The Goat Ghost of Ipswich, Massachusetts

In the summer of 2016, we continued the process of updating the old plumbing in our ancient house in Ipswich, Massachusetts. We realized we needed to completely replace all the plumbing in our downstairs bathroom, and, in the process, we opened up the floor. We opened the entire floor, including an area under the stairs that apparently had not been touched in hundreds of years. This goat skull was in there:

goat skull

At least I think it is a goat skull, as its horn nubs are embedded in the bone.

This is what the area looked like when the old wooden floor was first opened:

open floor.jpg

Along with the goat skull, we found other assorted animal bones and bone fragments. I’ve saved and photographed and documented all of those discrete segments, numbering in excess of 2,300.

It’s not every day that you find over 2,300 animal bones in your bathroom floor. I’ve got a lot to say about this. But not today.

Today, because we are approaching Halloween (also known as Samhain and also known as The Day of the Dead), and because the veil between the worlds is becoming thinner now than at any other time of year, I’d like to talk about my haunted house, in the rant that follows.

Rant Du Jour*

*WARNING: Once you read this rant, you won’t be able to unread it. Proceed at your own risk.

In 2014, soon after we’d bought our old house, I was standing in the entranceway by the front door (that is, the door that opens to the street) and noticed that the hook-and-eye latch to the basement was lifting itself up, all by itself. And then the door swung wide open – fast – and hit the surrounding wall. All by itself. The door unlocked and flung open. All by itself. Like in the horror movies. I’ll repeat that. That door latch lifted up all by itself. The door flung open. All by itself. That really happened.

I saw this with my own two eyes.

There have been other strange occurrences as well. Many times I’ve carefully closed an attic door at night, only to find it wide open in the morning. Or I’ve carefully left an attic door open at night, only to find it tightly shut in the morning.

What exactly is afoot? Are these nefarious influences, resulting from restless disembodied spirits?

The core of our house was built sometime around 1640, and we have convincing evidence that some of our architecture dates to 1634 (the year that Ipswich was settled). Therefore, one must conclude that many people were born here. And many people died here. It is a place of spirit; spirits have arrived, spirits have departed.

And yet… Why would spirits do these things?

It gave me chills to watch that door as it flung itself open. I’d never before seen anything like it.

But, I do recall, at the time that door flung itself open, heavy trucks were passing by outside, about 12 feet from it. Heavy trucks are allowed on this street; they speed past our exceptionally old house. These trucks are permitted to travel at speeds of 35 miles per hour as they make their descent from the nearby railroad bridge. In Massachusetts, 35 MPH means 40 MPH.

When I say “heavy” I mean that these trucks can weigh as much as 127,400 pounds each.

When two trucks weighing 127,400 pounds pass each other going in opposite directions, we’re talking about weights in excess of a quarter-million pounds whizzing a few feet past the front door. This results in seismic vibrations. It is as if our house is experiencing a type of earthquake, which can happen multiple times a day. Every single day.

These vibrations create wind vacuums that cause doors to be flung open and doors to be flung shut. These kinds of vibrations can take a toll on any house, although a modern house is probably best suited to withstand them.

But when you’re talking about our house, which was built nearly 400 years ago, as well as the other exceptionally old houses on this street, what kind of effect would you expect from these incessant vibrations? That is very scary.

Scary, but not nearly as scary as the realization that there is absolutely nothing preventing one of those trucks from crashing into and completely destroying any of these houses (which are really national treasures) at any moment.

I’ve written to the Ipswich Select Board and to our state representative about these problems. I’ve repeatedly talked to everyone in town who I’ve felt might have some ability and willingness to try to help fix these problems.

The Ipswich Select Board finally addressed the situation at their June 4th meeting. Apparently there was some discussion about adding a warning sign, “indicating a dangerous turn,” which, “may be helpful in lieu of changing the speed limit.”


Later I reached out to the Select Board again, and my email was forwarded to the state representative.

This was his response:

“I have been in contact with both the Ipswich Police Chief and Director of the DPW. It is my understanding that the Town is looking at reconfiguring this whole area. I am awaiting further reports and designs before commenting on what is being proposed. However, there may be state grants available to help with what may be proposed.”

