Tag Archives: Peabody Essex Museum

If You Build it, They will Come

Two very different tourist towns during the Pandemic of 2020: at the beginning of the summer, I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, so I wrote about its opening in the midst of Covid with every intention of writing a comparative “bookend” post on Salem. I am only getting to this now, with summer over and Salem’s Halloween season, 2020 version, gearing up. Yes: Halloween has arrived in Salem: apparently nothing can stop it, even a pandemic! The traffic and the crowds have increased noticeably over the last few weeks, and on Saturday I went for a walk to see to see what was up: I turned around after 5 minutes, it was simply too crowded for me to feel safe, after so many months of relative isolation. Then I went back on Sunday, and it was much better: less crowded, masks much in evidence, enough space away from the restaurants. I am wondering if social distancing downtown will be possible on October weekends: shops, restaurants, and attractions have limited capacity under the Covid conditions, so lines will form—and grow longer with each weekend until Halloween I expect.

Sunday 9/27/20: Salem downtown: not too bad! Most people had on masks, as the whole downtown is a mandatory mask zone. Mask ambassadors out and about. Longer lines at restaurants than the museums, with the exception of the Witch “Museum”, of course—which is not really a museum. This year, it finally gets some stiff competition from the Peabody Essex Museum with TWO Salem exhibitions on view: “Salem Stories” and the “Salem Witch Trials, 1692” (with authentic artifacts, expert curatorship and current historiography, as opposed to mannequins, narrative, and interpretation from circa 1968).

So I was originally going to title this post “City of Mixed Messages”, but after walking around, reading, and thinking a bit, I decided that wasn’t fair: I don’t think the City is putting out mixed messages. All the official events are canceled: people are just coming. There are attractions of course, like the traditional schlocky ones and the new PEM exhibitions, as well as a new Destination Salem app and a Frankenstein-esque Hampton Inn, but apart from the specific draws, I just think people like to come to Salem for (a very extended) Halloween. Witch City has been built with a very solid foundation, and they will come. Away from Essex Street, all was pretty quiet even in the city center: the Charter Street Cemetery has been closed for repairs for quite some time, and I saw only respectful wanderers at the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial: certainly a far cry from thisThe City’s message this year seems to be come with a mask and a plan (like voting!) and hopefully that’s what people will do.

Six feet apart was possible at the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial this past weekend.

But it’s still September. I am wondering how state protocols can be observed with more crowds. I saw lots of out-of-state license plates downtown: have these people quarantined for 14 days before they descended upon Salem? Last week when I visited the Beverly Historic Society, there were contact-tracing questions before I could enter the exhibition: is this happening in Salem? What’s going to happen on Halloween night, which is (of course, 2020) on a Saturday this year? No candy from me, kids; I’m sorry, I’ll double up next year.

As you can see, all was pretty quiet in the McIntire Historic District this past weekend, even in the Ropes Mansion garden, which is just GORGEOUS now—it’s the ultimate late-summer garden. The owners of this beautiful Italianate never do anything in half measures, but I suspect they must be part of Historic Salem’s  Halloween event: Halloween in Salem, a “festive virtual house tour” which will go live on October 9. A great idea and a safe way to experience Halloween in Salem.


Salem Women of Note, 1939

The very last time I was up at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in Rowley, last February I believe, I requested a folder within which was the transcript of a short paper given at a meeting of the Zonta Club of Salem in 1939 by Annie Balcomb Wheeler entitled “Salem Women of Note”. I thought this would be the beginning of regular trips to the Phillips, but then came the pandemic closures. It is open now, but I just don’t have time to go up there with my book contract and four courses this semester: I won’t for some time, maybe never, unless I decide to take take up another book project, tentatively titled “Dead History: How America’s Most Historic City lost its Past” in my mind (the phrase Dead History is taken from a 1915 newspaper article about Salem’s deteriorating historic sites, but obviously it is a double entendre now). There’s some interest in this, but I’ve got to get through The Practical Renaissance first, and after that it might be better to leave Salem history in my rear-view mirror except for fluffy forays here. I remain rather forlorn about the state of Salem’s historic archives and interpretation, but am happy to see that the Peabody Essex Museum is diving into Salem history headfirst this fall, with two collections-based exhibitions on the Witch Trials and “Salem Stories“. This is quite a change, and I hope not just a reaction to the pandemic, which has reoriented many museums towards local and regional visitors. A renewed and sustained interest in historical interpretation and programming by the PEM could be a game-changer for Salem.

