Villages out of Time and Place

So this is going to be one of those posts in which I ask a lot of questions and have no answers (I think; maybe I will get to some). I’m trying to work out my own thoughts about a particular place and what it means: writing is one way to do that, as is solicitating the views of others, so blogging is a means to get to meaning. The place in question is Pioneer Village: Salem in 1630, a cluster of structures situated in Forest River Park which was built under the auspices of “architect-antiquarian” George Francis Dow as a representation of first-settlement Salem for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630. The very engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the village, and then another recreation, of the ship Arbella of the Winthrop fleet, set sail for Boston. Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. Over the next few decades, a succession of outdoor history museums opened up across the country, including Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem in North Carolina (1932 & 1950, respectively) and three additional institutions in Massachusetts alone:  Old Sturbridge Village (1947), Historic Deerfield (1952) and Plimoth Plantation (1957; now Plimoth Patuxet Museums).

Pioneer Village today and in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth photographs.

So if you have visited any of these museums as well as Pioneer Village you will immediately notice a dramatic difference in terms of size, scale, and apparent resources and mission. The former are all administered as foundations or corporations with large staffs and budgets; Pioneer Village has for the most part been a municipal initiative run by the City of Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission with the exception of recent brief periods when it was administered by several collaborations of local history and preservation professionals, the House of the Seven Gables, and a local college (not Salem State University, which is located nearby, but rather Gordon College in Wenham). Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing. The Arbella (which returned to its home “port” after the Boston celebrations) was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1954 and the only period structure, the Ruck House, was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. In 1985, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the Village, but the first of a series of restoration and reactivation efforts reopened the site in 1988. From that point on, it has been a case of good intentions but insufficient resources, and now the City has proposed a rather radical plan to “save” Pioneer Village by exchanging its site with that of the turn-of-the-century tuberculosis Camp Naumkeag at Salem Willows. The rationale behind this proposed move is sound on paper—the Salem Willows is on the trolley route and the ballpark and other recreational spaces at Forest River are definitely expansive—but I am wondering if a Salem Willows Pioneer Village will still be Pioneer Village. And I am also wondering what Pioneer Village is. As I said at the outset, I’ve got a lot of questions, but these are the big three:

  1. What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
  2. Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
  3. If Pioneer Village, such as it is, is moved to another site, will it still be Pioneer Village, whatever that is?

Significance: To tell you the truth, I’ve never given Pioneer Village much thought. I teach seventeenth-century history, and this site has been in walking distance from my classrooms over my entire career: have or would I ever use it as a teaching resource? No. It was seldom consistently accessible and never in very good shape, and now I have all of the digital teaching tools that I need. I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride. Before Salem became Witch City, its leadership and residents were much more focused on productivity than infamy, and I think the Village still represents the former for those who wish the “Salem story” was a bit less focused on the Witch Trials. I like the terms “architectural museum” and “restoration village” used by the architectural historian Edward N. Kaufman, who traces the origins and inspiration for Pioneer Village and its successors to the big nationalist expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, commencing with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris International Exposition of 1867: the latter had several recreated villages, like the “Austrian” and “Russian Peasant”  Villages  below. Like Pioneer Village, these were exhibits built for a specific event. Unlike Pioneer Village, they were dismantled after that event. Americans, including residents of Salem and its region, wanted their “history” stay around for longer.

Austrian and Russian Villages, International Exposition of 1867, Paris.

When you look at Pioneer Village as something that was built (and rebuilt) as an expression of civic pride it takes on the cast of a monument rather than a historical resource, at least for me. Another perspective relates to the history of preservation (or preservation technology in particular), one in which I had never explored before in relation to Pioneer Village. Apparently it was very consequential in demolishing the “Log Cabin Myth” which held that every seventeenth-century European arrival lived in a log cabin à la Lincoln. In his classic book of the same name, Howard Shurtleff observed that the myth was “an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious” and credited Dow for refuting it: Mr. Dow included in his reconstructed Salem a number of small framed cottages, each provided with a brick or “catted” chimney, and roofed with thatch. Some were walled with weatherboarding, sheathed with material boards, and the intervening space filled with “nogging”—clay, chopped straw and refuse bricks; others were walled with wattle and daub. This “Salem Pioneer Village” still stands (in 1939, when Shurtleff was writing and 20 years later, when his landmark book was reissued) and has proved far more effective than books in refuting the Log Cabin Myth. All of the contemporary commenters on Pioneer Village really emphasized its traditional, “authentic” construction, and this became another point of civic pride as Salem businesses made comparisons between their own productivity and that of their colonial predecessors in annual programs such as “Early American industries portrayed at the Pioneer’s Village, Salem, Mass.” In 1936, the Hygrade-Sylvania company presented an exhibit on early illumination, while the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company sponsored a demonstration of flax weaving and culture and local druggist John E. Heffernan highlighted seventeenth-century herbal medicines. The theme was very much see how far we have come in the midst of the Depression. The national Chronicle of Early American Industries, founded in 1933 and still in print, referenced Pioneer Village in nearly every issue.

Ok, now I’ve hit academic cruise control and could go on for quite some time: but this isn’t a journal article, it’s a blog post. So I’m going to start wrapping up in relation to my questions.

