When John Bellairs began a story in the early 1980s that would go on to become 1983’s The Curse of the Blue Figurine he made yet another shift in geographic location. Three books, three different states: his native Michigan in The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976); southeast Minnesota for The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978); and now New England, specifically northeast Massachusetts. While the location may have changed, there was still something sinister afoot and a kind of magic to be harvested.
Oh, and it was still the 1950s, too.
Bellairs was born in 1938 and entered the 1950s on the cusp of being a teenager. He saw the day-to-day changes of his hometown as he walked or was driven around to and from school, church, restaurants, and other places his life took him. When it came time to construct a story set in that time period he knew the era well and vividly built New Zebedee, Hoosac, and Duston Heights not just on places he lived but on experiences he encountered.
The change in geography is always addressed, of course. Both Treasure and Curse take great pains to point out how one can hear steamboats on the Mississippi River in Hoosac, Minnesota or that one can see the peaks of the White Mountain’s Presidential Range as you drive north from Duston Heights, Massachusetts. But that aside, one could get the sense these other towns are a kind of redressed 1950s Marshall. You’ll find traces of Marshall in all three of his cities, be it in the form of houses, libraries, churches, or other key landmarks. John didn’t know Massachusetts until he was into his thirties and seemingly blended his 1950s Marshall with 1970s Haverhill. That said, it’s a minor annoyance but if there’s anything missing in Johnny Dixon’s adventures it’s that you don’t see a lot of 1950s Haverhill adding to the uniqueness of 1950s Duston Heights.
Of course we’re not saying that Haverhill is Duston Heights is Haverhill - we fully recognize and endorse poetic license. But what from Haverhill’s past could Bellairs have introduced into Duston Heights? Our nomination for offbeat attractions that would have caught John’s eye is Tilton’s Tower. We’ve come across this building in our research over the years and thought just how at-home it would have been in any of John’s stories. We recently asked the kind staff at the Haverhill Public Library about the tower and were told it was the brainchild of John Cooper Tilton (1816-97), a native of nearby Newbury. His line of work was making shoes and boots but he also dabbled a bit in real estate and it was said he had a hand in constructing more houses and stores than any other man in Haverhill's history.
In a Haverhill Gazette article dated December 26, 1945, Leonard Woodman Smith, curator of the Haverhill Historical Society, is quoted from an article in the Gazette dated February 28, 1914. In that article Smith wrote:
"People often ask why this tower was built. There is a little story which will answer this. Before there was any tower there, Thomas Bailey and his friend Orin Tasker, used to go about on the hills of the town taking observations with telescopes. Once when they were on Silver Hill, John C. Tilton, who owned the land, came along and inquired what they were about. After hearing the reason, Mr. Tilton said he had been thinking of building a tower so he could see Boston."
A second Gazette from 2002 says "Tilton owned a brickyard in North Parish. Work was slow at the yard in the late 1880's but he didn't want to fire any of his workmen. He put them to work on his project, instead."
It was constructed in 1887 but it's long gone now. In fact the aforementioned December 1945 article came a day after the folly was finally brought down. So maybe 1950s Haverhill wouldn't have had the tower but that shouldn't have stopped 1950s Duston Heights from having a tower of their own.
Or something like that.
(Again, our thanks to Dawn Jordan and the reference department at the Haverhill Public Library.)