Thomas Dennis house, County Street, Ipswich MA

7 County Street, the Thomas Dennis House (1663-1706)

The house at 7 County Street dates to two periods. Shoreborne Wilson, a cooper, built a house and a cooper’s shop on this site about 1660 (3:133). Thomas Dennis bought the property in 1663, and the rear ell of the present house may date from that period, with wide chamfers on the summer beam and unusual unpainted horizontal feather-edged sheathing. This earliest part of the house appears to have been a typical one-over-one room floor plan 17th century half-house, facing due south with an end chimney. The date of construction of the 5-bay front section of the house is unknown. The soffet and symetrical facade are typical of the second quarter of the 18th Century. The front of the house has the symetrical layout of the Georgian era, but the left side appears to be a later extension. The house has a sign with the dates 1663- 1706, the year Thomas Dennis bought the property, and the year he died.

History of this lot

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about this lot in Vol. 1 of Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “The remainder of this square was owned originally by Robert Whitman and John Warner, but Robert Dutch was in posession earlier than 1660, as he mortgaged his house and land in that year to Thomas Bishop (Ips. Deeds 2: 45). He sold a lot to Shoreborne Wilson, a cooper, who built a house and cooper’s shop on it, and sold to William Searle May 19, 1663, his lot being bounded by Dutch’s on three sides (Ips. Deeds 3: 133). Searle sold to Thomas Dennis, Sept. 26, 1663 (8: 69) and Robert Dutch sold Thomas Dennis part of his house lot, Nov. 16, 1671 (Ips. Deeds 3:201). Waters wrote that “The age of the present dwelling (7 County St.) is not known.”

Thomas Dennis’s wife Grace had two children by her earlier marriage to William Searle. She died in 1686 at age 48. Thomas and Grace had three children:

  • Their daughter Elizabeth married Ebenezer Hovey in 1704 and lived nearby. The Hovey clan occupied a long section of houses on East St.
  • Their son Thomas, who died in 1703, predeceased his father and mother. On page 409 of Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Franklin Waters wrote, “Richard Hubbard owned a goodly two acre tract bounded by Stony St., (Summer St.) as it was then called, County St. and East St. This, he sold with a house to Ezekiel Rogers, son of Rev. Nathaniel, Jan. 2S, 1074 (Ips. Deeds 3 : 343). His daughter, Martha, sold the house and land to Thomas Dennis (Jr.), May 16, 1685 (Ips. Deeds 5: 133). The deed specifies that it was “over against the sd. Dennis’s new dwelling house” which was on the lot now owned by the Ignatius Dodge heirs.” The house at 10 County Street is still known as the Dennis-Dodge House (1740).
  • John, the surviving son of Thomas and Grace Dennis lived to the age of 84 and died in 1757. He apparently inherited his father’s house. He and his wife Lydia White had two sons, John and Thomas. John Dennis2 graduated from Harvard in 1730, and served as chaplain at Fort St. George and Fort Frederick from Sept. 1737 to March, 1749. He died in 1773. Yet another John Dennis sold to Charles Smith, this house and thirty rods, Feb. 28, 1791. Jacob Treadwell purchased the house May 11, 1807 (180: 188). His daughter Eliza Treadwell married Ignatius Dodge, and her heirs continued to own the house into the 20th Century.

Thomas Dennis

Thomas Dennis (1638–1706), came from Devonshire, England, where he learned from a tradition of flourished carving. Dennis himself was a master carver, and his work is found at other nearby homes, including the Dennis – Dodge House at the corner of Summer and County Street. His work is shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Concord Antiquarian Society and the Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont.

