SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 14, 2013

Exploring Manchester's lively history

Essex County Chronicles
Jim McAllister

---- — A few days ago, a letter arrived from a longtime resident of Manchester-by-the-Sea politely calling my attention to the absence of any reference to her community in the most recent Essex County Chronicles column. The author of that column, about a 1945 National Geographic article that covered the North Shore, is not to blame; Manchester wasn’t mentioned in the magazine article even once.

To compensate for National Geographic’s “shortcomings,” this week’s offering is devoted solely to early Manchester and is based on interesting material found in D. Hamilton Hurd’s monumental 1888 “History of Essex County, Massachusetts.”

In 1645, the tiny but growing settlement at Jeffreys Creek was granted permission by the Massachusetts General Court to adopt the name Manchester, a nod to the English community from which many of the residents had emigrated. It was left to a later resident, the publisher James T. Fields, to first use the “by the Sea” phrase that would later become part of the town name.

The early settlers were a religious lot, as is evidenced by the establishment of a church shortly after settlement. It was serious business, this religion, and the church fathers left nothing to chance. A “tithingman” was strategically seated in a gallery that also housed the exuberant young men of the town. If the tithingman’s stern gaze didn’t make them behave, “a heavy blow from the official stick” served both to quiet them down and to remind them of the “tortures to come,” presumably in hell, if they didn’t take their godly duties seriously.

Local churchgoers had a Puritan streak in them. For the better part of two centuries, they suffered through Sunday services in winter without the benefit of any real heat. When the First Church finally voted in 1821 to install a wood stove, some of the more conservative members decried the action, claiming the presence of heat would render younger churchgoers “puny and effeminate.”

While the early generations of Manchester residents “were always alive to their religious duties,” the same could not always be said about their political commitments. On one occasion in the 1650s, the town was “complained of” by the Massachusetts General Court for not sending a representative to that august body. Two other times in the ensuing few years, the town was again identified as being delinquent in its governmental obligations, and once, a temporary surrogate had to be appointed to act on the community’s behalf.

Politics and religion aside, Manchester has always been known for its natural beauty. From Hurd, we know that the town’s dense woodlands were home to an extraordinary variety of plants and trees, including the lovely magnolia that would later give its name to an adjacent Gloucester neighborhood, And, it was said, anyone who tasted the waters of the Saw Mill Brook that flows through Manchester “can never permanently absent himself from this town.”

But it was Manchester’s “capacious” harbor, with its “numerous creeks, beaches and picturesque headlands,” including the famed Singing Beach, that drew many to settle here. For the better part of two centuries, that harbor was alive with ships coming and going, either off to the Grand Banks to fish or to distant ports to trade. As late as 1815, notes the author, there were approximately 50 ship captains living in Manchester.

They were a hardy lot these mariners. Young Tom Leach sailed for the first time with his captain father aboard a local vessel and one particularly cold morning showed up on deck wearing a pair of mittens made for him by his doting mother. Casting sentiment to the winds, Capt. Leach tore the gloves off his son’s hands and threw them into the ocean. Fishermen don’t wear mittens, young Tom was told.

Mariners worked in a most dangerous profession: Storms, disease, pirates and other hazards they encountered claimed many a life. Occasionally, a seaman got lucky. In 1647, a local vessel was ambushed by Indians, and all but 12-year-old Aaron Lee were killed. The youngster was enslaved by his captors and raised for the next three years in their ways. He eventually escaped and made his way home, where he arrived, utterly unrecognizable even to his mother, just as his family was sitting down to dinner.

Even as the town was establishing itself as a manufacturing center, led by John Perry Allen’s cabinet- and veneer-making business, which sold product nationwide and employed as many as 100 workers at a time, some had trouble giving up the seafaring life. The story is told of a retired sea captain, Samuel Allen, who was transporting crops into town with a team of oxen when he encountered a near-hysterical shipowner whose vessel was loaded and ready to sail but whose skipper had no-showed. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Sixty-five days later, after a very successful fishing venture, Samuel Allen was reunited with his family and retired again, presumably for good, to the farm.

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Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.