It Happened on Salem Common

Increasing concern that the City might locate a commercial carnival on Salem Common during Haunted Happenings has brought me out of my seventeenth-century reverie: the present interrupts the past! The Common has been the site of concessions and children’s activities for quite some time, but the carnival, adopted over a decade ago to enhance the family-friendliness of Salem’s long Halloween season, was situated on a vacant lot on Derby Street. This lot is presently in the process of being transformed into a waterside park, so the hunt is on for a new location. This first came to the public attention just last month: I think many people in Salem–myself included—simply assumed that we were done with the carnival but apparently that is not the case. As with everything else related to Haunted Happenings, commercial concessions and “attractions” are somehow translated into a public good, and this is the rationale for the location of a private enterprise in a very public place: the beautiful Salem Common.

Salem Common 1836 Barber

Salem Mechanick Quick Step

Common 1863Salem Common in 1836 and 1863: Historical Collections of Massachusetts by John Warner Barber; Fitz Hugh Lane for Moore’s Lithography, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It’s not a done deal yet: there is actually a municipal ordinance specifically prohibiting mechanical rides or amusements, including carnivals and circuses on the Common, as well as general guidelines stating that that activities on the Common should not interfere or disturb the peace and enjoyment of all the citizens of the city and protecting it from adverse wear and tear. Of course having a carnival on the Common runs contrary to all of these codes, but the necessities of Haunted Happenings are paramount, and the City Council can waive these restrictions. There was a public hearing last week which I could not attend, but from what I’ve heard there was considerable resistance but also support for the idea. Those in the latter camp make a consistent argument that the Common has always been a busy place, and they are correct: just a casual glance at the historical record reveals a succession of military drills, pageants, rallies, baseball games and bicycle races, as well as balloon ascensions, firemen’s musters, and concerts—with some events drawing very large crowds. Every year about this time there were huge festivals marking the end of the playground season during which children from all of the neighborhood parks in the city would gather, compete and perform: I’m wondering when this tradition ended? The Common was a refuge for those displaced by the Great Salem Fire in 1914, the venue for the 700-cast-strong pageant performed for the Salem Tercentenary celebrations in 1926, and the scene of many triumphs–and also a few tragedies.

Common 1916

Salem Common Pageant 1916

Salem Common 1918

Salem Common 1920 Northend HNE

Common 1923

Salem Common SSU 1925

Salem COmmon Pageant 1926

Common 1935 Processing Tax

Common 1961All newspaper articles from the Boston Globe: playground festivals in 1916 and 1923, a film for the troops in 1918, a farmer’s market in 1920 (Historic New England), the celebration of the opening of the Hawthorne Hotel in 1925 and the stage for the Tercentenary pageant in 1926, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; a protest against the processing tax during the Depression, and an unfortunate death on Salem Common.

There is one thing that these very diverse events have in common: they were all public events. I’ve heard tales of sad circuses in more recent days, but for the most part Common events were held for the common good or were an expression of the common will. Even without taking into account the potential damage to the Common, or the noise, or the length of time involved (3 weeks?) it’s hard to see how a private carnival meets this criteria, but then again there is that very public portrayal of Haunted Happenings.  Another way of examining the civic perception of the Common is to look at projects, events and/or installations which were declined, and my favorite example of these is a statue proposed for the Common by millionaire Fred E. Ayer in tribute to his Southwick ancestors, who were persecuted intensely by Salem Puritans for their Quaker beliefs. In 1903 Ayer commissioned the very prominent sculptor J. Massey Rhind (who would later craft the statue of Joseph Hodges Choate at the corner of Essex and Boston Streets), who came up with a model depicting a Tiger, representing voracious Puritanism, about to devour his Quaker victims. After several years of deliberation, Salem’s Council said NO to the statue’s placement on the Common, the most treasured plot of ground in Salem, in the words of Alderman Alden P. White.

Salem Common 1906

16 responses to “It Happened on Salem Common

  • Brigitte Fortin


    I am an architect in Salem. I really enjoyed reading your posts and love to see the old images of Salem.

    I am working on a project at 94 Washington Square and was wondering if you ever saw old photos or images of the building. All I can find is a photo in the 1950s or so, and a very old sepia print. We are trying to restore the front facade to it’s second ‘phase’, after 1850s when the house was renovated in the Italianate style.

    I contacted the historical society but of course everything is in Boxford, and not accessible. Looking forward to hearing from you,

    Brigitte Fortin, AIA

    32 Church st,



    • daseger

      Hi Brigitte, I imagine you mean the former Knights of Columbus building which means you work for my neighbor! There is a drawing of it here: I think this is the period that you might be looking for: do you mean that you contacted Historic Salem, Inc.? I would think they would have some files. Otherwise, the Phillips Library, which is in Rowley rather than Boxford would also have some Frank Cousins photos of this house. They do not have much online, but they are open during the week so accessible.

    • Nelson Dionne

      I recently added a copy of the circa 1860 drawing of the Kimball mansion to my collection at the SSU Archive.. No long drive to through traffic on Rte. 1 A to Rowley at the convenience of the PEM,. NO security checks, ID cards, etc. Just call Archivist Susan
      Edwards at 978-542-6781..
      I also added a large number of Kimball family billheads to fill in some gaps in Salem transportation history. We have no knowledge of how much out fair city depended on horses way back when, nor
      any idea of how many jobs were tied to our horses.
      I have enough primary source material about early Salem transportation to write several books, or advanced degree thesis
      at the SSU Archive..

