Palmers have no direct bearing on my original subject, David Rae Smith—no known bearing, at least.

Normally, lives of the rich and famous hold no interest for me, but Bertha Palmer is a special case. Read on and I think you’ll see why, though we have to get through a bit of background first.

Now, Potter was the one with the social and financial cachet—at first, anyway—though Bertha’s birth family was quite well-off too. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Bertha moved with her family to Chicago when she was six, where her father made a fortune in real estate. He was, in fact, responsible for creating the commercial district along Dearborn Street, a high-profile street in Chicago’s central business district, the Loop. The Honoré Building at the corner of Adams and Dearborn was destroyed during the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which played a big role in fate of the Palmers, as well.

Bertha was 21 when she married the more-than-twice-her-age multi-millionaire Potter Palmer (Grace’s maternal uncle) in late July 1870. Their relative social standings were made perfectly clear in the 14-paragraph Chicago Tribune article reporting on their marriage. Only three short sentences near the end of the article were dedicated to Bertha and only two paragraphs referenced the wedding itself. Everything else was about Potter, who had already made a name for himself in both retail and real estate. Several years earlier he had sold his popular retail store to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, and it soon became the retail icon we know today: Marshall Field and Company.

Meanwhile, Potter Palmer put his efforts into his real estate interests, which were substantial. He is considered responsible for the development of much of both Chicago’s downtown district. Thus he was viewed as one of Chicago’s founding fathers. One of his buildings was a luxury hotel, The Palmer House, located in the Loop. He built it as as a wedding present to Bertha. Opened September 26, 1871, it was the city’s first hotel with elevators, and the first hotel with electric light bulbs and telephones in the guest rooms.

But the hotel and all the rest of Palmer’s (and Honoré’s) real estate efforts went up in smoke—and flames—only 13 days later when the Great Chicago Fire broke out. And just like that Potter Palmer’s legacy was in ruins.

That’s when young Bertha went to work. The self-confident woman contacted financial institutions in the east and singlehandedly arranged financing so her husband could re-establish credit and borrow money to rebuild his holdings. The couple joined forces to reestablish their fortune. Thus began Bertha Palmer’s rapid rise “to the top of Chicago society,” according to her Wikipedia biography.

Incidentally, both Marshall Field and the Palmer House hotel were immediately rebuilt. The Palmers lived in a suite in the hotel for almost 15 years, after which they built a 42-room mansion known as the Palmer Castle on Lake Shore Drive, then considered a wasteland. Unsurprisingly, the house was built to be fireproof. With Palmer Castle as its cornerstone, Lake Shore Drive quickly became the most desirable address in Chicago, and Chicago’s Gold Coast was born.

Bertha Palmer

The Palmer Castle is the largest home ever built in Chicago, Even though it was razed in 1950, glessnerhouse.org reports it is still well-known to Chicagoans where it is remembered as one of the most legendary homes ever built in the area. The website notes that even though Potter died in 1902 and Bertha in 1918, their a names “remain well-known to anyone with even a passing interest in Chicago history.”

Aside from its sheer size and elegance, part of what made the Palmer Castle so memorable was that it was intentionally built with no knobs or locks on any of its exterior doors; the only way to get in was be admitted from the inside, most certainly by a servant. The place could never be left empty.

For those who did gain admittance, a major feature of the home was its three-story Italianate central hall under a glass dome. Rooms were built in a variety of historic styles. There was an Ottoman parlor, a Spanish music room, and a Renaissance library. The dining room could seat 50. The ballroom, where Bertha held court, was 75 feet long. There was even an elevator. The home was the hub of Chicago’s social life, even more so after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Palmer Castle, Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois. 1910 public domain photo.

With that background, we get to the heart of this post: Bertha herself. While her husband and father had been part of a delegation to the St. Louis Word’s Fair to determine the feasibility of bringing such an event to Chicago, it was a group of activist women, including Bertha, who lobbied to bring the fair to the city. They also petitioned for an official place for women in the planning and exhibitions at the fair and suggested forming a “Women’s Department for the Fair,” which literally took an act of Congress to initiate. Bertha was named President of the Board of Lady Managers, a plum of a position which oversaw the construction of the Woman’s Building and everything that went inside it. Bertha approached Congress about producing a commemorative coin for the Exposition. The result was the Isabella quarter. (In addition to serving as a celebration of the city’s comeback from its disastrous fire, the fair was designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.)

Isabel quarter

The Woman’s Building featured women’s accomplishments exclusively. Beyond that, the Lady Managers selected women to produce all aspects of the building’s design, ornamentation, and content, including paintings, sculptures, and exhibits. They were an extraordinarily hands-on oversight board consisting of 117 members representing every state (only nine members were from Chicago)—the first women to serve in any capacity at a world’s fair. The work of the so-called Lady Managers was a big deal, so big that it warranted a 611-page 1981book titled The Fair Women. Bertha, who had never held any position of this sort, managed the organization, the men who held its purse strings, Congress, contractors, artists, and heads of state around the globe with a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. There were all kinds of infighting, machinations, egos, and time and budget constraints–and she kept all of it under control. The Lady Managers, particularly Bertha, also ensured two additional buildings at the fair–a Children’s Building and a dormitory for female visitors without touching any part of the fair budget. All three projects were run in the black, in part because of the many aspects funded at Bertha’s personal expense and in part due to fundraising conducted by the Lady Managers.

In spite of the glamour and luxury, Bertha Palmer was obviously much more than a well-connected socialite interested in fashion, jewelry, and entertainment.

