Tag Archives: Day Trips

Christmas at Home and Away

Our Christmas was Covid-impacted like everyone else’s, but it ended up being just lovely, with most of our time spent with my brother and brother-in-law in Salem eating, drinking, playing bad board games and watching movies. We went up to York Harbor for Boxing Day with my parents, but we’re not going down to New Jersey to see my husband’s family, so this is a rare holiday season without long-distance travel for me (with the exception of last year, of course), and I’m enjoying lounging around. Because we knew we would be primarily stationary on Christmas weekend, we snuck in a quick trip down to Newport to see the decorated mansions (the Elms, Marble House, and the Breakers) as well as the streets and streets of colonial houses of every color. So all in all, a convivial, colorful, and (so-far) Covid-free holiday! I feel very fortunate.

Christmas at Home (with swans this year—and lots of cats, our Trinity & Tuck, and my brother’s Clementine).

Newport! I really prefer the smaller colonial houses, but when you’re in Newport you’ve got to see some mansions, especially at Christmas time. We had a lovely dinner at the White Horse tavern, and just walked by and through so many houses. Perfect little break. I think I have the many, many Christmas trees and mantles in order of their location—-first The Elms, then Marble House, then the Breakers—but there were just so MANY I might have mixed some up.

The Elms, 1901.

Marble House, 1888-1892.

The Breakers, 1895.

As glittering as they are at this time of year in particular, these mansions are a bit over the top, so I’m ending with the simple themed trees in the basement kitchen of the Breakers (hedgehogs & mushrooms! I’ve been wanting to do those Christmas themes myself) above and my very favorite Newport house and the First Parish Church in my hometown of York, below. Happiest of holidays to everyone.


A Peaceful Thanksgiving from Plymouth

In full disclosure, as I write this, I am not in Plymouth: I’m actually in New Jersey, soon to go back to Massachusetts for a spell and then to Vermont for Thanksgiving. But last weekend I was in Plymouth, which was getting everything ready for the 400th anniversary of the very first Thanksgiving, in 1621. The weather was beautiful and my husband and I visited all the spots: the newly-renamed Plimoth Patuxet Museums, the Plimoth Grist Mill, and the Mayflower of course. We walked by Plymouth Rock with a passing glance which is pretty much all it deserves, but there was a small crowd gathered round, as usual. Even though Plymouth was getting ready, it was still calm and peaceful, and a welcome refuge from Salem which has been anything but for months. When we took a break for lunch we first tried a relatively new and seemingly hip place down on the water, but it was so noisy and crowded we walked right back out; I said to myself (or maybe out loud, I can’t remember): that’s like a Salem restaurant. We ended up in local sports bar, perfectly happy. Everything was just so easy in Plymouth. There were fewer reenactors at Plimoth Patuxet than I had ever seen before, but for me, this just heightened the starkness and impression of the landscape, a reproduced one for sure, but still quite effective in transporting one back.

In downtown Plymouth, the reproductions (the Grist Mill, the Mayflower) are merely small parts of an authentic, living town with old and new structures, going about its business, a town where you can actually buy basic necessities like socks and shoes (along with violins!) from shops that are open all year round. There’s a real history museum and a historical society. As you can tell, I just can’t help but compare Salem and Plymouth: I’ve done it before and I’m doing it now. They are both old Massachusetts settlements which have become tourist towns with claims to fame based on holidays: but Plymouth clearly seeks to set its holiday in a comprehensive historical context while also preserving daily livability for its residents, while Salem, after reducing and contorting its own history to fit its chosen holiday, seems focused only on throwing an escalating party. And as we all know, parties are more fun for the guests than the hosts (or at least that’s my experience).

Happy Thanksgiving from Plymouth!

