175 Years of the Maple Street Church

(In the Herald-Citizen, 12/27/19)

Maple Street Church(Author’s photo, December 2019)

The Maple Street Church, originally known as the Third Orthodox Congregational Church of Danvers, was formed in 1844 and one year later a building was constructed on the site of its present church building on Maple Street. As the town grew, the church split off from the First Church of Danvers, and took the name Third Church because there was already a Second Congregational Church in the southern part of town that is now Peabody. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Maple Street Church, an institution that has played a prominent role in the community for generations.

Danvers Plains, the area that includes Danvers Square, was quickly becoming the commercial center of town with the coming of the railroads, replacing the area surrounding the corner of Hobart and Centre Street that had served as the center of the community since it was Salem Village. This new church became a centerpiece of the new downtown, and the building hosted town meetings until town hall was built in 1855. During one of the town meetings held in the church in 1847, the people of Danvers voted on a resolution condemning the United States’ entry into the Mexican-American War, which was widely opposed in New England.

1887 Map, Danvers Square
(Danvers Square in 1887, Maple Street Church is at the top labelled as “orthodox church.” Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.)

In 1836 American settlers in Texas declared independence from Mexico, partly so that the settlers could own slaves – which was illegal in Mexico – and Texas was later annexed by the U.S. as a slave state. In 1846 President James K. Polk sent U.S. troops over the Mexican border to provoke an attack, which he then used as a cause for the Mexican-American War. Abolitionist New England viewed the conflict as a ploy to add territory to the southern US and thereby expand slavery.

Rev. Richard Tolman delivered a sermon to the Maple Street Church on July 4, 1847 denouncing the “miseries and crimes of the Mexican War,” and connected it to the expansion of slavery as he decried “the dreadful waste of treasure and blood… for the purpose of extending and perpetuating that system of oppression.” Many members of the church, including Deacon Samuel Fowler whose brick house still stands at the Port Corner, were known for their strong abolitionist beliefs.

Original Maple St Church
(The first church building, 1845-1850. Drawing by David S. Shattuck. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center, and printed in Martin, A Hearty Band of Firefighters.)

Though it quickly became the center of the Danvers community, the church suffered a terrible setback only five years after construction. At nine o’clock on the evening of July 10, 1850 two arsonists set fire to the building. The inferno was enormous, and threatened the whole neighborhood. The “General Putnam” engine company of volunteer firefighters from Danversport responded, its horse-drawn carriage galloping up High Street. When the firefighters arrived, men from the neighborhood joined them in combatting the flames. But, the church was lost.

During the fire, one man who volunteered to help the firefighters, William Duffy, had worked so hard that he won the respect of the fire company and returned to the engine house with them, where he was immediately voted in as a member of the volunteer company. Soon after, Duffy was arrested for being the accomplice of the man who set the fire that night.

Duffy was sentenced to life in the Charlestown State Prison, while the arsonist who turned state’s evidence apparently served no time. Well into his prison term, members of the church and the Danversport fire company captain lobbied to have him released early, finding it unjust that the man who had actually set the fire walked free while the accomplice was imprisoned. Duffy was released, and several years later enlisted to fight in the Civil War. He died fighting for the Union.

Despite the tragedy of the church burning down only years after it was established, a new church building was soon built and the congregation continued to grow quickly. When first established in 1844 the church counted only 42 people but by 1869 there were 200 members and by 1899 there were 751 members, with yet more attending services. That same year three of its members became some of the first western missionaries to visit China, which only recently began allowing western missions. The leaders of the church continued to be important in the wider community, and after pastor Rev. James Fletcher resigned from the Maple Street Church in 1864 he became the principal of Holten High School, the public high school in Danvers, from 1866-1871.

Maple St Church - Moynahan 1899
(The second church building, 1851-1944. Picture circa 1899, originally printed in Moynahan, Danvers, Massachusetts)

Fire struck the church again in the congregation’s hundredth anniversary year. Around 10pm on the night of May 20, 1944 one of the firefighters at the old central fire station looked out the window and saw flames reflected in a window across the intersection. A fire that began in a shed behind the church had quickly spread to the church building. The fire departments of seven towns fought the flames, fearing that they could easily spread to the neighboring gas station, the Maple Street Elementary School, and the railroad warehouse.

Maple St Church Burning
(The second church building burning in 1944. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center, and printed in Martin, A Hearty Band of Firefighters.)

Despite the multitude of firefighters and equipment, the fire raged through the grand wooden structure, and one hour after the fire was discovered the steeple collapsed into the church. In a sign of ecumenical and community-wide support for the church, at one point during the height of the inferno Fire Chief Joseph E. Kelley, Catholic priest Fr. Michael F. Collins, Superintendent of the Electric Light Dept. Leo Nimblett, Maple Street Church Deacon Carlton M. Stearns, and teenager Leland E. Martin Jr. (who later became a Danvers Fire Chief) ran into the basement of the burning church to rescue the congregation’s silver communion set. The church was rebuilt in 1948, the structure that stands today, and the rescued communion set is still used.

