The Portico Finds Its Home

Those who have been to our Old Ordinary House Museum—or who have been to the home page of our Society website—have seen the gazebo or summer house in the shape of a small Grecian temple which sits at the top of the Old Ordinary garden.

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As well as being a charming backdrop for garden parties and the occasional wedding, this structure is a genuine piece of Hingham history. Its travels around town over the last two hundred years are documented by correspondence, photographs, and the written reminiscences of the Rev. John Gallop, one of its former custodians–all in our archives.

In the late 17th century, the Thaxter family built a house in Hingham Square, on the present day site of St. Paul’s Church. As added to and improved over the years, the “Thaxter mansion” grew into a large, attractive home, furnished with tapestries, tiled fireplaces, and painted doors—some of which were donated to our Society by Thaxter descendants.

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At some point, prior to the first photographs of the house but almost certainly in the first half of the 19th century, a classically-influenced portico, with a pediment and columns, was added at the house’s front door.

Greek revival architecture was the fashion during the first half of the 19th century, and it sometimes took a more modest form than the Monticello or “Tara” models. Greek-influenced porticos were added to many older New England buildings. In addition to the Thaxter mansion, porticos with columns and a pediment were added to the Old Ordinary itself and (in an architectural mash-up) the English Gothic Old Ship Church.

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The Thaxter mansion was torn down in 1866 to make way for St. Paul’s Church, but the portico was saved. The story is that it was taken away by Hingham artist W. Allan Gay, but in any event, it was installed in the side yard of the Martin Gay house at 262 South Street, where it began its second life as a summer house or gazebo.

The Martin Gay house and its side yard.  (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

The Martin Gay house and its side yard. (See the portico at the far right of the photograph.)

Almost 100 years later, during an expansion of the South Shore Country Club, the garden area the Gay property was sold. The portico, which had fallen into disrepair, was threatened with demolition. The Rev. John M. Gallop, rector of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist, saved the portico from demolition. He sought and received permission to remove it. He installed it in the side yard of St. John’s Rectory, on Main Street next door to the church.

Upon his retirement from St. John’s, Gallop donated the portico to the Hingham Historical Society. The decision was reached to add it to the formal gardens on the grounds of the Old Ordinary. (These gardens have a rich history of their own which would take another post to cover.) Still more preservation work was needed, but thanks to Gallop and many dedicated volunteers at the Society, the portico found a permanent home in 1979, not much further than a football field’s length away from where it was originally built.

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary's garden (1979)

Installing the portico in the Old Ordinary’s garden (1979)

Clubs and Societies in 19th c. Hingham

“It would be impossible,” Francis H. Lincoln remarked in the 1893 History of Hingham, Massachusetts, “to give a complete list of all the social organizations which have existed in Hingham.”

Francis H. Lincoln (

Francis H. Lincoln

Lincoln knew whereof he spoke: he was known for his active engagement in his community’s civic, religious, and charitable organizations. Three of the nine paragraphs in his eulogy were devoted exclusively to his membership in various societies and organizations, of which 21 are expressly named. This does not include his service on Hingham’s School Committee for nine years starting in 1879 and as treasurer of the American Unitarian Association.

Although certainly more engaged than most, Francis Lincoln was not the only one in town to show such a diversity of involvement. Each of the two 19th-century histories of Hingham devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of Hingham’s various “Lodges and Societies,” patriotic and political associations, charitable organizations, and recreational clubs. At one point, just in the arena of music, Hingham boasted both a brass and a cornet band, two choral societies (in addition to the church choirs), and a Philharmonic (formerly the more humbly named Amateur) Orchestra. Two social libraries were formed early on, in 1771 and 1773, and lasted until Hingham’s public library was founded close to a hundred years later. Early in the 20th century, the Hingham Historical Society was formed by townspeople interested in Hingham’s venerable history.

