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, June 26, 2017



The Pillsbury-Dickinson House, Georgetown, MA,  Circa 1700

From the 17th century many families from England settled in New England where they established homes and families and put down deep roots.  Many of the names of the early settlers still prevail in Rowley and in all of the other towns that originally were part of the vast area referred to as "Ould Rowley".  As time went on they built their homesteads.  Many family members remained in that part of Ould Rowley that is now Georgetown, Groveland or Byfield.  

An early settler in this region was Rev. Ezekiel Rogers who claimed the land between Newbury and Ipswich.  This tract of land extended all the way to Andover and included Bradford.  His plantation, as it was called, was established in 1638.  Previously Rev. Rogers was pastor of the church at Rowley, Yorkshire, near Hull.

Rogers requested of the General Court a tract of land between Ipswich and Newbury which was granted.  The settlement was begun in the spring of 1639.  The area was referred to as the "new plantation".  The house that is the subject of this story was located in the Byfield Parish of Rowley but as the large tract of land was further subdivided into new towns this house became part of the newer town of Georgetown.

The present owner of the house has owned it for nearly 40 years and throughout this time has carefully preserved the old house.  There has been no attempt to make it look brand new, an approach that has cost many old houses its best and original fabric.  The Dickinson-Pillsbury house has escaped the "gut jobs" that so many early houses have fallen prey to in recent years.  There are no granite counter tops or phony beamed ceilings.  The exposed beams are original.  Likewise, no brick has been uncovered unless it is original.  The owner has studied every aspect of restoration and preservation and has adhered to rules of integrity.

The Pillsbury -Dickinson house in horse and buggy days.
Having escaped many of the alterations that have become fads in recent years, this house remains intact and retains as much integrity as humanly possible.

The house, the Dickinson-Pillsbury house, c.1700, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the following taken from their report supports the integrity mentioned above.

See National Register report below.

The Dickinson-Pillsbury house retains First Period integrity of location, design, workmanship, setting and feeling to a high degree in its surviving frame and simple features and fittings.  During restoration, the archaeologist owner did not remove early paint from the plaster walls or ceilings, nor the soot blackening the ceilings over the fireplaces.
The way to the barn
In addition, the house retains many simple fittings -wooden latches and pegs, hardware, cupboards and a shelf hung from the 
back of the chimney with wooden hangers - which combine with the unaltered finishes to more accurately portray the feeling of a First Period farm building than most of the houses surveyed.
The large cooking fireplace in the original great "hall.  19' x 19'

Front entry with closed staircase.
The very simplicity of the interior is probably representative of the great body of simple First Period farmhouses now lost to us. The analysis of paint and plaster evidence on the walls and ceilings may yield information important to our understanding of this type of building.  The unusual piecing of the 
right end girt is also worthy of future study.

The Dickinson-Pillsbury house is a 5 bay wide 2 1/2 story, central chimney structure with clapboards on the front and shingles on the sides and rear wall. There are hewn overhangs on the front and at the left gable end. The house began as a single cell 2 1/2 story structure to the right of the chimney bay. , The left-hand rooms were added within a generation. The ell projecting from the rear right-hand end was attached 1856.


This simple farm dwelling has escaped major remodeling over the years and retains much of its original First Period construction and finish. The growth of the house is visible primarily in the attic.  Abbott Lowell Cummings has found evidence of brick nogging in the walls up to the window sill  which confirms accounts in early family records.The owner found evidence during restoration that the original windows were of the type in which sills and headers were let into the studs. 
The large parlor, the second stage of the house.  Ceiling was always exposed.
The stylistic similarity of the two halves of this clearly two-stage house suggests that it was enlarged relatively soon after its initial construction. In the right hand room, the substantial hard wood
longitudinal summer beam has a flat chamfer with plain, coved (semi-lamb's tongue) stop at the outer wall and full lamb's tongue stops at the chimney girt. Joists are spaced 20-21 inches on centers. The chimney girt is covered with a box which has a crude quirked bead along the edge. 
The hall chamber

The house is important for its association with Paul Pillsbury, who purchased the house in 1801-2. Pillsbury was a prolific inventor who patented in 1863 a corn sheller which stripped the kernels from ears of corn. The principle behind his bark mill is still used in mills made today. He also invented the first shoe pegging machine, which was used in his house in Georgetown.

There is more!  

In 1856 a small cape was moved to the lot and attached as an ell at the right hand side of the house up against the oldest end of the dwelling.  It is more Greek Revival but offers more rooms and a back staircase to the second floor.

