Ipswich Yesterday by Alice Keenan

Alice Keenan, Ipswich historian

Thanks to Beverly Perna for this article she wrote for the Ipswich Chronicle. 

For those in town who post-date the presence of Alice Keenan, you have a chance to get to know her.  And anyone who knew Alice will remember what a “presence” she had—tall, regal stature, snow white hair, and a voice Talullah Bankhead would have envied.

I was reporting for the Ipswich Today when Alice was writing a history column called “Ipswich Yesterday” for the paper.  My typewriter was right in front of the door, and she would sail in to deliver her copy, saying, “Hello, dear” in that distinctive, deep voice that filled the room.   I was in awe of her.

Her sons Gavin, Denis, and Kevin (who resides in PA) have recently published her compiled columns in a book, Ipswich Yesterday, in their mother’s memory, appropriately timed for the Ipswich 375th anniversary.  Alice, along with Mary Conley, and Elizabeth Newton wrote a history of Ipswich for the 350th, so I am sure Alice is beaming about being included in this milestone. Nothing reveals Ipswich like her columns do.

Alice wrote with the “royal” we instead of first person singular, and she could get away with it, but make no mistake, she did all the heavy lifting alone. Gavin Keenan said he recalled “Ma” banging away on the typewriter in their home on Nabby’s Point Road, where she had Water’s and Felt’s Ipswich histories at hand. She took dry history and turned it into “people stories,” that are witty, sometimes “edgy” observations of our past.

A photo accompanied each column, and they make you want to set off on foot to find these places to compare to the present day. I even had the magnifying glass out trying to find familiar places. There is something reassuring about discovering what hasn’t changed.

Alice was a self-taught historian. She grew up in the Depression, graduated from South Boston High, then pursued her passion for history, which her family called “Ma’s madness, ” by reading, reading, reading. Her son Denis said one of her legacies is that he and his brothers are all avid readers and love history. He said one of his favorite columns was about the men’s gathering on Little Neck in 1875 when General William Sutton invited 67 men over the age of 70 out for a clam feed.  There was a great buzz about seeing so many old men out on the streets at such an early hour. And I found out why our hook and ladder truck is called “The General Sutton.”  I had always wondered about that.

Gavin Keenan said he enjoyed the accounts of the old Depot Square when it was the rollicking, boisterous area of town, more like he recalled as a youngster.

When she moved to Ipswich in the 1950s, Alice had a treasure trove of history to explore. Seeing a need to “preserve and protect,” she became a mainstay of the Historic Commission and worked to save what she could for the rest of us to appreciate and enjoy.

Her columns have preserved our Ipswich history in a way that makes us want to know more.  In reading them, we see in our antecedents our strengths, our weaknesses, our foibles, and all the places we cherish, and we gain some understanding about all of them.

Ipswich Yesterday is available at Conley’s Drug Store, Russell’s Orchard, River’s Edge Card & Gift Store, Ipswich Historical Society, and at Broken-in-Books in Rowley.

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