Review of ‘Oddity Odyssey: A Journey Through New England’s Colorful Past’

Oddity Odyssey: A Journey Through New England's Colorful Past
James Chenoweth
Owl/Henry Holt

Somewhere along Route 8 in Cheshire, Massachusetts, stands the only monument in the world dedicated to an enormous piece of Presidential cheese. "Back in 1801," James Chenoweth tells us in his quirky travelogue Oddity Odyssey, "Baptist minister John Leland persuaded local farmers to contribute one day's milk toward making a colossal cheese for President Thomas Jefferson. On the appointed day, farmers came from miles around with donations collected from nine hundred cows. No cheese press was large enough to handle all the curds, so they used a reinforced cider press, but even that wasn't enough. The main cheese wheel was as big as a bass drum and weighed 1,450 pounds, while three smaller cheeses weighed 70 pounds each. The giant cheese was pressed for a whole month, then carefully removed from the press and ripened for many weeks in a cheese house. It had to be turned over daily without cracking it. After being safely transported by land and water, it arrived at the White House in a cart drawn by six horses and bearing a sign: THE GREATEST CHEESE IN AMERICA FOR THE GREATEST MAN IN AMERICA. When it was presented to him on New Year's Day, 1802, in the East Room of the White House, President Jefferson quipped that the cows must have all been Republicans and gave Leland two hundred dollars rather than accept a gift from poor farmers. As he cut the first slice, the president said, 'I will cause this auspicious event to be placed on the records of our nation and it will ever shine amid its glorious archives.' The cheese continued to be served at the White House for the next three years."

The anecdote is one of dozens sprinkled throughout Chenoweth's informative and highly eccentric guidebook. Oddity Odyssey offers an agreeably offbeat tour through the New England states, chronicling historical curiosities, architectural wonders and colorful personalities of the past. Among the more notable figures encountered is Dr. John Wilson, who, having designed in 1823 what Chenoweth describes as the only round schoolhouse in America, later proved to be a notorious outlaw known as "Captain Thunderbolt." (That legendary highwayman had roamed the Irish countryside and the Scottish-English border for nearly a decade, beginning around 1810. There, he "robbed from the rich, gave to the poor . . . and became the toast of the little people.") Equally memorable is William "Snowflake" Bentley, who labored for years in his frigid Vermont workroom to produce some 5,300 photographs of individual snowflakes -- leading him to conclude that no two were alike.

Over the course of 158 pages, Chenoweth balances these historical nuggets with present-day oddities such as the record-breaking 4,817 jack-o'-lanterns assembled in 1993 for the annual Harvest Festival in Keene, New Hampshire. The author does his best to offer practical travel advice, but most readers will be far more interested in Chenoweth's outlandish collection of stories from the distant past, like that of a strapping farm girl named Deborah Sampson, who, Chenoweth says, became the first female soldier in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. "Stirred by hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud, Deborah passed herself off as a man and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment under the name of 'Robert Shurtleff,'" Chenoweth recounts. "Her rigorous farm chores had given her the strength to carry her firearm, bayonet, hatchet, cartridge box, buckshot and leaden balls, flint and powder, jackknife, canteen, haversack, and blanket. Legend has it that Deborah was at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered. That is not true, but she did take part in several military battles and was wounded during one at Tarrytown, suffering a saber slash in the head and at least one bullet, perhaps two, in her thigh. Desperate to avoid medical examination that would reveal she was a woman, Deborah focused the surgeon's attention on her head wound and secretly extracted the bullet or bullets in her thigh by herself. It wasn't until several months later, during action at Philadelphia, that Deborah's secret was discovered when she came down with typhoid fever. While she was unconscious, a startled doctor unveiled her bound breasts. He kept her secret while she recovered, butinsisted that General Washington be told. She received an honorable discharge in 1783 but without the usual soldier's pension. Paul Revere aided her in securing a small pension and some back pay."

For the most part, the well-chosen anecdotes will leave the reader wanting more, as in the case of Boston's mysterious "Flying man," who apparently took flight from the steeple of the city's Old North Church on two occasions -- both in 1757. The means by which he accomplished this remarkable feat are not specified in the newspapers of the day, but a plaque in the churchyard records the event: "Here on September 13, 1757, John Childs who had given public notice of his intention to fly from the steeple of Dr. Cutler's church performed it to the satisfaction of a great number of spectators."

Chenoweth, too, has performed his task in a manner likely to bring satisfaction to a great number of spectators.

Daniel Stashower is a freelance writer who is based in Washington, D.C.

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