A Little History
On the Life and Collection of the McCues
Be sure to check out A Short Biography of the McCues
Edna said, ‘I know what you need – you need some Shaker furniture.’
I said, ‘Well, what is it?’
She said, ‘That is,’ and pointed to the trestle table by the window.
A late winter wind came rushing east over the Berkshires and into the glen of Northampton in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. Sugar maple and ash leaves kicked up into the breeze as bundles of young women hurried off to class, tracing lines over snowy quilts of ochre and crimson. A young physics professor by the name of J.J. Gerald McCue – Jerry, to his friends – stood by the window of his rent-controlled bachelor’s apartment at the edge of the Smith College campus, sipping from his mug of coffee.
His small apartment was a portion of a larger Victorian house – sunny in autumn, but drafty in the winter – and though he had just two rooms and a bath, they were sparsely furnished, even after eight months of his living there. On a desk at his side sat a stack of research papers, and he rifled through them, picking out a few for their relevance to the day’s lecture on atomic bonding. At his feet, an old moving-box held his nascent collection of the writings of Winston Churchill, whom he had been reading for a few years now, since the midst of the war. Otherwise, there was only the double bed in the corner – on it rested some stray laundry boxes, spilling over with his freshly pressed shirts. Jerry had no drawers – apart from those in the kitchen – in which to keep them, and he felt the need for a bureau. But he didn’t know where to look.
It had happened that about a month prior, Jerry’s old friend Joseph Platt had called and asked him to be the best man at his upcoming wedding. Joe and Jerry were old research buddies, having first met at Cornell eight years ago while writing their physics dissertations there in 1938. Later, after a few years of teaching – Jerry at Hamilton and Joe at the University of Rochester – they were re-united in early 1944, when they both joined the ranks of the MIT Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There Jerry worked developing top-secret radar beacons until the end of the war, when Joe returned from an assignment in the Philippines, and Jerry left for his new position at Smith. By October, Joe had met his fiancé Jean, a mathematician at Polaroid – and on Christmas Day, Jerry had turned 34.
Now it was January, 1946. Tomorrow Joe was driving into Northampton to pick Jerry up for a rustic afternoon ride out to a pre-wedding party that had been planned by Jean’s parents. It was at an old farmhouse in Marlborough, a couple of hours east towards Boston.
The host of the celebration and owner of the farm was a lively woman by the name of Edna Little Greenwood. She and her husband, Dr. Arthur Greenwood, were good friends of Jean’s family, the Fergusons, and Edna had insisted on the celebration as soon as she had heard their news of the engagement. She enjoyed welcoming new visitors to her house, especially those who could keep up with her wit and knowledge, which she was keen to share with the upcoming generation. As they drove east to Marlborough and caught up on the past few months of their lives, Joe also related a bit of the farm’s history to Jerry. He warned him, You probably won’t get asked back – but if you are, you’ll know they meant it.
Edna had lived out on the farm in Marlborough for the past twenty years – and in that time she had built up quite a reputation for herself there, due in no small part to the extraordinary parties she would throw. These celebrations were perhaps the crux of life on the farm, but truly at all times the place teemed with antiquity and the revival of ancestral traditions. Practically every object on the farm, whether functional or decorative, was a part of Edna’s visionary collection of 17th century to early 19th century New England furniture and furnishings. It was this collection and Edna’s passion for it that had, in fact, in the late 1920s, first inspired Edna’s cousin-in-law and protégé, Nina Fletcher Little, to begin to develop her own collection of early country arts, which later came to influence an entire generation of antiquarians.
Edna’s collection did not stop at objects, however – she also had a vast and varied library of rare New England books of many genres, one of the most comprehensive in the world. She pored over her collections with scholarly rigor, though the knowledge she gained from them she applied not academically, but actively. For instance, armed with her shelves of faded, forgotten cookbooks, she even took up preparing the food at the farm according to the archaic American folk recipes she uncovered. These dishes soon became the new bill of fare at the dinner parties that she hosted in order to divulge and propagate the early American legacies that she was dusting off. Her rum punches were especially noted for their potent authenticity – a favorite of which was a simple yet all-day, and often intoxicating preparation of rums, brandies, sugar, limes, lemons, a block of ice, and enough taste-testing to ensure historical consistency. Indeed, it was over a sterling-silver chamber pot full of Fish House Punch that Jerry McCue first made the acquaintance of Edna Little Greenwood.
