Richard B. Trask
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:
Salem, December 4, 1823
Hon. Nathaniel Silsbee,
Dear Sir – The ancient pear tree in Danvers, about which you particularly inquired, was imported from England, and planted by Gov. Endicott on his farm in 1630. Its stands on a hard clay bottom covered with a rich soil more than a foot deep, sheltered from the westerly winds, but exposed to the easterly. The ground has been cultivated as a field ever since it was planted, but no particular care has been taken of the tree until the last seven years, since which for antiquity’s sake, it has been kept enclosed, the ground dug and manured, new sprouts have made their appearance, and will no doubt live many years. It girts just above the ground 6 feet 8 inches, and tapers but little to the crotch, which is 4 feet 6 inches from the ground. It never was a tall tree; the top is now about 15 feet high, and is entirely hollow. It bore one and a half bushel of fair fruit this year, 1823, and always has been prolific. The fruit is good and there can be no doubt of its having been engrafted.
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.
This ‘Old Pear Tree’ is situated on the southern side of a gentle slope of land, and sheltered by it, in some measure, from the piercing northerly and northwest winds, in what was once the garden of Gov. Endicott . . . The trunk exhibits all the marks of extreme old age, with just sufficient bark to convey sap to the branches. It is 7 feet 4 inches in circumference near the roots, and is divided into three parts; two of which are connected, to the height of about 18 inches; the other is entirely distinct, from the ground upwards. There is bark only on the outside of these divisions, until they reach the height of 7 or 8 feet, where they are completely encircled with it, and form distinct limbs, with numerous lateral branches all of which appear in a perfectly sound and healthy state. Two suckers have sprung up from the roots, one on the northeast, and the other on the southwest side, each 10 or 12 feet in length, and I presume it is known, that this tree has never been grafted, but is natural fruit.
No doubt, the dilapidated condition of the trunk is owing, in some measure, to the want of care during the most part of the two first centuries of its existence, being situated in an open field, without any protection, and often browsed by cattle, and injured by storms. This patriarch, within the last forty years, has often suffered severely from easterly and southerly gales. In October, 1804, it was nearly laid prostrate being shorn of all its branches, and its trunk split and divided in the manner before spoken of. In the heavy gale of September, 1815, it was again doomed to a similar fate: almost all its limbs at that time were either split or broken, and it appeared doubtful, for some time, if it would ever recover, – but such was its wonderful tenacity of life, that it rose again, phoenix like, as it were, from its very ashes . . . .
With proper care and attention this tree may yet continue many years, and will serve to remind us, by its own trials, strength, vigor and durability, of the enterprize, hardships, perseverance, and untiring zeal of our ancestors in the first settlement of this our cherished land . . . .
William Putnam Endicott
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:
Salem, Oct. 1, 1858
I send you today a small box of pears from your ancestral Tree in Danvers imported in 1630 from England. The crop this year is less than ½ bushel, which is divided between your uncle William & myself. Thus for nearly 230 years this old tree has watched over the spot where it now stands.
Generations have come & passed away since it was planted, towns & cities have sprung up around it, & the feeble colony of Massachusetts Bay has become an opulent & powerful people. Two hundred & thirty years! . . . Yet this old tree has survived the storms & rigors of so many winters, & is now cherished by another race of people as a memorial of days long gone. The vigor of its youth has now passed away & it may not survive the storms of many winters more. But the memory of him who planted it, who trained its young branches, and watched over its perennial blossoms, is still green in the hearts of a grateful posterity; and until the boon of liberty, the religious freedom for which our fathers toiled shall cease to exist, and Massachusetts be no more, all honor will be rendered by her sons to the memory of our ancestor, John Endicott. What an enviable reputation my son! Let us strive to keep alive the flame lit up so long ago! . . . .
