History of the Parson Capen House

1683 Parson Capen

The house is constructed by Parson Capen for his bride, Priscilla Appleton.

1725 Nathaniel Capen

Nathaniel Capen, their son, inherits the property.

1747-1758 Baker, Putnam, Andrews

Between 1747 and 1758, the Capen House changed hands a number of times. Nathaniel Capen transferred it to his sister and nephew. They sold it to Edmund Putnam of Danvers, who sold it to his father-in-law Israel Andrews, who sold it back to Edmund Putname, just in time for Edmund to sell it to Rev. John Emerson.

1758 Rev. John Emerson

Edmund Putnam sold the property to Rev. John Emerson who, along with being a most successful minister to the town, was also a significant land-owner. He already owned a portion of the north side of the Common where he had built his house. The acquisition of the property added the entire north and east sides of the Common to the Reverend's holdings.

1774 Thomas Emerson

Rev. Emerson died and left his property to his son Thomas. Thomas expanded the old Emerson home to what is now the Balch-Jordan house at 93 Main Street. At the same time, he planned to build a home for his son Joseph on the Capen property. From this point on, the division between the neighboring Emerson and Capen properties becomes cloudy. The Parson Capen house was located between the two large Emerson homes, and to which one it actually belonged would become an Emerson issue for some generations.

1813 Joseph Emerson

When Thomas Emerson died, his sons Billy and Joseph Emerson inherited his property. Billy retained the grand home his father built and Joseph built the "new house," now the Emerson Center of the Congregational Church, in 1814 on part of the Capen property. Neither brother lived in the Parson Capen House.

1826 Billy Emerson

It appears that when Joseph Emerson died in 1826, he left the Parson Capen house and land surrounding it to his brother, Billy Emerson, and the new home that he built to his daughter Harriet Josephine Emerson.

Billy Emerson was a colorful entrepreneur among whose enterprises was cattle raising in Maine. He was known as "Forty-Farm Emerson" because he maintained forty farms between Maine and Boston so that drovers could drive the cattle each day from one to another. According to a deed of 1886, part of the Capen property was known as the "old cow yard." Tradition has it that the Parson Capen House was used to house the drovers when they rested in Topsfield

Title to the property that Billy Emerson owned was clouded by mortgages and the assigning of partial rights to various individuals, including members of the Emerson family.

1835 Harriet Emerson Holmes

Billy Emerson died, and his sister-in-law, Mehitable Cummings Emerson (wife of yet another of Thomas Emerson's sons) to whom the Thomas/Bill Emerson house had been assigned, sold that house to Gilbert Brownell who had married Billy's daughter Elizabeth Pratt Emerson. As a result, 93 Main Street stayed in the Emerson family. Joseph Emerson's daughter, Harriet Josephine Emerson, inherited at least partial rights to the Parson Capen House.

An only child, Harriet Josephine Emerson was afforded educational opportunities not usually available to women of her day. Public opinion considered her the most talented woman in the area. A novelist, she wrote Thornton Stanly, or, The Rescue, a Tale of Topsfield at the Time of the War of 1812, published in the The Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, Vol. XXIV, 1919.

Harriet married Charles H. Holmes of Maine in 1836. Harriet's cousin in Alfred, Maine was friendly with the Holmes family and considered Charles a promising match for Harriet. The two corresponded for a time and were married literally three days after they actually met in person!

1849 Charles Holmes

Sadly, Harriet Emerson Holmes died at the age of 36. Her property passed to her husband, Charles H. Holmes, a well-repected man known as the "Squire" in Topsfield. He farmed in a "theoretical" sort of way, became a lawyer, wrote poetry, served on the Topsfield School Committee, and generally enjoyed life in Topsfield. He was elected to the General Court of Massachusetts but one term seemed enough for him.

At 6'8" in height, Charles Holmes was known as the tallest man in Essex County. When he signed up for service in the Civil War, he was kept at a desk in Boston because his height would attract attention in the front lines of battle.

For Holmes' biography and samples of his poetry, see The Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, Vol II, 1896.

An 1872 map of Topsfield indicated that he owned both the Joseph Emerson property and the Parson Capen House.

Holmes died in 1886. The inventory of his property may have included the Parson Eapen House, but this is not clear.

1897 Anna Balch Jordan

Anna Balch Jordan, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Parson Capen and Priscilla Appleton, appears to have inherited the house in 1897 from her father Humphrey Balch who owned 93 Main Street but she was not sure that she owned the Capen House in 1904. How Humphrey Balch acquired the Capen House is not known. Perhaps he purchased it from Charles Holmes' estate. By 1910, it was acknowledged as Anna Jordan's on an atlas of Topsfield.

1913 Topsfield Historical Society

In 1913 Anna Jordan sold the Parson Capen House to the Topsfield Historical Society. Under the auspices of its President, George Francis Dow, the Society restored the house to its 1600s condition.

Modern Day

An outstanding example of a First Period home, the Parson Capen House has been featured in many different architectura history venues. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibit of Three Centuries of Art in the United States (Trois Siecles d’Art aux Etats-Unis) at the Musee du Jeu de Paume. The catalog for the exhibit included an illustration of the Parson Capen House. In 2011, the House was featured in an episode of This Old House.

In 1960, the House was designated as a National Historic Landmark (Nomination Form.)

The Parson Capen House has been replicated in modern houses in Massachusetts, New York), Minnesota), and the State of Washington, to name just a few. A simulation of it can even be purchased for online games ! [Note: These links are for informational purposes only and not recommendations by the Topsfield Historical Society.]