I wrote back to the state representative, saying:

“I’ve not heard anything about a plan to reconfigure this area. That would be great, but we really need immediate help. I wrote a memo outlining the problems and potential solutions, and presented it to the Select Board in February, 2018. Essentially, the much higher than necessary speed limits and heavy trucks are creating dangerous risks for the children who walk this route to and from school, for the pedestrians and bicyclists, and for the village of fragile, irreplaceable antique homes that were built in the 1600’s and 1700’s (that is, in the 17th and 18th centuries).”

The state representative did not respond to my request for help.

So, yes, I’d say with certainty that my house is haunted, but probably not by spirits.

My house (as well as my street) is haunted by seismic vibrations, potentially catastrophic truck accidents, and local government dismissiveness.

All of this is scary. Very, very, very scary.

(Happy Halloween anyway.)



Adapting to Changing Times

It occurred to me that I’ve never shown my completed kitchen after having described its many layers of deconstruction (early in this blog).

Here’s how my kitchen looks today:

kitchen new 1

This is how my kitchen looked four years ago:

kitchen old

I love being able to hang dried herbs and old baskets from the exposed beams.

kitchen baskets 1

Here’s a view of the utilitarian section of the room, with appliances and other modern apparatuses.

kitchen new 2

I placed rice paper in the central frames of the large window to block the views of the incessant street traffic and all those heavy trucks.

Rant Du Jour

If you’re new to this blog, here’s a recap redux: Ipswich, Massachusetts has the largest number of first period (earliest) homes in the United States, but in one part of town (where my house is located, which I’d assert is the oldest part of town) these homes are at great risk (from seriously heavy truck traffic and seriously heavy truck vibrations, high speed limits, and a lack of stop signs or any other kind of traffic calming strategies).

In an effort to help fix these problems, I’ve repeatedly asked the town for a traffic study. The official response is that they already did a traffic study. In 1968.

1968 was an interesting year. Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as president of the United States and the Beatles released The White Album. Ipswich not only did a traffic study, but John Updike still lived here and his novel Couples was published that year. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway also came to town to film a scene from the first screen version of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Seems like only yesterday.

Except that trucks are heavier now. Much heavier. Their weight limits have grown incrementally these past 50 years. For example, in 1974, the maximum federal weight limit was 80,000 pounds; but now the weight limit in Massachusetts is 127,400 pounds. And when we observe that some of the tractor trailers that speed within inches of these oldest houses in America are carrying 12 automobiles on their double-deck trailers, we may assume they are in the 127,400 pound range.

I recently noticed that the Ipswich town historian wrote about that 1968 traffic study in a 2014 blog entry. That traffic study concerned the potential creation of a new stretch of highway to run through many towns, including Topsfield, Rowley, Hamilton, Essex, and Gloucester, as well as Ipswich. It appears to have been a highly detailed proposal for a project that never happened.

That’s not the kind of traffic study I’ve been talking about.

The kind of traffic study we need is free and quick, and it would involve only key people, such as the town planner, local residents, and the state representative. We all need to get together some morning during the height of truck traffic on Route 1A/High Street between the railroad bridge and donut shop to feel the houses shaking and to observe the giant mega-trucks speeding along a few feet from the front doors of the oldest houses in America. If everyone were to observe this hazardous situation firsthand, everyone would agree that it is seriously dangerous and perilous and needs to be fixed.

What I’m asking for is not expensive or time-consuming. It is not rocket science.

It is simply common sense.

A Whole Lot of Crock

Let me backtrack a bit… When we purchased our house, the basement was a dismal wasteland of dusty wires and cobwebbed boards, set atop piles of cruddy sand. John set about to clean up the area and turn it into usable space. In the process, he discovered tips of mason jars and pottery protruding in that sandy floor. Let’s just say that he uncovered a whole lot of crock.

These are the remnants of a very large, very heavy, very old crock. It measures approximately 14 inches high with a 13 inch diameter.

crock 1

Here are additional pieces:

crock 1 pieces

Here is its lid:

crock 1 lid

Here are the remnants of a smaller crock.

crock 2

At some point, when we have the time, we plan to glue these crock pieces back together. We are inspired by the Japanese Kintsugi method of pottery repair, which incorporates gold pigment in the cracks. In this way we will try to honor the wounds and preserve the beauty of these artifacts.

