The Salem News
---- — 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.”
But there were drawbacks to living at the farm, wrote Davenport. The boys shared one large dormitory room (pillow fights were taboo), and in the fall and winter months went to bed at 7:30 and rose at 5:00. The residents were confined to the farm; there would be no trotting off with “another boy or two, a dog or dogs of disreputable habits and appearance” for a “stone-throwing, howling picnic.”
In addition to four hours of on-site schooling, the boys were required to perform six hours of work daily. (If the assigned chores could be done in less than the anticipated time, however, it gave the youngster more time for recreation.) Most of the residents worked in the kitchen, in the downstairs carpentry shop caning or re-caning furniture or, in season, in the Plummer Farm fields. The rich soil and cool ocean air provided a perfect environment for the lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, corn, tomatoes and other crops tended by the boys under staff supervision. Trustworthy youngsters went sent off to the nearby Juniper Point neighborhood or downtown Salem to sell the surplus vegetables along with milk and pork. The tomato crop alone that summer had netted $300 for the Plummer Farm.
The structured, wholesome and balanced lifestyle provided by the dedicated Plummer Farm staffers gave the residents a chance to develop habits that would help them be successful when reintroduced to the outside world. Some took advantage of the opportunity, others did not. Files for the boys living at the facility in 1890 show that one ran away and was never heard from again, four returned for a second stint at the farm or were sent to the Concord Reformatory, and 12 were working in civilian jobs or had joined the military. Two had found employment with George Woodbury, a North Salem contractor and real estate developer who was apparently a friend of the Plummer Farm School.
Unfortunately for us, very little long-term follow-up was done. In many of the files, it was simply noted the boy “went home”; in others, the last entry was made just a short time after the resident’s departure. But one has to assume a reasonable success rate, given that the organization continues to operate and grow, under a new name and with a somewhat altered focus, nearly a century and a quarter since the Salem Observer story appeared.
On Thursday evening, June 27, the Plummer Home for Boys in Salem will host a fundraising Summer Celebration at their Winter Island facility. Information can be obtained by calling Jamie Ayer at 978-744-1099, ext. 103 or online at www.plummerhome.org.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular Salem News columnist.