Ropes by Purely SalemA wonderful view of the PEM’s Ropes Mansion on Essex Street by my friend Matt of PurelySalem on Instagram! (He takes the most beautiful photographs). I‘m hoping that PEM’s foray in history involves looking at old things in new light: the Ropes is a great example because there are many stories that remain untold about it. It’s not a GOOD story, but we need to know more about slavery in Salem, and the Ropes Mansion was built by one of Salem’s more prominent slaveowners, Samuel Gardner. 

Well, high hopes for “Salem Stories” but back to Annie Balcomb Wheeler and her notable Salem women of 1939. I certainly didn’t expect this little paper to be my last dive into the Phillips collection for months and I didn’t spend much time with it: I just noted the women whom Annie Balcomb Wheeler found notable, because I wanted to compare her 1939 list with my evolving list of women spotlighted in my #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts. It’s so interesting to me to chart the highs and lows of written history: who or what we deem important now as opposed to who or what was important in 1939 or 1839 or 1739. Right now in Salem I think people are primarily interested in women of color, Charlotte Forten and Sarah Parker Remond in particular, as well as the traditional philanthropists, like Caroline Emmerton, the founder of the House of the Seven Gables. None of these women made it onto Wheeler’s list, which includes the Quaker Cassandra Southwick, poet Anne Bradstreet, accused “witches” Mary English and Elizabeth Proctor, educators Abigail Fowler, Lydia Very, and Ellen Dodge, physicians Sarah Sherman and Kate Mudge, diarist Mary Vial Holyoke and author Maria Susannah Cummins. I’ve posted on all of these women, with the exception of Fowler, Dodge and Holyoke: the educators are new to me but the latter is a definite oversight! It’s very notable to me that there are no artists on Wheeler’s list–nor entrepreneurs—as Salem women’s history is so rich in these categories, but I’m happy to see the emphasis on education and medicine. I wonder why she chose Mary English and Elizabeth Proctor, and not other victims or accusers of 1692? As it happens, I had just been looking at a document of testimony against the former at Yale’s Beinecke Library as I was trying to find some seventeenth-century writing that my students could actually read: here it is, along with the deposition of Mary Walcott against Proctor from the University of Virginia’s Documentary Archive and Transcription Archive, which has been the essential repository of Salem Witch Trials records and resources for more than a decade.

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Salem Women of Note Elizabeth Proctor1692 Depositions against Mary Hollingsworth English and Elizabeth Proctor, Beinecke Library at Yale and University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trial Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.

I cannot account for all of Salem’s female schoolteachers: there are so many! Abigail Fowler seems to have had a career which spanned 50 years: upon her death in 1771, her obituary noted that this “noted school dame” had “finished her earthly labors. She was in her 68th year, and began to teach children before she was 18, and continued so to do till her decease”. I wrote about Lydia Very here: she was both an author (or poetry and children’s books) and public schoolteacher for many years, but her legacy has always been overshadowed by that of her brother, Jones Very. Ellen Maria Dodge was a longtime instructor at the Salem Normal School, and she also wrote the School’s history upon the occasion of its move from downtown Salem to its new campus on Lafayette and Loring Streets.

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Salem Women of Note Ellen DodgeA privately printed book of poems by Lydia Very, 1882, Boston Book Company; Ellen Maria Dodge, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

I’ve written about Salem women physicians and Maria Susannah Cummins, the author of the incredibly popular Lamplighter, but recently I discovered a connection between Dr. Kate Mudge, who lived in the Bowditch House (currently the offices of Historic Salem, Inc.,) where Cummins was born. Like Bradstreet, I don’t really consider Cummins a Salem girl: her parents moved to Dorchester shortly thereafter. But still, cool connection: Dr. Mudge was certainly aware that she lived in the storied house of Nathaniel Bowditch and Maria Cummins, because her contemporary, photographer Frank Cousins labeled his photograph of the house (then around the corner on Essex Street) as such.

Salem Women Bowditch House (3)The Curwen/Bowditch House, Salem, 1890s. Frank Cousins/Urban Landscape Collection at Duke University Library.

