A Highway Runs Through It

If you’ve arrived at this blog through the “Historic Ipswich and the Massachusetts North Shore” blog (via historicipswich.org), and if you’ve read its content on the Shatswell House, then you’ve seen an old sketch of our house, printed in the Antiquarian Papers.

I have a copy of the article from the Antiquarian Papers, including the sketch of our house, with the notation: From a Drawing by Arthur W. Dow.

Arthur Wesley Dow was an Ipswich native and an internationally renowned artist and educator. He overhauled the way art is taught in the western world and made space for the vanguard. One of his students was Georgia O’Keeffe. Dow also helped found the Ipswich Historical Society in 1890.

Dow had a deep concern for the oldest houses here in Ipswich, and he drew the houses that needed to be preserved. Ours is one of those houses.

When we bought our house in 2014, we set out to restore and preserve every bit of it, not realizing how profoundly momentous this task would become.

At first we focused on preserving the interior of our house. That was the easy part. But we soon realized that it is impossible to preserve our home without being able to protect it. And it is impossible to protect it from the street where it sits, which, although thickly settled and residential, is actually a state highway. In May, 2019, we learned at the Ipswich Town Meeting that this street is also the oldest surviving colonial village. That is, its land lots had been laid out in accordance with 17th century English law, and these lots can still be seen along this street.

Nevertheless, this village – this street – is also a high-volume heavy-traffic state highway; a route filled with 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks that, night and day, quickly pass (often speed) within a few feet from these historic houses, including our house, which is known to be one of the oldest in Ipswich. There are no speed monitoring devices or other traffic controls along our state highway village street, and so, our house, which strong evidence indicates is the oldest in Ipswich, suffers from deep stress, every day.

For example, in the center of our house, described in 1881 as “very ancient” (Antiquarian Papers), we discovered what appears to be pure ancient “clayboard” (an early First Period construction practice that used clay-coated brick to create interior walls; the concept of “clayboard” was later reimaged in wood and renamed “clapboard”). The “bricks covered with clay” building method is described in the book History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton by Joseph Barlow Felt.

The photo of our clay-covered-brick interior wall, shown below, fits Felt’s description of clayboard. Note the layer of clay along the top of the photo.

Unfortunately, many of the bricks within our early First Period clayboard wall are becoming unstable and even dislodged. We believe this is being caused by the heavy seismic vibrations and wind vibrations resulting from our home’s sad placement along the highway.

In the interest of raising consciousness around the details concerning the historical importance of our home and the others along this highway, it is necessary to document and to clarify information written about our house. For example:

  • There is no evidence that “the original” John Shatswell House “burned” nor is there any reason to suggest that possibility. That is, it was the Simon Tuttle House, which adjoins, but was never identical to the John Shatswell House, that, according to family tradition, was burned. The Waters, Thomas Franklin manuscript Ipswich In the Massachusetts Bay Colony states that the family tradition of the Simon Tuttle House is that the original house (of Simon Tuttle) was burned. The John Shatswell property was deeded as of 1634, and the Shatswell family (not the Tuttle family) owned this property until the early 20th century.
  • The Tuttle House may have also been called “the Shatswell House” at some point in history, if one of John Shatswell’s sons had actually built or owned the original Tuttle house (which burned and was rebuilt by Tuttle), or had, at some point in time held the title to that property, also known as the Tuttle House (this may also explain the confusion regarding the May 28, 1881 article, below).
  • It would not be possible for the north end of the John Shatswell House to have been built any time in the 19th century, as architectural details of the John Shatswell house indicate it was built during the early First Period of colonial construction.
  • The May 28, 1881 Ipswich Chronicle report that in 1806 Joseph Smith took down “the original” Shatswell House may be accurate if it calls the structure “the Shatswell House” because a son or descendant of John Shatswell had held the title to the adjoining lot at some point in time (see above). Or it might be true if the “original” John Shatswell House had been a temporary shelter built around 1634, to provide lodging for John Shatswell while he built his permanent house, which we believe is our current house.  (The Shatswell Planter’s Cottage may have been another of those early, temporary lodgings.) Again, based on the numerous early First Period architectural features in our home, we believe that our house, which is known as the John Shatswell House, was built before 1646 (or perhaps before 1643), which would make it the oldest house in Ipswich. 
  • The MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System) is inconsistent in its references to the Shatswell House; in one listing it refers only to the Simon Tuttle/John Lord House, while erroneously conflating our address with the Tuttle/Lord House.