She was an astute businesswoman, quickly more than doubling the $8,000,000 her husband left to her in his will, despite being widely known as the “the only American woman who knows how to spend a fortune.” That moniker came from the many European cities where she retained multiple residences (surrounded by royalty) and maintained full-time servants in each of them even though she was in one place for only a few weeks of the year. And from things like her penchant for completely remodeling rooms in her home for her lavish parties. But there was more to those parties than social extravagance. Her son reported that only after her death did he learn those elaborate social gatherings were really fundraising events for the important causes she supported.

She was a staunch social activist and reformer. The Palmer Palace was home to organizing meetings with and parties and classes for impoverished working class women. Her rousing speech to all the muckety-mucks at the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair socked it to ’em as she berated wealthy industrialists for the paltry wages paid to working women and children. (You can read her speech in its entirety in The History of the World’s Fair Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition. See Part VI, Chapter III (https://archive.org/details/historyofworldsf01trum/page/8/mode/2up?q=Mrs.+Potter+Palmer%27s+address)

Though Bertha claimed not to be a suffragist (she was more concerned about equal rights than votes), as Erica Gunderson noted in a 2017 piece for PBS station WTTW, “That didn’t mean she kept her mouth shut.” Regarding the Chicago Exposition and the Board of Lady Managers, she said, “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus is the fact that the government has just discovered women.” And she might well have objected to being called a feminist if that word had been around in her time, but she was definitely the latter and accomplished worlds for the former.

Consider this: following the close of the fair, the Illinois governor wrote Bertha to say the cause of women’s rights had been advanced a century by her work. None other than Susan B Anthony herself said the fair had done more for the cause of women’s suffrage than twenty-five years of agitation, according to an article in encyclopedia.com, and had given the movement “unprecedented prestige in the world of thought.”

Oh, Bertha Honoré Palmer was a feminist all right. As she advised the women who submitted work for exhibit in the Woman’s Building, “Keep up with the procession, and head it if you can.”

Bertha was a mover and shaker in the Chicago Woman’s Club, which not only advocated but was responsible for advancing workers’ rights, juvenile court reform, the first public kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago, and the first protective agency in the country that dealt with assault and rape of women. (Look for more on the work of the Chicago Woman’s Club in a later post.)

Then there’s Sarasota, Florida. Look on any website featuring the history of the city or county and you are likely to find mention of Bertha Palmer as critical to the region’s development. As a widow, she tired of Chicago’s cold winters. She moved to Sarasota, then only an eight-year-old entity. At the time, it was mostly considered uninhabitable because of the mosquitoes and swampy land. But Bertha bought up nearly a third of the county’s property. She became interested in developing new agricultural techniques, cattle-raising, experimental farming, and new citrus marketing initiatives. She created a subdivision of farms and advertised them to northern farmers. She opened her Bee Ridge Hotel for farming community and networking meetings, and she was instrumental in developing the region’s first farmers’ market. She got the railroad extended farther south to help the local farming economy, and she paid the highest farm wages in the region. Instead of the fancy gowns she used to wear, she walked the fields in plain cotton dresses. Visitsarasota.com says she “introduced ranching techniques that would revolutionize Florida’s cattle and hog industries” and notes that “in 8 years of living in Florida, she molded the city into a flourishing and popular destination for the elite.” With her elevated social position, she started the trend of winter homes in Florida.

This all took place in her sixties, the last eight years of her life, at a time when women’s rights were sorely limited. One hundred years after her arrival, the city declared 2010 the Year of Bertha Palmer with loads of events to honor the woman who, as one resident said, in Sarasota’s history, “is rivaled only by John Ringling [of circus fame] as a leading figure.”

Bertha Honoré Palmer’s legacy lives on in Sarasota in any number of ways, including the names of streets, parks, and subdivisions. Historic Spanish Point, where she ultimately made her home, now houses a campus of the Selby Gardens, which, among other things, features some of the gardens Bertha established. In 1976, Historic Spanish Point became the first site in Sarasota County to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, the Palmer heirs donated the site to the Gulf Coast Heritage Association. Former Mayor A. B. Edwards was instrumental in the state’s purchase of more than 17,000 acres from the Palmer Estate. Shortly after, Bertha’s sons, Honoré and Potter, donated more than 1,900 additional acres to the state in her memory. Soon, the Myakka River State Park was born on the site.

Grace Potter Carroll simply had to be influenced by her aunt. How could she not? And though we will never know just what or how much, I suspect that influence reached the life of David Rae Smith, too.

Interested in more?

Look for Frank A. Cassell’s book, Suncoast Empire: Bertha Honoré Palmer, Her Family, and the Rise of Sarasota, 1910-1982.

https://www.wbez.org/stories/the-palmer-mansion-a-home-that-topped-them-all/e6ea9b35-5a8d-47e2-930c-baad4212ad7e

http://www.sarasotahistoryalive.com/history/people/mrs.-bertha-palmer-s-vision/

http://planetgroupentertainment.squarespace.com/bertha-palmer/2010/5/9/the-fabulous-bertha-palmer.html











My Book Is Here!

Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.

Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:

How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.

Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.

David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)

As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.

The Intriguing Life of Grace Potter Carroll

NOTE: As Living on the Diagonal readers may know, I’ve spent the last year and a half furiously at work on a book about the life of David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae, as he was known to family and childhood friends, was associated with the New York Opera company for thirty years. Research for the book led me to dozens of fascinating side stories, far too many to include in the book. This blog seems a good place for some of that extraneous material to land.

