, Salem, MA

March 21, 2008

Essex County Chronicles: Salem's 'Northfields' has a rich history

By Jim McAllister

It may not be a designated historic district, but North Salem possesses plenty of history and character.

For starters, it is the city's oldest neighborhood. Long before the white settlers arrived, the area was inhabited by Native Americans. Rev. John Higginson recalled that a settlement of Naumkeags existed at the intersection of what are now North and Osborne streets when he came to Salem in 1629.

North, Dearborn, Liberty Hill, and Orne are some of the neighborhood's oldest streets. William Dennis, writing in the Salem Observer in 1912, noted that North Street was once "The Country Road" and Dearborn was known as "Liberal" or "Generous" Street because of its width.

The bottom of Liberty Hill Avenue was the site of Cold Spring. This spring was a popular source of fresh water for local inhabitants until recent years. It was also a favorite stopping place for Nathaniel Hawthorne, a one-time Dearborn Street resident, on his rambles around Salem.

Manning Street owes its name to Hawthorne's uncle. Robert Manning, one of America's leading authorities on fruit, who established his famous pomological gardens on Dearborn Street in 1823. Manning's "Book of Fruits" was the last word on the growing of pears, cherries, and other fruits in New England.

Agriculture was the primary activity in North Salem in the 17th and 18th centuries. Maps of Salem in 1700 show the area between the North River and Dearborn Street was subdivided into narrow farms and was known as Northfields. Access to the Salem peninsula was by ferry until the original North Bridge was built in 1744.

According to William Dennis, the area north and west of the bridge near what is now Mason Street and Mack Park was once called "Paradise." North Salem in general was known as Pigeontown (or Pigeonville). Wild pigeons were trapped in the Liberty Hill-Kernwood area and sold at market.

Local residents were referred to as pigeons and were obviously proud of it. The North Salem fire engine in the mid-19th century , Active No. 8, was adorned with a bronze pigeon.

The present Kernwood Country Club property was once the estate of Francis Peabody. This noted chemist helped usher in Salem's industrial age in the second quarter of the 19th century. Peabody opened a lead works and a jute-bagging plant in Salem and promoted other industries.

North Salem has been the home of other important individuals and businesses. As was mentioned in last week's column, General Electric CEO Jack Welch was raised at 15 Lovett St. and Wayne Millner, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, spent most of his young adult years at 196-8 North St.

Salem schoolteacher Kate Tannat Woods moved to 166 North St. after her marriage to George Woods. She went on to become a nationally-known author and an editor for both Harper's Bazaar and Ladies Home Journal. Woods was also an organizer and longtime president of Salem's Thought and Work Club (founded 1891) for women.

Another North Salem notable was Joseph Dixon, founder of the Dixon Crucible Co. In 1827 Dixon began making high-quality graphite pencils in his home at 91 North St. (since removed). For the next 20 years, until the inventor moved his business to New Jersey, Dixon's house doubled as a laboratory and a factory. There he discovered many other uses for graphite, including stove cleaner and steel.

In the early part of the 20th century Lloyd and Bruce Coffin began making vacuum tubes for the fledgling radio industry in a garage on Oakland Street. Their Hytron Radio and Electronics Co. (1921) would become one of the largest producers of tubes in the nation with factories in Brooklyn; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Salem, Beverly, Lowell, Lawrence, and Newburyport here in Massachusetts. The firm shifted its focus to television tubes after World War II and became part of the CBS empire in 1951.

The Gibralter, the famed Salem confection, also was first manufactured in North Salem. Thomas Spencer emigrated from England with his mother in the 1820s or '30s. Shortly after their arrival in Salem, they began making lemon-flavored rock candies in their dwelling at 56 Buffum St. The Gibralter was an immediate hit and eventually became a major Salem export.

The North Shore Children's Hospital's first permanent home was on Ropes Point at the end of Dearborn Street. The newly-incorporated North Shore Babies Hospital acquired the Ropes estate in 1909 and remodeled it into a medical facility. The hospital was a fixture on Ropes Point for nearly half a century.

North Salem also boasts some of the area's most impressive cemeteries. Harmony Grove is the final resting place of philanthropists George Peabody, John Bertram, and Caroline Emmerton. The noted Salem diarist William Bentley is also buried here.

The city-owned Greenlawn Cemetery is the home of the exquisite Dickson Memorial Chapel. This burial ground, along with other North Salem sites, appears in Robin Cook's 1994 medical thriller, "Acceptable Risk."


Jim McAllister of Salem writes a weekly column on the history of the North Shore. He will be honored on Wednesday, May 28, as the Essex National Heritage Commission's first "Essex Heritage Hero" for his chronicling of the region's unique history over the past 25 years. More information on the event, which includes a dinner at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, can be obtained at the commission's Web site at