One thing is clear. Our house is exceptionally old; so old that its history is difficult to discern.

More than 100 years ago, Arthur Wesley Dow expressed deep concern that the historic and aesthetic character of Ipswich was being sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and he was troubled that old houses were being destroyed and cleared away.

His commitment to protecting the historic integrity of Ipswich was as important as his devotion to the arts.

Ipswich needs him now.

Ipswich needs at least one person from at least one of its Commissions, Boards, or Committees, to champion its most vulnerable oldest houses; to speak publicly and bravely about the need to protect these houses from the state highway. These houses are national cultural treasures.

Currently, on our state highway section of High Street, more than 3,300 cars and an untold number of 18-wheeler tractor-trailer trucks pass within a few feet of these most vulnerable, most historic houses, at unmonitored* speeds, every day.

These kinds of odds simply don’t look good. The risk for catastrophe is very high.

* Updated March 6, 2020:

Around seven-ish yesterday morning a small truck was pulled over on our street by a police officer, about halfway between Lord Square and the bridge over the railroad tracks.

In the five years since we’ve owned this house, this is the first time I’ve seen a truck pulled over along this street, except for August 19, 2019, when a truck was pulled over at the clearing afforded by the intersection at Town Farm Road.

To have even a small truck pulled over mid-street created a remarkable event. It resulted in a contiguous line of traffic, backed up beyond the railroad bridge, while people heading toward the bridge were driving on the sidewalk to pass the police officer and the truck he had stopped.

We are most grateful to the police officer who recently provided traffic law enforcement on our section of High Street.

We sincerely hope that traffic enforcement here will continue.

A New Look at an Old House

What is new with our old house in Ipswich, Massachusetts?

My husband John and I have started reaching out to members of the academic community and to other professionals in the historical community to help us date our home, which is very old. It is a “First Period” house.

Although we are not yet certain of the actual date of origin, we believe it is the original Shatswell House, which is known to have been built by 1646.

Our house was built from white oak.

Why is it significant that our house was constructed from white oak? In 1643, the town “Seven Men” (the selectmen) passed a rule requiring special permission for the felling of white oak. A written certificate for this license to cut white oak would have become a matter of public record after 1643. To my knowledge, there is no record of John Shatswell having received permission to fell white oak. This would indicate that he obtained the white oak to build our house before 1643. (Based on this, along with the extensive architectural and archaeological discoveries we’ve made during our restoration, we must consider the strong possibility that our house was built before 1643.)

cabinet for blog

Pictured above is some paneling we uncovered, which includes an extremely old cabinet.* It resembles paneling found at the Philip Call House (Circa 1659), located up the street.

*Notes: The cabinet had no hardware when we uncovered it. The hardware in the photo is not original to this building; I’d found it in my travels and it seemed to fit the space. The molding above the paneling appears to have been added later.

The Shatswell House may have been built before 1646 (or even before 1643). The Shatswell family was recorded as living on our deeded parcel of land by 1646. Our deed dates to 1634 although this does not indicate that our house originates to that date. We do know with certainty that parts of our house were built in the 17th century during the first period of colonial construction, but we don’t yet know the actual date of origin.

In order to determine the correct date, we’re planning to utilize various methods of scientific analysis, including, perhaps, a dendrochronological study. (However, we understand that other, less intrusive methods of verification may also be able to prove the date.)

Regardless of what may happen, it is important to remember that there are very few 17th century homes still standing in this country. All of these First Period houses are handmade works of art, wrought through extraordinary perseverance and endurance.

These homes are national treasures, which need to be protected. They need to be protected in order to be preserved.

Again, please allow me to elaborate. The historic homes on our street in Ipswich especially need to be protected. This bears repeating.

Why do these homes need protection?

Because of extraordinarily interesting town and state planning many years ago, our street (the oldest village in America) was designated as (part of) a traffic corridor to accommodate the merger of Route 1A with Route 133 (two Massachusetts state highways).

