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.