Rant Du Jour

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m trying to protect, and to thereby preserve, the ancient houses on my street in Ipswich, Massachusetts. These houses (including mine) are in constant danger with great risk from the high speed limits and heavy truck traffic a few feet from our doors.

My blog post “Wrought through Time” includes the text of my memo to the town Select Board regarding this issue. Following the meeting where I’d read that memo, I’d been under the impression that a traffic safety study would be conducted for my street. More than three months later, the Select Board finally addressed this issue at their meeting on June 4, 2018.

The minutes include “doubt” about the “practicality” of the “three-month process” and the “resources needed” to conduct such a study. The minutes indicate that “because the area is not adjacent to a park or trail, it cannot be designated as a safe zone” (overlooking the fact that this street is a daily walking route for many, many school children as well as the location of the oldest houses in this country).

The minutes also indicate that the town actually did conduct a traffic study of this area in 1968. This was 32 years before the year 2000, when the school was built along this street. (Shouldn’t the school designate the area as a “safe zone”?) 

But, yes, the minutes clearly do indicate that a traffic study was conducted. In 1968.

In 1968.

Fifty years ago.

In 1968.

That will be the subject of my next rant. Stay tuned.

The Soul of an Old Shoe

At the Fairbanks House we learned about another superstitious practice of the early American colonists. For some reason, they saved their old shoes in the wall by the chimney. That is, they did not discard old shoes, but kept them. Inside the wall, by the chimney. For some reason.

It’s not exactly clear to me whether they felt it lucky to save the shoes or unlucky to discard their old shoes; or, whether they saved shoes selectively, saving some and discarding others. It wasn’t clear why they stored them in the wall near the chimney, but apparently that is what they did.

This is the shoe that was in the wall, near a chimney, in our old Ipswich house.

whole shoe.JPG

It is not exactly clear to me who discovered this shoe. John remembers the carpenter who worked on our restoration project (Bob) reaching into the wall and pulling out the shoe. But when we showed Bob the shoe this past January, he said he didn’t remember finding it. So let’s just say this: that shoe somehow appeared in the room during our restoration work, and it is a colonial shoe.

That is, we believe it is a colonial shoe. Here is its sole:

old sole

The shoe is entirely hand cobbled and handstitched.

hand cobbled

handstiched 1

handstitched 2

The top of the shoe has two notches, which appear to be intentional, and are probably eyelets.

eyelet 1

eyelet 2

eyelet 3

One might conclude that these holes were created to hold some kind of buckle or other clasp or cord. We don’t know.

Rant du jour

As I mentioned earlier, I’m writing a book about our extremely old house adventure. I’ve been a professional writer for many years, having worked as a technical writer and having had a novel published commercially (in the UK). I’ve also had a novel published in an Icelandic zine and poetry published in anthologies. (These days I’m busy writing a new novel and I’m collaborating with an old friend on his musical.) But expository writing – in this blog and in my old house book – is a bit new to me.

Years ago, I read Tracy Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine. I’d planned to follow his model for my old house book, but it isn’t easy. Kidder’s style is journalistic, and has a certain detachment. I’m trying to remain detached and objective in my narrative, but I’m so close to the project and to the process that this isn’t always easy.

I’d read The Soul of a New Machine many years ago because I’d been employed as a technical writer for a company whose president (Allen Kluchman) was mentioned in the book. Allen had previously been the director of marketing at Data General. Part of his great success there was his ability to create ads and strategies that were considered somewhat “brazen.”

Although I worked at Allen’s company for about five years, we had only a few conversations. He was quiet. I’m quiet.

When I left the company to accept a new technical writing position, Allen came to my going-away luncheon, which surprised and honored me. He never knew it, but he was an inspirational force in my life, leading me to know that even quiet people must sometimes be somewhat brazen in order to get attention.

If you’re new to this blog, here’s a recap: Ipswich, Massachusetts has the largest number of first period (earliest) homes in the United States, but in one part of town (where my home is located, which I’d assert is the oldest part of town) these homes are at great risk (from seriously heavy truck traffic and seriously heavy truck vibrations, much higher than necessary speed limits, and a lack of stop signs or any other kind of traffic calming strategies).

The fact that the town is quiet about this does not make this untrue.

