The Perfect New England Village
By FOX BUTTERFIELD; FOX BUTTERFIELD, A REPORTER ON THE METROPOLITAN STAFF OF THE NEW YORK TIMES, MAKES HIS HOME IN HINGHAM, MASS.
Published: May 14, 1989
LEAD: ON three summer days in 1681, the Puritan settlers of Hingham, midway between Plymouth and Boston, raised the frame of their new meetinghouse. For inspiration, they drew on what they remembered of church architecture in England, then dominated by the Elizabethan Gothic style. But because they lacked the stone or bricks of the home country, they used the available local material, large virgin timbers. Being ship's carpenters by trade, they fashioned the beams in the only way they knew how, like a ship's hull turned upside down. The result was a soaring ceiling recalling the late medieval heritage of the first colonists.
When they finished, the workers, who included every male in Hingham over 20 years of age, imbibed 19 barrels of hard cider.
Today the unpainted timbers still stand over what has come to be known as the Old Ship Church, making it the oldest continuously worshiped-in church in North America and the only surviving example in this country of the English Gothic style of the 17th century. The more familiar delicately spired white Colonial churches of New England would not be built for more than half a century.
The Old Ship is only one of the historical treasures of Hingham, perhaps the best preserved example of a large New England village from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.
Among the other architectural sights are more than 200 houses from those early years, many of them spread out in pleasing array for a mile along the broad village green spanning Main Street. There is also the Old Ordinary, a tavern built in 1680 that has been turned into a museum of Hingham history, including locally made furniture, samplers done by town girls and paintings of Hingham ships that sailed to China. Across a small park from the tavern sits the simple unpainted clapboard house of Samuel Lincoln, a weaver and one of Hingham's original settlers, who was Abraham Lincoln's first American ancestor.
Despite these riches, Hingham has lived in happy obscurity, unsung by travel guides. No great battles or important events took place here, and Hingham was never a political capital. So unlike Plymouth or Williamsburg, Va., the town has not been restored or re-created as a tourist attraction. In keeping with the Yankee simplicity of its early inhabitants, Hingham has simply been maintained as a place to live.
This sense of tradition shows in more than Hingham's architecture; it is an everyday social reality. The minister of the Old Ship, Kenneth Read-Brown, is a direct descendant of Peter Hobart, the minister who led the first small contingent of settlers here in 1635 from the town of Hingham in East Anglia. Another early pastor of the Old Ship was Ebenezer Gay, presiding over the congregation from 1718 to 1787. Not surprisingly, the elegant two-story Colonial house he built on North Street is still occupied by his descendant, named Ebenezer Gay.
"PEOPLE here were conservative and community minded," said the Rev.
Donald Robinson, the minister emeritus of the Second Parish Church, a relative parvenu, built in 1742. "They were satisfied with what they had and didn't want things changed," he added, trying to explain how Hingham had managed to keep itself intact.
Mr. Robinson lives in an unpainted shingled house built sometime before 1720, with a huge fireplace in the main room downstairs characteristic of the period and wide, sagging floor boards. His ancestors were Lincolns.
Hingham was saved by other factors also. Its prominent families, Lincolns, Cushings, Wilders and Fearings, stayed on for generations, dominating the town selectmen who governed Hingham. The town developed no major industries, and as urban sprawl spoiled its equally old neighboring communities, Hingham passed some of the earliest and most stringent zoning laws.
All this makes Hingham worth an excursion of a few hours or an afternoon for travelers in the Boston area. By car, it is approached off State Route 3 about 20 miles south of Boston, and requires only a short detour off Route 3, the main highway from Boston to Cape Cod. Get off at Exit 14, marked Hingham and Cohasset, and follow Route 228 towards Hingham. Do not be dismayed by an initial profusion of gas stations and fast-food restaurants - you are not yet in Hingham. But three miles down Route 228, which becomes Main Street, you are suddenly in the old village of South Hingham. Here, where you pass an intersection with Cushing Street on the left and South Pleasant Street to the right, the elegant 200-foot-wide village green begins. House after house bears a marker approved by the Hingham Historical Society testifying to the building's antiquity. At 692 Main Street, for instance, on your right, note the cranberry red Elisha Cushing home, erected in 1714, a simple salt box with a lean-to in the back, a common style of the period. Since there are so many old houses, and since they are set so far back from the road, it is hard to give them proper due on a drive past.
A few hundred yards farther on, on a knoll on the left, is 605 Main Street, a gray Cape-style house that dates from at least 1760. It was the home of Joshua Wilder, a clockmaker, and is owned today by Jim Macedo, the president of the Hingham Historical Society, and his wife, Eileen, a descendant of the Wilder family.
Next door is a small, unpretentious tan structure, the Cracker Barrel store. It too was owned by Joshua Wilder, who sold dry goods and provisions there almost two centuries ago. Today, on a hot day, it is a good place to buy cold drinks.
Continuing down Main Street, No. 557 on the left was built by Jabez Wilder about 1690. A white clapboard Cape, it has a distinctive rainbow-shaped roof.
The thicket of pedigreed homes now slows for a mile, so drive on until Route 228 branches to the right a second time (beside a small green). Main Street is the road directly ahead. Unfortunately, it is marked only with a sign reading "Hingham Square" and an arrow. But that is the direction you want.
The road soon dips downhill, past several grand Federal-style mansions from the early 19th century, eventually coming to the Old Ship set on a hillock to the right. A historical marker leaves no room for doubt. This is now downtown Hingham, but parking is normally easy. The most striking thing, at first, about the Old Ship is that it does not conform to one's expectations about a New England church. The rectangular proportions are too bulky, the steeple is not fine enough, the gray color is forbidding. It is a somber structure, reminiscent of some earlier age.
