Grace Miner Lippincott
Grace Elizabeth Miner Lippincott, is, to date, we believe, Madison’s most prolific published poet. Her lifetime of ninety-six years spanned a quarter of the nineteenth century and three-quarters of the twentieth—and she was, by all accounts, a gracious, warm, and lively woman who was actively engaged in the Madison community.
Grace’s parents were Almon Lewis Miner and Katherine Lucretia Whitney, who were born a year and a half apart--in 1854 and 1856, respectively—in the tiny town of Cornwall, in northern Litchfield County. Almon and Katherine, or Kate, as she was known, married each other in May 1878, when Katherine was twenty-four years old. A bit more than ten months after their wedding day, Grace Elizabeth, the oldest of their six children, was born, also in Cornwall, on March 8, 1879.
What we know about Grace's early life we learn mostly from her poetry and the lively stories she told about herself: She tells us in verse that she loved and admired her parents and her maternal grandparents and that she treasured, well, just about everything else in the environs of Cornwall—its tidy village, its famed grove of cathedral pines, the quicksilver music of its brooks, its worn stone walls, and the old white farmhouse filled with kin, gathered for New England boiled dinner.
The sweet and simple poem "Grandmother's Shawl" below demonstrates her affection and her admiration for her family. It is from Spindrift with Overtones, published in 1965.
We know that, early on, Grace was told of her family’s history: that she had descended from William Brewster, for instance—the Bible-carrying preacher who sailed from Leiden on the Speedwell and completed his transatlantic journey with 90-odd other Separatists, on the Mayflower, in 1620.
We know that she was related not just to Elder Brewster but to other notables of “Pilgrim” and revolutionary fame: Thomas Prence of Plymouth Colony; John Whitney, a latecomer who arrived from England in 1635; and revolutionary War hero Heman Swift, known as “Washington’s colonel,” who carried Lafayette himself off the battlefield at Brandywine.
Despite her father’s cautions about a life of good behavior, fine manners, and serious and proper actions, we know that young Grace once mounted the wildest horse in the Cornwall stables, perched her younger sister at her back, and galloped off through the snow. When the horse proved livelier than expected, Grace pushed her sister off her mount, aiming her into a snowbank to ensure that she did not come to earth on anything on less forgiving—and, not surprisingly, wrote about a similar—and “deeply thrilling” ride years later. She was, apparently, not easily squelched.
We also know that she, her siblings, and her parents came to live in Madison in 1886—the year she turned seven—and that they stayed here approximately ten years, enjoying life at the shore with her mother’s maternal grandparents, the Miners. Grace’s great-grandfather Charles Miner and his son, her grandfather William Miner, were, consecutively, the owners of one of Madison’s most successful shipyards, at East Wharf. The Miner yard, built in 1820 and sold in 1883 to William Crossly, produced seventy-five wooden sailing vessels under the management of Charles and William. A devastating fire destroyed the yard in June of 1890, when two nearly complete Crossly vessels burned to ashes along with all the planks, timbers, and sheds and storage buildings at the yard—a tragedy that effectively ended the era of shipbuilding in Madison.
Grace captured the incident in one of her longest narrative poems, "Burning of Madison Shipyard" printed below. It appeared in Grace’s third book of poetry, Spun from the Sea, published in 1943.
By 1895, Grace had graduated from Madison High School, and she and her family soon had returned to Cornwall. Why exactly the family came down to the shore in 1886—and why they returned to the hills in 1896—we do not know. We do know that just a few days before Christmas in 1896, Grace married Levi Lippincott—a native of Philadelphia, says one source; a native of Cornwall says another. According to a newspaper source, Levi had been a resident of Madison for a year or two before their marriage, and so presumably Grace met him here, perhaps on a visit to her grandparents. Eight years older than Grace, Levi was a “railroad man” who served for many years as Madison’s station agent. He was, by Grace’s own report, a down-to-earth, practical man who admired her faith, her sense of humor, and her aptitude for mothering—although she also wrote that he “laughed about poetry the whole way through” and kept her “from taking my dreams too seriously.”
Regardless of Levi’s view of her art, her skill, and her dreams—and her own assertion that she was first and foremost “a homemaker with a hobby” that she “sought to make perfect”—Grace was, in fact, by mid-life, a renowned poet. After she raised her sons, she crafted more than 1,100 poems that appeared, one by one, in more than sixty American newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. They were included in ten anthologies, and they were collected in six published books, most of which were produced by the Banner Press of Emory University. Two of these books were charmingly illustrated by her dear friend and Madison native Mary Scranton Evarts.
