Friday, September 20, 2013
September 20, 2013: Gloucester Stories: Hammond Castle
[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On the Gloucester site that is as random, weird, and fascinating as America itself.
The term “Americana” gets thrown around a good bit, and I suspect we mean as many different things by it as that Wikipedia article suggests—but if I had to boil it down, at least for this AmericanStudier, I think I would have to go with what Weird Al Yankovic argues in “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” (off of the UHF album from 1989). “Kids, this here’s what America’s all about,” the song’s teary-eyed patriarchal speaker claims of the titular site and the many parallel (and all real!) ones for which they already have their window decals (“There's Elvis-O-Rama, the Tupperware Museum, The Boll Weevil Monument, and Cranberry World, The Shuffleboard Hall Of Fame, Poodle Dog Rock, And The Mecca of Albino Squirrels”).
Along the coast near Gloucester is a site that, while not quite as strikingly strange as those, is pretty weird and unique in its own right: Hammond Castle. This faux medieval castle was built by eccentric inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr., between 1926 and 1929, and if the existence of a medieval castle on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann isn’t random enough for you, the three purposes for which Hammond built it (as elucidated on the Castle’s official website, linked above) should help: “as a backdrop for his collection of Roman, medieval, and Renaissance artifacts; as a wedding present for his wife Irene Fenton Hammond to prove how much he cared for her; and to house the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Dr. Hammond produced over 400 patents and the ideas for over 800 inventions.” I don’t mean to downplay that third motivation, since Hammond was indeed a serious and successful inventor (he’s known, for example, as the “Father of the Remote Control”)—but still, that’s a pretty eclectic set of rationales, no?
So unlike The Biggest Ball of Twine, about which Al’s speaker asks “Oh, what on Earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?,” we have a definite answer (a trio of them, even) for Hammond Castle. But Al’s larger point, as further elucidated in the next lines—“What was he trying to prove? Who was he trying to impress?—still stands. The sheer audacity and hubris, the excess, and, most of all, the striking randomness of the Castle demands our attention and (my best pitchfork-carrying impulses notwithstanding) a begrudging respect. Probably didn’t hurt that on the day I visited the Castle was closed to host a “Psychic Faire,” and I happened to arrive just in time to see some of the psychics emerge from the medieval door in full regalia. Makes me want to write a song, actually.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Gloucester or Cape Ann connections you’d share? Other sites you’d highlight?