Update: Heather Wilkinson Rojo is your source for all things Mayflower in general and Mayflower 400th commemoration in particular: see all of her lovely links here: https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/p/mayflower-400th.html?spref=tw


A Cape Full of Color

So every year in early September we journey to Cape Cod on the weekend after Labor Day for my husband’s birthday. It is an odd time, just after “summer” is over and we have established our fall routines, and I always complain, but off to the Cape we go because he has wonderful memories of fishing in Provincetown and that’s what he always wants to do for his birthday. As is generally the case with us, he will fish and I will walk or drive around looking for old houses, but this time we spent most of the weekend together. Provincetown is one of those towns that I don’t think I want to go to before I go but once I’m there I’m happy: actually everyone seems happy in Provincetown! It’s not that it isn’t a wonderful, dynamic and scenic town, it’s that I always feel that it is overbuilt and too crowded, with both houses and people. And it is, but if you stop and look at individual houses you’ll see some wonderful details and landscaping. I had not seen the Public Library before, and that was a special treat, and of course I had to make my yearly pilgrimage to John Derian’s summer house with its shop in back. Another highlight: the recently-restored eighteenth-century Mary Heaton Vorse House, on which interior designer Ken Fulk seems to have spared no expense.

Saturday in Provincetown: the Pilgrim monument, Public Library in the former Center Methodist Church, featuring a half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea schooner on its upper floors, John Derian & Mary Heaton Vorse Houses, and, of course, the beach.

I posted a few pictures and an Instagram friend informed me that there was an “All around the Common” event on Sunday way back in Yarmouth Port, during which several historic houses would be open, including Historic New England’s Winslow Crocker House, which I had never visited. So that was all I needed to hear: I had no problem driving back to get into that house. It was a very blustery day, so my husband decided to join me in lieu of fishing: a big surprise. We then commenced a long drive back to Salem via nearly every Cape town on Sunday, with stops in Harwich and Yarmouth. We both really wanted to visit the Atwood-Higgins House in Wellfleet, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, but as soon as we got to the gates of the property a rather frantic park ranger drove up to us in his SUV and told us to proceed with extreme caution as there was a major mosquito infestation. We were still pretty gung-ho, but about ten steps in we were covered with mosquitos and ran back to our car: one Wellfleet mosquito rode all the way back to Salem with us! And then it was on to Yarmouth.

All we saw of the Atwood-Higgins property in Wellfleet.

I dashed through the Edward Gorey House and the Bangs Hallet across the Common, and then spent quite some time in the Winslow Crocker House: too much time for my husband. The house was built during the Revolution by privateer Crocker in West Barnstable, and moved by collector and descendant of an original land grant Cape family, Mary Thatcher, to Yarmouth Port in 1935-36. She had a new foundation laid, and removed all evidence of the division made by earlier owners. Miss Thatcher lived in the house all year long and filled it with antiques, all of which she donated to Historic New England. It’s a gorgeous Georgian house with warm wooden paneling throughout, lots of light, and some great William & Mary and Hepplewhite furnishings. I have added Miss Thatcher to my list of heroic female preservationists.

The Edward Gorey and Captain Bangs Hallet houses on Yarmouth Port Common and the Winslow Crocker House, built c. 1780. Miss Thatcher.

Our last visit was to the 1790s house of an old friend of my husband’s, also on architect, on the Herring River in West Harwich. Amazing setting and decoration, and some very striking mantles in particular (I hope you can pick up the detail in the pictures). A perfect end to our Cape dash, and then we dashed for home, with (miraculously) no traffic!

A beautiful end of our weekend in West Harwich.


Revolutionary Jersey

I turned my return trip from a mid-Atlantic family/research weekend into a day trip focused on New Jersey’s Revolutionary history which is, of course, plentiful. I had been to the battle sites of Princeton, Trenton, and Monmouth before, but never to Morristown, so that was my focus. And I snapped a few photos at Monmouth as well, just because I was driving by and everything was so green. But mostly I was in Morristown, where General Washington located two winter encampments during the Revolution, in 1777 and 1780. The town’s location was strategic then, and convenient now, not too far from either New York City or Philadelphia. It has a lot to offer the tourist seeking historical places, but its vibrant downtown is evidence that it is not altogether focused on the past: destinations that deliver for both visitors and residents are always the best. There are blue and red markers near the sites of Revolutionary structures that are no longer there, and the sprawling Morristown National Historic Park encompasses those that survive. So while we don’t get to see Arnold’s Tavern, Washington’s headquarters during the first encampment, we do get to see the beautiful Ford Mansion, where he spent the second, during the coldest winter on record, in comparative luxury (though with a lot of other people). We also get to see the Wick farmhouse and land at Jockey Hollow, which was transformed into one of the country-in-formation’s largest settlements with the encampment of some 13,000 soldiers. Actually I was going to spend more time and get a true Revolutionary perspective by returning to Princeton and Trenton, but I got sidetracked by a pretty little town in the center of the state, Cranbury. It served as the encampment for Washington and his troops prior to the Battle of Monmouth in late June of 1778, and so set the theme for my little daytrip: encampments rather than battlefields. I must admit though: Cranbury’s houses were so great I would have spent time there regardless of any Revolutionary connection, and so you have to too!

