by Richard B. Trask
The following report was submitted to the Danvers Preservation Commission, at their request, to assist in determining if the dwelling at 487 Locust Street was historically significant, in order to place a 6-month delay upon the owner wanting to tear it down. The delay affords the Commission and other interested parties time to find and present an alternative to persuade the owner to preserve the structure. In October 2014 the Massachusetts historic preservation advocacy organization,Preservation Massachusetts, placed this house on the state’s Most Endangered Historic Resources List, and a 6-month demolition delay was imposed on the dwelling and barn.
Wonderful news occurred in December 2015 when the house, barn, and 1.5 acres of the property were sold to a Danvers couple who later moved in and began renovation of the historic structure. You may follow their progress of restoring and renovating the antique farmhouse by visiting http://www.porterbradstreet.com
The dwelling and land at 487 Locust Street comprises the last surviving private, rural colonial homestead in the Town of Danvers. The home, known historically as the Porter-Bradstreet House, has a traditional date of ca. 1665, and is authentically one of the rarest American architectural style structures in the entire United States. Known as a “First Period” building which term indicates a date of between the mid 1600s up to 1725, this dwelling is one of less than an estimated 400 surviving buildings of its type in all of the United States.
For architectural and historical context, these “First Period” dwellings are rarer than the thousands of 18th century, tens of thousands of 19th century, and hundreds of thousands of 20th century fine and lovely structures, including thousands of multi-million dollar mansions, that inhabit these United States.
A “First Period” house, no matter its condition, is absolutely worthy of preservation, for these precious few structures are the “ancient history” remnants of the earliest European settlement of America. And for rareness, imagine that in all of this country only 500 or so families or institutions out of a population of 317 million people can own, inhabit, and act as caretaker to such rare and historic dwellings.
If the Porter-Bradstreet House was just a mediocre “First Period” dwelling full of rot and devoid of original features, missing its central chimney stack or original wood fabric, located on a postage stamp piece of land, and possessing no history of note, it would still be absolutely worthy of preservation. But with this house it has all the bells and whistles to make it an exceptional property with broad architectural, cultural, landscape, and historical significance.
The house is situated in the extreme northern part of the town, just off of Locust Street, and near the Topsfield line. What is now Locust Street was laid out by the colonial county court in October 1657, as a highway to Topsfield. The house sits upon what was originally a grant of 500 acres of land deeded to Emanuel Downing in July 1638, by the Town of Salem, a month before his arrival here as part of the Great Puritan Migration to New England. Downing was a lawyer of the Inner Temple in London. His second wife was Lucy Winthrop, sister of Governor John Winthrop. He was also the father of Sir George Downing, who was a member of the first class that graduated at Harvard College, and it was for him that Downing Street, the London residence of the British Prime Minister, was named.
John Porter was born in Dorset, England in about 1596. A tanner by trade, John migrated to America with his family, soon settling in Hingham, Massachusetts. He served as a Deputy to the General Court in 1644, removing that year to Salem. He settled in Salem Village on what became known as “Porter’s Plains,” present day Danvers Plains. Porter became a man of influence, represented Salem in the General Court in 1668, and with a large family of six boys and two girls, began accumulating property in Salem Village.
Emanuel Downing sold his estate on the Topsfield Road in April 1650 to John Porter, the emigrant patriarch of the Porter family (Essex Registry of Deeds, Book 8, leaf 119). Porter, now self-described as a yeoman, eventually became the largest land owner in Salem Village. When his son Joseph Porter (1638-1714) married Anna, daughter of Major William Hathorne in 1664, the land on what now is Locust Street was conveyed to Joseph by his father as a marriage portion. This is the Joseph Porter who likely erected the present house. Anna was the sister of Col. John Hathorne, who in 1692 would be one of two magistrates who over many months examined the dozens of the suspected witches during the infamous Salem Witchcraft delusion.
The history of this second generation of Porters is rich and varied, including the story of son John who was so abusive to his parents and others that his story and punishment was written up in Rev. Increase Mather’s 1684, Memorable Providences, the first published history of New England. Sons Israel and Benjamin were also given farms in Salem Village, and were enmeshed in the witchcraft proceedings. During the mid and late 1690s Joseph was active with the faction in Salem Village who fought against and eventually removed Rev. Samuel Parris from his position as minister at Salem Village, due to his uncharitable activities during the witchcraft times.
