“I remember when I was born.”
So begins Pearl S. Buck’s book “My Mother’s House” – an ode to the home that is now known as the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum.
About Buck’s statement, head tour guide Phyllis Lubin-Tyler said, “I wouldn’t put it past her.”
To know Pearl Buck is to know her life prior to fame. That is the goal of Lubin-Tyler and all the tour guides at the Birthplace. As guests are led through the house, they learn, not just about Buck, but about her family and the way of life in Pocahontas County in the 1800s.
“Her family started as tradesmen in Holland,” Lubin-Tyler said. “Blacksmiths, silversmiths, clockmakers, furniture makers. They were educators. They were in agriculture, farmers. Pearl writes about that. That’s an important part of the history here.”
The family brought their trades with them to America and used their knowledge to build the house around 1875.
“The bricks were kilned on the property outside,” Lubin-Tyler said. “The lumber comes from the woods here. The rock is quarried from the area. So this is the house they built. They wanted it to look like the one they had in Holland, but not to show off.”
The house is large – three stories with the underground cellar, kitchen and dining room. It may have seemed extravagant, but it was home to more than one family.
“This housed many families,” Lubin-Tyler said. “It wasn’t just Mom and Dad, and a couple of kids. It was brothers, sisters, aunts, relatives. This was the family community, and they had visitors come and stay here. You had your educators, the politicians and big church groups coming in and being entertained.”
Although Buck didn’t spend a lot of time at the house, she still considered it home. When she came to Hillsboro, she was “coming home.” It was important to her because it was her mother’s house, and she always envisioned it becoming a museum.
“In ‘My Mother’s House,’ Buck wrote: ‘If it [the house] ever lives agains, and God grant it may for my Mother’s memory, I hope it will live a new life, not for myself or for my family, but for people. I would like it to belong to everyone who cares to go there. From that home has come so much life – that it ought never to die or fall into ruin. For my ancestors, it provided shelter and home in a new land, a house where they lived their new lives with traditional dignity… For my mother, it provided a home, living forever in her thought and memory, though she made dwelling places in a far country. For me it is a living heart in the country I knew was my own but which was strange to me until I returned to the house where I was born. For me that house was a gateway to America. May it live again, my Mother’s house, and may it prove for others, too, a gateway to new thoughts and dreams and ways of life.’”
To honor Buck’s wishes, the Birthplace Foundation has turned the house into a museum and recently, Lubin-Tyler redesigned each room to better tell the story of Pearl and her family.
“We get a little bit more into it rather than ‘this is the furniture,’ that kind of thing,” Lubin-Tyler said. “It’s not just about the furniture. Pearl was about encouraging people. You don’t have to be white collar and work behind a desk. Take a trade, learn something well, make something of that because everybody has a talent. She said, ‘all human beings should be honored.’”
The first floor of the house is a way to honor Pearl’s family as a whole. The first room visited is a sitting room where visitors learn about Pearl’s parents – Caroline Stulting and Absalom Sydenstricker.
The next room – the library and music room – is a reminder of the talents of Pearl and her family. The children were home-schooled at the desk stationed in one corner, and Caroline played the Mason and Hamlin organ located in another corner.
“[Caroline’s] brother, Cornelius, made sure his sister was taken care of in China and sent a Mason and Hamlin just like that to China so she could properly play and sing hymns. She was a soprano singer.”
Education was important to Caroline and it showed in the efforts of her children. Pearl’s brother, Edgar Sydenstricker, whose degrees and distinguished awards are on display in the library, influenced the medical field in many ways.
“Who would have known that her eldest brother who witnessed his brother and sisters dying of diseases and all that – he studied Latin, biology – he had six majors, five minors,” Lubin-Tyler said. “He would go into philosophy, just like Pearl. He was given an accommodation by President Wood-row Wilson for his work in beginnings of our public health system and the World Health Organization and the Social Security Act.”
In the back of the house on the first floor is Pearl’s grandfather’s room. He was a clockmaker and a great storyteller. To set the scene, Lubin-Tyler has visitors imagine the young Pearl walking into a room echoing with the sound of clocks ticking away.
“She remembers at nine years old coming in here and hearing all the clocks ticking and the watches as he was working on them,” Lubin-Tyler said.
Also on the first floor is a new gift shop, formerly housed in the cellar. Now, visitors enter a bookstore type area where they can buy copies of Pearl’s books, Good Earth Tea and locally made maple syrup.
“The root cellar is a root cellar,” Lubin-Tyler said. “It does not work with being a bookstore. It’s something very new here. It’s a place where people can come in and browse, and learn about her books.”
While the first floor is dedicated to family, the second floor is all about Pearl. The four rooms are dedicated to different parts of her life – birth, childhood, young adulthood and her life in China.
In the room of her childhood, dolls and a spinning wheel are displayed among the beds. Lubin-Tyler explained how Pearl spent her childhood in the house.
“We talk about Pearl at nine years old and how she felt at nine,” Lubin-Tyler said. “What did she do in this room? You’re experiencing it.”
One item – the spinning wheel – has an interesting connection to Pearl’s inspiration, Charles Dickens.
“This one particularly,” Lubin-Tyler said of the wheel. “I looked it up in history and found out that this piece is a weasel and it measures the yarn after it’s spun on the walking wheel. You know the song, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel?’ It was originally a British song and guess who it’s about? Charles Dickens.”
The room happens to be next to the porch where Pearl sat and read her Charles Dickens’ books, dreaming of the day she, too, would become an author.
The next room on the tour leads into Pearl’s adult life. Fashions from America and China hang on the walls and several of Pearl’s early works are on display next to a photo of her receiving a Nobel Prize.
The final room transports visitors to a different country. Brightly colored banners, umbrellas and artifacts from Pearl’s life in China fill the room with a sense of her second home.
“Why not tell of her life in China with the Chinese things?” Lubin-Tyler said. “It all brings it together. I’m able to talk about them and the life she had.”
The final stage of the tour leads to the cellar, kitchen and dining room.
A section of the cellar originally closed to the public is now open and shows how the family stored food and kitchen items, leaving more space in the dining room for a fully set table and the pie safe.
The table is set with china Carolina chose to remind them of Holland, and napkins she embroidered for her son’s wedding anniversary.
“People can really feel it,” Lubin-Tyler said. “There are all original pieces here. The pie safe now becomes meaningful. It displays the beautiful China. It’s one thing to see a photograph but to see it and then experience the story of it, that’s what we’re trying to draw.”
The former gift shop in the cellar is now an exhibition room, filled with items inspired by Pearl and the Birthplace. A miniature replica of the house sits on a table under kites and costumes from the “My Mother’s House,” play which was performed at the grand opening of the museum in 1974.
Shelves are lined with photographs and other memorabilia to add to the experience.
By the end of the tour, visitors will have a better understanding of who Pearl was, what her family was like and what life was like in Pocahontas County in the 1800s.
“Pearl saw this house as her Gateway to America and now, we’re looking at this and, in my mind, this is the gateway to learning who Pearl is,” Lubin-Tyler said. “Discover her here because her life will take you around the world.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org