Maple St Church Ruins
(The burned out church building, as seen on the Sunday following the fire in 1944. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center, and printed in Martin, A Hearty Band of Firefighters.)

Maple St Church Clock and Rubble (1)
(The clock from the church’s steeple lying on a pile of debris in the nave of the church. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center, and printed in Martin, A Hearty Band of Firefighters.)

At its 175th anniversary, the Maple Street Church’s congregation numbers approximately 375 people and the church’s services are broadcast on Danvers Community Access Television (DCAT). In addition to mission trips, the church sponsors Boy Scout Troop 16, is active in the Danvers Interfaith Partnership, and organizes numerous charitable endeavors.
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Sources:

Archer, Charles F. W. “Danvers.” In Standard History of Essex County, Massachusetts. Boston: C. F. Jewett and Company, 1878.

Hanson, J. W. History of the Town of Danvers from Its First Settlement to the Year 1848. Danvers: J.W. Hanson, 1848.

Hines, Ezra D., and W. J. C. Kenney. “Danvers Fires and Fire Companies.” The Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society 5 (1917): 84–85.

“Late Sentence for Incendiarism.” Gallipolis Journal. November 7, 1850. Library of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038121/1850-11-07/ed-1/seq-3/.

Maple Street Church. “The InSpire.” Danvers: Maple Street Church, December 2019. https://www.maplestreetchurch.org/the-inspire.

Martin Jr., Leland E. A Hearty Band of Firefighters: The Illustrated History of the Danvers Fire Department. Edited by Richard P. Zollo. Danvers: The Danvers Historical Society, 1997.

“Old Danvers Church Destroyed by Fire With $100,000 Loss.” Daily Boston Globe, May 21, 1944.

Proceedings at the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the First Parish at Salem Village Now Danvers. Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1874.

Putnam, A.P. “Danvers People and Their Homes.” Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society 5 (1917): 74–83.

Sanborn Map Company. “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Danvers, Essex County, Massachusetts.” Danvers, Mass., November 1887. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn03714_001/.

“Summary.” The Advent Herald. November 2, 1850. Adventist Digital Library.

Tapley, Charles Sutherland. “The One Hundredth Anniversary of the Maple Street Church.” The Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society 33 (1945): 16–21.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Tolman, Richard. Evil Tendencies of the Present Crisis: A Discourse, Delivered July 4, 1847. Danvers: The Danvers Courier, 1847. https://archive.org/details/eviltendenciesof00tolm/page/n4.

John Greenleaf Whittier and Oak Knoll

(In the Danvers Herald July 5, 2019)

Oak Knoll - Danvers Archives
(Oak Knoll. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center)

In April 1876, world-renowned poet John Greenleaf Whittier moved to a mansion house on Summer St. in Danvers. Born in Haverhill in 1807, Whittier was one of the “fireside poets,” the first group of American poets that were famous at home and around the world. The group included Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell. In general these writers explored traditional New England countryside themes, and through their writing sought to bring about social change against injustices of their time, and in particular supported the abolition of slavery.


(The “Fireside Poets.” Source: https://archive.org/stream/historyprogresso09sand/historyprogresso09sand#page/n489/mode/1up)

Whittier attended the 1833 convention that founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, of whose importance he later wrote: “I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book.” Prominent in abolitionist and literary circles, he first had his poems published in a Newburyport newspaper whose editor was William Lloyd Garrison. In later years, Garrison went on to become one of the best-known abolitionists as founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of The Liberator, a leading anti-slavery newspaper that also advocated for women’s rights. The two became life-long friends, though they had disagreements about the best tactics for the abolitionist movement.


(The first page of a letter Whittier wrote while at Oak Knoll to William Lloyd Garrison. Digital Commonwealth: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:dv142x13s)

Built in 1842, the house in Danvers to which Whittier moved in 1876 was a stunning Greek Revival-style country mansion. Whittier named it “Oak Knoll” because in front of the house there was a small rise with a grand oak tree upon it. The estate had manicured hedges, rolling lawns, rose gardens, and wild countryside surrounding it. The poet so loved the beautiful nature around his residence that when invited to go on carriage rides to other estates he was known to reply, “We will see nothing more beautiful than what we have at home.” After moving to Danvers, Whittier was offered as a gift the lavish Kernwood estate (now the country club) along the Danvers River in Salem. He refused, preferring the beautiful natural surroundings of Oak Knoll.


(Map of Oak Knoll. Historic American Building Survey, 1936, Library of Congress. Note Summer Street along the bottom edge.)