Here is one of the 1856 rooms in the ell, used
by the present owner as a breakfast room.

Here is the back entrance through the 1850s part of the house.
With landscaping and stone walkway it is particularly pleasing.

The back door of the house enters
into the 1856 section of the that was added.

A short distance from the house is a commodious 18th century barn!   It could be suitable for horses.
In addition there is a garden shed, perennial gardens.
Garden Shed 
Foxgloves near the barn.
The chain of title to the house is not clear.  Paul Pillsbury, the first of the Pillsburys to own the house, was actually a descendant of the Dickinson's so that although there is a different name it is still in the same family.
It has been called the James Dickinson house.  James Dickinson died in 1698.  Here is the inventory of his estate.  It is not clear whether he lived here or whether it was built after his death by his son, James.

By 1704 the house belonged to Samuel Dickinson, son of James.  Perhaps it was Samuel who added the early second stage of the house which is still clearly in the first period with a decorated frame.   He also acquired land from his brother, George, and his mother, Rebecca Dickinson Dresser, formerly the wife of James Dickinson, deceased.

This Samuel had a son, Samuel, Jr.  The house descended down through the Dickinson family until Samuel Dickinson's daughter,Sarah, married Parker Pillsbury in 1774.  This couple had a son, Paul Pillsbury, a significant inventor.  Paul made the old Dickinson-Pillsbury house his home.

Paul first invented a corn shelling machine and then a bark mill.

Next he invented  a machine for cutting shoe leather and a shoe peg system which revolutionized the shoe industry, so important in Essex County.  He was nicknamed "Peg" Pillsbury.  Pegged shoes became the standard for shoe construction and Paul Pillsbury made machinery for making the pegs which he sold throughout the area, the center of the early shoe industry.

Now the long-time owner of the Dickinson Pillsbury house has relocated to a smaller in-town house and the old Dickinson house is on the market for the first time in forty years.  It is a rare house and a rare opportunity for the purist to discover the practically untouched house of their dreams.

Although very authentic the house has all the conveniences of a new house.  It has a real kitchen, 2.5 bathrooms, and 21st century comforts.  Sitting high on a knoll, it is further protected by almost nine surrounding acres.

The Dickinson-Pillsbury house just might be the authentic first period house you waited years to find. If you would like to know more about this property please leave a comment for me and I will put you in touch with the owner.

And, by the way, the asking price is $649,900, not bad for a large antique house, acreage and antique barn!

It's waiting for you and ready for occupancy.

This house has had two price reductions and is now $549,900.  9/28/2017
An historic door yard



My blog has centered around antique houses of Gloucester, Massachusetts and some beyond recalling stories of other old towns in Essex County.

In the many months during which I have neglected my blog I did submit some stories to a local blog site called "Enduring Gloucester".

Here is one of my submissions from a year ago as I reminisce about coming to my house in the 1940s as a little girl for my summer vacation not knowing that I would ever own it or live here year 'round.   
This house is now one hundred and fifty four years old.  I never thought of it as being antique because it didn't have a big timber frame and it didn't have fireplaces for heating and cooking so in my opinion it wasn't much of an antique.   Now I think perhaps I should rethink my definition of antique house. It is an old house!

My introduction to this house was happenstance.  My mother was concerned about my summer cold that would not go away.  I was a preschooler when she took me to a doctor whose diagnosis and remedy was this; "She has hay fever.  Send her to the seashore."

So that is how I was suddenly shipped off to spend time with my mother's friend in the seaside village of Lanesville, part of the City of Gloucester.  And that was the pattern every year from then on.  

Now the house is mine and coming here to cure  hay fever, the best thing that ever happened to me. No one ever mentioned that the ragweed to which I was allergic likewise grows here in abundance! That little detail was never mentioned and never reared its head to spoil my summers in Lanesville.

Here are my recollections of those long ago summers at the sea shore posted here on June 26, 2017 after having first been  posted on ENDURING GLOUCESTER, June 29, 2016 just about a year ago.


