Dogtown Common
By Percy MacKaye
Adapted and directed by Peter Littlefield
With Peter Berkrot, Judy Brain, Duncan Hollomon, Cass Tunick,  Brain Weed and Deirdre Weed
Windhover Center for the Performing Arts
Music arranged and performed by Kathleen Adams
Forest Form sculptures by Liz Sibley Fletcher
Backdrop drawing by Gabrielle Barzaghi
Rockport, Ma 01966

Recently the playwright, Peter Littlefield, met the artist Gabrielle Barzaghi. They instantly bonded over a mutual passion for the legendary Dogtown Common a large tract of land on Cape Ann between Gloucester and Rockport. The natural landscape, its abandoned cellar holes, rocks carved with inspirational messages, lore, and tales of witchcraft have long inspired artists and writers. 

He has created a play based on a poem  that has been performed at Windhover Center for the Performing Arts while she has been inspired to create work inspired by proximity to the wilderness.

Percy MacKaye’s 1922 poem, Dogtown Common, is a beloved document of Gloucester lore. It tells the story of two legendary figures, Tammy Younger and her niece Judy Rhines, who were shunned for practicing witchcraft.

It was inspired by Charles Mann’s 1906, The Story of Dogtown or In the Heart of Cape Ann, that compiles recollections about the outsiders, berry-pickers, subsistence farms and self-proclaimed witches that inhabited Dogtown after it was abandoned in the early 1800’s.

The poem has a history with The Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, where Ina Hahn performed it more than once. Lisa Hahn, the current Executive Director, asked Annisquam resident and director, Peter Littlefield, to create a new production. 

It has been restaged a number of times including September 22 & 23 which is when Barzaghi’s creation was part of an upgrade for the simple set.

Windhover had been a dairy farm. It seemed the perfect place to stage the poem because it looks the way Dogtown must have looked before it was abandoned after the Revolution. Windhover’s production combines the idea of an installation with a staged reading like a ghost story. The performers sit around a table and build an image of Dogtown as they enact the poem. 

Dogtown was first settled in 1693, and according to legend the name of the settlement came from dogs that women kept while their husbands were fighting in the American Revolution. The community grew to be 5 square miles, and was an ideal location as it provided protection from pirates, and hostile natives. By the early 1700s, the land was opened up to individual settlement as previously it had been used as common land for pasturing cattle and sheep. It is estimated that at one point 60 to 80 homes stood in Dogtown at its peak population. In the mid-1700s as many as 100 families inhabited Dogtown which was stable until after the American Revolution.

Various factors led to the demise of Dogtown which included a revived fishing industry from Gloucester Harbor after the American Revolution. The area had become safe again from enemy ships which allowed cargo to move in and out of the new fishing port. The success gave way to international shipping, including timber, and quarried rock.

 New coastal roads were built that also contributed to  Dogtown’s demise as they ran past the town to Gloucester which at the time was booming. Most of the farmers in the town moved away by the end of the War of 1812.

Some of its last occupants were suspected of practicing witchcraft. One such inhabitant named Thomazine “Tammy” Younger was described as “Queen of the Witches” by Thomas Dresser. Another reputed witch was a woman named Peg Wesson. As the last inhabitants died, their pets became feral, possibly giving rise to the nickname “Dogtown.” By 1828 the village was all but abandoned. The last resident of Dogtown was a freedman named Cornelius “Black Neil” Finson, who was found in 1830 with his feet frozen living in a cellar-hole. The last structure in Dogtown was razed in 1845. 

Through my ancestors, the Nugents of Rockport, I have skin in the game. My mother, Dr. Josephine Flynn, was born in Gloucester and summered with her grandmother on the family’s Beaver Dam Farm in Rockport. She played and picked blueberries in Dogtown where the Nugent’s cattle grazed. 

