The “Folly” in Folly Hill

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

In 1740 a large mansion was built atop Leach’s Hill, a home whose construction was deemed a folly and altered the name of the hill itself. Today featuring the large water tanks towering above Route 128, the hill lost its former glory due to one of the worst natural disasters in New England history.

In those days, from the summit of the hill one could see Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, the Blue Hills in Milton, and the hills of Chelmsford. Today the Boston skyline remains visible on the southern horizon, as is the ocean to the east, and the old Danvers State Hospital perched atop Hathorne Hill to the west. Folly Hill is visible from all across the north shore, and attracted local explorers and wanderers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who as a young man in the early 1800s explored the hilltop and ruins of “Browne’s Folly.”

Folly Hill looking south
(Looking south from Folly Hill, September 2019. Danversport Yacht Club and Sandy Beach in the foreground, and the Boston skyline in the background. Author’s photo.)

William Browne, a wealthy Salem merchant, representative in the Massachusetts legislature, and member of the Governor’s Council, purchased the hill for the location of a fine country estate. In 1740 he built “Browne Hall,” an 80-foot long mansion that consisted of two wings connected by a central entrance hall. The house was extravagantly furnished and built in a neoclassical style, with columns around the main doors and the floors painted to look like a mosaic.

One visitor noted that the entrance hall had an oval gallery with a fine railing above the ballroom, and a large dome for the roof. The mansion had four main entrances – one facing north, east, south, and west – and if all of the doors were propped open, one could stand in the center under the dome and see outside from all four directions. An opulent palace for a wealthy man, this house on the summit of the hill was visible for miles – but its precarious location atop the hill was its downfall.

At 4:30am on November 18, 1755, people across Massachusetts and the Atlantic coast suddenly awoke. The ground rumbled for four and a half minutes, walls shook, and chimneys crumbled as a powerful earthquake struck the area. The quake’s epicenter was off Cape Ann, but its effects were felt as far away as Nova Scotia and South Carolina. Clocks stopped in Boston and more than 1,500 chimneys crumbled, while in New Haven the ground rose and fell like waves on the ocean. Out on the actual sea, sailors 200 miles from the coast felt the rumbling and feared that their ship had run aground. The earthquake was the strongest ever felt in Massachusetts – likely between a 6.0 and 6.3 if measured on the modern Richter scale – and may have caused a tsunami as far away as the Caribbean.

Once the tremors ceased, the inside of Browne Hall was littered with broken glass and it was feared that part of the structure was compromised. Browne no longer considered the home safe to live in due to the damage, which was exacerbated by the house’s location on the peak of the hill. Abandoning this prominent yet precarious location, Browne moved part of the mansion to the corner of Liberty and Conant Streets in Danvers. William Browne passed away eight years after the earthquake and was buried in Salem’s Charter St. Cemetery, leaving the remnants of his once-glorious estate in Danvers to the next generation.

The remaining part of the house, now at its much lower location, was inherited by Browne’s nephew and heir. But, his nephew was a Loyalist during the Revolution and so all of his property was confiscated, including the remnants of Browne Hall. Browne’s nephew returned to England during the Revolution and later became the Royal Governor of Bermuda. The part of the house at the end of Liberty Street was left abandoned, with all of the home’s furnishings still within.

This unkempt building became known as a haunted house, and local children dared one another to enter. Nathaniel Hawthorne recounts the story of several boys hesitantly exploring the deserted mansion, believed to be the home of some evil spirit. On one adventure, they opened a door only to have specters of the home’s former owners lurch out of the closet at them as they turned tail and fled. These images were later discovered to be merely Browne family portraits tumbling off a shelf, rather than ghosts of the home’s former inhabitants.

Browne Hall Portraits
(Two of the Browne family portraits that were kept in Brown Hall. Reprinted in Ezra D. Hines, “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36).

The remnants of Browne Hall were later sold off in sections. The central hall became part of the Danvers Hotel, which was located where the savings bank building is now at one corner of Danvers Square.  It was later relocated yet again across the Square, but it burned in a large fire that destroyed the whole area in 1845.

After the house was removed, the hill – by now renamed “Folly Hill” due to Browne’s folly of building such a large house at the pinnacle of the hill – remained empty during the following decades. Hawthorne enjoyed taking walks to the open land around Salem, and frequently took a route that led him across the Salem-Beverly Bridge, down Bridge Street and Elliott Street past the hill, and then down Liberty Street back to Salem. He wrote about the green cart path that led to the top of Folly Hill, the overgrown cellar hole of the house, and the marvelous view of the surrounding towns from the summit.

Hawthorne, in a letter to his cousin, described the remains of Browne Hall as a connection to a prior glorious age before the Revolution and the uncertainty that followed. He wrote, “The ancient site of this proud mansion may still be traced upon the summit of the Hill… there I have sometimes sat and tried to rebuild, in my imagination, the stately house, or to fancy what splendid show it must have been even so far off as in the streets of Salem, when the old proprietor illuminated his many windows to celebrate the King’s birthday.”

Hawthorne Letter 1 - EIHC 32 - 0246

Hawthorne letter 2 - EIHC 32 - 0247
(Image of part of Hawthorne’s letter describing Folly Hill, reprinted in Ezra D. Hines, “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36).

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Sources

Ebel, John E. “Massachusetts Historical Society: The Cape Ann Earthquake of November 1755.” Massachusetts Historial Society, November 2005. http://www.masshist.org/object-of-the-month/objects/the-cape-ann-earthquake-of-november-1755-2005-11-01.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Browne’s Folly.” In The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 12:131–35. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1878. https://books.google.com/books?id=Dx5EAAAAYAAJ&dq=hawthorne+Browne%27s+folly&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

Hines, Ezra D. “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36.

