About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Monday, January 26, 2015



Accessed from a country road in the town of Newbury, MA is an upland in the marsh known as Kent’s Island named after a very early settler in the area.  It is known that there was an old house on the land that was replaced by the three story Federal period house (see photo below) that burned circa 1920 and replaced by a third house on the property.  The 1920s house is the house that was incorporated into the Marquand house.

The house built circa 1800 at Kent's Island in the Newbury marsh.
This house burned around 1920 and is not part of the Marquand house.
 Photo property of Newbury Historical Society
In my post about Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport I referred readers to a biography of Lord Timothy Dexter written by John P. Marquand.  That reminded me of the valient attempt to save Marquand's house on Kent's Island from demolition. That was thirty years ago and it still evokes feelings of sadness and frustration that this special property was not saved.

Pulitzer Prize winning author, John Marquand (1893 –1960) was a prolific and popular writer. Although not born in Newburyport his roots were there and he identified with New England and specifically the Newbury, Newburyport area.  He had lived in the yellow house at Curzon's Mill in Newburyport., a family home.

The so-called "yellow house" at Curzon Mill where Marquands lived. MHC
In November of 1935 John Marquand purchased Kent’s Island from Albert W. Parson and his wife, Clementine Parsons.  It consisted of about four hundred and sixty seven acres of land plus some smaller parcels.  Access to this land was from a lane off Hay Street and over a small bridge.  The deed references buildings on the property existing at the time of the purchase.

John Marquand, Jr. told of traveling from New York with his father for the closing on the property. The two of them camped out in the new house the first night of Marquand ownership.

The Kents and their descendants had owned the island since the 1640s and Marquand himself was descended from the Kents. In 1799 Joseph Kent deeded the farm to his son, Paul Kent, for $2000. On the land was a large barn, three out houses and 1 moiety ( 1/2 ownership ) in the dwelling house. It doesn't mention who owned the other half although the Federal census in 1800 shows Stephen and Paul Kent living next to each other.  Nor does it give any clue as to whether it was the new Federal period house seen in the photo or the earlier house. The sale coincides with the marriage of Paul Kent to Alice Thurlow.  It is quite possible that Paul built the new house.  Joseph Kent, the father, was a merchant who lived in Newburyport so it was not Joseph who occupied the other half of the house.  It was probably Joseph's brother, Stephen, who was Paul's uncle.

The answer to the confusing chain of title is found in Sarah Anna Emery Smith memoirs, "Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian".  The reason for the division is unusual to say the least.

Richard Kent in his will, 1740, said that his son, Richard, should "have and enjoy the whole of the island during his natural life, and after his decease his oldest son should have and enjoy he same as an estate and the heirs male of his body forever.  But here is the rub!  Richard had twin sons and no one knew for sure which twin was born first!  Even the midwife didn't know or wouldn't say. The rightful heir could not be determined so the property was divided between Joseph and Stephen, the twins and also another son Moses.

In 1872 a daughter of Paul Kent referred to the property as "the homestead farm of her father, Paul Kent".
The house that John Marquand created using parts of a 1920s house on the right and adding two sections on the left.
Marquand remodeled and greatly enlarged the small house that was on the land with two large additions. One of the additions included a beautiful library.  It was a serene and peaceful place and greatly improved during his ownership and this is where he died.

The Marquands at the attractive front door withthe curving
"sheaves of wheat" fence copied from the Healy house in Newburypot

When I first saw the property there was a house and several other buildings standing on the island including a studio with a fireplace where Marquand did his writing when in residence there. There was also a caretaker’s cottage, carriage house, barn and garages.  It was quite an estate.

The family reading on the porch.

There is no denying that Marquand was an important writer of the 20th century and that this property had importance because it was associated with him.  It was also a lovely property in its own right.

After Marquand’s death in 1960 the unique property was retained in the family until April, 1974.  At that time the estate was sold to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
That is when the trouble began.
The state rented the property for several years.  However, being landlords was not what this division of the state government was all about.  They wanted the land; just the land.  They did not want buildings to contend with and the house was vacated.  There were also rumblings that the bridge over the creek to access the island was not safe and would be too expensive to repair or replace.  The state agreed that it was risky to allow hunters onto the property with people living there.  They were probably correct in foreseeing that liability.  It also was noted that oil had gone from $.40 per gallon to $.80 per gallon and the house was too expensive to heat!  The old well created a water supply problem.

So the word got out that the buildings at Kent’s Island would be razed. A number of people recoiled at the idea that such a lovely place, associated with someone so important in the community would be sacrificed, especially the studio.  A group was galvanized in an attempt to find a solution.