An avid collector of local anecdotes, Grace was, in her own words, always happy to share “a good yarn,” and so, fittingly, she was interviewed in the 1940s on the long-running and very popular CBS and WOR radio shows of Mary Margaret McBride, the “First Lady of Radio.” Mary interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl Buck, Margaret-Bourke White, and Mary Pickford among the other 30,000 notables she welcomed to the mic, so Grace was in very good company when Mary featured her as “an over-fifty” guest.
Through Grace’s many yarns, we know that the Lippincott newlyweds returned to Madison to begin their marriage and that they stayed in the old “Tavern”—later known as Samson’s Boarding House—where Grace’s wedding gifts crashed to the floor on the afternoon that her friend Irma Scranton sat on the worn rope bed where the presents were displayed! We can’t say which gifts survived the fall, but we know that Levi and his bride remained intact for 44 years and that they resided at the inn for about a year while their house at 25 Scotland Avenue was built, by William Hill.
Salt and Savor reprinted below is a brief poem from Skylines of New England, published in 1938, reflecting the elements of the shoreline, her family, and her faith that influenced Grace’s thoughts of herself.
In 1938 Grace’s work earned one of the four awards given by Avon Publishing in New York for “best contemporary verse,” and a selection of her poems appeared in its Textbook of Modern Poetry, an annual anthology.
Circling back to the turn of the century, though, Grace dubbed their property, “Whimsy’s Acre,” and she and Levi raised their two sons there: Whitney van Doren Lippincott was born in 1899, and Almon Miner Lippincott was born in 1904. Whitney moved as an adult to Fairfield, where he lived in a house close to the Sound with his wife Bernice, a son, Whitney, Jr., and two daughters, Gloria and Mary Lou. Almon, more commonly called Miner, was born both deaf and mute, and he was schooled for some time in Mystic at a boarding school called the Mystic Oral School. He never married and had no children; he worked primarily as a house painter—and he was an accomplished recreational pilot.
Grace penned much of her work from Whimsy’s Acre, where she lived until her death in 1975 at the age of 96. The joys of small-town life in Madison, its citizens, and the natural beauty of the shoreline were favorite subjects. She wrote about Tuxis Island and Tuxis Pond, Signal Hill, Sleeping Giant, and Middle Beach. She penned lines to immortalize the Leatherman and the tin peddler and “Uncle Dick,” who played the fiddle at the clam-pie supper dances at Webster Point. She frequently wrote about faith and about love—especially about her nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, whom she often called the Gay Pretenders, in homage to their childhood games and plays. The sweet poem "Family Business" printed below reflects her deep affection for the little ones.
Grace also wrote about death, and grief, and war—the death of her young nephew, Staff Sergeant David Harrison King, who lost his life in 1943—her three grandnephews who fought in Vietnam, the grieving mothers in our own country, and the mothers who grieved on foreign shores. She wrote poems that she dedicated to Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Billy Graham, and she wrote about the Fresh Air kids, whom she and Levi hosted at their home in the summertime. She wrote about the solace she found at the First Congregational Church, where, she is still remembered by many as one of the kind and loving church members, most of them women, who taught Sunday school.
She was a founding member of the Fortnightly Club, a lively and close-knit group of Madison women who met frequently for social companionship, book talks, and charitable endeavors—a group that later became the Madison Woman’s Club. An annual Music Award given by the Madison’s Woman’s Club, was named in her honor. Grace was also a member of the Sunshine Club, which made quilts and afghans for patients in nearby hospitals—and was a charter member of the Madison Historical Society when it was founded in 1917. At the MHS she mentored the Junior Historical Society, she served as its president, and she remained an active member at the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 1967. A staunch preservationist who believed in the cultural importance of Madison’s historic structures, she wrote about her perspective in near-religious tones, as indicated in these lines taken from two of her poems, “Historical House” and “Historical Home:”
This home is like a wayside shrine where beauty lovers kneel
Around the spirit of the past so quiet and genteel.
Within the doors historical are hearthstone fires aglow
And burning through the century have blessings to bestow.
Through her written word and her life in the community, it is clear that there was much to admire in Grace—her great love of family, her deep attachment to place and to heritage, her admiration and encouragement of other women, and her steadfast devotion to her art. Despite her demurrals about the importance of her poetry, she demonstrated her tenacity and courage in bringing her work into the light of the wider world, with its risks of rejection and critical review. Grace’s books may be read at the Scranton Memorial Library or at Lee’s Academy.