Grace Potter Carroll (1883-1978) was Rae’s advanced piano teacher. Carroll also taught Nina Simone (back when she was Eunice Waymon) at about the same time Rae was taking lessons from Carroll. Carroll was an important influence in Rae’s life and he maintained contact with her throughout her lifetime. He visited her on return trips to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, including after she was living in a nursing home in the late 1970s.

Born Grace Stewart Potter she grew up in Chicago and showed early promise as a pianist. She got some help along the way in the person of Harriet “Hattie” Pullman (1842-1921), widow of George M. Pullman (1831-1897), inventor of the Pullman sleeping cars of railway fame. George’s story is pretty fascinating, too. Look for it in a future post.

Harriet Sanger Pullman (Photo retrieved from findagrave.com)

Grace and Hattie’s association likely came about because Grace’s grandfather, William Wallace Stewart, was one-time attorney for the Pullman company. At any rate, Hattie became Grace’s patron, in the very old-fashioned sense of the word, providing her with financial, personal, and emotional support. Hattie footed the bill for the young pianist to study and perform in Europe for five years as a student of Ferruccio Busoni and Theodor Leschetizky in Germany and Moritz Moszowski in Paris. She also studied in Switzerland and Russia.

While in Europe, Grace won a scholarship—one of twelve worldwide and the only one from the United States—to the Meisterschule of the Vienna Conservatory. She appeared with orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and London—probably more. The Asheville Citizen later reported she “has been acclaimed by European critics as well as critics of Chicago and New York as an artist of the first rank.”

Grace’s personal life in young adulthood was full of mystery and intrigue, and the Chicago papers told all about it. In 1915 she simply disappeared. She had last been seen leaving a friend’s home on her way to another engagement carrying her handbag, two books, and a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Days later the books were found under the flooring of a bathhouse. But no Grace.

According to the Tribune, authorities had been scouring the countryside for eight days when Mrs. Scott Durand, on the lawn of her Crab Tree farm, looked up and saw “a tall young woman, thin and haggard. . . . Her hat had lost its shape, her frayed lace waist had evidently once been white and her blue skirt and shoes were grimy with dust.” The two knew each other and Durand recognized her immediately. She said, probably in surprise, “Why, Grace Potter, how are you?”

“How do you do, Mrs. Durand? May I have a drink of water? I’m awfully tired and dusty.” The first thing Durand did after slaking the young woman’s thirst was to call Mrs. Pullman who “expressed great pleasure” at her reappearance. Thus the search ended.

Although Grace was thirty-three, the Tribune’s headline reported her return with the following headlines: “Missing Potter Girl Turns Up at Durand Farm” and “Girl Pianist Makes No Mention of Eight Days’ Whereabouts.” By the time the first reporter arrived at the farm, Grace was at the piano. She never mentioned her adventure. Relatives, who had earlier feared suicide, told reporters they believed “she has been suffering from a lapse of memory due to overwork” and said Grace had no memory of where she was or what happened during her disappearance.

After consulting with a nerve specialist, they decided not to mention the subject unless she brought it up and planned to “take her out west for a little while and give her a chance to get back her strength.” Hattie Pullman had her own plans for the pianist. The Tribune announced she “planned to invite Miss Potter to spend a few days with her as soon as she recovers from her nervous condition.” Relatives apparently agreed and secreted her at Mrs. Pullman’s, after which she was admitted to a Wisconsin sanitarium. By mid-July the sanitarium’s director thought she would soon be able to make short visits to Chicago, though he declared she was not yet ready to return to work at the Bush Conservatory of Music where she was head of the piano department.

The episode was not her first disappearance, however. It was her fourth in two years. But on each of the three previous occasions, she returned to the home where she boarded after a few days’ absence, each time saying she had been visiting friends.

In June of 1917 Grace went missing again only to turn up at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of months later. Once again she received “treatment for a nervous condition,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The hospital staff had been aware of her tendency to wander, so when she left the hospital grounds for hours or even a few days at a time, they did not worry. However, in October she disappeared for a much longer period, and a police-assisted search was mounted across parts of three states. In the same vein as the Tribune, the Asheville Citizen announced the unexplained absence of the now thirty-five-year-old woman this way: “Chicago Girl is Missing.” To help facilitate the search, the paper provided a description: “Tall, slightly round shouldered, and brunette complexion; fluffy, curly black hair; blue-gray eyes; smooth scar on right cheek extending with corer of mouth; even white teeth. . . . Hospital officials describe the missing woman as exceedingly handsome, and one that would attract attention for her beauty in a crowd.”

Grace Stewart Potter, 1915 (Public domain photo)

The striking woman was found walking toward the hospital twelve days after her disappearance. As before, she gave no explanation for her absence except to say she had been “out in the country.” Though she was exceedingly tired from extended walking, the Asheville Citizen reported she was “in the best of health” and evidently had been well-treated during her absence, wherever she was.

The paper made the point that Grace was a well-known Chicago society woman and “niece of the famous Mrs. Potter Palmer [Bertha Honoré], society leader and club woman.”(The website chicagology.com referred to Palmer as the city’s “social dictator.”) The paper found Grace’s habit of disappearances all the more odd for the fact that she was “highly connected socially in Chicago, and bears every evidence of culture and refinement.”

Bertha Honore Palmer (Portrait by Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later Grace returned to Chicago and resumed her teaching at the Bush Conservatory, but not for long. The March 2, 1918 Asheville Citizen announced that Grace Potter and Dr. Robert Carroll, founder and medical director of the very hospital where she had been a patient, had been married in the Chicago home of Mrs. Pullman.