I visited the property several times.  It was in extreme disarray and badly vandalized but not beyond fixing.  Although Marquand supposedly renovated the old house on the property I didn’t see any evidence of a very old house….just a nice attractive country house including the house built after the old house burned.  Clearly no portion of the old house survived the fire.  Nevertheless, it was so apparent that this whole complex of buildings, although forlorn, had been a wonderful country estate.

Many people joined the effort to save the buildings, wrote letters to the paper and there was no lack of publicity.  A group even went to the statehouse and spoke in favor of saving at least the studio.   Much attention and praise was showered on (the late) eleven year old, Jeffrey Noonan of Newbury who with his father spoke out.  The Newburyport News editor, Bill Plante in an editorial proclaimed “and a child shall lead them.".

The demolished porches and debris.
In October of 1986 a special state study commission unanimously voted to recommend demolition. Newbury Representative Thomas Palumbo had filed the bill that formed the commission but their minds were already made up.  The consensus of the commission was that it had “little architectural value or interest to state or local historical societies and would cost too much to restore”.  One of the commission members referred to it as “a corpse”.  It really never had a chance.

It languished, dilapidated and neglected for several years until finally demolished in the late 1980s after news circulated that the Newbury fire department would burn it for practice. What an ignominious end for a dignified house that would have been!

A new problem arose.  Guess what!  Neither the heavy demolition equipment or fire equipment could be brought to the site because of the condition of the bridge.

The final bit of irony is that the demolition crew repaired the bridge in order to get their equipment out there before they could even begin the demolition. So the bridge was fixed.  The buildings were demolished.

This bridge at Kent' s Island over the railroad tracks that cross the island.  It is not the bridge at the entrance..             MHC
Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall and it was doomed from the start.  The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife does not deal in rental properties or bridges and has no intention of owning buildings.  It was an effort in futility from the get-go.

That was thirty years ago but today the outcome would probably be the same.   It was in the hands of the wrong state agency.
Willliam Sloan, Robert Frost and John Marquand at Kent's Island.     Internet photo
One bright memory from those days thirty years ago was that a restaurant then located at the Prudenctial Center in Boston was named Apley’s after the fictitious subject of one of Marquand’s popular books, “The Late George Apley”.  In honor of the fictitious birthday of George Apply the restaurant threw a winter birthday dinner party with a menu appropriate for the Victorian era that was George Apley's period.  There was venison and game birds and big bowls of caviar among other treats.  Mr. and Mrs. George Apley, dressed appropriately, greeted guests at the door while a string quartet played in the background.

It was an event to remember.  The house and the other buildings will also live on but in memory only

The photos are from old newspapers and old photocopies that were circulated at the time. I have kept them in a file folder for the last thirty years but after the passage of so much time I now have no idea where they originated.

I also have a question for anyone reading this that is familiar with the property.

Near the house in the fall there was a tree bearing some sort of large nut. This nut or fruit was green/yellow on the exterior and a little bigger than a golf ball.  It had a wonderful scent.  I don't know what it was and it is probably no longer there but the sweet scent was unforgetable!  If anyone knows what it is please tell me!  I would love to know.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


First in the East, first in the West and the Greatest Philosopher in the Western World”  Lord Timothy Dexter, 1746-1806

Gordon Harris of Ipswich, MA has a fabulous blog. http://ipswich.wordpress.com

 Please check it out, especially his recent blog posts featuring Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, his antics and the amazing house he lived in. In fact you really should read his posts before reading what I have to say!

View of the Dexter property from the back.  (Internet photo)
My post will be a 20th century footnote to the historical background found in Gordon Harris’s blog.

In a nutshell, Timothy Dexter was not really a lord.  He bestowed that title upon himself!  He was actually an eccentric leather worker and not socially acceptable in Federal period Newburyport even though he had an unbelievable knack for making money.  He couldn't buy his way into Newburyport society.

His house was a showplace, ornamented in front by wooden statues representing prominent men of the day, the early 1800s. There were forty of them. The belvedere on the roof  with an eagle for a finial was a lovely ornament atop the large three story Georgian house built circa 1770.

The Lord Timothy Dexter House as it appeared in the early 19th century.  Note all the ornamentation and the eagle finial.
He was a familiar sight strolling around town with his hairless dog;

Timothy Dexter and his
famous hairless dog.
One of his eccentricities was to latch on to Jonathan Plummer to whom he referred as his “poet laureate”.  Plummer was Dexter’s side-kick and wrote poems about Dexter that were published in the newspaper.

Jump ahead to the late 1960s, a time when  the house was for sale and in need of new owners.  At that time I was in Gloucester with my family on summer vacation and read the story of the great house with a lot of interest.  Its story was intriguing but what did I know about Newburyport? I don't think I had ever been there. It never occurred to me that I might actually like to live there.