So that brings me to Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke, and her diary. I have never appreciated this text properly, I think: Annie Balcomb Wheeler has convinced me to look at it again. It’s just that Mrs. Holyoke is so matter-of-fact about everything, especially death, including the deaths of her infant children and people all around her. This is certainly not a reflective diary, or a modern diary, but I should try harder to read between its lines, because I think Mary Vial Holyoke deserves her own post.

Salem Women of Note Mary Vial by GreenwoodPhotograph of a Greenwood portrait of Mary Vial Holyoke.


It Seems as if Hannah is Hiding

These #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts are challenging:  and it’s only February! Especially as I am drawn to the more “hidden” women: whose stories, it seems, you can only get to through men. I’ve been interested in Hannah Crowninshield (1789-1834) for a while: she was part of the large and dynamic Crowninshield family in its most powerful era, she was a “maker” and an artist, she was the protegee of the Reverend William Bentley, she was the wife of a naval commodore who married her younger sister after her untimely death. Fortunately we do have some things that she created that can, in effect, “speak” for her, because otherwise I could only shed light on Hannah through her father, her mentor, her husband, or a cat. My interest in Hannah actually began when I spotted a charming watercolor of a cat named Pompey, who accompanied her father and brother in their voyage across the Atlantic in the famous pleasure yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, built for their wealthy cousin George Crowninshield in 1816. Pompey was lost at sea on the voyage, “a victim to his patriotism.”

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I needed to know who created this charming “memorial,” hanging in the reconstruction of Cleopatra’s Barge cabin at the Peabody Essex Museum, almost as soon as I saw it: Hannah Crowninshield (an attribution found at the Smithsonian, rather than the PEM), daughter of the ship’s captain. There are extant and unattributed portraits of her father Benjamin (known as “Sailor Ben” to distinguish him from other Benjamin Crowninshields) and brother “Philosopher Ben” in the collection of the PEM (though inaccessible in its spare database): did Hannah paint these?

Hannah Collage

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Like many people of her era, we can see Hannah Crowninshield through the Reverend William Bentley’s eyes and diary. Actually we can “see” much more of Hannah than most of her contemporaries, as she and the Reverend were very close. They were next-door neighbors, living in two sides of what is now known as the Crowninshield-Bentley House: Bentley baptized Hannah, and married her to James Armstrong on March 29, 1819. His diary entry for that day indicates just how heartfelt his feelings were for her: this day I passed through the most interesting scene of my life. I came to the family of H. [Crowninshield] in 1791. In 1789 I had baptized Hannah, d. of Benj. and Mary Crowninshield, two years before I came into the family, tho I had before lived in a branch of it. As soon as Hannah was of age for instruction she was put into my care. She has rewarded it with her virtues & accomplishments. This day I delivered her in marriage to an officer of the Navy [Lieut. James Armstrong]. He is from Virginia, but to me unknown. What the prospects are I cannot guess. The event is not from my wishes or at my will. The sympathy was beyond description. The hundred I have united never gave such emotions. I knew nothing contrary to the hopes of the young man & that is the evil, that even this consolation is not borrowed from the ample means to render it happy, being rather my ignorance than my observation. The branches of the family were represented on the occasion & after the ceremonies H. retired to her Father’s in Danvers. The questions were Will she go to Virginia? It is said not, but the property was not then conveyed. Thus after nearly 30 years all our hopes are unknown. Why did not so accomplished a girl find a bosom friend in Salem. They who respected her did not dare to ask without means to support, and they who looked for fortune could not find it. All the domestic relations were not such as ambition could desire. I hope H. will be happy. It will be my happiness. My best wishes attend her. This rather anguished entry speaks to one of the most cherished relationships in the Reverend’s life, I believe.

20200211_125837PEM’s Bentley-Crowninshield House, which used to be located a bit further along (eastward) Essex Street.

