MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: Keeping the town ticking

Court Merrigan
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Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

Hello, there. Court Merrigan, here back with another Marblehead First Time. I am very gratified by the positive response to my first effort. Thank you for reading and catching up with me on the Current Facebook page! Today’s topic: Abbot Hall.

A detour to get there, if I may. I attended elementary school in a little six-room country school half a mile up a gravel road from the farmhouse where I grew up. The schoolhouse was built in 1919, a veritable Egyptian pyramid by local standards — and now it no longer exists. Change is the only real constant, I suppose. Still, I always felt like a part of the old school should have been preserved — some kind of memorial to a now-vanished slice of rural life.

Here in Marblehead, we have Abbot Hall. The excellent caretaker Bruce Hamilton showed me a fine collection of historical items in storage, including a captured Spanish cannon and a piece of the USS Constitution.

But it was the more homespun items that really captured my eye, such as the collection of signs from old Marblehead businesses. Some are still with us (the Barnacle!) some not (E.R. Butler, Boatwrights and Woodworkers). Butler’s billboard advertised “Bookcases, Standard & Custom-Made.”  

Among Abbot Hall’s treasures is a collection of signs from old Marblehead businesses. CURRENT PHOTO / COURT MERRIGAN

I take books seriously, and I like to see them stored well. I hauled very few home furnishings here — a couch is just a couch, after all — but my U-Haul did contain a custom-made bookshelf. A carpenter friend of mine built it out of reclaimed, century-old barnwood.

Out on the arid high plains, a century is a long time, and the wind and snow age the boards into beautiful shades of gray. Some long ago-ranchers tore their gloves building a barn, my friend sweated it into a bookshelf, I hauled it 2,000 miles, and then we Houdini-ed it into the house to make it a part of my new history here. I believe E.R. Butler would approve.

I’ll note also that, according to the plaque, back in 1876 Abbot Hall was built on time and under budget. Thrifty New Englanders! With $111,850 in the fund, $75,000 was budgeted for construction — and the completed project ran $75,000. There was enough left over to spend another $20,000 on a library. I love that Marblehead was so proud of this accomplishment they recorded it in … marble.

I appreciate the fiscal restraint. Back in Wyoming, I know farmers and ranchers who own Rhode Island-sized properties and drive beat-up pickup trucks and wear holes in their work gloves. Thrift and hard work make a combo that can’t be beat anywhere! Perhaps our current political leaders should take a field trip to Abbot Hall for a lesson in fiscal responsibility?

Now, here in Marblehead we have what I’m told is called a “town meeting,” a political get- together where everyone has a voice and all are equal. Although town meetings are no longer held in Abbot Hall, as I stood in the bleachers on the third floor amongst the numbered seats, I could see how the downward-sloped stage and the raised rear seats encourage everyone to participate. I, for one, am very much looking forward to participating at the Middle School later this year.

I also visited Abbot Hall’s Select Board meeting room, where I saw “The Spirit of ’76.” Like every schoolkid in America, textbooks have imprinted on my mind this image of Washington crossing the Delaware.

And then I learned that the men rowing Washington across that icy river were Marbleheaders! Here I am, living in a town that gave the men that helped save the Revolution. Made me feel a bit like I did gazing at Stonehenge, or touching the walls of Angkor Wat, or standing in the sanctum of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. A bit awestruck and a lot unsure how I fit into it all.

But last week, I was ushered into a small portion of history. As everyone in Marblehead knows, the bells in Abbot Hall ring every hour on the hour. This doesn’t happen by magic. No, the public time is kept thanks to the efforts of a merry band known as the Cranks. Members of this group of volunteers crank the clock (get it?), and last week I did, too. 

Up the steps we ventured — 139 in all — to the belltower, where I caught a 360-degree view of town. I can report, friends, that Marblehead is just as lovely from above as it is down below.

‘Marblehead is just as lovely from above as it is down below,’ says columnist Court Merrigan. CURRENT PHOTO / COURT MERRIGAN

I also took a few turns at the crank myself. So if you happened to notice the bell in Abbot Hall ringing recently, that was the Cranks (and me!), participating in the democratic process.

Afterwards, I repaired with the Cranks to the Blue Canoe Coffee Shop where the talk was wide-ranging and Marblehead-centric, and I learned a great deal about some of the community groups who do so much to keep this town special, such as the Marblehead Arts Association and the Marblehead Historical Society. I plan on joining in. Sitting there in the shadow of Abbot Hall, how could you not want to do your part to keep this town ticking?

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back soon with another Marblehead First Time.

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