Let’s just say that pointing this out to the rest of the world might be considered a bit brazen.

Alea iacta est.


Signs of the Hearth

Earlier I mentioned that my husband (John) was given the middle name Fairbanks at birth. He is part of the family known to own to the oldest house in North America, which is located in Dedham, Massachusetts. (John is descended from Maria Antoinette Fairbanks, who was born in 1842.) 

A few years ago John and I decided to visit the Fairbanks House to look around and compare it to our home.

We were astonished by some of the similarities, especially the old Fairbanks fireplace, which mimics ours (or ours mimics theirs) in structure and design.

Here is an overall view of our main (oldest*) fireplace.

fireplace overall

(Please excuse my penchant for visual adornments. I’m not exactly given to austere Puritan sensibilities.)

When we purchased our house in 2014, the old brick of the fireplace was hidden by a wall of newer brick, and layers of paneling and old veneer covered the surrounding hearth, mantel, and interior chimney. At what point in time had this old fireplace been covered up by all that veneer? Probably sometime during the Victorian period.

At the Fairbanks House, John and I both noticed – at first glance – that their main hearth (as well as our main hearth) is crowned by a thick wooden shelf.

Here are some close-up views of that wooden hearth shelf, in our house:

close up of shelf 1

close up of shelf 2a.JPG

close up of shelf 2b

It may be that this shelf was used by colonial masons as a stepping point – sort of a rudimentary scaffold – to enable construction of the chimney.

Here is a view of a pillar under the shelf:

pillar under shelf

The truncated wood segment below must have once been the support for a mantelpiece.

mantel wood.JPG

This photo shows where the chimney meets the summer beam.

fireplace meets summer beam.JPG

The chimney itself is packed with wattle and daub. It is everywhere.

wattle and daub 1.JPG

The light color blobs are wattle and daub. (I took this photo today and noticed there may be some decomposed rats up there too. We’ve never cleaned that space and we don’t think we should, but I’ve encountered dust bunnies from time to time that are actually in the shape of mice and other rodents.)

At the Fairbanks House we learned that colonists were very superstitious and would carve marks above the mantel to ward off witches. This inverted “V” carving above our main mantel may be such a mark:

inverted V

Here are some other carvings etched into our mantel shelf. Perhaps they mean something.

carving a

carving b.JPG

carving c.JPG

carving d.JPG

*I actually think that the beehive ovens on the stairs up from our basement may be older than the hearth I’ve described above, and there is what may be an architectural artifact “chimney” beneath a floor that would be even older than that. (Stay tuned for details.)

Rant Du Jour

Our fireplace, like everything else in our house, is at risk from the incredibly large tractor trailers that speed by at all hours.

Our house is located in the High Street Historic District of Ipswich.

Later in this blog I’ll write about something we discovered (under a floor), which appears to be an architectural artifact. If it is what the town historian explained it could be, then that artifact would date to the time of settlement, the time of our deed, which would be 1634. If that is true, then our house contains architecture that, arguably, would date it not only as the oldest house in Ipswich, but also the oldest house in North America.

So why does our home remain at such risk? Why is it not being afforded protection by the town?

The answer is this: the town can’t fix the traffic situation because these houses are on a state highway. (Again, this “highway” is a residential street filled with some of the oldest houses in North America, as well as a daily walking route for schoolchildren.)

If this were Russia then I’d accept that nothing can be done about it. But while the United States is still a democracy, I’m pretty sure that something can be done about it, if the people with local authority work together to try to do something about it.

For example, the members of the Ipswich Historical Commission and the Ipswich Select Board and the state representative could join together to petition the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Governor of Massachusetts to ban heavy trucks from this street, to install stop signs, and to dramatically lower the speed limits. They could also wage daily sit-down strikes in the middle of High Street/Route 1A to raise consciousness. You laugh? Well, what will you do if a 99,000-pound tractor trailer truck accidentally veers off its high-speed course into an irreplaceable historic home, or, much worse, into a group of children walking home from school? Considering how bad the situation is right now, these scenarios seem not only highly likely but also inevitable.


Shedding a Little Light on Marriage Marks…

More than three years ago I posted about finding marriage marks on our kitchen walls.