A year or two later, again on summer vacation, we took a Sunday drive to Newburyport.  Remembering the story of the house (who could forget it?) we stopped on State Street to ask for directions to the Lord Timothy Dexter house at 201 High Street.  As we slowly drove past the house the apparent new owners arrived home all dressed up and entered the house through the front door looking very elegant. The whole scene was terribly impressive.

By 1971 having moved from CT we found ourselves also living in Newburyport, at 357 High St.  Before long we met the owners of the Dexter House.  We, like the family living in the Dexter house, were carpetbaggers, drawn to Newburyport by its collection of wonderful houses awaiting restoration. With our interest in the urban renewal taking place it was inevitable that we would meet and become friends with the family occupying the Dexter House.

Eventually, my husband began to help the owners refurbish the third floor.  After stripping off many layers of wallpaper, they finally reached plaster in a large hallway area.  On the plaster was a little jingle written in very old fashioned penmanship.  It went something like this.:

Lord Timothy Dexter did die
and so soon shall you and I.

This little ditty was signed "Plummer".

My recollection is not 100% accurate but that was the gist of it.  Could this really have been written by Jonathan Plummer, Dexter's loyal companion and poet laureate?   I saw it and recall the very old fashioned and convincing handwriting.  That area was left alone and no one painted over it, preserving this quaint rhyme.

Years went by, the house was sold twice and then tragedy struck. It was August 15, 1988.  House painters did the unthinkable.  They used torches to burn off paint under the eaves.  You can imagine the rest.  The house went up in flames, the beautiful belvedere crashed down through the house. The third floor was destroyed and with it the writing on the plaster. Was it really a quaint reminder of Jonathan Plummer?  We will never know if it was but by the same token who can ever say that it wasn't.

By this time I was living in Gloucester.  Hearing the awful news I rushed to Newburyport and gathered with other friends and former owner to stare in disbelief at the ruins, mourn the house and commiserate the loss.  What a sad day it was!
Fighting the fire from the side street on the left side of the house and
it took four alarms and 75 fire fighters many hours to contain the fire.
What I  heard then but can’t verify is that SPNEA, now Historic New England, had the architectural drawings for the belvedere and therefore the house was able to be rebuilt with a new belvedere on the roof an exact replica of the original.    Had it not been for its rich history and the existing plans would it have been saved?  The front page of the Newburyport News.claimed the loss was $1,000,000.  But it was rebuilt and to all appearances looks the same as always on the exterior.  The stories of Lord Timothy Dexter are kept alive in Newburyport and throughout New England and beyond.  Lord Timothy Dexter’s stately house remains as always, the Buckingham Palace of Newburyport.
Building Photo
This is the left side of the house from Dexter Lane,
the same side as in the previous photo of the fire.

For me, I remember fondly all the visits to the house and the many meetings I attended in front of the great Georgian fireplace in the pine paneled library with faux mahogany paint decoration on the paneling and a slug from Dexter’s gun lodged in the wall!  I recall Truman Nelson once reminding a gathering of how privileged we were to be ensconced in that beautiful room with so much history.

For more remarkable details of this fascinating story I recommend “Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, MA.  by Newburyport’s own John P. Marquand. Minton, Balch and Company, New York, 1925

Post Script

What happened?  Did Lord Timothy intervene?

This post took off like a rocket.  No other post has come close to the response to this one.  The number of "hits" were piling up rapidly until the counter reported almost 350...actually 349.  

Yesterday was a busy day and I was out of the house for several hours at a time.  I did check in occassionally and observed that the counter was stuck at 349 which I attributed to everyone being busy or at work and dismissed it.

About dinner time a friend said, "What happened to your post?  It is not online anymore.  It's gone." This friend had been communicating with another friend during the day wondering why it had disappeared.

I checked and sure enough, it was gone.   I then went back to my draft and clicked  "Publish". Nothing!  Next I clicked "update".  Nothing.

By now I was getting frantic.   What was going on?  I checked one more time and "lo and behold", there it was.  Within minutes the counter started moving again at the same pace as before it disappeared.  

I can't explain what happened.  Was it a technical problem or was it........?  I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions! 

Now it is back and thanks to all of you for your tremendous response to this story.  


Wednesday, November 26, 2014


No, I am not talking about myself.  I am talking about a very old doll!

For all of my life I have spent varying amounts of time in the summer on Cape Ann (Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts)  before becoming a permanent resident thirty five years ago.  These summer vacations were so special to me that it is no wonder that I and so many others like me eventually have found their way back and made this place by the sea, America's oldest seaport, their home.