Edna Little Greenwood
She liked to say that she was born in the blizzard of ’88Ó; her maiden name was Edna Heilbrun (or Hilburn). Her father, Melvin Heilbrun, died young, leaving his daughter and wife under the care of Edna’s uncle, Unk– Edward Filene, the wealthy department store magnate, and founder ofFilene’s and Filene’s Basement. Her uncle was an innovative thinker; a strong advocate for workers’ rights, he led the country by example, pioneering minimum wages for women, a forty-hour workweek, paid vacations, insurance, and the first credit union(a term he coined) in the country for his employees. He corresponded with Gandhi, Lenin and F.D.R.; at his core, he was driven by a deep interest in the lives of the common man, a trait he bestowed on Edna.
Edna was sharp as a young woman, and with the backing of her uncle, she was accepted to Smith College in 1907. That August, she took the trip west from Boston to Northampton – the very same trip Jerry McCue would take almost forty years later, in 1945. For both Jerry and Edna, these first years at Smith proved to be some of the most formative of their lives as collectors and curators, as they were their first headlong introductions into the world of early American antiques and the fascinating stories of the people who kept them.
At Smith, Edna and her friends would take off by horse-and-buggy on Saturday trips out to the countryside around Northampton, and often they would end up visiting with the old-folk of the homesteads along her paths. Edna was delighted by their stories, which they often illustrated with the remarkable furnishings of their age-old houses – relics of the many lives lived on these farms over the past few centuries. At times, she was lucky enough to return to campus with a small token or two, and this was how she began her collection.
Edna’s passion for history and antiques was given great fuel in 1909, when she went to see, as a sophomore, the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; it was the first of its kind to show a comprehensive collection of domestic furnishings from early colonial New England, and whose purpose was to illustrate the development of artistic expression in the more important handicrafts in the hope that a new emphasis may be given to the importance of our early workmen. Edna returned to Northampton from this show with a newfound sense of purpose. It was also around this time that she first discovered the vendues, or country auctions, which were then frequent in that area – and which she ended up attending religiously for the rest of her long life. At that time, many country folk were emptying their houses and selling off their estates wholesale to a new wave of European immigration, having given up on the hardships of New England farm life in exchange for a more modern and industrial dream, closer to the cities. Edna, on the other hand, seemed to be heading in the complete opposite direction.
The summer after graduating from Smith, Edna took a group trip to Europe and while there, she fell in love with a young blue-blood lawyer from Boston named Amos R. Little. They married that December in 1911, and soon moved into a little coastal cottage north of Boston in Swampscott.
In the ensuing decade and a half of her early married life, Edna Hilburn Little continued to build up her burgeoning collection of early New England antiques, adopting each new item almost as if it were a new member of her family. A friend later remarked, Edna loved with a deep fierce love each item in her collection almost as a mother loves a child.
She was taken mostly with the old implements of daily-life; objects that had functions, albeit sometimes inscrutable ones, were her specialty. She delved into the personal histories of her antiques almost as an archaeologist or anthropologist would, living with the tools, furnishings and folk art of the early New Englanders, slowly discovering their uses and personal stories; in the process she made manifest these histories and began new chapters in them as she shared them with her loved ones. Her family was also growing: she soon had two babies, and with a third on the way, the Little house was bursting at its clapboard seams with children, antiques, in-laws Filene and Little, and generally much affection. Soon they found it necessary to expand to a second house in pastoral south Lincoln, and this is where Edna’s collection began to truly take shape.
Then, in 1925, fourteen years into Edna’s marriage to Amos Little, Amos’s younger cousin Bertram Little married a woman named Nina Fletcher. As they were planning on moving into their new house, Nina Fletcher Little came to Edna for advice on decorating it, which Edna gladly offered, taking her around to all of her usual dealers and country auctions, and telling her what was good and what was not. This was Nina’s first introduction to the domestic furnishings of early America, and it was at this time and over the next few years that she embarked, with Edna’s help, on the lifelong collection that became so widely influential later on.
It was also at this time in 1925 that Edna was about to embark on the next step in the evolution of her own collection. With now four little kiddies and needing ever more space for her growing collection, Edna was looking into purchasing a real farm, which had long been a dream of hers. She was also beginning to conceive of her life’s work, which would consume her for all her years to come. For months they searched but came up in disagreement and empty handed. Finally, on December 12, 1925, Amos and Edna signed the deed to an old farmhouse in Marlborough for $17,500.