Whittier wrote more than 100 poems while living in Danvers, including the collections The Vision of Echard, and Other Poems (1878) and his last book of poems, At Sundown (1890). There are many of Whittier’s manuscripts and early-edition published works in the Danvers Archival Center. In his study, Whittier wrote at a desk from the Haverhill schoolhouse that he attended as a child, which was later donated to the Danvers Historical Society.

One of the best-known poems Whittier wrote at Oak Knoll was “The Witch of Wenham.” The poem’s theme is the witch-hunt of 1692, which began in what is now Danvers and spread throughout the surrounding towns. The poem reveals Whittier’s historical knowledge, and ends with a description of the area near Oak Knoll,

And when once more by Beaver Dam
The meadow-lark outsang,
And once again on all the hills
The early violets sprang,

And all the windy pasture slopes
Lay green within the arms
Of creeks that bore the salted sea
To pleasant inland farms,

The smith filed off the chains he forged,
The jail-bolts backward fell;
And youth and hoary age came forth
Like souls escaped from hell.

While living in Danvers, a steady parade of famous figures came to visit the elder poet and one historian describes these visitors “as pilgrims to a shrine.” The Emperor of Brazil Dom Pedro II visited Whittier at Oak Knoll. The Emperor was a man of letters who sponsored education in recently-independent Brazil, and worked to abolish slavery in that land. Another visitor was Dorothea Dix, an activist working for prison reform, and especially to end the practice of incarcerating mentally insane individuals in prisons because there were no other facilities for them. Her work led to the establishment of special hospitals across the country to treat those with mental illness. At her death, Dix was buried with a copy of Whittier’s poem “At Last” in her hands.


(His Imperial Majesty The Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. Shown here in 1872. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedro_Am%C3%A9rico_-_D._Pedro_II_na_abertura_da_Assembl%C3%A9ia_Geral.jpg)

One of Whittier’s visitors who played an unusual role in American history was Samuel J. Tilden, a long-time friend and abolitionist. Whittier was at Oak Knoll in 1876 when newspapers announced that Tilden may or may not have been elected President of the United States. Tilden received the most votes, but due to disputed recounts it was not clear whether he or Rutherford B. Hayes won the required electoral votes. A constitutional crisis ensued, President Grant sent federal troops to secure Washington, DC in case of civil unrest, and in the end a special commission declared Hayes the winner. When Tilden died in 1886, Whittier wrote a poem of remembrance published in a Boston newspaper.

Whittier was particularly respected in his later years as the last of the greatest generation of American poets. On Whittier’s 80th birthday Massachusetts Governor Oliver Ames attended a large party with 600 invited guests to honor the luminary. A few years before, in 1885, Whittier was asked to write the inscription on the memorial to Rebecca Nurse, hanged for witchcraft in 1692. He was described at the memorial’s dedication as “one of the most eminent and beloved poets of the present age.” Whittier died in 1892 while visiting a friend in New Hampshire.

Whittier Grave 2

Whittier Grave 1
(Whittier’s grave, Union Cemetery, Amesbury, Mass.)

When a biographer asked Whittier later in his life whether he considered Oak Knoll or a house he owned in Amesbury as his true home, the poet said of Oak Knoll, “Say, it is my home. I retain my legal residence in Amesbury, and I go there to vote, but my home is at ‘Oak Knoll.’”

Oak Knoll was torn down by a developer in 1958. The area of the former estate is now split between the Greenleaf Drive neighborhood and the beautiful marshland of the Greenleaf Open Space Area, preserved as natural land, much the same as it was in Whittier’s day.

Oak Knoll Google Map
(The area of the former Oak Knoll today. Google Maps)

 

—————————————————————————————————————————————–Sources:

Academy of American Poets. “A Brief Guide to the Fireside Poets | Academy of American Poets.” Text. Accessed June 13, 2019. https://poets.org/text/brief-guide-fireside-poets.

———. “Snow-Bound [The Sun That Brief December Day] by John Greenleaf Whittier – Poems  Academy of American Poets.” Accessed June 13, 2019. https://poets.org/poem/snow-bound-sun-brief-december-day.

Danvers Archival Center. “Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report,” August 9, 2014. https://www.danverslibrary.org/archive/2014-annual-report/.

Poetry Foundation. “John Greenleaf Whittier.” Poetry Foundation, June 13, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-greenleaf-whittier.

Sanderson, Edgar, John Porter Lamberton, and Charles Morris. The History and Progress of the World. Philadelphia, T. Nolan, 1913. http://archive.org/details/historyprogresso09sand.

Tapley, Charles S. Country Estates of Old Danvers. Danvers, Mass., n.d.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Upham, William P. “Account of the Rebecca Nurse Monument.” In Essex Institute Historical Collections, 23:151–60, 201–28. Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1886.

Woodman, Abby J. Reminiscences of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Life at Oak Knoll, Danvers, Mass. Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1908. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007677070.