So now I am on my “spring break” with the reality of no return to my classrooms: everything is converted to digital/remote in this new corona community. This is ominous for me; I prefer to teach in person. I can rise to the occasion—I know how to access all the digital tools and resources—but I see them as appendices rather than the story. Nevertheless I will rise to the occasion. With no prospects of long-distance travel or local entertainment and the task before me, my spring break will therefore have to consist of a few road trips, and on Sunday I drove west for a couple of hours into north central Massachusetts in search of a a real destination and a few ghost towns. New Salem was founded in the mid-18th century by investors from Salem, who enticed farmers from “old” Salem to settle in the Swift River Valley. With settlement and incorporation the town was well-established as the most northern of a chain of towns in the valley, and the sole survivor after adjoining Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were all flooded to form the Quabbin Resevoir, the water source for Metropolitan Boston, from 1936-40. New Salem is the touchstone for all of these lost towns, and for old Salem as well: as I wandered through its oldest cemetery, I saw so many familiar names on the old stones: Southwick, Putnam, Pierce, Cook.
As you can see from the photographs, it was a beautiful day, which made my visit all the more poignant, as no one was about. New Salem seemed like a beautiful ghost town—the perfect place for social distancing! It was almost eerie, but of course I was distracted by the architecture—and there were cars in the driveways.
In North New Salem is the Swift River Valley Historical Society, a regional historical society devoted to preserving the memory of both the living and lost towns. It was closed, of course, but just outside was this amazing sign post (I don’t think that’s the right word???) with all the historical place names intact. I love this more than I can say. I love that it is preserved. I love the manicules. I love that the names of its maker and restorers are preserved. I have no idea why “Indianapolis” is on the sign!
This sign made me want to search for more signs, as ways and links to the past, so I drove down every single road with any of the above place names—those with the “lost” place names led to water, and that was that: the point was driven home.
An abandoned farmhouse on Old Dana Road, and the Quabbin Reservoir.
This summer I have given several thematic walking tours around Salem to various groups and have found myself looking at the city as a tourist might. One gets the impression of a very busy place, not just in terms of activities and traffic on the streets (which are nearly all torn up!) but also because of superfluous signage: I think Salem has a mild case of sign pollution. Recent efforts to streamline and standardize signs have resulted in some very nice “official” signs throughout the city, but many of the older signs from a more haphazard era still remain, and then we have the customary cases of Witch City exemptions. Here is a great illustration of what I mean: I took this photograph, but it was 100% inspired by a Salem Instagrammer who often captures interesting perspectives.
A mixture of private and public signs on one Salem corner, and on one Salem street sign!
Attempts at sign conformity, emphasizing both information and aesthetics,are represented by the “Great Stories Begin Here” banner signs scattered throughout the city–which enable advertising through sponsorship–and the official signs which direct visitors to established heritage locations and neighborhoods.I think these stand out for the most part, except at certain locations where there are simply too many signs in close proximity.
The worst cases of sign pollution by far are when public street signs have signs for private institutions affixed to them, as in the first photograph above. What are the signs for the Salem Witch Dungeon (which again, for the 99th time, I feel compelled to point out is not situated on the actual location of the former Witch “Dungeon” or jail) and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre (which is neither located on Gallows Hill or a “museum” or fully-functioning theatre) doing on public street sign? This is the Witch City exemption of which I spoke above: apparently witch “attractions” are allowed to affix their signs anywhere.
A lot of information here, but we always know that all of the streets of Salem lead to the Salem Witch Museum!
Apart from these unfortunate mishmashes, there are quite a few notable business signs in Salem, which is perhaps a topic for another post. But I’ll leave you with my favorite old and (relatively) new signs, for Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street and Turner’s Seafood on Church Street. The Bunghole sign reminds me of days gone by, when a sign was the only way for businesses to draw businesses in, and subtlety was not an option.
Bunghole and Turner’s Seafood signs in Salem today, and the Witch City Vulcanizing Company on lower Lafayette in 1917, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.