The problem, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder, because we have come to identify New England churches with the style of Sir Christopher Wren and Charles Bulfinch who came a century later.
The settlers who built the Old Ship were Puritans who called it simply a meetinghouse. To have termed it a church would have been anathama to the Puritans, since it was idolatrous to believe that holiness resided in building materials. No Puritan meetinghouse was ever consecrated.
To Hingham's early residents, it was truly a meeting place, a civic center where the townspeople gathered to elect their officials, vote their taxes and on Sunday to listen to prayers and sermons.
Inside, the most important feature is the vaulted ceiling and exposed supporting timbers, which function like buttresses in a Gothic cathedral. There was no ornamentation other than the chamfering, or beveling of the beams. When the Old Ship was built, it was not unique. There were similar churches in England and elsewhere in New England. But they have long since perished, leaving the Old Ship a museum. Because of the historic significance of the ceiling, a copy was built in 1924 and is on display in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
From the Old Ship, drive or walk two blocks to the end of Main Street, then turn left onto North Street. At the corner of North and Center Street is the British Relief, a red brick eatery serving hearty soups and sandwiches. It has a counter offering picnic provisions.
Two blocks farther on North Street is the small, triangular Lincoln Park, a good spot for spreading out a picnic. The house of Samuel Lincoln, President Lincoln's ancestor, sits on the left. A statue by Charles Keck of Abraham Lincoln, whose family had moved to New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois, bestrides the middle of the green. At the far end of the green, 181 North Street, is a large two-story Colonial house originally built in 1667 that belonged to Benjamin Lincoln, a general in the American Revolution who accepted Cornwallis's sword at the surrender of Yorktown.
Since Hingham is a real town, not a theme park, all these houses are occupied and not open to public visits. But just above the park to the right, on Lincoln Street, is the Old Ordinary, the tavern, first built in 1680 by Thomas Andrews and eventually deeded to the local historical society. The tavern's name is derived from its function. It was licensed by the colony's legislature to serve a daily "ordinary," the ordinary meal of the day, at a common table for a fixed price. Since Hingham was halfway on the daylong stage coach route from Plymouth to Boston, the Old Ordinary could count on good business.
The town selectmen also gave the owner the right "to sell strong waters, provided he send his customers home at reasonable hours with ability to keep their legs."
The tap room on the first floor is designed to re-create the early bar, with wooden barrels for rum, green glass bottles for gin, a set of copper measuring mugs and an iron "lager head" used for warming hot toddies. In the front parlor is a pewter mug that belonged to one of the tavern's regulars, Daniel Webster, then a Congressman from nearby Marshfield.
THE Old Ordinary is unusually rich in its collections, considering that everything in it was donated by Hingham citizens. There are four bedrooms upstairs, furnished in different styles, a fully supplied 18th-century kitchen, complete with a Colonial mousetrap and a dumb betty, or early mechanical clothes-washing machine. There are portraits of two Tory loyalists, still slashed at the throats as retribution by revolutionaries, and a painting of the sloop Harriet, a Hingham-launched and operated ship that sailed for China immediately after the Revolution.
The Harriet might have won the honor of being the first American vessel to reach Canton. But after putting in at the Cape of Good Hope, she met some British ships returning from China, the captains of which were alarmed at the prospect of Yankee competition and bought the Harriet's cargo of ginseng for twice its weight in tea, a good deal for the shrewd Hingham captain.
Visitors leaving the Old Ordinary should retrace their route back to Main Street heading for Route 3. Just before reaching Route 3, where the road crosses Route 53, is Queen Anne's corner, named for Anne Whiton, born in 1721. The sprawling Whiton House, a Colonial-style edifice now a country restaurant, may be a descendant of the tavern that Anne Whiton ran, depending on which local historian is to be believed.
A large, muscular sharp-tongued woman who never married, Anne Whiton and her three illegitimate daughters had turned their house into an inn, or as tradition has it, a brothel. Hence the name Queen Anne, or in the spelling of those days, Quean Anne. "Quean" meant a disreputable woman. Not all was proper in Hingham. IF YOU GO Historic sights
The Old Ship Church is open, with guided tours, every day but Monday in July and August from noon to 4 P.M. No entry fee is charged, but donations are welcomed. Special arrangements can be made by calling 617-749-1679.
The Old Ordinary, once a tavern and now a 13-room museum, is open, also with guided tours, from mid-June to Labor Day, Tuesday to Saturday, from 1:30 to 4:30 P.M. Special arrangements can be made by calling 617-749-0013. The entry fee is $2, 50 cents for children under 12. Annual House Tour
A historic house tour, possibly the oldest in the country, has been held in Hingham since 1924, and this year the Hingham Historical Society celebrates its diamond jubilee.
The 200-year-old rectory of St. John's Episcopal Church, which was on the first tour, will be one of five houses on this year's tour. Others are the Joshua Wilder House, the Winkworth Allan Gay House, the Alfred C. Hersey House and the Cyprus Clark House. Also on the tour are four public buildings: the Old Ordinary, the Old Derby Academy, the New North Church and the Old Ship Church.
The tour will be held on June 21 from 1:30 P.M. to 8:30 P.M. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 on the day of the tour.
To obtain more information, get in touch with the Hingham Historical Society, Post Office Box 434, Hingham, Mass. 02043; 617-749-0013. - F. B.