Frank’s Kitchen

Frank Upton’s gone now, along with his kitchen.  But, it wasn’t long ago that Barry often went down the road to Frank’s farmhouse to sit around his kitchen table.  As Frank got older, Barry said that he was just checking up on the old man who then lived alone, but there was clearly something more.  Something that not only enticed Barry, but enticed a host of friends and neighbors to gather around Frank’s scruffy old drop-leaf table.

And, it certainly wasn’t the smell of the kerosene pot burner or yesterday’s fried liver (Frank liked it well done).  Nor was it the stale and overflowing ashtray hand-crafted by his good friend Boo Doore from Harrisville, or the spare floatplane propeller propped up in the corner, or even the Remington pump-action deer rifle that hung in the spider webs over the kitchen window, under which a toaster fire had once charred its butt end.  And it probably wasn’t the wind that howled off the lake through the north end of the house, often accompanied by mini-drifts of snow blowing into the kitchen.

“What it was,” Barry says, “was that the kitchen door was always open – that old door scratched by generations of dogs – it was always open and everybody was welcomed in by Frank.

Mismatched mugs, chipped cups and tarnished spoons (even some sterling silver ones whose worn family monograms spoke of times past) were scattered among the paper clutter and the jar of instant coffee – perhaps a metaphor for the people often sitting around Frank’s kitchen table – some as mismatched and chipped as the mugs.  That was the allure.  You never knew who was going to be there.  And there was always somebody there – an impressive cross-section of humanity.

Perhaps it was yesterday’s social media, but news got passed along around Frank’s table – the good with the bad.  Stories that now make up a large part of our local lore were told (Frank was a master storyteller).  People laughed and cried. This was a true gathering of community vitality where things were shared and ideas were born.  Frank’s kitchen was a “happening” place, where a kind of grassroots democracy thrived.

Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, would have called Frank’s kitchen a “third place”, where people gather and interact beyond the realms of home (1st place) and work (2nd place).  This 20 year-old book spoke of the growing loss of such informal gathering spaces and the community disconnect that has resulted.

In fact, folks at the Nelson Community Forum, held in September 2010, understood Oldenburg’s concerns, and shared some of the following thoughts:

“There’s no place to talk about day-to-day happenings”

“We need a place to ‘hang out’”

“There’s little communication around what already exists”

“We need a common place where we can ‘bump into’ others”

This theme repeated itself throughout the Community Forum weekend.  The town is crying out for “third places”.  (Copies of the Forum Final Report are available for download at

While many wonderful “events” exist in Nelson that bring us together – first Tuesday teas, first Thursday potlucks, NELS luncheons, ice cream socials, etc., – many still seem to hunger for spontaneous gathering places in neutral spaces.  Some of us may seek that place in our amazing library, while others may seek that place in one of the general stores in our neighboring towns, where people gather to sit for a cup of coffee, some friendly conversation and community.

Folks at this end of town often seek the community of The Harrisville Store, where we not only ‘bump into’ our Nelson neighbors, but also have a chance to swap news and ideas with our Harrisville neighbors.  The Store is a gem among general stores, and in its own special way, it answers the call of Frank’s kitchen.

When the chairs around Frank’s kitchen table would break down, they were relegated to his no-longer-used front parlor to gather dust.  However, a replacement would somehow emerge (sometimes even an antique Chippendale) from that same abandoned parlor – perhaps another metaphor for the allure of Frank’s kitchen.  It was a social equalizer, not only for his chairs, but also for the people who sat in them.

Even though I know that most of Frank’s chairs burned up in his house fire, every time I go to The Harrisville Store, I like to imagine that a few of them were rescued from the charred remains, fixed up and passed along to the Store, where they live on in the spirit of Frank’s kitchen.

PS:  Where is your third place?  Submit a comment (below) to tell us.

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  1. Candyce says:

    What a story!
    What a lovely echo of days gone by … and the longing for days yet to be dawned.

    Our community DOES need a place to hang out, catch up, dream and spin yarns. We need a ‘Frank’s Table’!

  2. susan kingsbury says:

    Hi Karen,
    I was spellbound by this story of Frank Upton and the ‘third place’ that town folk found themselves drawn to. I love your writing, and the way you tied the old with the new. I see you as next in line of a long line of Nelson story tellers.