But back to Hannah. Or Hannah and the Reverend. He refers to several of her compositions: an illustration for Marblehead mariner Ashley Bowen’s autobiographical journals, depicting his life as a ship’s voyage, a rather scary chalk drawing of 82-year-old Major-General John Stark, whom they visited in New Hampshire in 1810 (so scary that it was quite modified in lithographic and portrait form, but still, there are contemporary comments that it was “lifelike”), a reworked seventeenth-century portrait of Captain George Corwin which Bentley found “defaced,” and a much nicer watercolor portrait of James Tytler. All of these portraits are supposedly in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum according to Catalog of Portraits in the Essex Institute and the Catalog of American Portraits, but I can’t find any reference to them on the PEM’s site. It seems as if Hannah is indeed hiding—somewhere in the Peabody Essex Museum!

Hannah Bowen

Hannah Stark Collage

Hannah C. Corwin 1819

Hannah Crowninshield James TylerThe Catalog of American Portraits, accessed via the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, lists the following portraits by Hannah Crowninshield as part of the PEM’s collection: a self-portrait, a portrait of the Reverend Bentley, and the portrait of James Tytler, in addition to a portrait of Simon Bradstreet in the collection of Historic New England. Hannah’s portrait of Scottish radical publisher/apothecary Tytler, who lived briefly (and died) in Salem, illustrates his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography page.

As I was writing this post up on Thursday morning, I did see that there were some materials on Hannah in the Benjamin Crowninshield Family Papers (MH16) at the Phillips Library up in Rowley, and thus a dilemma presented itself: do I have time to run up there before my grad class at 4:30 so I can do justice to Hannah in this post? What if I run up there and there’s not much to see? The answer to the first question was “no”, so I might have to provide an addendum to this post at a later date: and for local history afficionados like myself out there, never take for granted the luxury of a historical society/repository in your own town! For now, I can only discern this much about Hannah Crowninshield Armstrong: she and her husband did not confirm the Reverend Bentley’s worst fears and head to his native Virginia after their 1819 marriage, they did not have any children, and she died in May of 1834 at age 45, after which her husband married her younger sister Elizabeth. The dating of her works in the Catalog of American Portraits indicates that she continued to paint after her marriage—-but that’s about all the light I can shed on that time of her life at this point. The Peabody Essex Museum actually credits and showcases one of her works on its website, although you will never, never find it by searching on the website itself:  only an external search engine will take you to it! It’s a painted work box made for her mother, and apparently the PEM also possesses a portable desk painted for her sister Maria (again–you will not find this at or through PEM but rather in Betsy Krief Salm’s Women’s Painted Furniture, 1780-1830. American Schoolgirl Art). I remain hopeful that some day, one day, the hidden figures  of Salem history, both women and men, will have their day when the Peabody Essex Museum, decides to cast some light on them.

Hannah Crowninshield Work Box (2)Hannah’s painted work box, made for her mother Mary Lambert Crowninshield, Peabody Essex Museum—this seems to exist only on an earlier incarnation of the PEM website here, and not the current one. You can really access much more of the collection–and much more information– if you search externally rather than through the current website.


What I want for Christmas: Please Bring out the Diaries, PEM

We have certainly come a long way from the despair of Christmas 2017, when we were reeling from the announcement that the vast collections of the Phillips Library, constituting Salem’s primary historical archive, were to be moved permanently to an industrial Collection Center forty minutes away. So much for “historic” Salem! But this Christmas, we have a new Peabody Essex Museum, with a new Director, a new Head Librarian for the Phillips, a new wing, and a new attitude. The local is not necessarily the parochial under this new regime, and we’re starting to see the return of Salem items to the place of their original “deposit”, commencing with the anchor restored to the front of East India Hall. I don’t know what is going to happen to the Phillips Library in terms of its location: I still hope feverishly for its return, as I think that will be best for both the Library itself and for Salem, but its original buildings are still under renovation and sufficient storage space for its extensive collections has yet to be located nearby. In the meantime, I want it to flourish as an institution, and I think one of key ways for that to happen is the resumption of the publishing program of its predecessors, which broadcast the strength of their collections and disseminated local and maritime history to generations of scholars and buffs in the forms of the long-running Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (1859-1993) and the American Neptune of the Peabody Museum of Salem (1941-2002).

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pixlr-4Both the Historical Collections and the American Neptune are available at the Internet Archive thankfully, as they are treasure troves!