Time Stone Farm
The farmhouse was ancient, having been passed down through the Goodale family for almost a quarter of a millennium before Edna and Amos came to own it. Originally, it had been just a tiny one room cabin on a plot of 360 acres when John Goodale built it in 1702, upon his moving to Marlborough from his hometown of Salem. John married the next year, and as his family grew over the generations, so did the size of the house to accommodate them: in 1760, it was expanded to the colonial saltbox style, and further additions and updates occurred successively over the generations (including an era when it became a stop on the Underground Railroad). By the time Edna arrived in 1925, the original farmhouse had grown out to ten rooms, with seven outbuildings on the property, including a barn, a cider mill and a blacksmithing house.
The Goodale family had become quite successful in Marlborough as farmers, and later as scholars and clergymen. The centuries, however, had not treated the farmhouse as kindly, and it had fallen into some disrepair. Additionally, many of the alterations done by the family in the 19th century had only served to poorly cover up the original and well-constructed, albeit rough-hewn bones of the building – which were, to Edna, its heart and soul. Nonetheless, Edna moved in and began to absorb the feel and history of the place into her life, sharing this experience with many regular visitors to the farm that summer, including the good family-friend Dr. Arthur Greenwood. That summer Amos and Edna took a trip with the girls to Toronto to look at schools, and while there Edna bought an old stone sundial, which she brought home and placed in the herb garden. They named the house Time Stone Farm after it.
In November of 1926, Edna went to work in Boston part-time for theSociety of Preservation of New England Antiquities (today, Historic New England). There she met George Francis Dow, who was the antiquarian at the society, and he soon became her mentor. Thirty years Edna’s senior, Dow had been working at the society for sixteen years already, and he was an accomplished scholar of early American domestic life, having just published a discourse on the topic the year before (as well as a book on whaling vessels). He was an expert on period house-building and decoration as well, having in 1913 directed the restoration of the 1683 Parson Capen House in Topsfield.
Dow took Edna under his wing. He taught her a methodology for her collecting – it was at this point that her journals went from shorthand datebooks to detailed descriptions of her finds and adventures (she quipped that now B.C. stood for Before Curating and A.D. meant After Dow). From Dow she learned the foundations of a new, ethnographic understanding of antiques, which he was pioneering at the time in the consciousness of American collectors and historians. A few years prior to the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American domestic arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1909, Dow had curated three rooms at the Essex Institute in Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum) in 1907, which he designed as contextual displays of the idiosyncratic furnishings of early colonial daily life. In opposition to the traditional museum focus on the European-based art collections of wealthy urbanites, many of the objects Dow and Edna appreciated were created by skilled but often anonymous – and sometimes, amateur – craftspeople, or – as in the case of the Shakers – they were forged with a raw beauty of simple utility, an ingenious vision that spoke of prolific cultures developing apart from any sort of mainstream, cosmopolitan and European-influenced economy. To Edna, the modest settlers of early New England were the original explorers and cultivators of the first early American dreams of a New World. Edna fully moved her antiques to the farm during this time, and under the tutelage of Dow, she started to curate the house with her ever-expanding collection and knowledge.
In 1929, after much careful consultation with Dow, Edna decided on a plan for the restoration of the farmhouse. Nothing new or modern would be added, but rather each successive addition that had taken place since 1702 would be stripped to its earliest form and era. That year George Francis Dow’s son removed a wall that had been built over the fireplace. Behind it he revealed the original, enormous stone hearth of the house. This is where Edna would cook all of her meals.
Since the inception of Time Stone Farm, she had decided that she and her family would live there with minimal modern conveniences. For instance, candlelight served in place of electric bulbs, and an outhouse and dry sink did away with the plumbing. Neither was there any gas heat – firewood and brass heating pans rendered it obsolete. Though it was certainly romantic, this lifestyle was not a facade or affectation; neither was this was Edna’s idea of roughing it. On the contrary, there was a certain nobility, the nobility of common tradition, versatility and conservation, with which life took place at the farm. If it was good enough for her forefathers, then why should it not be good enough for her?
