WPI Journal

Spring 1996

Happy Birthday, Mr. Salisbury

by Michael W. Dorsey

Anyone familiar with the founding and early history of WPI knows the name Stephen Salisbury. Salisbury was one of the primary forces that enabled the sketchy plan of tinware maker John Boynton for a new technical institute and the dream of prosperous wire manufacturer Ichabod Washburn of a training academy for mechanics to be blended into one of the nation's earliest and most innovative technological universities. Salisbury provided the land for the campus, supported the young institution generously, and presided over its board of directors until his death in 1884.

The Stephen Salisbury who figured so prominently in the birth of WPI was the second Worcester resident to bear that name. To a significant degree, he owed the fortune he shared with the young Institute and his position as the most prominent member of the Worcester community to the success and hard work of his father. Because Stephen Salisbury I played no role in WPI's history (he died more than three decades before its founding), his story is not as well known to members of the WPI community as those of the son and grandson who continued his name. This fall, Worcester will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of the first Stephen Salisbury; we thought this might be a good time to learn more about this patriarch.

Stephen Salisbury was born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1746. He was the youngest of the 11 children of Nicholas and Martha Salisbury (six of whom survived to adulthood). Nicholas, son of a Boston mariner, made a living as a barber before his wife's inheritance enabled him to set himself up as a storekeeper. Martha's uncle, John Elbridge, who was comptroller of His Majesty's Customs House in Bristol, England, bequeathed his sister and her heirs 8,000 pounds -- a veritable fortune at the time -- which became the seed of the Salisbury family's wealth.

Nicholas Salisbury died when Stephen was just 2 years old. Martha, who by all accounts was a strong-minded and cantankerous woman, continued to operate the store and support their children. Stephen's older brother Samuel took his portion of the Elbridge fortune (along with his inheritance from his father) and opened his own store in Boston. When Stephen turned 21, Samuel took him on as a partner, creating the firm of S&S Salisbury.

At that time, Boston was growing dramatically and many traders were setting up shops to serve the teeming city. Samuel could see that opportunities for growth for his business were limited unless he branched out beyond the city. Looking for a suitable location for a second store, he settled on Worcester. Though still a small agricultural community, it was the seat of a young but growing county and was well served by roads to Boston, Providence and Hartford.

In 1767 he set Stephen up as a trader in Worcester. Holly V. Izard, research curator for the Salisbury Mansion, a property of the Worcester Historical Museum, has studied the extensive collection of Salisbury family correspondence owned by the American Antiquarian Society. She says the letters from Stephen to his brother in those early days "reveal the younger man's reluctance to make the fledgling town his home.

"Stephen felt as though he'd gotten the short end of the stick," Izard says. "Worcester was quite rural - nothing like the busy, sophisticated city he'd grown up in. In his letters, he described Worcester as 'such a solitary place.' Though he desperately wanted to be back in Boston, he wrote to his brother, 'I will accept this as my lot.' And of course, he didn't have much choice. He was dependent on his bother for his livelihood."

The Salisbury store was among the earliest in Worcester. It was certainly the first with a direct link to the wharves of Boston. Because the Salisbury brothers were their own middlemen, they could sell hardware, dry goods and produce at lower prices than their competitors. From the start, their store was a great success.

Stephen proved an able merchant, though he lamented the long hours and the habits of his customers, who, unlike Boston shoppers, seemed to have no concept of normal business hours. "They come just when it soot them at Break of Day Sometimes at Ten & Eleven o'clock at Night & sometimes Later....," he wrote to Samuel.

By 1771 the Worcester store was successful enough that the Salisbury brothers decided to invest some of their profits in land. Stephen had his eye on a large farm that Joseph Waldo had recently inherited from his father, Cornelius. But for unknown reasons (Izard says Stephen's hot temper may have been a factor), Waldo sold it instead to Boston's John Hancock. Stephen fired off an impassioned letter to his brother, who quietly negotiated behind the scenes and convinced Hancock to sell the land to him and Stephen.

