House Stories – Rum Cottage – 158 State Street & 71 High Street
It doesn’t take long for any pedestrian strolling along “The Ridge” to observe an idiosyncrasy. Stretching along the length are mansion after mansion until 71 High Street is reached. Here a tiny home is located. The first question out of your mouth is, “Why?”
The answer has to do with liquor, in particular, rum.
It is amazing how social norms change over generations. Something that at one time was venerated can later become a social scourge.
Such was the case of the little wooden “gingerbread house located at 71 High Street. It was owned by Hiram Wood who owned a store that specialized in rum and ships’ stores. When he was younger, another rum dealer, Moses Brown, was the second wealthiest man in town who participated in the Golden Triangle Trade. Sugar cane was purchased from the Caribbean to be converted to rum in Newburyport’s distilleries. The rum was shipped out to many parts of the world but often was sent to Africa and used as an exchange for slaves. The slaves were sold to the Caribbean and other southern ports in exchange for sugar cane, and so on. But that was before Newburyport became a hot-bed for the abolitionist movement. And one of the first targets for William Lloyd Garrison and others was the Golden Triangle Trade and the ships of this port were very complicit in some form to the continuation of slavery. Further exasperating his reputation, Hiram Wood put his signature on a letter that was sent by many in the rum trade to Daniel Webster in support of the U.S. Constitution (at that time) re-affirming that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters regardless of where they were found. (The reason runaways had to be hidden even in Newburyport and quietly smuggled down to the ships.)
After many lives were lost in the Civil War and the slaves were freed, the rum trade lost its legitimacy as the prohibitionist movement began to spread through the likes of Carrie Nation. When the successful shoe manufacturer, Elisha P. Dodge purchased in 1885 the home now known as Rum Cottage, the property value plunged in its ill-repute. With great expense, he had the home moved to 158 State Street and he left the original property open. Then in 1937, a small brick house was placed there. If it wasn’t for the impressive wrought iron fence in front, this home would seriously be out of place on the ridge.
Sometime later, the Rum Cottage was joined to 160 State Street and the gingerbread motif expanded to both structures.
So if you’re out strolling around town and want to have a good gawk at “Rum Cottage”, I bet Mr. Pelsue, the present owner since 1982 will really appreciate it. (Yeah, right.)