Essex County Chronicles
---- — This week’s offering was born the minute a kindly employee at a local thrift shop handed over to me a September 1945 issue of National Geographic that he had planned to keep for himself. Within its pages, most of which were devoted to World War II matters, was an article titled “Northeast of Boston” by Albert Atwood.
Atwood’s lengthy, 35-page article covers Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, with much of the attention going to our very own North Shore. The story is accompanied by two dozen photographs, 15 of which relate to local communities. In the latter category are paired images of the serene Rockport Harbor (showing Motif No. 1 and a single lobster boat) and its bustling, chaotic counterpart in neighboring Gloucester; two interior shots of the then-Peabody Museum; and a photo of four smiling young ladies, in full color, with a historic marker for the old Salem Jail site.
Of particular interest are the full-page color shot of what is now the Marblehead selectmen’s room in Abbot Hall and an interior of the Salem YMCA. In the former, a handful of youngsters are shown reading and writing at a table just beneath the famed “Spirit of ’76” painting by Archibald Willard, a visual reminder that the space once housed the children’s room of the Marblehead Public Library. In the YMCA shot, two young women pose with replicas of Alexander Graham Bell’s “original instruments” displayed in a glass case. The YMCA, the author notes, stands on the former site of the Mary Sanders House, where Bell lived rent-free for nearly three years in the 1870s in return for tutoring Mary’s hearing-impaired grandson, George Sanders. The author also mentions parenthetically that Salem native Walter Gifford had, for the past 20 years, served as president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.
Another image that also fits in the “time-capsule” category shows a helicopter hovering rather closely over Pioneer Village and the no-longer-extant replica of the historic ship Arbella anchored nearby.
Much of the North Shore-related text focuses on Salem, Marblehead and Gloucester. In his rather detailed chronicling of Salem’s maritime history, the author notes that many of the most powerful present-day Boston families had built their fortunes while living in the Witch City. A full-page color photograph of Chestnut Street mansions provides evidence of their wealth. Atwood also devotes space to Salem’s famed Pequot Mills, its role as a transshipping port for coal for other cotton mills in Lawrence and Lowell, and the city’s relationship to famous Americans, including George Parker, architect Samuel McIntire, statesman Timothy Pickering and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Atwood notes under the color photograph of The House of the Seven Gables that Hawthorne never lived there. Elsewhere in the piece, he quotes a letter written by Hawthorne to his sister Luisa in 1850 from Boston in which the author expresses a fear that to return to Salem at that time would be to invite tarring and feathering, a reference to the outcry over his just-published and unflattering book “The Scarlet Letter.”
In Gloucester, the author’s focus is on the city’s still-bustling fishing industry and the families who have relocated to the city from Italy or Portugal to work in it. Gloucester’s cod fishery, Atwood says, has been augmented by developments like rail transportation and fast-freeze technology that make it possible for local fishermen to make money from redfish and other species, as well. Also deemed worthy of a mention is the local glue industry that is based on abundant but inedible fish heads, tails and fins.
While also acknowledging Marblehead’s fishing heritage, the author stresses the role that yachting plays in the town’s cultural and economic life in 1945. Local children as young as 7 “get down to the serious business of learning to sail” even before they learn to swim, notes the author. Atwood captures the flavor of Marblehead with an anecdote about an old-timer who refused to vote for a young town office-seeker because the latter had been born in Salem, making him a “d_____d foreigner.”
The tiny community of Essex gets a mention from the author as the source of many of the vessels built for Gloucester fishermen, Danvers as a center of activity during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Curiously, Ipswich, one of the most important Colonial Massachusetts towns, is mentioned only in passing.
Before finally moving on to New Hampshire and Maine, Atwood visits and pays tribute to the once-great port of Newburyport. Like most literary visitors, the author cannot resist mentioning Lord Timothy Dexter, the town’s filthy rich and eminently unlikable eccentric.
Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.