In the 1950s Timex Corporation came up with an advertising slogan to demonstrate the durability of their popular Timex wristwatches. The now iconic slogan used as the tagline was: “It takes a licking, yet keeps on ticking.” If one were desirous of a slogan that also captured the durability of an extremely important living relic and historic symbol which resides in Danvers, Massachusetts, the Timex slogan could quite readily fit the bill.
Since the 1630s, the singular, over 375-year-old Endecott Pear Tree has resided here in present-day Danvers. The tree is the last survivor of many fruit trees planted here under the direction of the first Massachusetts Governor, English Puritan John Endecott (c1588-1665). Endecott was a thirty-nine year old zealous Puritan gentleman and member of what became the Massachusetts Bay Company. The company was established in England to profit from settlement in the New World and establish a commonwealth of likeminded inhabitants loyal to England, but steadfast in their Puritan religious beliefs.
Endecott led a scouting expedition with about seventy others setting sail from England to the New World aboard the ship Abigail on June 30, 1628. The party landed at a small peninsula the native inhabitants called Naumkeag. Endecott established a permanent settlement there and soon changed the name from Naumkeag to the Hebrew word for “peace” – Salem. As governor of the newly established territory, Endecott firmly planted an Anglo-American Puritan foothold in the New World and in history. Within two years, John Winthrop, the elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, brought himself, the self-governing company charter, and a large contingent of settlers from England in the first wave of the “Great Migration” of English Puritan settlers.
Early-on Endecott lived in Salem, and on July 3, 1632, he received the first grant of land made by the colonial legislature, the General Court, in recognition of his great service. The grant consisted of 300 acres in an area on “a necke of land lying about three miles from Salem,” now known as Danversport in and around present day Endicott Street. The aboriginal name for this area was Wahquamesehcok (birchwood). He established and began cultivating a farm there, giving it the name “Orchard Farm.” A cow barn and homestead were built just north of the river called by the aboriginals Soewamapenessett, which Endecott named Cowhouse River and which was later renamed Waters River. All traces of Endecott’s extensive built environment, buildings and wharfs have disappeared, save the nearby Endecott Family Graveyard, and an ancient pear tree located to the front of what was originally his mansion house.
Endecott is known to have extensively cultivated his farm, including the establishment of apple and pear orchards. Tradition has it that the surviving pear tree, most likely not part of the more extensive orchard area, was planted by the governor’s own hands or at least by his personal direction near his dwelling house. Dates for this planting are believed to be somewhere within the period of 1632 to 1640. Whether the tree was from nursery rootstock first planted at his Salem garden and transplanted here, or from an actual seed stone is lost to history.
Pears in England during the 16th and early 17th century were often used for the production of “perry,” an alcoholic drink made from fermented pears in a process similar to cider making. The fruit of many of the varieties used for making perry have a harsh, bitter taste. Unlike apple trees which have a fairly finite life expectancy, some pear trees are known to produce fruit for several hundred years. The pears from the Danvers tree have been known as “Endecott Pears” for several hundred years, and have also been identified with a variety of sugar pear known as “Bon Chrétien.”
Besides being credited as the first governor of Massachusetts, Endecott would serve an additional sixteen years as governor, including at least one year in each decade from the 1620s through 60s. He served more terms than any other governor in Massachusetts history, spending much of his time in the capital town of Boston, dying there on March 15, 1665.
The Endecott Pear Tree has taken on a life of its own. It has lived through all or part of five centuries. It has been celebrated in history, art, and poetry, as well as illustrated in books, magazines, murals and postcards from as early as the 18th century. Many writers have waxed poetic in describing the tree’s heritage. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of its longevity and President John Adams spoke of its significance. Written up in scores of periodicals, including being featured in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” this modest tree has become iconic. It has survived hurricanes, century snowstorms, neglect, soil stripping, industrial development and even a murderous attack of vandalism in 1964.
The Endecott Pear Tree is the oldest surviving cultivated tree in America. It is an authentic living link between us of the 21st century and our pioneering founders of the early 1600s. An important symbol of heritage, strength and resilience, it is truly a national treasure.
