When a historical relic that anchors a town’s history is acquired by the town, it is a time for celebration. Space, Light, and Ornament: Early Meeting Houses of Old Newbury,an exhibition at the Museum of Old Newbury, Newburyport, Massachusetts, celebrates the acquisition by the museum of a gilded weathercock made by Shem Drowne (1683-1774) and its installation at the museum headquarters. The exhibition will remain open through October 15 and then will reopen in May 2020. The weathervane can be seen year-round at the museum’s Cushing House. Shem Drowne made the weathervane in 1725 for the meeting house of the Third Parish Church of Newbury in Market Square, and in 1801 it was moved to the new meeting house of the church, by then known as the First Religious Society, on Pleasant Street in Newburyport, where it remained until 2013.
The weathervane was removed from the church’s steeple in 2013. It was kept in a bank vault and then appraised for $300,000. A generous donor contributed the $300,000 necessary to acquire the weathervane from the First Religious Society, a Unitarian Universalist church. The money raised for its purchase will go to the church’s steeple restoration fund. A reproduction weathercock made by a Massachusetts craftsman now flies from the steeple.
The weathercock was sold with the stipulation that it remain in Newburyport in perpetuity and be on exhibit at the Cushing House, headquarters of the museum, and remain in its original condition. Its surface is part of its history.
The weathervane had been attributed to either Shem Drowne or his son Thomas Drowne until recent research confirmed that is likely the work of Shem. An article in the July 12, 1839, Newburyport Herald chronicling the history of the vane tells that it was put atop the Market Square meeting house when it was erected in 1725. Thomas Drowne would have been just ten years old, so it must be the work of his father, Shem.
Shem Drowne was born in 1683 in a portion of Kittery, Maine, that later became the town of Eliot. The family moved to Boston when Shem was 16. He married Katherine Clark in Boston in 1712, and they had ten children. To support his family, Drowne established a copper and tinplate shop on Anne Street in the North End. He is regarded as the first documented weathervane maker in the American Colonies.
In 1716 he made an Indian archer weathervane for the cupola of Boston’s Province House, the official residence of the royal governor. In 1876 it was a gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society from Emily Warren Appleton. In 1721 Shem Drowne made a rooster vane for the New Brick Church on Hanover Street; later the weathervane was sold to First Church in Cambridge, where it is still atop the steeple. In 1740 he made the 6' long swallowtail banner that is still on the Old North Church in Boston.
In 1742 Peter Faneuil asked Shem Drowne to make the grasshopper weathervane for Faneuil Hall. He wanted a grasshopper because there is a grasshopper vane on the Royal Exchange in London, and he wanted Faneuil Hall to be a capital of finance in the New World. After the grasshopper vane fell during an earthquake in 1755, it was repaired and put back on its roost. In 1768 it was again repaired by Shem’s son Thomas. A note later found in the belly of the grasshopper read “Shem Drowne made it, May 25, 1742. To my Brethren & fellow Grasshoppers. Fell in ye year 1755, Novr. 18, early in ye morning, by a Great Earthquake—by my Old Master Above.... Again like to have met with my Utter Ruin by fire, but hopping Timely from my Public scituation, came off with Broken bones, and Much Bruised, cured and fixed...old Masters Son Thomas Drowne, June 28th, 1768, and though I will promise to Discharge my office yet I shall vary as ye wind.”
Shem Drowne died in 1774, at age 90. His grave is in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston. His third son, Thomas, also made weathervanes. A gilded weathercock attributed to Thomas Drowne (1715-1795) stood atop the steeple of the First Parish Church in Newbury from about 1772 until 2008 when the church sold the weathercock. A group of benefactors gave it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a transaction engineered by Patrick Bell and Edwin Hild of Olde Hope, New Hope, Pennsylvania. A rooster weathervane made for the East Parish Meeting House in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1771 is now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.
The exhibition celebrating the acquisition of the Shem Drowne weathercock by the Museum of Old Newbury puts the vane in context with an assemblage of decorative arts from the early meeting houses of Newburyport and contiguous communities.
A circa 1700 oak communion table made by Sergeant Stephen Jaques for the First Parish of Newbury, established in 1635, is the earliest piece furniture. Jaques also constructed the fourth meeting house for the parish in 1699. There are portraits of local ministers—the Reverend Caleb Cushing was painted by John Smibert, and the Reverend John Murray, a patriot minister and chaplain in the American Revolution, was painted by both Christian Gullager and Benjamin Blythe. There is a Benjamin Blythe pastel of the Reverend Thomas Cary of the First Religious Society of Newburyport on loan from the church. A selection of church silver made by Newbury and Boston silversmiths from the museum’s impressive collection is also on view.
Wall labels by director Susan Edwards of the Museum of Old Newbury point out that clapboard meeting houses, scattered across the New England landscape, are icons of Colonial America. They were the most important buildings in a community, serving as houses of worship and as gathering places for civic affairs, town meetings, elections, trials, executions, and political protests.
The earliest meeting houses were four-square buildings with windows. Then gable ends with bell towers were added and steeples were built, often surmounted by a gilded weathercock. By the late 17th century and into the 18th century, decorative turnings, columns, and other architectural elements were introduced along with raised pulpits, many with a sounding board or decorative canopy. Pews that flanked the pulpit provided seating for the most prestigious citizens. Communion tables were both hinged and freestanding domestic table forms of the day. Household chairs, such as banister-back chairs, foot warmers, footstools, and armrests or “leaners” were accessories in the pews.
The Shem Drowne weathercock that indicated the winds for nearly 300 years is now an icon, reminding the town’s citizens and visitors of the rich history of Newburyport and surrounding communities. It is the most recent acquisition by an active historical society that has been telling stories of the town since 1877.
For more information, visit the website (www.newburyhistory.org).
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest