The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 5, 2006


Carlisle Oral History Project Carlisle's poet laureate: Grace Butler Dutton

Just before National Poetry Month ended in April, the Carlisle Oral History Project interviewed Carlisle's own prolific poet laureate, Grace Butler Dutton. A stylish, friendly woman of 88, she is still writing her poems, often presenting these small treasures to friends and family as unique gifts.

Grace Dutton autographs her book, Poetic Pleasures, at the Congregational Church in December 1999. (Courtesy photo)

The gift of poetry was nurtured by her mother at an early age. "While we were doing housework, my mother would say a line," she recalls, "and asked me to say the next line. And then we had a poem. I believe that got me on the road to writing poetry." Her poem, "I'm Glad," reveals why she writes:

Sometimes I get lonely
Sometimes I get sad
But I won't let it last
I get out my old pad
And think up a poem
That is funny or not
And I scribble away
Till I've thoroughly forgot
Of being sad or lonely, you see.
'Cause my writing has absorbed
All the sadness from me.

Mrs. Dutton's poems are published in two volumes. Poetic Pleasures (1999) and Reflections of Grace (2002). There are over 200 poems in these pages on a huge variety of subjects — religion, nature, holidays, the Council on Aging, cats, dogs, gardens, chickens, baking a cake, raspberries — and even the outhouse. She has illustrated the pages with her own sketches. "They aren't much," she says modestly, but they add charm to the poetic pages. Her wide circle of family and friends have received poems for special occasions, and being the gracious lady she is, she has written poems of appreciation to Lucy, her hairdresser; to friends who supported her when she was hospitalized; and Keith Greer, pastor of the Carlisle Congregational Church.

The church has been at the center of Mrs. Dutton's life ever since she was a child. She wrote:
There's a church that I love
In a town rather small
Tucked away in a nook on a hill,
And my heart often goes
In my dreams to that spot
And my soul with God's blessings
Is filled.

In her younger days, she was an active member of the church's Christian Endeavor group; its Ever-ready Club, serving as its president and secretary; and was a member of the 60+ Club before the Council on Aging was formed. She attends church every Sunday.

Growing up poor in Carlisle

Grace Butler was born in Needham on September 2, 1917. With her parents and two younger brothers, young Grace moved to a farm on Concord Street in Carlisle in 1924. The house is no longer standing, but it was near the corner of Russell Street. She started first grade at the Highland School: "I rode to school in a barge, so called," she remembers. "The roads were full of ruts from the mud and rain. Sometimes we got stuck and had to walk the rest of the way to school. Often my feet would be wet and the teachers would dry my socks on the radiators. We were very poor," she says. "I never owned a pair of rubbers or boots. We got our shoes from the Salvation Army, and Mom made most of our clothes."

Living in Carlisle in the 1920s and '30s was difficult for a poor family. "My dad was a landscape gardener and worked for a Bedford nursery [now New England Nurseries]. It was a seasonal job and winters he worked for the town." Mrs. Dutton recalls severe winters with heavy blizzards and Carlisle roads being kept open by crews of men with snow shovels.

In a pond behind the Butlers' house, "Mom washed our clothes on a wooden pier that Dad built out into the water. She had an old tin tub on a wooden bench, a scrub board, old brown homemade soap that she made herself, and it was an all-day job on Monday — yet my brothers and I wore the cleanest, neatest, whitest clothes of anyone we knew." She admits that life was hard in those days, but believes that families "were a whole lot closer, doing things together then."

The Carlisle of that time would be unrecognizable to today's affluent, two-car families in high-priced homes. "Carlisle was quite a small town," she recalls, "200 or 300 families here then. Everyone knew everyone else. Neighbors were real friendly. If you ran out of milk or sugar, you could run into a friendly neighbor's house and borrow and return it later on. Maybe you would stay for a cup of tea. They were friendly years."

For Grace Butler, they were happy years, filled with skating parties on the pond, Halloween parties, Christmas caroling and baseball games. Her father, Roy W. Butler, played clarinet in the Concord Legion Band and in the old Carlisle Band. "I remember going to the practice sessions with dad, just to listen," she says. Her two brothers also played in the Legion Band.

Picking berries for money

All the Butlers earned whatever money they could. In the summers Grace and her brothers picked strawberries "at one farm or another from sunup until sundown," and picked wild blueberries in what was called Dutton's pasture on Indian Hill near Robbins Drive. Her mother had a roadside stand, where she sold fudge, cookies, soda pop, and "luscious home-made pies. She was one of the world's best pie-makers."

Grace helped Mrs. Dutton, who later became her mother-in-law, shell peas or snap beans to can, for 10 cents an hour. Her brothers worked in the fields leading the horse, as Mr. Dutton made the furrows to plant seeds in; they also earned 10 cents an hour. The Depression was the hardest of all with shortages and little or no work. "We made do all the time," Grace reports. "One winter we were so poor that we ate turnips from the Dutton farm for every meal, sometimes even raw when cooking oil was scarce." Neighbors helped out, like "Granny Mac" (Mrs. MacAllister) who brought the Butlers raw milk, and the Duttons who also gave them milk and vegetables from their gardens. As deprived as the family was, Mrs. Butler always fed the hungry beggars and tramps who drifted through Carlisle.

