Sanderson chest

I’ve been poking around lately in the western Franklin County hill towns of Conway and Ashfield, walking old roads, investigating cellar holes, town histories, old maps, genealogies, deeds, probate records, talking to landowners … trying to connect the dots. It’s never easy, this world of discovery, but always rewarding, even invigorating. Great fun. Cheap entertainment.

Along the way, all kinds of peripheral stuff turns up, things like stone Seven-Mile Line bounds buried deep in the forest, long-lost landmarks like Balanced Rock, no longer visible even in aerial photos because it’s buried deep under a lush hardwood canopy. And, strange as it may seem, when I traipse around this general area that’s so rich in history, be it with gun in hand, walking the dogs, or just horsing around, exploring long-ago discontinued roads in my Tacoma pickup, my mind wanders back to my Sanderson chest of six graduated drawers; pine, distinctive and a bit mysterious because of the six fishtail drops descending from its straight bracket base — not the typical location of such a formal furniture embellishment, in fact no one seems to have ever seen such a thing descending from a chest-of-drawers’ base.

The chest has a documented history through a series of brides recorded on a yellowed piece of paper taped to a backboard; invaluable information, rare too, on furniture. When able to document such a provenance, trace it from first owner to last, the homes it graced, the alterations, repairs, refinishing (ouch!), it just brings it to life, casts a warm glow over it. Such a glow has graced this piece of family history lately, a direct result of my whimsical exploration of woodlands long familiar to my Whately ancestors.

I first thought this tall chest was the handiwork of William Mather, who came to Whately from Lyme, Ct., in 1787 with father Benjamin, a retired, somewhat quirky, sea captain. Mather, a cousin of iconic cabinetmaker Samuel Loomis of Colchester, Ct., through maternal lines, was himself a joiner, Whately’s finest, and he had a documented account with Deacon Thomas Sanderson, my fifth great grandfather, whose daughter-in-law, Mehitable Wing of Conway, wife of son Silas, is the first recipient of the chest as a wedding gift. Because fishtail drops are associated with Mather’s 18th century New London County, Connecticut — typically centered on the skirts of highboys and lowboys, along the crest rails of chairs, or crowning pillar-and-scroll and banjo clocks — it seemed like a no-brainer that Mather was the maker. The attribution became even more likely because of the lobster-tail drop on a well-known early 19th-century Chippendale highboy made by Mather for Dea. Thomas Sanderson.

But wait a minute. Wouldn’t the wedding gift have come from the bride’s family, not the Whately Sandersons? Yes, more likely indeed. And guess what? The Wing family came to Conway during the last quarter of the 18th century from Harwich/Cape Cod/Mass., another likely source for maritime furniture embellishments. Not only that, but there were joiners in the Wing family, one of them right in Ashfield. Elisha — son of sea Capt. Edward Wing of Goshen, cousin of Mehitable’s grandfather, John of Conway — also may have had something to do with it. Or perhaps another Cape Cod joiner had made it for the Wings before they departed for the wilds of WMass, maybe first the property of Mehitable’s grandmother, Abigail Snow. Hmmmm? Isn’t that the more likely origin of the Sanderson chest? Somewhere in the Wing family of the bride? Matrilineal descent? Seems to make more sense.

We’ll see. More research needed. Maybe I’ll never get to the bottom of this riddle. Maybe I will. Isn’t that the fun of collecting?

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