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Poet remembers years spent in Marshfield's Red House

Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-in House, By Sarah Messer Viking, 390 pp., illustrated, $23.95

"Before the highway, the oil slick, the outfall pipe; before the blizzard..." and so on, down through time "before the tidal wave broke the river's mouth, salting the cedar forest," and time "before hayfield, ferry, oyster bed," and then time "before the shipyards and the mills, the nineteen barns burned in the Indian raid."

"Even then," writes Sarah Messer in this evocative story of a house that has stood in Marshfield from 1647 to the present, "the Hatches had already built the Red House."

Messer is a poet, teaching at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, with an obvious flair for historical investigation. She grew up in the Red House which the Hatches had built and had lived in for nine generations over some 320 years, and which her parents had bought in 1965, the year before her birth.

"Red House" is her account of the Hatches' house as it becomes the Messers', an account as lyrical as poetry, as specific as history.

Messer explains why the Red House is red. Because it was the cheapest of pigments, red was traditionally used as a primer, under more expensive pigments such as white. The Red House, she writes, "was left red, primed year after year in anticipation of a windfall, a wash of white that would never arrive."

For three centuries, Hatches were farmers and millworkers, the house passing from generation to generation until it was put up for sale by Richard Warren Hatch, then 67, a novelist who had taught at Deerfield Academy and lectured at MIT -- and whose "Curious Lobster" stories would charm the Messer children.

Ronald Messer was a radiologist, newly remarried, looking, his daughter writes, "for a piece of history different from the one his own [Midwest working-class] heritage had provided him."

The Hatch part of the story is told with a freshness that demonstrates Messer's skill at gleaning humanizing vignettes from the pages of family letters, wills, and local histories.

And much of that story came from Hatch. During the weeks before the sale became final, it was "a nightly ritual" for Messer and his wife to join Hatch and his wife for cocktails, then dinner, then to talk about the house as Hatch remembered it from his youth.

After the sale, Messer writes, "objects began to return to the Red House" as Messer would visit Hatch "and Hatch would give him a book, a document, or a piece of furniture, saying, "Take this back to the house." It was, she writes, "as if the house were the rightful owner."

Kim Messer, the author's half-sister from her father's previous marriage, had been with her father the first time he visited the house. A bond with Hatch was formed that evening when he headed her to a likely place to find an arrowhead. It continued over the years as she would visit Hatch in a retirement home on Cape Cod to talk about the history of the house.

And it is Kim, a childhood hero for Sarah, who returns to the house after several free-spirited years to undertake a major restoration in 1996 -- the second, following an earlier one necessitated when the house caught fire in 1971 and was substantially damaged.

"According to Kim, the house was falling apart," Messer writes, and after sending the elder Messers off for the duration, Kim begins what becomes a three-year project aided by her French husband and Sarah.

"I had returned home," Messer writes, "committed to restoring the house into the place I had remembered as a child, the place my father wanted it to be." But when she had been back a few weeks, "It seemed that perhaps I'd been the one fueling a fantasy."

The house "had seemed like a living, vibrant creature," but as Kim and her crew dismantle it, "the house acquired a slightly desperate countenance."

Not only was there a sill so disintegrated that "the wall of boards once attached [to it] was now attached to nothing," but as the restoration project was underway there came a challenge to the dating of the house to the 17th century and its claim as "the oldest continuously lived-in house in New England."

The challenge came with the arrival of a researcher from the Massachusetts Historical Society cataloging "first period houses" -- those built before 1720 -- on the South Shore. All goes well until the researcher informs the Messers that she could not locate a summer beam -- a support beam running from the chimney and regarded as one way to date first-period houses.

And Messer, the radiologist, refuses to allow an X-ray examination of the house that might locate the beam. "Perhaps he was insulted," Messer writes. Or perhaps it was because Hatch had told him the date. And "why," Ronald Messner asks his daughter, "would [Hatch] lie?"

So the Red House stands today, marked by the more forgiving Marshfield Historical Commission, "circa 1646."

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