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Amy Choate-Nielsen: If walls could talk: Family history comes alive at home

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 5:28 p.m. MDT

Long before my family became cowboys in the wild, wild West, the Choates were definitively East Coasters.

We landed in Massachusetts in the 1600s and started buying up land until whole islands bore our name, such as “Choate Island,” which still exists today near Ipswich, Mass. We married often and had many children, and we built houses to hold them.

This is the story of one of those houses.

Way back in 1768, Abraham Choate built a house at 16 Elm St. in Ipswich. It was 4,200 square feet, with ornate woodwork, crown molding and imported glass windows. The 2½-story house was meant to show Abraham’s wealth and take care of his eight children, according to the Ipswich Historical Commission, and it stayed right there on Elm Street for 200 years.

I should probably add that Abraham wasn’t my direct ancestor. My ancestor was Abraham’s uncle, Thomas Choate Jr. I guess Thomas didn’t have as much money, because I’ve never heard anything about his son, my many times over great-great-great grandfather Josiah Choate, building a house that stood for 200 years until the town of Ipswich tried to turn it into a parking lot.

In 1963, on the day a backhoe arrived to raze the property, the Ipswich Historical Society gallantly stepped in and paid the crew chief to hold off while they picked up the phone and called the Smithsonian, according to the Ipswich Historical Commission. And just like that, “the house was dismantled, trucked to Washington and reassembled in the National Museum of American History (to become) the centerpiece of an exhibition on 200 years of American home-building technology,” the Ipswich Historical Commission website says.

I spent a lot of time visiting Smithsonian museums when I was little.

My brother is a history scholar, and my father is an Air Force vet, so we spent our summers in Washington, D.C., exploring every nook and cranny of every museum on every day of our vacations except Sundays. Every year, I looked forward to seeing the Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History, the lunar space module at the Air and Space Museum and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" at the Museum of American History.

But the Choate House was never on my list of favorites.

I didn’t get it.

I remember peering through the blurry windows and looking at the signs, but to me, it just looked like an old wood house. No big deal.

I didn’t know that one of the owners of the home fought against the British during the American Revolution, according to the Smithsonian. And that another resident was an African-American servant who was likely a former slave, and that in the early 1800s, the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society met regularly in the home, according to the Historical Commission and the Smithsonian. The home was later divided into apartments, and subsequent tenants worked in a nearby hosiery mill. Then during World War II, a woman living there worked in a nearby bomb-fuse factory.

“The five families whose stories are told here were not famous, but they remind us that history happens in parlors and kitchens as well as in the halls of Congress,” Coco McCabe wrote in a story about the house for Smithsonian Magazine in 2002. “ ‘It should inspire people to realize the connections between themselves and their home lives and something greater,’ ” McCabe quoted Shelley Nickles, a curator of the exhibit.

After 200 years, the Choate House contains a microcosm of history to which I’m proud to have some connection. In fact, for me, it’s more than that — they were just normal, average people living their lives, but they were my ancestors. They paved the way for me, and now they’ve inspired me about my own house.

In 200 years, who knows what people will say.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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