In the late 1940s my mother and her friends would take frequent antiquing trips, often around the Monadnock region of New Hampshire; Fitzwilliam, Keene, Rindge, Peterborough and north central Massachusetts.  I was too young to stay home alone all day so had to accompany the ladies as they went from shop to shop.

On one of these outings I found an old doll in a corner on the floor.  After a lot of begging I got the doll for $1.50. This doll turned out to be a very special French Jumeau.  That event inspired me to keep looking for old dolls to collect.  My mother encouraged me and often made dresses for dolls acquired along the way.  None equaled the first one; it was surely beginners luck, but many more dolls, some better than others, came my way.

In the summer of 1950 we visited an antique shop in Rockport on Cape Ann.  The shop was in a very old house and was called "Saltbox Antiques" after the shape of the ancient house with its long sloping roof in the back and a huge chimney emerging from the ridgepole. The owner was a well known antiques dealer named Louis Polack.

The 1757 house built by Ephraim Shelden.  The saltbox was added by the Rowe Brothers circa 1787.
Inside the shop I found a very old china doll.  Her head was made of china, her black hair with a part in the middle was painted on with no wig.  Her body was cloth. Once again my mother consented and shelled out $10 for this doll.  The doll was wearing some undergarments but no dress.  My Mom made her a dress which now, more than sixty years later looks as old as the doll..Time has taken its toll on the fabric.

Brilliant blue eyes and pursed lips are the
distinctive features of the very old china doll.

Mother took my doll collecting seriously and each time Ifound a new doll she filled out an index card that went in a file box.  On the index card she stated the date and place where I found the doll, the cost, the value, the marks on the doll and any other pertinent information.  She also listed the name of the doll which in this case was simply "Saltbox"

Old index card from August 1950 describing the doll
Recently an acquaintance gave me the name and phone number of a lady in Rockport who lived in one of the oldest houses in the town.  She had some questions about her house.  Although I am no longer a Realtor, I was for many years, specializing in old and historic houses.  This mutual friend urged me to call her and look at her house.  The owner of the house, by the way, is a puppeteer..

Before going to meet the owners and see the house I did a little research to find out what kind of a house I was going to visit. You guessed it!  It was the old saltbox house; the same house from which I had acquired my old doll that long ago summer.

I called and made an appointment to meet the owners and see the house.  But first I unearthed the doll and my mother's index card with the date on which I had been there as a child.  It was August 1950.  I took the doll and the old card with me much to the delight of the homeowner.  As someone who loves dolls and puppets she was amazed that I had been in her house so many years ago and that the doll had been there, too.  Her first question was to ask the name of the doll.  For some reason she never did get an appropriate name.  I just called her "Saltbox".

We toured the house.  Then over a cup of coffee I reminisced and shared my memory of the house and what it looked like way back then in 1950.  I certainly couldn't recall too many specifics or even which room the doll was in when I found her.  But I could not forget the general appearance of what was  probably the oldest house I had ever been in at that time with its expanse of pine paneling and sheathing,  huge cooking fireplace and heavy beams.

Now that "Saltbox" is seeing the light of day for the first time in years she is comfortably seated  in a Windsor armchair in my house.  For the time being at least, "Saltbox" is out of her box and enjoying a place in my house just as I enjoy looking at her; a reminder of my happy childhood and that long ago summer vacation when I found her at the "Saltbox Antique Shop" in Rockport.

Old doll, circa 1850, from the saltbox house in Rockport. She has
lost one shoe but is still in hopes it will be found.

The plaque on the house says that it is the Zebulon Parsons house circa 1740 but a little research turned up new and different information.  It is the Ephraim Shelden house built after the land was purchased in 1757.  Shelden relocated to Woolwich, Maine in the 1780s and the house was sold to Ebenzer and Benjamin Rowe.  Apparently these two brothers added the saltbox in the rear with two cooking fireplaces to accomodate two families.

It has long been thought of as the Zebulon Parsons house, a nice old sounding name.  Zebulon Parsons, however, did not own the house until the late 19th century and was there until 1901.  The house had a long history before Zebulon came on the scene.

That is why with all of the new information available online many houses need to be checked.
Tradition can not always be equated with accuracy!

But whatever the name, it is a great old house!

Friday, November 21, 2014


It has been a little over a year since I began this blog and there have been changes in two of the houses about which I wrote that you might find interesting. .

First, there was the story about the two houses that we looked at in the early 1970s with the intent to buy one of them. They were both in Newburyport, MA where rehabilitation under urban renewal was just beginning to come to fruition. We had a hard time deciding which one to buy for investment.

One house was clearly the better buy for investment purposes.  It was a legal four family antique for $8,000. The other was a diamond in the rough but was legally only a two family. Last year I reported the price tag was $12,000.  (It may have been only $10,000)  The cheaper, larger, four family house was hands down the better investment.