Significance conclusions: clearly Pioneer Village was significant in its time (1930) and for at least two decades thereafter. I think it’s still significant as an example of how a city uses its history, but I do not think it is an educational resource (bear in mind, I teach college students; early childhood educators might have a different opinion). I really think it’s a monument, like the Bewitched statue downtown, but much, much better in the sense that it seeks to highlight achievement and industry rather than exploit tragedy. I don’t have enough information to comment on its current state of repair and whether the original 1930 buildings could even make the move: because the City of Salem has “preserved” the Village it is now an historic artifact and will be subject to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. If the move is undertaken, I hope an expert in preservation technology and/or an architectural historian is consulted.

Should it be saved: yes, but with a clear understanding of what it is and what is it supposed to do. I only see logistical rationales for the move in the public discourse.

Will it still be Pioneer Village in Salem Willows? No. It will be something else entirely: a new Pioneer Village. It could be a hybrid Salem: 1630 and Salem: 2026 if the construction integrity of the original structures is preserved through the move, and new structures built utilizing the evidence and knowledge we have gained over the intervening century. The new Village could be a testament to both the Tercentenary spirit of 1930 and the Salem Quadricentenary spirit of 2026. If that was the aim, it would be nice to have Salem craftsmen, architects, and landscape architects involved in creating (rather than recreating) the new Pioneer Village: successors to George Francis Dow and Harlan Kelsey.

What Salem really needs: not a new Pioneer Village, but a new Salem Museum, which would integrate, interpret, and document ALL of Salem’s history: first settlement, Witch Trials, American and Industrial Revolutions, the experience of the Civil and World Wars,  native American, African-American, Irish American, Polish American, French Canadian and American, and everything and everyone between. Enough of this “siloed history!” This of course would be the ultimate Quadricentennial achievement and expression.


12 responses to “Villages out of Time and Place

  • Chris

    Interesting post. Do you know where I can find more info on Camp Naumkeag and specifically the Waterfront Park playground that’s just downhill from the camp?

    The playground has been closed to the public for at least 15 years but apparently it was safe enough for the Y camp kids to use it.

    • Maggie Meahl

      I was told that is part of the reason they are moving Pioneer Village so as to accommodate the Y kids’ camp.

      As far as Pioneer Village goes,. I really like its present setting. Although not historically accurate, as far as topography and location, I believe Dow was informed and as accurate as possible in his early 20th century interpretation of First Generation New England shelters. I believe PV can sort of give someone “the feel” for the type of shelters put up by the residents. I wish they had maintained the dugouts.

      Based on Salem’s track record, I doubt they will make Pioneer Village “better” whatever that means. But let’s celebrate Dow—he is an important historian of this overlooked time period. I wish they would just improve it, market it, maintain it, and interpret it—not move it. Only saving grace would be Tad Baker in charge of it.

    • daseger

      Well Camp Naumkeag is pretty old, so it is on MACRIS, Chris. I also found some information on it through the United Salem Charities reports, which are on the Internet Archive.

  • bradaustin

    Thanks for this, Donna. Would love to see the city’s leaders embrace the idea of a Salem History Museum.

  • Don Kobos

    Ms. Seger, as a Salem native, I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s spending most of my play time at Forest River Park. Whether it was playing little league baseball, basketball, skating on the pond ice in the winter, swimming in the giant pool or sliding down the giant cement slide with part of a card board box under my be-hind, Forest River Park was a treasured playground for me and thousands of others during our youth.

    Another constant there was Pioneer Village. I didn’t visit the village as often as I should have but it’s still in my memory as some thing special….a unique piece of the past and of Salem’s unique history.

    I live in Houston, Texas now and whenever I go home to Salem to visit family n friends, I always find time to go by Forest River Park. I realize the park has been torn up for placement of drainage pipes to resolve Canal street flooding issues. But I realize it will soon, or has already returned to its old self.

    Sitting there quietly is the wonderful but small Pioneer Village. I urge you and local preservation committee’s to find a way save it. With better promotion, and investments to upgrade, expand, promote and provide more fencing to keep vandals out, it can return to those times when tourist always made time to visit the Village.

    Thanks for your view of this Salem “ treasure “ and for your continued updates in the Salem News of one of America’s wonderful historic cities.

    Don Kobos

    • daseger

      Thank you, Don. One of the major reasons why the City wants to move the Village is that its new site would increase accessibility for tourists, so we’ll see what happens.

  • Terri DuLong

    Since I was born and raised in Salem and now retired in Florida, I would love to see a Salem Museum depicting it’s profound history (sans Witch commercialism) in my hometown. Prior to the pandemic, I still visited regularly. Never in October! Found your blog after I did some research on Hamilton Hall for a novel I’m working on. Very much enjoying backtracking and loved the C-Span video you did about Witch Notoriety.

  • MARLENE SCHAEDLE

    Many years ago, Salem historian, John Goff a wrote a very interesting article about Forest River Park. I will give a link to the article below. I hope you find it useful in your quest for answers.

    https://salem.wickedlocal.com/article/20100625/news/306259261

  • Vanny Boy

    Thank you for this! This is very insightful for us at my work. https://www.vistalandinternational.com/

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