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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

FINDING SMITH PLACE

SARAH ANNA SMITH EMERY
1787-1879

My family and I moved to Newburyport, MA in 1971 just after the demolition of urban renewal had been abandoned for a program of rehabilitation and restoration.  This was a very exciting time in the life of this old city.  The buildings throughout the city were interesting, many untouched and opportunities for preservation and restoration were rampant.

The house we moved to was a three story house built in 1800 in the Federal style.  It had most recently been used as a rest home and all the signs were still there.  Bars to hang onto were everywhere.  Most rooms were painted green,  that nice restful color advocated years ago.  There were red fire alarm boxes and we later found we had the only residential house in MA at that time that was fully sprinklered.

Between unpacking, decorating and turning this fourteen room house into a home I dashed to the library looking for information on my house, its occupants and learning everything I could about Newburyport.

One of the books I found with references to my house and it occupants was a book that was to become a life-long favorite.  It was called “Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian.”  Published in 1879 by Sarah Anna Smith Emery,  born in West Newbury in 1787 on Crane Neck Hill,  it recorded with infinite detail, her life in the home of her ancestors during her childhood.  Later after her marriage while Sarah was living  in Newburyport in the Rawson-Pillsbury  house on High Street, she described the streets of that city, the houses and the people that occupied them including mine.

In this book I learned much about my neighborhood and the people who owned my house. (My house was built by a merchant, Robert Dodge, who owned a vessel called the Citizen and had a warehouse on Ferry Wharf.) But more than that, I found the entire book including the descriptions of her original home and neighborhood riveting.  I really had to see this house for myself.  I was a brand new resident of the area but with the help of a map I knew approximately where to look for the house.  I drove around trying to find it but after not finding it I reluctantly concluded that it was probably gone.  After all, the book had been written  almost one hundred years earlier.

The years passed and I was now a Realtor with a specialty in antique houses.  One day in the summer of 1993 someone came into the office and urged me to check out a very early house that had just come on the market in West Newbury.  By this time I practically knew the stories in Sarah’s book by heart.

An appointment was made and I met potential buyers, the Fullertons, at the property.  Sited way back off the road with a long salt box lean-to facing the driveway I was beginning to hope that it might be Smith Place, the homestead of Sarah's family.  A few minutes later I was positive it was Smith Place.

Sarah (Yes, I feel I am on a first name basis with her!) had described the front entryway.  She recounted that in the fall the loaded wagons would back up to the front door with its great door stone.  A trap door in the floor allowed stores for the winter to be lowered into the cellar.  Barrels of apples and cider were lowered by a rope strung through an iron ring she called a stanchion, in the "unplastered" ceiling.  I was prepared to look for these clues. 

The first thing that I noticed was that the hall ceiling was now plastered.  There was a lighting fixture in the center of the ceiling.  And right there next to the lighting fixture poking through the plaster was a heavy  chunk of iron.  It was the bottom of the iron ring!  A tug on the rug revealed the expected but long unused trap door beneath our feet.  It was the Smith house!

The buyers who saw it that day did not buy the house but the next buyers, a young energetic couple, Janet and Jim, who were not afraid of a huge amount of work and had a passion for first period houses, did buy it. They saved it.

The location is truly remarkable.  It is near the top of Crane Neck Hill and faces south with the long lean-to facing the road. Although the location is many miles from the coast, from its height Ipswich Bay is visible.  In the opposite direction is Boston and looking to the right is Boston Hill in North Andover and beyond.  The panorama takes your breath away. Sarah recounts hearing her family talk of the townspeople who gathered on top of the hill to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill being played out at the time of the Revolution!  Today you see planes flying into Logan Airport in Boston.
An immense tree stands guard over the old house.
The condition was pretty awful.  There was cordwood in the parlor and chipmunks running around inside.  The great center chimney was falling apart and it was a small wonder that the house was still standing.
Ancient trees in the summer
Other details were discovered. There was evidence of the cupboard that was filled with pewter (shining like silver) in Sarah's time and much more.  The book was tantamount to having a blueprint guiding restoration of the house.  There were many descriptions of events in the life of the family living there but one event stands out.
Close-up of house and Smith family and old fruit trees
In the 1790s the farm was devastated by a tornado that took everyone by surprise in the middle of the night.  Dozens of fruit trees (70-80) were uprooted.   At the height of the tornado something crashed into the corner of the house terrifying the occupants as they frantically searched for candles in the pitch darkness in order to see what was happening.  Children and adults alike were terribly frightened and one child was hit by a flying missile.

With the light of day came the awful realization of the extent of the damage. The roof of the house was gone, all of the fruit trees were uprooted, the barn was in tough shape. A piece of the barn had struck the house. The farm seemed ruined. Word of the disaster spread and help came from areas untouched and outside of the swath carved by the tornado.  Many from the village arrived  to replant the fruit trees.   Gradually repairs were made and the farm recovered.

Another happy ending is that all of the fruit trees that were replanted that day survived!  Some are still visible in the old photograph of the house above.

Fast forward again to 1994.
.  
The new owners of the house, Jim and Janet, well into the restoration, needed to have the workmen open up a wall in the corner of the parlor.  It was reported to me that there was a big patch on the wall and it was extremely old being held together with 18th century rose head nails.  What could have caused this serious but ancient damage to the house?
Winter at Smith Place after restoration with well sweep as described in the book
The tornado, of course!  A piece of the barn had struck the house!  The details were in the book!  It was true.  What was revealed to human eyes for the first time in two hundred years was the damage to the house caused by the tornado that terrible night.

The old landmark has been saved. The house was identified positively as Smith Place, the ancient house where the author, Sarah, had grown up and written about so interestingly when she was ninety years old.  It is a remarkable marriage of house, book and historical document revealing the smallest details of an old dwelling house before and just after turn of the 19th century.  Few houses, if any, are as well documented.

At the time of our country’s bicentennial  (1976) Sarah’s book was reprinted and indexed under the new name of “Reminiscences of a Newburyport Nonagenarian.”  Another generation of readers, historians and preservationists discovered what I had known for years,  It is a book I turn to over and over in my research or just to pick up, open to any page, and start reading.  It’s that good!

Discover this gem for yourselves. It will become one of your favorites, too.  Mine is usually on my bedside table, ready to pick up at a moment's notice or just to grab on a sleepless night.

Reprints are available through Amazon.  Here is one person's review found on Amazon's site.

I absolutely love this book. It is my family's history and I am honored to have it.
This book provides a view of history when people were benevolent, God-fearing, and caring. The author provides amazing details of everyday life between 1787-1879 that would otherwise be unimaginable. The fashions, transportation, food preparation, public meetings, the Revolution, George Washington who came to town, oh, this is a gem of a book!

I agree!

Thank you for reading.

Pru


3 comments:

  1. You have sparked my interest to read this book! I love old homes and also I love a good read. I do believe I will gift myself this book for Christmas. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

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  2. This is a truly great house, having been inside of many times! It will always remain one of my favorites. Jim and Janet did an outstanding job!!!!

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  3. The book sounds very interesting. I love saltbox houses and enjoyed your story very much. I've been waiting for a saltbox story! Would love to see the restored house. I will be looking for this book also. Thank you. ~Christine

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