Wandering Houses 0f Manchester


Manchester was a town of wandering houses.  

While the thought of houses rumbling through the streets is a strange one to us, the practice was common everywhere in old Yankeedom.  In his 1783-1819 diary, Rev. William Bentley of Salem gives us 36 years’ worth of evidence.  Usually, a house was moved because the owner didn’t want it, due to its age or size or location, whereas someone else did want it and could have it moved for a lot less money than to have one built.

The neighborhood of West Manchester is a good case in point. After the Civil War, wealthy Bostonians acquired Manchester property on which to create landscaped summer estates.  Along Harbor and Bridge Streets, the summer residents bought up the homesteads of fishermen and shoemakers, removed the old houses, filled in the cellars, and on their sites laid out gardens and built stables.  Thus, West Manchester lost most of its historic houses and even lost its name, which had always been Newport.

Old Newport was populous enough that it had its own public school-house on Harbor Street, built in 1822.  At the time of the neighborhood transformation in the 1880s, the school building was acquired by a private owner and moved a short distance away to be incorporated into the stable of what is now the Old Corner Inn.

By 1895, in Newport 12 old houses had been removed—eight razed, two re-situated in the neighborhood, and two more moved to new sites far away in downtown Manchester.

One of those houses now stands at 22 Friend Street, off School Street.  For 160 years it had stood on Bridge Street, looking down Harbor, having been built in 1725 as the residence of John Lee, housewright, and family.  After decades of Lee ownership, it had been sold in 1772 to shoemaker Benjamin Crafts, soon to become a Revolutionary War soldier and supplier of shoes to the army (we have his diary from 1776).  It remained in the Crafts family for generations, and was last occupied in-situ by a relative, Israel Goodridge, fishing skipper, and his family. The Henry L. Higginsons of Boston, long-time summer residents, bought the house in 1885 and gave it to Thomas Ray, a dairyman, to be moved. He made the arrangements, and the old Lee-Crafts-Goodridge house rolled away on Bridge Street through the center of town, then up School Street to the end of Friend, where it was deposited on a new foundation next to another house (#20) that the Rays had moved in as their residence 13 years before.

A house to be moved (usually without its chimneys, sometimes with) would be raised from its foundation by means of screw-jacks and cribbing, under which would be built a sort of sled made of beams.  Then came the teamsters, steering the horse- or oxen-drawn sled on a series of rollers placed in the roadway.  As the house moved forward, men would take the rollers that had been left behind and re-set them ahead of the house, and on it would go.  Of course, the teamsters were highly experienced in working with their animals; but there was also a gang of men out back, hauling on brake-ropes to keep the house from picking up speed.

As time went by, horses and oxen were replaced by tractors, trucks, and even locomotives.

It was fairly easy to pick up a house and move it.  Depending on how far the house was to travel, the project might only take a day, so you can see why it would be less expensive than building a new house.

What is not easy is to figure out the history of a house that has been moved!

In tracing the history of a house backward through land conveyances (deeds), a researcher counts on the house to be standing on the spot where it was built. However, before starting down the paper trail, an architectural historian first visits the house to identify the various features that point to a certain date of construction. If an early house first appears on a house-lot too late to be chronologically consistent with its evident date of construction, it must have started out somewhere else.

But where?  The land conveyances never say.  Usually there is no one around today who saw it get moved.  For evidence about its first site, one must look elsewhere.

In Manchester, the Historical Museum has a first-rate collection of street-by-street archives, typically with old photos of the houses, sometimes from the 1800s.  Often those photos have labels or notes in faded ink written on the back.  For years, Sue Parker, Chris Virden, and others have been organizing the files—with information collected by Frances Burnett, Sally Gibson, Fred Rice, Frank Floyd, and others—so that it is possible to find those photos and their clues toward a mysterious origin.

Most important as a source of evidence for moved houses is the Manchester Cricket’s long-time reporting on the building of new houses and the razing, remodeling, or moving of old ones.  The Cricket has been published since 1888 and most of its issues are available in searchable digital format at the library’s website, at “Manchester Cricket Digital Archives,” as are the issues, in the 1870s, of the “Beetle and Wedge” monthly Manchester paper and the Gloucester-based weekly “Cape Ann Advertiser,” which had a regular Manchester column.

Among the wandering houses of Manchester are the following:

  1. 48 Bridge St., built nearby 1854 for Tyler Parsons, shipmaster; moved and enlarged 1873 for Rev. Cyrus Bartol.
  2. 15 Friend St., built 62 School St. in 1872 as the Roman Catholic Church; moved 1907-8; moved 1910 for Lewis Killam, carpenter.
  3. 20 Friend St., built 62 School St. (corner of Burnham Lane) in 1856 for Frederic Burnham as a “store & shop,” moved 1872 for tannery foreman Thomas Ray.
  4. 22 Friend St., built c.129 Bridge St. in 1725 by John Lee Jr., housewright, moved 1885 for dairyman Thomas Ray.
  5. 30 Norwood Ave.; built at 20 Union in 1732 for Samuel Carter, moved c. 1883 moved to the site of Coach’s Field; moved again in 1905 for Lucy Carroll, nurse, and her sister Mrs. Annie Francis.
  6. 34 Norwood Ave.; built at 28 School in 1830 by Holten Allen, housewright; moved in 1885 for Daniel Sheehan, gardener.
  7. 10 Old Neck Road, built nearby in 1768 for William Allen and rebuilt 1855 for Henry S. Chase, cabinet maker; moved in 1909 for Maynard Gilman, hotelier.
  8. Peele House Square, built 1760s for merchant Jonathan Peele at 22 Liberty Street, Salem; barged in 1971 for Ike Coburn, architect.
  9. 15 Rosedale, built 1899 next door as a laundry; moved 1903 and in 1924 converted to a summer cottage for George Matheson, enlarged for the Sabellas in 1985.
  10. 102 School, built on-site in 1847 for Gideon Stevens, cabinet-maker, incorporated as the second story of a larger house in 1918 for Frank Rust, grocer.
  11. 42 Sea Street, built nearby as small dwelling c.1800, moved here in 1873 by Lewis Tappan and enlarged 1894 for Charles Ward of Salem as summer residence, “Swamp Angel.”

No doubt there are other houses that will prove to have been equally restless. If you wish to commission a history of your house and acquire a house-plaque identifying its age and first owner, please contact the Manchester Historical Museum, info@mhm.org.

On the evening of May 18 at Manchester’s Visitation Parish Hall, Robert Booth gave an illustrated lecture, “The Wandering Houses of Manchester,” regarding the old-time practice of house moving.  Booth, the new interim director of the Manchester Historical Museum, has traced the history of more than seventy Manchester houses—including some wanderers—in connection with the Museum’s ongoing house history and house plaque program.


manchester, robert booth, old corner inn, architect, bridge st., houses