The summer before Grace started high school, she worked "every way I could — I babysat, did housework, picked berries, and all the money I earned I would put in a jar and bury it in a hole out back in the woods. I knew I wanted store-bought clothes for high school and I hid the money because I was afraid I would have to help pay for food, etc."

Warren and Grace Dutton in February 1982. (Courtesy photo)

Her "one true love"

The "one true love" of Grace Butler's life, Warren Dutton, was someone she had always known as a neighbor. She confesses that, "as a very young girl, I had a crush on Warren, but he didn't see me then for dust." Later, when she was about 14, Grace and Warren played baseball together in the summer, and they would walk home together. He was four years older than she and had a Model A Ford. They began dating on weekends. "The first time I went out with him to a movie, I asked a girlfriend to come along too. Warren said okay. We came straight home after the show was over. The next date I went alone with Warren." Both Grace and Warren were very active in church affairs — "we were both popular young folks," she admits. Church socials, picnics, plays, suppers and Sunday School were at the center of their lives.

Just after Grace Butler graduated from Concord High School in June 1936, she and Warren Dutton were married on July 20 at a candlelight service at the Congregational Church.

The Hurricane of '38

Their first home was on Bedford Road across from the library, in librarian Mary Green's house. The Duttons moved to an upstairs apartment at the Dutton farm on Russell Street, where Mrs. Dutton remembers vividly the Hurricane of 1938 — she had just had the couple's first child, Vivian. "The hurricane blew out ten windows in the apartment, and some glass fell on the baby's cradle. Fortunately, her blanket protected her and we went downstairs with the baby until the hurricane was over." After seven years on Russell Street, the Duttons moved to South Street in Carlisle, where Mrs. Dutton still lives. She has captured the house in her poem, "Little House:"

Little house beside the road
though many pass you by
You hold the memories and love
of family till you die. . . .
Your roof has sheltered many a head
in time of dark and storm.
Your windows look out at the world
while you keep your family warm.

Three more babies would follow — Dale, David and Ruth. The children followed in their parents' footsteps, attending the Highland School and Concord High School. Today they live in various Massachusetts towns, and Mrs. Dutton has six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren, with number eight due in October. Each addition to the family has been celebrated with a special poem.

Throughout her married life, in addition to raising her four children, Mrs. Dutton has held a variety of jobs. She sold Avon products, served at teas at the Middlesex School, was the Carlisle reporter for the Lowell Sun, and worked in the Spalding Cafeteria, which in the 1960s served the first school lunches in Carlisle. Part of her tribute to the Spalding Cafeteria reads:

We baked, we cooked, we measured
We washed, we scrubbed, we cleaned.
We kept the kitchen spotless, and
How the silver gleamed.
We were the first group hired
We cooked the first hot lunch
We were very happy to feed
That hungry bunch.

She also was PTA secretary, taught "little kids to sew on buttons" in 4H, and won several ribbons at the Grange Fair for her canned fruits and vegetables.

Carrying on

Warren Dutton died on May 30, 1986, just before their 50th wedding anniversary. As the youngest Dutton boy, he had worked on the Russell Street farm until his father died, and then worked in maintenance at the Middlesex School, where he "ran the Zamboni and took care of the lawns." His raspberry patch on South Street was the envy of his neighbors, and yes, there is a poem called "Our Raspberry Patch.". All through July, the Duttons sold raspberries at their roadside stand.

Some of Mrs. Dutton's most tender and poignant poems are dedicated to her husband. In "Misty Dreams," she writes:

My dreams are with me in the dark of night
I see him, brave and happy in his new home
The bewitching smile on his face
And arms outstretched for me alone.

Mrs. Dutton's positive attitude toward a life filled with happiness, struggle and loss permeates her poetry. Love of God and family sustain her, and she doesn't let adversity get her down. Through her poems, she reminds her readers to appreciate all the wonders of the earth and encourages them to "pick yourself up" and "carry on" when life turns sour.

Mrs. Dutton's pen still flows with poems, and although she has enough new ones for another book, there are no publishing plans as yet. She closes her poem "My Gift" with these lines:

I have listened and scribbled the words as they run
Off from the tip of my pen.
I keep paper handy, as when they gush forth
There is no stopping writing them then.
Her gift of poetry inspires this quatrain from an admirer:
Carlisle's a town of many treasures
The Bog, the library, the woods
The greatest of these, beyond measure
Is our incomparable poet of grace.

What Do We Get for Our Taxes?

Our taxes keep rising higher
And higher and higher they go
Just what do we get for our taxes?
Does anyone seem to know?

We do not get sprayed for bug control
The bugs are growing healthy and fat
We have to pay for trash pickups
Our taxes don't pay for that.

Our roads are in need of much work done
We do not have town water, it's true
So what do we get for our taxes?
Will someone please tell me, please do.

I am glad that we do have good schooling
Our library really is swell
But, what else do we get for our taxes?
But additional taxes as well.

This poem was written many years ago by Grace Butler Dutton as "just a spoof." She wrote, "We huff and we puff over our taxes, but looking at it in another way, taxes are a small price to pay to be an American."

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito