Monthly Archives: October 2023

Meeting Houses of Rockingham County

(Sorry—I have been reading and writing about meeeting houses for the past few months but still do not know if their identifier is one word or two). On this past Sunday, a rather dreary day, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance sponsored a driving tour of meeting houses in southern Rockingham County, encompassing structures in Hampstead, Danville, Fremont, and Sandown. I drove over from York Harbor, fighting and defeating an inclination to just stay cozy at home. There was an orientation at Hampstead, the only colonial meeting house of the four that features a steeple addition (I envisioned Salem’s third meeting house, built in 1718), and then we were off to Danville, Fremont and Sandown. I have to tell you, I was in awe all day long: these structures are so well-preserved (cherished, really), simple yet elegant, crafted and composed. I remember thinking to myself when I was first set foot in the Danville meeting house: “I’d rather be here than in Europe’s grandest cathedral” (I think because I had just talked to my brother, on his way to Rome).  There’s just something about these places, and the people who care for them. Just to give you a summary of  the orientation that I received: they were built in the eighteenth century as both sacred and secular buildings, as close to the center of their settlements as possible and by very professional craftsmen. In the early nineteenth century, their religious and polical functions were seperated, so they became either churches or town halls or were abandoned altogether as other denominations built their own places of worship. It seems to me that they survived because of the preservation inclinations of their surrounding communities, and we were introduced to each meeting house by contemporary stewards who were clearly following in a long line of succession. Nice to encounter historical stewards rather than salesmen.


The second floor of the meeting house, with its stage and original window frames propped up against the wall and all manner of remnants of civic celebrations, was really charming.

Danville: (which used to be called Hawke, so that’s the name of the meeting house. Hawke, New Hampshire–how cool a name is that!)

Incredible building—I had to catch my breath! I think it has the highest pulpit of these meeting houses, and there was just something about the contrast of that feature and the simplicity (though super-crafted) of the rest of the interior that was striking.

Fremont (which used to be called Poplin):

This meeting house is the only one remaining in NH with “twin porches” on each side, plus a hearse house (see more here–I have long been obsessed and have been to Fremont before but never inside the meeting house or the hearse house) with a horse-drawn hearse inside plus an extant town pound! Very simple inside, but note the sloping second-floor floors in picture #4 above. Took me a while to get used to those.


The most high-style of this set of meeting houses, particularly impressive from the back, I thought. Very light inside, even on this miserable day. Another high pulpit, and more marbleized pillars. Short steps to the second floor–I’m a size 7!

My photos are a bit grainy–not sure what my settings were, I was shifting them around to get more light, and too awestruck by the architecture to really focus, so in compensation I want to refer to you the wonderful work of photographer Paul Wainwright, who has photographed all of these meeting houses and more. Simply stunning!

Blocked Path

The house which represents refuge from Salem October is the house I grew up in, a shingle “cottage” in York Harbor which is on the main street but also adjacent to a lane which used to offer access to the Cliff Walk, a constructed path along the water which used to proceed from York Harbor Beach all the way to Cow Beach near Long Sands Beach. When I was younger I would just walk down the lane to the Cliff Walk, turn right to go to Cow Beach, which is rocky but where I saw my first (and now that I think about, only) beached whale, or left to go to York Harbor Beach for swimming and tanning. At that time, York Harbor was dominated by summer houses: we were among the minority of full-time residents. And so even though our way to the Cliff Walk had houses on either side with adjacent lawns, nobody was ever there: one was a cool 1920s house and another a big old gray Victorian. Now the cool 1920s house has been turned into something less aesthetic, and the Victorian replaced by another generic coastal house, and yet another generic coastal house has been added to the conjoined lots, and none of the owners of these houses recognize any pre-existing access to or from the Cliff Walk: the path is blocked and gated. The Cliff Walk itself has also been blocked on the way to Cow Beach by a landowner who has planted a big imposing hedge, and while still beautiful, is a stub of its former self. Let’s take a walk from the Harbor Beach to the hedge, passing by my former entrance to the walk—and the sea.

Looking up at the Cliff Walk from York Harbor Beach; the Reading Room is the first building. There used to be four cottages, but they were removed for Hartley Mason Park/Reservation.

Must be fully warned! As you will see, some parts of the path are in better shape than others.

But the path in front of the Reading Room looks great!

Ok, I get it!

For me, the Cliff Walk was all about private lookouts and houses—it was and is the best way to see some of these cliff-hugging cottages. We always stuck to the path, even when we were mischevious kids.

Not too great over this stretch.

My old entrance and exit.

Nicely-maintained after that but there’s not far to go; that big white house is the home of the hedge-maker and the end of the line.

