Salem Common, the large, attractive park in the heart of the city, has been public land since Salem’s early days. However, a portion of these eight acres was originally swampy area, with several ponds and small hills. The higher ground was used as pasture for goats and cows which were brought out to graze for the day and then returned to their owners at night by the town cowherd.
From as early as 1685, the dry part of the common was used also as the designated area where people could practice shooting in order to be prepared for military duty. Needing a place for regular military drills, it was voted in 1714 by the commoners to be “forever kept as a training field for the use of Salem”.
George Ropes Jr.’s painting, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), is a beautiful reminder of Salem’s new center of community activity. Annual Training Day brought local militia units from neighboring towns and communities parading in dress uniform through Salem streets to meet at the Common. Memoirs of early Salem residents fondly describe this day of colorful parades, puppet shows, athletic events and socializing.
In 1801, Salem’s Elias Hasket Derby, 2nd, who was a colonel in the militia, raised $2,500 which was used to improve the field conditions. Ponds were filled in, the surface levelled and rows of poplar trees were planted. Unfortunately, all the poplar trees were destroyed in 1815 by a great gale and were replaced with elms a couple of years later.