Children on the Beach. Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927)
Children on the Beach.                                Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927)
The Boston and Maine trains played an integral role in my summer vacations in Gloucester.  Trains seem to have played a memorable role in the lives of many of my generation.
1Pru - Train Depot
Each summer my mother and I would take the train from my small hometown in central Massachusetts to rendezvous in Boston at North Station with “Auntie” with whom I would spend my long awaited summer vacation days in Lanesville and Folly Cove.
While in Boston we shopped at Jordan Marsh and Filene’s for a new bathing suit for me and a new dress and shoes for the first day of school in September.  Then if I was lucky enough we might visit Jack’s Joke Shop before riding the subway back to North Station and the Rockport line at Track 2. There I would say good-by to Mother and board the train to Gloucester with Auntie. In the early years engines were formidable, behemoth locomotives belching clouds of black smoke, later replaced by streamlined diesels.
2Pru - Train
My happy anticipation grew as we left the cities of Boston and Lynn behind and approached the Salem station.  At that point in our journey the lights were turned on in the passenger cars.  I knew what that meant. We were about to enter the tunnel.  How exciting that was to a four or five year old!
That event was followed by a sharp change in scenery.  After leaving the Beverly station there were glimpses of big houses, and blue ocean water.  And what was that funny sounding station…Montserrat? That stop was followed by Beverly Farms and Pride’s Crossing; then Manchester with sail boats in the harbor.
After passing the Lily Pond and the West Gloucester station, none too soon for me, the conductor would call out, “Gloucester, Gloucester.”
As we alighted from the train the familiar sights, sounds and smells left no doubt that we were really in Gloucester. Auntie and I then proceeded out to Washington Street to wait for the bus with me sitting on my suitcase in front of the Depot CafĂ© to wait for those big orange buses of the Gloucester Autobus Co.  We must watch for the bus that said “Lanesville, Folly Cove.”  That was very important. 3Pru - Orange busHeaven forbid that we get on the wrong bus!
While impatiently waiting on the sidewalk I stared at the big house on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and thought it was quite wonderful.  It was almost new then.  It is still wonderful but, like me, showing its age.
The landscape soon became more and more familiar.  As the bus made its way along Washington Street, Auntie, always a teacher, pointed out the old Ellery house and, on the opposite side of the road, the big yellow Babson house.  The construction of the rotary, Route 128 and the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge were still a distant idea.  Little did I know that these historical landmarks pointed out to me as a child would be so important to me as an avid preservationist many decades later.
Way down the road we traveled under the Riverdale Willows, saw the abandoned Hodgkins Tide Mill and crossed the causeway to Annisquam.  After a few more miles we passed the Consolidated Lobster Company at Hodgkins Cove. I was told with a slight tone of disapproval that their lobsters came from Nova Scotia and not as good as our Ipswich Bay lobsters.  Our lobsters would come from George Morey at Lanes Cove.
Shortly thereafter we went down one last hill and there was Plum Cove and the sandy beach!  Oh happy day! We’re almost there.
After stops in Lanesville the big orange bus traveled down Langsford Street until it approached Butman Avenue and Ranta’s Market.  It was extremely important to pull the overhead cord at just the right moment to tell the driver we wanted to get off, not too soon and not too late.
From there it was a short walk with Auntie dragging my suitcase (without wheels of course) up Butman Avenue to Washington Street after which it was downhill to Auntie’s house. The magic of my summer vacations was about to begin.
Every day was filled with fun at Plum Cove or Folly Cove.  Cloudy days were fun, too, with hikes through the woods on the Rockport Path to the Paper House in Pigeon Cove, picking blueberries, walking to Dogtown or a bus trip to Rocky Neck.  On Rocky Neck there was a wonderful shop that I loved called the La Petite Gallery.  Other trips to Bearskin Neck or shopping in downtown Gloucester filled the long summer days.  One trip to downtown each summer always included a stop at Gloucester’s vast City Hall so Auntie could pay her taxes.
It was with great sadness that at the end of August the trip by bus and train was reversed.  I huddled by the window hiding my face so no one would see my tears.  Next summer was such a long way off.
Every detail is forever burned in my brain.  Little did I know that Gloucester would become my permanent residence and that I would be living in Auntie’s house or that my children and grandchildren would also know the magic of summer in Lanesville.
Little did I know that in the warmer months I would be standing in the now so- called 1710 White-Ellery house, no longer across the road from the old yellow Babson house.  The ancient house is now located behind the Babson house and here is where once a month  in the summer I tell  visitors about the construction of the house and explain to them how it was moved across the road in 1947 to save it from demolition as Route 128 became a reality..
And that is where I was on the first Saturday in June as another summer on Cape Ann begins.  
(And that is where I will on the first Saturday of every month through October meeting and greeting people who have an interest in a three hundred year old house.)
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Abbott Lowell Cummings

Students of New England architecture, preservationist and lovers of early Massachusetts houses were saddened recently to learn of the death of Abbott Lowell Cummings, a man who had a great influence on so many people especially in my circle of preservationist friends.

