You may not have heard of Shem Drowne, but chances are you’ve seen his work.He made some of the most iconic weathervanes in Massachusetts.
If you find yourself at Faneuil Hall in Boston, look up: You’ll see the famous grasshopper vane, crafted by Drowne in 1742. It’s meant to emulate the grasshopper on the Royal Exchange building in London.
A rooster (1721) sits atop the First Church of Cambridge. The swallow-tail banner (1740) is on top of the Old North Church. His earliest weathervane is a Native American archer (1716), and it sits in the front hallway of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s building.
Now, a gilded weathercock attributed to Drowne that once perched atop the meetinghouses of the First Religious Society in Newburyport is on display at the Museum of Old Newbury.
“We’re very thrilled and privileged to be able to exhibit [the gilded weathercock] because it’s a very important piece of American folk art,” said Susan Edwards, the museum’s executive director.
Weathervanes have been around for centuries, used by civilizations throughout the world. They are important when predicting weather since they show the direction of the wind.
When the Museum of Old Newbury purchased the weathercock from the First Religious Society of Newburyport in 2018, the presumption was the vane was made by either Shem Drowne or his son Thomas. After further research, museum officials confirmed it was likely the work of Shem himself.
An article published in the Newburyport Herald on July 12, 1839, stated that the vane had been atop the Market Square meeting house of the Third Parish of Newbury since the building was erected in 1725.
“You can’t ever really say it was made by one man or the other. To find a primary source that says it had to be done by Shem … I was ecstatic,” Edwards said. “It increases the historic value of the weathervane.”
When a new meeting house was erected on Pleasant Street in 1801, the weathercock went with it. It stayed there until 2013, when a reproduction was made for the steeple and the original was stored in a vault.
After being approached last year by the religious society, the museum purchased the weathercock through funds from an anonymous donor with the agreement that it would be displayed at the Cushing House, the museum’s headquarters.
The acquisition of the rare and historic weathervane opens up a whole new avenue of Newburyport history for museum visitors.
In celebration, the museum has opened a new exhibit, “Space, Light, and Ornament: Early Meeting Houses of Old Newbury,” that showcases the gilded rooster vane as well as extensive decorative arts and archival collections pertaining to the early meeting houses.
Meeting houses not only served as houses of worship in Colonial America, but were integral in community building and were gathering places for civic affairs.
The exhibit includes a communion table from the 1700s, portraits of local ministers, and church silver made by Newbury and Boston silversmiths.
The exhibition is open through Oct. 15 at the museum headquarters, 98 High St., Newburyport. It will reopen in May 2020. Residents of Newburyport, Newbury, and West Newbury and children under the age of 12 get free admission. Tickets for non-member adults cost $5.
For more information, call the museum at 978-462-2681 or visit newburyhistory.org.