Historic Building of the Week: Old Back Street School House

Schools are an integral part of any city or town, Marblehead included. Especially since the pandemic and growing desire for remote learning, many school districts are looking to update their technologies.

The Old Back Street School House at 43 Elm St., however, is past the point of updating. That is probably why it is no longer a school.

The building was constructed some time between 1840 and 1860, but across the street from where it stands now. The original plot of land is now part of the Gerry School playground.

According to documents from the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), the Back Street School House was constructed at a point in Marblehead’s history when both maritime profits and birth rates were slowing down. Despite the declining school-age population, the school was considered relatively large.

The Back Street School House moved onto seedsman J. J. H. Gregory’s property after the Gerry School was built.

The school was moved across the street when the Gerry School was erected in 1906. The owner of the Old Back Street School House’s new home was James John Howard Gregory — better known as the seed king.

Yes, you read that right, the seed king. The king of seeds. A 2014 Marblehead Messenger article explains that Gregory’s title came from the seed-selling empire he created after responding to an ad placed for squash seeds. The squash seeds grew into such perfect squashes that he began receiving more and more orders. He left his job as an educator and turned into a full-time seedsman. 

The cover of a James J. H. Gregory and Son seed catalogue from 1903.

The Seedsman Hall of Fame states that, with the exorbitant profits he garnered from the seed industry, Gregory became a philanthropist. In 1910, he founded the Marblehead Libraries, a traveling library that helped educate African Americans and poor rural whites. Administered by Atlanta University, Marblehead Libraries provided some of the only access to library books to African Americans in the south.

Shortly after founding the Marblehead Libraries, Gregory passed away. The Marblehead Libraries continued with Gregory’s funds for 20 years after his death.

The building at 43 Elm St. should stand as a testament to the importance of education in all its forms, from schools to traveling libraries.