Here is what I posted on October 12, 2013.

While looking for old photos for the blog I discovered I had a group of old faded Polaroids from 1972 when we purchased an old house for investment.

We had only been living back in Essex County for a short time in 1972; perhaps only a few weeks, when my husband heard about a circa 1750 house that could be bought for $8,000.  It was a legal four family house that was tenanted by one family with children.  It had been condemned twice in the past and condemnation was looming again.

This is the house we bought.
Old House about 1940.  This house has suffered.  The picture says it all..
We were looking for something to buy and had our eye on an old house that was a legal two family for $12,000.  The owner lived in two rooms on the second floor.  He agreed to show us the house on a Saturday afternoon in the winter.  As luck would have it there was a blizzard but we were too eager to be deterred.  We had to leave our car some distance away and trudge to the house knee deep in snow; the absolute worst possible conditions under which to look at a cold, dilapidated old house.

The front door opened and immediately the beauty of the hall and staircase and, as I said, made me weak in the knees!  The staircase was Georgian and approached through a beautiful arch.  Even the cold and the snow didn't diminish my enthusiasm for this house.

This is the same style of arch as in the house we didn't buy.  I don't know
what the post is on the left of the stair.  It doesn't seem to belong there.  This house
is no longer standing so the extra post doesn't matter any more.  The house I loved is still standing.
On paper, however, the $8,000 house made more sense for our purposes so we went ahead with that deal,  even though our hearts were with the other, the house with the beautiful staircase..

And, by the way, the house we didn't buy was also restored and I have been inside since restoration but not recently.  It is beautiful! The stair hall still makes me weak in the knees!

Nov. 2014

Just a few days ago I discovered that the house with the beautiful stair hall was on the market so I eagerly looked at the new photos.  I still love that house!  The hall still makes me weak in the knees.  So now I can share the pictures of the real hall with you instead of the look-alike hall (above) that I included last year.

The house is now $700,000,  Time and improvements have brought it a very long way.  I will include a few other recent photos from the Internet and give you the link to the listing. Who knows?  Maybe someone will be inspired to move to Newburyport, MA to live in a wonderful Georgian house on a quiet street.

Since the house is the oldest in the area it appears that the street it is on was originally the long drive to the house whose land extended down to the nearby Merrimack River.

It does need a fresh coat of yellow ochre paint on the exterior but there is nothing shabby inside.  Here is a peek.

Georgian splendor in Newburyport, MA

Step over the threshold into a beautiful Georgian interior

The piece de resistance, the hall and staircase
The hall bathed in a different light

A peek into the parlor

If you would like to see more, here is the link to the listing on www. realtor.com.



Last year on October 3rd I wrote about a little house that was being  bulldozed. (DEMOLISHED!) I was really upset that a house built  c.1860 was going to be destroyed.

Admittedly, the house was not very significant.  It was small and rather plain although it did have a lovely view of Ipswich Bay.  So why would anyone want to save this little fisherman's cottage?

To me it was important. Here's why.

It's all about the streetscape.This house was one in a long line of houses that were equally old or older. There hadn't been any intrusions for quite a distance.  The original owner was from the Lane family for whom this village, Lanesville,was named.  For over three hundred years the fishermen in this village had gone out to fish in the bay from the nearby Lane's Cove including the owner of this little house.
Lane's Cove
The house was demolished and the new house is complete.  To their credit the new owners oriented the house to the street with the gable end facing the street in a nod toward its neighbors who are mostly oriented the same way with the exception of several two hundred year old houses with a center entrance..

It is hard to define the new house architecturally but the old house didn't fall into any special category architecturally, either.  It was just a "cottage", a modest fisherman's house.

The new house although somewhat larger does not really overwhelm any of the others. In fact it resembles them!

To sum it up, it has some charming features and I think it will soon settle in and take its place in the neighborhood without destroying the rhythm of the streetscape that previously existed.  I wish that it was not the same color as the house next door but that is cosmetic and not really important.

The message that I am always trying to get across is that the streetscape is important and must be considered when replacing a "missing tooth". In this case the owners seem to have looked at the big picture and did nothing to dwarf or conflict with the houses that had surrounded it for 165 years and more.

The old house wasn't saved but some of my fears of a McMansion or something equally unsympathetic to the neighborhood were unfounded.  

The reality is that we can't save everything!