Soon Edna’s marriage, already unsteady, finally began to break apart. In 1932, she divorced Amos R. Little but kept the farm, which had become her true love – and in 1934 she was remarried to her friend Dr. Arthur Greenwood, whose name she took. For the next ten or so years, with the support of Doctor (as she called Arthur), Edna continued her research and collecting without much pause.
Jerry at Time Stone Farm
Upon his arrival to Joe and Jean’s pre-wedding party at Time Stone Farm in 1946, Jerry was at once overwhelmed with intrigue and admiration for Edna’s way of life at the ancient farmhouse. It was animated with history, from the handmade furniture and unnamable knick-knacks to the inspiring Book House – another 17th century farmhouse which Edna had relocated to Time Stone Farm, and where she kept her enormous library of well-known and obscure first-edition colonial American texts.
Jerry knew, however, that she would not ask him back without proof of his interest, and so he offered to return and exchange some farm chores for a few hot meals, which Edna would make in the enormous fireplace. The Greenwoods accepted and Jerry began to visit on the weekends, helping with the handiwork, and having supper with Edna and Arthur. Sometimes he would sit and grade papers over tea with Edna, and they would talk about Smith – but most of all Edna would teach Jerry about her collection and her methods. She was beginning to impart to him the fruits of her labors and her lifelong passion for antiques, just as she had done for her protégé Nina Fletcher Little some years before.
And then one day, while he was waiting in Northampton for the bus out to Marlborough, Jerry ducked into Ruby’s second-hand shop to see what he could find to hold his shirts. He discovered there a Grand Rapids chest-of-drawers for eight dollars, but decided to consult Edna before buying it – just in case.
When he got to the farm, he told her about the chest, and she scoffed, Oh, don’t buy that. I can get you a nice New England blanket chest for twelve – and then you’d really have something. Jerry told her, ÒI don’t want something – when I move, I want to give them my trunk and my two cartons of books, and be on my way.
She threatened to cut off his cooking if he bought the chest, and so he agreed to wait – if she could find him a blanket chest for twelve, he would buy it, but if she couldn’t find anything within the month – and he got back to Ruby’s and the eight dollar chest was gone – his farm laboring days were over. And so Edna led Jerry around to her usual antique dealers. There were, of course, no early blanket chests for twelve dollars – most were about fifty to seventy-five. There was nothing she would let him buy.
They returned to Time Stone Farm exhausted and empty-handed. And then an idea came to Edna, suddenly, like a seed taking root in rich soil. She said to Jerry, I know what you need – you need some Shaker furniture. Jerry said, Well, what is it? Edna said, That is, and pointed to the trestle table by the window. Jerry looked at the small table with its simple yet finely sculpted design – it was Edna’s writing table. He noticed the wrought iron struts and the sturdy, shapely trestle base. As usual Edna’s sensibility was not mistaken. Out of everything in the house – and there was a lot of everything – that table was what he liked the most. At that time, however, he had no conception of its origin – and yet it was at that moment that Jerry first caught a glimpse of the vibrant and lifelong path to which his simple affinity would soon lead.
He told her, It looks good. How do you get it? She said, I know a man in Pittsfield who’s got a whole barn full of it – and he sells it dirt cheap.
Faith and Ted
Edna and Jerry soon took the train out to Pittsfield, at the western edge of Massachusetts by New York. Edna had called upon her friends Edward and Faith Andrews, who were some of the few people around who really knew anything about the Shakers or their furniture. As Edna informed Jerry along the way, Ted and Faith were in fact the foremost scholars on the subjects of Shaker history, industry and culture, and they were the earliest pioneers of the field of Shaker studies. By that time, in 1946, they had written three books on the Shakers and a plethora of articles – and in their already more than two decades of research, they had come to know most of the Shakers personally, visiting them regularly at their remaining active communities – especially Mount Lebanon and Hancock, which were both just a few miles from their house in Pittsfield.
The Andrews had first discovered the Shakers in September 1923, when they were driving their Model-T Ford back to Pittsfield one day and decided to stop at the Hancock community to see if they could buy a loaf of bread, as they had heard rave reviews. When the Shaker Sister greeted them and led them into the cook-room, they were suddenly overwhelmed by the brilliant craftsmanship of the Shaker furnishings and innovative spirituality within the community. In the words of an old Shaker song, we had tasted ‘the crums of Heaven,’ they later wrote of the experience. Now, twenty-three years later, they had amassed a great collection of Shaker furniture, furnishings, tools and manuscripts. They appreciated these objects for their simple beauty and – like Edna – for the uniquely American and all-but-forgotten histories of which they spoke, to those who took the time to listen.
