History of the Herreshoff Castle

(formerly named "Castle Brattahlid")

 

by Michael H. Rubino: Present Owner and Castleton

The Herreshoff Castle was built in the 1920's by local Marblehead artist Waldo Ballard who is pictured below. After conceiving this idea, Ballard and his wife Joan set out for Northern Europe, where he traveled from castle to castle studying the various medieval designs and architectural elements that they were to incorporate into their castle plans. Their final design is based on Erik the Red's castle in Brattahlid, Greenland (now named Qagssiarssuk, Greenland). Although Erik's castle was leveled centuries earlier, most likely the result of the harsh climate in Greenland, Waldo and his wife learned of Erik's unique castle design while reading a book of Norse history. Although there was no actual picture of Erik's castle, the author described in great detail the layout of the various rooms and gardens.

Erik the Red was a Viking who fled to Iceland with his father after his father had been charged with manslaughter in Norway. Erik eventually married and bought property on the island. However, Erik had a quarrelsome nature similar to his father's. The story goes (as revealed in the Islandic sagas) that he killed a few of his neighbors over a land dispute, and because of this incident was either asked to leave town, or fled to save his life. He and his family sailed Westward and discovered the country of Greenland. After about three years or so Erik sailed back to Iceland to recruit his friends to relocate in this newly settled country. Erik was no fool. He was perhaps the P.T. Barnum of the eleventh century. Erik marketed his new country under the name "Greenland." This was a brilliant marketing gimmick. Many of the Vikings who had settled in Iceland were growing tired of the rocky landscape and were also probably running out of fertile farming land. The name Greenland must have created more than a bit of interest with the locals. As proper scheming and good fortune would have it, Erik's plan actually worked. A group of about three hundred fed-up Islanders joined Erik and settled with him on the southern tip of Greenland

One of Erik the Red's sons was Leaf Erikson, the explorer who is now credited with discovering the Northeast coast of America (hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus' famous voyage). After discovering Newfoundland he sailed along the coast of Massachusetts. Another of Erik the Red's sons was Thorwald Erikson who also led a Viking expedition to America. Unfortunately, Thorwald was killed somewhere along the coast of Maine in a skirmish with native Americans. He was killed by an arrow. In general, the Vikings and the native Americans never mixed well together, which probably explains why the Vikings lost interest in settling in North America.

Our government now officially recognizes Lief Erikson as the first European to explore North America. For those of you who might have missed it, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964, proclaimed October 9th "Lief Erikson Day" in commemoration of this recognition. LBJ's proclamation received unanimous approval from Congress.

At any rate, Waldo Ballard had a great time creating a total medieval castle environment at his Marblehead location. He painted medieval designs and accents throughout the castle. Portraits of knights and family crests adorn the castle Great Room to this day. Somewhat strange, however, was his idea to paint an oriental rug design on the Great Room floor. Although it would have been a whole lot easier to simply buy an oriental rug for the floor, Waldo obsessively admired one of the oriental rugs in a local museum, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, which is located just down the street from the castle. Waldo would stop by the museum almost every day to sketch out parts of the rug, and would then go home and continue to do his floor painting using his sketch as a guide. In ironic contrast to Michelangelo's ceiling paintings, Waldo only painted designs on floors and walls.

The above information came to me by way of my grandmother, Gretchen Girdler, who was the curator of the Lee Mansion of Marblehead during this time period. She related to me that Waldo Ballard became very belligerent toward her for denying his request to borrow the rug so that he could have it in the castle while he painted a copy of it on the floor. This would have been much easier for him than to make sketches of sections of the rug before copying it onto the floor. My grandmother's position on this was that she had a fiduciary responsibility to the historical society and to the public to keep the rug where it was supposed to be. Needless to say, the relationship between my grandmother and Waldo deteriorated, where, according to her, Waldo was "hell-bent" on getting her fired. Although Waldo was probably very persistent, he was hardly a match for my grandmother who surely would have whacked him over the head with a club had he attempted to remove the rug from the Mansion on her watch. As far as she was concerned the museum was "her house," and Waldo was just another self-absorbed Marblehead eccentric, or "weirdo" as the case may be.

My grandmother was also quite certain that Ballard got the funding for his trip to Europe and for the construction of the castle by discovering a buried treasure in the basement of his previous house. Ballard owned one of the beautiful federalist colonial houses on Abbot Hall Hill. The house is referred to as the "William R. Lee Mansion." He restored the building with his own labor over a number of years. The story goes that while tending to something in his earth-floor basement, he noticed a slight indentation in the dirt. Becoming curious, he surmised that something may have been buried there some time ago causing the dirt to begin to settle. So Ballard began digging, and shortly thereafter discovered a box filled with either money or valuables.

Although there have always been popular rumors in Marblehead that pirates of the eighteenth century must have buried their treasure in the area, it is probably more likely that Ballard found something valuable that one of the town's wealthy merchants had buried in the nineteenth century for safekeeping. Burying things like valuable silverware and gold coins in one's basements was not, and is not, a totally uncommon practice. Before people began to trust their valuables to banks, they relied on creative techniques to safeguard their property. Some were probably so paranoid about being robbed that they were reluctant to tell "anyone" where they stashed some of their valuables. These secrets probably went to the grave with many of their owners. So it is not unthinkable that the Ballards got their start in this way.

Waldo Ballard and his wife lived in the castle until 1945, at which time they sold it to L. Francis Herreshoff. I am not quite sure why Ballard sold the castle after residing in it for almost twenty years, but from what I was able to discover it appears as though the castle became too hard for the aging Ballards to maintain. When Herreshoff purchased the castle it was in a state of disrepair.

L. Francis Herreshoff wore many hats. He was an antique dealer, naval architect, furniture repairer, yachting consultant, writer, and finally a cannon maker. He grew up in Bristol, Rhode Island and moved to Marblehead as a young man. His father was Nathanael (Nat) G. Herreshoff, the most famous yacht designer in America. Nat Herreshoff designed five America's Cup winners in a row which won six America's Cups covering the period from approximately 1890 to 1920. (this is a feat which will certainly never be repeated). One of L. Francis Herreshoff's half a dozen or so books was written about his father who he affectionately refers to as "The Wizard of Bristol."

Although I only met Waldo Ballard a few times (he still lived in the neighborhood after selling the castle), I knew L. Francis Herreshoff fairly well. I grew up in the neighborhood, learned to swim at Crocker Park, and was always fascinated with the castle and Herreshoff. Like all the other neighborhood kids, I was in awe of his automobiles. I remember a gull-winged Mercedes and a couple of Ferraris. Although Marblehead is now loaded with these kinds of precision machines, Herreshoff was the only person in the neighborhood to own such fine vehicles at that time in Marblehead.

When Herreshoff passed on in 1972 he left the castle to his long time assistant who resided at the castle until her death in 1990. My wife and I purchased the castle from her daughter in 1990. Although the castle was in pretty bad shape, both the castle and adjoining carriage house have now been fully restored to the charm they had in the 1920's.

It is of interest to note that, outside of Rhode Islander L. Francis Herreshoff, the castle has been owned and occupied by Marblehead natives. Mr. and Mrs. Ballard were Marbleheaders, Herreshoff's assistant and her daughter were Marbleheaders, and my wife and I are Marbleheaders.

Many of the locals ask us if it is true that the castle contains a secret stairway and an underground dungeon as the Ballards indicated when the building was under construction. My response to these questions is always the same, "If I told you whether or not a secret stairway or secret dungeon existed, it would no longer be a secret."

 

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Waldo P. Ballard

(both now deceased)

 

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