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

Danvers Ice Industry

On hot summer days, we take for granted the treat of having a crisp cold drink with ice cubes in it, not to mention the ability to refrigerate and freeze food. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the advent of the ice industry made this refrigeration possible and radically changed the lifestyles of everyday people. Danvers was the site of a booming local ice industry during these years, and a group of Danvers entrepreneurs capitalized on this new industry by establishing an international ice trade.

The Mill Pond, known for centuries as Putnam’s Pond, was the center of the local ice trade. The pond was originally a meadow that was flooded when Beaver Brook was dammed. The dam today is under Sylvan Street at one end of the pond, and for over 250 years the Putnam Family operated a sawmill powered by the flowing water. Although not the original intention, the pond became a perfect location to harvest ice.

Ice House and Saw Mill.jpg
(Putnam saw mill in the foreground, with the ice houses in the background. Road at bottom right is Sylvan St. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center. Republished from Zollo, Trask, and Reedy, As the Century Turned).

The Otis F. Putnam Ice Company took advantage of this opportunity. Boards would be added to the dam to raise the water level in the pond at the start of winter. Over the course of the cold months, the pond would freeze at least 10 inches deep. Then, the snow would be shoveled off, and metal tools were used to cut a grid pattern 3 inches deep into the ice. A horse then pulled a sharp tool down the pre-cut grid lines, separating the squares into blocks of ice.

Ice Harvesting.jpg
(Workers from the Otis F. Putnam Ice Company harvesting ice from the Mill Pond in 1900. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center. Republished from Zollo, Trask, and Reedy, As the Century Turned).

These blocks were then floated over to the Sylvan Street dam and through the narrow opening to an ice house that sat where the Walnut Grove Cemetery is now. The blocks were packed in sawdust or hay, which insulated them and prevented melting. About 6,000 tons of ice were harvested each year from the pond, and some years two rounds of ice could be harvested if the weather stayed cold long enough.

Ice House
(Another view of Putnam’s ice house, located at the present-day site of Walnut Grove Cemetery. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center. Republished from Zollo, Trask, and Reedy, As the Century Turned).

During the warmer months, the iceman traveled around town in an insulated wagon delivering ice to the kitchens of Danvers to keep food cold in the iceboxes. This Mill Pond ice was used primarily for refrigeration, not as ice cubes in drinks. One reason is that ice was too expensive to use frivolously, but also the quality of the water was in question. Beginning in 1901 the town consulted with the state board of health about pollution in the pond from nearby industries, and the state restricted the consumption of ice to only the top most layers of the pond.

Putnam Ice Wagon.jpg
(The Otis F. Putnam Ice Company delivery wagon at the turn of the century. Courtesy of the Danvers Archival Center. Republished from Zollo, Trask, and Reedy, As the Century Turned).

While the Putnam Ice Company served local customers, another group of Danversites plied their talents at the international ice trade. In 1845 a fire swept through downtown Danvers, which destroyed the house and shop of shoe manufacturer Joshua Silvester. He then went to England to establish a shoe factory, but while there discovered the great demand for ice in the large cities of Britain. When he returned to Danvers in 1846, he suggested to several of his friends that they should enter the ice business. Silvester himself was unable to be a partner after the losses he suffered in the fire, so his friends formed a stock company led by Henry T. Ropes.

The Danvers businessmen bought out a Salem company owned by Charles B. Lander that was doing a brisk trade sending ice from Wenham Lake to icehouses in Liverpool, England. The ice was cut and collected at Wenham Lake, and shipped by rail to Boston where it was packed in sawdust for the voyage to England. One of the builders of the rail spur from Wenham Lake to the railroad mainline along Locust St. in Danvers was Grenville Dodge, the Danvers native who later oversaw the building of the eastern half of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The business was slow to make returns for the Danvers men, but Ropes persevered and became very wealthy once the business took off.  From 1860 to 1880 Wenham Lake produced as much as 30,000 tons of ice annually, but this was not enough to meet demand. As the business expanded in Britain, the Danvers company needed to ship more ice than could be supplied locally so it expanded operations into Norway. Although it may seem hard to believe that shipping ice across the ocean in cargo ships was cost-effective, it was actually far cheaper to send this natural ice halfway around the world than it was to make “artificial ice” with prohibitively expensive machines.

The Danvers company marketed its ice not just to ordinary consumers for refrigeration, but also to the wealthy for use as ice cubes in drinks. The early shipments of ice from New England changed British society. One other early American ice company also imported American bar tenders to show the London elite how to enjoy cocktails with ice in them.

On April 2, 1892, a Liverpool newspaper ran an article with the headline “Ice is King” which described the Danvers company’s enormous success over the previous decades. The article also noted that the company had presented a gift of ice to Queen Victoria and the Royal Family, who were quite pleased with this new luxury.

Both locally and internationally the ice industry continued until the age of electrical refrigeration. The ice houses along the Mill Pond in Danvers burned down in 1935, thereby ending the local harvesting of ice. But, the ice at the Mill Pond continued to be used by children who skated on it for decades, until it no longer froze through solidly enough to be safe.

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Sources:

Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts. Vol. 41. Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Co., 1910.

“Natural Ice.” Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal, March 1906.

Putnam, A.P. “Wenham Lake and the Ice Trade.” Ice and Regrigeration, July 1892.

———. “Wenham Lake and the Ice Trade.” Ice and Regrigeration, August 1892.

———. “Wenham Lake and the Ice Trade.” Ice and Regrigeration, September 1892.

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

Zollo, Richard P., Richard B. Trask, and Joan M. Reedy. As the Century Turned: Photographic Glimpses of Danvers, Massachusetts. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers Historical Society, 1989.

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)

 

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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.