I’m grateful for these two periodicals, but I think their time is over: we have sufficient ways to disseminate scholarship now, but sources are a different matter. That’s why I think the Phillips Library should publish annotated versions of its more notable historical sources, and I would commence these publications with one of the more accessible and personal genres—diaries—of which the Phillips has an impressive collection. One of the most important sources for Salem’s history “got away”: the multi-volume, highly-detailed, excessively readable journal of the Reverend William Bentley of the East Church from 1784 to 1819 was left to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester along with half of the volumes in his impressive library and other papers. The gentlemen of Salem were blindsided  (I’m not sure why as apparently Bentley had always planned on leaving his diary and library to Harvard but they didn’t grant him his promised honorary degree until too late) and very quickly established the Essex Historical Society (one of the foundations of the Essex Institute) with a “cabinet” restricted to Salem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Essex Institute which took the initiative to publish the Bentley Diary, and Salem historians have benefited from that decision ever since. It’s an invaluable source and a rabbit hole at the same time, encompassing political, social, and weather events, births, deaths, and marriages, long walks with attendant observations, philosophy and theology, shipping news, and a fair amount of gossip.

Diary 1 Bentley (3)A page from the original Bentley Diary at the American Antiquarian Society, @AAS.

Thomas G. Knoles, the former Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts at the AAS, is working on an updated and expanded version of the Bentley Diary, in collaboration with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. This promises to be an even more invaluable resource, and it struck me that the Phillips Library could publish new editions of some key Salem diaries, with additional materials culled from current scholarship and its own collections: The Diary of William Pynchon, a prominent Loyalist stuck in Salem during the Revolutionary War, immediately comes to mind, as does The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and Benjamin Lynde Jr. which were also published in the later nineteenth century. The Phillips also has diaries which have never seen the light of print and could be offered up in lovely annotated editions which I have no doubt would find a large readership: travel diaries, war diaries, “Sunday diaries” (primarily religious and not likely to be as popular as the previous two examples), work diaries, and those that simply chart daily life. I’d love to see the diary of Salem barber Benjamin Blanchard (DIA 22), maintained over the first two decades of the nineteenth century, referred to by contemporaries as the “famous record” in which Blanchard’s patrons made entries while awaiting their time in his chair”.  William Wetmore’s diary (DIA 232) covers the period just before: string them together and you essentially have a variant Bentley. I’d like to read the Civil War diary of William P. Shreve (DIA 171), who served with Company H, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters,  as well as the 3rd, 10th, and 25th Army Corps from 1861-64 or the Charles W. Brooks’ account (DIA 26) of his experiences with the 23rd Regiment. There are several illustrated artist’s diaries among the Phillips collections, including that of Harriet Francis Osborne (DIA 290), featuring her Salem etchings. There are also several diaries dealing with China: written by men and women, from the perspectives of trade, missionary work, or simply travel: I think Mary Elizabeth Andrews’ experience of the Boxer Rebellion (DIA 6) would be particularly resonant in an annotated edition—-or perhaps as just one western view in a composite volume. I find myself torn between other possible projects (which of course are being worked out only in my head!): an updated version of the Essex Institute’s Holyoke Diaries, introduced and annotated by George Francis Dow in 1911, seems overwhelming but a brand new volume of women’s private and public lives over the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprised from a series of individual diaries by Salem and Essex County women looks manageable. And nothing illustrates change better than personal experience.

Diary Gift CollageDiary William P. ShreveDiary Osborne Chestnut ST

diary-holyoke-house-d.-1895The “current” editions of the Pynchon (1890) and Lynde (1880) Diaries; William Price Shreve (photo courtesy Brian White); Chestnut Street etching by Harriet Francis Osborne; Dr. Holyoke’s house on Essex Street from The Holyoke Diaries (1911)—-demolished in 1895 for the construction of the Naumkeag Block.


