By Maggi Smith-Dalton, Globe Correspondent"These were the days of noon dinners and rear gardens, when Essex county merchants lived where they could see their pennants fly, and dine at home, and tend their flowerbeds and prune their vines, and enjoy their hammock and siesta and noon-day pipe and deep veranda chair.
These were the days of fruit and flower shows, sometimes fourteen of them in a season, at which you might see displayed twelve hundred dahlias and five and a half hundred plates of fruit at a single show, — roses in seventy-five varieties,— forty kinds of pears from a single garden,— and apricots and gages and damsons and Muscat grapes and Royal George peaches … gooseberries and figs and strawberries and prunes that fairly make the mouth water in the telling, and rare shells and native and exotic plants and curious reptiles and beautiful minerals and silk stockings spun and woven from cocoons of their own raising, and a shell-tortoise from the Figis, swimming in its tank, and a Gloucester lobster of thirty-nine pounds weight, and rye raised on the North river at the foot of Conant street, six and one-half inches in the head, and standing nearly eight feet in the stalk.…" ~Robert S. Rantoul
September 18, 1828 was a beautiful autumn day. All was deemed perfect for the Essex Historical Society's "magnificent, second-century celebration of the landing of Endecott." A procession flowed from Washington Square and threaded through Samuel McIntire's "fine old archway of the western gate, with its eagle and Washington medallion." The day was filled with pomp, pageantry, and, of course, music, and culminated with a stirring ovation by Justice Story, "then at the acme of his powers and fame, making the day forever memorable in the annals of the county."
In this teeming, cheering, and emotionally-charged crowd was a delighted teenager who would prove instrumental to the development of the most important intellectual institutions of 19th century Salem and Essex County.
In 1832, Henry Wheatland (1812-1893) graduated from Harvard College, earning his M.D. in 1837. Yet he preferred other fields to the practice of medicine. From childhood he was fascinated by the study of natural history. On voyages to Europe and South America, he collected specimens which later took their place in the "cabinets" of Salem's museum.
An original trustee for the Peabody Academy of Science and the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology of Cambridge, Wheatland also served as superintendent of the museum of the East India Marine Society from 1837-1848. With other young friends, Wheatland organized a "new society for the pursuit of natural science" which "through its system of field-meetings, of lectures, and of fruit and flower shows made its way promptly to general regard."
This was the great age for science. New England in particular was acknowledged as an ideal greenhouse for scientific cultivation, and The Essex County Natural History Society's "vigorous young men" proved ceaselessly energetic in pursuing study and classification of the flora, fauna, and natural wonders of the region. They published their findings with zeal.
To read through their articles and study their sketches leaves one a bit dizzy. The scope of their curiosity was enormous, and their work was lauded widely.
European journals wrote of the support for science in America with admiration and a tinge of envy.
"New England is acknowledged to be the most highly educated portion of the United States, and among the New England States none occupies a more honourable position than Massachusetts for … the support of education and the spread of knowledge, scientific and otherwise."
"The sums of money voted for such purposes by our American relations would make the hair of our economical Government officials in this country stand on end, and would be certain to provoke angry comment in our House of Commons; while the number of scientific men paid for carrying on investigations and preparing reports ...would almost bear comparison with the number we pay for doing nothing…." groused London's "Nature" in 1871.
Wheatland in and of himself would prove a catalyst for progress.
"When the Historical Society — a rare distinction for so young a man — made him an honorary member in 1841, choosing him for its librarian and cabinet-keeper at once, Dr. Wheatland threw his influence from the first in favor of a broad and liberal policy, and an infusion of younger blood. The admittance-fee was reduced from ten dollars to three, the following year,— the membership and activity increased, and only five years more elapsed before a scheme had been matured for merging the Historical and Natural History Societies into one. This took effect in 1848, and the Essex Institute was formed."
Incorporated February, 1848, the newly-born Essex Institute was an innovative organization in a time when all the Western world was trying out new ideas, new political relationships, and it seemed every aspect of life was in the throes of change. The Essex Institute's subsequent influence, prestige, and importance to the development of the region's (and to the country's) cultural life would be dramatic and long-lasting.
To this story, we will return in future articles.
Next week: Was it an act of horrifying vandalism, or a generous boon to civilization?
Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new albums of 19th-century music for 2011. Reach her at http://singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.