ELLSWORTH — It may seem a strange progression for a photo and a set of blueprints to lead to a biographical novel, but it is the path Jane Goodrich followed with “The House at Lobster Cove.”
In the newly published book, Goodrich — a Swan’s Island resident who co-founded and operates Saturn Press there — tells the story of George Nixon Black Jr., better known simply as “Nixon,” who left his family’s Woodlawn estate to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations in 1929.
Published by Benna Books, an imprint of Applewood Books in Carlisle, Mass., “The House at Lobster Cove” was released May 2. The historic novel’s paper cover was hand-lettered by the author and both the cover and title page were printed at Saturn Press’s Swan’s Island studio.
On Thursday, June 29, at 6 p.m., Goodrich will appear at the Ellsworth Public Library to tell some of the stories about Nixon and the Blacks that did not make it into her book, and also to take questions or hear stories from audience members.
Born in Ellsworth in 1842, Nixon is perhaps best known today as the man who bequeathed his family’s Federal-style brick mansion and 180-acre grounds to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations so it could be enjoyed by the public.
It was a different house where Nixon also lived that initially led Goodrich to the subject of her novel, however: Kragsyde, the shingle-style home he had built in the 1880s on a high rock outcropping above the waters of Lobster Cove (hence the book’s title) in Manchester-by-the-Sea, on the North Shore in Massachusetts.
Goodrich first saw Kragsyde in a photograph when she was a teenager, and she recalls that she was “completely beguiled” with the structure. Her next encounter came in college when she saw the house in a photo on the cover of a book she was reading for an art history class project.
Those encounters led Goodrich and her then-fiancé (now husband) James Beyor to find the plans for the original Kragsyde and to build their own, this one on Swan’s Island. Over a period of years, starting in the early 1980s, they realized their vision, but before and during that process she wondered about Nixon.
“He was a mystery in the back of my mind before I ever drove a nail,” she said. Questions about who he was stuck with her as she spent time in rooms he would have recognized and looked out the familiar windows of her own Kragsyde.
“They planted the seed of, ‘I want to write about him,’” Goodrich said.
Nixon was a wealthy man who spent his adult life in Boston, and it was there Goodrich went to find his will and see how he had divided his fortune when he died at the age of 86 in 1928. She believed seeing who he left his money to would prove helpful, and it turned out she was right.
Nixon’s will “pointed me to everything I later found out about him,” Goodrich wrote, and she said the document contained “not only a man’s voice but an amazing story.”
Much of Goodrich’s early story is set in Ellsworth and the surrounding area, where a young Nixon builds a snow fort with his cousin, watches a lumberman fight a bloody battle with another man on Water Street and later witnesses the savage tarring and feathering of the Jesuit priest Father John Bapst by Ellsworth citizens in 1854.
As Nixon grows older, the reader follows him to Harvard (where he fails as a student) to Civil War era Washington, D.C., and later travels including trans-Atlantic steamers, Italy and, of course, Kragsyde.
In each setting, whether it is a logging camp on the upper reaches of the Union River or the streets of Rome during Carnival, the reader feels fully immersed and part of that particular place and time.
“I was really picky about details,” said Goodrich, who said she read books, consulted diaries and traveled to the places she wrote about to make sure it all felt authentic. Dialogue between characters is imagined, she wrote in the afterword, but her book “is a fiction based on ten thousand facts.”
Goodrich’s June appearance at the Ellsworth library is fitting, as it was Nixon who bought and gifted the Seth Tisdale house to the city in 1897 for use as a library. Tisdale was a carpenter, contractor and builder (he is believed to have built Woodlawn) and owned one of the shipyards in town in the 1800s.
Historians believe the tarring and feathering of Bapst took place at Tisdale’s shipyard, and he was among those in town who opposed the priest’s presence and practices.
Central to Nixon’s story are two great loves of his life: Frank Crowninshield, a Boston blueblood, and later, after Frank’s death, Charles Brooks Pitman. As a gay man in the 19th century, Goodrich said Nixon had “no template” for how to live his life, but that he found a way to do so and was successful at it, even if it wasn’t always easy.
Researching and writing the novel took Goodrich a decade. In getting to know Nixon, she said she became fond of him and was struck by the life that he led.
“I always kind of worried that I’d find out something that made me not like him, but that didn’t happen,” she said. “I like him. I like him a lot.”