Restoration and Renewal

I was going to show you a beautiful Federal house today, with sweeping views and lavish details (and Zuber & Cie wallpaper!), but that will have to wait for the weekend, as I want to acknowledge, and celebrate, the recognition that the #newpem is indeed the new Peabody Essex Museum, an institution which now seems as much grounded in its local heritage as it is focused on its global perspectives. I thought #newpem was just a marketing campaign designed to focus all of our attention on the opening of the new wing, but I was wrong: the “new” in the hashtag is more directly, and substantively, a reference to the venerable museum’s new regime, which began in July when Dr. Brian Kennedy began his tenure as Director and CEO. As all of you know, I’ve been obsessed with the previous director’s decision to remove all of the PEM’s textual collections held in the Phillips Library to a clinical Collection Center in Rowley,  a decision that was not even formally announced to Salem residents, but rather issued in the form of an admission in December of 2017, well after this course of action had been implemented. For me, this was nothing short of the removal of Salem’s primary historical archive. When Dr. Kennedy arrived this summer, I began hoping for some kind of course correction; I perceived his references to Salem’s heritage and the Museum’s founders as hopeful hints and began to hold my breath. Then the Anchor returned to the front of the original Peabody Museum building, East India Hall, and I let it out a little bit. This morning, when I awoke to a summary of his speech before the North Shore Chamber of Commerce in the Salem News I let it out completely, right after I read this particular quote:

“I just have to come out and say that to you,” he said. “It was not done well. It was not done transparently. I don’t know why we thought we couldn’t share it much, much earlier that the buildings we had couldn’t contain this level of material. But they can contain material, and they will. So I pledge that to you, but I just ask you, you have to give me time.”

Yes, the old Plummer and Daland buildings, constituting the former Essex Institute and Phillips Library can contain material, and they will! That’s it: that’s all we need, that’s all Salem needs. What a striking contrast to previous Director Dan Monroe’s assertion, repeated time and time again, that it was IMPOSSIBLE for these buildings to contain anything other than bound volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections, which are readily available at the other end of Essex Street in the Salem Public Library. I believe Dr. Kennedy (and will hold him to his pledge, albeit with great liberality).

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20191031_142607N.C. Wyeth’s Peace, Prosperity, and Progress (1923) in one of the atriums of the new Peabody Essex Museum; the anchor returned in September, and in yesterday’s speech Dr. Kennedy also pledged to engage in some Halloween programming—-“Here’s people, Go get them, they are right there”. Now that should be interesting!


Two Amazing “Accessories”

All summer long I was obsessed with sheds—I wanted one, an old one of course, for my garden but never found the perfect one or the owner of the perfect one, except for the case of a southeastern New Hampshire shed whose owner would not sell to me (and frankly, if she had said yes, I’m not sure how I would have dislodged and transported it to Salem as my husband does not share my shed obsession). Sheds, carriage houses, even mundane garages, are all just accessory units to their main structures according to architectural classification, and I’ve got two AMAZING accessory units today: a permanent structure in Salem and a temporary “folly” in Marblehead. Here they are:

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Yes, one man has constructed a Samuel McIntire tea or summer house as a permanent accessory to his Salem Federal house near the public library, while another has built a fantasy ghost ship into/ out of his Marblehead garage—for the Halloween season only! Two disciplined and talented visionaries in adjoining towns! Marblehead architect Tom Saltsman, who you can read about here, is responsible for the ghost ship Oceanna, while my friend John Hermanski has been building the McIntire tea house over the past few years: I’ve been waiting, waiting, and waiting to feature it here, and finally last month it looked perfect, except for the McIntire urns he wants to add along the roofline. His inspiration is readily apparent in extant drawings of the McIntire outbuildings flanking the fabulous—and fleeting—-Derby mansion which once stood on Essex Street where Derby Square now is, as well as a couple of surviving McIntire pavilions: the Derby or McIntire Tea House at Glen Magna in Danvers (1793-94), and the Derby-Beebe Summer House (1799), which was originally located in Wakefield, Massachusetts and removed to the Essex Institute in Salem in the twentieth century.

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Accessory MansionThe new McIntire-Hermanksi Tea House on Monroe Street, the old McIntire Tea House on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum, and Charles Bulfinch’s sketch of the Derby Mansion by McIntire, with its flanking outbuildings, c. 1795, Phillips Library, PEM.

I’m not sure what Mr. Saltsman’s inspiration was: Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps? It’s an ephemeral creation that will likely be gone by the time you read this (he says that he “loves that it goes away”), but fair warning for next Halloween as he has a 15-year track record of diverse constructions.

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We in Salem are fortunate to be able to gaze at John Hermanski’s mini-McIntire House in all seasons, either from across the driveway of the beautiful Federal house which adjoins it or from Essex Street, as the house sits right in back of the Salem Public Library’s side lawn: in fact, my favorite photograph of the house, an Arthur Griffin black-and-white from circa 1950, has this vantage point. But that view doesn’t show the ultimate accessory which stands there now.

