By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The city is working on a plan to keep Salem Pioneer Village from closing this summer.
Gordon College announced last month that it will not renew its agreement to manage the city-owned living history site. The Wenham college will finish its contract this month with a pirate-themed festival on June 29 and 30.
Salem’s Park and Recreation Department is finalizing plans to keep the village open — on a smaller scale — with the city-owned Witch House coordinating tours of the site through October.
Last night, the Park and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to support plans for Elizabeth Peterson, director of the Witch House, to take the village under her wing and coordinate tours.
Peterson and Karen Partanen, director of parks, recreation and community services, have been working together the last month on plans to keep the village from closing.
Last night, Peterson told Park and Recreation Commissioners she’s willing to handle tour scheduling, marketing and ticket sales. She hopes to start tours the first week of July.
“I’d like to not see it languish in any way,” she said. “... It’s such a critical site to not lose.”
The 5-acre Salem Pioneer Village was built in 1930 as a stage set for a city-organized pageant to mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Gov. John Winthrop to Massachusetts’ shores. With a blacksmith’s shop, wigwam and thatched-roof cottages, the site is meant to depict Salem as it would have appeared to settlers arriving in the 1630s.
Gordon College has managed the village and Salem’s Old Town Hall on Essex Street since 2008. Last month, the college decided to focus its efforts and resources on Old Town Hall.
Details are still being finalized, but Peterson said tickets for summer tours of Pioneer Village would be sold at the Witch House. She's also talking with Salem Trolley about the possibility of having trolleys shuttle tourists between the Witch House on Essex Street and Salem Pioneer Village, part of Forest River Park, off West Avenue.
Summer tour guides would be hired as temporary contractors and would not be city employees, she said.
Park and Recreation Commissioner Robert Callahan said the proposal is a good opportunity for the city to try managing the site itself.
”The alternative is it closing,” Callahan said.
A pirate sendoff
Gordon College will continue to manage the village through June, culminating with a pirate festival June 29 and 30.
Pastimes Entertainment, which has brought a pirate show to Salem for years, bumped up the date of this year’s event to give Gordon College a “last hurrah,” said Paul Stickney, producer/director.
”We really wanted this to be a very grand send-off for Gordon College,” he said.
The weekend festival will feature a comedy sword-fighting troupe, period games and music, a replica pirate ship, cannon and weaponry demonstrations, and — of course — plenty of pirates, from Blackbeard to Captain Hook.
A cast of more than 20 actors will play out a treasure hunt mystery. Stickney wrote the weekend’s script specifically for the pioneer village setting.
“Pioneer Village has a charm of its own,” he said. “... (It is) a lost gem. It would be a tragedy if it closed ... a real shame if it was unused and the buildings went into disrepair.”
Last year’s pirate festival drew 1,200 visitors to the village over two days.
Making the village work financially has always been a struggle and has even caused the site to close in the past. Outside of downtown, it’s not within walking distance of the city’s other tourist attractions.
Since 2008, Gordon College has done numerous repairs and renovations at the village, from replacing windows and re-thatching roofs to restoring the blacksmith’s forge.
The college opened the village to the public on weekends through the summer and fall; ran living history programs and special events; and did educational programming for school, Scout and other youth groups.
Gordon College had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the city, which did not pay Gordon to manage the property or receive any revenue from its operation.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
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