, Salem, MA

June 22, 2013

Letter: Let’s find a way to save Pioneer Village

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

As a 5-year-old participant in the pageantry surrounding the dedication and opening of Pioneer Village in 1930, I read with interest the decision of Gordon College to end its affiliation with Pioneer Village.

I am certainly grateful to Gordon College for assuming responsibility to operate this valuable educational tool and important historical icon for the past five years, and for its upkeep of some of the buildings. But I have great concern about the future stewardship of this valuable memorial to Salem’s history. Will it be neglected? Deteriorate? Disappear?

Well, I just returned from a visit there, and it appears it has already experienced some degree of deterioration. Not that I could see much, since it is so overgrown with every bit of flora Salem has to offer. Most striking was the lack of thatch on the cottage roofs. I remember years ago how experts in thatching were hired from Ireland to maintain the handsome, thatched roofs of Salem’s little village.

I’m not sure how many Salem residents are aware that Pioneer Village is America’s first living history museum — the prototype for Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation and many, many others. Built on 3 acres, nestled between forest and ocean in South Salem, it contains various examples of 17th century Colonial architecture: wigwams, dugouts, thatched roof cottages, and the governor’s house. Early Colonial life is re-enacted by the blacksmith, fishermen drying fish on rustic frames, husbandry with a variety of animals and fowl, medicinal and culinary gardens, spinning ladies, and primitive kitchens featuring huge kettles bubbling away over open fires. I remember vividly how punishment was meted out — a dipping stool, the offender on a stool at the end of a long pole, dipped repeatedly into the pond — or for lesser offenses, confined to the stocks.

I believe the original impetus for Salem’s Pioneer Village was the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co. (aka Pequot Mills), which made and donated all of the fabric for Salem’s many housewives who made the costumes worn during the Tercentenary. It also built a replica of the governor’s house on its property, where the fabric and patterns in every style were available. (It is still there on Congress Street, its brown stain now changed to a painted sage green.)

I wore a purple dress, just like my mother and all the women’s costumes, with unbleached muslin collars and cuffs, and matching cap (still in my possession). My father and the men wore gray pantaloon-style outfits. My role in the tableau was to sit with other students, all of us supplied with tablets and markers, in an outdoor classroom. I also remember going with my parents down to the shore to greet the Arbella as it arrived from England bearing Governor Winthrop to the village of Salem. Unfortunately, the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co. moved its textile-making skills to a Southern textile mill in the mid-’50s, and support for the project diminished thereafter.

The question remains, what organization can now take on the financial burden of maintaining this important tribute and resource to Salem’s past? Salem State University has been suggested. However, this is not a state responsibility, but the City of Salem’s. Certainly deep pockets are needed to put Pioneer Village back on its feet, and to develop an endowment to keep it there. Where can this be found?

Could the Peabody Essex provide the needed stewardship? Its Yin Yu Tang project has similar overtones of showing how people of the past lived. Might the Salem Marine Society be interested? Or could the City of Salem include it in its annual budget?

The Salem News has interesting information today about its Park and Recreation Commission’s short-term proposal for a summer program to bring back vestiges of re-enactment and for using the Salem Trolley to shuttle tourists to the village. Commissioner Callahan said, “The proposal is a good opportunity to try managing the site itself.” This gives me some hope. At 88 years, hope is good!

Barbara Pattee Healey