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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    What’s Going On: Jim Littlefield gives us one last look at his fabulous stories on local history

    Jim Littlefield, released his a new history book titled “Treasured Tales from the New England Shore,” tells a story at his blacksmith shop on Smith Street in Niantic. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Jim Littlefield, who released his a new history book titled “Treasured Tales from the New England Shore,” stands outside his blacksmith shop on Smith Street in Niantic. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Jim Littlefield’s storytelling can feel a little like taking the road less traveled and never quite knowing where you are heading until suddenly the gnarly byway gives way to a lush meadow full of sparkling butterflies.

    Littlefield, a 79-year-old former history teacher at East Lyme High School who lives in a Niantic home that has been dated to 1699 (though he thinks it’s more likely an 18th century structure), likes to take readers along on the adventures he has chronicled for years in his History Matters columns in The Lyme Times, The Day and The Post Road Review.

    Many of them involve archaeological digs he was involved with years ago while still a teacher, but some are of more recent vintage when a friend or acquaintance drops off an antique that piques his interest, or he looks into some aspect of family history. The story of tracking down where the item came from or how he pieced together a story often becomes as important to the context as the history behind the antique or the person at the center of the mystery.

    “I've got to find a way to shake it up and make it personal or make it passionate,” Littlefield said during an interview last week at his blacksmith shop to the side of his house.

    And now local readers will be able to enjoy Littlefield’s ambitious local history stories one last time as he just released the nearly 200-page “Treasured Tales from the New England Shore,” the third compilation of local history he has self published. The book, which compiles the last of his history columns, is now available on Amazon.com, as are two other historical fiction books he has written,“Slavetaker: The Promise” and “The Slave Catcher’s Woman.”

    In his latest book, you will find many of the stories you will remember being printed in local publications, including one about a Nazi spy from East Lyme, another chronicling the exploits of one of the country’s greatest cowgirls who lived her final years in East Lyme and another favorite that involved Littlefield helping to restore a historic Waterford sleigh at his blacksmith shop.

    But Littlefield said his favorite story in the new book involved a relative, Caty Littlefield Greene, a woman who would become acquaintances with many Revolutionary War figures, including Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette (she was also reputed to be one of George Washington’s favorite dance partners).

    “She was a Littlefield family treasure,” said the author, who nevertheless refrained from writing about her in his newspaper column because it seemed self-serving. Now, readers get a chance to meet her through the book, which contains several other unpublished stories as well.

    While Littlefield’s two previous straight-history books, “History Matters: Tales of New England that Still Echo Today,” and “Fireside Memories: Tales of East Lyme’s Past,” focus mostly on stories revolving around his hometown, his most recent book is wide ranging, including “Abraham Lincoln and the Six Handshake Rule” and the related “Personal Link to Lincoln ... ‘I’ve Touched That Man’s Blood!’” which evolved from a note sent by a Stonington reader, Michael Baker.

    “One of those things in this book is the interpersonal relationships that you end up forging with the living while you're chasing the dead. It is pretty amazing,” Littlefield said.

    The thing about Littlefield is that he’s always taken a hands-on approach to history, right from his days as a teacher when he’d bring swords and armor into the classroom to demonstrate their heft and weight.

    Probably not something that would be allowed today, but it affected many of his students deeply. History was no longer theoretical; you could wear it, see it and even smell it. That’s the history that resonates with Littlefield, and it trickles into his swashbuckling storytelling.

    Littlefield said the teachers and janitors where he once worked called him “Dr. Dirt” because he was always bringing in items from his archaeological digs and cleaning them in a room off the library.

    “We cleaned all our artifacts up there,” he said. “Some of the people didn't really like the mold, the smell, and some of them, you know, weren't too fond of sharing a room, but a lot of them were on board with it.”

    And that’s the thing about Jim Littlefield. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. In fact, he revels in it. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but it goes along with his writing style that sometimes seems to wander but somehow always ends up on point.

    “That's one reason why Southern humor and Southern writing appeals to me so much because they wander all over the place but they do get there,” he said. “Yeah, and when they get there it's, it's ‘wow.’”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.

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