On a frigid morning in late December of 1867, the Reverend John Hyrancus Mellish left the New Hampshire village where he had been ordained almost thirteen years earlier and where, twelve months after that, he had set up housekeeping with his new wife Sarah. Florence, their only child, had been born in the parsonage almost eleven months to the day after the wedding and she had spent all the years of her young life in the spare wooden house that the family was now leaving.
Even so, they did not pay him enough to keep him or his wife content
John Mellish thought himself happy in Kingston. His parsonage stood in the heart of the village and from it he had a clear view across a flat and barren commons to the steeple of his tidy white meetinghouse. He worked hard to make his sermons learned, yet understandable to the simpler folk of the village. He was in his forties, a vigorous man of average height, with a broad face and eyes of translucent amber. His thick, neatly trimmed brown beard was the same width as his high forehead and from the front his head looked rectangular. He believed that his congregation respected and maybe even loved him.
Even so, they did not pay him enough to keep him or his wife content. He could not buy the books he wanted to build his own small library, she had to forego certain tasteful decorations for the house. He had grown tired of negotiating with the tight-pursed members of his church and of exposing his debts to their scrutiny. They were often late with his salary and hesitant to make it larger. Most thought he should be content with what he had, living rent-free in the parsonage with so small a family to support.
John Mellish was an open and honest man and he found it difficult to deceive. Still, he carried on a secret correspondence with the committee of the Congregational church in Dayville, Connecticut, some ninety miles to the south and east of Kingston. Dayville, a village in the Town of Killingly, was home to three thriving woolen mills, and when he was offered a call to its pulpit, he accepted. He hoped that his new position would require less of the scrimping that so annoyed Sarah and he thought that in Dayville and nearby Danielsonville, a larger commercial center, she would find more people and activities to her taste. The thought of her greater happiness helped him bear the disappointment and disapproval of his long-time friends.
With their furniture and trunks sent on ahead, the family, carrying a few bundles and carpetbags, rode the train from East Kingston to Boston and then to Providence. From Providence they transferred to a drafty carriage and shivered their way westward on a slushy, rutted road past rock-strewn farms and scrubby woodland. They followed a route traced decades earlier by ambitious Rhode Island industrialists who coveted and then harnessed the power of northeastern Connecticut’s water.
At the top of Jerimoth Hill, at eight hundred and twelve feet Rhode Island’s highest point, the view opened up and John, Sarah and Florence looked past tall pine trees into the light and shadow of Connecticut’s rolling hills. It was almost an hour past noon and the air was warmer and wetter than it had been when they left New Hampshire. The sun broke through a patch of low clouds and shone on the puddles in the road and the heavy snow melting in the fields.
Sarah Mellish was disappointed when the carriage reached their new home on Dayville’s Main Street. She thought the road that ran by the house was too busy and she was disturbed by the noise of the trains rolling into the depot less than half a mile away. She hadn’t liked the look of a pair of young men they passed on the Attawaugan road who wore their hats at an angle that Sarah found careless and disrespectful. She was sure they were Irishmen who drank.
The house, built some twenty-five years earlier, was no bigger or more attractive than the Kingston parsonage, although it did stand closer to the church, separated, she had been told, only by a Mrs. Barrett’s place. The house was owned by the S. & H. Sayles Company, and Sarah disliked the idea of living in mill-owner’s housing; it made her feel common. She was particularly disturbed by the contrast it made to the fine mansions on the opposite side of Main Street. Their landlord, Mr. Sayles, and his wife could look out of their parlor window and down on the plain white frame cottage that housed the poor minister and his family.
John Mellish found solace in expanding and improving the wood-built Greek temple in which he preached his sermons, and by the end of August, on the day of its rededication, he stood behind his new pastor’s desk, under the new chandelier, and surveyed the expectant faces of his congregation. They looked to him as pure and fresh as the flowers that filled the tall vases on the communion table. As he gave the invocation, his heart swelled with love for these good people and he felt blessed.
But two and a half years later, he was called by his sense of duty to fill another pulpit and reluctantly left Dayville. The dispirited congregation of North Scituate, Rhode Island flattered and cajoled him until it was impossible to resist. In March of 1871, he and his wife and daughter packed up their belongings and moved, taking with them the good wishes of the Dayville congregation as well as gifts of flour, beef, pork, ham, butter, cloth, and one hundred and seventy-five dollars in cash.
John Mellish worked as hard in North Scituate as he had in Dayville, although he never felt as comfortable among the people there. Still, he took whatever sorrows and disappointments life presented him with patience and good humor. When, in the spring of 1874, his brother David died after a short and sudden mental disturbance, John humbly accepted the mystery of God’s ways. When, in the fall of that same year, Florence left home to attend Mount Holyoke Seminary, he bore the loss of his beloved daughter’s companionship without complaint. When, distraught and ashamed for reasons he never fully understood, Florence returned home before the school year was out, he comforted her without reproach. And when, on the first day of January in 1877, another daughter was born, he accepted that gift as evidence of God’s grace.
When Bertha was three, John Mellish found himself without a congregation—the last of his flock had moved away, died, or turned for spiritual solace to the Baptists or the Adventists. Indeed, sometimes he himself preached in their plain and tiny chapels and when he did, he trembled in the spirit and power of the Lord in a way he had never experienced at the pulpit of his own more elegant church.
Over the next twelve years, John Mellish moved with his family from one small Rhode Island village or Connecticut hamlet to another, staying only two years or three, until that congregation faded away, or he didn’t get paid, or some member of the church board didn’t like his preaching or his wife’s disposition. So it was to Dayville, a place associated with happier memories, that he returned with Sarah and their two daughters in the spring of 1892, when, at the age of sixty-eight, he retired from the pulpit.
John and Sarah bought a cottage on the northerly road from Dayville to Attawaugan, a half-mile from the center of the village, the depot, the mill, his old church and parsonage, and the Main Street mansions. The small, plain dwelling and its sturdy barn had been built thirty years earlier by a Dayville stonemason on an acre of rolling, wooded land. Its only claim to fashion, already outdated when the cottage was new, were a “Greek” orientation—gable end facing the road—, overblown turnings on its staircase newel, and a squat, square version of columns and entablature around the parlor fireplace.
Florence was by now a woman of thirty-six, long since settled at home as a spinster schoolteacher. Reverend Mellish soon became a well-known, grandfatherly presence in the village, his wife a phantom rarely seen outside her house. Bertha enrolled at Killingly High School, and Florence was hired to teach farmers’ children in Putnam Heights, a sad and shabby hilltop village five miles from Dayville.