Peacefield, Quincy, Massachusetts

Peacefield, the former home of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, at 135 Adams Street in Quincy, on October 10, 1929. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leon Abdalian Collection.

The house in 2019:

As explained in more detail in an earlier post, this house was the home of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and several more generations of the Adams family from the late 18th century into the early 20th century. The house was built in 1731, and it was originally owned by Leonard Vassall, a sugar plantation owner from Jamaica. His daughter Anna later inherited the property, but she and her husband were Loyalists, so they fled to England at the start of the Revolution, leaving the house vacant.

John and Abigail Adams purchased the house from the family in 1787. At the time, the house was much smaller, consisting of the portion on the left side in these photos. It was also in poor condition, from having sat vacant for so long. They had bought it sight-unseen, as they were living in England at the time, where John was serving as the first U.S. Minister to Great Britain. They were disappointed by the condition of the house when they returned here to live, but they soon set about repairing and expanding it. This work included a large addition on the right side, which was built in the 1790s. Abagail oversaw much of this work, since John Adams was away most of the time during the 1790s, serving as the first vice president and then as the second president of the United States.

John Adams retired from politics after losing reelection to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. He spent the last few decades of his life here at this house, which he named Peacefield. Abigail died in 1818, and John died here on July 4, 1826. In one of the most remarkable coincidences in American history, he died on the same day as his friend and political rival Jefferson, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

John Quincy Adams then inherited the house. At the time of his father’s death he was serving as president, and after losing re-election in 1828 he returned here to Quincy. However, unlike his father, he did not have a quiet retirement. Instead, he returned to politics and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1831 until his death in 1848. During that time, he was particularly vocal in his opposition to slavery, and became one of the leading abolitionists of his era.

During the second half of the 19th century, Peacefield was owned by several more generations of the Adams family. John Quincy Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams, owned it until his death in 1886, and Charles’s sons Henry and Brooks subsequently inherited it. Brooks ended up being the last member of the family to live here at Peacefield, and he remained here until his death in 1927.

The top photo was taken only two years later, in 1929. By this point, the other members of the Adams family had formed the Adams Memorial Society, and this house was preserved as a museum. The property was later transferred to the National Park Service in 1946, becoming the Adams National Historic Site.

Today, the exterior of the house has seen very few changes since the top photo was taken almost a century ago. The house is still operated by the National Park Service, and it is open to the public seasonally for tours. The name of the Park Service unit is now the Adams National Historical Park, and it includes Peacefield along with the nearby birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, which stand side-by-side on Franklin Street in Quincy.

Ezekiel Keith House, Springfield, Massachusetts

The house at 258 Mill Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2023:

Springfield was established by colonial settlers in 1636, making it by far the oldest community in Western Massachusetts. However, unlike nearly all of the other cities and towns in the area, it does not have any surviving buildings that have been verifiably traced back to the colonial period. Most of the colonial-era houses in Springfield were demolished during a period of rapid population growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and today there are only a few dozen buildings that predate 1850, with none that can be confidently dated prior to 1800.

Despite this apparent lack of early buildings, many of the older houses in Springfield have not yet been extensively researched, so it is possible that there might be at least a few 18th century homes still standing in the city. Most of the prominent colonial-era homes in Springfield were located along the Main Street corridor, which was heavily developed and redeveloped many times over the course of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. As a result, there are clearly no 18th century buildings still standing in the downtown area, but it is possible that some might still exist in the outlying areas, which experienced less development pressure over the years, and where individual buildings were not necessarily as well documented by past historians, who tended to focus on the downtown area.

There are several houses in particular that warrant further research, but perhaps the single strongest contender for the title of oldest building in the city is the house shown in these two photos, which stands at the northeast corner of Mill and Knox Streets. The early history of this house has not yet been fully traced, and the interior architecture does not appear to have been studied yet, but the exterior appearance of the house seems to suggest that it was constructed at some point in the second half of the 18th century. Important clues include the spacing of the windows, the steep roof, and the slightly overhanging second story, all of which were typical for houses of that period.

The earliest documented owner of this house is Ezekiel Keith, who was shown as living here on the 1835 map of Springfield. Keith was born in Canton, Massachusetts around 1778, but he was in Springfield by 1806 when he married Elizabeth Ashley. It is possible that this house was built around the time that they were married, but based on its architecture it seems more likely that it was built a few decades earlier.

The house remained in the Keith family throughout the first half of the 19th century. Elizabeth died in 1825, and four years later Ezekiel remarried to Mary Barber. He died in 1846, but Mary outlived him by many years and apparently lived in this house until her death in 1873.