New England literary luminary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1827-1882) once wrote about the pear tree and rejuvenation:
To those who ask how I can write so many things that sound as if I were as happy as a boy, please say that there is in the neighboring town a pear tree, planted by Governor Endicott 200 years ago, and it still bears fruit not to be distinguished from that of a young tree in flavor. I suppose the tree makes new wood every year, so that some parts of it are always young. Perhaps this is the way with some men when they grow old. I hope it is so with me.
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:
Who would not be proud to say
Such a wonder you may see;
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:
When selecting a young tree for planting as a permanent, living monument, capable of occupying a given spot from one to five hundred years, one would hardly choose, out of all the available species, a fruit tree.
There is not much left of beauty or comeliness about the venerable tree which still maintains its layer of living bark from year to year around a hollow trunk, and still drops down its golden fruit into the laps of Endicott’s grateful descendents and admirers . . . . When in leaf, however, the tree possesses a youthful appearance . . . . It is one of the most quaint and strangely impressive of all historic trees.
In the United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook for 1925, government pomologist H. P. Gould wrote the following report about the Endecott pear tree:
Specific reference to one of the most remarkable fruit trees in the history of American pomology is of interest here – the old Endecott pear tree standing near Danversport, Mass. . . . If tradition be true, this tree was planted in its present location by Gov. John Endecott soon after ‘Orchard farm,’ as the tract of land was very early designated, was granted to the governor, which was on July 3, 1632. That many trees were planted here within the next few years after the grant was made is clearly evident, since it is a matter of record that 500 trees were injured in 1641 by a fire that was set by children.
Whether the Endecott pear tree was first planted where it now stands or was transplanted from Governor Endecott’s garden in Salem is uncertain. That it may have been brought from over-seas is not impossible. In fact, there is a tradition that it came in the ship Arbella with Winthrop in 1630 . . . . Whatever the facts, there are enough very early references to this pear tree which connect it definitely with Governor Endecott to give much support to a very early date of planting, though the exact year in which it was done is a matter of some conjecture. . . . That the tree is a seedling rather than one grown from a bud or scion on some other root is indicated by the fact that the fruit borne by the two parts of the double trunk . . . is the same as that produced by the original “main” tree, this fact being commented on by William Lincoln, of Worcester, who addressed the Massachusetts Horticultural society in 1837 concerning this pear tree.
. . . When visited on October 11, 1924, it was found that the original trunk described in 1837 had entirely disappeared, but the two suckers were in good condition, the taller, the one on the southwest side, being about 14 feet high and having a circumference of 25 inches at three feet from the ground. The other sucker measured 22 inches in circumference at three feet from the ground and was somewhat hollow-hearted below that point. . . .
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:
Gov. Endecott Pear Tree
Seriously Damaged by Storm
Danvers, Sept. 24, – The Gov. Endecott pear tree, reputed to be three centuries old, was seriously damaged by the storm this week, and the citizens, particularly those of colonial ancestry, are deploring the destruction of this far-famed growth, which has been a noted landmark.
This pear tree, according to history, was set out between 1633 and 1640 on the Orchard farm consisting of 300 acres granted by colonial authorities to Gov. John Endecott as the first grant in the year 1632 . . . .
This oldest fruit tree of the country was loaded with fruit this year. When the tree fell during the storm it carried away a part of the fence which has surrounded it for years for its protection. A part of the tree is still connected with the roots and it is thought that this one live limb may be salvaged . . . .
As early as 1848 the people of this community were concerned about decay which was detected in the main part of this tree but as vigorous suckers were sent out from the roots, fruit continued to appear annually. It was then predicted that the tree would probably live at least another century, and it may survive this storm, which was the worst ever recorded here.
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:
Soil Stripping Dooms 316 Year Old Pear Tree
Grange Urges Citizens, Chamber of Commerce,
To Do Something To Preserve Nationally
Known Historic Tree
Soil-stripping and disinterest, threatening the life of the 316 year old Endicott pear tree, located on the property of Henry Simard of 139 Endicott Street, is reported . . . The present owner of the property has stripped the top soil near the tree and left it “high and dry” and doesn’t seem to care whether it is preserved or not.