The Monmouth Battlefield and nearby Cranbury; the last cute house is home to the Cranbury Historical & Preservation Society–everywhere I go there are city historical museums or societies and Salem is very conspicuous in its lack of one!

The encampment focus is one which highlights civilian as well as combatant experiences and sacrifices. At the Georgian Ford Mansion in Morristown, you cannot help but think about Theodosia Ford, who offered her gracious home to General Washington to serve as his headquarters in 1779, two years after her husband died during another winter quartering, with 35 soldiers in the house. During Washington’s occupancy, which included his wife Martha, five aides-de-camp, 18 servants (the NPS is not forthcoming on how many were enslaved), assorted guides and occasional dignitaries also in residence, Mrs. Ford and her four children were restricted to two rooms. At Jockey Hollow several miles away, the surviving Wick house, a very New Englandish structure built about 1750, would have been surrounded by small soldiers’ cabins built from 600 acres of the farm’s timber, while Major Arthur St. Clair of the Pennsylvania brigade quartered in the family home. They all endured through the “Hard Winter” together. Numerous monuments and plaques testify to the sacrifices of the Revolutionary soldiers who occupied Morristown at one time or another; I think the contributions of the Revolutionary citizens of Morristown should be marked as well. But perhaps they already are, by the witness houses still standing almost 250 years later.

The National Historic Park at Morristown, encompassing the Ford Mansion and Washington’s Headquarters Museum (one of the first NPS museums, designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1937), as well as Jockey Hollow. Some exhibits inside the Museum, including an altar-esque presentation of an Edward Savage portrait of George Washington. The park does not include the Jabez Campfield House, c. 1760, but it’s just down the road from the Ford Mansion: this is the scene of the courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Schuyler in 1780, so it’s now referred to as the Hamilon-Schuyler house! The Wick house and its grounds, which are beautiful, including reproduction soldiers’ cabins and a wonderful herb garden maintained by the Herb Society of America. Like New England, New Jersey is very green this summer.


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


Renaissance Refresh in Worcester

This past Wednesday was my stepson’s 20th birthday and lo and behold, instead of all the outdoorsy things we have done on birthdays past he wanted to go see the collection of armor and arms at the Worcester Art Museum, which absorbed the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection in 2014. This is the second largest arms and armor collection in the US, and I have been speaking about it to my stepson for a decade or so, so I was thrilled that he wanted to dedicate his birthday to this little trip: Salem is all about the coast and the sea for him in the summer, so going “inland” was quite a change. I hadn’t been to the Worcester Museum for quite some time, but I remembered it as a treasure, and so it remains: it’s just the right size, you don’t get overwhelmed, and you can see a curated timeline of western art from the classical era to the present. Taking their cue from the Renaissance court at its entrance, the galleries are humanistic in their proportions and colors, so the whole experience is rather intimate. We started with the medieval galleries on the first floor, and worked our way to the top: I lingered in the Renaissance rooms, but also really enjoyed those that featured art from Colonial and 19th century America, as it was nice to see some familiar favorites in “person”.

Wednesday at the Worcester Art Museum: the Renaissance Court with These Days of Maiuma by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison on the wall; Chapter House of the Benedictine priory of St. John Le Bas-Nueil, later 12th century, installed in 1927; armor & weaponry are clustered in the Medieval galleries but spread about in the Renaissance and early modern galleries upstairs; Christ Carrying the Cross, 1401-4, by Taddeo di Bartolo; Vision of Saint Gregory, 1480-90, a FRENCH Renaissance painting; Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Queen Eleanor of Austria, c. 1516 (I was quite taken with this portrait, but the photograph doesn’t really capture it very well–her fur glistened!); Steven van der Meulen, Portrait of John Farnham, 1563. Follower of Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanna Chevara and Giovanni Montalvo, early 1560s.