GRANDMOTHER’S WOOLEN SHAWL
No magical vendor of uncanny tricks
Could you greater wonders for all,
Than the loving devotion of Grandmother’s motion
When she covered us up with her shawl.
She spooned a hot mixture, by name cambric tea
With honey and lemon is at call;
No cold could abide with such love at your side
While well wrapped in Grandmother’s shawl.
Sometimes it was loaned to a neighboring friend
Who shivered when coming to call,
She said she felt older, her world growing colder,
Until wrapped up in Grandmother’s shawl.
BURNING OF MADISON SHIPYARD
Where East Wharf rests close by the sea
A shipyard stood, both wide and free.
Through summer breeze or winter gail
We heard the tripping, true-struck nail.
The builders were a genial horde
When home-town folk took them to board.
Along the sands, spread far and deep,
Were oak-chips in a seasoned heap.
The children played through happy hours
Where beach-plums raised their spicy flowers.
They watched the big ships rise and grow,
And offshore porpoise roll and blow.
We thrilled when a ship’s Captain told;
“Now clear the docks and break her hold!”
The whole town came to bless the waves
When schooners left the weathered staves.
The proudest ships on all the Sound
Were launched from this old building ground.
One night we heard the hue and cry
Of a trouble people rushing by.
Down at the dock, all dressed to go,
Two white ships raised a frightful glow.
Instead of sailing at high tide
They threw out flames both far and wide.
The shipyard voices, tense and dire,
Rose with the holocaust of fire.
A line soon formed; men staunch and strong
Passed water-buckets through the throng.
The helpers seemed of no avail
As shouts turned to a mournful wail,
While two great schooners without names
Went down to earth, devoured by flames.
The buildings with a sparkling snap
Made of the chips a fiery trap,
As sea-craft that had sailed around,
Blew dirges through Long Island Sound.
The last to leave this fiery dome,
Was one loan dog on guard at home.
He lived with friends for many years
And bore deep scars on back and ears.
Where piles of chips once filled the sands
Our children play in healthy bands
And ask again to hear the tales
Of shipyard friends and full-rigged sails.
Down by the dock close to the sea
Two phantom schooners beckon me.
SALT AND SAVOR
I thrive on salty spray and spume
And scent of wooded shore
While eager thoughts go out to meet
The sound of dipping oar.
When winds shriek through the tautened sails
That ride beyond the docks
My hopes go out to hold them safe
And guard their craft from rocks.
My dreams rise out of flying mist
And ride with dancing foam
Although the restless urge in me
In anchored in my home.
OH, WHAT A BRAVE announcement
One more arrived this day,
Already eight-are we elate;
Or frightened, in a way.
Five boys, four girls; loved and desired
As sympathy rode free,
The next to youngest said in awe,
"Is there too many of we?"
We laughed, we loved, and all together
Made plans that circled round
The happiest home-place in the town;
Each child on duty bound.
We all agreed to federate
Good health and prayer toned glee
And tell our precious second young,
"There is not too many of we."
SPUN FROM THE SEA
If you should live in Madison
(A village on the Sound)
Let me give you a kindly tip
Before you get around.
When settlers came as pioneers
Whose names old records mention,
They intermarried through the years,
In proper-like convention.
When you talk to your neighbor friends,
They most times are related.
Their children keep the village trends
And never have mismated.
Through Hammonasset, over East
Are Dudleys by the score,
With Willards, Dowds and Chittendens,
Along the Central shore.
Then Bassett, Bishop, Lee and Coe
That reach the West Wharf Road.
The Smiths parading in a row
Call Elm Street their abode.
They’re scattered all about the town,
The Mungers, Redfields, Leetes,
With Wilcoxes both up and down
The length of village streets.
Then Field and Griswold, Hill and Hull
With Kelseys, Meigs and Stevens
And Nortons, Stones and Parmalees
Near Watrouses and Whedons,
While Buell, Crampton, Evarts clan
Are represented to a man.
The Bushnells and the Scranton guard
Lived early years in town
And called each other yard to yard
From doorways up and down.
The town has grown and many names
Are listed in the news
But those of early township fame
Are locally who’s who.
These words from Grace reveal a little bit about both her writing system and her soul:
RECIPE FOR A POEM
One typewriter, one rainy day, high winds along the coast,
Resurging thoughts that come my way; great friendships I may boast.
Three golden heads that ring my bell as I voice a great surprise,
Wide eyes of wonder as I tell long thoughts that children prize.
A stack of well-worn books I choose to ramble through at will;
Deep-rooted loves I never lose though voices now are still;
One stormy day, a sheaf of white, compassion for the earth,
An inner scintillating light—A poem comes to birth.