Thanks to a generous donor, an iconic and valuable piece of the city’s history has found a permanent home at Newburyport's Museum of Old Newbury.
The First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Newburyport’s gilded, fanciful rooster weathervane has spent the last several years in a bank vault.
But because an anonymous donor funded the museum’s $300,000 purchase of the weathervane, the venerable bird will soon be on display at the Cushing House — the museum’s headquarters — for the public to admire.
“We feel incredibly grateful to have been the recipient of this gift to provide a permanent home for such an outstanding piece of Newburyport history,” Susan Edwards, the museum’s executive director, said.
The weathervane had perched atop the First Religious Society since 1725, back when it was called the Third Parish Church of Newbury and was located in Market Square.
Edwards said the piece was likely crafted by the first weathervane maker of the American Colonies, Shem Drowne, who is known to have only created four other weathervanes, two of which sit atop Faneuil Hall and Old North Church in Boston.
The local church eventually became the First Religious Society, and when its new meetinghouse was built on Pleasant Street in 1801, the weathervane was salvaged from the old meetinghouse and placed at the top of the iconic steeple.
The rooster stayed there until the steeple restoration project began in 2013. The bird was then replaced with a replica and the original stowed in a vault for safekeeping.
In 2018, the First Religious Society approached the museum about becoming a permanent home for the weathervane so it could remain in Newburyport and be put on display in the Cushing House on High Street, with the requirement that it be kept in its original condition.
The two organizations drafted a purchase agreement, with the church’s proceeds from the sale to be put toward the steeple restoration project.
“It was a very creative and important collaboration between two very old Newburyport institutions,” Edwards said. “The fact that we could work together on this ended in the best possible outcome for the community.”
Edwards emphasized the significance of the weathervane and said she is proud to be able to keep it in Newburyport.
“It’s important to us, not only because it’s an icon of Newburyport history, but also because it is a very significant piece of American decorative arts and folk art. The fact that it’s going to be in Newburyport is a responsibility, but it’s a real honor as well.”
Arthur Henshaw, a parish board member for the First Religious Society, has been involved in the project since it began last year. He said while some church members disagreed about what should happen to the weathervane, he believes the museum is the best home for it.
“There were many church members who did not want to see it leave the Newburyport area,” Henshaw said. “The church, in the end, is very happy with the outcome, so from the seeds of dissension, a marvelous collaboration emerged.”
Because of the weathervane’s importance, the museum decided to make it the focal point of a new exhibit in one of the Cushing House’s upstairs rooms, which until recently was a period room laid out like a historic bedroom. The exhibit will focus on the early meetinghouses in the area.
Tours of the museum run from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, but Edwards said the staff has decided to make the weathervane accessible for public viewing year-round.
For tour reservations, contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-462-2681.