Thursday, October 6, 2016

Visiting Danvers

The Danvers Herald has published a piece I wrote about my recent visit to Danvers.  En route to a reunion, I detoured to the old neighborhood where I had grown up. I looked for traces of what remained of the once-so-familiar landscape along the northern end of Nichols Street (now called Conifer Hill Drive).

Here is a link to the published version (online at - with many pop-up ads):

 "Remembering Danvers: Visiting the old neighborhood"

Comments welcome.

Here is the plain text that I submitted:

Revisiting Danvers
By Sandy Nichols Ward

On Friday September 16, driving up Route 1 toward the Breakaway for a reunion party with my Holten High School classmates, I looked for old landmarks and reflected on changes that have occurred over the years.  I paused in the Breakaway parking lot, surveying from that high point the once familiar landscape ahead to the north, where I and generations of my family before me had lived and worked and played.  I thought of my first-grade school; the family home called “Pine Knoll” where I used to visit the cousins and great-aunts; the hayfields (replaced long ago by the shopping center) by Granddaddy’s house (replaced by an office park); the old state hospital now transformed into condos; and of course Putnam Pantry Candies. At least Putnam Pantry is still there, still in business.  

I was early, so had time to drive north to the little street now called Conifer Hill Drive. A CVS store occupies the corner where the Danvers Liquor Store once stood, marking the entrance to “my” street, called Nichols Street back then. I wanted to explore what, if anything, remained of the land where I had played as a child. Not much is recognizable. No surprise there. The Locust Lawn ski hill and barns had been destroyed in the early 1970’s to make way for construction of I-95. In 2013 another drastic excavation occurred, re-shaping the south side of the remaining hill into terraces for large buildings of a new housing development. Now, in 2016, I was curious to see the finished Conifer Hill Commons. I parked and walked around. I gazed at the boulders on the massive retaining walls, and the tall trees high above on the narrow ridge, a fragment of the old hill.  Do children ever climb up there to play among the trees?  I wondered as I watched young children in a city-style playground at one corner of the parking lot. That new playground, with plastic climbing equipment, seemed so small and artificial compared to the trees, hills, meadows, and streams available to us as children in the 1950’s.

I did recognize, with a smile, many plants reminiscent of my era: golden rod, thistles, sumac, long vines of bittersweet, a shagbark hickory tree.  Oh, I hadn’t thought about a hickory tree in a long time. A huge one used to stand by the stone wall near our home at 120 Nichols St.  Squirrels feasted on the hickory nuts, and we, too, would crack them open and pick out the nutmeat. As I looked down, I was delighted to see a half-shell lying on the stone wall, just exactly as I remembered.  The ground around my feet was littered with evidence of hickory nut feasting.  A young vine crawling up the wall nearby had shiny green leaves, in groups of three, so characteristic of poison ivy, another well-known plant in my childhood.  I saw some poisonous pokeweed, too, with its bright red stems and beautiful black-purple berries gleaming in the sun. I remember mashing pokeberries into a juice to serve at a “pretend” party with dolls, while my mother cautioned anxiously that we NOT drink that juice. Somehow I survived childhood in spite of the dangers of poisonous plants and long periods of unsupervised play in the woods and fields of Danvers, where I learned to love wild weeds as well as cultivated gardens. Those gardens are long gone, but I was happy to see such colorful bouquets of wild weeds thriving along the margins of the new development.

I returned to the Breakaway and enjoyed the evening with old Danvers friends, sharing stories from our school days and catching up with more recent news. I’m glad I made this trip back to Danvers.