Research Librarian Irene Axelrod on the Settlement House
ANDREW FRENCH: How did you first learn about—or hear about the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association?
IRENE AXELROD: I had worked in Somerville in a small heating and air conditioning company. I went back to school as an adult and got my bachelor’s degree in history and had done an independent study on Salem and its institutions—a six-month program where I went to various places and researched their collections, talked to some of the people who worked there. And after I got the degree, I saw an ad in North Shore Sunday that the House of the Seven Gables was looking for weekend guides. And my hours had been cut back at my job, so I came and worked here on Fridays and Saturdays as a tour guide in the fall of 1992, when it was the tercentenary of the witchcraft trials.
AF: Had you visited the site before you became involved?
IA: As a child and I had brought my children here, but I was not really familiar with it or remembered the story very much when I first started.
AF: Were your family or friends involved in activities at the Gables?
IA: Actually, as time went on, I had two grandsons who went to summer camp at the Settlement House across the street. And my adopted daughter worked for awhile in the office here.
AF: What years were you here at the Gables?
IA: I started in September of 1992 and left in March of 2001.
AF: How do you remember the site?
IA: With great fondness. Every time I come here, it’s like coming home. Those nine years really were a life-changing experience and just to walk in the door here, it really does feel like home.
AF: Have things changed on the site?
IA: Oh, yes, quite a bit. When I first came in 1992, the house was kind of in a worn-out sort of way. So when we go through now on the tours or on visits, the rooms have been spruced up. There’s been historic research done. The rooms are much more colorful than I remember. When I first came here, we did the tour associating the rooms with Hawthorne’s story The House of the Seven Gables and it’s more now, I think, a material culture type of a tour.
AF: What was the Settlement House like when you were involved?
IA: Very active and I, as I said, had two grandsons who went to summer camp there. I was great friends with one of the directors who worked there—who was a very big help to me at a time when I was going through quite a good bit because I was getting guardianship of my grandson and she was very helpful in that—and in some counseling and advice on how to proceed with that. The Settlement House, at that time, had senior citizens programs, after-school, and pre-school programs, and lots of things going on. The one thing that wasn’t really happening was a lot of association between the Historical Society and the Settlement House.
AF: While you were involved, what was the community’s perception of the Gables?
IA: Well, at that time, I think the community somewhat looked down on the House of the Seven Gables, which I felt was unfortunate. There was much more attention being paid, at that point, to the merger between the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. There was a director who had been here several years and he had worked with the guides to change the tour, which had been—in the eighties, I think mostly—a script and people gave the tour using that script. He wanted to work more with themes, such as the maritime history or the local history of Salem or Nathaniel Hawthorne and literature or the history of the families who had lived here. So the tours that were being given in my time had themes. They weren’t scripted. People gave the basic facts that we were all presented in the education and training programs for guides, but we were able to choose our own themes and we could fit those to a group that came in. For instance, if a group of high school kids who were studying The Scarlet Letter came in, it was a Hawthorne and literature tour. If it was a group of elder hostel women on a tour across the country, it was a women’s history tour. And if it was a group of old navy officers—and we had all of these—then it would be a maritime tour.
AF: What, to you, makes the Gables special?
IA: I think it is the look of the place, the ocean and the garden and the buildings—and the story. And I think, to me, the story is what’s most important. And that starts with the Turners, way back in the 1600s, going right up through Caroline Emmerton and her time here—and in bringing both the historic site and a Settlement House together. And then today, to the programs that still are continuing after all these years, after a hundred years.
AF: Do you have memories of the people you worked with?
IA: Oh, yes. Many memories. I started, as I said, in September of 1992 and it was a very busy time, because people were coming here in great numbers to learn about the witchcraft trials, because it was the tercentenary. And there was one particular woman who started the week before me. We were great friends. And when it came time for Halloween that year, we signed up to work all day, from nine to five, and then we signed up to do the Spirits of the Gables, too. And we were sitting in the guides’ room one night--it was just before midnight and we had just completed this very long day—and there was a futon in there. And all at once, this huge banging sound went off. And our director came in and he said, “Oh, don’t worry. That noise is just the Derflingers' cannon. They fire that off every year at Halloween on midnight.” And we were both dressed in what they used to call the prairie dresses—and had hoop skirts on—we both rolled off the futon and we thought for sure we were both going to be fired. But after putting in that long day, we were both pretty punchy. And we couldn’t believe that someone was firing off a cannon after midnight. So we just couldn’t stop laughing.
