- Historic Sites
The Parson’s Hearth
A rare survivor of New England’s earliest days testifies to the strength that forged a nation
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
If the structure of the village government was clearly laid out, so was the structure of the New England house. Its supporting posts and beams were not hidden from view behind paneling, wainscoting, or cornices; its surfaces and intersections might be decorated, but they were never obscured. The massive summer beams that supported the chambers above were sometimes painted red and displayed elaborate chamfers and stops. At the Capen house the overhangs, pendants, and brackets (which had already passed out of style in England) announced the craftsman’s work as well as the house’s structural dynamic. The front door became art, with decorative patterns formed by the nails that held its layers together. Furnishings were embellished with massive turnings from the joiner’s lathes, their various parts exaggerated by carvings, scorings, incisions, and paint. The aesthetic eschewed any overall scheme. There was no attempt at symmetry or harmony of parts. Individual elements were what they were, and for that they were celebrated.
During the years of Capen’s ministry, the affairs of the town grew more orderly, and Topsfield learned how to govern itself. By 1729 all the common lands had been divided and distributed among the citizens in proportion to the amount of taxes they paid. Disputes continued to arise, of course, but now they were peacefully resolved within the community, often under Capen’s guidance. In 1703 the town’s growing stability was marked by the building of a big new meetinghouse, holding more pews and galleries than the original one. Even the prowling wolves eventually disappeared from Topsfield, perhaps chased off by men trying to collect the ten-shilling bounty awarded for each one brought back dead.
Topsfield’s strong sense of its own identity showed in the changing layout of the town. The old meetinghouse had been nearly a mile from Capen’s house, at a site convenient for parishioners from both Topsfield and the neighboring town of Boxford. The new building stood across from the Capen house, on the edge of the training field, all that remained of Topsfield’s common lands. Around this field, other churches and a town hall eventually were built, most in the nineteenth century, and the common began to provide a focus for the town’s activities.
Shortly after the Topsfield Historical Society bought the Capen house, they set about a very thorough restoration. The house’s framing timbers and fireplaces are original, and so is the entry, called the porch. But some elements were completely redone, as is demonstrated on this page, and in the process designs were borrowed from other houses of the period. Today we would go back to existing evidence to fashion the windows, doors, and chimney of such a venerable place, but in 1913 that notion simply was not afloat.
Steep roofs, small, heat-conserving windows, and the second-story overhang are signs of New England settlers’ houses, based on those of late-medieval England. The overhang may have been a way of strengthening the house’s frame, but that isn’t clear, even today. Yet the device certainly carved a powerful, even willful, silhouette that says, “I will stand through the centuries.”
Still, it was no Eden. The grounds of the new meetinghouse held stocks for the punishment of wrongdoers, as had the old. Poor people continued to be forced out of town, probably in ever increasing numbers. And political rights were still restricted to property owners who were longtime inhabitants and church members.
Years later scholars would speculate that Topsfield grew up around the green, but the reality was just the opposite; the village had actually been formed years before its seemingly eternal common.
By contrast, the Capen house really was an echo of an earlier time. “If Parson Capen’s house could be transported overseas and planted somewhere in the little Essex hamlet of Toppesfield,” one architectural historian has written, “it would harmonize perfectly with the pleasant rolling country, the thatched cottages and the sturdy oak trees of the district of England which was the real cradle of the Pilgrim Fathers.” And Reverend Capen’s Sunday sermons, which discovered the meaning of the community in stories from the Bible, were also a kind of invention that gave New World settlers a sense of destiny.