Sullivan’s Corner: The House on the Corner

The new Sullivan House (1897) with the Spiller house (c 1840) in the background.

Sullivan’s Corner, The Last Years of the Farm 

by Tom Clasby

PART ONE — AS THINGS WERE

The House on the Corner

Sullivan's Corner by Thomas Clasby

Thomas Clasby’s book is available at Conley’s Drug Store in Ipswich and Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport

During the first half of the century, and for another decade or two beyond, the junction of Mill Road with Topsfield Road was known all around as Sullivan’s Corner. In 1951, the post office needed nothing more than that to get mail to anyone at the farm — and much of what came was addressed that way.

Place names can be transitory though. In the colonial era, the whole district north of the river was known broadly as the Bush Hill Eighth. And, for a while in the eighteenth century, this part of the district, the gently rolling outwash plain between Bush and Scott hills and the river was called Birch Island Fields. Neither designation survives today. Likewise, the Sullivan name for this intersection replaced an earlier one, Bush Hill Corner. Nowadays, both of those are unfamiliar to most who live nearby.

Names aside, the fact of the two roads joining where they do came about by happenstance. In colonial times, when Birch Island Fields contained a number of farms, side by side, an earlier route to the mills started a half-mile farther out on Topsfield Road, and ran more or less straight back to the river as a narrow lane between separate tracts.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, the Warner family, doing well from their wool fulling business at the mill on the north bank, bought up adjacent land, and put together an expanse of more than two hundred and fifty acres. Freed from the constraints of earlier property lines, they abandoned the original road to the mills for a diagonal shortcut across their land, and decreased the distance between the mills and town. The new route was formally accepted by the town in 1818, and thus the junction that came to be known as Sullivan’s Corner was formed as a softly angled wye at the meeting of the new traverse from the mills and the road to town.

The Sullivan residence was situated right on the corner, enclosed on two sides by the roads, and by an L-shaped driveway connecting to Topsfield Road on one end, and the road back to the mills on the other. The roads met at a broad angle, with the house set back just enough to be screened by an arc of lilac hedge that also enclosed a small lawn on the side away from the barnyard. At mid-century the house and yard were overspread by a canopy of elm and maple trees near the streets, and buffered from east winds by a grove of spruce trees to the back.

The old house was not the first residence on this land — the one where Kate and Nellie, and another Sullivan daughter, Mary, were born. An even older house was there already when their father, Eugene, bought the property. The older house stood right beside where the later one was put — a faint imprint of the old cellar hole still imaginable. That first house had been occupied by the previous owner from around 1840, but may have dated back to shortly after the new road was laid out.

Eugene Sullivan came to that first house as an Irish émigré. He had been born near Kilarney in 1842, but was here, living in Hamilton, by the late 1860s. He acquired the house, and four acres that came with it, when he was twenty-eight years old. Two years later, in 1872, he married Ellen Birmingham, and they began their family there.\

At that size, four acres, the farm couldn’t have provided more than a basic subsistence. And at first, to get by, Eugene needed to continue with other labor as well. By family lore, he worked for a time as a lamplighter in town, going down at dusk each day, to light the sidewalk lamps in the business district.

In 1880, all that changed. Ten years after his initial acquisition, Mr. Sullivan’s enterprise expanded into a fully self-supporting farm when he was able to buy an adjoining parcel of nearly eighty acres, after its owner, a member of the Warner family, died in bankruptcy. And fifteen years later, as a result, Eugene had a windfall when the Reverend William Greenough Thayer, headmaster of the elite Saint Mark’s School in Southboro, asked to purchase fifty acres of that land for one of those summer retreats. He offered four thousand dollars — for two-thirds of the land that had cost Eugene eight hundred and fifty.

The sale to Thayer of what came to be two summer places — one of them called Holliday Hill — brought a measure of prosperity to the family, although sadly it came just after the death of Mrs. Sullivan. The new farmhouse was built from those proceeds in 1896, and Eugene was left with a very sufficient tract of almost thirty-four acres to farm.

The money from the land proved sufficient for two large purposes. One was the replacement of the primitive “third period” cape, where the family had lived for a quarter century, with a more substantial home — one with the comforts of the day. The other big expenditure was the purchase of a house in town for Eugene’s daughters, closer to Kate’s and Nellie’s work.