During their many decades of ownership here, the Keith family would have seen many significant changes to the surrounding area. The house is located on a hill just a few hundred feet to the north of the Mill River, near where the modern-day Mill Street crosses the river. Ezekiel’ death records indicate that he had been a farmer, so it seems unclear as to whether he was involved in any of the manufacturing that occurred along the river, but during the first half of the 19th century this section of the river developed into an important industrial center.

The Mill River is the only major source of water power that is entirely in Springfield, so a number of factories were built along its banks, including the Armory Watershops, where much of the heavy manufacturing for the U.S. Armory occurred. The Watershops were originally located on three separate sites along the river, including the Middle Watershops, which were just a little further upstream from the Keith house. Downstream of the house, on the other side of Mill Street, were the Ames Paper Mills, which had been established by former Armory superintendent David Ames.

Census records prior to 1850 do not provide much information about exactly who was living in a particular house, but starting in 1850 the census recorded the names and demographic information of every household member. Here in this house, Mary Keith was living here with a large family. Two adult children from her first marriage, John Barber and Lucia Alden, lived here, as did her stepdaughter Olive Keith. The household also included Lucia’s husband Elijah Alden, and their children Lucia, Louisa, and Joel. Elijah worked as a carpenter, while John Barber was listed as being a gunsmith, probably at the nearby Armory Watershops.

After Mary’s death in 1873, her son John continued to live here. The 1880 census shows him here with his wife Harriet and a boarder, Dr. James W. Wicker. It seems unclear as to exactly what Dr. Wicker’s relationship to the Barbers was, but John died in 1887 and three years later Dr. Wicker married Harriet. He died in 1908, and Harriet died in 1916, ending about a century of ownership by the Keith/Barber families.

The house was subsequently owned by Walter and Otillie Cowles. They were living here by about 1918, and they initially rented the house before purchasing it in the early 1920s. During the 1920 census they were both in their early 40s, and they had five children: Augusta, Walter, Norman, Charles, and Irving. The elder Walter worked as a tile setter, while his 18-year-old son Walter was listed as a “tile helper,” presumably working with with his father. Their daughter Augusta was also employed, working as a machine operator in a toy factory.

The Cowles family was still living here when the top photo was taken in the late 1930s. By this point the house had undergone some exterior changes, likely after the Cowles family purchased it. These changes included a portico at the front entrance, a small addition on the right side of the house, and the installation of brick veneer on the first floor. Given Walter’s occupation as a tile setter, it seems plausible that he would have done the brickwork himself.

At some point the house was further altered by installing artificial siding on the upper parts of the house. This may have also occurred during the Cowles family’s ownership. Walter and Otillie lived here until their deaths in the 1960s, and the house remained in the family until 1990, when it was finally sold by Walter’s estate.

Today, the house is still easily recognizable from the first photo, and even the saw palmettos in the foreground appear to be some of the same ones that were here in the 1930s. At first glance, the age of this house is somewhat difficult to tell, since the exterior is entirely covered in 20th century materials. However, it is definitely one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, and depending on its exact construction date it might be the city’s only surviving colonial-era building.

Elijah Williams House, Deerfield, Massachusetts

The Elijah Williams House on Albany Road in Deerfield, on May 31, 1939. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library; photographed by Leon Abdalian.

The house in 2023:

This house was built in 1760 as the home of Elijah Williams, and it originally stood a few hundred feet to the east of here, facing the town common. That lot had been the site of two previous homes owned by the Reverend John Williams, pastor of the church in Deerfield. The original house was destroyed during the 1704 French and Native American raid on Deerfield, and the Williams family was taken captive. When John Williams returned to Deerfield several years later he rebuilt his house, and his son Elijah Williams (1712-1771) later inherited it. Around 1760, Elijah demolished that house and built the current one, which incorporated some of the building materials from the older house.

The layout of the house is fairly typical for mid-18th century New England homes, with a symmetrical front façade that has four windows on the first floor and five on the second floor. However, its most distinctive feature is the ornate front doorway. This style of doorway was often found on the homes of wealthy residents of the Connecticut River Valley during this period, and typically had intricate classically-inspired designs. It provided a dramatic contrast to the exteriors of homes that were otherwise largely plain, and several of these doorways are now on display in major American art museums. There are relatively few of these doorways that survive intact on houses today, but this house still had its original one in place when the top photo was taken.

Elijah Williams was a prominent figure in colonial Deerfield. He was a wealthy merchant, and he held the ran of major in the colonial militia. He also served as a representative in the colonial legislature, along with holding other local political offices. By the time he built this house he was about 48 years old, and he was married to his second wife Margaret. He continued to live here until his death in 1771, and Margaret died the following year.

Their son John Williams subsequently inherited the house. He owned it until 1789, when he sold it to Consider Dickinson. Known locally as “Uncle Sid,” Consider was a veteran of the American Revolution, and after the war he went to Canada to hunt and trade furs. He later moved to Deerfield, settled down and married his first wife Filana Field, and lived the life of a farmer here on this property. Filana died in 1831, and in 1840 “Sid” remarried to Esther Harding.