I’m late to this party as I have not been living here. There have been substantive efforts to defend the public’s prescriptive (historical) right to access the entire path, rounding the corner you see above to Cow Beach. The Town of York has a Cliff Walk Committee, and there is a Friends of the Cliff Walk Facebook group. But the Hedge Guy is standing his ground. It’s complicated, and I need to learn more. I certainly understand the privacy and insurance considerations of those who own homes adjacent, but I miss “my” walk—I guess it’s just a memory lane for now.

Golden Hour, indeed!

Sanctuary from Salem 2023

The last time I wrote that title—with another date, 1693—it was nine years ago and I was referring to Salem Witch Trials refugee Sarah Towne Clayes, who found sanctuary in Framingham, Massachusetts, the hometown of both of my parents. Her house was a decayed relic at that time, with little prospects of rehabilitation, but now it has been completely restored! You can see and read about it here: and kudos to the Framingham History Center and the dedicated preservationists who saved this important house. This time, the refugee is me: I have found sanctuary from Salem in my childhood home in York Harbor, Maine. The comparison references the title only of course: my situation hardly rivals Sarah’s, having lost her two sisters to the mob, running for her life. I feel a bit uncomfortable using the same title, but I also feel fortunate to have a place to live outside of Salem and I wanted to convey that feeling. I had to get out of town: away from the sonorous tour guide right outside my door, the haunted halloween party hall right next door, and all that trash and traffic and all those people in little black felt witch hats and Hocus Pocus t-shirts. I’m still working in Salem, so ironically I have developed just a touch more empathy for Salem tourists as I try to make my way back into town. Just a touch. On the other hand, I feel tremendous empathy for my fellow Salem residents who commute by car outside of town! I’m still working on my contributions to our Salem book (as well as a talk I’m giving at the First Church in Salem next week) so it’s still Salem most of the time, but during my down time I can walk or drive around York and see some beautiful scenery. So that’s pretty much this post: some of my favorite places in York.

Our house, a summer “cottage,” one of many built in the summer colony of York Harbor; the buildings of the Old York Historical Society  in York Village, and the First Parish Church.

The McIntire Garrison on Route 91, and one of many walking trails in York just down the road. Then it’s back to York Harbor, following the river.

A view in Cape Neddick, and more favorite houses–more coming!

York is HUGE, encompassing over 54 square miles according to the US Census Bureau. Even though I grew up here, I don’t know it that well, because it is so huge and because it has grown over the decades: when I was driving around last weekend I discovered lots of new developments and even a new road I knew nothing about. I always thought there were four distinct villages within York—-York Harbor, York Village, York Beach, and Cape Neddick—but apparently there is another, Bald Head. York was settled even before Salem and was the first incorporated city in America. I’ve got a lot of territory to explore and a lot to learn, so stay tuned over the next few weeks as I dig a bit deeper.

It Happened in Town House Square

I didn’t expect to be posting on Salem for a while as I’m on my way to Maine to escape the Halloween Hordes (haven’t quite broken away yet!) but I’m in the midst of writing the last chapter for Salem’s Centuries and I thought posting would help. It’s why I started this blog in the first place, so long ago, to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s lost history and free up my writing from its academic constraints! This last chapter is on the long history of Salem’s center, Town House Square, and I’m just kind of enraptured with everything that happened there, but also haven’t figured out the meaning of it all. I’m trying to use the chapter to summarize the book Salem’s Centuries and also Salem’s centuries by using the Square as kind of a “stage” (at least that’s the word I’m using now). So this will be kind of a sketchy post as it is a work in progress and I welcome all comments and corrections.

I’m happy with my opening paragraph:

A crowd filled Town House Square on a sunny day in June of 2005, cheering and jeering the unveiling of a bronze statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery in character as Samantha Stevens of the television series Bewitched. The rationale for the statue was the filming of a few episodes of the series in Salem in 1970, commencing a successful intensification of witchcraft-focused tourism in the view of those who cheered, while less-enthusiastic attendees noted the impropriety of installing a fictitious witch within view of the sites where the victims of 1692 were accused and tried. The Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell, 31st pastor of the First Church of Salem, which stood across the street for centuries, was among those who had urged the Salem Redevelopment Authority to reject the statue weeks before“in due deference to our history”and its location: “we must object to this statue being sponsored by the city of Salem, less than twenty yards away from site where we committed, arguably, one of the worst…..crimes in the history of this city.” This argument was countered by the majority opinion, expressed succinctly by Salem City Councilor Thomas Furey: “Salem is the Witch City. I think we all need to lighten up, take a breath, and let Salem have fun.” This moment in time and place is representative of the continuous significance of a small parcel of land, more of an intersection than a square, over Salem’s centuries. The crowd, the expression of civic identity, representations of church, state and commerce: all have had their role to play in Town House Square.

