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Beverly Historical Society

117 Cabot Street

Beverly, MA 01915

(978) 922-1186


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The Balch House Associates     Beverly Historical Society & Museum 117 Cabot Street Beverly, MA 01915 (978) 922-1186


By Daniel J. Hoisington

Each of us has only a short span of time for life and can observe only the briefest portions of history. But, through the shared lives of family members and the objects, which they left, we can become part of something much bigger. Through the Balch House Associates, you can share in the lives of thousands of Balches, past and present, and feel a part of the very history of New England through the Balch House Associates; you also help preserve the ancestral home - a physical link through three hundred and fifty years.

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If the Balch House could have recorded history, what a remarkable story it could tell. John Balch first gained title to the land through a grant - the so-called "Thousand Acre Grant" - on November 11th, 1635 and apparently was living on this property by 1636. His house was small - built a story and a half high - one large hall on the main floor plus a loft upstairs. He chose a site on a hillock that looked down on the nearby Bass River, where he had easy access to salt marsh, to the water, and to his pasture land and orchards. An inventory at his death lists a house and barn, 215 acres of up-land and meadow - some planted with corn, wheat, and barley - apple orchards, a canoe, and a variety of livestock He was fifty seven when he first came into the land, living there only twelve years.

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His eldest son, Benjamin, received the house and land following his father's death. One requirement was the care of John's widow -Agnes, who was provided the "roome newly built". This phrase from the will leads to two possibilities - that the house we know was built around 1648 or that a lean-to addition, quite common, had been built off the back Benjamin had thirteen children and outlived three wives. It was Benjamin who probably altered the family home into the general configuration that we know today. There is agreement among the architects who have studied the construction of the house that the older section was "married" to another building - the hypothesis being that the original "Balch House" was moved slightly to its current site based on the way the chimney brings the two parts together. Furthermore, Gary Wheeler Stone and Abbot Lowell Cumings give an approximate date around 1700 for the "new" section-the portion on the left looking up from the street. As Benjamin Balch increased his wealth and land-holdings, such an addition would be likely.

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The ancestral home remained in the family until 1916, although Benjamin Balch the third, great-grandson of the original settler, was the last of that actual name to live there. "Deacon" Balch, as he was known, lived modestly, if his probate inventory is any indication, listing as it does "an old fashioned chest of drawers" and "six small chairs - very old" among his prime possessions. This is also the first historic record of our "weaving room" since it lists a "loom, quill wheel, swift, warping bars, and spools." At Deacon Balch's death, the homestead went to daughter Debra Balch Dodge, whose family lived and worked along Cabot Street through the 19th century. Two important changes to the property were the construction of a small shop near the stone bridge and the introduction of the Eastern Railroad in 1840, transforming the rural peace of the farm with the sound of the locomotive.

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Through combinations of luck and foresight, the Balch House has survived while the hundreds of homes from the same era have fallen to progress or decay. The ancient home went through an extended period of tenancy and in the early 1900's, the massive United Shoe Machinery Corporation cast its shadow on the site. The hero was William Sumner Appleton, a member of the Balch Family Association and Director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Fearing loss of the house, he formed the Balch House Trust to purchase the home, joined by Charles Knowles Bolton, President of SPNEA, and Franklin Balch Appleton supervised fundraising for the first important restoration of the home and hired Norman Isham to evaluate the structure. Isham, a popular preservation architect at the time, wished to get back to the original house, and on finding some of the original rafters in the attic from John Balch's roof suggested that the back lean-to be ripped off and the southern half of the house be dismantled. This was eventually modified to exposing and recreating the roofline of the original story and a half structure, and defining the two sections by "picking out' trim in different color tones. The house as we see it today, in fact, is a product of its restoration as much as its origins.

The Trust faced questions about its nonprofit status, and in 1932, the home was turned over to the Beverly Historical Society, which maintains and operates it today. Each year, trained historic architects come and study the Balch House, understanding its unique role in American history. Recently, Gary Wheeler Stone, an eminent researcher, wrote, "The Society is to be commended for responding so handsomely to the formidable challenges that have confronted them in the preservation of this building."

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The Balch House Associates helps preserve this home for future generations to enjoy and to share in a sense of family belonging. Your membership helps fulfill a commandment from the Book of Proverbs: "Remove not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set. By wisdom, a house is built and by understanding, it is established; by knowledge, the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches."