House Stories – 270 High Street – Pike-Parton House Former Home of James Parton, the Father of Modern Biographies

No marker, no plaque – just the house – sometimes Newburyport is so packed full of history that we have ‘The Ages Burnout’.   Yet, there is no excuse for so many of our historic homes.        It is hard to believe that this basic building hides the fantastic fame of the man who owned it. 


This house was built in 1870 in the classic Italianate style by the Reverand Daniel P. Pike so his son would have a home.    His son was Benjamin Pike, the master of the grammar school on Forrester Street.    Intent on providing a basic domicile, the architecture is hardly distinquishable.    The basic Italianate elements are simple, as well as the simple entrance portico.     Unfortunately, after all that trouble, the house was sold to James Parton in 1871, recently from New York City.


He was born in Canterbury, England in 1822.     He was taken to the United States when he was five years old, studied in New York City and White Plains, New York, and was a schoolmaster in Philadelphia and then in New York.   


Arriving in his new hometown in 1875, James Parton used his home as a base to produce some of the most popular biographies of his day.      We take the form of biographies today for granted but it was Parton that made it a popular vehicle of literary device to learn specifically from the experiences of notable persons who were born, lived through challenges and experiences and then died.     He was famously noted for one popular series in his day which would appeal even for today’s modern audience. He wrote the Captains Of Industry Or Men Of Business Who Did Something Besides Making Money which consists of biographies of famous men of his day. The Captains of Industry consisted of two series published in 1884 and 1891.


He went on to write highly popular biographies of Horace Greeley, Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson.     He also used biographies to reach the populace by placing shortened versions in widely read journals such as The Home Journal and the New York Journal.


He became so popular that he had to show it off.     They may be drafty and they are massive but nothing shows off wealth better than a Federalist mansion.    He moved into one in 1886 at the opposite corner of Oakland and High Street. (Again, with no plaque to indicate it!)


Great Men tend to spin off greatness.     His first wife, Sara Payson Willis Parton, sister of N. P. Willis, and widow of Charles H. Eldredge (who died in 1846), attained considerable popularity as a writer under the pen-name Fanny Fern.     His adopted daughter, Ethel, the daughter of Grace Eldrege (Fanny Fern’s daughter) and writer Mortimer Thomson (also known as Philander Doesticks), was adopted by Parton in 1872, and she later adopted Parton’s last name. Ethel Parton became a famous writer of children’s books about 19th century life in Newburyport, MA, published in the 1930s and 1940s. (I wonder if James Lagoulis knew of these children books?)    James had two children, Hugo and Mabel. Hugo had a child (James Parton’s actual grandchild), James Parton (1912-2001) was founder and publisher of American Heritage and <a title="Horizon Magazine (page does not exist)” href=”″&gt;Horizon Magazines which also highlighted biographies and histories.

The original James Parton passed away in 1891 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.     For such fame, his tombstone is hardly noticable.     We know of it because Ghlee Woodworth makes a point of pointing it out on her tour, Tiptoe through the Tombstones.

After reading about him and noting the literary importance of his descendants, it still amazes me in spite of knowing of The Curse, how Newburyport as a city has somehow been lost to history and to most of America.   

It is a thing to marvel at.

P. Preservationist


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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One Response to House Stories – 270 High Street – Pike-Parton House Former Home of James Parton, the Father of Modern Biographies

  1. Sarah says:

    I just stumbled on this post about the Partons – hurrah for Google! I’m currently writing a biography of Ethel and am happy to find someone else interested in bringing back to light things that have been “lost to history.” Have you any more local info about Ethel or the other Partons? Would love to speak with you.

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