Though Grace’s marriage to Carroll meant a permanent move to Asheville and the end of her association with the Bush Conservatory of Music, she continued her performance career and her life retained a high degree of elegance. In 1922, the couple set out on a full year of traveling “entirely around the world with stops of length in many European countries doing psychological research work,” according to the Asheville Citizen. In addition to stops in European countries, their travels included Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

The couple resided at Homewood, a turreted stone manor on the grounds of Highland Hospital. Grace added a large music salon where she performed, taught, and often hosted other musicians, including Béla Bartók who gave private concerts for the likes of the Vanderbilts and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The music room featured cherry walls, a twenty-foot ceiling featuring wrought iron chandaliers, and a large stone fireplace.

Grace was an original faculty member of the Sayn Conservatory of Music in Asheville, founded by Russian violin virtuosa Elena de Sayn, Grace’s classmate during her European studies. After de Sayn moved her conservatory to Washington, DC, Grace traveled there for ensemble study in preparation for a series of concerts at the Congressional Library. She also played with the New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and North Carolina symphonies.

Grace Potter Carroll’s life apparently became more sedate after her marriage, but she continued to promote music in the area and to teach piano lessons privately for the rest of her life. She did not pocket any income from those lessons. Her obituary in the Asheville Citizen said she put those fees into a loan fund for promising students who wished to further their musical education. In return the students, including Rae, presented recitals at Homewood once they completed their studies. It was all part of her philosophy that no one succeeds in a vacuum. As she pointed out in a 1933 interview with the Asheville Citizen, “What any person is able to do is only made possible by the unselfish help and devotion of others.” She knew that from personal experience, and since she felt she had been unable to adequately give thanks for the help she had received to achieve success, she tried to pay it forward through the scholarship fund. She wanted to teach her students the same lesson.

Music to My Ears

 

When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!

I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.

I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.

entremont (2)Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959

It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.

Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the  Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.

Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.

File:Philippe.Entremont.jpg

Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)

On the Edge

File:Graduation hat1.svg

This is the season of endings and beginnings. Where I live we are only now seeing spring come into its fullness with all its attendant hope and promise. Our current spring followed a particularly hard winter, both in real and metaphorical terms, so the season of rebirth is particularly welcome this year. The calendar may tell us summer begins in a few days, but I intend to savor spring as long as I can.

The spring of 2021 brought a number of graduations to our family. After more than a year of almost zero in-person events, I count myself lucky to have been able to attend one of these ceremonies—a high school graduation. Somehow, high school graduations seem a little more exhilarating than the same event following a college career. Perhaps it is because these seventeen and eighteen year olds find themselves on one of life’s particularly sharp edges. Whatever futures await them, their lives are about to change in some very big ways.

Until now, most of them—though certainly not all—have lived under the protective wings of family. The clothes they wear, the roofs they sleep under, the food they eat have been the worries of others. When the car broke down, when they were upset about something a teacher said or a classmate did, or when they hit upon a problem they didn’t know how to solve they knew help was in the next room or a mere phone call away. Their tomorrows will be different and they can feel it, but they understand they can’t really comprehend what that’s going to mean.

They are on the edge. On the edge that separates childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why their joy in this moment seems particularly honest and pure. The heavy stuff comes tomorrow or the next day or next month. Today they feel only relief and pride at having reached their biggest-yet milestone as they smile and laugh and hug and mug like the children to whom they are saying good-bye.

After the festivities of last week were over and hundreds of snapshots were taken, the remainder of our graduate’s evening was celebrated with family. The next day was reserved for friends. One after another hosted get-togethers, whether a day on the lake or a cookout complete with toasted marshmallows. We got to participate in one of those, too.

It started out as a family party, but quickly expanded to include now-former classmates. They were the stars; family members became spectators. That was fine by me because, except for the laughter of babies, almost nothing can rival the unadulterated exuberance of teenagers enjoying each others’ company. I eavesdropped unabashedly on their giggles as they reminisced about moments passed, shared favorite television and online programs and episodes, laughed at every scene in the movie they were watching as they munched on chips, gummy worms, and M&Ms. Their already high spirits rose with every chuckle.

Edges can be scary. But they amplify what is joyous. I hope all this year’s graduates and everyone who is sitting on an edge feels the same kind of elation I was part of a few days ago. As the salutatorian at our stadium-filled celebration ended her address to her classmates, “Peace out, Shawties.”

Selecting the Airbnb that’s Right for You

(This is the second of two ‘classic’ posts (that means reruns) about our Airbnb experiences. You can read the first one by clicking Read this .) We took a slow dive into the Airbnb world a few years ago. When we made our road trip to Nova Scotia, we decided to try it again–mostly because it might give us a chance to interact with some of the locals to get a more personal feel for the place. But there were other reasons, and other perks. Here’s a brief wrap-up of what we’ve learned in case you’re thinking about it–and I promise, I’m getting zilch from Airbnb.)

If you’ve wondered about Airbnb but been too uneasy to give it a go, read this post for tips to make traveling with Airbnb safe, easy, and fun. (Airbnb’s website changes from time to time, so things may be a little different when you try it, but these guidelines should still be useful.)

What a cheery studio apartment this was, attached to our host’s home but with a private entrance.

1. In the search bar at the top of the page, type the name of a location. (You can go through the entire process up to reserving a space to see how it works.) Additional options will appear including number of guests, type of place you’re looking for, and price range. These options help narrow your search, saving considerable time.

