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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


When I first decided to go into real estate I went to work in an office in Ipswich, MA.  I knew little about the town other than it had a huge number of early houses.  That appealed to me. The manager of the office took me on a tour of several neighborhoods. Then he sent me off to explore by myself to be better acquainted with the town that was spread out over somewhere around thirty square miles.

Before long I found myself on a long country road leading to a dead end.  As I got near the end I passed a run down industrial building that had protein in its name.  I later learned it was referred to as the “dog food factory”.  Here they cooked up something that was an ingredient in dog food.  On the opposite side of the street was what was left of a slaughter house. There were areas of swamp. Pretty unsavory neighborhood.  Then I saw it!   An ancient house, overgrown, but with a saltbox lean-to roof reaching almost to the ground.

I hurried back to the office to ask my manager about this incredible old house.  He didn't know anything about it but suggested that we go back down, look at it and maybe talk to the occupants.

The long low saltbox that originally caught my eye.
Gable end of the house where it was cut in half..  There are no windows.
We jumped into his sharp BMW and drove back down this creepy road.  We parked in front of the house, got out of the car and were immediately surrounded by several large dogs.  My manager, David, was plastered up against his car not daring to move. 

Being very much of a dog person I plowed through the pack and knocked on the door of the dilapidated house.  Here I was greeted by more large dogs leaping at the glass in the door from the inside.

No one was home!

A couple of years went by.  I responded to a call for volunteers to help with a house inventory for the Massachusetts Historical Commission.  I was assigned to research the old house.  No one had ever been inside.  No one knew much about it although, suspecting that it might be very old, they wanted to know.

I began to do the research at the Registry of Deeds but was diverted to another old wreck  that was in more of an emergency situation.

The front of the Day house showing the added bay on the right
 A man named Mark had purchased the salvage rights to this other ancient house and was dismantling the paneling, staircase and whatever he could get save for resale.  Part of the back right hand corner of the house had already collapsed into the cellar.  He needed to be convinced that he should sell the house, return the materials and that someone have the opportunity to  restore the house on its original site.
To make a long story short, Mark agreed.  I found a buyer for the land. The house would be sold separately by Mark as personal property, selling his salvage rights thereby enabling a buyer to acquire both house and land.  The new buyer set out to save the house on its original site and he did save it.

After having facilitated the sale of the other old house  much time had passed and  I never did get back to researching the old house at the end of the road.  No one else did either.  In fact, most people in this town didn't even know the existence of this neighborhood at the end of the road so far off the beaten path.

More years went by.  There was a new manager in my office…Joe. Everyone knew how curious I was about the old saltbox.  One day Joe told me that his little boy had been invited to a birthday party at the old house.  He would have to pick up his son after the party and would ask the tenants (it was non owner occupied) if we could go inside.

Joe was successful and I went back with a camera to look at the house.  It was clearly first period with very heavy framing and a beautiful summer beam with a wide flat chamfer and carved lamb's tongue chamfer stop..

The tenants were very nice people and accommodating so I was able to go back another time with an expert in tow.  I also had several sets of prints made to give to the historical commission and the historical society so there would be a record of what was inside.

There was a story about this house that was well documented and true.

The house at some time in the past was owned by two brothers.  They didn't get along so did something drastic about the situation.

They removed the chimney and cut the house in half right down the middle. One brother took his half and moved it into the Willowdale Forest where he lived in it until it burned down.

The remaining half on it's original site no longer had its chimney and in the space where the chimney had been was a narrow, straight staircase accessing the second floor. There were no windows on the side of the house where its other half was missing.

There was some evidence that the house was built in two halves.  I don't believe if it was ever determined whether this was the oldest half or whether the other half was even older.

The only neighbor was a frightening looking man who bragged that he as he built his house he insulated the walls with the bottles of the beer he drank while working on his house.

Large summer beam with a flat chamfer
More years went by and the tenants moved out.  The man with the protein company also owned the house.  He was ready to retire and move to Florida and wished to sell the factory, the house and the acreage.
Developers were attracted to the property because of the acreage.  I envisioned someone restoring the old house as a centerpiece of a small development with houses compatible with the antique. perhaps even reconstructed antique houses.

Unfortunately, the man who bought the property didn’t want anything to do with the old house. It would be bulldozed.  I called Jim and Janet of Smith Place and told them what was going on.  Jim ultimately obtained salvage rights to the old house from the developer and began to systematically dismantle the house with numbers and photos of everything needed for re-erecting the house at his new location.