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Monroe StreetThe John Hermanski-Barbara Taylor House on Monroe Street in Salem, 2019 (+accessory) and c. 1950, Digital Commonwealth.


Salem Sensory Overload

An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)

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 The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!

As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?

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A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.

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20190929_150342-1The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by  Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.

The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.

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20190929_154325-1Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.

By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.

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20190929_152822Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.

On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spacious galleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.

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Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.

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20190929_153255The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.


Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

Two years ago tomorrow,  the temporary location of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum shut down rather abruptly with a succinct notice of when it would be reopening but no reference to where. As the Library is the primary repository of documents relating to Salem’s history, there were concerns among scholars (including a friend of mine who was writing her dissertation based on materials in the Phillips and was quite suddenly shut out), but I don’t think the general public was too concerned: increasing inaccessibility in terms of hours–and then location—had been the trend for about a decade. I had never really depended on the Phillips for research or teaching (only this blog) so this was a big wake-up call for me:  I started thinking, what if it is not coming back? And then a few months later, in early December: the big non-announcement at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. The Phillips Library of Salem was no more: all of its holdings would be deposited in a giant Collection Center in Rowley, a half hour to the north. The special library—consolidated from collections of both the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute and housed in the spectacular purpose-built Plummer Hall on Essex Street—would now be part of a much larger modern warehouse of texts and objects located on a commercial strip of Route One. An Indiana Jones image formed in my mind, and the contrast between the genteel, accessible Plummer Hall and the post-modern former toy factory seemed too cruel, even discounting the distance factor.

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Early 2018 was all about resistance and defense: there was a very dramatic public forum at the Museum during which then-PEM CEO Dan Monroe justified his decision according to the priority of preservation: it was impossible to house these materials in Salem due to the deficiencies of the Plummer and adjoining Daland buildings and there was no other sufficient space in the city.  The “preservation vs. location” argument is still authoritative: with no discussion of why the PEM did not use the substantial monies donated to it for the library to improve and expand these facilities in Salem. Also still with us is the conflation of objects and texts, justifying the move to the Rowley storage center; the Phillips Library literally gets lost in this configuration. There was lots of press coverage in January, 2018: in both the Salem News and the Boston Globe, where a front-page story included the quote below from Mr. Monroe of which I just can’t let go. A “Friends of the Phillips Library” group, established right after the December 2017 Historical Commission meeting, expanded its presence on Facebook and eventually launched its own website, which remains the essential archive of this story.

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The official way forward seemed to be through a “working group” established by the Mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, and Mr. Monroe and including members of the city’s heritage organizations, most of which (with the exception of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Athenaeum) were silent during the uproar and remain so. Almost immediately the PEM announced a compromise: a reading room would be reinstated in Plummer Hall (although what would actually be in this reading room is still unknown), a Salem history exhibit installed next door, and rotating exhibits of Phillips Library materials would be installed in the main museum buildings down and across Essex Street. I don’t think we’ve really moved much beyond this agreement, but there were also discussions about digitization, as the focus on the historical collections revealed just how far behind the PEM was in such initiatives, despite misleading news stories to the contrary. Once the library collections were moved to Rowley, digitization of some of the Phillips’ most popular items began, and consequently we can now see Frank Cousins’ photographs of Salem in the 1890s at the Digital Commonwealth and a variety of interesting texts at the Internet Archive. I give all credit for this ongoing development to Collections chief and Library Director John D. Childs, as I remember him stating that digitization was a priority at the January 2018 forum, while Dan Monroe would only offer that it was “expensive”.

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Witch of New EnglandEntrance to the George Peabody Estate, “Kernwood”, in North Salem, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; just one Phillips text at the Internet Archive.