Beaver Dam Farm has a colorful history. The earliest grant of land in what is now Rockport was to James Babson in 1658. It consisted of 32 acres in the area long known as Beaver Dam. After Babson acquired it, the property became known as the James Babson Farm. Here, Babson built a cooperage shop, where he made barrels that were used to ship fish from Good Harbor Beach to England and the West Indies. The stone building still stands and is maintained as a museum by the Babson Historical Society.

Babson was born in England in 1622 and came to Salem in 1637 with his mother and brother. He was a forbear of Roger W. Babson, the founder of Babson College and the man responsible for the carved inspirational Babson Boulders in Dogtown. James Babson’s son, Ebenezer, was the man who supposedly killed a bear on what is now known as Rockport’s Bearskin Neck.

In the mid 1800s, the property was occupied by the Manning family, who expanded the property from just the stone cooperage. Later the property was owned by Patrick Nugent — the namesake of Nugent Stretch, for the stretch of road where the property sits.  At the time of his death in 1900 at age 51, Patrick had been restoring the property “to its old time appearance,” according to a report in the Gloucester Times. At some point, he operated a fertilizer plant on the property. 

After the death of Patrick his widow, Mary, and their family of 13 (three died in 1913) managed the farm until she retired and moved to Gloucester after 20 plus years. In 1925, the then-vacant house was set on fire by two boys. Fire fighters were able to save it without much loss, according to a news report. Other than the cooperage or summer kitchen, none of the Nugent era structures remain.  Her son George bought the property across the road which is now the site of Nugent Farms a condominium complex. His heirs were swindled out of an inheritance that originally included Good Harbor Beach. 

The Cape Ann Museum’s recent exhibition Edward Hopper and Cape Ann included “Cape Ann Granite” 1928 from a private collection. This departure from his house portraits was a view of  Dogtown. It was the primary subject matter of Marsden Hartley who had no pictorial interest in Gloucester’s marine subjects. That would later change when he resided in Maine. John Sloan was another prominent artist, among others, who depicted Dogtown.

Poster for Dogtown production

Gabrielle Barzaghi in the studio with Dogtown drawings

Gabrielle Barzaghi drawing for the set

Another view of Barzaghi drawing

Playwright Peter Littlefield. Giuliano photo

Artist Gabrielle Barzaghi. Giuliano photo

Dogtown set prior to Barzaghi backdrop

Marsden Hartley Dogtown painting

Beaver Dam the Nugent farm abutted Dogtown

Nugent farms grazing in Dogtown

Whale's Jaw dogtown

Peter's Pulpit Dogtown


Philanthropist Roger Babson (1875-1967) had slogans carved on Dogtown boulders

Never Try Never Win

Help Mother.

Keep Out of Debt

If Work Stops Values Decay

Through their mutual inspiration Littlefield and Barzaghi update a deeply rooted source for aesthetic inspiration. I asked what Dogtown and collaboration had meant to them?

Charles Giuliano What is the play Dogtown Common and how did it come to be?

Peter Littlefield It’s an old poem by Percy MacKaye about two women, Tammy Younger and her niece, Judy Rhines, who lived in Dogtown in the 19th century. It’s based on a book that collects memories  and stories about Dogtown called In the heart of Cape Ann, the Story of Dogtown, written in 1906 by Charles E Mann, then editor of the Gloucester Times.

Charles Giuliano When did the idea of doing a Dogtown play come to you and how did it develop? 

Peter Littlefield Catherine Bayliss of the Jonathan Bayliss Society and Lisa Hahn at Windhover in Rockport asked me to look at the poem with the idea of doing something with it. They were planning a conference at Windhover about Dogtown lore and history. Lisa’s mother, Ina Hahn, had staged it before. The poem seemed long and full of Victorian pieties, but Windhover itself is such a compelling artifact of old Cape Ann, that I found the idea of doing something there irresistible. I just started cutting away at the poem, and what I uncovered was some very tough-minded language that captured the rocky, brambly intractable nature of this world by the sea, as well as the people who lived in it.

