By Alexandra Pecci
---- — Methuen, the 1860s. A family, feeling full and happy after a Thanksgiving meal that was filled with every morsel of food their farm produced, leaves their holiday table to take a walk together up a hill across the pasture.
“And there, we stand and look down over Pleasant Valley alight in the sunshine of the brief November afternoon, the bluest river bending round the hill, the white winged gulls circle above the island in the distance,” writes George N. Cross in a memoir of his boyhood growing up in the Pleasant Valley section of Methuen in the 1860s.
The slim volume, “Memories of my Childhood in Pleasant Valley,” is one of several local history titles published by the Methuen-based SicPress.
“This is what life is like in 19th century Methuen,” says Joyce Godsey, owner and chief publisher of SicPress, which published Cross’s memoir for the first time this year.
Godsey’s career in publishing, editing and antiquarian book restoration have culminated in her newest undertaking: reprinting classic local history titles as well as printing some previously undiscovered manuscripts, like George N. Cross’s, for the first time.
“Finding local voices is very exciting ... it’s like time traveling,” she says.
Whether a book has lived, dusty and unread, for a century at a local library, or was donated in manuscript form by the author’s grandson (as was the case with the Cross memoir), Godsey’s approach is the same: Transcribing every word by hand and editing only for clarity.
Titles in the collection include Witchcraft at Andover, which was originally published in 1880 and covers Andover’s role in the Salem Witch Trials; The Journal of an Abbott Academy Girl, 1874-1876, which Godsey says features “of course it’s a lot of boys and food”; and The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, about a woman who survived 18 years of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War and escaped to freedom in Lawrence.
Each of these titles offers an intimate glimpse into the past that Godsey says simply doesn’t exist in straight-up history books. And although the history titles are crucial to understanding our history, too, Godsey has a particular affinity for George Cross.
“I feel very attached to George,” she admits, and after reading his memoir, it’s hard not to. His writing style is engaging and illustrative—he was a noted lecturer who traveled the world, and was also Headmaster of the Robinson Female Seminary in Exeter, NH, according to the book. Godsey compares Cross’s writing to the kind found in books like Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables.
“It’s in that kind of homespun vein,” she says.
In Cross’s memories of his boyhood, he recalls everything from his squeamishness about butchering animals; to the mince, apple, pumpkin, and cranberry pies that graced his family’s Thanksgiving table; to the soldiers marching off to battle in the early days of the Civil War after the fall of Fort Sumter to the Confederates.
“The long roll of the drum beat of the nation that April day was heard and heeded in Pleasant Valley,” he writes. “It was on Tuesday or Wednesday morning of that week that, by a stone post at the corner of Essex and Broadway in Lawrence, I sat astride my Father’s shoulders and saw the soldiers march by, to the station to entrain for Boston.”
Godsey also took immense pleasure in compiling the book’s endnotes, which offer historical or other explanations of the text, including everything from a circa 1836 recipe for apple pie to the definition of a fife. She says researching the material for the endnotes helps put his writing into historical context and makes it easier for the reader to understand. Plus, it was fun.
“It tickled me,” she said. “I call it things you find when you’re looking for other things.”