Maritime History and Mansions at the Marblehead Museum

July 25, 2014

Marblehead is a small coastal town with a lot of charm and personality.  Its rich history (which includes, among its numerous maritime feats, the birth of the US Navy), scenic coast (which has inspired artists for centuries) and beautiful homes are all brought together at the Marblehead Museum & Historical Society.  This week, we took a trip to Marblehead to visit the Museum and learn a bit of our region’s fascinating history.

Marblehead is known for its historic maritime contributions and fishing industries but did you know that it was also once a hub for shoe-making?  We usually associate shoes with the Merrimack Valley area of our region – Haverhill was even once known as the “Shoe Queen City” – but as the fishing industry waned a bit in the 19th century, Marbleheaders turned to making shoes for additional income – an industry that was soon to thrive.  This fascinating bit of history is the subject of the Museum’s current exhibit , “Fishing and Shoemaking in Marblehead” (on view through September) at their Washington Street gallery.  This exhibit is part of the Museum’s Marblehead 101 series which was created to introduce and showcase’s Marblehead’s unique history.

Housed in the Museum’s main location is also the J.O.J Frost Folk Art Gallery, a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by Marblehead native J.O.J Frost.  A fascinating figure, Frost did not begin his artistic career until he was 70.  He was inspired by Marblehead and his boyhood memories of the town after the Civil War and, untrained as an artist, used materials he had on hand (such as house paint and found wood scraps) to create his pieces.  What Frost lacked in training, he more than made up for in talent – his pieces are a lovely glimpse into history, perhaps a bit idealized, but nevertheless portraying the beautiful simplicity of Marblehead at the end of the 19th century.  The Gallery is open year-round – Tuesday-Saturday, 10-4 June through October, and Tuesday-Friday, 10-4 November through May.

Many jewels decorate the Marblehead Museum’s crown but, in our opinion, the brightest is the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, a breathtaking Georgian home located across the street from the Museum’s main building.  Built in 1768 for Marblehead’s wealthiest merchant and ship owner, Jeremiah Lee, the Mansion is a grand piece of architecture with a lovely summer garden in the back.  And, spectacularly, the mansion stands in a near-original state, a testament to the expert craftsmen and artists whose original work (which includes gorgeous handpainted wallpaper) has lasted for centuries and the careful care of the mansion’s 3 owners in the past ~250 years.  Unlike most historic homes, the entire Jeremiah Lee Mansion (all 17 rooms) is on view for visitors.  Tours of the Mansion are available June through October, Tuesday-Saturday 10-4.

No trip to Marblehead would be complete without a tour of the Mansion – we cannot recommend it enough!  The historic significance and careful preservation make the Mansion a North Shore must-see for historians and architecture enthusiasts alike.  The Mansion is so perfectly and wonderfully decorated that walking through the doors is like stepping back in time.  The lavish entry alone, with its beautifully hand-painted wallpaper and  meticulously hand-carved stair railings, is enough to make your jaw drop.

Fun Fact – George Washington may not have slept at the Lee Mansion, but he did pay a visit to Marblehead’s wealthiest citizen. Washington visited Marblehead to thank the people for their contributions to the Revolutionary War.  And he was certainly not the first famous figure to visit the Mansion.  A shipping merchant, it was likely that Lee was involved in transporting arms for the Colonial army.  He met with several Revolutionary War leaders and it was after one of these meetings in Lexington that Lee died.  Strangely enough, none of Jeremiah Lee’s personal papers exist – it is believed that he instructed his wife to burn them upon his death as they contained information about some of these secret dealings and incriminating evidence that Lee was involved with the Colonial rebellion against the British.

The Marblehead Museum is also preserving history dated to another important American war, the Civil War.  The G.A.R & Civil War Museum is also open for visitors on select dates throughout the year.  The G.A.R (Grand Army of the Republic) was an organization formed to provide support for Civil War veterans and their families – an important early step in supporting our veterans. The G.A.R. room is preserved just as it was when it last held a meeting in the 1930s and the Museum features uniforms, weapons, and period images on display.

For more information on the Marblehead Museum & Historical Society, please visit  Be sure to keep up with the Museum’s upcoming events at

Thank you to the Marblehead Museum for inviting us to visit (and for the fantastic tour) and for supplying the photos for this blog!