  • FairytaleFeminista

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I have always thought of the common, any common, as a place to escape the bustle and noise of city life. Having a carnival on Salem Common runs contrary to that and no one needs a safe haven more than Salem residents trying to escape the month long bacchanal that is Haunted Hapoenings!

  • Piper B.

    I’ve always admired your squeaky wheel attitude. Although at times it must be exhausting. Keep fighting the good fight. I’m rooting for you!


    The man killed in Essex was my best friend (at the time) Her uncle. My father was a very good friend of him and his brother. It broke many families. My best friends parents divorced and it just was so sad and I will always remember as a child being told of the tragedy I wasn’t there. I think it was hay season. Penelope Crane

  • Nelson Dionne

    I do recall that there was a circus held on the Common circa 1980, & the world did not have any of the predicted problems.

    If anything, the area should be used for may activities than it is. I could use my connections with the “Military Vehicle Preservation Association”
    to add a antique military vehicle show there if the “First Muster” event
    was held later when the year was was warmer

    How about holding more musical concerts in the underused band stand.
    Jean Missud’s music has not been heard in the city for decades !

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    I am doing a lot of reading and writing on the Frost Fairs on the River Thames which has nothing much to do with Salem. But I love the idea of public fairs/festivals where ordinary families could participate. What a shame that the huge annual festivals for Salem children died out.

    • daseger

      Love those frost fairs! Well, Salem does quite a few festivals—I think a lot of people who say the parade that opens up Haunted Happenings in early October is similar to what your are talking about.

      • Nelson Dionne

        Sometimes, as the world changes, many good, long lived customs fall by
        the wayside. At one time, people lived their life , and rarely left their home town. When I grew up in Salem, I got to see the world change.
        I was born in 1947, making me an early member of the Post WWII Baby
        I have a good friend, Salem born & raised who was my window to how
        everything seemed turn upside down “almost overnight” His family business was selling wholesale meat to North Shore restaurants & small
        local markets. His father would drive into Boston’s Faneuil Hall market before dawn, They would buy whatever the customers ordered, The afternoon was spent dropping off meat.
        Believe it or not, ,people were amazed that they actually drove in & out of Boston daily.. The small number of daily committers rode the B&M into North Station. Driving anywhere was uncommon. The General Electric’s Lynn River Works,plant had it’s own Train Station.many of the workers
        rode in car pools. By & large, people had no real knowledge of Lynn,
        even less of Boston.

        I graduated from Salem HS in the Class of ’65. At he Prom, the
        police would have been hard pressed to find more than a few six-packs
        of Narragansett or Pabst in a class of over 400.

        When I returned in August of 1969,, Massive change was everywhere.
        Well liked SHS Principal Chet Arnold had retired.. There was so much
        pot & alcohol being used on & off campus,, that there could have liquor store on campus.

        I was along way from Boston. I missed the whole hippie movement, though I did get to see “The Combat Zone,”in all it’s glory., I was a student at
        ‘The University of Beverly, AKA BC By the Tracks”.. Salem Normal
        school was no longer a 2 building sleepy school for teachers. They began
        by adding a business degree around 1964.,followed by a growth spurt yet to end. All was reported by a brand new tabloid “Boston After Dark” which later became the “Boston Phoenix”.distributed free in & around the many Boston colleges. One thing about the “alternative weeklies; you could never mistake them for the Boston Globe.

        I graduated in 1973, into a region so deep into hard time that the line at
        the Lynn Unemployment office ran out the door, down the street & around the corner..

        I was glad to find a minimum wage job ($2.25 hourly ! ).. The rest of the decade was one one memorable year after another.

        The changes came slowly in Salem. Blue collar jobs dissipated as
        leather tanneries, shoe shops and small firms closed leaving broken workers, and muddy heavily contaminated lots. Our years of success
        ended as retailing changed. No longer could a small business like Jake
        Share’s Stationary emporium on Front St. attract other small business
        by carrying anything that they needed… Just ask, & Jake would reach
        high, or low to fetch a wider selection that a Staples claims to have. Salem’s old buildings quickly vanished as plans for a city of the future were designed by the big thinkers. They saw our old city has a place to create a bold statement ,with some one else paying the bills. Salem began to tear down many. worn out buildings in 1969. Much of the “New Salem”was designed by “Bold Thinkers” and failed to consider our snowy winters. Salem changed slowlly.

        More later if you would like to hear more Salem Tales.


  • Anne Sterling

    The photo of the green dining room took my brain back 40 odd years to my “History of Color” interior design course at Endicott College. That particular shade of green in the photo is known as Adam’s Green, and the that style of decor, which is Georgian neoclassic, is known as Adams Style. If you are interested google Adams Style and see other examples of this beautiful neo-Federal style interior design and other rooms painted in elegant Adam’s Green. Love that color, loved that course.

  • Adele Maestranzi

    I have a circus poster for weekend performances on the common. Dates are Friday July 2 to Sunday July 4. The years that had those particular dates are 1960, 1971, 1976, and 1982. I moved here in 1992, so this was before my time here. I don’t think this poster is older than 1960. Do you know what year the Beatty-Cole Circus was on the common?

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