In subsequent years, the brothers added to their land holdings, ultimately acquiring several hundred acres that stretched from what is now Lincoln Square in Worcester north to the border with the town of Holden. It was some of this land that Stephen II gave to WPI. The brothers also invested their money in bank stock, shipping stock, mortgages and personal loans. By one account, Stephen Salisbury I was the wealthiest man in Worcester County at the time of his death.

In 1772 Salisbury contracted with a builder in Hardwick, Mass., to construct a house on the farm. Designed to resemble Samuel's house, "it was, in plan, old fashioned inside, but it had a beautiful Georgian facade," Izard says. More than half of the structure was given over to the Salisbury store, and Stephen shared the rest with his shopkeepers, hired girls and farm laborers.

As revolution began to foment, Boston became a dangerous place to live. In 1772 the Boston Assembly threatened succession from England. The following year, citizens protested an excessive duty by throwing boxes of tea into Boston Harbor. England responded in 1774 by closing the harbor, and the occupying British soldiers began looting and burning buildings in the city deserted by those who chose to flee.

In 1775 Samuel decided to close the Boston store and move his wife and children, as well as his mother and his unmarried sister Sally, out of town. The arrival of family and friends from Boston surely lifted Stephen's spirits, even as they crowded his house, Izard says. "During all of his time in Worcester, Stephen was never really of Worcester," she notes. "He remained a Bostonian. His social circle was confined to Boston evacuees."

After the war, Samuel returned to Boston with his wife and children, leaving Martha and Sally to live with Stephen in Worcester. Izard says Martha Salisbury had had a difficult relationship with Samuel's wife, and may have chosen to remain with Stephen because he was single. It was not the town that drew her, she notes. "Martha disliked Worcester. She even tried to go back to Boston during the war, but Samuel persuaded her to stay."

Martha presided over the Salisbury Mansion until her death in 1792. A few years later, Stephen, while in Boston to help Samuel manage the business during the busy fall season, met Elizabeth Tuckerman, a member of a well-to-do mercantile family and 22 years his junior. They were married in 1797. Elizabeth found Worcester a lonely place and returned to Boston often to visit family and to acquire new furnishings and decorations for the house. Stephen also lavished attention on the mansion and grounds.

Stephen and Elizabeth had three children: Stephen II (b. 1798), Elizabeth (b. 1800) and Edward (b. 1803). Elizabeth died at the age of three and Edward at six, leaving only Stephen. After Stephen completed grammar school, he attended Leicester Academy for two years and then received private instruction from a local minister before entering Harvard in 1813.

In 1807 Samuel wrote to Stephen proposing that they dissolve the trading business, and in 1812, when America again went to war with England (and when England, again, cut off the flow of goods into Boston Harbor), the brothers no longer engaged in trade. Stephen, instead, devoted his energies to farming. With his hired hands, he continued to tend to his cattle, swine, apple and pear orchards, and field crops until his death in 1829.


Left, Worcester as it appeared at the time of Stephen Salisbury I's death in 1829. Above, Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury. Top, Stephen Salisbury I.
Stephen II inherited his father's fortune and invested it in Worcester, a city that was poised to explode into a major industrial center. He turned over the operation of the farm to a foreman, as his interests lay more with the mills, machine shops and factories that were beginning to rise from the former Worcester farmland and forests. In 1833 he married Rebekah Dean; the couple had one son, Stephen III, who never married. The Salisbury lineage ended in Worcester with Stephen III's death in 1905.

But the Salisbury legacy continues to this day in the city. For while the first Stephen Salisbury never truly felt at home here, his descendants put down deep roots and made enduring contributions to the economic and cultural development of the growing urban center. The son and grandson provided venture capital for many nascent businesses, helping turn the city into a hotbed for manufacturing and innovation. Both led the board of trustees of WPI, which contributed still further to the city's growth. Institute Park, adjacent to the WPI campus, was a gift to the city from Stephen II, and Stephen III made possible the Worcester Art Museum and provided substantial support to the Worcester Society of Antiquity (now the Worcester Historical Museum) and the American Antiquarian Society. In short, Worcester owes an eternal debt of gratitude to the Salisburys, most especially, perhaps, to that young man who -- so reluctantly -- established this generous and enlightened family here more than two hundred years ago.

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