Mr. Sullivan thought to provide this in order to save them the hardship of getting to school and back by horse-and-buggy every day. And, in any event, he did not expect they would stay with the farm after he was gone.

In reality, for the young women, the new farmhouse became both a source of pride in their father’s achievements, and a visible marker of the family’s rise in the community. Their pleasure in the new home, and affection for the land it stood on, was such that they never occupied the house in town. Instead, it was rented out for some years, and provided a source of income that helped the three of them remain at Sullivan’s Corner, operating the farm that had become an indelible part of their identity.

The farmhouse itself started as a simple turn-of-the-century “four-square” structure, and was expanded over the years with attic dormers, a sun porch, a second dining room and a back porch. The siding was painted butter yellow, and featured a half-dozen rows of fish-scale shingles between the first and second floor windows. Traditional green shutters framed two-over-two style sash.

I spent as much time in that house as my own, and had the run of the place. I remember the pungent dryness of the attic — baking under a summer sun — where my father once lived, and where Jack’s old things were stored. I can picture every room, and each is as real to me today, as then. Upstairs there was a bedroom in each corner, plus two more in the dormers above. Kate’s room was originally her father’s. Serving as a nightstand there, was an iron safe that once held the farm’s operating cash — harvest earnings, secured for use in the low revenue months.

On the first floor, flanking the front hall and staircase, were the front room, where company visited, and the formal dining room. The kitchen and a sitting room for everyday use took up the other two corners. Next to a doorway from the front hall, an upright piano covered most of one wall of the front room, and a large console radio took up the rest. The telephone, an upright model, sat in the dining room on its own small table near a window that looked out on the lawn where the first house had been. Extending to the rear of the original structure were the second dining room, used for everyday meals, and the sun porch. In between those was a back hallway which led out to another enclosed porch beyond and, finally, the back door leading to the barnyard.

The sun porch could be entered from either the back hall or the sitting room, and its other sides were filled with double-hung windows facing south and east. In the porch was a large oak desk where farm accounts were kept, and where school lessons used to be graded. One of its drawers was filled with prize ribbons from the Topsfield Fair — most of them won by Frank’s poultry.

Both the kitchen and back dining room had oilcloth floor-covering with areas where the pattern was worn completely away. The sink in the kitchen was relatively new — enameled steel — but it occupied the same place as the original soapstone one. The refrigerator, a GE Monitor-Top model from the 1930s, and a wringer-type washing machine were both kept in the back dining room, but on laundry days the washer was rolled around to the kitchen to be used near the sink.

Cooking was done on a large cast-iron stove which seemed to run most of the time, all year round, regardless of the outdoor temperature. That’s where the beans were baked every Saturday. Water had to be added throughout the day, as liquid bubbled away and left the rims of the bean pots caked with molasses crust. Originally, the stove would have burned wood or coal, but it had been modernized to use range oil from a five-gallon glass bottle, tipped bottom-up into a receptor right beside. The kitchen always had a faint odor of burnt kerosene. In the winter, when the stove was also part of the heating system, the bottle must have had to be refilled at least once a day from a tank in the cellar.

The greater source of warmth, in winter, was a furnace in the middle of the cellar, directly beneath a large grate in the floor of the front hall, which delivered heat for the whole house. Coming back in from sledding or helping Frank shovel, I’d go directly to the grate for warmth, snow clumps falling from my woolen trousers and boot-socks hissing into steam as they fell through and struck the hot metal of the furnace below.

In the cellar, at the base of the fieldstone foundation, was a square pit in the powdery dirt floor. Just above the pit, a galvanized pipe went out through the foundation wall to bring water a hundred feet or so to the barn. During the coldest months, when any water in that pipe would freeze solid where it came up in the barn, the flow was shut off in the cellar, and the pipe drained back into the pit so it would stay clear for getting water to the animals.

The cellar was also where food for the winter was stored: rows of glass jars filled with vegetable preserves kept on a rack of wood shelving. And, in a dark and colder recess beneath the back addition, bushel baskets held potatoes, turnips, winter squash, and apples.

The town Kate was leaving had grown to almost seven thousand citizens — from about forty-five hundred when she began teaching. If her years in retirement were diminished by the Parkinson’s, she at least must have had some pleasure from knowing that her decades of devotion to the schoolchildren there were remembered by almost everyone in the community. But beyond those touched by her teaching career, Kate had helped shape several other lives too, in a rather different way.