To combat the recent wave of tear downs (not in Ipswich but elsewhere) the town of Ipswich, a showcase of early houses has just passed and Architectural Preservation District, APD, in an attempt to insure that it doesn't happen in Ipswich.  It covers an area of the town that contains the largest concentration of old houses and prohibits the destruction of a significant house in the new district.  This is much stronger than a demolition delay ordinance that only slows down the demolition for a  period of time such as six month or a year.  This by-law does not get into cosmetics, or siding and such.  But it keeps the houses standing.  In this town that had previously rejected the idea of an historic district more than once, the APD was enthusiastically accepted.  Here is the statement of what Ipswich hopes to accomplish

"Purpose: The purpose of the bylaw is to preserve and protect groups of buildings and the characteristics of their neighborhood settings that are important to the architectural, cultural, economic, political or social history of the town of Ipswich. The bylaw is also intended to limit the detrimental effect of alterations, additions, demolitions and new construction on the character of such buildings and their neighborhood settings. Through this bylaw, alterations, additions, demolition and new construction may be reviewed for compatibility with the existing buildings, setting and neighborhood character. This bylaw seeks to encourage the protection of the built environment through a combination of binding and non-binding regulatory review."

Perhaps this concept should be considered by other communities in New England that have so much to lose and are watching their historical properties slipping away.

Something each town might want to think about.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers all over the world from New England .


First Thanksgiving, by Ferris
"The First Thanksgiving." Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), unknown date.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Gloucester, Massachusetts was first settled in 1623.  The Pilgrims even came here from the Plymouth Colony to establish a fishing stage.

By about 1640 a permanent settlement had taken hold.  Life was hard, winters were harsh and the mortality rate was high necessitating a burial ground.
Just off what we now know as Centennial Avenue a burial ground was established.  Centennial Avenue was then known as Burying Ground Lane.  This ancient cemetery, the First Parish Burial Ground dating to 1644, is one of the oldest in the country.  It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Entrance gates to the First Parish Burial Ground
Numerous other cemeteries were scattered about this old community.  They are not as old as the First Parish Cemetery but they are very old.  In West Gloucester there is an old cemetery on the Old Thompson Road. In Lanesville under a canopy of old trees is the Lanes Cove Cemetery, and in Bay View another very old cemetery covers a hillside in full view to people driving along Washington St.

Descendants of these early settlers are spread far and wide across this country and beyond and many make the trek to Gloucester hoping to find out about their ancestors and find where they are buried.. They often run into a snag and this is why.

A good place to start the search for ancestors is the Gloucester Archives Committee in City Hall.  This volunteer group has manned this office for more than twenty five years not only to help visitors but to keep the early records in order and moved into archival folders and boxes.  Gloucester’s records have survived intact but that is nothing short of a miracle.

In the early days there was no town hall or city hall.  The records were kept in the homes of the town clerks.  These town officials took their job seriously and guarded the ancient records carefully. They have survived and are amazingly complete.
Gloucester's first town house,  Now the American Legion with
alterations by architect Ezra Phillips after WWI

In the late 1860s a new town hall was built  replacing the 1840s Town House, now the American Legion.

The new large brick edifice with many vaults in the basement housed the precious records that had previously been precariously kept in private homes.

About three years after it was built the new city hall was destroyed by fire.  What about the records?  The vaults held and miraculously the records all survived.

 A new city hall was built on the old foundation and these same vaults are still in use.
Gloucester City Hall

Now visitors armed with documents and family genealogy are ready to seek out the graves of their ancestors in the old cemeteries.

This is when they often run into a problem, especially at the oldest and largest First Parish Burial Ground.

Here the growth, bushes, vines and poison ivy have rendered this cemetery almost inaccessible at times.

The Thompson Road ground is deep in the woods accessed by a path that is all that is left of the Old Thompson Road.

When the old cemeteries reached their capacity newer burial grounds were opened up.  At this point the City would abandon the old cemeteries and neglect to even cut the grass.  As far back as the nineteenth century, over one hundred years ago, concerned residents and visitors bemoaned the awful conditions in our overgrown burial grounds.

One descendant of an old family, the Dollivers, came to Gloucester in his retirement and inventoried the First Parish Cemetery. Until the late 20th century this was the only inventory in existence.

The newest cemetery in Gloucester is the Dolliver Cemetery on Lincoln Street in West Gloucester. The name honors of Mr. Dolliver who gave his time to inventory the old cemetery even though he wasn't a resident.  Born in Gloucester but living in Boston, Dolliver was a descendant who was offended by the lack of respect for his and other forebears.

Nature wanted to take over, Trees and brush sprouted and shortly the unused cemeteries became the target of vandals and repositories for all kinds of trash.  Stones were broken and all were a mess.

The City says it does not have the manpower or the funds to properly care for these final resting places of our ancestors.  Many have attempted through volunteer efforts to correct the problem but are soon overwhelmed.  The condition of the graves of our ancestors has long been a disgrace and an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, over the years good old “Yankee Ingenuity” has come into play several times with hopes of overcoming this huge problem.