The Hingham National Brass Band

The Hingham National Brass Band

Each generation reorganized the societies to its liking: the Jefferson Debating Society of the early 19th century gave way in the 1840’s to the competition-based Hingham Debating Society, which in turn morphed thirty years later into the Monday Night Club, a more informal discussion group. (Despite this “informality,” when it was Francis Lincoln’s turn to address the club on the topic of “The Systems of Taxation In Massachusetts” in April 1878, he went armed with 26 pages of notes—preserved in our archives.) One organization, founded midcentury as the “G. I. A. of Scribes and Pharisees,” hosted socials, parades, fancy-dress balls and other diversions for decades, but changed its name and officers so often that it reportedly became known as the “Phoenix Club” for its constant re-emergences.

Political societies became popular with several abolition societies in the mid-19th century. After the Civil War, they switched their focus to temperance (with differing approaches, from religious to scientific) and then women’s rights. The Hingham Women’s Alliance boasted men as well as women amongst its members, and the local branch of the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association met at Loring Hall, receiving support from Hingham resident and then-governor of Massachusetts John Davis Long.

The Hingham Gun Club

The Hingham Gun Club

The community sustaining these myriad organizations was thus also sustained by them. In the early 1800s, facing a growth in population density that made both fire and thieves more common, townspeople founded the Society of Mutual Aid for Detecting Thieves and the Hingham Mutual Fire Society, both of which lasted through the century, promising to lend a hand when their neighbors’ belongings went missing or their buildings burst into flame.

The Hingham Croquet Club

The Hingham Croquet Club

The social engagement and civic responsibility displayed in the Town’s profusion of associations and causes runs through its history, but the 19th century surely marked a high point in the number and strength of Hingham’s social organizations. Hingham was nothing less than a working example of what Alexis de Tocqueville saw as an explanation for the success of American democracy: our social engagement and investment in community created the interdependence that allowed our political processes (the process of voting and representation and compromise) to work. Or, as Francis Lincoln, club member extraordinaire, remarked in an essay written as a 15-year old student: “all the institutions of the land . . . are nurseries of learning, truth, and freedom.”

Happy 300th Birthday, Madame Sarah Langlee Hersey Derby

Today is the 300th anniversary of Madame Sarah Derby’s birth and a good time to post about a woman whose name looms large in Hingham history—and legend.

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Born Sarah Langlee, daughter of a Hingham tavern keeper, she married well—twice. Her first husband was Dr. Ezekiel Hersey, a prominent and affluent Hingham physician. After his death, she married Richard Derby, a wealthy ship captain and merchant from Salem. (Richard Derby built Salem’s Derby Wharf in the 1750s.) She outlived Captain Derby as well and returned to Hingham to live on the large farm she inherited from Dr. Hersey.

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Local legend created from this a “rags to riches” story (in their Hingham history Not All Has Changed, Francis and Lorena Hart dub Sarah Derby “Hingham’s legendary Cinderella”):  a beautiful young girl growing up poor on the islands of Hingham Harbor, whose names—Ragged, Sarah, and Langlee—described her as a young girl.  Edward Rowe Snow, in his History of the Harbor Islands, put to rest the idea that the islands were named after “ragged Sarah Langlee,” however; these islands bore those names on nautical charts as early as 1700–well before Sarah Langlee was born.

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

But her portrait (made in later years) suggests youthful beauty, as do perhaps the two good marriages.  When he died in 1770, Ezekiel Hersey left his substantial estate to his wife on the condition that she give £1000 to Harvard College.  Sarah Derby added to this her own bequest in the same amount, and together their gifts endowed the Hersey Professorships of the Theory and Practice of Physic and of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, laying the foundation for the establishment of Harvard Medical School.

She remarried, to Captain Richard Derby, in 1771.  It is also a common misconception that this second marriage is what made her a wealthy woman.  In fact, she waived her dower rights when she married Captain Derby, who left his fortune to his family and bequeathed to Sarah Derby only an annual income (and two slaves, also commonly glossed over in legend).

When she returned to Hingham in 1783, Madame Derby was persuaded to endow a new school for Hingham. The school would be co-educational (one of the first co-educational schools in the country) for the instruction of boys “in the Latin, Greek, English, and French languages, and the sciences of Mathematics and Geography” and girls “in writing, and in the English and French languages, arithmetic, andthe art of needlework in general.” As discussed in a prior post (“A Trip to the Principal’s Office—in 1799”), a single preceptor had the charge of both sexes, although a “sensible, discreet woman” taught the girls their needlework.

