What would it be like to walk through a portal and emerge in another era, with different social norms, economic status, fashions, and manner of speaking?
Judy Roderiques and Lucy Bly know. They portray Abby Almy and Ruth Bly, also known as the 1850s ladies, at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. The vault at the park visitor center, the former New Bedford Institution for Savings, is the wormhole that transports the whaling wives to the present day.
Informed by their wide-ranging research, they engage visitors in discussions of activism, women’s rights, abolition, foodways, clothing, children, family and city life, community, and education.
On a Friday in September, while awaiting “callers,” the handsomely costumed role-players sat under a shade canopy in the park’s garden for an interview. That day’s program was to center on food in the 1850s. Arrayed on a table were artifacts such as a beanpot, a hardtack biscuit, and a cake tin, as well as scrimshaw and a whale oil lamp.
As a group of park visitors from South Carolina approached, Bly and Rodriques seamlessly shifted into their Ruth and Abby personas, finely honed by 15 years of experience. The conversation ranged from Queen Victoria’s wedding cake to ambergris, a valuable — if somewhat disgusting — product of the sperm whale.
The New Bedford residents both have an education background: Bly as a foreign language teacher at Dartmouth High and Roderiques working with adults with disabilities and in the Dartmouth schools as a special needs teacher.
On Aug. 24, Roderiques received a national award for her 24 years of volunteer service to the New Bedford park. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beudreau presented the George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service to Roderiques and others at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the National Park Service and its philanthropic partner, the National Park Foundation.
Roderiques was honored with the Enduring Service Award for her years of leading walking tours, staffing the visitor information desk, serving on the volunteer council and developing volunteer training. She played a lead role in reorienting park volunteers when the park reopened after the COVID-19 hiatus. Roderiques also was employed as a seasonal park ranger for 10 years, and Bly still is.
Neither woman’s volunteerism stops at the border of the New Bedford national park. Bly is well-known as an actress (since 1960) with Your Theatre, and is a member of the choir at St. Anthony Church and treasurer of a community organization. Along with her husband Cliff, Roderiques has ushered theatergoers to their seats in the Zeiterion for 15 years, and in the winter, when the Ladies hang up their bonnets, volunteers at the Seamen’s Bethel.
Bly and Roderiques tell the Light about their living history program, which earned them the Massachusetts Hospitality Award from the Southeastern Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2015.
New Bedford Light: How were the Ladies “born”?
Lucy Bly: We were both interested in history, but we didn’t have much fun in history classes. And we thought that history should have a human face. I had done some [role-playing] at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House years and years ago … and I thought it was great fun. I realized that if you knew your material, you didn’t need a script. You’re better off feeding off the interactions that you were getting into.
So one day, we were talking about things. Judy and I didn’t really know each other. We were both volunteers, but on different days. And we got together to do some sort of social project. We ended up discussing this sort of thing. What we realized is that we were very much on the same wavelength. We liked stories. And that’s what history is — it is a story, whether it’s history or “her-story.”
I said, “Well, that would be fun, Judy — I think it would be a good idea to have two people because then you play off each other, even if the [visitors] don’t want to participate.”
Judy Roderiques: And it also gives two sides of the story, because everything has two sides to it. So we’d always do that as well.
LB: So when the subject came up, I remember Judy saying, “Well, I’m not an actress.” And I said, “You know the information; you don’t have to act. That’s the whole point. You are those characters.”
NBL: I’m sure there’s a lot of research that goes into creating your programs. Tell me about that.
JR: We spent two years researching.
LB: And researching in an interesting sort of way, actually, because we didn’t know what we were going to talk about. So we read all the old newspapers. We even went to the dead letter office. We know more about the “dirt” in Westport at that time than anyone. It gave us different ways of looking at things, language, certain expressions even, that we thought were great fun, or things that people would have talked about.
JR: We decided we didn’t want to be someone that’s upper echelon. We didn’t want to be someone that’s lower class, but someone in the middle, because then we can talk about the people on the Hill [the mansions on County Street], you know, and the scandals and the things that are in the paper.
[Roderiques created the character of Abby Almy, a gentle, more conservative foil for the feisty Ruth Bly. The role shares Bly’s surname because she discovered by a stroke of serendipity that she had a forebear by that name, who was married to Isaac Bly, a cooper, and lived at 89 North Second Street].
JR: Some of our stories involve real people and real [events] because we’ve researched them and we know who they are and what they did and their background and all of that stuff. But then there are other people that we sort of make up, like Keanu, who’s from the Sandwich Islands … And it’s not a real person, but we’re then able to tell the story of the Sandwich Islanders and the problems that they had and … how people probably reacted, from what we’ve seen in newspapers, whatever, of [using Abby’s voice] the pictures that don’t wash off [tattoos]. How they dressed and how they acted was very strange at first and then later on, everybody was used to it. Nobody cared.