In a diary kept by Rev. William Bentley of Salem, the minister described a visit on September 21, 1796, to John Endecott’s original 17th century “Orchard Farm” in what was by then known as “New Mills.” After describing the site of the Governor’s original house, Bentley wrote: “This place was called the Governor’s Orchard as he planted early trees around his house. There is only one tree left which bears the Sugar Pear, and by tradition was planted in 1630. It is in front of the site of the house, it rises on three trunks from the ground, and is considerably high. It is much decayed at bottom, but the branches at top are sound. I brought away some of the pears, and engaged such as remained to be brought to my house to send to the Governor of the Commonwealth [Samuel Adams].”
In another diary notation written thirteen years later on September 30, 1809, Bentley recorded about a visit to Braintree: “I have called upon Pr[esident John] Adams, but found him to have gone abroad to dinner & left him some of the Endicott pears from The Tree of 1630 with my name & directions, ‘To the Man worthy to eat with our forefathers.’ ” And again on April 11, 1810, Bentley recorded: “I went up to the Endicott farm & obtained from Capt. John Endicott [1739-1816, 6th generation from the Governor] a number of twigs from the old Endicott pear tree for President Adams, & sent them carefully put up to him at Quincy. . . .”
On November 10, 1810, the former President wrote Bentley, “I have several young Endicott’s . . . in my garden. They are very flourishing and if I can guard them from Accident I hope they will be an ornament to this Farm and a Comfort to some good Citizens two hundred years hence.”
Salem native Nathaniel Silsbee, President of the Massachusetts Senate and later U.S. Senator, requested information about the celebrated pear tree, and received this answer from a 7th generation descendant of Governor Endecott and co-owner of the Orchard Farm:
In November 1837, 8th generation lineal descendants of Governor Endecott, William Putnam Endicott (1803-1888) and Charles Moses Endicott (1793-1863) wrote an “Account of the present condition of the Endicott Pear Tree.” The account was published by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
In the 1850 Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New York, a letter from Robert Manning dated September 5, 1849, was quoted as an introduction to an historical sketch about the Endecott Pear Tree: “I visited the tree in 1846, in August or September . . . . It had made some new shoots on the ends of the limbs, and had some fruit on, but not much. I ought to mention that that was not a good pear year. . . . The Fruit is roundish, flattened; skin thick; color dark green; rough, and with considerable russet. Ripe in September and October. In regard to quality, whatever the antiquary may say of it, the pomologist cannot but pronounce it third-rate.”
In the fall of 1858 this fatherly letter was written by 8th generation descendant Charles Moses Endicott (1793-1863) to son Ingersoll Bowditch Endicott (1835-1909), presenting Ingersoll with an unusual gift, together with familial pride:
New England literary luminary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1827-1882) once wrote about the pear tree and rejuvenation:
In an article about Salem, Massachusetts appearing in an August 5, 1871 supplement issue of the famed 19th century illustrated newspaper Harper’s Weekly, a small illustration of the pear tree was included with a short text describing the tree: “On a picturesque site of the farm was built the house of Endicott, commanding a view of the surrounding country and both arms of the sea. An ancient pear-tree in a sheltered corner of the meadow alone remains of all his thrifty orchards to offer to descendants of the often afterward governor its September fruit.”
In the late 19th century many states and communities began celebrating Arbor Day as a day for talking about and planting trees as part of the emerging national conservation movement. In 1890, on the occasion of the Danvers Improvement Society’s observance of Arbor Day, poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) wrote an original 20 stanza poem titled, “The Governor’s Tree.” Two of the stanzas read:
In 1919 a book titled The Historic Trees of Massachusetts was published, authored by James Raymond Simmons. Simmons’ words about the historic Endecott Pear Tree include several perceptive comments:
In the United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook for 1925, government pomologist H. P. Gould wrote the following report about the Endecott pear tree:
In the decade of the 1930s the pear tree was celebrated in public works. During the Massachusetts Tercentennial celebration the Commonwealth of Massachusetts erected dozens of cast iron silver and black historic markers around the state. One such marker located on the corner of Water and Endicott Streets proclaimed: “One-eighth of a mile distant, on a part of the 300 acres granted to Governor John Endecott, is the Pear Tree planted by the Governor in 1632. This tree still bears fruit.” The sign proved not as hardy as the tree. The sign was missing by the 1970s, to be replaced at my request to the State DPW in the 1980s by an exact plywood copy. This second sign was blown to pieces by the concussion of an explosion in Danversport on November 22, 2007, and replaced again.