2. A list of places matching your needs will pop up along with a map showing the general location of each rental. So, if you’re looking for a place in the heart of a city, you won’t accidentally end up thirty miles away. You’ll see the per night price and, in smaller print, the total price, which accounts for cleaning, service fees, and taxes, so it’s all inclusive. Keeping this in mind, don’t let the nightly rate fool you. Sometimes the one that looks more expensive at first glance costs less overall because the fees can vary significantly.

3. When you select a property, click on the photo at the top of the page for a slideshow of the place. I don’t advise staying somewhere that doesn’t provide enough pictures—interior and exterior—to size up the place.

4. Close the slideshow to read the description and list of amenities. Each has a ‘read more’ option. For the record, all the Airbnbs I’ve stayed at had all the promised amenities and often others missing from the written list.

5. Scroll down fora diagram of sleeping arrangements. In addition to the slideshow, this shows where and what type of sleeping arrangements are available (bed, futon, air mattress).

6. Even farther down the page are guest reviews. I’m highly unlikely to stay in an Airbnb so new that there are no reviews. Sorry, but I don’t want to be the guinea pig. In fact, I like to see plenty of reviews. That way, I’m guaranteed a good cross section of experiences and perspectives.

7. The listing also has a host photo and usually a brief host bio. There’s even a place where you can contact the host if you have questions or need any clarification.

8. Lastly, you’ll see a neighborhood description. What you won’t find, for security reasons, is a street address. That’s provided one or two days before your arrival, along with instructions on how to get in. Some hosts will greet you in person to show you around. Others offer a keypad or lock box.

9. Read it all. Reread it. Just like real estate ads, you might find code words. If they give you pause, jump to the next listing. However, I’ve almost always found that the pictures and descriptions are entirely accurate. Hosts have a vested interest in portraying their sites accurately. After all, if you arrive with a set of expectations that aren’t met, your host can expect a negative review for all to see.

10. On the right side of the page you’ll see pricing detail and the chance to book. It’s an easy process.

This New Mexico casita was one of our early Aibnb experiments. We were astounded at the low price. Fresh, airy, filled with original art, it’s a mother-in-law home which the host rents out when she isn’t visiting. The patio was  perfect for taking in the mountain view. 

11. For each rental, there is a heart at the top right. Click on that if you’re interested but not ready to make a commitment. You’ll be creating a sort of wish list to choose from. By the way, each time you click on a listing, it opens a new tab, so you don’t lose the original.

12. Another menu item, ‘Trips,’ shows the places you’ve stayed before in case you want to return. Still another lets you message your hosts as your arrival date nears or even when it’s over. Who knows? You might start up a lifelong friendship.

13. A day or so after your visit, Airbnb will ask you to complete a questionnaire and review. Please do this. It helps others like you. All reviews are posted on the listing’s site. If you have a complaint, the host may respond. You also have a chance to give Airbnb private information which allows them to follow up.

More Tips

Consider your ethos. If green is paramount, you may be able to find it. If it’s community investment, you’ll want to shy away from hosts who hollow out neighborhoods by buying up multiple properties for short-term rentals. How about diversity? Airbnb hosts can’t state that they discriminate, but some make abundantly clear that they don’t, stating for instance that they’re LGTB-friendly.

You can change or cancel a reservation, though hosts have individual rules for when and whether you lose some portion of your payment. Airbnb may also deduct the service fee. Most of the time, nothing is paid up front. These details are on the website.

Respect the host’s rules, also posted. If something doesn’t appeal to you, simply pass.  Sometimes, hosts may want you to strip the bed or put used towels in a designated spot before you leave. If you rent an entire house, they’ll certainly want you to wash any dishes you use. They won’t ask you to vacuum or actually change the linens, but they’ll want you to leave the place basically as you found it—as you would with family or friends, right?

The view from our Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia, Airbnb included  both water and mountains. Best of all worlds.

Always, always remember that you’re staying at someone’s private property, whether or not they’re in the next room, and treat the space with the respect you want your own home to receive. If you accidentally break something, say so. Your host will probably be understanding, certainly more so than if you slink off without saying a word.

Planning a trip with Airbnb may take a while longer than making a reservation with your favorite hotel chain. But if you’re someone who comparison shops for lodging anyway, one process may not take longer than the other, though it’s easy to become infatuated with some of the Airbnb options. You may find so many desirable choices that you forget the original purpose of your travels.

In the end, Airbnb is a means, not an end. At some point, you may need to rein in your impulses and remember your travel goals. But if unique travel opportunities and adventure figure into those goals, Airbnb is one way to realize them.

Almost all the Airbnbs we’ve visited cost less—often significantly less—than any hotel or roadside motel we could have found, and were ever so much more interesting.

A few more places we’ve stayed with Airbnb. Sometimes you get amazing views, sometimes a hammock or even your own Airbnb cat. (Don’t worry, hosts make it very clear if animals are on the premises, at least in our experience. But you can always ask in a message, a good idea if you have allergies).

Have you tried Airbnb?

Why I Use Airbnb—Sometimes

(This is the first of two ‘classic’ posts (that means reruns) about our Airbnb experiences. We took a slow dive into the Airbnb world a few years ago. When we made our road trip to Nova Scotia, we decided to try it again–mostly because it might give us a chance to interact with some of the locals to get a more personal feel for the place. But there were other reasons, and other perks. Here’s a brief wrap-up of what we’ve learned.)

