Nora Rubinstein loves to spin. She also loves a mystery and a challenge.
The experience of taking raw fluffy wool and spinning and twisting it into yarn has been an anchor of her life for more than 35 years.
“It’s magical, a magic act, pulling yarn,” she said of her first experience.
“It’s meditative,” she said of spinning.
Rubinstein, a Middletown Springs resident, has another passion: an obscure Quaker Vermonter from Danby who made a large “walking” spinning wheel almost 200 years ago.
Rubinstein, a former college professor with a doctorate in environmental psychology, has done an extraordinary amount of research into Samuel Morison of Danby, a local Quaker wheelwright who lived in the Danby-South Wallingford area from 1835 to the 1850s and made spinning wheels.
“I’ve had allies out there helping me find information about this man,” Rubinstein said.
She bought her first spinning wheel at an auction in Poultney, and came away with what turned out to be a Morison original for $50. It was missing its “bat’s head,” that had to be replicated before she could start spinning on the old wheel.
But more importantly, the spinning wheel had a clue that intrigued Rubinstein.
“There was a maker’s mark, ‘S. Morison,’ on the end of the bench,” she said.
Thus began years of research trying to find out anything about the man who made her wheel. “Nobody knew anything about this guy,” she said.
Finally, she tracked down a sentence or two in a Danby town history, which described Samuel Morison as a “good mechanic ... who also manufactured spinning wheels.”
The hunt for more information was on.
Morison was born in 1775 in New Hampshire and died in 1862 outside Salem, New York. He and his wife had nine children, who like him, lived well into their 80s and 90s.
“I’ve spent a lot of time online,” she said, tracking down local history and genealogy. Some Morison grandsons were so strongly opposed to slavery they rejected the Quaker principle of nonviolence, and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War, she said. What fascinates Rubinstein is that despite the Quaker reputation for austerity and plainness, Morison’s wheels have an elegant aesthetic for something as utilitarian as a 19th century spinning wheel. He made both large or “walking” wheels, usually 48 inches in diameter, where a person stood at the wheel, running it with their left or right hand, and the smaller flax or Saxony wheels, where the person sits and runs the wheel with their feet.
“Quakers would have been plain people. They weren’t showy people,” she said.
No wheel, no yarn
The spinning wheel, Rubinstein said, was of paramount importance to every farmer’s wife and her family. Without a spinning wheel, she said, there would be no yarn for wool socks. Without a spinning wheel, there would be no yarn for weaving blankets or cloth, she said.
Morison’s main job was as a wheelwright and “mechanic,” which in the 1830s meant he could fix things — from mill machinery to simple tools.
His spinning wheels were set apart, Rubinstein said, by his distinctive design elements and decorative touches. Again, she said, that was unusual for a Quaker.
Morison would add decorative touches such as bone or horn ferrules on the spinning wheel’s post. He would carve or chip a decorative edge on the table of the wheel, as well as lines and marks.
He would number the wheels in several locations with Roman numerals. And he would paint the wheels blue, or green or yellow, Rubinstein said.
As an identifying mark, he would “sign” his name with a simple SMORISON, or add a period after his first initial. It was cut or stamped into the wood. The overall elegance of the legs and posts is another Morison hallmark, she said, with its “dancers legs” with a ‘ankle bracelet’ marking, and elliptical forms.
Her second Morison wheel came from Albany, New York, and she found it on eBay.
‘Three years of my life’
Rubinstein dove deep into the region’s 19th-century history, trying to find out as much as she could about Morison and his family, and the Quaker community that flourished in southern Rutland County during the 1800s.
“I’ve spent three years of my life with this family,” she laughed.
Morison was an unusual man: Rubinstein is trying to track down information that Morison went so far as to plant mulberry trees at his South Wallingford home. The leaves from mulberry trees are fed to silk worms, who in turn create the cocoons which are spun into silk thread.
Two years ago, in an article published in “The Spinning Wheel Sleuth,” a newsletter published by Florence Feldman Wood of Andover, Massachusetts, Rubinstein started to untangle the Morison spinning wheel mystery.
“Over the years, we have heard about large spindle wheels marked “S. MORISON’ that have Roman numerals on them,” Feldman- Wood wrote.
“She conducted extensive historical and genealogical research on the Morison family and made some interesting discoveries,” she wrote of Rubinstein.
Rubinstein also reached out to other Morison wheel owners across the country, and enlisted museum curators, Feldman-Wood noted, “to help her analyze the similarities and differences.”
She has traced the family during the western exodus of the 1800s, to New York State and Ohio, and also tried to get to the bottom of another mystery involving Morison. Where there two Samuel Morisons — one based in Danby and another in Granville, New York, both wheelwrights and both Quakers?
The answer, Rubinstein said, appears to be yes. In her research she tracked down the marriage certificate of the Granville Samuel Morison. Listed as witnesses were the Danby Samuel Morison and his wife Rebecca, Rubinstein said. Her research showed the two Morisons were cousins.
“I’m writing a book about this whole family,” she said. “I have done a ton of research.”
She gave particular thanks to Joyce Barbieri of Wallingford and Shelley Taylor, treasurer of the Mount Tabor- Danby Historical Society.
According to Diane Fagan Affleck, a curator with the now-closed American Museum of Textile History, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, it was Rubinstein’s extensive research into Samuel Morison and his family that led the museum to choose the Mount Tabor- Danby Historical Society as the recipient of its Morison spinning wheel.
The museum, which closed its doors in 2016, has started dispersing its collection, a process called de-accessioning.
Fagan Affleck said Rubinstein had contacted the AMTHa few years ago during her research into Morison, and so it was only fitting the wheel was returned to Danby earlier this fall.
Bradley Bender, president of the Mount Tabor-Danby Historical Society, said this week that the society was making a public appeal to find out if there were other Morison spinning wheels hiding in plain sight in people’s attics or spare bedrooms.
“We would like to get an inventory,” he said.
The historical society’s Morison wheel is now on display, he said.
And next summer, he said, the historical society would like to hold an event to celebrate Morison and his spinning wheels. Rubinstein said in colonial times women would gather on the town common with their wheels and spin in friendly competition.
It was called a “frolic,” she said. “We want to hold a frolic.”
Bender said the spinning wheel frolic would be “a fun kind of event,” coupled with a pot luck meal and a remembrance of a notable Danby resident who made practical and lovely spinning wheels.
To that goal, Bender has put together a “Wanted” poster of the Morison “walking wheel” spinning wheel, trying to gain attention.
“So look in your attic, look in your barn. Get the word out,” he said.