Ted met Edna and Jerry at the train station and drove them out to his property in nearby Richmond, which he and Faith called Shaker Farm. In 1938, they had taken a cue from their friend Edna and bought an old derelict, crumbling saltbox farmhouse on a good plot of land, which they then proceeded to fully restore. Like Edna, they filled the house and outbuildings with their growing collection, reconstructing the space as a completely Shaker-style dwelling, down to the pegboard on the walls and the two wood stoves – just as Edna had done with Time Stone Farm and her Pilgrim-century and early colonial furnishings.
When Jerry, Ted, and Edna arrived at Shaker Farm, Faith was there to greet them, and Jerry spent the day with the three of them, having a very pleasant time learning about the Shakers, and discussing his research in physics and his growing interest in Edna’s antiques and lifestyle. Ted and Faith liked Jerry and though they were not dealers, they agreed to sell him a few items from their barn – something to keep his shirts in.
Ted opened the great barn door and showed him a few of the things that they were willing to sell. Jerry bought seven pieces for a grand total of $440, at that time a good portion of his yearly teacher’s salary. He purchased an infirmary cupboard (c.1825, $125), a bake-shop table (c.1840, $25), a red bench (c.1800, $20), a grey bench (c.1800, $15), a bedside stand (c.1825, $55), a low cupboard (c.1810, $35) – and finally, a blanket chest with drawer (c.1820) for which he paid $55. His housekeeping in Northampton would finally be in order. All of the items were from the Mount Lebanon community, except the low cupboard, which was from Tyringham, and the blanket chest, from Hancock.
For the rest of the summer and autumn of 1946, Jerry continued to visit Edna at Time Stone Farm – and now also Faith and Ted at Shaker Farm, and he soon purchased another four pieces from them: a wash-stand, a chest, a long rack, a very early cupboard over drawers (c.1800, Church Family, Hancock). For these trips he was without a car; cars were still a rare commodity so soon after the war, and in any case, he had already spent most of his disposable income on the furniture. He was becoming interested, however, in visiting the dealers Edna and the Andrews knew, and he was looking forward to setting off on his own explorations of the countryside – and so in early 1947, Jerry bought his first car, a Buick, for which he paid about $1000. He kept that car for the next twenty-five years, later selling it for $1000 (he was not one to make frivolous investments).
With his new car, he drove out to Pittsfield again to visit Faith and Ted, and while there, he told them that he might like to take a trip to visit the Shakers himself, now that he had the means to do so. But Faith tried to discourage him with a warning that the Shakers were a very particular people, and that there was a chance he might not get along with them.
Jerry mulled this advice over for a few days, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him. He gathered up his courage, and one early spring Saturday in 1947 he made the trip west out to the Mount Lebanon community in New York, which had for many years been the primary community of the Shaker religion as the home of the Shaker Central Ministry.
Despite the warning, Jerry was received warmly at Mount Lebanon and there he met Sister Jennie Wells of the North Family, who had come to the Shakers as a young girl. With his new car, Jerry returned to visit the community about once a month in early 1947 and he and Jennie soon developed a great friendship. It was clear that Jerry was not visiting just to buy furniture, though of course he professed his interest in their workmanship; rather, Jerry was drawn to the Shakers he met as individuals, as friends, and the last bearers of an admirable and unique legacy. Much later, Jennie Wells told Jerry that as a child before her life with the Shakers, she had fallen and burned her face on a wood stove – and after her mother re-married, her step-father would not abide a damaged girl in his household, so she was sent to live with the Shakers. Jerry found this surprising as he had not noticed her disfigurement; yet her history did serve as a lasting impression of the charity and impartiality of the Shaker community, and as a good example of the reasons many people went to live with them – as a respite from the cruelty of the outside world.
One day later in 1947, Jerry returned to Mount Lebanon only to find the community empty. The North Family had moved out and joined the few remaining Shakers at Hancock. Even their furniture was gone. Jerry found that the majority of it had been sold to a dealer who lived near Pittsfield. By this time, Jerry had about twenty pieces of furniture, all bought from Shaker Farm and stuffed into his little apartment in Northampton, and – a year after buying his first items and after much time spent with Ted, Faith and Edna – he had now come to recognize the historical significance of Shaker craftsmanship and perhaps his place in the stewardship of the inevitable migration of their furniture and objects into the outside world. Proof of the importance of good conservancy, which he was learning from his mentor Edna, was soon to come.