Shortly before that I’d written about the many layers of kitchen flooring and what we found beneath: bug-eaten floor joists nestled in cruddy sand.

But we kept everything, because everything from nearly 400 years ago is an artifact.

Last weekend we reorganized our garage storage space and in the process John brought a bug-eaten joist outside, into the light of day.

He noticed it had marriage marks.


Then I noticed more marks.

In our haste to get that old wood out of the way for our restoration – and in order to create a workable kitchen – we had not previously noticed the amazing qualities in this piece of bug-eaten wood.


We’re not sure how to read this mark. We tried looking at it different ways. Is it “IIIL”? Or “LIII”? Or is the character that resembles an “L” actually some other character not found in the Roman numeral set? Perhaps a signature?


This mark clearly looks like “VI”:


But beneath the “VI” mark is a notch; an old mortise:


Looking into this mortise opening we see some depth:


Remember, this timber was acting as a joist in the floor, and it was not connected via any tenon to any other joist in the floor. This can mean only one thing: this floor joist had been repurposed, hundreds of years ago.

To which structure had this timber originally belonged?

Our kitchen restoration revealed an exceptionally old room, but the fact that the ceiling beams were diagonally notched (as I’d mentioned in an early blog entry) indicates that the ceiling had started as a saltbox wall, and, therefore, our really old kitchen is actually an addition to the original structure (which is, therefore, older than really old).

All this begs the question: exactly how old is our house? (We’ll talk about that later.)

Here are a few other characteristics of this repurposed joist…

What was once a knot in a tree, which became a piece of timber, which became a wooden beam, which became a floor joist:


More mortice and tenon examples:




We’re not sure what this carving is; it could be the Roman numeral “V”:


But it could be something else.

My husband’s middle name is Fairbanks. His late mother had said he was named for the part of the family that had that old house in Dedham. We hadn’t realized until after buying our old house that the Fairbanks House in Dedham is considered the oldest in the country.

A few years ago John and I decided to visit the Fairbanks House to look around and compare it with ours. We were astonished by the similarities (I’ll write about this in detail in a future blog entry).

But on our visit we also learned that the colonists were intensely superstitious and they would often carve an inverted “V” over the mantels to keep away the witches. Could this be that? Here’s the inverted view:

inverted V

Here are some wood protrusions, which may have acted as tenons at some point in time:


And here is an old nail that we salvaged from the old timber:


 Rant Du Jour

When John and I bought our old house, we thought it would be an exciting adventure to restore it to what it once was. Our youngest was going off to college in NYC and we were confronting an empty nest, so we felt that our old house would be a good distraction.

But we hadn’t realized how big this adventure would become. What I’ve written so far is the very tip of the iceberg.

We did not buy this house for the status of owning something old and valuable. We bought it because we are fascinated by the history of the 17th century, and we are a family of artists. Our house is entirely hand-made. To us, that is absolutely priceless.

I stopped writing this blog more than two years ago because we’d discovered things that were overwhelming. I’m only now beginning to process the enormity of everything.

I’ve recently resumed writing this blog because our house is in danger and I’m desperately trying to save it. I’ve written to our state representative and I’ve written and talked to the town Select Board and to the town historian, but our house remains in imminent danger every moment, every single day.

So I’ll keep writing, hoping to find someone somewhere who will step up and provide solutions on how to save our street (which, in turn, will help protect our house).


Wrought through Time

While we’re on the subject of artifact discoveries, I’d like to share a few more photos of what was unearthed by our contractor’s tractor.

Here’s an example of a pile of pottery artifacts, freshly surfaced:

a lot to sort through.JPG

These may be the fragments of an old bowl:

fragments of an ancient bowl

Blue trees. A blue scene:

blue trees

Another blue design:

blues 2

And another:

blues 3.JPG

So many shades of blue:

shades of blue.JPG

Rant du jour…

I’m talking about the area in Ipswich, Massachusetts known as Lord Square, between the railroad bridge and donut shop. I’m worried about the heavy trucks and their damaging vibrations. I’m worried about the speed limit, which is set at 35 MPH as these trucks enter (what I’m really convinced is) the oldest village in America.*

Someone well-connected in the town told me that the best way to address this issue was to contact the Select Board and ask how we can work together to solve this problem. That seemed like a reasonable way to start.