    We need the Harrisville General Store, and they need us.

  3. Susan Peery says:

    Wonderful piece, Karen!
    Too bad the kitchen in the Safety Center at the town barn isn’t open during the day — it is accessible, has lots of parking, and it would acquire some charm if it got used enough and people brought in mugs and old spoons. During the ice storm it was a real haven!

  4. Susan Hansel says:

    Karen, You are a story weaver. I really feel the atmosphere of Frank’s kitchen. Thank you so much for sharing, and for making us so aware of the need for such a place in Nelson.
    Well done!

  5. Kathy Schillemat says:

    It seems to me that, in our busy lives, we need 3rd places more and more. We come away refreshed and feel connected, in more ways than just news of the community. I like Susan Peery’s idea about the safety building, but so far, the town officials haven’t been open to that.

  6. Top shelf story Karen. Postively top drawer. Some of the pieces in SHE PLUMB NED were garnered in Frank’s kitchen. Sometimes I would go in, nobody home. Old Frank asleep upstairs, young Frank out tooling about someplace. I’d make my own coffee. Always did anyway…Frank would say “Want some coffee? Get it yourself” Snow indeed sifting in under the porch door. One time sitting there late fall, Barry, Renn, Fran Felix, Frank. Frank said “Bi god there’s a deer up in back of Roger’s there.” And he scooted under the table, grabbed his gun and out the door, We all followed. Can’t remember if it was the season or not.
    My own “third place’ is the Canterbury Village Store. I hang out there Saturday mornings , get my mail, have a coffee. Tell lies with Peter Fife, Stuart Fifield and
    that lot. Peter always has on a different bill cap. One said O’Neil’s Boatyard. “Where’s you fetch that Pete?” He took it off, looked at it, said “Came with the boat. Sold the boat, kept the hat. It’s worth more than the boat”

  7. Don Bennett says:

    Hello Karen,
    Nicely done! I was never in that kitchen, unfortunately for me, but now I feel as though I had spent hours there. Your story and content remind me of one of my favorite authors-Eric Sloane and the tales he weaves of yesteryear. A writing instructor once told me, ” show me, don’t tell me”.
    You did that.
    Please send more,

  8. Kris Finnegan says:

    Karen, I remember that kitchen and the company it kept. Something lost when it burned. Thank you for rescuing a bit of it. Your picture of words brings it all back. I know there is a picture of the front parlor and the chairs in the Nelson Picture book.
    I put an invitation out to all in the community to use your library. It is already available and filled with comfortable chairs and good books. The more it is used, the more people will see it as a vital space in our community. The days of a quiet library are bygone. You may even have tea or coffee (coffee is harder because I can’t figure out how to make it).

  9. Susan Weaver says:

    Great story, Karen. I could smellthe coffe and the dogs!

  10. Hilda Wiggin says:

    Karen, you’ve done it again. Creating a picture with a story. I loved Franks kitchen. It always reminded me of my Mother-In-Law’s kitchen – table and all. Door always open even if it was closed, always there, always welcoming everyone who came through it and time to talk. Impossible to duplicate the depths of those kitchens. My favorite times were late in the afternoons. (I preferred his bourbon to his coffee.) Sipping a bourbon one day the phone rang, I just heard , ya,ya,yup, (he was town constable)and off we went in his rusty old truck to track down some pigs that were on the loose. Never found them.. That kitchen just happened, never planned. His endless stories and imitations of certain individuals brought the past alive. He made me laugh hard and often. Whoops guess that was more about Frank than about a ‘third’ place. I’ll miss him forever.

  11. Bert Wingerson says:

    Great story Karen! It is so important to capture and share these memories before they too are forgotten and lost. You have the ability to make Frank’s kitchen live for those of us who missed the opportunity.

  12. Val Van Meier says:

    Wonderful story Karen. I wish I’d gotten to know Frank before the fire. Your story brings back memories of my Great Aunt’s kitchen and how it too was a warm gathering spot around the wood stove.

    I see a wonderful idea happening here. What if one or two days a week if we have a “Franks Kitchen” at the library? People bring something to share if they have it, (perhaps donate a coffee maker & coffee) and enjoy good company. I say schedule it, only because with our busy lives, if our intent is to visit, it’s nice to know there will be people to visit with. Krys, it is always fun visiting with you – but variety is nice.

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