Someone once told Phyllis, “I think you’ve got a crush on Thomas Jefferson.” She replied, “I know I have, I think about him all the time.”
For Phyllis Price, 87, history is like an unfolding play, something interactive and experiential. The drama is real, the historical voices have their own timbre. Even her own history is told like a play. Her introduction to the mansion was nearly 50 years ago, decades before it was recognized as one of Portland’s finest historical gems. Phyllis visited the mansion in the summer of 1967 and was met at the door by Elizabeth Nickel, a tiny, old-fashioned woman who was working to save the house from ruin. She hesitantly charged Phyllis a 50-cent piece for the tour. By the end, she was begging Phyllis to stay and become a guide.
HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED WORKING AT THE MANSION?
The furniture and the atmosphere. It’s all changed. Like having a roof put on. When I first came here, when it rained the water ran down the walls. In the reception room we had a big roll of canvas, a long roll, and we had to set it up so the water ran into it. The water wasn’t gushing down but it was a steady stream of water coming down all the time because there were too many holes in the roof and there was no way to fix it until they got the money to do it. And then someone died, and his wife died, and they left money in their will to have the roof done.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO SIT ON THE FURNITURE AND USE THE DISHES THE WAY YOU DID IN THE OLD DAYS?
We had teacups for a while in the summertime. We had food on a weekend day in June, July and August. They would have a little tea for the guides. You had, on the dining room table, the tea on one end and the coffee on the other end. So you had tea and coffee and they did use the china cups but you had to stay in one spot to eat because otherwise people would spill. Then we’d come out into the hall where they had laid down a rubber rug because the rug was in such poor condition that rug would cover it up. There was a man that lived here who put up chairs for all of us and we’d sit there and listen to a speaker. It might be somebody reciting poetry, or someone might sing us something. We had entertainment. It lasted about an hour. You always had to watch them all the time because a lot of people would come in and not put the money in the silver tea pot. I can hear one of the women now: She sat on the stairs and said, “Right ladies, come on, put the money in the bowl. This is a silver tea you know.” She was very nice but she was one of these “get up and go” types.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE ROOM IN THE MANSION?
I like the dining room the best. I like the dishes and I like the story of it, where the dishes came from, and how they used them, what they use for the soups and the various things like that. And the celery. In those days people didn’t get celery, it was luxury item. A lot of people that were invited here might have been people that didn’t have too much money and they’d come here and sit down to this lovely luncheon, or a regular meal, and all of a sudden somebody would see the celery and they’d say, “They’ve got celery, that means they’ve got money. See that celery?” Back then, you couldn’t go to the store and buy it. So you didn’t just take the stalk and break off a piece and chomp away on it. A woman of the house would kind of wait until everybody sat down and getting ready to serve now and she’d begin the celery first. It was this lovely display of celery, it looks like a little plant, it was the whole stalk of celery so it looks like a blooming thing and then you set it there and I suppose after you’ve admired the celery because you’ve never eaten it, after a while I suppose they’d break it off and eat because they had little salt dishes by their plates.
WHAT DO YOU APPRECIATE MOST ABOUT HISTORY?
We have good authors now that write well and they write truthfully, they don’t exaggerate. So if you want to know anything, you get a good book by an author that you know does the job well and you know it’s right.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU’RE INTERESTED IN HISTORY?
I don’t know, I just am! I know in the 6th grade, we had a lovely teacher who was also the principal. Those were the days when teachers were really good, they knew what they were doing, and you learned. I can see her now, I’m in the fourth chair back, second row in, and she’s talking to us about history. Sometimes they’d pick up pictures for you to look at so you can see what the Mona Lisa looked like and she’d tell you a little story about it. She started talking about the Rosetta Stone, and I’m looking at it, and they found the Rosetta Stone way, way back. My family wasn’t into things like that. My father liked western magazines, my mother liked poetry and cookbooks and that was about it. So she told us how they found the stone, there was three languages on that, languages that we don’t use now. I remember coming home, I was amazed by it, I wished I could have been the one to find it. So I came home and told my mother about it, she said, “That’s nice, dear.” She didn’t know a thing about it, had no interest in it whatsoever, I can always remember that. I’ve always liked history.
