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

THE ISLAND HOME OF JOHN MARQUAND THAT COULD NOT BE SAVED

KENT'S ISLAND , NEWBURY, MA

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.



8 comments:

  1. I was wondering if it is possible to confirm the names of the man and boy who are plowing. I think that they could be family members of mine. Lewis Henry Short b. 1859 and his son Henry Moses Short 1907-1985. I have census reports and family letters that puts the widower and his son living as farm hands at Kent's Island when Henry M Short was 10-12. The man looks like he could be Lewis.

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    1. Laurie, that is interesting. I checked the census and they were living there in 1920. Seems possible but the question is how old is the photo? Check the web site newbury1635.org/houses.html. The house is listed under M for Marquand. It is the website of the Newbury Historical Commission. There is contact information. I hope you can find the answer. That would be great!

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  2. Great story as usual. One thing though. The Marquands lived in the Brick House not the YellowHouse when they came to visit Curson's Mill. John Marquands Hale cousins lived in the Yellow House. Only after Marquands court case against his cousins did he finally get what he really wanted in the Court Settlement, The Yellow House & The Mill. Another historical tidbit is that the Brick House was built by Marquands great aunt Lizzie Curson Hoxie. Lizzie had been a member of the Brook Farm Commune in West Roxbury. While there she met her husband John Hoxie who was from New York state. The married after Brook Farm collapsed, but didn't move back to Newburyport til the late 1850's. The Brick House was built at that time.

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  3. The picture with Robert Frost was not taken at Marquand's home. It was taken at the Little Theater in Ripton, Vermont (Breadloaf Writers' Conference). Photo is in the collection of Middlebury College.

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  4. Thanks for the great blog post! We walked there today for the first time. We saw the nuts you're talking about and those are the fruits of the black walnut tree.

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  5. This blog was great! I am trying to find the date of the newest bridge over the B&M - pedestrian only. It appears to come from the Old Town Hill side. any help would be appreciated. the photo shows this bridge with wooden "bottom".

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  6. My family called that place home for over three hundred years, but now we can never go back.

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