Marblehead Museum exhibit pivots spotlight on bygone shipyard era

Linda Werbner
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“Marblehead is a place that is full of lore,” said amateur historian, fine artist and proud Marbleheader Kristen Nyberg, who singlehandedly curated the Marblehead Museum’s new exhibit, “Growing Up in the Shipyard,” opening Friday, Oct. 14.

This multi-media show will introduce viewers to the once-vibrant Shipyard neighborhood seen through the eyes of the Nybergs, a family of Swedish immigrants who came to America in the early 20th century.

“There’s rich history in this small neighborhood and I don’t want it to be forgotten,” she stresses. “This show represents a time and a place that is gone.”

The inspiration for the exhibit literally came from a box, or rather, many boxes Nyberg explains, as she takes a few moments away from editing a video that will accompany the show.

After her beloved father and local hero, Eric Nyberg, Jr., died in 2019, she inherited many boxes filled with letters, scrapbooks, photos and documents about the Shipyard neighborhood where her father played with his friends, bought candy at the corner store, jumped off the dock with his cousins in the summer and made mischief as a ‘wharf rat.’

As she sifted through this treasure trove of stories and ephemera, she realized that she needed to share this forgotten chapter of the town’s history with a wider audience. Her goal was to “create a snapshot of a time and place, a celebration of growing up in a boisterous working-class neighborhood during the first half of the 20th century.”

“My father was well-known around town,” Nyberg recalls. “I grew up hearing his stories of the shenanigans and adventures of what it was like to grow up in the Shipyard and spent quite a bit of time there myself as a kid, because that is where my grandparents lived. I always meant to record the stories but I never got a chance.”

Eric Nyberg, Jr. was a skilled machinist, craftsman and sailor who worked for years at General Electric in Lynn before leaving to partner with his cousins in Pierce Brothers Painting. The Pierce Brothers painted such Marblehead architectural treasures as the Jeremiah Lee Mansion.

He was also part of a large and close-knit Swedish-American family, who came to the United States from 1906 to 1925. Over one million Swedes emigrated to the United States from the mid 19th century until just before the start of World War I.

Some settled in what was then called the Shipyard neighborhood, joining refugees from the Irish Potato Famine who had found work as shipbuilders. This storied corner of the town is comprised of present-day Cliff and Gregory streets, Red Stone Cove and what is now Commercial Street Wharf. This was the town’s once-robust ship-building hub in the 19th century. Nyberg stresses that the Shipyard was far from idyllic. “It was a pretty rough and tumble working-class place. The wharf was a working dock with fishermen. Some of the streets weren’t paved. It was not a fancy neighborhood at all.”

“It was a tight-knit neighborhood and you couldn’t get away with a lot,” she says. “People took care of each other and looked out for one another. Neighborhood kids ran in and out of the house.”

As Nyberg interviewed relatives and her father’s friends to collect oral histories she decided to speak with Lauren McCormack, the executive director of the Marblehead Museum, who was very supportive. Next, she applied for and got a grant from the Marblehead Arts Council in 2021.

But plans for the exhibit were paused due to Covid and for a while it looked like all of Nyberg’s sleuthing and research might all be for naught. Happily, Nyberg was allowed to reapply for the grant and the project was once again greenlighted.

Nyberg took a hiatus from painting to curate the show. She said she missed painting but acknowledges that it was worth every minute now that the show is about to open. “It’s a relief to get it done. It’s been a lot of work. I’m very appreciative the museum took it on board. People will get a kick out of the stories and photos.”

What’s next for Nyberg now that the exhibit has come to fruition?

“I’m thinking about putting together a book of stories about the Shipyard. It would be a good read!”

The Marblehead Museum is located at 170 Washington Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. 4 p.m. Admission by donation.

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