Thomas and Martha Lake Harris were early settlers of Rowley, and relocated to Ipswich in 1652. Their grandson Sgt. John Harris transported accused witches to Salem in 1692. Like me, the Harrises, Knowltons, and Kimballs were carpenters by trade. They must have been good, because Ipswich is full of First Period houses constructed by them. Within a century, there were dozens of Harrises living in Ipswich.
I’m not one of those Harrises. It’s more likely that my Harris ancestors were shipped to Georgia when the British were unloading their debtor prisons. As the story goes, my great great grandfather Henson Harris was a Confederate soldier from Georgia who went to Mississippi to fight the Yankees (a half dozen of whom were Harrises from Ipswich).
While he was there, Henson met a strong young woman named Penelope Gill, whose ancestors had also come from Georgia. He returned to Mississippi after the war, they married, settled in Buck Short, and renamed it Harrisville. That’s where my father was born. I loved visiting my grandparents’ dogtrot house, with the barn, cows, chickens, Ol’ Ned the horse, and a three hole outhouse. Grandpa drove an old pickup, and grandma could be found in the kitchen churning butter.
My mom was from Batesville, the casket capitol of America. Her father, on a dare, had jumped over a grist mill when he was a kid and was a bitter one-legged alcoholic tax assessor during the few short years I knew him. My parents also met and married after a war. The Harrises and McBrooms were all Methodists in good standing.
Growing up in Mississippi, we were told that our home state was the best place in the world. We were living in Calhoun City when 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’d never seen jogging before, and that whole Massachusetts mystique seemed exotic and 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 and move to Massachusetts.
That was the year our family moved to Tupelo, known for being the first town to get electricity from TVA, being destroyed by a tornado in 1936, and as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. There were folks from “Up North” running the factories, and we asked them questions like, “How high does the snow get?” and “Do kids up north wear shoes in the summer?” My English teachers were witches, except for the pretty one, but they taught me how to write and “speak proper.” This is where we lived for the next ten years, and for many years afterwards I called it my hometown.
It’s too bad about Tupelo. They built a gigantic Walmart shopping center 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 worked for Walmart before he retired.
When I was a teenager, I “felt the call” at a revival meeting to be a Methodist minister like my Dad. I took the course of study very early, and by the time I was in college I was a licensed Methodist lay minister. Two years later I was a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, following exactly in my father’s footsteps, serving as a student pastor in a tiny Methodist church in a rural Delta crossroads named Ebenezer. The Methodists there must have been desperate, but I was a good preacher.
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 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 a talented daughter named Eartha Harris. She’s a musician and a nutritional therapist, and I hope I’m at the top of the list of her 4998 Facebook Friends.
By 2000, 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 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. She never talks about herself, but I Googled her name. 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 a little bit like the Berkshires and I wasn’t sure where I was, but I looked down Market Street and loved the historic old village, . 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 like to go to Heart and Soul on Saturday morning for breakfast. Now I call Ipswich home.
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 Glenn Gibbs asked me if I would like to join the Historical Commission, which turned out to be yet another turning point. They quickly elected me chairman, but I managed to get out of that, and for several years been the Town Historian. I quickly discovered that several of the previous town historians didn’t know to type, and that Ipswich people were as interesting as their old houses. Unfortunately, I’m the IHC chair again because no one else will do it. By the way, there are openings!
People told me when I moved to Ipswich that the town had changed a lot since they arrived. Now I say that too. There are too many cars, a million potholes and distracted drivers, so I no longer lead bicycle tours. I still sometimes ride with Deb. I’m semi-retired from carpentry because I’m preoccupied with this blog, even though Bill Craft says, “there’s no future in history.” Lately, people are asking me what I’m going to do about all the recent changes in Ipswich.
The moral of this story is that it’s never too late to figure out what you’ll be when you grow up.
Ipswich Town Historian