In 1937, Irving P. Lyon published a series of six articles about Thomas Dennis, joiner of Ipswich, analyzing numerous articles of furniture and family documents. The furniture of Thomas Dennis of Ipswich (1638-1706) took on the status of historic treasure, and over time more pieces were attributed to him than he could have produced in his lifetime. In 1960, Helen Park published two articles reexamining the Dennis phenomenon, and determined that some of the items attributed to Dennis by Lyon represented “the whole development of furniture style in Essex County in the last third of the Seventeenth Century, rather than being the production of a single man. Research by Benno Forman and Robert Trent after 1968 showed that several dozen joiners and cabinetmakers were working during that period in the North Shore area, casting some doubt on the attribution of individual pieces to Thomas Dennis. Nevertheless, Thomas Dennis’ prolific output of joined chests with floral and scrolling carvings was truly extraordinary, along with the pieces produced by Grace Dennis’ first husband, William Searle.

Thomas Dennis chest at the Ipswich Museum, (modified panels with hinged doors)
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Thomas Dennis chest at the Winterthur Museum, Delaware
Bowdoin College Museum of Art Searle/Dennis Collection
Bowdoin College Art Museum collection
Bowdoin College Art Museum collection
Chest by Thomas Dennis Jr. at the Whipple House

This House is protected by a Preservation Agreement between the owners, the town of Ipswich and the Historical Commission. Protected elements include:

  • Front and side facades of the four room building facing County St.
  • Central Frame including primary and secondary members
  • Feather-edged paneling in the rear first-floor room
Fireplace in the Thomas Dennis house

Kerry Mackin added the following:

It is now believed that Searle was Dennis’ contemporary, not his teacher. It appears that Dennis had more money than Searle in those days – but it’s still odd that he bought the house in Ipswich, even though he didn’t move there at that time. For those who don’t know the history, Searle and Dennis both trained as joiners in Devon; Searle was from Ottery St. Mary; Dennis’ birthplace has not yet been determined. Searle married Grace Cole and they immigrated first to Boston and then to Ipswich. They had 3 children, but Searle died in 1667 at age 33. Dennis was the executor of his estate and after Searle’s death he moved to Ipswich, took over his joinery trade (including tools, which makes it even harder to distinguish between their work) – and a year later he married Searle’s widow, Grace. Searle and Dennis are considered to be the foremost 17th century joiners in the English colonies of America – quite a distinction for the town of Ipswich.

Thomas Dennis’ second wife, Sarah Dennis, remarried after he died. Her next husband, Captain John How, was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth How, who was accused and executed during the Salem Witch Trials. He was also related by marriage to Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Towne Easty (Estey), both of whom were executed as witches, and their sister Sarah Towne Cloyes (Cloyce), who was accused but spared.

Thomas Dennis’ gravestone at the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich
Grace Dennis Gravestone

In The Artisan of Ipswich, Robert Tarule, historian and accomplished craftsman, brilliantly recreates Dennis’s world in recounting how he created a single oak chest. Writing as a woodworker himself, Tarule vividly portrays Dennis walking through the woods looking for the right trees; sawing and splitting the wood on site; and working in his shop on the chest—planing, joining, and carving. Dennis inherited a knowledge of wood and woodworking that dated back centuries before he was born, and Tarule traces this tradition from Old World to New. He also depicts the natural and social landscape in which Dennis operated, from the sights, sounds, and smells of colonial Ipswich and its surrounding countryside to the laws that governed his use of trees and his network of personal and professional relationships. Thomas Dennis embodies a world that had begun to disappear even during his lifetime, one that today may seem unimaginably distant. Imaginatively conceived and elegantly executed, The Artisan of Ipswich gives readers a tangible understanding of that distant past.

Further reading and sources:

5 thoughts on “7 County Street, the Thomas Dennis House (1663-1706)”

  1. Is his house/shop a private residence? Thomas is my 8th great grandfather… And thought it would be interesting to look at a place that holds our family history

  2. I lived in the Dennis house in the mid-late 60’s – it was a duplex at the time with an apartment on either side. At that time there was a small portico (without pillars) over the front door. I remember climbing out on to it from the 2nd floor window and sitting on it to watch a parade pass by.

  3. Our family (The Hannon’s; Mon: Priscilla, and children Michael, Richie, Ronnie & Julie), lived on the left side of this fine home (which had been converted to a duplex) from 1966 to 1968.

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