This means that, day and night, some of the largest 18-wheeler tractor-trailer trucks on earth speed within a few feet of some of the oldest and most fragile houses in America. There are currently no protections in effect for these houses in the event of a 99,000-pound, 65-foot 18-wheeler accident, such as a collision, jackknife, tire blowout, or roll-over. These massive trucks also repeatedly shake First Period houses. Let’s agree that this should not be happening.

Not only that, but this Route 1A/Route 133 traffic corridor is also a walking route for many, many school children, who literally must walk alongside a highway, with some of the largest trucks on earth driving only inches away.

I brought my traffic concerns to the attention of the Ipswich Select Board in February, 2018. Nearly a year later, the speed limit on our street was lowered to 25 MPH, which would be a dramatic improvement, if that lower speed limit was being continuously monitored and enforced, but it is not. The town simply does not have the ways and means to provide constant monitoring of this street, which is the oldest continuously inhabited village in America; yet this street also has some of the worst kinds of high-volume and heavy-truck traffic known to any city in America.

Hmmm. Let’s see. We’ve got some of the largest 18-wheeler trucks on earth speeding by some of the oldest (and therefore most fragile and most historically significant) homes in America. What could go wrong?

Why is the state of Massachusetts unable to protect this oldest surviving American village and the First Period homes within it? My understanding is that the determination of need for traffic controls depends upon statistics based on the rate of accidents on a street. Apparently our old village has not yet experienced enough horrific accidents to deserve protection. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe this old village is being magically protected by the spirits of those Puritans who hand-built these homes nearly 400 years ago.

But maybe not. Maybe a horrific accident will happen within the next five minutes. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe not. But maybe.

To live here is to live with a certain amount of fear and apprehension. And for those of us who live very close to the street, who can’t tune out the sounds of careening cars and screeching tires and 18-wheeler horns and constant near misses and the shaking posts and beams within their houses, that fear can become a bit oppressive.

Again, keep in mind the fact that the First Period homes in this traffic corridor were built in the 1600’s, long, long before a paved street ever existed, long before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was established, and long before the Revolutionary War was even imagined. These First Period homes and this unique American village are culturally priceless to this entire nation.

Several months ago, I wrote a letter requesting help from our Congressman, who’d helped write and pass legislation to protect our Nation’s natural and historic resources.

My belief is that if any place in our Nation deserves protection, it is this oldest surviving village, which is defined by its First Period homes and its plot layouts, which are unique in this country. Because, the country might as well abandon the concept of historical preservation altogether if it chooses to forsake its oldest village.

It is my understanding that my email exchanges with our Congressman’s office have been forwarded to numerous local and state officials as well as to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

This is an interesting, evolving situation.

I’ll keep you posted.*

* Update, December 5, 2019: On November 4, 2019, our Congressional Representative was asked at his “Town Hall” appearance in Ipswich whether the Congressional Act to protect natural resources and historic places can be used to help our street. Our Congressman responded that he’d discussed it as part of his meeting with town officials that afternoon, he mentioned the possibility of finding creative ways to find grants, and said he’s cautiously optimistic. Other than this, we’ve received no further information.

* Update, April 8, 2020: We’ve not yet received any further information. And although one might expect that the coronavirus shutdowns would have resulted in lighter traffic, the heavy truck traffic has recently increased (for some inexplicable reason).

In the Meantime

Here are some other photos highlighting what we’ve already uncovered. I’ll plan to update this blog post with new thoughts and photos from time to time.

paneling for blog

Again, this detail resembles paneling at the Philip Call House. Notice the area on the left, where the woodwork differs. This must have been an opening to a door at one time. There is another structure on the other side of this wall. We believe that structure was an addition to our building, built at a later time.

door to the east

Here is a closer look at the woodwork that covers what we believe was once an exterior door. It faces east.

The following photo shows the dome interior of an extremely old beehive oven that we identified along the stairs to our basement.

beehive oven

Here is the face of that beehive oven, along with other sections of that mysterious hearth:


The following photograph (in our attic) shows where the 17th century chimney has been appended with newer brick. Although this section of chimney is very old, we believe that the original (above the roofline section of) chimney is still hidden – within the second floor stack – because this house started as a single-story home (with a bit of basement).

attic chimney

The following photos show some of the bones we discovered while remodeling our first-floor bathroom (which has an earthen floor, adjacent to, but apart from, the basement). These bones were in a cavity that may have been a mud and stick chimney, which could originate from the time of settlement, which would correlate to the time of the deed (1634).* My theory is that these bones were cooking refuse, and chefs living here later used that cavity as a sort of garbage disposal. (To protect the land from roaming wolves? It could have been safer not to discard such refuse in one’s yard?)

