By the sea
The Atlantic made it rich, the Revolution made it fight, and both legacies are tended alongside the town’s historical sites and harbor for pleasure boats
Marblehead—White church steeples crown the skylines of hamlets across New England. But it’s the democratic, not ecclesiastical, brick tower of Abbot Hall that soars above this seaside town and serves as a beacon for miles around.
Abbot Hall, the seat of Marblehead’s government, is a civic shrine, and the selectmen’s room holds its most-venerated relic: Archibald M. Willard’s painting “The Spirit of ’76.’’ Shielded behind protective glass and dramatically bathed in spotlights, the inspirational depiction of a trio of musicians marching across a Revolutionary War battlefield with steely determination is pure Americana. It’s hard to gaze at the life-size painting and not hear the fife and drums and smell the gunpowder.
The painting embodies the patriotism that stirred so many of Marblehead’s men to fight in the Revolution. Nearly 600 Marbleheaders served in General John Glover’s regiment of mariners, who are best known for rowing George Washington and the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River to attack Trenton. By the end of the war, this town of 5,000 seventeen miles north of Boston had paid a terrible price for freedom, leaving more than 400 widows and nearly 1,000 orphans.
Walk the streets of Marblehead’s historic Old Town today, and the spirit of 1776 feels alive and well. With neatly attired homes sporting more bunting than Opening Day at Fenway and Colonial flags fluttering in the salty breezes, Marblehead is a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a town.
Even the layout of the Old Town channels the defiant spirit of ’76. The crooked lanes seemingly have minds of their own, shunning the conformity of a grid to go wherever they please. (The narrow streets also make finding parking a challenge, particularly on summer weekends.)
“If I were to pick one place in the Boston area to visit for a day, to get a sense of what America was like during the Colonial era, I would choose Marblehead because so much of its early history has been lovingly preserved,’’ says Eric Jay Dolin, an author and resident.
According to Bette Hunt, the town’s historian, it has more than 300 buildings that predate the Revolution. “In a way, it was fortunate that Marblehead went into deep recession after the Revolution, because people held onto their houses,’’ she says.
According to Hunt, Marblehead was the sixth-largest town in the colonies by 1760. At the peak of its prosperity, no man in the bustling fishing port, or in Massachusetts, was wealthier than Jeremiah Lee, a member of the “codfish aristocracy.’’ Lee was a devout patriot who invested heavily in war preparations and, at great personal risk, played an active role in the clandestine procurement of munitions. Lee died just weeks after the first shots were fired at Lexington, and memories of his role in the Revolution have faded. His magnificent mansion, however, endures.
When Washington visited the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in 1789 to thank Marbleheaders for their sacrifices in the Revolution, the 1768 Georgian manse, more luxurious than Mount Vernon, must have awed even the president. Today, the estate still elicits “oohs’’ and “aahs’’ from visitors who enter the grand entry hall with its rich mahogany wainscoting and eight-foot-wide staircase.
Visitors to the Lee Mansion see 18 furnished rooms on all three floors. The mansion’s elaborate interior woodworking impresses, but the highlight is the original hand-painted wallpaper that depicts scenes of the English countryside and ancient Rome. It’s the only hand-painted paper of its kind still hanging on its original walls.
Around the corner from Lee’s residence is the mansion that once belonged to his brother-in-law, Robert “King’’ Hooper. The house is now used by the Marblehead Arts Association to stage rotating art exhibits. The galleries display over 1,200 works each year, and the 1728 Colonial home is a particularly interesting venue for viewing modern art exhibits, just for the culture clash alone.
The works of one of America’s most renowned folk artists, J.O.J. Frost, are on permanent display at the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society. Referred to by some as Marblehead’s version of Grandma Moses, Frost took up painting in the 1920s at 70 to preserve his boyhood memories of the town. His works depict scenes of everyday life on the town’s dirt lanes and aboard the schooners that sailed to the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks.
Unfortunately, some of the seamen who ventured on those dangerous journeys never returned. A white marble obelisk atop the Old Burial Hill, one of New England’s oldest graveyards, lists the names of Marblehead fishermen lost at sea, including the victims of a terrible gale in 1846 that destroyed half of Marblehead’s fishing fleet and swallowed 65 men and boys.
For a Colonial burying ground that dates to the 1600s, the Old Burial Hill is quite spacious, and the weathered slate tombstones blend in with the rocky outcrops piercing the hillside. The graveyard offers a panorama of Marblehead Harbor.
Adjacent to the Old Burial Hill is Redd’s Pond, where you often find kids of all ages - including members of the Marblehead Model Yacht Club - racing miniature sailboats. To spy sea vessels of a slightly larger pedigree - and price tag - head to the harbor. On a summer day, there are hundreds of pleasure craft moored, so many that you could seemingly skip from boat to boat and cross the harbor without once getting your feet wet.
Marblehead’s prestigious yacht clubs, including those on posh Marblehead Neck, stage regattas throughout the year. The neck wasn’t always such a desirable place; its rocky headlands reeked of drying fish in the town’s commercial heyday. In the later 1800s, the neck began to attract rich Bostonians. A drive down the neck today leads past spacious mansions, culminating at Chandler Hovey Park and its brown cast-iron lighthouse that, unfortunately, has all the charm of an oil derrick.
If you want to hit the surf, head to Devereux Beach at the beginning of the neck’s causeway. Even if you don’t want to take a dip, Lime Rickey’s serves up fried favorites and ice cream with a beachfront view. For a more upscale meal with a water view, the deck of the Landing Restaurant is a great spot from which to watch the world sail by. The little red cottage adjacent to the Landing looks like an old fishing shack, but inside, the Driftwood Restaurant serves up inexpensive breakfast favorites like blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes.
Marblehead has its fair share of boutiques and galleries, but it’s free of chains and kitschy souvenir stores, which will strike some as refreshing and others as snooty. Bibliophiles can browse the shelves of the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore, which has an extensive children’s section, or Artists + Authors, which has an impressive collection of rare books and fine art. Budding mariners can find model ships and pirate scarves at Mud Puddle Toys, while Scribe sells colorful stationery and funky gifts.
A short walk from here is Fort Sewall, which once protected the town from British attack. Each July, Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, a group of local Revolutionary War reenactors, stages an encampment at the fort and wages mock battles through town, undoubtedly infused with that old spirit of ’76.
Christopher Klein can be reached at email@example.com.