WHAT ERA OF YOUR OWN HISTORY DID YOU ENJOY THE MOST?
I don’t know. I liked the time I was in the Girl Scouts. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any sisters, I had five brothers. Of course some of the scouts were older than me, older people, they weren’t kids. I don’t know if that’s it or not but I liked being in the Girl Scouts. I liked my childhood growing up. I worked in the summer and when it was time to go to school, after school, then I got a job on Saturdays.
WHAT DO YOU THINK PEOPLE COULD LEARN FROM HISTORY?
So much I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my head. We could find out, really, what things were way, way back. People would know how to conduct themselves in a manner that’s respectful and also find out things that happened before that are happening again now. They learn something from history – that often the same thing repeats itself. Of course, as they got to be adults, something that’s repeating itself there must be a flaw there somewhere that perhaps some other people could see through that.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE?
I don’t know, just to keep doing the things I want to do and try to keep doing the best you can to keep yourself happy. Eat well, sleep well and help those that need help. You don’t want to just sit back and say “Oh dear.” You’ve got to do something you can do. I make mittens for kids whose hands are cold who are here from places like Africa. You have to do little things to help people, don’t wait. Don’t stand around saying you wish you’d done something. Do it while you’re alive. When they’re gone it’s too late.
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE?
If there’s something you want to do bad enough you can find a way to do it. You have to not sit around and talk about it, if you really want to do it, find a way. Read books, check into the library and find out what you can do. If there’s some way I get to see them, I’d love to be around when space people land in the back yard. I’d be thrilled to death. A lot of people say “I’d be petrified!” There’s no point in being petrified until the day they come and he’s got three heads and a gun on his arm. I’d get a little bit nervous then, but not petrified. I’d set out my good china and invite them for a meal! I’ve got over 200 bone china cups and saucers and eight of them have matching plates, and I have seven sets of china. I’d make sure I had my good tablecloths on the table for the space people.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?
I don’t know, having a good family I guess. I live with my brother. We get along great. They say the doctors want to meet me because we all get along so well! We do things together, when he needs help I’m there and when I need help he’s there. We’re down to two of us, the other siblings and family have all died, some married and some didn’t. The parents died, they got old and finally died, my mother lived longer and finally in the end her health was gone.
I decided I had to choose to buy a car or a house. I couldn’t make up my mind so I took a glass jar, I had 37 cents to my name, I put money in that jar over time. Forty-something years later I bought a house with that money. I started with 37 cents and when I got working full-time with computers at Unum, you could buy a bond a month if you liked, so I’d buy a bond a month and put them in the bank and I never cashed them or anything. So when I went to buy the house, I got a lot of interest and the girl added it all up and said, “How did you do that?” You never know what will happen. You can’t wait so you’ve got to do the best you can. So we had two cars, the two boys had cars, each had a car, three of us and two cars so I figured I won’t need another car so I bought the house instead.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Being more outgoing, I guess. Although people tell me I am and I get so many compliments at the Victoria Mansion. Last Monday a man said “God, I’d give anything, you can’t go upstairs, we could take a tour because you’re so knowledgeable!” and I said “No, I have to be down here.”
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Just keep going, do the best you can at the time, that’s all. You never want to sit moaning and groaning, “What time is that, is it time to eat?” That’s not me, I’m never one to just sit and be idle.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Well, doing something I like doing. Like right now I’m raking leaves. Oh my word! We really have tons of them, we have 12 pine trees and two big maple trees. The ground’s like it’s all rusty leaves. I rake them for four or five hours at a time, I like doing that work, I like doing it, fill all these bags and boxes, take them to the recycle place and come back and start all over again. So with that rain we had last night there was a mess of leaves coming down.
DO YOU MIND IF I ASK HOW OLD YOU ARE?
Oh no, no, no, I’m not one of those shy things. 87. I was born in 1927. Some people say, “You shouldn’t ask a lady’s age.” All you have to do is look at someone. When I look at you, I know you’re not 12 years old anymore, so anybody can tell your age. Some people’s age shows more and I just figured be grateful you’re here so long, somebody else is only here 18 years and so we’re lucky that we can stay longer. You just don’t know what your life’s going to be.