, Salem, MA

July 20, 2013

Salem keeps Pioneer Village open

Weekend tours began this month

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — More than 60 people visited Pioneer Village last weekend, the first run for city-led tours of the living history site.

Gordon College decided this spring not to renew its lease to manage the site, leaving the city to take over operations at the village in Forest River Park.

Numbers the first weekend “exceeded my expectations,” said Elizabeth Peterson, who also manages the city-owned Witch House.

Costumed guides are now leading three tours each Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Tour tickets will be sold at the Witch House; those who tour both the Witch House and Pioneer Village will receive $2 off Witch House admission.

Peterson has written a tour script based on the 17th century journals of John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first Colonial governor, and has negotiated with the Salem Trolley to operate a shuttle to Pioneer Village at 2:30 p.m. on tour days.

“It’s a critical site to maintain and dignify with the proper upkeep and attention it deserves,” Peterson said.

Said to be America’s first living history site, the 5-acre Salem Pioneer Village was built in 1930 as a stage set for a city pageant marking 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 had managed the village and Salem’s Old Town Hall on Essex Street since 2008, but decided this spring to focus its efforts and resources on Old Town Hall. The Wenham college ran programming at the village through June.

Over the last six weeks, Peterson, Mayor Kim Driscoll’s office and Karen Partanen, director of parks, recreation and community services, worked on plans to keep the village from closing.

Peterson said Gordon College has been supportive as she’s taken over the reins at Pioneer Village.

She was given the keys to the village this month and did a walk-through and quick cleanup with her staff. They did a trial run of tours earlier this month and offered the first public tours on July 12.

The city will continue to charge the same admission price that Gordon College charged: $6 for adults and $4 for children and students. Revenue from ticket sales will be put into its own account and not mingled with Witch House funds, said Peterson.

The city-run Witch House on Essex Street is the 17th-century home of Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials.

Doing research for Pioneer Village has led Peterson to look at the Witch House’s story differently, she said. Both properties depict Salem’s early years, but from different perspectives.

“They emphasize each other. It’s a great way for the city to welcome visitors to 17th-century Salem,” she said. “... I think people will be surprised at many of the things I’m finding in my just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg research. It’s amazing to put those puzzle pieces together, and it enriches my understanding of what we have here at the (witch) house as well.”

Long-term plans for Pioneer Village will be decided after the summer. Any multiyear contract with a nonprofit or other entity to manage the property would have to go out to bid.

Peterson, who came to the Witch House in 2008, feels there is potential for expanded programming, special events and other initiatives at Pioneer Village.

“I’d love to see it not just barely getting by, but active and alive,” she said.

“This remarkable property can be a resource for many nonprofit, community, cultural and educational institutions,” she said in an email to the Salem News.

“If we can make it accessible and available to students, residents and visitors alike, through tours, classes, festivals, projects and events, then I believe it will continue its return to the thriving, living history museum it was originally intended to be. Gordon College did a remarkable job in that regard, and I hope to carry that on.”

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.