Does the notion of using Airbnb sound a little scary to you? It did to me. But a couple of years ago when the Gnome and I took an adventurous cross country road trip, we decided to add one more adventure and selected three Airbnbs to add to our nights with relatives, old-fashioned Bed and Breakfast inns, and roadside motels.

We found we liked this relatively new lodging alternative and used it another time or two with equally good results. So, when we made another road trip last fall, this time to Nova Scotia, we decided we could happily and safely use Airbnb almost exclusively.

Airbnbs may be chic, quirky (waterfall Jacuzzi, anyone?) or rustic. (Click individual pictures to see a larger image.)

Happily and safely—those are the key words. The trick is to know how. In this post, I share a few of the reasons we sometimes choose Airbnb. But first, a disclaimer: I have absolutely no stake, financial or otherwise, in Airbnb—except to give it money in exchange for a good night’s sleep.

1. In our experience, Airbnb is a less expensive form of travel with a higher comfort level than hotels.

2. We’ve found Airbnb to be a homier option. There’s usually a choice of comfy upholstered furniture to relax your tired bones. We specifically look for this benefit.

3. Meeting Airbnb hosts is a good way to get to know the area. They’ll give you the local lowdown. If you’re in town for longer than a night or two, getting to know some locals gives your stay a whole new dimension. What better way to do that than stay in someone’s home? (However, if privacy is what you crave, hosts generally respect that.) Sometimes, the hosts don’t live on site, and you may never see them. Even so, many provide brochures or other information about areas of interest, nearby restaurants, etc. Some even have a three-ring binder chock full of helpful info.

4. Depending on your needs and wants, you can rent an entire house, a bedroom in a private home (with or without a private entrance), or even a shared room. Haven’t given that last one a try; don’t intend to. I’m not that adventurous!

5. If you’re traveling with family or friends, sharing a house, apartment, or condo cuts the price even further, and it’s so much more fun to spend your evenings relaxing together in a living room than stuffed into one or another’s hotel room.

6. Depending on your Airbnb selection, you can prepare your own meals. You can eat in your pjs if you want and even save a little extra money and time. Often, the hosts stock the fridge or pantry with a few essentials, but don’t count on more than coffee makings and maybe salt and pepper. Previous guests sometimes leave what they didn’t use, so you might find cooking oil, mayo, or other condiments. You never know.

7. Airbnb hosts provide most, if not all, the amenities hotels do: bed linens, towels, soap, shampoo. In my experience, hairdryers and irons have also been universally available. One place even had a selection of condoms and feminine hygiene products. (Again, you never know!) Sometimes there’s a washer and dryer, a real convenience on longer trips.

8. Typically, Airbnb hosts do not provide a hot breakfast, though we’ve experienced a couple of happy exceptions. However, they almost always provide a coffee maker with coffee and tea bags as well as breakfast bars and sometimes fruit or other snacks. You might even find a choice of yogurts, instant oatmeal, or muffins. We stayed at one place that stocked the fridge with soft drinks, and had an entire tray full of prepackaged baked goods on the counter. Another host left us some homemade whole wheat rolls. Yum!

9. With Airbnb, you’re almost certainly putting money into the local economy, often helping a self-employed craftsperson or a young family supplement their income. That feels a lot better than lining the pockets of faceless corporations to me.

10. Airbnb is always an adventure, in our experience a happy one filled with little surprises, homey touches, unique decorating styles, and other treats. Think about how different the homes of your various friends and family are; be prepared for a quirk or two. It all makes for much more interesting travels. If you’re not a person who can go with the flow, the Airbnb experience may not be for you.

This welcoming two-bedroom home is one of the least expensive places we’ve stayed, even though we had the whole place to ourselves.

To be sure the experience is a positive one, it’s important to do your homework and make your Airbnb selection judiciously. In my next post, I’ll share tips on selecting an Airbnb site that fits you to a T. Stay tuned.

Nova Scotia: Land of Kindness and Humor

(With this post, we wrap up the virtual tour of our Nova Scotia road trip from 2018–sort of. There might be a couple of semi-related follow-up posts. Enjoy.  We sure did!)

If you’ve ever watched the TV series Due South, you know the running joke about the uber politeness of  Benton Fraser, the Canadian Mountie assigned to work in Chicago. (If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch.) The nice Canadian is such a tired stereotype that I’m a little embarrassed to acknowledge I found it to be true, at least as far as Nova Scotia is concerned—-New Brunswick, too, which we passed through on our way to and from.

Not just polite, but downright nice. Folks struck up conversations with us from the next table in a restaurant, on hiking trails, at roadside overlooks. It was more than politeness; there was a real genuineness to their overtures. The bonhomie was contagious—everyone seemed friendlier in Nova Scotia. We had long, delightful chats with folks from the Philippines, China, New Zealand, and Scotland. It’s hard to define, but the truth of it was amplified as soon as we returned to the States. After 2 1/2 weeks in Nova Scotia, a Maine “I’m sorry” uttered after an accidental brush sounded mechanical, almost brusque, by comparison.

Sorry to my Canadian friends if you’re sick of hearing this cliché, but there are far worse character traits to be had. After all, niceness is a moral virtue. And I thank you for it. You brought out my best self.

Speaking of niceness, I found it particularly touching that from the first Canadian we met to the last, as soon as someone knew we were from North Carolina, the first words out of their mouths were about Hurricane Florence. Almost to a person. They’d been following the news, they’d mourned the losses, they commiserated with us.  Even though the Gnome and I were virtually unaffected by the hurricane’s wrath, we were comforted by this display of concern and caring.