High above the stairwell wall in the foyer of the Danvers Town Hall are exhibited three historic murals created during the great American depression. These murals, along with 14 others were originally created as public art specifically for Danvers Town Hall. The project began in 1934 under the joint auspices of the Works Progress Administration Artist and Writers Project. Principal artist of these works of art on canvas was Richard V. Ellery, assisted by Solomon Levenson and Thomas Baker.
During the major 1949 Town Hall renovation the murals were removed, stored and then slowly forgotten. In 1969 I came across some of these murals in the Town Hall attic, and recommended the best of them be rescued, restored, and rehung, which was done in 1971. The mural now on the left side of the Town Hall foyer portrays Governor John Endecott overseeing the planting of what is the famous “Endecott Pear Tree.”
The Endecott Pear Tree has experienced a number of terrible storms and hurricanes (1770, 1804, 1815, 1938, 1954 ) which have caused havoc throughout New England. The famous New England Hurricane of 1938 had its effect upon the lonely pear tree as reported in the Salem Evening News on September 24, 1938:
Not only natural disasters imperiled the Endecott Pear Tree. Man made perils also attacked the tree’s existence, as is seen in the news report from the Danvers Herald of April 18, 1946:
In the late 1940s Danvers Town Meeting voted to purchase the lot of land on which the tree stood, but that vote was never followed-through by town government. In the early 1950s the property was sold and by 1952 CBS-Hytron built a large plant on this site, preserving the tree, though with a fairly unempathetic landscaping plan in which the tree was virtually hidden and below the grade of an adjacent parking lot. On October 18, 1956, the following story was reported in the Salem Evening News:
Then in late July 1964 tragedy struck in the form of an ignorant teenage vandal, having no regard for history, heritage, or tradition. In a senseless, premeditated, and mean-spirited act, this living survivor of the 17th century was dismembered. The news was picked up by wire services Associated Press and United Press International, and printed throughout the country. This account is from the Danvers Herald:
Local historian and newsman Thurl D. Brown wrote a letter appearing in the Danvers Herald on July 30, 1964:
At the time of the vandalism to the tree Sylvania Electric Products, Inc. owned the former CBS Hytron plant and property upon which the tree was located. In January 1965 their internal newsletter, The Sylvanian News, reported on the landmark:
In an article in the Danvers Herald in late July 1965, it was reported that despite the failure of the grafts made upon the tree by humans, the strong old tree rejuvenated itself:
The large site surrounding the Endecott Pear Tree continued to be used and expanded, with GTE Sylvania and later Osram-Sylvania occupying the property. Yet the tree, its landscaping plan (or lack thereof), visibility, and notoriety have been semi-hidden as a curious afterthought. In 2002 the large industrial site went up for sale, and by 2004 was being further developed by The North Shore Medical Center, with a new large Ambulatory Care Center being built to the right of the original building for use by Massachusetts General Hospital. Urged on by local preservationist individuals and organizations, the new owners took seriously their responsibility for the care of the pear tree. The new development, however, further encroached upon the pear tree site and called for more specific planning to make it both a safe environment and attractive.
This author and several other individuals representing the Danvers Historical Society and Preservation Commission met with Medical Center officials and came up with a list of concerns that should be addressed in an orderly fashion. The Center removed the 40-year-old, jail-like chain link fence surrounding the pear tree and replaced it with an attractive black metal vertical grill fence. Mayer Tree Service was put on a retainer to monitor the tree and removed decayed overgrowth which was originally part of the screening surrounding the back of the site. Over the years the Town of Danvers Tree and Grounds Department has also been available when needed to assist with watching over the health of the tree.
Both the Endecott-Endicott Family Association, Inc. and the Gov. John Endecott Chapter, Colonial Dames took an active roll in the dissemination of knowledge about and preservation of the tree and site. The Medical Center co-sponsored, along with the Essex Heritage Commission and other preservation groups, several very successful on-site public programs about the tree and Governor Endecott. In 2009 a permanent display panel featuring text written and images selected by me concerning the history of the pear tree, was installed in the public lobby of the Medical Center. In 2011 an historic marker was placed adjacent to the parking lot at the viewing level overlooking the pear tree site. The marker reads:
The hopeful faith is that this gnarly yet noble old tree will last for generations into the future. That it will continue to serve as a genuine living link between the present and the time of the pioneering founders of the early 17th century.
Online beginning October 2013