One summer morning in 1890, George Davenport, a reporter for the Salem Observer newspaper, made the short trip to Winter Island, where he would spend the better part of a day at the 20-year-old Plummer Farm School of Reform for Boys.
Established by a bequest made by Salem philanthropist Caroline Plummer, the organization’s stated purpose was to “correct and enrich stubborn, wayward and recalcitrant boys” from the Salem area.
The massive Victorian homestead, with its breathtaking view of Salem Sound and “a nice bit of a farm,” would appeal to a retired sea captain, the writer noted. Instead, Plummer Farm was home to 28 boys ranging in age from 9 to 15. A survey of the records from that time show 13 had been sent by the courts, usually for a period of two years, for truancy or theft. Nearly an equal number had been turned over to the home by parents or guardians for chronic disobedience or truancy, and the remaining three by the Board of Overseers of the Poor because their parents were unable to support them.
Many of the residents came from single-parent homes. One was being raised by an uncle, and five had at least one step-parent. Nineteen of the 28 came from Salem, most of the others from the Greater Boston /North Shore area. Curiously, two unruly brothers from Montreal, Canada, had been sent to board at Plummer Farm by their frustrated father, who paid a prearranged fee for their care.
The facility had more to offer its residents than a beautiful view. Davenport noted the newish beds and school desks, and multiple suits of clothing for each resident. Their meals — taken with the superintendent and his family — and medical care were far better than that of many of their peers in the “outside world.” There was a pond for skating, a beach for swimming and plenty of time for play. Most importantly for the boys, the environment was both structured and safe. Superintendent Johnson, while not a man one would want to cross, had “not an atom of cruelty in his kindly eyes.”