In the early 1970 a group of teenagers were brought together by Al Duca, a local sculptor,  With grants and much publicity these kids tackled the Bay View Cemetery. This plan was to give these teenagers a paid job to keep them occupied during summer vacation; to learn and to transform this old cemetery. They de-sodded the ground, they identified flowers and plants, they were introduced to archealogy, they learned about genealogy, they got state permission to remove and repair stones.  The kids even built a small building to house and display their findings and learned about construction as they worked on the building. 

Hillside cemetery at Bay View

This project seemed to be  successful but after it was completed there was no money for ongoing upkeep and in a very short time it slid back into a neglected state.  The “kids” who worked so hard are now middle aged and beyond. Neighbors have pitched in at various time to lend a hand. (I am pleased to report that this cemetery has recently been cleaned up and is looking great.  I don’t know who is responsible.)

Meanwhile, in Lanesville, a couple who live near the ancient Lane’s Cove Cemetery, took on the responsibility for its upkeep but that cemetery is much smaller than the First Parish Burial Ground and more manageable.  That is not to say that it isn't hard work.

Old cemetery at Lane's Cove
In the nineties my friend, Edie, known around town as the “Cemetery Lady” stepped up to the plate and along with another couple spent years inventorying the abandoned cemeteries, especially First Parish.  Edie is the most elegant, refined lady that I know.  That is why the following incident was unforgettable as she used her Yankee Ingenuity in an effort to clean up the cemetery.

One nice summer day I drove to the First Parish Burial Ground looking for  Edie knowing I would most likely find her there. 

As I approached the cemetery gates I saw a large, drab, sinister looking van parked there.  On the side of the van it said "Massachusetts Correctional Department"  or something similar.  And there in the middle of the cemetery stood Edie wearing a picture hat, the very picture of a genteel lady, surrounded  by an armed guard and a crew of prisoners from the Salem Jail hard at work clearing the cemetery!  What a great idea!  It was a scene I will not soon forget.

Unfortunately, other department heads saw this creative source of manpower and the prisoners were diverted to other work sites, 

So you ask yourself how in the world the early colonists maintained these plots of land.  They had no spare time and no power equipment to make the job easier.  But they did have sheep and goats!  These animals can and do eat all sorts of weeds, brush and even poison ivy.

Sheep doing their job in unknown cemetery

Another friend, Helen, recently read a story about goats being used to clean up a park so she made an inquiry to a company who rents out goats!

This week, Monday, October 20th, goats arrived at the old First Parish Burial Ground!  They are enclosed with electric fencing to protect them and are already hard at work.

Goats perched on broken grave stone at First Parish Burying 
Ground, Gloucester, MA taking a break from their work (Gloucester Times photo)
Credit must be given to the many volunteers who over the years have made valiant and creative attempts to tame the growth in the old cemeteries including some new volunteers who are right now serious about helping.

If the history of the past is the forecast of the future, perhaps goats (or sheep) are the answer. 

Time will tell!

Post Script, October 24th


When the dates for the visiting goats were agreed upon no one anticipated that a wild northeaster would strike the area with ferocious winds and heavy rain.  The roof blew off their shelter and Helen found them cold and wet, huddled together.  It was decided that the little goats should return to their permanent home.  They will be back next year.

Even so, it was clear that they were indeed making a difference.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Years ago in the 1980s a friend discovered a little antique house that he coveted and longed to restore.  The lines were great but the house was fire damaged and boarded up.  The property was in the estate of a man who had owned many properties.  Dealing with this house at that time was not a priority in the settling of the estate.

Bob persevered and eventually acquired the house and carefully restored it.  He even won an award from the state for his restoration efforts.

The 18th century gambrel roofed cottage is what we fondly call a "Cape Ann Cottage".  This dwelling style was typical of what the Gloucester fishermen lived in through much of the 18th century. (See my post from last March, "The 18th Century Cottages of the Cape Ann Fishermen and Farmers").

Sadly, Bob passed away. The house was rented for years and then sold. Another family took ownership of the house.

At this time I was a Realtor specializing in antique and historic properties. I was working with perspective buyers, Susan and Eric.  Susan was a writer. Eric was a college professor and boat builder.  They were committed to living in Gloucester, America's oldest seaport.

One day Bob's little house came on the market for sale.  I wasted no time in calling Susan and Eric.  This was not the Victorian house they envisioned but I urged them to take a look; it was a very special house.  They hurried to Gloucester and without hestation purchased the house.

They have now lived there for a number of year.  Perhaps the house is a little small for them but they are perfect for the house!  They have treated it with sensitivity and care. They are a model of responsible custodians. They have become dear friends and a wonderful addition to our community.