*Note: In 2016, as soon as we realized there was a man-made structure within the dirt floor, we contacted the Town Historian who came to look at it, then we sealed the space, and have not since opened it. We plan to open it again once we have an archaeologist onsite to study the structure. (There are still plenty of bones in there.)

goat skull

A very interesting goat head.

wild boar jaws 2

Some wild boar jaws.

Before recognizing a structure, we uncovered approximately 2,300 discrete bone fragments, which isn’t really as many as it sounds; some fragments were tiny. For example:

bones for example

The following photo shows the ancient hearth we uncovered in our dining room. The central bricks are attached with clay (not mortar); the bricks in the outer area are connected with wattle and daub. Although this hearth is very old, we have recently learned that it was rebuilt long ago (perhaps around 1700) and the lintel was lowered. An early, 17th century high hearth is hidden behind this one:

fireplace overall

A second-floor hearth rests upon the wooden shelf shown above; that hearth is supported by the two brick columns shown below that shelf. Before we can fully open and reveal the very early 17th century hearth, we will first need to establish a new supporting structure for that second-floor hearth.

Updated January 23, 2020

I had thought my description of this fireplace was clear, but apparently there is some confusion about it, so I’ll try to further clarify things.

The photo above shows a large fireplace we uncovered. This is the view within our dining room.

This fireplace has been analyzed (on site) by a professional mason who specializes in historic restoration. From him we learned that although the fireplace (pictured above) is very old, it was rebuilt (or you could say augmented) perhaps around 1700, based on the appearance of the brick.

This means that because the original fireplace is hidden by the rebuilt/augmented fireplace, it is not visible. Therefore, you should not compare the fireplace photo (above) to other First Period fireplaces, as this would only create confusion.

Why was the original fireplace rebuilt (augmented)? More than 300 years ago, a second floor was added to our house, and a second floor fireplace was built directly above the fireplace pictured above. This means that the fireplace in our dining room (pictured above) was rebuilt (redesigned) in order to provide structural support for the hearth on the second floor, and both hearths share the same chimney.

Prior to the second floor being added more than 300 years ago, this house had already existed, for many, many years, as a single story house (as indicated by the original, early, white oak framing).

We do plan to remove the rebuilt (augmented) section of the fireplace (pictured above) to uncover the original fireplace. But clearing out the rebuilt fireplace won’t be like cracking a walnut. It will be very difficult and very messy.

Once we have cleared out the rebuilt fireplace to reveal the original fireplace, I’ll post photographs of it on my blog. (But, in the meantime, please do not compare the fireplace pictured above with other First Period fireplaces, because doing so will only cause confusion. Thanks!)

The kitchen was a later addition to our building, yet wattle and daub was used in its construction. Here is a closeup of some wattle and daub discovered in our kitchen: 

wattle and daub

The kitchen restoration also revealed that our house started out as a “saltbox” structure.

Where the beams/joists meet the outside edge of the kitchen wall, each beam/joist tip has been cut diagonally. 

saltbox post design 1

The only reason for these diagonal cuts would be that the original saltbox roof joists along the edge of the structure were raised and leveled to become the ceiling when this addition was built. Again, we believe that the basic structure of our house (white oak framing, foundation, masonry) was created before 1643, and we think that the first floor addition located in the west (now the kitchen), and the second floor, were added around 1700.

A closer view of the diagonally cut ceiling joists; the former saltbox roof joists: 

saltbox 2

Here are some (inverted) “marriage marks” discovered in the kitchen:


The following photo shows a handmade hand-cobbled colonial shoe discovered in a wall near an old hearth:

whole shoe

Early colonists were very superstitious and believed that old shoes should be kept in walls near the hearth instead of being discarded, which would explain why this shoe was stuck inside a wall.

Here is an example of some of the Georgian paneling in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Each bedroom contains a full wall of Georgian paneling.


Although we understand that the Shatswell “Planter’s Cottage” is also very old, based on what we have already learned and discovered, we do not believe that cottage is older than the earliest core of our house. We’re hoping that archeological and other scientific studies will provide us with definitive answers.