Then I go back to the seventeenth century and start with the English settlement of Salem from 1626, including a brief discussion of how the topography shaped the town and its center at the intersections of its two main thoroughfares, later called Essex and Washington Streets. This became known as Town House Square in the 18th century, and that’s still its place-name, although I wonder how many Salem residents (much less tourists) know it as such today. Then it’s all about meeting houses—-four on the same site: it really took a lot of time to figure out all that building history. First there was a small meeting house built in 1634 which was long thought to be the small building you can see in the rear of Plummer Hall on the Peabody Essex Museum’s campus, a larger though still quite simple structure built around 1670, the first “churchly” meeting house with a belfry, built in 1718, and finally the present building (1826) which long served as the Daniel Low & Co. store after the First Church departed to its present building further along Essex Street. Salem’s meeting houses are confusing, both before and after the First Church splits up into successor congregations: East, North, South and Tabernacle. Thank goodness I don’t have to go into the theological and factional disputes: I’m sticking to Town House Square.

So, once I set the stage, action will begin: here’s what happened in Town House Square, with an emphasis on the public. Obviously lots of other things happened in this vicinity over 400 years but why do some leave a mark or record and others not? And do the happenings in the Square reveal its public nature and role? Just questions I’m asking myself as I am writing.

  1. Lots of Quaker resistance: holding their own meetings right next to the First Church/Meeting House, wearing their hats into the latter, and then in 1662, Quaker Deborah Buffum Wilson, accompanied by her mother and half-sister, walked “naked for a sign” down Washington Street in imitation of an Old Testament episode (Isaiah 20.2-3) and in denunciation of the spiritual “nudity” of those who condemned them. Yes, a NAKED QUAKER walked down Washington Street. This resistance was met with an equal (or larger) measure of persecution, especially by the William Hathorne, who lived right on the Square.
  2. Anti-Royalist protests: by the same William Hathorne, who as Major of the Salem Militia, assembled his armed soldiers in Town House Square for his impassioned speech against the Royal Commissioners present in Massachusetts in 1664, after which he himself was summoned to England on the charge of refusing to submit to royal authority.
  3. The Salem Witch Trials: also happened in Town House Square once the judicial proceedings moved from Salem Village to Salem Town. Close quarters! Judge John Hathorne, son of William, lived right there, as did the Reverend Nicholas Noyes, and victim Bridget Bishop. The combined courthouse/schoolhouse at the northern end of the Square, made of the framing of the 1634 meeting house, separated the properties of Noyes and Bishop, and High Sheriff George Corwin resided at the southern end of the Square.
  4. Salem’s first July 4th: came before the Revolution! There was a huge party at the Town House (sometimes called the provincial Court House, sometimes even the State House—think of the old State House in Boston) to celebrate Sir William Pepperrell, the hero of the Siege of Louisbourg, in 1746. The cannons surounding the Town House were fired after every toast, and there were many.
  5. Big Town Meeting Protests: against British taxation, commencing with the Stamp Act (1765), at the Town House. (But less than 20 years earlier they were celebrating the hero of a war they were not willing to pay for–just a British historian’s perspective.)
  6. Salem’s “Tea Party”: a crate of tea from Boston is seized and burned in Town House Square on October 4, 1774, “in the presence of several hundred spectators.”
  7. Last meeting of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly: against the orders of Governor Thomas Gage, electing delegates to the new Provincial Congress which met in Concord on October 7, 1774.
  8. Colonel Alexander Leslie and his regiment passed through Town House Square on their way to the North River to recover rumored cannon, and back again on their retreat, February 1775.
  9. Presidential Parades: George Washinton in 1789, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
  10. Salem’s “big digs”: the first railroad tunnel built in 1839, and rebuilt in the later 1950s.
  11. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romanticized view of colonial history set against Town House Square in two stories: A Rill from the Town Pump and Endicott and the Red Cross.
  12. Town House Square Transportation Hub: trains, trolleys, and later, buses.
  13. Daniel Low & Co. established in the former fourth meeting house of the First Church, 1867. A mail order innovator, the store also issued a catalog which projected both Salem and Town House Square to the entire country.
  14. War Bond Rallies: the Square was the center of  “community chest” and war bond events during both World War I and World War II, including one which featured  fake Germans attacking during the former!
  15. Restaurant action: I think this can take me from the second half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first, from the long-running Gerber’s “Little Town Hall” restaurant through various fast-food experiments to today.
  16. And then came Samantha……back where I started. I don’t really believe in historical objectivity, but I know that I can’t even try to write about that awful statue in a balanced way, so I better close with a reprise of Reverend Barz-Snell’s and Councillor Furey’s statements.

John Smibert’s portrait of Sir William Pepperrell, Peabody Essex Museum; the “Salem Tea Party” of October 4, 1774; there are great historic placques in Town House Square but I don’t think the tourists are really interested. Where can I Get a Car?, 1894; The Story of a Store, 1926. Boy, what a devolution of opponents: from King George to Burger King. Town House Square today, or yesterday: it’s Samantha’s neighborhood.

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