I have a guilty secret to admit, one which will reveal me to be out of step with most of my fellow Salem residents (no, it’s not about “witches”): I’m not particularly fond of Salem Willows. It’s got a great history and a great spirit, and I’m always happy when I go there, but I don’t really appreciate it. I’m sure I must be a bit of snob about seaside amusement parks, as I never really appreciated York Beach while I was growing up in York either. I don’t understand chop suey sandwiches, and while the popcorn at Hobbs is great, I enjoy my friend Carol’s just as much. While I can take or leave the Willows, I know that many Salem natives wait eagerly for its opening every spring: they have strong memories and associations which I don’t have, and they like chop suey sandwiches. The other day, I came across an article in a 1941 issue of Woman’s Day in a trial database of women’s magazines that we just obtained at Salem State: it was so enthusiastic about the Willows experience back in the day that I began looking at it in a new (old) light.
The article is primarily about Ebsen’s, established in 1885 and the last restaurant standing on the Willows’ Restaurant Row. By the end of the decade, it would be gone, but it was clearly alive and well in 1941. Since that was such a fateful year, one can’t help but feel we are “witnessing” the end of the era in the enthusiastic prose of Sallie Belle Cox, who was embarking on her second career after making a name for herself as the “cry baby of the airwaves” playing crying babies on radio broadcasts in the 1930s. On one such program, she met her husband, radio writer and broadcaster Raymond Knight, a Salem native. She became his second (of three) wives, and by her account he was horrified that she did not know the glories of Salem Willows in general and Ebsen’s in particular, so they drove up from New York City in the early summer of 1941. While her husband insisted that his hometown was the “one city in the world where they know how to make a fish dinner,” Cox’s image of Salem was “a weird, fascinating place filled with clipper ships and jaunty old sea captains who brought home exotic wives with rings in their ears to annoy all the other natives whose only fun in life was roasting witches on dull Saturday nights.”
Salem native Raymond Knight and his soon-to-be wife Sallie Belle Cox (behind the microphone at left) in Radio Stars magazine, 1933-34.
And straight to the Willows and Ebsen’s they went. The restaurant was packed, its oilcloth-covered tables and chairs the same which had been installed in 1890. They partake of equally-old Charley Ebsen’s Shore Dinners: fish or clam chowder, fried clams, fried flounders, and fried lobster, with potato chips, pickles, ice cream, and their choice of non-alcoholic beverages. Cox finds the chowder divine and furnishes her readers with the recipe from chef Fred Millet, who has also been around since before 1900. She also notes that “the Rhode Island and Manhattan clam chowders are not even considered worth discussing in Salem” and admits that there can never be enough fried seafood.
“Shore Dinners” by Sallie Belle Cox, Woman’s Day, July 1941.
I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.
This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.
But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.
Time to return to the very basics of life: food, and plumbing! Today I’m thinking about oysters, and up next I’ve got a special post on wooden water pipes. Oysters–their harvest, sale, and consumption–have always been big business in Salem: Wellfleet is hardly the only Massachusetts oyster town! At present we have three restaurants which feature oyster bars: the excellent Turner‘s Seafood at the Lyceum, the oddly-named Village Tavern Grill & Oyster Bar, and the relatively new and very popular Sea Level Oyster Bar on Pickering Wharf. In the past, Salem probably had many more oyster establishments that were also actual oyster bars, as this particular commodity has evolved over time from a working man’s food to a bit more of a delicacy. Today, Salem’s many restaurants are spread out across its downtown, from the water to the train station, but in the past they were concentrated in the area around the Old Town Hall or Market House. Derby Square and Front Street today are still busy commercial spaces while an adjacent alley that served as an “Oyster Row” of sorts a century or more ago is now silent: yet Higginson Square still bears the signs of its purveying past.
The large brick commercial buildings on the east side of Higginson Square were built between 1895 and 1915, replacing earlier, smaller structures that served as dining rooms, bars, and wholesale purveyors of oysters and other foodstuffs. Their surviving shop windows indicated that they were functioning as retail establishments in the twentieth century too, but I don’t think this remained a restaurant row. These building have Derby, rather than Higginson, Square addresses now, but the one adorned with the fire escape was the earlier site of the Remond residence/restaurant/and oyster operation at 5 Higginson Square operated by John and Nancy Remond, the parents of Salem’s pioneering African-American abolitionists Charles and Sarah. The spotlight is always on the Remond children (a new park named after them is in the works now) but I’ve always been more interested in their entrepreneurial parents, who operated several businesses in Salem. Surviving advertisements for Remond oysters (“Let them be roasted, stewed, or fried; Or any other way beside; You’ll be well served, or ill betide”) indicate that the North Shore was no longer viable oystering ground in the mid-nineteenth century, as John was bringing in large supplies of oysters from Wellfleet and New York, enough to operate a veritable wholesale monopoly in Salem.
Trade cards from the collection of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the DigitalCommonwealth–I had to include the Lynn fish! The Remond businesses came a bit too early for these cards. Below–Salem’s 19th century Market Square, where oyster and other eating establishments were clustered. Higginson Square is marked in blue.