Kindness in Nova Scotia extends to the environment. A friend of mine once noted about our outdoor clothesline that she didn’t know anyone else who had one. Well, if she lived in Nova Scotia, she would! Every dry day in every part of the province, we saw laundry drying in the breeze. And I was impressed to see that almost every public trash receptacle in Nova Scotia was accompanied by not one but two, and usually three, recycling units, including one for food waste. Note how well-maintained they are.

Containers for almost all ready-to-serve beverages, not just soft drinks, are recycled. Got a half-gallon orange juice carton? An individual apple juice carton? Recyclable. They’ve been doing this for more than twenty years! (We didn’t realize until too late that we’d been paying deposits on all our containers and could have gotten refunds. Guess we’ll  file that info away till our next visit.)

Nova Scotians are serious about their recycling. Every Airbnb, every restaurant, every attraction we visited featured recycling bins. Good for them.

And what could be more hospitable than to discover a set of red Adirondack chairs waiting for you at random scenic spots? The red chair program was first put into place by Canada’s national park system. Now, it seems to be a ubiquitous trend. We found them at other public venues as well as in the backyards of several of our Airbnb hosts. We relaxed in them every chance we got. Is there a better way to invite your guests to stay a while?

Even the postal boxes are festive and welcoming.

There’s another side to the people of Nova Scotia: their sense of humor. We encountered it over and over. There was the sign at the entrance to the Telegraph House in Baddeck exhorting guests to avoid trying to close the screen door, stating that “he is lazy and will close in his own time.”

There were more examples. For instance . . .

This public sculpture on the Halifax Boardwalk, titled Got Drunk, Fell Down, features not only the ‘drunk’ lamp post but its friend whose head hangs in embarrassment and (a little further away but unseen in this photo) a less engaged post who’s trying to ignore the whole thing.) Poignant, yes, but also funny.

Granted, this Disney cruise ship isn’t from Nova Scotia, but that’s where we saw it. We couldn’t help smiling at this scene.

I have no idea why we happened to pull off the road at this particular spot, but when we did, we came upon this sign. I’m glad we stopped. It gave us a chance to . . .

DSCF5152

do our part to keep the sea serpents at bay.

Pitch perfect sign on the bathroom door of a Yarmouth restaurant

We’d gotten used to seeing Nova Scotia houses painted in happy reds, purples, greens, and yellows. But this is the only one we saw that actually IS a painting. Gotta love the whimsy of it.

And then we saw this ‘news’ notice in the North Shore Community Museum—a new take on fascinators that highlights the amount of snow likely to be found in that part of Cape Breton.

With that chuckle, I say a nostalgic goodbye to our Nova Scotia road trip and will return to my usual fare of Living on the Diagonal miscellany.

Joggins and Home

(The end of this reprise of our 2018 trip to Nova Scotia comes to a close with this post. But stay tuned for a couple of extras coming soon. To ‘travel’ virtually with us from the beginning, click here.)

Bittersweet is the best that can be said for what was to be our last day in Nova Scotia. To ensure as much time as possible in Cape Breton, we had planned this to be a long travel day. It would take us practically to the border with New Brunswick, in the tiny rural community of Joggins. So tiny that AAA couldn’t find it to map out this portion of our trip. So tiny even a number of Nova Scotians didn’t recognize the name. Yet Joggins is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs contain the most complete fossil record of life during the Coal Age, 300 million years ago. That’s a full hundred million years before the dinosaurs, so these fossils, preserved in the very place they lived, are the dinosaurs’ ancestors. Some of the fossils found here are giant insects. According to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs website, this is the only place on earth where you can view these rare plant and animal fossils in situ. Well, I was impressed! 

The tide is out at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. It will rise by an astounding 43 feet at high tide, cutting off access to the beach area.

See the tiny person in the middle foreground. You must walk down many, many steps from the top of the cliffs to reach the beach, something like 75, as I recall. That’s about six or seven stories! But we did it.

Giant insect?

We stayed the night at a true bed and breakfast inn, though we’d found it through Airbnb. We were joined by a young couple driving from Halifax to be with family for Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. The four of us enjoyed a visit in the living room where we shared our respective’ backgrounds and learned a bit about cultural similarities and differences while enjoying some of our host’s homemade wine. Not only does Bridget own and run the B&B and make wine, but she’s also begun a business manufacturing buckwheat pillows—and she’s a former international professional singer, besides. (And her breakfast was fabulous!)

Crab Apple Inn, Joggins, Nova Scotia

The next day saw us driving across New Brunswick and into Maine. Though the leaves had only just begun changing color in Nova Scotia, they were really showing off in New Brunswick.

Not be the sharpest photos ever taken, but hey . . .

we were going 110! (in kilometers, of course)

Crossing the border back into the States was harrowing—at least the waiting was. We’d read that we needed to itemize all our purchases and have them and all receipts readily available for inspection, so we’d spent a long couple of evenings getting our documentation and souvenirs organized. Though we’d practically sailed into Canada (no lines and only a single benign question by the border agent), we waited here for close to forty-five minutes. Plenty of time for us to begin feeling guilty for merely imagined offenses. Cameras were watching from every angle. We tried to look innocent and nonchalant. Did that make us look like crooks instead? Our unease only increased when the border patrol unlocked and entered the RV in line in front of us.

Finally, it was our turn. We were asked the nature of our visit, if we’d enjoyed our stay, and whether we’d purchased anything other than souvenirs, personal gifts, and incidentals. That was it. A lot of worry for nothing.