Sarah Derby's Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Sarah Derby’s Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Madam Derby died in 1784 and is buried in Hingham Cemetery, not far from the site of her school. She provided further funding for the school in her will and instructed that her clock and her portrait (the one appearing at the top of this post) be placed in the school building. The original school building was replaced, in 1818, by a Federal-style structure—Old Derby Academy, current home of our Hingham Historical Society.

MLD013One hundred years ago today, on April 18, 1914, the Town of Hingham joined Derby Academy in celebrating Madame Derby’s bicentennial. A “Birthday Celebration” was held in her honor at Loring Hall. The program for the evening’s entertainment, preserved in our archives, included a local chorus, the Martland Band, from Brockton, English and Latin declamations by alumni, and poetry, essays, and other literary and musical offerings.

Happy Birthday, Madame Derby!

 

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The Old Salt Works

Illustration from "The Old Salt Works," Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1 (1916)

Illustration from “The Old Salt Works,” Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1 (1916)

The manufacture of salt in Hingham commenced at Broad Cove around 1812.  Buoyed by the rapid growth of Hingham’s fishing industry in the early years of the 19th century, several salt works were built, both at the easterly end of the harbor, near the steamboat landing, and on the salt meadows at Broad Cove.  Salt manufacture, “one of the old industries of Hingham,” was the subject of a paper presented to the Hingham Historical Society at its January 24, 1916 meeting, by Orin Brewster Sears, “a son of the proprietor of the [salt] works.”   The salt works owned and operated by Orin Brewster Sears’ father, also named Orin Sears, were built in the salt meadow along Otis Street, accessed by Fearing Road.  They were the last salt works to operate in Hingham.

In his paper, “The Old Salt Works,” published in 1916 as “Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1,” Sears described the method of extracting sea salt by solar evaporation.  Salt water was pumped from the harbor into two long rows of vats around 200 feet long, called the “water rooms,” which ran up from the harbor at the westerly end of the salt meadow.  The pumps used to fill the water rooms were powered by a pair of windmills.  The water sat in the vats, evaporating, until it began to deposit lime, at which point it was drawn, through a system of hollow logs, to the “pickle rooms.”  There, as evaporation continued, lime and other unwanted constituents of sea brine were separated from the salt and water and salt crystals began to form.  The liquid would then be drawn, again through hollow logs, to another set of vats in the “salt rooms.”   Here, as the salt crystals increased in size, they dropped to the bottom of the vats and were raked together, drained, and carried to the “salt house” to dry.  The entire process took around three weeks.

Illustration from "The Old Salt Works," Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1

Illustration from “The Old Salt Works,” Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1

The Sears family was instrumental in the development of New England’s salt industry.  Pre-revolutionary colonists imported salt from England.  The war-time embargo created a crisis on Cape Cod, where salted fish was a staple food and primary export.  Captain John Sears of Dennis is credited with having invented the method of sea salt extraction by solar extraction described above.  Well suited to New England’s climate, it was adopted across the Cape as our domestic salt industry grew, aided by tariffs imposed by the young United States government.  It was also the system used in Hingham.  Orin Sears moved to Hingham from Dennis in 1846, motivated by “the desire to keep his boys from going to sea,” then “the only lucrative business on the Cape.”  He purchased the salt works described in the Historical Society paper, although the heyday of the local salt industry had already passed.  Between the mid-1830s and the mid-1850s, as the result of the decline of its fisheries and the development of alternate domestic sources of salt, Hingham’s salt production declined from over 20,000 bushels a year to fewer than 2,000.