Jerry drove out to visit the dealer who had the furniture from Mount Lebanon. By the time he arrived, however, she had – with all of this nice furniture to refinish – gone and bought herself a belt sander, for $100, when that was the price of a Shaker workbench. It was a common and even expected practice in those days to refinish antiques; the goal of ownership was not always curatorial or conservative, but more often decorative, and the furniture had to be improved and updated to match contemporary tastes. Edna of course would have none of this short-sighted negligence. She taught Jerry to never refinish an antique – just as one would never paint over a Monet because it clashed with the decor of one’s living room. Jerry fled the dealer in outrage.
Later, however, he came to regret this response. He found out that she had only really had time to run the sander on a few drawers, which were salvageable, and there were a number of pieces left fully intact that he had missed. Eventually, he ended up purchasing a large tailoring counter from someone who had bought it from that dealer, for an inflated price.
Soon Jerry went to visit Hancock, the new home of his first friends among the Shakers. There he helped Jennie Wells in the kitchen, shelling peas; this was an irregularity at the community, to have a man working in the kitchen with the women – but Jennie was happy to have the help and the company. Jerry would also visit with Eldress Fannie Estabrook, who had moved to Hancock and brought her furniture from the Enfield community. He would talk with her for an hour or so – as well as with Sisters Mary and Grace Dahm. There were also a few Shaker Brothers still alive at that time, and Jerry later reminisced that a Brother White, whose job it was to bring in the firewood, used to say to him, Chopped wood all my life – and didn’t lose but three toes.
He also developed a good friendship with another Brother at Hancock, Brother Ricardo Belden. As a great wood-worker and clock-maker, Brother Ricardo was one of the few people left in the country who could build wooden clockworks, and so he was in high demand for his skill. Soon he would be the last surviving Shaker Brother at the Hancock community. Jerry later visited him in a hospital in Pittsburgh where he had traveled to visit worldly relatives. Considered to be about on his deathbed with a kidney problem, he said to Jerry, If I could just get home, I would get well. When the doctors decided that he might as well live his last days at home as at the hospital, they did let him return to Hancock – and he lived quite a few years after that.
In 1948, after visiting the Shakers about once a month for about a year, Jerry bought his first piece of furniture from them. It was a wood-burning stove, for $35 (later Jerry remarked that he realized he was a collector after buying his fifth stove). It was also in 1948 that Jerry drove for the first time up to visit the Canterbury community in New Hampshire. There he met, among others, Sister Lillian Phelps, and he later bought two yellow open boxes, used as flour measures, for three dollars; she gave him a third as a gift. He also bought a small chest ($8) and a tilting side-chair with an ash seat ($10) from the Canterbury Shakers that year.
It was in the autumn of 1948, as he began his fourth year teaching physics at Smith, that Jerry first became friends with an assistant professor of psychology at the college named Dr. Miriam Crowley, Ph.D. Miriam had joined the Navy shortly after receiving her doctorate in psychology, and she had been stationed first at Chelsea Naval Hospital near Boston as a clinical psychologist, and then at Hunter College as a teacher of general psychology to Naval Hospital Corpsmen, before leaving the Navy for her assistant professorship at Smith in 1946. After a faculty party one evening, Jerry asked to walk her home. Soon they were seeing each other, and Jerry invited her to come along with him to visit Edna at Time Stone Farm. He was now doing extra work to help maintain Edna’s farm, as her husband Arthur Greenwood had passed away suddenly of a heart attack in late 1947. Then, at the end of 1948, around the time of Jerry’s birthday on Christmas, he accepted an offer to leave Smith and move back to Boston to join the nascent nuclear lab at MIT, where he was to do research and train naval officers on nuclear submarines. In a few years he would shift departments to a new lab at MIT, the Lincoln Laboratory – the successor to the MIT Radiation Laboratory where he had worked during the war.
Miriam went out to visit Jerry in Boston early in the spring of 1949 (he had gotten her a room at the YWCA) and on March 19th, 1949, he proposed, and she happily accepted. That summer of their engagement they traveled quite a bit out to the Shaker communities in Hancock and Canterbury and also for the first time to Sabbathday Lake in Maine. Jerry introduced Miriam to many of his friends among the Shakers, including Sister Bertha Lindsay and Eldress Emma King at Canterbury, who sold them a few things and gave them a few more as gifts.
