March is a special month. We are shaking off the cold of the winter, and finally seeing flowers emerging from their winter rest. March is also Women’s History Month, so it seemed only appropriate to talk about the life and accomplishments of Peabody’s Marion “Tillie” Spurr, of Tillie’s Flower Shop and Farm.
Tillie’s Farm is a South Peabody landmark, located at 189 Lynn Street. The Newhall family farmed this land for generations. Frank Lewis Newhall started the wholesale farm business in 1880. He sold his produce at Quincy Market in Boston and traveled there by horse and wagon.
Marion W. Newhall was born to Langdon and Rose (Watkins) Newhall on October 16, 1917. She graduated with the Peabody High School Class of 1935; her yearbook photo and entry can be seen to the left.
In 1937, Marion earned her College Diploma in Floriculture at Mass State College, Stockbridge School of Agriculture. She was one of only two women in her class. In her first job out of school, she was given the nickname of “Tillie.” The shop owner had a sister named Marion, and started calling Marion Newhall, “Tillie,” so he wouldn’t get confused.
Marion’s mother, Rose, encouraged her to start the floral business and farm stand on Lynn Street. In 1940, Marion bought her portion of the land from her grandfather, Frank Lewis Newhall, and added the popular retail farm stand. According to Marion’s daughters, their mother gave the farm stand the name “Tillie’s” as a nod to her former employer, who didn’t believe she was capable of running her own business. She proved him wrong!
During World War II, Marion enlisted in the United States Army. Marion had scarlet fever at the age of 16, leaving her partially deaf, so she could not serve overseas. She was a Combat Liaison Officer, stationed in San Francisco. She monitored the skies for weather balloons which could contain Japanese aerial bombs. She rose to the rank of Captain.
arion married Lawrence Spurr in 1948 and had four children: Charles, Edith, Marjorie and Earl. Marion ran “Tillie’s” from 1940 until her semi-retirement in 1978. She continued to work part-time at the farm until 1999. Marion’s son, Earl, ran the 16-acre farm until it was fully acquired by the City of Peabody in 2017. Marion “Tillie” Spurr died on June 22, 2008 at the age of 90.
Marion and the rest of the Newhall family’s legacy lives on. The City of Peabody owns Tillie’s Farm stand. Farm Manager Billy Murphy runs operations and has worked at Tillie’s since he was 14. His crew also includes his mother Shelagh Murphy. So, in a full circle way, Tillie’s remains a family operation.
There is also an active non-profit on the farm called the Newhall Fields Community Farm. It is a 2-acre organic farm that grows produce for the local community. In the 2019 growing season, they grew over 2,000 pounds of food with the help of over 300 volunteers.
You can learn more about them at their websites:
John Laidler, “Deal would protect farm from development,” The Boston Globe, October 15, 2006.
Obituary of Marion Spurr, June 27, 2008.
Steve Landwehr, “Peabody florist cultivated family, as well,” The Salem News, June 30, 2008.