I wanted to use the poem to in some way get at my own feelings about Cape Ann. Something old and homemade in the Yankee way. I got the idea of a staged installation, where a group of performers build a tableau of Dogtown as they enact the poem. I like to put the spotlight on the process of the imagination. So I collected together some old dolls, artifacts, junk, things I have from growing up here. I like to say this show is a celebration of a childhood spent in the junk shops of Lanesville, Essex and Ipswich. Liz Sibley Fletcher has contributed her Forest Form Sculptures and built us a rowan tree. Geoffrey Bayliss’ lithograph of a dog hangs on the back wall. Tammy Younger’s cabin was made by Evelyn Stewart, and two dolls were transformed into Judy Rhines and Elder Coit by Suzanne Brown.

Then I went looking for a cast of local players. Some are actors, some aren’t. But they all have a feeling for engaging a text and imagining themselves into its world. The Reverend Judy Brain is the Story Teller. Cass Tunick is Tammy Younger and Deirdre Weed, her niece, Judy Rhines. Brian Weed is the pastor from Annisquam who loves Judy Rhines. Peter Berkrot is Peter Bray, the fisherman who tries to force himself on Judy and when he fails, accuses her of witchcraft. And Duncan Hollomon is Elder Zorab Coit who brings the wrath of the community down upon Judy and John. Kathleen Adams, music director of the Annisquam Village Church, arranged and performs the music and provides live sound effects.

We’ve done two sets of performances at Windhover and this will be our third and final. Each time, we’ve grown in some way. We’re a developing experience! Last spring, we joined Gloucester 400+, which gave us tremendous support.  This time, Gabrielle Barzaghi has dropped into our Dogtown world, as if conjured by Tammy Younger. 

Charles Giuliano Recently you met Gabrielle Barzaghi who lives in the woods on the edge of Dogtown. By what process did she become involved with your production

Peter Littlefield I went to Gabrielle’s exhibition at Matthew Swift Gallery this summer and was bowled over by her work (and told her on my way out.) I didn’t know her, but my friend Kathleen Adam, arranged to take me over to Gabrielle’s studio. She showed me some drawings of the Dogtown woods, among other things. I said, “I wish I’d known you sooner. I’d have built my whole show around you,” and she said, “Well, I could make you a backdrop.”  That afternoon, I began receiving photos as the backdrop developed. I showed her some photos and the script, but she just somehow took a leap into the dark. At a certain point, I realized the backdrop was probably too big for the stage, so then Gabrielle had to eliminate a panel on either side to arrive at 6’x12.’ To my mind this is the magic of Gloucester, where you could even find someone like Gabrielle, an artist whose vision is so penetrating and creativity so generous. 

Charles Giuliano You live on the edge of Dogtown Common where you and Randy go hiking. What attracts you to that place? Are you lured by its legends and landmarks?

Gabrielle Barzaghi The Dogtown woods are gorgeous and wild with a dramatically varied topography. The history and legends just add to the attraction.   

Charles Giuliano Has Dogtown gotten into your work and if so in what way? Do you relate to works by other artists-Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, John Sloan- who included it in their work?

Gabrielle Barzaghi  We are surrounded by woods. It’s what I see when I go outside, or look out the window. So it would be a strange thing if it hadn’t crept into my work. I first started doing my woods drawings about 15 years ago after having spent years and years looking at the woodland landscape. It took a while to tackle it. In my opinion, Marsden does it best.  

Charles Giuliano Recently you met the playwright Peter Littlefield. How did you come to create a large drawing for his production?

Gabrielle Barzaghi Peter, and Kathleen Adams who provides the music for the production, visited my studio after seeing my drawing show Horse Opera at the Matthew Swift Gallery. I think Peter commented to Kathleen that it would be nice to have a small piece of mine on the set. I rather impulsively yelped out that I would do a backdrop for them. My drawing show had just ended and I really wanted a project to work on. It was a lot of fun. Every day I texted Peter “the daily report” with the latest image of the drawing.