After relocating in Newburyport, MA in 1971 just as urban renewal was getting off the ground, we soon found ourselves in close contact with others, like us, who had been drawn to Newburyport for its collection of decaying 18th and 19th century houses that had been languishing for years, shabby, run down but with mouth watering features and historic integrity just waiting to be rescued.

From time to time I would hear someone say something about someone I didn't know. " Abbott says....." was heard from time to time.  Who was Abbott?

I soon found out that Abbott Cummings was the undisputed expert on early houses and also Federal period houses inspired by Asher Benjamin of which Newburyport had many.

In 1979 he published his great book, "Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay", the bible for early houses then and still the best reference book out there.  An amazing book!

As time went on and I knew he would be speaking somewhere, I attended.  One memorable talk was one that he gave in the late 1980s at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society in Boston (NEHGS) at one of their "Come Home to New England"  summer programs.  The subject was "The Homes of Our Ancestors".  Tapes of his talk were sold and I played mine over and over in the car soaking up what he had said as I drove around.

Another memorable event was when my son, Bob, and I took a tour with Abbott through the Gedney house in Salem; an early, mostly shell of a 17th century house of four rooms.  The tour took hours!  I left the house with my brain on overload, dizzy from what I had absorbed or tried to absorb.  How could there be so much to learn in an empty house?

Gedney House, c 1665

Interior of the Gedney House, Salem, Ma

It was there that I first heard Abbott talk about dendrochronology as he pointed out the tree rings in a girt above a doorway.  That was long before dendro became available in New England.

In 2007 I was to be involved in a rare opening of the 1710 White-Ellery house in Gloucester. It is open on a regular basis these days but prior to this event had been closed up for many years.  I wrote to Abbott and asked him if he would come and perhaps say a few words about the house.  Much to my joy he accepted the invitation.

White Ellery new claps and cornice.JPG
White-Ellery House, Gloucester, MA  1710

He had previously been in the house in the 1950s with Alfred Mansfield Brooks, president of the Cape Ann Historical Association.  Not only did he come but he had the notes that he had originally taken when viewing the house nearly fifty years before.  He  spoke in front of a large crowd, too many to fit in the house, the rest of us listening through the open windows.

I was fortunate to visit him several times after he retired to Deerfield and discuss features that had left me puzzled.  Those visits were truly memorable events.

Lunch with Abbott Cummings in Deerfield, MA

In 1979 I bought "Framed Houses" and used it until it was shabby and falling apart but thanks to eBay I found another first edition online.  Just as I had done with the first one I asked Abbott to sign it. When he did he commented that I was the first to have worn on my original book and replaced it for him to sign again just as he had with the first one probably 30 years before.

He was 94 years old when he died and left legions of followers who relied on him as the ultimate authority.

The following is an obituary written by he long-time associate, Richard Candee.  It is perhaps the longest obituary I have ever read but there is no way to abbreviate his work and tribute to his life.

Here is the link which is probably more efficient than copying the long obituary but I hope you will read it and appreciate the legacy of this man so important to those of us who love old houses.  It was written by his long time associate, Richard Candee.


Abbott Cumming's scholarship and influence will always be remembered by those who knew and respected him...and there are many.


Three old timers.  Abbott Cummings,  Elizabeth Hough, benefactor of the
Sargent House Museum in Gloucester and Harold Bell, then president 
of the Cape Ann Historical Association, now Cape Ann Museum.   All
three made contributions to preservation and all now passed on. 
Pru Fish Photo  1990s


In late 2015 the City of Gloucester was threatened with the loss of several houses.  In the end one was saved, one was demolished and one was gutted to the studs and turned into condos.  

Gloucester is America's oldest seaport; a small city founded in 1623 where preservation should be paramount.  Peabody, a short distance away, is a tired industrial city with less to preserve.  A significant building, one that was familiar to me, in Peabody was also threatened with demolition.

The following story is taken from a piece I wrote at that time and submitted to Enduring Gloucester, a local blog, (enduringgloucester.com) some of which I will repeat here along with a follow-up.  The date was October 13, 2015.


We accept the fact that Gloucester is America's oldest seaport but it is easy to take this distinction for granted.  In addition Gloucester has a rich history in the art world.  The list of painters who came to Gloucester, drawn by the scenery and the special light, is a who's who in art.  Throw in the history of the granite industry, the uniquely ethnic neighborhoods and last but not least, the architecture.

Switching gears, let's talk about the City of Peabody.  Peabody?  Of all the towns and cities on the North Shore what's so historic about Peabody?

