Pioneer Village move complicated by history

·5 min read

Sep. 16—SALEM — The project to swap Camp Naumkeag and Pioneer Village, allowing both to be expanded and better used, has hit an unexpected snag: Camp Naumkeag is actually quite historic and subject to demolition delay.

The city's Historical Commission continued its review of the project at a meeting Wednesday night. The issue was continued to a future date, but officials with the project indicated the plan is to have Camp Naumkeag's buildings demolished — something that commissioners have likewise indicated they aren't opposed to.

"My take on it, having walked the buildings... since they're in really rough shape, I don't think 'preservation' would be the word to use for those buildings," said commission Chairperson Larry Spang. "It's probably 're-creation' or 'reconstruction,' if we're to try and go that route, because they're in rough shape on a number of fronts."

Officials have been exploring the idea of swapping Camp Naumkeag and Pioneer Village for the last several years. In the past year, plans have further developed to make the move as part of Salem's signature parks program. The goal is to have the move done and both sites built out and at full operation for the city's 400th anniversary in 2026.

Both sites are also about 100 years old. Camp Naumkeag was established in 1916 as a tuberculosis camp, and a set of buildings on the site today first appeared in 1920 — the tail end of the Spanish Flu's grip of the nation.

Pioneer Village, meanwhile, was built in 1930 as part of the state's tercentenary celebrations. It has since remained true to its original living history museum format, and today it's run by the city under Elizabeth Peterson, who also operates the Witch House and the Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center.

The commission saw a presentation Wednesday showing Camp Naumkeag's prior use for tuberculosis patients, with a large open-air pavilion much like the outdoor gathering spaces that have emerged under COVID-19.

"If you go up to the 1916 photo with the open pavilion... this is, I think, really telling of where we are today," said commission alternate member Milo Martinez. "Especially now, we're very attuned to available open spaces outdoors and how lacking we are in those spaces for use."

That scenario actually gives Camp Naumkeag historic value, according to architectural historian and project member Virginia "Ginny" Adams.

"It's significant for its association with Salem's first camp for the treatment of children suffering from tuberculosis, and its continued use for health-oriented summer programming for children into the early 21st century," Adams said.

Sadly, there isn't much better a story to be told on a site used for infectious diseases than to tell the story of the New World's first settlers, through which another infectious disease story emerges.

"There's a real connection to the story we're trying to tell, that we want to tell, about the relationship between the Colonial settlers and Native Americans, and how communicable diseases impacted the Native American culture — even before anyone showed up here (at the Naumkeag settlement)," said project consultant Margaret Wood. "There's a really interesting thread that potentially connects the history of the site to what Elizabeth's goal is with the project and the partnership with the Massachuset tribe."

Officials have touted the project as a means for putting Pioneer Village directly on tourism paths while putting Camp Naumkeag, historically a Boys and Girls Club operation, at Forest River adjacent to pool facilities that have also historically been run by the Boys and Girls Club.

That said, residents calling into the meeting were largely against the proposal.

"Somebody mentioned 'theme park' earlier, and that's kind of what it seems we're heading for here — a theme park, Disney-like development," said Allen Street resident Kathryn Harper. "You're removing a 100-year-old reenactment of a Colonial-era village that in itself has a history to it, and Salem promised to take care of that site at the time, and you're moving it to a site that has equal historic value. I really don't get this whole thing."

Christopher Patzke, a Lafayette Street resident, also said Pioneer Village has more historical value on its original site as opposed to a more marketable location.

"The historic value of Pioneer Village is as an intact Colonial revival landscape that documents the American national identity, in an era when the preservation movement was in its infancy," Patzke said. "Maintaining an intact relic from that era is crucial, particularly since such landscape examples are rare, and this is a first-of-its-kind living history museum."

Peterson later defended the project, saying it has the unanimous support of the biggest players in Salem's historical community — Essex National Heritage, Peabody Essex Museum, National Park Service and more.

"We sat down with each of the organizations' leaders and asked them if they thought it was an idea worth considering. Without fail, across the board, every one of these organizations that dictate the quality of Salem's history thought it was a good idea," Peterson said. "There is, at no point, the intent or idea to 'Disnify' — however you'd term that — or make this theme park-like. It couldn't be further from the truth."

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or Follow him at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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