Story behind rhyme survives fire; Sterling family mourns loss of `Mary Had a Little Lamb' home.
STERLING - Diane T. Melone grew up knowing she was part of the legend of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school.
She is a descendant of Mary Sawyer, about whom the famous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme was written.
Mrs. Melone and her family returned from an out-of-state wedding this weekend to find that the historic house, where Mary Sawyer was born 201 years ago, had burned to the ground early Sunday morning. All that remains is a shed containing a two-seat outhouse and workspace where a relative had drawn plans of the house on linen sometime around the turn of the 19th century.
Fire Lt. Thomas P. Kokenak said yesterday that firefighters could see antiques in the kitchen and main room of the house as it burned, but nothing could be saved. He said the cause of the fire is suspicious, but no trace of accelerant was found in the ashes. No one had lived in the house for many years, and there was no electricity.
Married to A. Rick Melone and the mother of four children, Mrs. Melone raised her family at their Clearview Farm, around the bend from the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" house. She said the house has remained in the family all these years and now is in a family trust.
Wooden replicas of Mary and her lamb, and a 1998 People magazine featuring Mrs. Melone holding a newborn lamb adorn the seasonal Clearview Farm store.
In recent years, as the Mary Sawyer house sat vacant and aging, the Melones held out hope of restoring it so people could see more than the outside. Recently, Mrs. Melone said, the family believed it had found a way to start repairing and restoring the house.
The third of the Melone children, Maryjean Sawyer Melone, whose middle name is after Mary Sawyer, was planning to restore the house, or some part of it, as her master's thesis at New York University, where she is an art student.
"She only left here Thursday," Mrs. Melon said yesterday, adding, "I had to call her and tell her it burned. She cried."
Saying it is too soon to tell whether the house could be rebuilt, Mrs. Melone talked energetically about the possibility. She said the lot the house sat on is too small for a building lot, according to current laws that were not in place when it was built, but that it may be legal to rebuild it on the remaining foundation.
Even without the house, the stories of Mary and her lamb remain, with many versions of the underlying story being told in this country and abroad, Mrs. Melone said.
Having been told the story by relatives, and having been sent and told all kinds of information from academics and other "Mary Had a Little Lamb" enthusiasts, Mrs. Melone believes she knows the true version. But, she said, the fact that the rhyme has survived is what is important, not the precise details of the underlying event.
Part of the story, as Mrs. Melone tells it at speaking engagements and tours of the Clearview Farm, is that Mary was a very young girl living on the Sawyer family farm when two lambs were born. One was abandoned by its mother. Mary asked her father if she could feed it and take care of it, and he agreed reluctantly, because he feared the lamb would die and Mary would be sad.
The lamb became attached to Mary, crying when she left it. One day her younger brother, Nathaniel, urged Mary to take the lamb to school with them. Once there, the lamb lay under Mary's desk and she covered it with a cloak. But when the teacher called Mary to the front of the room, the lamb followed - and the children laughed.
A boy, John Roulstone Jr., whose mother had died, was staying with his uncle, who was a minister in town. Young John, who Mrs. Melone said later attended Harvard and died there of tuberculosis when he was a freshman, was visiting Mary's school when the lamb incident happened.
John wrote a poem about three verses long about Mary and the lamb and gave it to Mary. The verses may have been based on an existing English poem about Lucy and a locket, said Mrs. Melone.
Later, when a New Hampshire publisher, who was a friend of the minister's wife, was publishing a small book of poems, she included the three verses and added three of her own.
In time, the poem/nursery rhyme was included in a grammar school text used by countless schoolchildren, and became famous.
Although she has told the story hundreds, even thousands of times, Mrs. Melone said, she never tired of it because people take such delight in hearing it and discussing the various versions of the tale.
The truth of it all, Mrs. Melone said, is that a lamb following its young caretaker in the Sterling area in the 19th century was probably a common-enough occurrence. The fact that someone wrote about it and the rhyme has survived and become part of Americana is the important and wonderful thing, she said.
CUTLINE: Diane T. Melone said she loves looking back and talking about Mary Sawyer, her ancestor, and the story behind the nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She said she hopes to rebuild Mary Sawyer's house, which burned down Sunday.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN
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|Title Annotation:||LOCAL NEWS|
|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Aug 15, 2007|
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