Half a life earlier, as the oldest of the three daughters, and the one most possessed of traits of order and discipline, hers would have been the controlling voice in the decision of what to do with the farm, after the death of their father. By that time, in 1916, Kate and Nellie — between them — had completed almost forty years of teaching. Mary, the middle sister, suffered from asthma and was pretty much restricted to a life at home, where she kept after the house. All were unmarried then, and one side or the other of forty years old.

For all that one can know, at this distance, the three were united in wanting to remain at the family home and continue the farm — the wellspring that had always provided for them. The problem was how to accomplish this while Kate and Nellie also continued with their careers.

They knew everything about running the place. What they needed was help with the day-to-day physical work. In their father’s late years, boys had been hired from town — ones they met in their classrooms — to do the heavy chores. The course they settled on was similar, but went further. They decided to take in boys whose lives were in some form of need, ones who might benefit from the mix of demands and rewards inherent in farm work. They would provide room and board in exchange for help in operating the farm. And they would offer these boys something more: attention to their schooling.

They needed boys who would be in their teenage years — old enough for the labor, and capable of it. But beyond that, they sought youths who were facing difficulties. These they thought might prosper from the combination of physical work and personal tutoring. Perhaps the plan was not as fully conceived as that, but they went ahead with some such intent, and that was, indeed, what happened — at least for a while.

Four years after her father died, Nellie married Frank Smith, and Frank took over the operation of the farm. But two of the boys who had come there, and been part of those years, continued to live at the farm and became, in effect, adopted members of the family.

My father was one of those boys. He first came to the farm just for a summer, the year after Mr. Sullivan’s death, to rebuild his health following a series of perilous surgeries. The crossing of his path and that of the Sullivan daughters was improbable. Their only common ground was a shared heritage of Irish ancestry. John’s early life had played out at his family’s home on Ruggles Street, in the Roxbury section of Boston, where he was born in 1902, and where his father operated a successful plumbing business.

John had been in the midst of an untroubled childhood when, at eight years old, his mother died of pneumonia. His mother’s unmarried sister stepped in to take care of him and his five younger siblings — but during the years that followed, his father’s health began to fail as well. And then, John was found to have a tumor growing in the mastoid region of his skull. It wasn’t malignant, but given the location it presented a very grave problem. Numerous operations and periods of convalescence followed over several years, and when the surgeons had accomplished what they could, he was left in a greatly weakened condition. John was fifteen years old then. With nothing more to be done medically, one of his doctors recommended a summer of work in the country, hoping that would be a therapy to restore him to health.

The physician knew someone in Ipswich. A connection was made with the Sullivans, and John came to the farm. The regimen worked as hoped. He thrived on the experience, and did find his strength returning — both physical and emotional. The Sullivan daughters were pleased by the success too, and found they had enjoyed the fit with John in their home. John’s return to his own home in the city, at the end of the summer, was much less promising. There, his father was soon to be hospitalized, and beyond recovery. The following spring, in 1918, Owen Clasby passed away.

Realizing the awful strain of this latest episode on John, and on his aunt and brother and sisters, Kate reached out. She proposed that he return to Ipswich and make the farm his home. It was Kate who persuaded John to resume the schooling that had been all but abandoned during his illness. She coached him in his studies, and encouraged him to pursue a budding interest in engineering. It was Kate’s suggestion that led to the apprentice course at General Electric, and his ensuing career — rather than a life encompassed by the farm.

Even during the demanding work-study program at GE, John still did chores. And he continued to help with things on the farm as his career progressed. Although, since his marriage, most of that had fallen by the wayside, the bond my father formed with the Sullivans — with Kate in particular — grew ever stronger through the years. He was there still, a witness to her last days, remembering, as she faded away.

Katherine Sullivan succumbed to a stroke in March 1951. She was buried from home, as probably her father and Mary — gone almost twenty years by then — had been as well. The undertaker brought all that was needed for the wake, and a long stream of visitors came to the house bearing condolences before the casket was removed to Saint Joseph’s Church for the funeral. After the burial at Highland Cemetery, Nellie and Frank returned home to a farm whose prospects were receding.

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Text and illustrations Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Clasby All rights reserved.