EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 13, 2011

My Haverhill: A Valentine's story in Rocks Village

My Haverhill
Barney Gallagher

This is an account that starts as a love story, in due tribute to the Valentine season, but ends in a hazy and frustrating situation that, one must suppose, is how love stories sometimes end.

It all takes place in the now-quiet but once bustling area of Rocks Village when it was a seaport (honest!).

Large seagoing sailing vessels could come up the Merrimack River only as far as Rocks Village in the eastern end of Haverhill, because of (guess what?) rocks in the river.

They carried goods to and from Haverhill, but that is another story. Crew members naturally sought recreation and Rocks Village provided some. I heard that at one time the village had about seven taverns.

Aboard one of those vessels in the late 1700s were refugees from a slave uprising on the French-controlled island of Guadalupe.

Among them was Count Francois Vipardi, who had been a plantation manager.

At some point, he met a young village woman, Mary Ingalls, and when they married she was the first American woman to become a countess. Their marriage became an event of much interest in those post-Colonial days.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, long a neighbor of Rocks Village and a romanticist, wrote a long poem about "The Countess" and her count, and it became one of his major successes. It was this success that led to the current, and saddest part of this story.

Upon her death, Countess Mary Ingalls was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from her home on East Broadway, only a short distance from the center of the village and an almost rural area.

Fans of The Countess visited the grave in increasing numbers for several years. Unfortunately, they started chipping off sections of her gravestone as souvenirs, to the point where it became unattractive.

A new headstone was put in place, near the road and behind a wrought iron fence.

That didn't stop the chippers, so an iron cage was placed around the monument. Even that did not stop the vandalism. It just got worse.

In the dark of the night and early morning, some young men with a pickup truck backed through the outer fence and knocked down the stone, cage and all.

They fled quickly, but left the stone behind them, and the cemetery trustees and Whittier fans with a problem: What could be done for protection of this romantic symbol?

The cemetery trustees provided the answer. The stone went into the barn of a trustee and it remains there, out of sight of the public.

It is only a carved stone, but it is a symbol of romantic history, part of our heritage that should be shared.

This is the sad current status of this most romantic of Whittier's poems, and a poor symbol of the Valentine season. I hope some joint actions take place before long, before another season for romance passes by.

Perhaps the cemetery trustees and Whittier people could arrange an event to highlight The Countess and her story.

A final romantic note. This episode is like something out of the musical show "South Pacific," but with opposites. Each story had a French plantation owner in struggling conditions, and each had an attractive young woman. One romance was in the South Pacific. One was in the North Atlantic. Could there have been "Some Enchanted Evening" in Rocks Village?

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Barney Gallagher has covered Haverhill since 1936 as a reporter, editor and columnist.