Passing along a family legacy

After lovingly stewarding the 17th-century saltbox, Isaac Goodale's relatives seek a new caretaker

By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2009

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IPSWICH - The Isaac Goodale House is a landmark of New England heritage and the legacy of one of the region's founding families.

Save for a decade or so in the early 1900s, the Goodale family has lived in this house since it was built in 1668. The timber frame saltbox is one of the best preserved examples of a first-period house in New England, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But after nearly 340 years of ownership, the Goodale family has put the place on the market for $1.39 million, hoping to attract a buyer who will respect the storied structure's origins. Equally exquisite is the 41-acre property the house sits on, with rolling meadows bordered by woods that sweep down to Great Marsh - the largest salt marsh in New England - with a view of Hog or Choate Island beyond.

This is not the home's original location. It was built in Salem, by Robert Goodale for his son Isaac. The Goodales had sailed from England to Salem in 1634, just 14 years after the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor. Robert purchased more than 500 acres in Salem and gave land to his children upon their marriages. Sometimes, he built houses for them, as he did for Isaac, a farmer who lived in the house for just over a decade before he died in 1679.

Isaac's family stayed in the sturdy house, farming the land for centuries. The Goodales were active members of the community and had strong ties to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The story told over the generations goes like this: Isaac's brother Jacob was an apprentice to Giles Corey. An altercation ensued between the two men in 1675, and Jacob was killed by Corey. When Corey was accused of witchcraft with five other men years later, the murder of Jacob came back to haunt him during his trial. Refusing to plead, Corey was crushed to death when the tribunal ordered heavy stones be laid on his body.

Legend has it that the ghost of Jacob Goodale appeared to Corey from time to time, crying out about his murder. In his play "The New-England Tragedies," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to the lore: "Look! Look! It is the ghost of Jacob Goodale . . . Whom fifteen years ago this man did murder, By stomping on his body! In his shroud. . . . He comes here to bear witness to this crime."

Isaac's descendants remained in the house until 1915, when it was sold, for reasons unknown. Three different owners occupied the house over the next several years, and it was put up for sale again in 1928.

Dr. Robert Goodale, a Boston physician and a direct descendent of Isaac's brother Zachariah, learned from a newspaper article that the house was for sale. "He went right out to look at the house, bringing a building inspector with him," said Maisie Crowther, 72, the youngest child of Robert Goodale, who now lives in Brattleboro, Vt. "He and my mother decided to buy it then and there. They wanted to bring it back into the family. They wanted to preserve it."

The sale price was $5,000, a hefty sum for the era. Goodale's plan was to have the house moved from Salem to Ipswich where it would be a summer haven for the couple and their four children. Robert Goodale's father, Joseph, owned a commercial orchard on Argilla Road and gave him 41 acres at the end the narrow dirt lane.

The original plan was to move the house intact, on rollers, along Route 1 to Ipswich, but Crowther said the family was unable to do that. "So they had to dismantle the house piece by piece to transport it. It was rebuilt exactly to the original specs and with the same materials."

Before the house was transported, the Goodales discovered a few of the home's original 17th-century narrow casement windows with diamond-shaped leaded panes in the basement. They restored the windows and had replicas commissioned for the rest of the house. During reassembly, they also exposed the original raised paneling and returned the openings of the home's four massive fireplaces to their original size - nearly 6-feet long and 4-feet high.

The land was, and still is, a nature lover's paradise. The terrain is ideal for cross-country skiing in winter and during the warmer months the landscape bursts with peonies, azaleas, and rhododendrons earnestly tended to by the Goodales. Wisteria nearly covers the exterior of a one-room cottage next to the house.

"Flowers, botany, and horticulture are all part of the family tree," said Crowther. Indeed, her great-grandfather, George Lincoln Goodale, was the Harvard botanist responsible for opening the school's botanical museum. He commissioned the first glass botanical models by 19th-century glass artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The models are still on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

"It was an amazing place to spend my childhood," said Crowther. "Growing up in the old house was all about how to make trails through the woods, picking raspberries, watching for interesting birds and wildlife, and looking out at the marsh to see if the tide was coming in or going out."

Seven decades later, the pristine landscape of Crowther's youth remains intact, and she and her siblings have made sure it will stay that way by placing the land in conservation with the Essex County Greenbelt Association, a nonprofit land trust. As a result, the 41 acres - still bordered by Crowther's grandfather's orchard, now known as Russell Orchard - must remain in its open condition. The lot can't be subdivided, nor can new buildings be constructed on the land.

Robert Goodale added a kitchen and a screened porch to the house shortly after he bought it, a heating system in 1968; bathrooms have since been updated. Otherwise the house retains its original 17th-century style. Massive chamfered summer beams with exposed ceiling joists hold the house together, wide plank floors run throughout. Original exposed brick walls and interior doors with three-century-old hinges are intact.

In 1990, the house was included on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with the designation comes preservation mandates that restrict construction, alteration, and redecoration of the interior and exterior of the house. Moldings, wall sheathing, paneling, ceiling cornices, doors, and windows must remain as they are. While bathrooms may be updated, the only parts of the house that can be structurally renovated are the kitchen and adjacent enclosed porch; the rest of the house must retain its original footprint.

"You just feel like you're traveling back in time here. It's a magical place," said listing broker Kristal Pooler of Kristal Pooler & Associates of Essex. She suggests that one has to be an "old house person" to truly appreciate the home. "You almost have to have lived in a house of this era not to be afraid of it."

It is wrenching for Crowther to let go of the house. "I feel awful that it is leaving the Goodale family now," she said. "It's been a struggle to decide what to do with it."

Her parents lived there until they passed away in the early 1990s. Since then, she and her siblings have used the house sporadically, and it has been leased to long-term tenants for the past several years. "We tried to get one of the grandchildren to take it over, but none of them were in the position to do so. We even put the word out to distant Goodale cousins, but nothing came of it."

Crowther's wish is that a buyer will honor the historic home's legacy. "It would be wonderful if we could find a buyer who was open to making the house available to people who want to look at it . . . it's a treasure that should be shared."