In his will, Joseph had devised the northern part of his land and house to his son Joseph (1681-1713). This Joseph, however, died shortly before his father, leaving his widow Mary, who in 1718 married George Bixby and continued to live on the farm, and his son Joseph (1710-1747), yeoman, who inherited the property. When this Joseph died, he left the property to his widow Mary, and his son Joseph (1740-1805).
Though there is deep history for each resident of the Locust Street Porter house, suffice it to spotlight just one example. This fourth generation descendant with the name “Joseph,” and who lived here and owned the homestead, is a genuine hero of the American Revolution. Born at the homestead in April 1740, Joseph by 1775 was married to his second wife, Elizabeth Herrick (m. 1768) and was within the top 10th percentile of tax payers in Danvers. By 1780 his farm included 3 horses, 2 oxen, 8 cows, 7 steers, 20 sheep and 3 swine. His land produced 120 bushels of grain, 5 tons of English hay and 15 tons of salt and meadow hay. His orchard produced 5 barrels of cider.
In 1774 Porter, at age 35, was elected 1st Lieutenant in Captain Jeremiah Pages’ Third Militia Company of the Essex Regiment. On April 19, 1775, upon hearing of the British troops marching to Concord to destroy Provincial military supplies, Porter’s company, along with 8 other Danvers companies of over 300 men, marched to the scene of action and engaged in a severe firefight with the retreating British at Menotomy (Arlington) Massachusetts. That day six other members of the Porter family marched in Danvers units to battle. Danvers lost seven men killed. This event of the opening of the American Revolution would have been enough to put Porter on the roll of patriots to the American cause, but other events overshadowed even this.
In 1777 British General John Burgoyne invaded New York and New England from the north in what at first was a string of major military successes. New England was in a near panic and called up volunteer militia to try and stop the invasion. In Danvers Samuel Flint became a Captain of a volunteer company, with Joseph Porter volunteering as Lieutenant. The Danvers Company joined with an Essex County Regiment commanded by Colonel Samuel Johnson of Andover. They marched to New York and on October 7, 1777, at Stillwater near Saratoga, New York they faced two earthen redoubts fortified with cannon and filled with British and German Hessian troops.
Attached to Learned’s Brigade, the American militia, including Flint and Porter’s Company, was ordered to attack by a frontal charge to try and take the fortifications. For the first time in the annals of American military history raw militia troops participated with other troops in an actual frontal assault. And they did so gallantly, but with a heavy loss of men. Under fierce fire by some of Europe’s most professional soldiers, the farmers and tradesmen of Massachusetts braved the long run, and in hand-to-hand combat took the two redoubts, the cannon, and those European troops who could not run fast enough to get away.
The carnage was awful. At the head of the Danvers and Essex County companies, with swords drawn, Captain Flint and Lieutenants Porter and Herrick of Beverly lead their men from the front of the line. Flint was killed with a musket ball to the breast. Lieutenant Herrick was also killed in the action, and early reports had it that Lieutenant Porter was also killed on the field. But about ten days later an order went out that Porter would now be the captain of the remnants of his company. Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolution and the charge carried out by many volunteer Essex County men was a pivotal point in that battle, and in American history. And there in the midst of this heroic charge performed by amateur soldiers, Joseph Porter helped lead to victory.
Joseph came back to his homestead and continued to farm his property and remained active in local affairs till his death in 1805. Now the grave of this hero is lost to memory, probably located in the unmarked fieldstone graveyard located not too far from his home. His sword and accoutrements are no more, and the only living link to his existence is the dwelling where he lived and raised a family. What a tragedy it would be to loose this place which has weathered over 350 summers and winters.
One of the Porter’s who lived here, Amos Porter by name, joined with the first pioneer party from Danvers and Ipswich that trekked in wagons to the wild Northwest Territory and colonized Marietta, Ohio, in 1788. Upon his death in 1805, Joseph in his will left the homestead estate to his two sons, Jonathan and Joseph. The 185 acres and buildings were at that time appraised at $7000. Jonathan died shortly after this, leaving his brother and sisters as heirs. During 1810 and 1811 Joseph and all the other heirs released their interest in the place to an in-law, Capt. Dudley Bradstreet of Topsfield, yeoman. The captain moved to the farm and spent the remainder of his life there, dying in 1833. He was a descendant of both Governors Bradstreet and Dudley.