The City of Peabody was separated from Danvers and was the scene of leather workers and tanneries.  The tanneries are mostly gone and although that city is proud of its history few would compare it to Gloucester on any level.  It is a city of malls, old factories, busy highways and a central square that is sometimes under water.  Above all it doesn't have a harbor and any comparison to Gloucester, Le Beauport, would seem to be ludicrous.

Although Peabody doesn't have much going for it compared to Gloucester, in one respect it has Gloucester beat hands down.  Here's why.

In the late 1890s J. B. Thomas built a house for his grandson.  He spared nothing to create a beautiful house smack dab in the middle of the city on the corner of Main Street and Washington Street.  It also had fabulous carriage house in the rear not to mention an enormous and beautiful old beech tree in the front.

The Thomas family lived in the house for 15 or 20 years before selling it to the O'Sheas.  It then became known as the O'Shea house until sold around 1970 and converted into a furniture store.  After the furniture store owners retired the house was sold to a social agency.

In recent years the house has fallen on hard times and was foreclosed.  Bank owned, it was available for sale.

In a scenario that is far too familiar, a developer from our own City of Gloucester eyed this high visibility site for redevelopment and negotiated to purchase it.  He made it known that his intent was to demolish the old house.  He was so taken with the site he had not, according to reports, even looked at its wonderful interior.  This is when the story takes a remarkable turn.

Unlike Gloucester, this community, Peabody, has a demolition delay ordinance and has had one since 1986, more than thirty years ago.  It was invoked in an attempt to save the O'Shea house. But when  the City realized that the delay was not long enough to be effective the city council boldly extended the  ordinance from 90 days to one year, 365 days, to buy more time, a lease on life for the old house in question.

The trend is for longer delay periods as towns where demolition delay has been tested understand that in order to be effective, longer delays must be enacted and are addressing this finding. Meanwhile, remember, Gloucester doesn't even have a demolition delay ordinance, still rolling out the red carpet for developers who care little for the historical value of the properties they would demolish.  

(Newburyport, a most beautiful nearby city, has found out the hard way that developers gutting their beautiful Federal period mansions for condo conversion leaving them a pretty shell with all of the original interior fabric, destroyed or scrapped.  They are just now recognizing and assessing their loss.)

Determined not to lose this historic house, the City of Peabody, led by the mayor and supported by the Peabody City  Council, made a second bold move.  They announced they would take the house by eminent domain!  The house will be saved and it will be interesting to see what happens next.  The City can potentially recover their fair market value purchase price and will have the option to sell it with preservation covenants or easements to protect it into the future.  This is what anyone caring about the house hopes will happen.

Perhaps eminent domain is a tool that Gloucester should invoke from time to time when a historic building is in jeopardy.  How is it that  Peabody can take such a decisive seep while Gloucester languishes totally vulnerable with no demolition delay and only a tiny historic district?

Who would think that Peabody would have the foresight and courage to act so decisively?  Why is Gloucester so indifferent?

Is it because Peabody has so much less to save that they are galvanized into making such a bold move?

Regardless of what motivated them, I say, "Kudos to Peabody"  May they lead by example!

June 20, 2017

I wrote the above story on October 13, 2015.  Having heard no more about the O;Shea house I moved on and did not follow up.  This morning's paper and the following article jolted me into the realization that I had taken for granted that the house was safe.

The developer, Michael Corsetti, who happens to come from Gloucester, is suing the City of Peabody saying that his civil rights were violated when the City took the property.

Here is an unbelievably exquisite property now in the hands of a developer who is is determined to win this battle with the City of Peabody although he has no credentials and no background in preservation.  He is typical of the developers such as those that have attacked the City of Newburyport to convert historic properties into money makers for themselves and then move on. When preservation easements are ignored they offer the community a sum of money to compensate the community in lieu of having respected the history, architecture or even the covenants on the property.  This trick has worked in some instances.

It is a sad state of affairs and I hope Peabody keeps fighting this callous developer tooth and nail.

For more details here is a link to the updated newspaper story published today, June 20, 2017.


Also, related to this sad story is the piece I wrote in this blog called "Why Are You Gutting This House" October 13, 2016, exactly one year after the O'Shea house story.  This piece addressed what was happening in Newburyport, a city that has a lot to lose.

Each community has its sob story recounting the loss of special properties.  It is not an easy problem to solve but demolition delay and preservation easements can help.  These historic towns and cities need to employ all the tools available to slow down the destruction of antique and significant properties.

Good luck to Peabody!