How one painting facilitates human connection across generations.
Peter Killeen photo
Sometimes when we view historic works of art, we look at them in reverence and quiet reflection. The painting above is known to have inspired quite the opposite reaction from members of the Johnson family living at the Pownalborough Court House in the mid 19th century.
The landscape had been painted around 1840 by noted American artist Henry Cheever Pratt, who sometimes spent time visiting family at the court house. It depicts the Cross Road, which extended east from the court house to the Common Road and Dresden Mills.
Pratt’s painting took a little good-natured flack for not including a cow or a horse, and it became a running joke in the family that the subject had run away. Family lore tells us that the conversation about the missing animal would inevitably lead to the retelling of a story the Johnson family liked to tell about a time the stage driver was inside the court house delivering mail. Workers who were shingling the roof dropped some old shingles and frightened the stage horses parked out front. The horses bolted and took off over the Cross Road with a woman inside, giving her quite an unexpected adventure! When the horses and stage reached the hill, they slowed down enough for her to jump out safely. Sharing this story over the years was an ongoing source of amusement for the Johnson family!
“How awesome is it that we are enjoying a century-and-a-half joke in same place it was first told? That’s human connection, and we need more of it.”Board Vice President James Tanzer
At some point, this painting was obviously folded up and stored. It has visible fold lines where paint has flecked away. We don’t know when it was pulled out of storage and hung back on the walls of the court house, but it is visible hanging on the wall of the northwest room of the building’s third floor in a photograph taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1936 – about two decades before our organization became stewards of the building.
This fall we are working on a plan to restore this painting so that it can continue to represent the connection with Henry Cheever Pratt, document the historic Cross Road, and remind us not to forget that for many years this building was a family home filled with laughter and silly family stories.
You’ll hear more about this exciting restoration project in 2024!
Historic American Buildings Survey, Pownalborough Court House, Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/me0080.
Pratt’s landscape is visible to the far right in this Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) image from the 1930s.