William Oakes house, IpswichCommentary

William Oakes and the great Ipswich putdown


Selection from Ipswich Yesterday by Alice Keenan, 1982. Photos by George Dexter and Edward L. Darling.

Ipswich has the habit, long ingrained, of turning on those who love her most, and who, innocently and willingly, donate their time, talents, energies, and in some cases — money — for her welfare and adornment. Sometimes the reprimand is delivered by a not so gentle slap on the wrist, but other times the bewildered recipient of her displeasure is savagely pole-axed and permanently numbed. Some lick their wounds to rise and fight again, but others, perhaps the wisest, say t’ hell with it and settle back in comfort to watch the on-going side-show. The great Ipswich put-down is not a recent phenomena, but has been going on ever since Winthrop Jr, waded ashore with his not-so-merry men, evicted William Jeffries and beguiled and bedazzled poor old Masconomet. Nor does she distinguish between the rich and the poor, the learned and the dummies, the powerful and the not so mighty — when the mood is on her they all feel her wrath — vicious and scarring.

William Oakes

Take the case of William Oakes, usually referred to as “Lawyer Oakes”, way back in the 1830s, but actually a pioneer naturalist, botanist and scientist of national repute. We doubt that Mr. Oakes fell under that puzzling prerequisite for local acceptance, “native born,” which may or may not have contributed to his eventual downfall, but we know he loved the town and was deeply interested in its welfare. He lived at 3 High Street, in that lovely old house, once owned by the Ascension Memorial Church and occupied by its Rector. An avid collector of flora and fauna, the thoughtful Augustine Heard shipped him case-loads from China, and we imagine he was a constant adviser to his next door neighbor, Dr. Thomas Manning, while that energetic gentleman experimented with silk worm culture in his lace factory, and kept an eagle-eye on the progress of the mulberry plants that waxed and then waned on the terraced hillside in the rear of his home.

Payne School buildings at Lords Square
William Oakes was a benefactor of the the Payne School at Lords Square

Life was rosy for Mr. Oakes until he took that fateful walk up High street and decided to drop into the little school house on Lord’s Square. Dr. John Manning and his High street neighbors had already fought and won the battle for the school — the nucleus for the present Payne School — and we imagine that Mr. Oakes had contributed one way or other for its support . “A man of taste and order whom nothing annoyed more than to witness things at sixes and sevens” (a state of confusion or disarray), Mr. Oakes decided that although the children were doing well, their materials and supplies were appalling and immediately set about straightening things out. The very next week there arrived at the school a complete set of writing books, several dozen of ink-stands to replace “the multitudinous forms and sizes made from lead, soap-stone and potters ware,” a gross of imported quills, replacing the goose and turkey quills “as difficult to split as the chip of an elm,” and innumerable other little goodies — all paid for by Mr. Oakes.

The children were delighted, their parents delirious — and far from looking this gift horse in the mouth, the following year elected him “Prudential Committee” by unanimous consent, and sat back to enjoy the shower of benefactions that were to come. The following year, deciding that the school-house had the appearance “of a tatterdemalion,” Mr. Oakes put on a new roof, new shingling, new windows, and new seats “inside the house” — and paid the entire bill. Re-elected again “with his purse still wide open,” he had the school-house painted inside and out and threw in an extra $40 for fripperies. But already that ugly Ipswich virus was beginning to infect a few of his former supporters, “and a murmur arose that Mr. Oakes was running things.”

The following year the generous hearted Oakes was unceremoniously dumped by the ingrates. The cruelest thrust of all was the slanderous and vicious whispering campaign questioning his motives for aiding the school, “that so upset and soured his mind that he withdrew his support forever.” He was not forgotten, for 40 years later a faded news clipping tells us that a picture of Mr. Oakes has been uncovered, “he whose memory still reflects credit and honor on our town and whose fame brightens as the years roll by.” Fame is fame and can be sweet, but we wonder if Mr. Oakes ever recovered from the shabby treatment he received from his townspeople — for he died a short time later.

–Alice Keenan


John Gaines, William Oakes house
1725 John Gaines house, 3 High St., home of William Oakes

William Oakes (July 1, 1799-July 31, 1848) attended Harvard from 1816 and developed an interest in natural history. After graduation in 1820, Oakes studied law and then, from 1824, began a legal practice in Ipswich. Oakes was among the first to climb a path to the summit of Mount Washington that was constructed in 1821, and described White Mountains flora in an 1842 geological survey. Prints from his book, “The Scenery of the White Mountains” became widely available. The writings of Oakes contributed to a report produced by George Barrell Emerson in 1846 about the trees and shrubs of Massachusetts. Oakes drowned on July 31, 1848 after falling off a ferry running between Boston and East Boston. The phrase Oakes is included in the scientific name of several species of vegetation and fungi that he studied.

Categories: Commentary, People

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2 replies »

  1. Gordon, thanks for retelling this delightful account. Hopefully, someone will be doing the same for our scribblings many years hence …

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