Perkins Hodgkins house, East St., Ipswich MaHouses

To live locally

by John Fiske. First published in Digital Antiques Journal

“You can’t ask for anything more ‘local’ than that,” was my thought as I was writing the story about Tyler Fahey, his restoration of Glover’s Mill and his family house. It’s all in the June 1st issue of Digital AntiquesHis house had been built for one of his ancestors around 1700. Tyler was just the latest in his family to live in it: it had, he told me with pride, “never been sold.” It was just a month ago that I shared his story and here I am returning to it already – it resonated so deeply with me.

Tyler Fahey’s house, the Perkins-Hodgkins House c. 1700 with Georgian “modernizations”

In a country as mobile and restless as ours, it’s jaw-dropping to stand and look at a more than 300-year-old house that has been home to the same family for all of its life. And Tyler’s house is not the only one. Mark Gillespie’s is another Ipswich family that is still living in the house that was built for them. Like Tyler’s, it has been inherited, not sold. The descent is not so long in this case: the house had been built in 1836 and a mere seven (!) generations have lived in it.

Long-lived families, long-lived houses – and inspiringly “local.”

Mark Gillespie’s house, the Baker-Tozer House, c. 1835. Thought to be at least two, possibly three, combined structures: the one on the right is the original.

Local Houses

Our town’s first period houses are 100 percent “local.” As a result, they all look pretty similar. It’s not just that their post-and-beam frames were made of oak felled in the local woodlands, nor that the pine siding came from the same source, although all of that is important.

Important, too, is the way that the houses were adapted to the local weather. Unlike the English houses from which they derived, they had huge central hearths and chimneys that provided background warmth for the whole house for the whole winter.

They also had cellars. The cellars did double duty. They stored vegetables, cheeses, hard cider and other provisions safely below the frost-line so they would not freeze in winter. There field-stone wall protruded some 12 inches above ground level so they provided a damp-proof, rot-defying bases for the sills of the houses built above them.

These houses were built of frames made by beams that were 12 to 16 feet long set on posts that were seven or eight feet tall. This was the maximum size that man- and ox-power could haul from the woods and handle comfortably on the building site.

County Street Ipswich MA

View from the intersection of County Street with East Street.

A Local Ethic

Important though these structural features were, they were far from the only “localizing” factors: there was also a local “ethic” at work, a way of living and thinking that endowed the structures with life.

Before digging into that, let me side-step briefly to contrast our New England houses with those of Virginia. The warmer climate meant that Virginian houses of the same period needed neither a central chimney nor a cellar. The result is that no Virginian first period houses have survived: this is partly structural, they did not have raised sills and their posts were driven directly into to earth, so they inevitably rotted away over time.

But also, Virginian settlers lacked the New England “ethic.” The English who immigrated to Virginia did so with the aim of making as much money as possible as quickly as possible so that they could return home as rich as possible. But the immigrants to Massachusetts came to establish a permanent settlement where they could practice a lifestyle and a religion that they hoped and expected to last forever. New England houses were built to last, Virginian to provide temporary shelter.

The New Englanders did not come here to get rich: they came for the freedom to build and shape their own community for perpetuity. Their ethic was different.

Competence and Serviceability

This New England ethic rested upon two concepts: “competency” and “serviceability.”

A “competence” was the highest economic level to which the early settlers aspired. A competence gave the family a degree of security: they could put food on the table every day, they had food for the winter stashed in the cellar and they could afford some of the finer things in life, such as a wool mattress rather than a straw one.

In that period, the aim of young men was to “secure a competence.” Rev Matthew Byles rejoiced that he had “the three grand essentials of humane happiness…Health, Peace & Competence.” He was typical.

In a study of New England farmers, James Henrietta found that “there was no determined pursuit of profit…They invariably chose the security of diversified production rather than hire labor to produce more wheat for profit…Economic gain was important to these men and women, yet it was not their dominant value: it was subordinate to… the long-run financial security of the family unit.”

(The economic levels that New Englanders strove to surpass were maintenance and subsistence. Maintenance was the equivalent of living pay-check to pay-check, and subsistence meant not knowing where the next meal would come from.)

Amassing wealth was not part of this ethic, and the desire for riches was actively frowned upon. This was to change in the later eighteenth century when the pursuit of wealth through commerce became the norm.

Then there was “serviceability.” Serviceability was the belief that everything one did should strengthen the community, either directly or indirectly. In 1672 Wm. Pynchon advised his son Joseph “to be really serviceable to your generation and advantageous to yourself.” In 1713, Cotton Mather hoped that young New Englanders “may find acceptance with the people of God, and be serviceable.”

The needs of the individual, the family and the community were rolled into one in the concept of serviceability.

Homes of the Local Ethic
Homes for those who wanted “to fit in, not stand out”

All our first period houses were the product of, and perfectly suited to, this New England ethic. They were made for people whose ambition was to secure a competency for themselves and their families, and to be serviceable to the community: they were made for those who wanted to fit in, not stand out. Which is why they all look so similar. There is no such thing as a First Period McMansion – nor could there have been, it would have been literally inconceivable. These local houses were the result of a combination that is utterly unknown today – a combination of local trees, local weather, local artisans and a local ethic.

So I return to Tyler Fahey and his multi-multi-generation family house in which his family have lived happily for 350 years with the ethic of competency and serviceability.

Tyler himself is a perfect demonstration that that ethic is not as out-dated as it may look. Restoring Glover’s Mill gave Tyler something he needed – a rentable living unit over a garage and workshop space. A competence. But Tyler wanted more than this: he wanted to benefit the town by preserving a small artisanal mill of the sort that was vital to the prosperity of nineteenth-century Ipswich but has all but disappeared today.

Serviceability. As Wm. Pynchon advised his son Joseph, “[Be] really serviceable to your generation and advantageous to yourself.”

Look at the houses of our first settlers, think about living in them, think about competence and serviceability – and then look around you…Wow!

Thoughts from Historians

“…our perpetual astonishment that the past was once a living reality” Johan Huizinga

”…in a wayward, fast-moving world, a focus on history can root you, and offer perspective” Russell Shorto

Categories: Houses

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2 replies »

  1. Hi Gordon, I enjoyed your piece “To Live Locally.” As I mentioned to you before, my late sister, a Notre Dame nun, lived for three years on their property out on Jeffery’s Neck. We visited her regularly during that period. So we had to go right by Tyler Fahey’s lovely home at 80 East Street on our way to the Neck. Love the shrimp/coral color exterior! I was glad to read that it has been in the family for so many generations. May it ever be thus…

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