AF: Are you still in contact with any of the people you worked with?
IA: I’m not, only very sporadically—you know, Christmas cards once a year and I’ve really lost touch with all but one or two of the people that I worked with. And some of them, unfortunately, have passed on.
AF: Were there any major events on site when you worked here?
IA: Oh, there were many. Halloween, of course, was huge every year. Some years we would have twenty-three to twenty-five bus groups coming in on a day plus the walking tours, plus doing Spirits of the Gables at night. I played Susanna Ingersol, I played Hepsiba. I was doing traffic control at some point and sometimes I would be out in front of the waiting room, just doing a talk while people were waiting to get in. Another big event was Christmas. My second boss came in to get the decorations to be as historically accurate as possible, and at that point I was also doing research, so I was asked to research the colors and the types of flowers and the decorations that would be used—give a talk to the garden clubs in September and hope that we could come up with something that everyone would be happy with in December. When I first came to the Gables, there was a florist who used to donate flowers and there would be flowers in each room—fresh, every day. And then they stopped doing that because it was felt that the moisture was bad for the furnishings—which, indeed, I think, speaking on a curatorial basis, was true. But it was pretty to have the flowers in there.
AF: Do you have a favorite time or season when you worked here?
IA: Well, my favorite time—and most people won’t say this—but my time was the winter and that was because you would have a few tourists—maybe two, maybe three tours a day. The staff would be very small. But the folks who came here in the winter came because they really wanted to be here. We’d have a lot of German visitors, a lot of English visitors—a lot of people who have a special interest, like, for instance, they would be very interested in Hawthorne. Or they had gotten some information about the Settlement House movement. So they were coming and those were very specific tours around a certain theme. And that really was my favorite time, because you could really take time to talk with people, to ask and answer questions and have a real dialogue.
AF: When was it busiest at the Gables?
IA: Oh, October—absolutely October. Summers would be busy sometimes, but by the beginning of August, the visitation would start to fall off. But from September 30 on, the bus groups would come, the walk-in people would come, and most of them wanted to know things about the witchcraft trials. So we learned a lot about it, even though the site wasn’t directly connected with that. But I did discover that the youngest John Turner—John Turner the third—was mentioned in the records as having been knocked out of a cherry tree by one of the people who had been accused of witchcraft. But it didn’t seem that that case ever went anywhere.
AF: What was the interpretation of the mansion like?
IA: Well, when I first came, as I said, they were shifting. They were going from a tour that was purely scripted and it was total memorization to choosing themes and letting people pick the theme or gear it towards the group that they were having. There was one of the supervisors that used to say, “Well, there’s a group of Hawthorne scholars coming," and most of the time that wasn’t true. They might have read The Scarlet Letter, they might have read [Arthur Miller's] The Crucible, and that would be about it. But occasionally, it was true, we had a group of people come in one day who were setting up a website, Hawthorne in Salem, which is still under operation today and they had gotten a grant to do that. And my boss sent one of the women of the group, who was an English professor out in the midwest, over to Hawthorne’s birthplace. And unbeknownst to me, she came in full of questions. And she asked me one question after another about Hawthorne. Fortunately, I was able to answer all of them. And then when she was done, she said, “Well, I must tell you," she said, “your boss sent me over to test you.” And she said, “You passed. You’re in the right job.” So I felt great. And then I knew who she was after she told me her name because she had, her name was Rita Gollum and she has written a great deal about Hawthorne over the years.
AF: Is the interpretation different now than it was then?
IA: I think so. As I said earlier, I think now the focus is more on the material culture, about the objects, if you will—and less, perhaps, about the people that were involved in the house. And I would guess, now, probably, there are fewer people who come through who have read The House of the Seven Gables.
AF: What is your most vivid memory of the Gables?