In the winter I wrote to a Select Board member who had apparently, according to a local news article, also expressed concern about the speed limit in this neighborhood.

Eventually I wrote a memo and read it at a Select Board meeting, in February.

Here’s a copy of my memo:

Regarding the High Street Traffic Condition

And the Resulting Public Safety Issues

The area between the bridge by Town Farm Road and Lord Square appears to be the largest section of the oldest village in America.* If you aggregate the homes here (as listed on the Ipswich tourist map), you will discover that these homes (which have been continuously inhabited since the first period of Colonial American settlement), constitute the largest section of the oldest surviving village in this country. By including these homes on their historical map, Ipswich appears to celebrate them. These homes are extremely old, and therefore fragile. These homes are handmade and irreplaceable, and therefore priceless. And yet, these homes are at great risk, every single moment of every single day.

Of greater concern is the fact that the street – on which these priceless homes are located – is a walking route for many local school children, who are also at great risk, every single day that they walk this route.

Why are the priceless children and the priceless homes at such great risk?

There are two main factors creating these risks:

  1. Excessively High Speed Limits.
  2. Excessively Heavy Trucks (of Unlimited Weights and Lengths) Traveling at Excessively High Speeds and at Excessively High Volumes.

As a resident of this section of High Street, I’d like to invite everyone involved – the Selectmen, the Chief of Police, the members of the Historical Commission, the state representative, every parent, guardian, and teacher associated with the Middle and High School – to come here at 6:30 in the morning when the tractor trailers are speeding through – then again at 2:30 in the afternoon when the school children are walking along this street and tractor trailers are still speeding, alongside them. There is no safety here.

It does not seem that safety should be an unreasonable request. Shouldn’t safety be afforded to all children and to all homes throughout this country?

If you can handle walking around this village without being intimidated and overwhelmed by the traffic, you can see that this is a truly amazing collection of homes, each with an authentic history, each fully deserving of admiration and deep respect, as well as protection.

Ipswich has some wonderful assets. The Crane estate is awesome, but it is a reproduction. The beach is awesome, but there are many beaches in New England. This largest section of village, however, is unique; unique in this entire country. In reality, it is Ipswich’s greatest land asset. And yet, if the traffic situation here cannot be calmed, then it would probably be in the best of interest of the town to remove these homes from the historic map, because tourists are being placed in peril whenever they walk along this street.

Let the historians value this place for its history. I’m an artist. I value it for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities, and for the expression of perseverance and intense determination it must have taken to create. And yet, so much could be destroyed at any moment, simply by a sleepy truck driver and the wrong turn of a wheel.

What can be done to remedy this dangerous situation? Here are some ideas:

  1. Define the Issue. The town needs to establish accountability for safety. If safety cannot be provided by the town because of state highway issues, then the town needs to work with the state to help the state understand what is truly at risk here.
  2. Issue a Comprehensive Ban on Large Trucks. The importance of this should be obvious. A single out-of-control tractor trailer truck could, at any moment, result in loss of life and/or loss of ancient historic artifacts, all of which are irreplaceable and priceless.
  3. Install three-way stop signs at Lord Square (to stop the traffic entering High Street, preventing excessively high speeds heading toward the high school).
  4. Install a stop sign at the base of the bridge by Town Farm Road. This would require vehicles to stop before entering the village and it would disallow motorists to maintain high speeds throughout the village. A “stop ahead” sign could also be placed ahead of the bridge, to alert motorists that they will need to stop and should therefore lower their speeds while on the bridge. The great width of the bridge seems to encourage motorists to believe they are on a super highway instead of entering an historic village, which is a densely populated residential neighborhood, packed with children.
  5. Lowered speed limits. 20 MPH should be the maximum allowed.
  6. Installation of steel or stone barriers along the street, to protect pedestrians and homes.
  7. Speed bumps placed along the street.
  8. Electronic speed signs and police patrol, provided either by the town or by the state.



Alas, there have been no safety improvements since then; in fact, the dangerous situation appears to be getting even worse.

*I actually do think this is the oldest village in America but I’d been trying to base my argument on the tourist map we received from the Visitor’s Center. (That tourist map does not appear to be correct. But that’s another story. Another rant. Stay tuned.)