Marriage of Royal Barry Wills Cape, c. 1950 and the old Day house, c. 1700
Barn built to go with the Day house
This couple had recently purchased a Royal Barry Wills cape in Boxford.  Jim envisioned rebuilding the old Day house and attaching it to the cape.  The cape would then become the ell to the Day house.

After acquiring salvage rights to the old house, Jim and a crew began to carefully take the old Day house  apart.

This project was highly successful as seen in the photographs.  The chimney was rebuilt by master restoration mason, Richard Irons.  Jim and Janet had saved another house!

Julianna stands in the newly rebuilt walk-in fireplace

Along the way some land across the street came up for sale.  A new broker in our office had never made a sale but he had a live customer for the property which was opposite the protein factory.  The potential buyer made several appointments as he moved toward an offer on the land.

One Saturday morning the buyer was coming for a last look and hopefully to make an offer.  We were all rooting for the new broker, Ed, and hoping he would finally break the ice and make a sale..  He left the office

with a measuring wheel, boots for the wetland area and whatever else he might need.  A lot of time went by and Ed hadn't  returned. 

Finally, the buyer burst into the office visibly upset and announced that we should tell Ed that he was very sorry but he could not buy the land.  Why not?

It seemed that as the buyer made his way that Saturday morning to the property to meet Ed the road was blocked in the next town by an accident and he couldn't get through.  The protein truck with its ugly liquid cargo had overturned on a major highway and spilled its contents all over the road.  No one could pass.  The buyer was stuck behind the overturned truck.  "Please", he said, “Tell Ed I am terribly sorry but I don’t ever want to smell that smell again.  I want nothing to do with that neighborhood.”

Soon the dejected broker returned to the office, shoulders sagging, thinking he had been stood up.  We never saw that buyer again and that was it for the new broker, as well.  He packed it in, deciding that real estate was not for him.

I recently drove down that long road for the first time in years.  The vestiges of that scary neighborhood are long since erased and there are many new houses including four or five on the property where the old house once stood.  They are typical builder's houses but the landscaping has matured, everything is well kept and the country neighborhood is home to families living in comfortable homes.  These new proud homeowners can't have a clue as to what went on there 20 or 30  years ago.  An air of respectability reigns over this once derelict rural land.

Few houses can top the trials and tribulations of the old Day house next to the “dog food factory”.  But old house heroes,  Janet and Jim, had saved another house.  It wasn't their first and it wouldn't be their last.

Here is a selection of photos shared by Jim and Janet showing many of the steps along the way toward the saving the Day house in its new location.  It was an ambitious project with a spectacular outcome.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Jim and Janet for sharing their photos and for always being there with energy and enthusiasm to save distressed old houses.



  1. Thanks for this story Pru. When I moved to Ipswich I heard that a first period house on Pineswamp Road had been moved to Topsfield, and now I know the story. I had no idea that it was such a forsaken area in the past! Gordon Harris, chairman, Ipswich Historical Commission

    1. Thanks for your comment. Pine Swamp Road was a nice country road until you reached the end. The old house was owned by the Gwinn brothers when it was bisected and half of it moved. MHC dated the house to 1725 but it was closer to 1700 or maybe a little before. The minute I walked inside and saw the summer beam and lamb's tongue I knew it was absolutely first period. It is very different down there today!
      I'm glad to know that you are reading my blog! There will be another Ipswich story in the near future.

  2. Thanks for this information Pru. Very interesting! I moved into a home next to this location on Pineswamp in 1997. I remember the old structure well. I heard stories from neighbors about the bisection and move into Willowdale. The area sure has changed !

    1. It is nice to hear from you. Most of my readers are not familiar with the area and unable to imagine what a creepy place it was when you first saw it. I have driven down there within the last year and it is a nice solid, established residential area for families with children. No remaining evidence of the "dog food factory" or the old slaughter house!

  3. I love this story. Who were the Days who owned the house? They may be part of my Day lineage.

  4. I love this story. Who were the Days who owned the house? They may be part of my Day lineage.

  5. Hi Paula, I just happened to see your comment for the first time. I don't know much about this Day family. I think I did some research way back. I'm inclined to think that they came from Gloucester but can't verify that. Day is an early name on Cape Ann. Does this make sense?