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:
Endicott Pear Tree Bears Fruit in 321st Year
Now Cared for By CBS-Hytron
Of interest, to historians and horticulturalists throughout the country, but more especially in Essex County, is the famed Endicott pear tree now bearing fruit in its 321st year. This tree was one of the historic spots visited by countless persons during the town’s 200th anniversary observance in 1952. Since that time, the historic tree off Endicott Street has changed ownership and now is on the property of the new CBS-Hytron plant. CBS management, sensing the pride of local citizens in its historic heritage, carefully cared for the tree, repaired the dilapidated fence and kept the area landscaped and open to the public.
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:
Endicott Pear Tree Ruined
Not a leaf, not a twig, not a branch, not a limb was left on the two main trunks of the famed Endicott Pear Tree off Endicott Street as vandals (probably using hack saws, police believe) completely denuded the 333 year old tree during Monday night . . . .
The time of year, age of the tree and the weather conditions, are not considered conducive to preservation, yet the greatest possible effort is being made.
Over the years, the tree has become world famous, and slips have been sent to the far corners of the globe, and many throughout the United States, to those who felt a sentimental value in keeping the old fruit line producing.
Local historian and newsman Thurl D. Brown wrote a letter appearing in the Danvers Herald on July 30, 1964:
Letter To The Editor
The recent destruction of the Endicott Pear Tree by vandals is more than “murder” of a tree; it is wanton disregard of a truly American heritage, and cuts to death as deeply into Danvers’ tradition as any enemy or foe could ever have done. At least an enemy or a foe would have been fighting for a cause. The utter disregard for property, for historical heritage, and for a natural resource, the like of which no other community in the nation can boast, is today’s Shame which all citizens of Danvers must now share and bear.
With telling forcefulness this despicable, reprehensible, and inexcusable act brings into sharp focus the desperate need for the community to act now to preserve and conserve what remaining historical assets and natural resources it has left before the hand of man and the ravages of time have their way.
The hacked trunk and torn limbs stand today as mute testimony to the degradation, the moral breakdown, and lack of interest in “living things”, and brings to those who love Danvers a painful reminder that citizens are not living up to their community responsibilities when such wanton acts of desecration and destruction are tolerated.
Thurl D. Brown
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:
Wall of Protection
Barbed wire and steel fencing now protects the ancient Endicott Pear Tree for future generations of Americans.
Two bodies of experts, the town’s Shade Tree Department and the Essex Agricultural School are laboring to restore the tree. Grafting procedures, basically involving the peeling back of bark and making incisions into the remaining stump of the tree, have been made and small twigs from other portions were inserted. These incisions have been wrapped in burlap cloth after being sealed in wax . . . .
The sturdy fence provided by the Company should discourage any future human damage to the tree. The watchmen include its path in their daily checks about the plant.
Gradually the new limbs will start to receive nourishment from the now grotesque trunks which refuse to die. Each successive Spring, bees will pollinate its fragrant flowers until that one day – in the not too distant future – it will once again bear fruit.
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:
Endicott Pear Tree Seen Reviving
The world-famous Endicott pear tree, almost totally destroyed by vandals a year ago last week, is showing definite signs of renewed growth and vigor . . .
Harold Kelly of the Essex County Agricultural and Technical Institute said that emergency grafts which were made last year did not take at all, because it was the wrong time of year for successful grafting of trees. But he added that with much fertilization, the raw material in its roots, and its own sturdy strength, the tree now has about 100 good “suckers”; this, though the growth appeared to have been winter-killed, but, by cutting back, has responded unbelievably.
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 Endecott Pear Tree
Growing on this site is the oldest cultivated tree in America, planted ca. 1632 by John Endecott, first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The “Endecott Pear Tree” is a living link to the earliest European settlers of our nation. Endecott was granted 300 acres where he settled and farmed, calling this property “Orchard Farm.” This ancient tree lives as a symbol of heritage, strength and resilience.
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