NBL: Laurel and Hardy, Cheech and Chong, Ruth and Abby. What’s it like to be a team for all these years?
JR: It’s fun.
LB: It is fun. We’ve really become very good friends, and it’s funny, because Ruth and Abby and Lucy and Judy are very much alike.
JR: I think given our characters, it was important to be two, and to be a team. We play off each other. One will start something and that’ll lead to something else.
LB: We just weave, and it makes for an interesting narrative.
JR: We’re always finding new things [to work into the conversation]. We meet in the off season. … We’ll just sort of chat about what we’re going to do. “Have you read this book? Did you read this article?” and we’ll talk about how we could weave those new stories in, or the new information in, so it stays fresh.
NBL: Kids must be intrigued by these time travelers. What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you?
JR: I think one of the ones that we always talk about was at a program over at the Seamen’s Bethel.
LB: [Chuckling] I love that one.
JR: One of the children asked, “How do you feel when your husbands are out to sea?” and I said, “Well, you know, we’re sad. We’re worried.” And then he says, “How do you feel when they come home?”
“That’s difficult,” I said. “You know, you’re glad that they’re home because you’ve missed them, and you’re happy to see them. But they’ve been gone for a long time and you’ve sort of got your own routine and you’ve set up your household a certain way. When he comes back, it’s sometimes very difficult to get used to him being home.”
And the child says, “I know. My dad is a fisherman. And I like it when he’s home, but it’s not easy. The rules are all different.”
So, it’s not the funniest thing, but I thought it was the most profound thing that a child ever said to us.
One of the funniest things was when we were talking about how whales were hunted and all of that and we got through discussing how things were done. And the child looked at me and said, “Hmm, tough for the whales.”
LB: That was a cute one. I love that.
NBL [to Roderiques]: How did it feel to receive the award from the National Park Service?
JR: It was a nice honor. It was nice to be acknowledged. But I think it’s kind of embarrassing because I’m having fun. I’m doing things that I enjoy. … We went to Washington and it was very nice. The people were very wonderful. The ceremony was very nice. … The funny thing was I felt kind of weird about it, because some of [the other award winners] had worked so hard. They’ve done such such amazing things. And I’m sitting there thinking [sheepishly], you know, “Well, I just sort of went and had fun.”
NBL [to Bly]: Would you say she’s being humble?
LB: She’s a hard worker. Now, she was a hard worker when she was working for pay. She’s working just as hard, working for nothing. But when you believe in your community, and you believe in your town, you give it all you’ve got and it doesn’t matter if people are paying you or they’re not. That’s the whole thing.
NBL: Why is volunteerism important to you?
LB: We’ve all been given gifts, and everybody has something that they can contribute. And instead of looking at the world [and saying] “Oh, well, we don’t have this” and “We don’t have that” and “This doesn’t work,” and “That is foolish,” and “This is …’ whatever.” If you can do one thing — everybody has something that they can give. We’ve been given gifts and not to use them is squandering them. And I think that’s a sin.
JR: I grew up in the Kennedy era, when it was “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I grew up in a family that was always doing volunteer stuff, whether it be for the Scouts or for the church or for the community … I think when you volunteer you get just as much back as you give. Find something you enjoy. I mean, you don’t volunteer for something that feels like work. As my father said, “If you do something that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
I think with volunteerism, that’s especially important. Find something that you’re interested in, something that you find fun, and then volunteer. … You don’t have to know the whole history of New Bedford in order to volunteer here. Come, have fun, meet the public, and then you’ll learn a little bit at a time about New Bedford. We’ve got plenty of resources. You could find something that you’re interested in and sort of develop that.
LB: The city has so much in its history that I really don’t know how anyone can not find something that they can zero in on. … How can you have a place [in the 1850s] that’s definitely blue-collar… and all of the work seems to be dirty, stinky work, and then it’s the same city of [artists] Bierstadt, and Bradford, and William Allen Wall? Whatever you’re looking for, you can find something here. The diversity of the people … and it hasn’t changed. All of those things have grown, but they’re all here.
I mean, we have a living, vibrant, artistic community. We have a working waterfront. We have people who are looking forward to the future with the wind. We have so many different kinds of things. We have people from all over the world who are still here and contributing and being part of this great crazy quilt that is New Bedford.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, visit https://www.nps.gov/nebe or call Denise DeLucia, supervisory park ranger and volunteer coordinator, at 508-996-4095 ext. 6106.
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