IA: Oh, my goodness—there’s so many. There were Fourth of July parties for Hawthorne, whose birthday was on July 4 in 1804. People would gather for cake and for celebration. When I got guardianship of my grandson, the guides and the rest of the staff got together and they threw a party outside in the garden for us in celebration. That’s an absolutely outstanding memory and they had supported us all through that process, which took about a year. But the calendar occasions—the Octobers, the Halloweens, the crowds in the house—one Halloween, I was in the dining room as Susanna Ingersol and all at once, the lights blink. There was a terrible rainstorm outside and an old tree that was in front of Fippin House had fallen down. And the power started to go out, but it didn’t. But it really lent some realism to what—everybody thinks Halloween would be like. And I’ll never forget that.
AF: What impact do you feel the Gables makes on the community?
IA: I think the Gables has a huge impact—both—from both its missions. One of the things that I’ve always found so intriguing about this place is its double mission, as a historic site or a museum and as a social service entity. And I think for Salem, in particular, the Settlement House, in some ways, probably has more of an impact because so many people come through there or work there or are associated with its services in some way. But the historic site, also, I think, has, over the years, had as its mission to present local history to not only the people that come from far away, but to the people that live close by. And I think other the years it has done an
excellent job of that. Where other institutions have changed their focus, the Gables has kept that as their central vision.
AF: What impact do you feel the Settlement House makes in the community?
IA: I think it’s huge. They have programs for everybody from the smallest child to the oldest citizen. It’s a place where people can go if they are having difficulty and find out what the services are that are offered. So it’s a clearinghouse, it’s a central location. It’s a place to go for help and for assistance—and for information.
AF: Irene, you’re very well-known in the community as a Hawthorne scholar and perhaps more pertinent, as a major Emmerton scholar. Can you tell me more about that?
IA: Oh, sure. Well, let me start with Caroline Emmerton. When I came to the Gables and I heard the story of Caroline Emmerton and her work, I was fascinated by it, again, because of that double mission—the historic preservation and the museum focus, if you will—as well as the social service that she was interested in. So I wanted to find out more about her and about her work. And I—going back to school, after I got here, I went to Tufts and got a certificate in museum studies. And the last part of that was an internship. And I wanted desperately to write a paper on Caroline Emmerton. It would give me an excuse to dig into the archives. And I was hoping that I would find a treasure trove of information and more about her life.
And unfortunately, that did not work out. But I did have great fun doing some oral histories and talking to people—Mary Burke, who had been our secretary, Alfred Putnam, who had been on the board of trustees and had known Caroline Emmerton when he was a little boy. And they were able to tell me things about her that were not written down anywhere, because I was not able to find any letters or diaries or personal papers or even business papers that she had written. I found some scripts for plays—local historic pageants—I found some notes for lectures and papers that she had given for local clubs that she belonged to. But nothing of a personal nature. So what I put together talked about her life in very general terms—a good bit about her work and then I filled it in with these oral histories.
Now, as far as Hawthorne, that also had been an interest of mine. I read Hawthorne in high school as most people my age did, and didn’t find his work particularly compelling. But when I came to the Gables and could kind of see where he had been and possibly picked up some of the inspiration that he’d had for the work that he had done, I became very interested in his life.
And so I kind of propelled that into doing research. And I went from being a weekend guide to a full-time guide and supervisor. I worked in the office briefly,after a couple of surgeries, so I had that business experience and got to see the institution from a different point of view than I had before. And finally, I ended up as a researcher and, which led me to the job that I now have. A lot of people on tours would go through the forty-five minutes and then have other questions that they wanted to know. So I began to handle that. I worked, also, with people who were getting ready to publish material that was connected to the site. So that was the beginning—and it all started because the woman who had been doing public relations and had that as part of her job went on maternity leave. And that was the only piece she couldn’t fill. But she knew that after I got the certificate in museum studies, I was looking to do more than just the tours. So it evolved over the years from being, you know, a smaller part of the job to a bigger one with a lot of different hats.
AF: What impact did the Gables and the Settlement have on you?
IA: Huge. It really changed my life. It was the best job I ever had because I got to use a lot of my skills, I got to develop new ones. I had been terrified of public speaking until I came here. And when I did my sample tour with David Goss, I got so tongue-tied, I could hardly talk. He got me out in the garden, got me calmed down and said, “I know you know this information. And I think you’ll be a great guide—but you’ve got to, you know, tell me what you know.” So I was able to sit down and do that. And now public speaking comes very easily, so it was something that really came about because I worked here and I was able to build on my interest in history and make that my life’s work.