Five years ago this week, the Essex County Chronicles column was devoted to information about life in Salem in the first half of the 20th century, gleaned from the diaries of Frank Fabens, a longtime resident of Chestnut Street who died in 1953. A man of leisure, Fabens kept busy with socializing, exercising, attending cultural and educational events, participating in Salem politics, and giving back to the community. Bits and pieces of his many comings and goings made it into the pages of the pocket-sized journals he kept for more than 40 years.
It becomes obvious from a further examination of Fabens’ sketchy diaries that Salem offered plenty of diversions in the early 1900s. During that first decade, Frank and unnamed friends went fishing at the Naumkeag Mills, attended an exposition of Salem-made products at the Salem Armory and took in citywide youth sporting events held at the Salem Common. In July 1909, they joined the huge throng of area residents at the Salem Willows to take in the “Illumination.”
Thousands of lights were employed in lighting up the Willows amusements, the homes in the adjacent neighborhood and even a visiting U.S. Navy cruiser moored just off the coast.
Fabens was an avid supporter of any event of a theatrical or musical nature. His diaries for this period are filled with references to trips to Boston to see concerts and plays — he often took in two or three in a single trip — and to local cultural venues, as well. On April 10, 1903, Fabens and friends attended a vaudeville production at the Mechanics Hall at the corner of Essex and Crombie streets. Four nights later, he was in the audience at the Salem Armory for a production of the opera “Aida.” The Fabens gang also acted in plays put on by the Salem Dramatic Club at the Salem Theatre on upper Essex Street, and attended professional productions at the Federal Theater at the corner of Washington and Federal streets.
Educational programs at the Peabody Museum — like James Duncan Phillips’ illustrated talk on “Old Salem Ships” (1906) also attracted Fabens’s attention. In mid-January 1905, he made his way to the Museum’s Academy Hall to hear a Read Fund lecture on “Browntail and Gypsy Moths” given by professor A.H. Kirkland. Two weeks later, he was back at the Peabody for the gala opening of the museum’s new Marine Room.
In between the two events, Fabens had attended a lecture at the adjacent Essex Institute given by the noted community activist Harlan P. Kelsey titled “Is Salem in Need of Civic Improvement?” Fabens obviously believed it was as he subsequently attended meetings on civil service reform at Caroline Emmerton’s mansion on Essex Street, ran successfully for re-election to the Salem Common Council and, later in the year, exulted in the defeat of the colorful Irish mayor, John “Silk Hat” Hurley.
Hamilton Hall on Chestnut Street was a popular Salem venue for cotillions, assemblies and other social events during Fabens’ lifetime. In 1906, the proprietors of the historic Samuel McIntire-designed function hall, needing money to refurbish the third-floor supper room, hosted an exhibition of the famed “Jarley’s Wax Works.” Fabens’s attendance was a given, since he lived just two doors away at 1 Chestnut St. and was a regular at the dances and coming-out balls held at the hall.
The bachelor’s “second homes,” when he wasn’t summering in Jefferson, N.H., were the Salem Billiard Club on Washington Street and the Salem Club on Washington Square. The latter sponsored cultural and educational programs, including a 1902 “smoke talk” titled “Episodes of the Civil War” and given by W.H. Nichols Fabens, and concerts by Jean Missud’s famous Salem Cadet Band. Fabens seldom missed a Salem Club event, especially when Welsh rarebit, the specialty of the house and a personal favorite, was being served.
The Salem YMCA was another popular destination for Fabens and friends. The diarist makes occasional reference to attending “Y” gym classes, wrestling matches and performances of philharmonic music. The concerts were held in Ames Hall, the same place, Fabens noted in his diary, he attended a lecture on Christian Science in December 1903. Fabens was on every institution’s list of possible supporters. He could be found at fundraisers for the newly organized House of the Seven Gables Settlement (a bridge party), the Mack Industrial School and other social service organizations, and on committees at the North Church, of which was a faithful member. Fabens also taught Sunday school and served on the boards of both the Associated Charities and the “Old Ladies Home.”
Jim McAllister of Salem writes a regular column for The Salem News.