Family tradition indicates that the house was used as a refuge during the anti-slavery times as part of the Underground Railroad. Danvers itself was a hotbed of abolitionist activities from the 1830s through the beginning of the Civil War. Captain Dudley Bradstreet left the house and land to his son, John Bradstreet, yeoman (d. 1869), after which it went to John’s son, Harrison P. Bradstreet, yeoman, who the same year conveyed it to Elizabeth Lawton Ellis for $11,900. In 1871, Ms. Ellis mortgaged the property to William B. Morgan of Wenham and Calvin Putnam of Danvers. The mortgage was foreclosed and in public sale was bought by Calvin Putnam for $9300. Mr. Putnam died in 1904 and in 1906 the farm was sold by the executor of his estate to Daniel J. Connors for $8000. In about 1948 the house and several acres were separated from the property and sold to Robert S. Porter. He and his wife Priscilla made repairs and improvements to the dwelling and outbuildings. In the early 1980s Ronald and Sharon Clark purchased the property and established a private school, the Clark School, adding several buildings to the property.
In the first photographically illustrated history book about Danvers printed in 1894 and titled, Historic Danvers by Frank E. Moynahan, publisher of the Danvers Mirror, the Porter-Bradstreet house is first pictured. After outlining its history, the author mentions, “The property, enlarged and remodeled from time to time, is now, with its adjoining lands, the property of Mr. Calvin Putnam. Not far from this house, in a pasture, is a very old and quaint burying place.” Since 1894 all Danvers town histories have prominently displayed text and a picture of this landmark house, including the most recent picture book titled, Danvers from 1850 to 1899 written by me and published by Arcadia Publishing.
In an early history, the house itself was described as being, “50 feet in length and twenty-odd in width, two stories high, and faces south. There is a large chimney. The posts and beams are of white oak and are a food square. The original house was apparently that side closest to the road.”
Of the “First Period” house itself, it is a two and one half story structure possessing a five bay design. Typical of these earliest houses, it faced in a southerly direction for best exposure of the winter sun. Of its original design, the house most probably was built with the earliest portion being the west side, with a first floor Great Hall and second floor Hall Chamber. The front entry, known as the “Porch,” would include the stairway, behind which was the chimney structure. Later the two east side rooms (Parlor and Parlor Chamber) were built on so that the chimney now appeared near the middle of the dwelling. The frame was good quality sturdy oak mortised and tenoned into place.
The sloping rear roof is now commonly called a “salt-box,” and was used for a long first floor kitchen lean-to and possibly a buttery. This rear, sloping section may or may not have been added at a separate time. There is also a great example of a “Beverly Jog” attached at the west back end of the house extending to the second floor and used as another point of entry. On the rear east end of the main house there is a later two story jog, possibly incorporating another earlier Beverly Jog. This newer feature is from the 19th century and can be seen in photographs of the 1890s.
A three-sided, one story surround porch was added to the house in the 19th century, the posts on the porch replaced in the 20th century. Windows were changed in the 19th century and then brought back to 6/6 sash during a modernization in the 20th century. There is a distinctive return at the eves and the house is clapboarded. The present front entry includes a fore-door which might be part of an earlier “Sentry Box” front entry. Concrete appears to surround the foundation line now, while the cellar is probably composed of a field stone foundation.
The surviving barn dates from at least the 19th century, and possibly earlier. In the 19th century it was attached to the house via a long two-story carriage shed with openings and also used for firewood and possibly a work shop. This was replaced in the 20th century by a habitable long room with large windows.
In June 1975, I had the pleasure to accompany famed architectural historian and Yale professor Abbot Lowell Cummings to the Porter-Bradstreet House for him to see this “First Period” structure, through an arrangement with the then owner. Dr. Cummings was impressed. In 1979 he wrote for Harvard University Press the definitive study of these earliest houses titled, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725. In the book he writes of and has two drawings of a bridled scarf rear plate which he found in the house having been used by the builder to connect two large oak plates together.
I can not over emphasize that this original “First Period” structure that has survived and thrived for over 300 years as part of our American heritage, and a home to generations of families absolutely deserves for the conservation of resources, continuity, heritage and history to be preserved on its original site.
Richard B. Trask
September 3, 2014