And that brings us to the biggest development in these two years: the retirement of Dan Monroe, effective this past July. The new director of the PEM, Brian Kennedy, is not only an experienced museum administrator, but also a scholar, who began his first day at the Museum with a staff meeting in East India Hall referencing the vision of the founders of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. This was encouraging to those of us on the outside, as the founders were overwhelmingly Salem men who believed that they were contributing to a repository of Salem history and culture, but we must remember that Mr. Kennedy is learning the lay of the land and that only one trustee on the PEM’s Board is a resident of Salem. The will of the founders—and successive donors—has always been the most pressing factor in my mind: I asked Mr. Monroe about “donor intent” at the January 2018 forum but he expressed no concerns. However, I’ve heard many, many, many concerns here (and in emails) from many of you. Both founder and donor intent can rise to the level of legal action, of course, and are administered within the purview of the office of the Attorney General. Very soon after the “non-announcement” of the move, we found the Essex Institute’s incorporation charter from 1821, which asserted specifically that its “cabinet” be situated in Salem. We assumed that this article was made null and void years ago, or at the very least through the merger of the Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, but apparently that is not the case.

Essex Institute Incorporation

And so at the invitation of Mr. Michael Harrington, former Congressman and present owner of the Hawthorne Hotel who has taken a very active interest in this “case”, a group of concerned citizens, heritage professionals, and local political leaders met with Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff this past eventful July. It was a great meeting to which I was privileged to be invited. Ms. Healey listened intently to us over several hours, and explained the process by which the PEM has to petition the court to be released from the above article, a process that is overseen by her office. Apparently the PEM has not initiated this process (at least formally) yet, but can at any time, and presumably will (although they haven’t indicated that they were bound by any restrictions to date, so I’m wondering if things will just continue as they are). I voiced all of the concerns I’ve written about and heard here at this meeting, as well as my belief that the removal of the Phillips Library will cause economic harm to Salem over the long run, as the city has no professional historical society or museum to take its place. When history is only for sale, money determines everything: the topic, the take, the truth.

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I’m not sure what will happen now; obviously the Attorney General’s office is invested in this issue but it has been for some time. The Peabody Essex Museum is focused, with good reason, on opening its brand new wing at the end of September and branding itself as the #newpem. No doubt Mr. Kennedy is preoccupied with that, and with learning all about his new institution. Not only has the new wing been completed recently but substantive renovations to both the interiors and exteriors of the Plummer and Daland buildings are ongoing: the 1960s “stacks” addition has been shorn off, and many wonder where the Phillips materials could be housed if they were returned to Salem. The PEM had a viable plan for the expansion of the Phillips Library in these buildings and in Salem, but that plan was abandoned in favor of the new wing and Collection Center in Rowley.

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So I think that’s where we are, but any good summary should also include what remains to be seen, or what I still don’t understand. After two years of immersion in this very singular issue: these are the concerns, problems, and questions that still linger in my mind:

  1. I don’t understand why the City didn’t try harder to retain our history. It’s been dawning on me for some time that this entire proceeding reveals more about the City of Salem than the Peabody Essex Museum. Recently I’ve heard that the City’s tourism office, Destination Salem, plans to focus on genealogy or “roots” tourism over the next few years. This makes sense on one level, as this is the most dynamic trend in the tourism industry currently and Salem is Ellis Island for many Anglo-Americans, but it makes no sense on another, as Salem has no genealogical records because they are all in Rowley.
  2. I don’t understand how the Phillips Library is going to survive as a library in Rowley: a real library, with regular patrons, events, talks, exhibits and a sense of community. I can understand how it will exist as a repository, but not a library. Every research library I’ve ever worked in–the Folger, Houghton, the Massachusetts Historical Society—is an active gathering place, but I can’t see people gathering at that sterile place in Rowley. It’s a professional operation to be sure, and researchers will go there to do their research, but that’s about it. I guess that’s what the PEM wants, as the promise to offer exhibitions of Phillips collections is being kept, with a Hawthorne exhibition opening next month in the new wing, in Salem.
  3. Speaking of comparable research libraries, I don’t understand why a “Harvard Depository” system cannot be utilized with the Phillips Library, retaining the offsite Collection Center as a storage facility from which materials can be retrieved and brought to the MAIN Library, which could be reinstated in the Plummer and Daland buildings on Essex Street in Salem. This would solve the storage issue and retain the traditional space, place, and role of the Phillips Library, and it could be operated as an accessible facility that would serve researchers and the general (curious) public. I’m sure there’s a reason why this can’t happen, but I wish I knew what it was, as it seems like the reasonable solution to a layperson like me, and one which would benefit all parties: the PEM, the City of Salem, and the Phillips Library itself.

The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

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Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

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The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


Whirlwind Weekend

I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.

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20190811_151931Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).


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