Common Sense – Thomas Paine Cottage, New Rochelle, NY

 

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Thomas Paine Cottage – photo credit Trip Advisor

So, if you’re like me and have kids in elementary school, you will know that familiar feeling when your kids ask you how to reduce fractions, or describe a revolutionary person: nostalgia mixed with sheer panic. As in, how do I do that again–multiply top and bottom by x? Or, hunh, that guy sounds so familiar but I have absolutely no clue what he did.

The fifth grade puts on a wax museum of revolutionary war heroes and heroines every year. Why it is called Wax Museum I will never understand. My kids have to memorize a speech and present it to the parents…and as far as I know waxy George Michael over there in Tussaud’s does not sing. Then again, I find wax museums creepy except when staffed by my kids and other kids, and I am forced to be there.

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Thomas Paine. Photo credit and interesting blog here: http://dangerouspages.blogspot.com/2009/11/banned-censored-challenged-age-of.html

My son Nico chose Thomas Paine. Now everyone recognizes that name, right? And some may even remember that he wrote Common Sense, a pamphlet that was critical to motivating many to join the colonial separatists. If you’re like me, any attempt to re-read that now is futile–the style will slowly slowly slowly make you shut your eyes and sleep. But we can all agree that he was a VIP of the Revolution. Concierge Class even.

So imagine Nico’s happiness when the friend we were visiting last weekend (my kids’ godmother, one of two) mentioned that the Thomas Paine Cottage is right down the street, where that actually means about 20 minutes away. She quickly pulled up their website and noted that they were having a special event on Saturday to celebrate Women’s History Month. It was to learn how to sew like a colonial woman which I somehow really wanted to be more like how revolutionary war women sewed secrets into hems, but no, it was cotton and linen and lots of pins. Also “stays”–I don’t care what the volunteer at the Cottage says, those looked like they sucked. Particularly after a large meal.

Shall we get on with it? Yes. The Cottage is a small home that was Thomas Paine’s last owned home before his death in 1809. He resided there from 1802 to 1806 before moving to Greenwich Village. The house was once located on a large farm, but the 300-acre parcel was sold, and the cottage, which had been added on to and changed since Paine was alive, moved to its present location in 1910 after a long struggle with fundraising and renovation. I am always amazed by the wonderful volunteers of the world, the ones who save the historic homes for 11-year old boys like mine to visit. Priceless.

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While we were there, there were two volunteers present–the incredibly knowledgeable director and his wife who tirelessly explained the history of the place, the garments she was working on, and some of the more recent history of the location. The director is particularly interesting as he has participated in many a re-enactment and had some very funny commentary (not necessarily verbal) about the northern (i.e., Lexington/Concord) re-enactors. Really good fun.

The museum is open only Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays all-year long, barring some published vacation weeks. There is a creepy Thomas Paine wax figure (okay not creepy…just ummm, waxy) writing at a desk, and my favorite item was a wood stove given to Thomas Paine by his bestie Ben Franklin.  The exhibits are well-done though I would have loved more detailed signs–of course the volunteer tour guides are extremely knowledgeable seemingly about everything–from rifle types to the battle for Thomas Paine artifacts with Iona College. By the way, you can get a minor in Thomas Paine studies at Iona; I am gobsmacked. See here.

You can easily spend an hour in the museum depending on your level in interest. There is even a tiny exhibit about Jews in Westchester County that caught our interest. The original 23 Jewish settlers in the New York area came from Recife, Brazil of all places. Wonder what they thought of winter. Actually I don’t: I know. There are two rooms dedicated to colonial objects, but I found the best way to learn was just ask questions. The guides knew everything. Everything.

And they were incredibly generous not only of time. Once Nico mentioned that he was going to be Thomas Paine in the waxless museum, the director asked if he had questions on how to dress. And of course we have not gotten to that. As he started to show the different top coats that he uses as re-enactments, he said “wait a second, let me go check something.” We started looking around some more then down he came with a felt adult-sized vest that he gave to Nico. Once upon a time it had been used in re-enactments but was no longer needed. So Nico now has a Thomas Paine vest, from Thomas Paine Cottage. And that makes us all really really happy.

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Behold the vest!

Entrance fee is suggested donations of $5/$3 and I suggest you are generous. It is a wonderful small museum of the revolutionary era. Most of the artifacts they have there are not original to TP or his house, but illustrate the times. Maps of the war are particularly time-absorbing to folks like me who grew up in the area (Somers, NY). Outside is a one-room schoolhouse that has nothing to do with Thomas Paine, but is fun to see anyway.

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Standing in the yard, you can no longer imagine the farm that was once there. By the way, and a fact I learned after the visit, Thomas Paine was given the farm by the State of New York in 1784 in honor of his service to the Revolution. Where did NY get the farm? From a Tory sympathizer. Tough to be on the losing side.

At the end of our visit, it somehow came up that Thomas Paine did not have a great end of life. His works became irrelevant (not my word) and the volunteer seamstress mentioned that Thomas had been “pathetic.” I am guessing that kids today do not believe that to be a sympathetic term — as in, you should feel sorry for Thomas Paine–but rather stating that he was, if I may, a “loser.” Nico’s ruff was up and he vibrantly defended his man. Preaching to the choir…what a great small museum to visit on a Saturday morning.

 

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