Consider Dickinson had no children from either of his marriages, and after his death in 1854 Esther inherited this house. She, in turn, left the property as a bequest in her will to establish a high school and library on the property. This led to some uncertainty about the future of this historic building after her death in 1875. It faced possible demolition, but local historian George Sheldon lobbied for its preservation, arguing (incorrectly, as it turned out) that it was actually the same house that the Reverend John Williams had built in 1707 after his return from captivity. It seems unclear as to whether Sheldon actually believed this, or whether he stretched the truth in order to ensure that the house was saved. Either way, he was successful, and the house was moved westward to accommodate the construction of a new school building, which would become part of Deerfield Academy.

The old house was used as a rental property at its new location until 1916, when the academy converted it into a dormitory. This work included an addition to the rear of the house, which can be seen in the distance on the left side of both photos. The house underwent further work in 1994, with the replacement of the original clapboards, and then in 2002 the original front doorway was removed and replaced with a replica.

Today, the main portion of the house still looks much the same as it did when the top photo was taken, despite having primarily new materials on the exterior. It remains in use as a dormitory for Deerfield Academy, and it stands as one of the many historic 18th century homes here in the center of Deerfield. As for the original doorway, it has been preserved and is now on display at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life here in Deerfield, as shown in the photo below:

Joseph Stebbins House, Deerfield, Massachusetts

The Joseph Stebbins House on Old Main Street in Deerfield, around 1920. Image from the White Pine Architectural Monographs Volume VI No. 5 (1920).

The house in 2023:

This house was built in 1773 by Joseph Stebbins (1718-1797) for his son, Joseph Stebbins Jr. (1749-1816). A year later, Joseph married Lucy Frary, and they raised their large family here in this house. Over the next 23 years they had 13 children: Tirzah, Charlotte, Dennis, Charlotte, Joseph, Lucy, Avice, Arabella, Caroline, Aurelia, Baxter, Mehitable, and Maria. Large families such as theirs were not uncommon in 18th century New England, but it is interesting to note that, in an era of high infant mortality rates, 11 of their 13 children managed to survive to adulthood.

Joseph Stebbins was primarily a farmer, but he also served as an officer during the American Revolution. He fought at Bunker Hill in 1775 and in the Saratoga Campaign in 1777, and he was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel after the war. During Shays Rebellion of 1786-1787 he was part of the militia force that suppressed the rebellion here in Western Massachusetts, and in 1788 he rose to the rank of a full colonel in the state militia.

Joseph and Lucy’s youngest son Baxter eventually inherited the property, and it was subsequently owned by a succession of other Stebbins family members throughout the 19th century. It was finally sold out of the family in 1897, and in 1898 it was purchased by Jennie Maria Arms Sheldon, a noted entomologist and historian. She was the curator of the Memorial Hall Museum here in Deerfield, and she was also the second wife of George Sheldon, a local historian who published many works on the history of Deerfield and the surrounding area. She owned the house when the top photo was taken around 1920, and it would remain in her possession until her death in 1938.

The house was later rented to Deerfield Academy, and then it was purchased outright by the school in 1952. It is one of the many homes on Old Main Street that are owned by Deerfield Academy, and over the years it has been used for faculty housing. Today, it has seen few changes since the top photo was taken, aside from the removal of historically-inaccurate shutters, and it stands as a good example of a gambrel-roof Georgian home here in Deerfield.

Timothy Childs House, Deerfield, Massachusetts

The Timothy Childs House on Old Main Street in Deerfield, on July 24, 1930. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library; photographed by Leon Abdalian.

The house in 2023:

These two photos show the Timothy Childs house, which is also commonly known as the Childs-Champney house. Based on recent dendrochronological studies, it was built in 1730, replacing an earlier house that had burned. It was originally the home of Timothy Childs and his wife Hannah Chapin, and they lived here together for about 35 years. Hannah died in 1765, and Timothy subsequently sold the house in 1767.

The next owner was John Russell, a tailor who also operated a retail liquor establishment here. The house would later change hands several more times during the late 18th century before being acquired by Elijah Williams in 1800. He was about 33 years old at the time, and he may have purchased the house with marriage in mind, because two years later he married Hannah Barnard. Elijah was a saddlemaker by trade, but he also served at various times as postmaster, register of deeds, and as a militia captain.

Elijah Williams died in 1832, but the house remained in his family for many years afterwards, with his son Samuel inheriting it, followed by Samuel’s daughter Elizabeth. However, they did not necessarily reside here throughout this time. During the early 1850s, Samuel Williams and his family were in Ohio, and they later moved to Kansas as part of the abolitionist movement to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state.