The Historical Society’s early interest in Hingham’s “old industries” went hand in hand with the early 20th century belief in progress.  Sears waxed philosophical in his talk about the disappearance of the old ways:

It may seem strange to some of us in this day of development, with mines of rock salt, salt lakes, and salt springs almost everywhere, that our fathers should have been obliged to procure their supply from the ocean; no less so that with our country filled to overflowing with petroleum, they should have been obliged to brave the dangers of the whale fishery, for oil for illuminating purposes.  Those of us who have lived to watch the transition from tallow candle to the electric light, from the lumbering stage coach over rough roads to the automobile on the modern oiled stone boulevards or swifter steam express trains, from the messenger to the wireless telegraph, have reason to thank God that we live in the twentieth century.

As the Hingham Historical Society turns 100, a look back at its first year

2014 is the Hingham Historical Society’s centennial year.  Riding the tide of a national Colonial Revival movement, which began in the last years of the 19th century and reached a peak in the 1920s, manifesting itself in a fascination with colonial architecture and furnishings and an often romanticized vision of an heroic Revolutionary past, a group of Hingham’s leading citizens formed an association dedicated to preserving the past of one of the nation’s oldest towns.

1917 photo of Society founder and benefactor Susan Barker Willard, posed in 18th century dress

1917 photo of Society founder and benefactor Susan Barker Willard, posed in 18th century dress

The Hingham Historical Society’s organizational meeting was held on June 11, 1914 at the Town Office Building.  Those present included Clarence H. Knowlton, William W. Lunt, Henry W. Cushing, Walter C. Shute, Susan Barker Willard, Edith Andrew, Oscar W. Stringer, Elizabeth L. Crosby, and Allen P. Soule.  John D. Long, former Governor of Massachusetts, representative in Congress, and Secretary of the Navy, was voted our first President.

After several additional organizational meetings, the Society hosted Dean George Hodges of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge for its December 1914 meeting.  Dean Hodges’ topic was “The Hanging of Mary Dyer.”  Meeting minutes note that this “most interesting paper . . . was much enjoyed, it being regretted,” however, “that his audience was not larger.”  After the paper, the minutes go on, “an informal discussion among the members brought out some forgotten facts regarding witchcraft in Hingham.”

At later meetings during its first year, the Society relied upon local talent for its programming.  Papers presented to the Hingham Historical Society during 1914-1915 included Mr. Samuel A. Cushing on “The Cushings of Rocky Nook,” Mr. Walter B. Foster on “Old Local Names,” Mrs. Henry W. Cushing on the old Cushing houses, and Thomas L. Sprague on “Hosea Sprague and Sprague’s Chronicles,” an early Hingham newspaper.  Mr. Clarence Knowlton gave a well-received tribute to local scientists Isaac Sprague, Charles J. Sprague, Thomas T. Bouve, and the Rev. John Lewis Russell.

At the first Annual Meeting, held on June 30, 1915, the Society once again looked abroad for its speaker.  Brooks Adams, author, historian, brother of Henry Adams, and  grandson of John Quincy Adams–but billed for this appearance as “President of the Quincy Historical Society,” addressed the membership on “the relation of the past to the present democracy.”   While Mr. Adams is reported to have presented his subject “in a most lucid and entertaining” manner, it seems that his views on history and democracy did not go down easily with his Hingham audience.  The meeting minutes note that “in the discussion following the speakers did not altogether agree on some of his address.”

The Society accepted gifts of books, manuscripts, and antiques from Hingham residents, recording its thanks in the monthly meeting minutes.  It lacked a place to keep its acquisitions, however, and a prime early goal was to raise funds to build a secure, fire-proof building for its holdings.  At the December 1914 meeting, Susan Barker Willard, an early benefactor who served on the Building Committee, suggested that “post cards representing the ‘Old Garrison House’ be placed on sale, the proceeds to go toward the creation of a building fund . . . .”

If the capital account grew slowly, the Society had ample operating funds after its first year.  At the first annual meeting in June 1915, the Treasurer reported that the Society had $61 in income (all from membership fees) and a scant $21.60 in expenses, which covered expenses of incorporation, purchase of record books, stationery, and postage, and the speakers’ expenses.

As the Hingham Historical Society enters its second century, much has changed and much remains the same.  The Society salutes these founders and the efforts they set in motion to collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret the history of the town of Hingham, Massachusetts.