Recently I was very touched by a piece written by Susan and published online in Boston's WBUR "Cognoscenti".  With her permission I am sharing her beautiful words with you.

This Old House: Fisherman Brown's Cottage


Susan Pollack  

Susan Pollack: "When you buy a house, do you inherit a responsibility to its history, as well?" Pictured: The author's home in Gloucester, Mass. (E. Schoonover/Courtesy)
The day my husband and I bought our house, the real estate agent gave us a loose-leaf binder with copies of maps and deeds dating back to 1735, when a fisherman named Joseph Brown built the Cape Ann Cottage.
For years we had looked at houses. We’d hoped to find a roomy, if neglected, Victorian that, with our efforts, might one day resemble one of the Gloucester houses celebrated by Edward Hopper. But “an antique?” That’s how our agent described the tiny gambrel-roofed cottage. Seeing its exposed adze-hewn beams, wide pine floorboards and fireplace, we said yes immediately.
I had lived in other people’s homes all of my adult life. Suddenly, I was not only a homeowner, but a steward of Cape Ann history. What does it mean to acquire a building with an historic marker posted on its clapboards? Does one’s responsibility go beyond keeping cedar shingles on the roof and a satellite dish off it? When you buy a house, do you inherit a responsibility to its history, as well?
The documents compiled by the agent, Prudence Fish, an architectural historian and the author of “Antique Houses of Gloucester,” made me curious about the dozen families who had owned the house before us.
Fisherman Brown was likely shorter than my five-foot eight-inch husband, or he, too, would have struck his head on the beams in my attic-like office. He and Mrs. Brown must have been agile, for the stairs are narrow and steep as a ship’s companionway. The house itself is like a ship, snug and tight. Now six rooms (it was originally four) and 1,000  square feet, it may be one of the smallest homes in town, as well as one of the oldest. It is not a good place to spread out, gather or entertain, except in the most intimate circumstances.
As writers, my husband and I tend to accrue books, papers and ephemera, a habit possibly shared by John S. Rogers, a 19th century glue manufacturer. He bought the house in 1858 and moved it several hundred feet in order to build a larger structure, which now looms over us like a cruise ship over a dory. We share our house with the presences of, among other owners, Rogers, Brown, and Zachariah Dalton, “a free black man and native of Gloucester,” and his son, Thomas. Also Israel Trask, a butcher, who may be responsible for the Federal period woodwork, and Bob Molinski, who, in the 1980s, rescued and restored the building following a fire and years of neglect. Molinski received a Massachusetts Historical Commission award for his work.
We’ve done what we can on a more limited budget. Before moving in, we hired a contractor to pour a cellar floor and structurally reinforce the wood-frame building with new Lally columns. Since then, we’ve stripped the floors, replaced rotting sills, re-pointed brickwork, and planted a traditional New England flower garden of lilacs, daylilies and hollyhocks. Soon, we will replace the kitchen’s weakened floorboards. As stewards, we’ve learned quickly: maintaining our historic cottage requires constant vigilance.
We’ve also tried to keep the prior inhabitants alive in our imaginations. Yet, sometimes I feel crowded out by their presences: I imagine Brown’s footfall on the creaky stairs, the aroma of his wife’s codfish stew brewing in a large iron kettle in the fireplace. (I do not know her Christian name, as the deeds don’t mention wives, but I think of her as Patience Brown.) Meanwhile, I picture Butcher Trask driving through the neighborhood, his cart filled with sausages, pigs’ feet and freshly-killed chickens and rabbits.
We chose to live in Gloucester because it is still a city of working people, like those who owned our house. Although the portraits of Brown, Trask, Rogers, the Daltons and Molinski do not hang in City Hall, these residents are as essential to Cape Ann’s history as the mayors in the hall’s portrait gallery.
On warm summer evenings, when we walk to the end of our street and down the 57 steps to the harbor, I think about Fisherman Brown plying these waters in a small boat with a makeshift sail. At the time, wolves still roamed this hill, and water lapped at wharves just below us. Brown lived a generation before the American Revolution and a century prior to the era of the famed Grand Banks schooners, but even then, life in Gloucester was shaped by the sea, and those who work upon it. It is a legacy we now share as the latest inhabitants of Fisherman Brown’s cottage. 

Susan Pollack
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of the “Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes.”


Ideas and opinions presented by WBUR, Boston’s NPR® News Station.
cognoscenti /kɒgnəˈʃɛnti/ pl. noun/ people who are especially well informed about a particular subject. Origin: late 18th century: Italian, literally ‘people who know,’ from Latin cognoscent-, ‘getting to know’