Summertime Is Sweet in Salem
By Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer
Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
Don’t let the neon lights on Broadway blind you, there’s a lot more to Salem than fast food and shopping malls.
“I like the shopping, but I like the restaurants and the parks, too,” said Kenny Letts Jr. of Windham, a former resident of Salem, who was enjoying a sunny afternoon in the Field of Dreams Park with his daughter Katherine and son Kenny III.
Salem is home to several day-trip destinations. Canobie Lake Park first opened 117 years ago and has been a fixture on the regional summer entertainment scene ever since. The astronomical stone configurations at America’s Stonehenge have been intriguing visitors for almost as long and foodies have made pilgrimages to the restaurants and specialty grocery store at Tuscan Village for nearly a decade.
But there is so much more.
“There’s always something going on — parades, concerts, whatever. Salem has a big city feel without the crime,” said Letts.
Europeans first settled in the area in 1652. The town was called North Parish of Methuen until the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire was adjusted in 1741 and made it part of the Granite State. It was renamed Salem, apparently after the town in Massachusetts of the same name, whose name was inspired by the Arab word “salim,” or peace.
That’s plain to see at Salem Common Historic Village, surrounding the town green on Main Street — the former center of the settlement. It’s easy to imagine how this verdant looked three centuries ago. The green is bordered by the former town hall, built in 1738, and now the home of the historical society. There are also war memorials, the 283-year-old Salem Center Burial Ground, a 19th-century schoolhouse and a 1906 firehouse beside the Spicket River.
But history in Salem isn’t all about town fathers and early settlers. Canobie Lake Park was constructed in 1902 by the Massachusetts Northeast Railway Company to encourage travel on its trolleys during the weekends. The garden-style amusement park soon had crowds arriving by trolley from the mill towns in Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Nashua and Manchester.
The park is still alive with a roller coaster, waterpark, concert hall and rides, like DaVinci’s Dream – a whirling, illuminated disk with swings and images of the Mona Lisa decorating its base, which are as beautiful to look and fun to ride.
Another iconic attraction in Salem is America’s Stonehenge, formerly known as Mystery Hill, is a 30-acre roadside attraction with stone structures said to align with astronomical events such as the summer and winter solstice. It is seen by some to be evidence of prehistoric visitors to the area and thought to be a curious fantasy by others.
But there can be no mention of the history of this border town without mentioning Rockingham Park. To many of Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls it was this racetrack which put the town on the map. The one-mile thoroughbred track was built in 1906.
Wonder horse Seabiscuit raced there in 1935 and ’36 and the track was so famous that it was mentioned in the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film “The Sting.” The racetrack spawned the Rockingham Mall shopping center before it went the way of all horse flesh in 2016.
Shopping? Of course. It’s Salem with miles of malls and mini malls, as evidenced by the bright lights along Broadway, aka Route 28. The shopping district on the border between the Granite and Bay states has always lured those from Massachusetts attracted by the lack of a sales tax.
But don’t overlook the independent stores. Fiddleheads are all about those.
On weekends the Lake Street Garden Center attracts growers likes bees to pollen. There are big flowers, little flowers and big trees, too. The family-owned garden center has nine acres of annuals, perennials, herbs, vegetables and shrubs with experts on-hand to help you make the right choice. They also offer classes like “All About Hydrangeas” on July 20, “Shade Gardening” Aug. 10 and “Fall Gardening” Sept. 21. (Sign up at lakestreet.com.)
We suggest a stop at Primrose Antique Fine Arts & Collectibles on Lawrence Road, not far from the historic village, where you’ll never know what vintage treasure you might find. For the hipster shopper, head to Bull Moose on South Broadway which draws a steady clientele searching for new and vintage vinyl, video games, movies, CDs, manga and books.
Offering a spiritual book experience for those of the Christian faith, DeColores Christian Bookstore at 34 North Broadway has been a family-run gift and book business for the past 25 years. For more physical relaxation, the salt caves at Bien Soigné offers healing in the presence of those icy pink chunks of Himalayan crystals.
If your idea of relaxing is something less, head outdoors for some nature therapy. Bicyclists flock to Granite Street Rail Trail and many make the 9-mile trip on the paved path to Derry.
Field of Dreams Community Park and Playground was built and maintained by a devoted group of volunteers. The park has a playground with a dedicated toddler area, fitness and hiking trails, a picnic area, volleyball court and concert pavilion with a summer concert series beginning July 11 with Brandy.
The 200-acre Salem Town Forest has a 2 1/2 mile-hiking loop that is dog-friendly as long as your companion canine is on a leash.
And if all that fresh air works up an appetite, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. The Colosseum Annibale Todesco has trained generations of servers and chefs. Drop in to the Black Water Grill for the Asian ribeye or seared scallops.
The Copper Door has chowder and plank salmon, steaks, chicken — really “something for everybody” as its website states. MaryAnn’s Diner celebrates the happy days of poodle skirts, burgers and banana splits.
You can grab a curry or other Indian staple at Kashmir. Sammy J’s Breakfast Café has a strong local following as does Border Brewery and Barbecue.
In a roundabout way Salem may have found its future in the Italian countryside, and here’s how. Joe Faro, who made and marketed Italian foods in Haverhill, Mass., opened the Tuscan Kitchen restaurant in Salem in 2010 and Italian cuisine fans beat a path to his door.
Two years later, he opened Tuscan Market next door with molti imported cheeses, pastas, meat and Italian specialties. Soon Faro opened additional Tuscan Kitchen locations in Burlington and Portsmouth.
But the pezzo di resistenza will be Tuscan Village, the 107-acre commercial and residential development currently being constructed on the former site of Rockingham Park.