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On the trail of folk art in Essex

Legendary collectors set the standard for ideal antiques

Cogswell’s Grant: Nina Little’s office.

HISTORIC NEW ENGLAND

Cogswell’s Grant: Nina Little’s office.

By all counts, Nina Fletcher Little had a great eye and confidence in her taste. In an era when conventional wisdom dictated that Colonial-era colors were unrelentingly drab, she chose a bright and beautiful orange-yellow (she called it persimmon) for the exterior of the 1728 farmhouse that she and her husband, Bertram K. Little, purchased as a summer home in 1937. They named it Cogswell’s Grant after John Cogswell, recipient of the original 1636 land grant.

The Brookline-based couple were pioneer folk art collectors and filled their farmhouse with objects that delighted and fascinated them: wonderful painted furniture, unusual rocking chairs, hooked rugs, redware pottery, painted portraits, land- and seascapes, decoys, and lots of boxes. (Nina Little even wrote a book about boxes titled “Neat & Tidy.”)

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The Littles spent more than 50 summers at Cogswell’s Grant and never treated their home as a museum (an old Zenith TV with antenna balances on a wooden table in the sitting room). But that’s more or less what it became after their deaths in 1993. It’s now a property of Historic New England, offering visitors an unusual opportunity to see a world-class collection just as its owners arranged it and lived with it.

Collectors make pilgrimages to the farmhouse, and they must itch to turn over the pieces (strictly forbidden) and search for Nina Little’s famous jelly jar labels. We visit occasionally to appreciate the casual way that the Littles lived with their collection — and in hopes that some of their unerring taste and sophisticated sense of style might rub off on us.

“In an era when most people were only interested in high-end antiques, they wanted to know how everyday people lived,” guide Jean Gerstenhaber told us on a recent visit. “What would be in a farmhouse like this?”

The Littles were dedicated researchers and did much of their collecting right in their backyard of Essex County. “When word got out that they were interested in ‘old stuff’ local people began to contact them,” said Gerstenhaber. We bet that the Littles spent many happy hours combing through the contents of old barns and attics. One of their notable acquisitions was a desk that had been purchased in 1786 by a Revolutionary War veteran. He paid $40. But the Littles also once bought a whole pile of stuff from an attic (“300 years of family history piling up,” Gerstenhaber called it) so that they could put it in their attic.

The Littles are no longer on the prowl and, Gerstenhaber noted, all the great folk art is now in private collections. But Essex remains interested in “old stuff.” A flier published jointly by the local merchants group and chamber of commerce proclaims the town as “America’s Antiques Capital” and offers a list of about 35 shops to prove the point. Most of them line a roughly half-mile stretch of Main Street not far from Cogswell’s Grant. Hoping that the spirit of the Littles would smile upon us, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in search of something wonderful, if not exactly museum-worthy.

Old chests and trunks from Main Street Antiques are displayed in the parking lot.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Old chests and trunks from Main Street Antiques are displayed in the parking lot.

To best approximate the thrill of walking into an overstuffed attic, we started on the northwest end of town where the merchandise at the White Elephant Shop overflows onto the front porch. The shop has been in business since 1952 and is packed with everyday household goods. We rather liked the old Twin Lights soda bottles from Rockport for their local connection and old-fashioned graphic painted labels. But we don’t have a whole house to fill and couldn’t figure out a good use for the bottles.

What we could use is storage, and we recalled that, in addition to boxes, the Littles were partial to painted furniture, including chests. Next door at Main Street Antiques the merchandise spills out onto the parking lot. We were drawn to a pine blanket chest with nicely worn red paint (the Littles liked pieces that showed wear). Indoors, we found a display of pottery tucked in a corner. A lamp base that looked to our untrained eyes like redware reminded us of several similar lamps at Cogswell’s Grant. We examined an old bean pot and a pretty milk pitcher. They were nice, but didn’t measure up to the artful display of redware in a beautiful hutch in the Littles’ dining room.

Duck decoys are among the offerings at Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques in Essex.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Duck decoys are among the offerings at Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques in Essex.

If we had been in the market for a hutch — and not fussy about age — we would have hit pay dirt at Bider’s. Michael Bider devotes a corner of his shop to new furniture made in the farmhouse style. “They’re made by an old guy in Canada from rough-cut wood,” he said of the handsome jelly cupboards with red or green distressed finishes. We were hard-pressed to tell the difference between the carefully made and carefully identified new pieces and the truly old blanket chest that sat nearby. That’s where research comes in — and the Littles had us beat on that front. We do think, however, that Nina Little might have liked the graduated set of Shaker-style boxes piled on top of one of the cupboards.

When the Littles restored their farmhouse, they engaged artisans to re-create period-appropriate paint finishes. So they would have been intrigued by the faux-painted wooden floors at Margaret Doyle Antiques. Doyle, a lawyer, and her investment banker husband opened the shop as their retirement business. We had noticed a few old game boards at Cogswell’s Grant and zeroed in on Doyle’s boxed “summer house set of games,” a charming little collection that conjured up rainy afternoons. “I bought it in Vermont 30 years ago,” Doyle said.

A tabletop game set is among the items for sale at Margaret Doyle Antiques in Essex.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

A tabletop game set is among the items for sale at Margaret Doyle Antiques in Essex.

The Littles liked pieces with a good back story — as does Andrew Spindler, proprietor of his eponymous antiques and design shop. Although his eye is as discerning as the Littles, his taste runs to more clean-lined and modern objects. He is, however, a champion of the textiles from Folly Cove Designers. This Gloucester-based collaborative of artisans — mostly women — produced block-printed textiles from 1938 until 1969. Spindler uses his cache of fabric, including the popular “gossip” pattern, to make pillows and frames place mats as art pieces. “There are lots of living people who still remember the collaborative,” he said, noting that the work is becoming increasingly difficult to find. “The key is living with the pieces in some way that is not hurting them.”

We could have chatted with Spindler for hours, but the afternoon was wearing on and we still hadn’t made a purchase. Our last stop was Howard’s Flying Dragon Antiques, where old sports equipment spills out into the barn and garden antiques fill the patio and driveway. Inside, we looked at anonymous portrait photographs, the 20th-century equivalent of the folk art portraits so loved by the Littles. We also found a great cache of duck decoys, many with the previous owners’ names handwritten on the bottom. But we most liked the utilitarian old wooden soda cases with worn paint. Maybe we could use one to store the bottles from the White Elephant?

In the end, we went home empty-handed. It’s hard to measure up to the Littles.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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