While Queen Eleanor above was captivating, I am obsessed with the “Madonna of Humility” by Stefano da Verona, a painter with whom I was not familiar. She dates from about 1430, and I think this painting is the essential Renaissance encapsulated: I stared at it for a good half hour, and could have spent hours before/with her.

There was a “Women at WAM” theme running through the galleries, perhaps a holdover from the suffrage centenary last year, and I did find myself focusing on the ladies, both familiar and “new,” from near and far.

Women at WAM: Mrs John Freake and Baby Mary, 1670s; Joseph Badger, Rebecca Orne (of Salem!), 1757; Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, 1760s; Philippe Jacques Van Brée, crop of The Studio of the Flower Painter Van Dael at the Sorbonne, 1816; Att. to John Samuel Blunt or Edward Plummer, An Unidentified Lady Wearing a Green Dress with Jewelry, about 1831; Winslow Homer, The School Mistress, about 1871; Frank Weston Benson (from Salem), Girl Playing Solitaire, 1909.

And then there are those charming “primitives” in the collection, including the very familiar Peaceable Kingdom of Edward Hicks with its odd animals and the Savage family portrait with its odd people! I looked at the latter every which way to try to perfect their proportions, but it’s just not possible.

Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, 1833; the big-headed Savage family by Edward Savage, about 1779 (the artist is on the far left–“Savage’s initial struggles with perspective and anatomical proportions are evident in this work”).

As I said above, the Worcester Art Museum dedicates the majority of its space to its own collections, but there are two very special—and very different—temporary exhibitions on now: one on baseball jerseys, as Worcester is enjoying its first year as home to the Triple A WooSox who have relocated from Pawtucket, and a very poignant display of the processes of theft and retrieval of Austrian collector Richard Neumann’s paintings, the target of Nazi plunder. The story told was fascinating and the pictures presented lovely, but what really caught my attention were their backs, displaying the numbers by which they were added to the “Reichsliste,” the Nazis’ centralized inventory of cultural treasures, and considered for inclusion in Hitler’s Führermuseum. So chilling to see these mundane Nazi numbers.

Baseball jerseys and Nazi numbers at the Worcester Art Museum.


Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


A Bush Garden

Last week I spent a day in Kennebunkport, a town long associated with the Bush family because of Walker’s Point, which was purchased by President H.W. Bush’s maternal great- and grandfather after the turn of the last century. The usual congregation of onlookers was there, looking down on the Point compound: summer white house towns seem to have lasting appeal and Kennebunkport is a summer white house town x two. I was thrilled because the gate to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, a bit further down the coast, was open and so too was the church itself: I had never been inside and this was my chance! It did not disappoint: what a lovely seaside chapel that actually accentuates its setting, a great achievement as its setting is magnificent.

On the road that connects Kennebunkport harbor and downtown to the coast is a small park owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust named River Green which is the site of a lovely little garden dedicated to former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush. “Ganny’s Garden,” referring to the name she was called by her 17 grandchildren, was laid out in 2011 and became a memorial garden after Mrs. Bush’s death in 2018. It is completely charming, and also provides a good lesson about what one can do in a relatively small space. It is packed with plants, including some unusual ones (I was struck by the liberal use of mustardbut also personality and presence: bronze “statues” of Mrs. Bush’s gardening shoes and hat lie adjacent to that of an open book (her favorite Pride and Prejudice) as if she had just been there—or was still there.

The garden is overlooked by another statue dedicated to the seafaring forebears of Kennebunkport: Frank Handlen’s Our Forebears of the Coast, which was commissioned in 1994. Its presence made me wonder, in my compare-everything-to-Salem habit which I am trying to kick this summer: why no monument to Salem seafarers? If ever a settlement was made by the sea, it’s this one!


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.