BLAST FROM THE PAST, WITH THE BIDDLES
I was able to break away from the computer last Friday for a trip back to the Baker-Biddle Homestead on Cape Cod to meet Steve Biddle and his wife, Lynn. Steve is the grandson of Francis and Katherine Biddle, who bought the home from Jack Hall in 1949. Judge Francis Biddle served as Attorney General under the Roosevelt administration from 1941-1945 and as the primary American judge at the Nuremberg war crime trials in 1946. Katherine’s accomplishments certainly compare to her husband’s; she was a highly regarded poet, lecturer, and civil rights activist. The Biddles purchased the Bound Brook Island home as a summer escape from Philadelphia, and a place to continue writing surrounded by literary notables. Their son and grandchildren spent summers on the Cape and have many stories of the property – I am so fortunate to have heard firsthand from Steve and Lynn Biddle about theirs.
When the Biddles first drove up the drive, I was not sure what to expect; however, as soon as we met, I could feel the energy returning to the homestead. Steve, who towered over most of us, first adjusted his sunglasses, took a quick look around the yard, and without a need for prompting, began to recall his memories of the property. Lynn, who I would succinctly describe as his name-and-date memory counterpart, also had many stories to share.
The memories Steve unearthed at first reflected his experience as a child, spending long summers with his grandparents. We followed his around the property as he pursued is-it-still-here, I-remember-it-right-there, and other leads. We would take a moment and pause wherever we heard Lynn chime in: ‘Wait, Steve, don’t forget about the…’
During all of this, I took notes – unorganized, on maps and sheets, anywhere I could fit them and with feverish pace. (Once back in the office, I spent many hours working through the notes, updating my maps, revising the chronology of the site, and correcting proper lingo for site features.)
Here are a few of my favorite Biddle-family memories:
Steve’s grandparents couldn’t bear to see their grandsons succumb to the boredom of summer and waste their time, so they hired a tutor when they visited. Steve talked about having to sit inside and study Shakespeare. With a smile, indicative past adolescent angst, Steve began to recite the United States Presidents, in order, just as his tutors had required.
Once we made our way to the Memorial Garden north of the Big House, Steve started to poke around in the toolshed. Not finding what he was searching for, Steve explained that a small dog statue sat in the center of the circular garden. They called him ‘Percival.’
During the first site visit, the elm tree at the southwest corner of the Big House received little attention beyond a note of its species. Lynn and Steve explained the tree’s importance to Katherine, in particular, and the cocktail parties she held on the property. I learned that during literary gatherings or parties, wooden chairs and loungers were arranged in a circle under the shade of the tree. There, guest shared selections of poetry, but never their own! Even after Katherine’s passing in the late 1970s, her children and grandchildren continued to gather under the elm for parties, photos, and to enjoy the serenity of the Cape. When Hurricane Bob struck Cape Cod in 1991, the property lost a large number of trees and devastated the elm. Frances, Steve’s mother, never gave up on the tree and to her relief saw the tree gradually improve. Only after hearing that story am I able to appreciate the elms gnarls and scars, and its cherished shade.
Steve and Lynn provided an inexhaustible list of Biddle stories on Bound Brook Island, and my attempts to retell fall short to hearing them from the source. Whether its running down to the beach and building a boardwalk, watching meteor showers at dusk, or hearing the USS Biddle dinner bell ring out from the rugged landscape – those stories make the Baker-Biddle site alive.