Born in 1850 in Ohio, Elizabeth Williams went on to become perhaps the most famous owner of this house. At a time when women’s higher education was still rare, Elizabeth graduated from Vassar College in 1869, and went on to become a noted author. She wrote a number of novels and travel narratives, and her works were regularly published in national literary magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and The Century Magazine. In 1873 she married artist James Wells Champney, and in 1876 they moved to Deerfield, where James built his studio behind the house. The historic homes and streetscapes in the town subsequently became a subject for many of his paintings, but his other work included creating the illustrations for Elizabeth’s books.

This house eventually became the Champneys’ summer home, while their primary home was in New York City. They named this house “Elmwood,” and in 1886 they moved it further back from the street, to its current spot. They also added the front entryway that is shown in these two photos. This ornate doorway was originally on Alexander Hamilton’s home in New York City, but the Champneys acquired it and installed it here, providing a rather unusual contrast to an otherwise largely plain 18th century house.

James Champney died in 1903 in an elevator accident in New York City. He was in an elevator when it became stuck between two floors. Rather than waiting for the problem to be fixed, he attempted to climb down to the floor below. However, he ended up slipping through the gap between the elevator and the floor, and fell four stories to his death.

Elizabeth owned the house until 1913, when she sold it to W. Scott Keith. The Keith family owned it throughout most of the 20th century, including when the top photo was taken in 1930. At the time, the house had shutters, but these were a very recent addition. They appear to have been installed at some point in the early 20th century, because late 19th century photos of the house show it without any shutters. The top photo also shows the large elm tree next to the house, which was still standing here until at least the mid-1990s.

The house was was one of the last remaining privately-owned homes of Old Main Street, as most of the other homes are now owned by either Historic Deerfield or by Deerfield Academy. It was eventually sold to Historic Deerfield in 2018, and the organization will be using it for housing, along with holding meetings and other events here.

For more information about this house, see p. 75-78 of Family & Landscape: Deerfield Homelots from 1671 by Susan McGowan (1996).

Sheldon House, Deerfield, Massachusetts

The Sheldon House on Old Main Street in Deerfield, on July 24, 1930. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library; photographed by Leon Abdalian.

The house in 2023:

The house shown in these two photos was built around 1754 as the home of John Sheldon III (1710-1793) and his wife Mercy Arms. John was the grandson of the first John Sheldon, who had built the famous “Old Indian House,” which survived the French and Native American raid on the town in 1704. This had occurred a few years before the younger John was born, but his newlywed parents had been in that house at the time of the raid. His father escaped safely, but his mother Hannah was captured and taken to Canada as a prisoner, although she was released several years later.

John and Mercy were married in 1734, and by the time they moved into this house they had three teenaged children: Mercy, Hannah, and John. Their son John Sheldon IV eventually inherited the property, and he likewise raised his family here after marrying Persis Hoyt in 1769. They had eight children, who were born between 1770 and 1794: David, William, John, Ephraim, Mercy, Persis, Seth, and Polly.

To accommodate this large and growing family, the Sheldons added a wing to the back of the house. However, tuberculosis soon swept through the family. Over the next five years John Sheldon IV died, as did his children William, Ephraim, Mercy, and Persis, all of whom were in their late teens or twenties. Their youngest child, Polly, also died young, in 1814 at the age of 19.

Having outlived most of his older siblings, their youngest son Seth eventually inherited this house. He married Caroline Stebbins in 1810, and they had five children, including George Sheldon, who would likewise go on to inherit the house. Throughout the 19th century, George Sheldon was a prominent figure in Deerfield. He served one term each in the state house of representatives and the state senate, but he is best remembered for his work as a historian. He was one of the founders and the first president of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, and he wrote extensively about local history, including the two-volume A History of Deerfield Massachusetts.

George Sheldon died in 1916 at the age of 98. By that point, thanks in part of his efforts, Deerfield was becoming noteworthy for its history and for its well-preserved historic Main Street. The top photo was taken in 1930 by Leon Abdalian, who used his camera to document many historic homes in New England during the early 20th century. It was still owned by descendants of the Sheldon family at the time, and the photo shows some of the changes that had occurred to the house, including the bay window on the left side and the twin chimneys in place of the earlier central chimney. The Sheldon descendants eventually sold the house in 1946, nearly 200 years after John Sheldon built it.

Today, the house is one of the many historic homes on Main Street that has been preserved by Historic Deerfield. It has undergone some exterior restoration to bring it back to its 18th century appearance, including the replacement of the central chimney and the removal of the bay window. Overall, though, it is still easily recognizable from the top photo. On the interior, the house is furnished based on how it would have looked during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Along with most of the other houses owned by Historic Deerfield, it is open to the public seasonally for tours.