In Maine, we made a little detour to stay in Seal Harbor, right at an entrance to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always yearned to visit. Was it exhaustion as we were nearing the end of our travels? Was it being surrounded by so many leaf-peekers and their vehicles after so much Nova Scotia tranquility? Whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed. It was the only disappointment of our twenty-five-day journey, but it was about to be made up for in a big way!

We made one last detour before the big push to get home. When we’d come across an Airbnb listing in the small village of Newbury, Vermont, we added a day to our itinerary just so we could take it in. Everything about our host, her home, her village seemed so iconically New England.

And so it turned out to be. The home we stayed in is almost two hundred years old on a street of similarly aged residences, mostly modest clapboard homes with gabled fronts. Most of the village’s structures were built either between 1790 and 1860 or in the ten years following a devastating fire in 1913.

Not every residential neighborhood is on a town’s Main Street, which, in this case, is also Vermont Highway 5. Never was there a quieter thoroughfare. Between the residences is the core of the village, the Village Common, a large green space for public use. The village hall, village school, and Methodist Church sit on one edge of the Common. The entire village, flanked by the Connecticut River, is a historic district.

Simply idyllic. Just our style.

Linda, our host, is a professional photographer. She works in black and white, uses old cameras with actual film, and has her own darkroom. Like the Gnome, she collects cameras. (I told her she should count them before we left–wink, wink.)

She was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of her charming village the next morning. We passed the Village Common, the school, the church, the post office, the village hall, the public library. We stopped for chats with other morning strollers. We talked about the village’s history and Vermont’s fabled town meetings. We took in the village store (the oldest country store in Vermont) for a steaming cup of coffee and yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, then sat on the steps to chow down. We dropped in at the bank to study old black and white pictures of the fire.

The bank is closed on Saturdays, but our host has a key. (It seems that the few villagers who lock their doors share their keys with the neighbors.) Linda loves her hometown and its history, and it shows.

Unfortunately, sometime between our return home and getting to this point in my travel diary, the last two hundred or so photos mysteriously disappeared from our camera. I had to resort to Google to find a couple of photos to share. 

Newbury Village Store. Photo credit: redjar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Tenney Public Library, Newbury Village, VT. Photo credit: Magicpiano [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Newbury Village UCC Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/NewburyVT_UCCChurch.jpg

Just because our travels are over, don’t think I’m through writing about Nova Scotia, There are still a couple of reflective posts (and, of course, photos), so I hope you’ll come back to see what they are.

Cabot Trail, Part II

(While we’re all busy keeping safe by staying home, you might like to join me on a recap of my 2018 road trip with The Gnome to Nova Scotia.  This week, we’re on the second leg of the breathtaking Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. and I recently took a long (and long-awaited) road trip throughout Nova Scotia. To read about—and see—it from the beginning, click here.)

It was almost mid-afternoon on our trek around the Cabot Trail when we stepped into a small museum near Dingwall (on the northern edge of Cape Breton Highlands National Park) for a much-needed bathroom break. A couple of (very) young women from New Zealand had the same idea. (Amazing how you meet people from all over the world on the trail!) They were cycling the trail from the opposite direction. While we were going downhill, they’d been climbing all day, since dawn, in the chilly rain. How I felt for them!

I had to chuckle at the sign on the inside of the bathroom door. It said something to the effect of, “We get it. You really need to go,” and welcomed folks to use the amenities (they are few and far between on the trail), but it also asked for a donation if you planned to skip the museum itself. Fair enough! We decided to take it in, though. It was surprisingly professional and enlightening, especially for such a tiny place. There’s even an area for genealogical research.

We saw lots of informational exhibits like this one at the North Highlands Community Museum which explains why all the island’s small communities are so tightknit. Note how doctors made house calls well into the mid-20th century!

Oh, my! I sat at a desk like these in my rural elementary school.

The pleasant woman staffing the museum told us she thought the part of the trail still ahead of us was its prettiest section. That was hard to believe, given the vistas of our previous two days. Turned out she was right, though the day was so stormy it wasn’t such a good picture-taking day. We decided to come back for more the next day, which was less rainy, but extraordinarily windy and often almost as hazy. Still, we took lots of photos. (You knew we would!) 

We took a few damp hikes, including the bog walk at which, if we’d been there a few hours earlier, we’d have surely seen moose—we sure saw lots of tracks. We also hiked the short trail to this Scottish Highland shieling, a hut to shelter crofters (farmers) and their livestock from the brutal weather on the moutaintops. And we hiked enough of the Skyline Trail to see . . .

this! After 49 years’ worth of trips searching in vain, we were able to prove to ourselves once and for all that moose are not the mythical creatures we’d begun to believe them to be.

From the road far below, you can see folks that made it to the end of the Skyline Trail, at least with binoculars—or a telephoto lens.

Photos of the curvy, coast-hugging Cabot Trail, where the mountains kiss the sea.

Our destination was Chéticamp. Little did we know that on one of our look-off stops, our camera had captured an image of the home where we’d be spending the next couple of nights.DSCF5596 Our charmed, and charming, hosts had found themselves one of the most perfect places on earth to live. Not only is their home on the edge of the Chéticamp River (which they often kayak, lucky ducks!), but on the opposite side of the river is the majestic park itself. From their huge living room windows, they can also see where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Where else could you get that kind of view? It was a good way to end our trip around the park.

The view from the living room window includes this mountainous cliff, part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

This spit of land is all that separates the river from the ocean, also seen from our hosts’ living room window. How cool is that?!

Come back for the last days of our travel adventure and some more reflections, won’t you?