I grew up in Mississippi and was told that my home state was the best place in the world. Then when I was nine, John Kennedy ran for president, and there were those great images of him on television with his beautiful family, jogging along on the beach at Hyannis. I didn’t know what jogging was but that whole Camelot thing seemed exciting.
My dad was one of the few Mississippi white folks who voted for Kennedy. Soon, like the Rev. Martin Luther King I had a dream, but mine was to escape Mississippi to Massachusetts.
That same year our family moved to Tupelo, known for being the first town to get electricity from TVA, and for two tragedies: being destroyed by a tornado in 1936, and the birthplace of Elvis Presley. This is where we lived for the next ten years, and for a long time I called it my home town.
It’s too bad about Tupelo. They built a gigantic Walmart five miles north of town, and now the downtown is a ghost of its former self. My twin brother Glenn still lives near Tupelo and he works for Walmart.
By 1970 I was a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, following in my father’s footsteps, serving as a student pastor in a tiny Methodist church in a rural Delta crossroads named Ebenezer.
On May 15, 1970 forty Jackson police marched on Jackson State College and opened fire on black students. Two died and several were injured. The white folks in Ebenezer saw me on television the next day in a protest, arm in arm with black students, and I was advised to leave town by the one person who showed up for the next Sunday service. Not to mention that I had started to grow my hair much too long for a good Methodist.
I was done with religion, so I found a summer job at a YMCA camp in Becket Massachusetts. In September I returned to Jackson, graduated from Millsaps College and married a free-spirited hippie. Judy and I had neither a plan nor a clue, but we headed north to the Berkshires and rented an apartment in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, mostly because that’s where the fan belt broke on my old Rambler and we were running low on cash.
We practiced Living on the Earth from a book we read by Alicia Bay Laurel, and I grew my hair long, or at least what was left of it. My friends told me I looked like David Crosby or William Shakespeare. My dad told me it looked silly and he was right, but it was not until he was dead that I started listening to him. I became a political activist again with the Nuclear Freeze Movement. I started a group called “People for Peace,” and that’s how the few people who remember me in the Berkshires still remember me. I also took up carpentry for a living, something I knew nothing about. It has served me well for over 40 years.
Judy and I eventually divorced, and I spent the last ten Berkshire years in Williamstown, a gorgeous if somewhat pretentious hamlet which I thought I would never leave. (This is where marriage #2 happened, but let’s not talk about it). Several years ago they adopted “The Village Beautiful” as the official town slogan, but soon the good people of Williamstown realized it sounded pretentious and silly like “Manchester by the Sea,” and took the signs down.
As for Judy, she has been happily married to a nice woman in Pittsfield for more years that she and I were married, so Massachusetts has worked out well for her too. She’ll probably be happy for a long time, since her grandmother Betsy Cooper, AKA “Memom” lived to be the oldest person in the world. We have an amazingly talented daughter named Eartha Harris and I hope I’m at the top of the list of her 4998 Facebook Friends.
By 2000, having finally given up on retaining any substantial quantity of hair and having survived an awful mid-life crisis, I decided, on a whim, to ride my bicycle across the country. While on the road, I developed a website called Bike New England. People started saying things like, “Oh, you’re that guy that rides a bike.”
The next year I met my wife Deb on a bicycle tour in Canada. Out of the blue, she had decided to ride a bicycle a long, long way. She didn’t own a bicycle, so she purchased one, went for a 20-mile ride and decided she was ready to tour. I felt we had a lot in common. She thought I was a weirdo. She’s beautiful, and a brilliant scientist too. I have no idea what this article means, but she is one of the authors. Deb lived in Danvers, and for the next three years I drove there every weekend from Williamstown to see her.
Which finally gets us back to the title of this little trip down memory lane, “How I Came to Ipswich.”
One day Deb brought me to Ipswich for breakfast, back when Stone Soup was at Market Square. Ipswich felt almost as remote as the Berkshires and I wasn’t sure where I was, but I looked down Market Street and loved the historic old village, founded in 1634. I was already in love with Deb. We found a house here in town and got married, in that order. She still thinks I’m a weirdo and I’m sure she’s right. Stone Soup’s not anywhere anymore, but we go to Heart and Soul every Saturday morning for breakfast.
I started leading bicycle tours of the North Shore for Road Scholar, and to help promote the tours I created this website with photos of all the nice old houses in Ipswich. One day the town Planning Director asked me if I would like to join the Historical Commission, which turned out to be another turning point. They soon elected me chairman, but I got out of that and for several years I’ve been the Town Historian. The deeper I got into the history of this town and the old houses, the more I became fascinated by the stories of the people who lived in them.
People told me when I moved here that the town had changed a lot since they arrived. Now I say that too. There are too many cars, pot holes and distracted drivers, so I no longer lead bicycle tours, but sometimes I still ride with Deb. When I’m not distracted by history, folks in Ipswich keep me busy with carpentry projects. I call it my home town
*Update: They made me be the Historical Commission chair again, and lately I’ve been riding my bicycle.
Ipswich Town Historian