It was also at this time, shortly after the death of her husband and with the future of the farm uncertain, that Edna Greenwood decided to donate a considerable portion of the best of her collection to the Smithsonian museum – it came to around 2000 objects in total, which she gave to the National Museum of American History to jumpstart their holdings of early American domestic furnishings.
There was one important item, however, that Edna did not give to the Smithsonian. It was in the summer of 1949, when Jerry was 36 and living in Boston, that Edna Little Greenwood sold him her writing desk: the seven-foot Shaker trestle table which she kept in the Book House amid her extensive library, full of her notes and diaries. Early on, Edna had taught Jerry to keep a journal of his collection, as George Francis Dow had taught her to do in 1929 – and since his first visit to Shaker Farm in 1946, he had done so, with his usual scientific exactitude. The day he bought the trestle table from her, for $350, he asked Edna to take a look at his journal, and she wrote in it, speaking of the table: The National Museum (Smithsonian) would have had it as part of the Shaker Collection from Time Stone Farm, which they acquired in June, 1949, if E.H.G. [Edna Hilburn Greenwood] had not let J.J.G.McC. have it as a cornerstone of his super Shaker collection now in the making. His motto: Only the best – to hell with the rest.
Jerry and Miriam married that December in 1949, and Miriam quickly accepted a job at the V.A. Hospital in nearby Framingham in order to leave Smith and move in with Jerry in Boston between semesters. By this time, Jerry’s – now Jerry and Miriam’s – collection of Shaker furniture was growing extensively. By 1950, they owned about one hundred items, much of which they kept in storage, but also fully furnishing their apartment in Boston, and it soon became a tight fit for two people. In 1950, they were given the opportunity to expand their space by house-sitting a large home in Wellesley Hills. When the homeowners returned from abroad, the McCues quickly bought their first house in Wellesley.
Soon, however, Jerry learned that the Lincoln Lab would be moving to Lexington in order to expand their facilities, and in anticipation of this, the McCues sold their Wellesley house and bought a house in Lexington in 1952 so that Jerry could walk to work. Their new house in Lexington was large enough that they could take all of their furniture out of storage. By then, their Shaker collection had grown to around 200 items, much of it gathered directly from the last Shakers – and Jerry had also by then expanded his book collection of Winston Churchill, as well as texts on and by the Shakers.
On August 18, 1954, their son Brian McCue was born, and soon, Jerry, Miriam and Brian were taking family road-trips out to visit the Shaker communities. By this time, the vast majority of furniture in their large household was Shaker and they continued to visit their friends. Shaker Sisters would even come to stay with them in their Lexington home when they were traveling from Sabbathday Lake to Boston to sell Shaker wares at the YMCA craft conventions.
Jerry, was also an avid mountain-climber which he continued well into later life. A longtime member of the Canadian Alpine Club, he climbed in the U.S. and Europe as well. He also, in 1966, became a member of the Cambridge Boat Club – having taking up sculling while an undergraduate at Harvard – and later he became President of it. The McCues also traveled widely to many countries, including Nepal, Switzerland, Lichentstein, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Scotland – and Ireland, from which country both of their families had come to America. They also became honored members of the St. Botolph’s Club in Boston.
Edna Hilburn Little Greenwood died on December 10, 1972 at the age of 84. After her death, the remainder of her collection of books and antiques at Time Stone Farm was sold at auction, right on the lawn in front of the farmhouse. The McCues were there, and Jerry told Edna’s son Spiff, with whom he was good friends, that it was a good auction, and he thought Edna would have liked it. Spiff replied, I’m sure she did – we’re standing on her right now. She had been buried right under their feet, between the two big oak trees on the lawn.
Eventually, parts of the extensive McCue collection of Shaker furniture and furnishings were shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., The Whitney Museum in New York, and other smaller exhibits throughout New England and New York. Jerry and Miriam were happiest, however, simply living with their Shaker furniture in their home, caring for it, and sharing their interests and knowledge with the friends and family whom they cherished, and who cherished them.
On February 8th, 2011, John Joseph Gerald McCue passed away at the age of 97 – having lived, in his own words, a very deep life.
Check out photographs of the McCue's travels here