Top: Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, circa 1695, Newbury, Essex county, Massachusetts.Newbury reminds me of the west of Ireland. You come into Newbury via a roundabout. Head one direction and you’re going back in time to Newbury’s early American roots, to Newbury itself. Take off in the other and you end up in Newburyport, a town full of subtle historic attractions in a resort-type atmosphere. Or as I was told by a resident, if you’re looking for the historic attractions, just go up and down Massachusetts 1A – it’s all there.
Like Ireland, Newbury’s history blends in with the landscape. A modern day house, relatively speaking for New England, may sit next to a First Period home. The land is still farmed, small farms with stone walls. There’s enough of the past intact to slip in and out of the 21st century just by driving down the highway.
There’s very little left of the first settlement in Newbury, just a stone marker near the banks of the Parker River, where young Nicholas Noyes leapt ashore in 1634 with about a 100 pilgrims from Wiltshire, England. The original name for the river was Quascacunquen, which was an Native American term for waterfall. The falls are still there, where the river is bridged by Central street. If you head south from the bridge, you’ll find a charming, quintessential New England countryside. Head north and you’re following the path of settlement from the town’s founding
Newbury suffered the same fate of many of the early American colonial settlements. It’s roots were farming, fishing and hunting, and except for spells of industry, those roots have held throughout the centuries. Today, fishing and hunting are done recreationally, and indeed, Newbury has been a popular tourist destination since Victorian times. It’s just that it finds it hard to compete with its more glamorous neighbor, Newburyport.
As you come up Route 1, a keen eye will catch the First Burying Ground of the Settlers on the left hand side of the road. Founded in 1635, you’ll come across the names of the earliest settlers of Newbury. Graveyard travelers will find much to like about this one – some great carvings, winged effigies and other symbols, even stones to mark graves when no head stones were available. The Burying Ground was restored in 1929, and you’ll notice several stones with extremely old dates that look rather, well new actually. It’s not great conservation, they’re restorations.
Next up on the right is the Dole Little House, circa 1750, one of a handful of historical attractions administered by Historic New England. Just past that is the road the leads to the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, which has been a working farm since 1635, with the house dating from about 1690. The house is built of local stones, with a porch and gables of bricks, and is the only 17th century stone house to survive in New England with the outer walls intact.
Further down Massachusetts 1 is the Upper Green, where the colonial militia trained starting in 1646, and scattered around it are a number of early American homes. The John Atkinson House, a first period house circa 1664-1665, has a connection to the Salem Witch hunts of 1690. According to the testimony of Sarah Atkinson, Susannah Martin visited the house during a storm some years previously, and having had to walk so far in such bad weather, she was surprised to see her bone dry and her feet mud free. The unfortunate Susannah was hung based on Sarah’s and others’ testimony.
A short distance later finds the First Parish Church of Newbury, dating from 1869, which is the third structure to bear the name, and is one of the oldest congregations in America. Then-president Gerald Ford wrote in 1984, “The values and traditions brought to Newbury by its first settlers and handed down through the decades have withstood the test of time. They are the same qualities that have made our nation great and hopefully, with the help of the citizens of today, these gifts will be treasured and protected by the generations of tomorrow.”
Life was tough for the earliest churchgoers in Newbury. The Reverend Glen Tilley Morse wrote in his Events of the Early History, “There was no heat in the first Meeting House which was probably a rude structure built of logs with cracks and crevices filled with clay to keep out the cold…. The congregation had to sit during sermons that were two hours long. They could not doze, for they would be rudely awakened by having a fox’s tail on a long rod brushed against their faces. They would be punished if they disturbed the meeting by moving about or causing any commotion and fined if they missed a meeting or service. Parishioners attended the meetings at the perils of their lives. They were in danger of attacks from Indians and wild beasts on their way to and from worship.’
In addition, armed guards were posted at the doors during services to protect against Indian attacks.
Across the road is the First Parish Burying Ground, another venerable old cemetery. Further up the road is the Coffin House, dating from 1678.
And then it’s into Newburyport. One thing you’ll notice as you travel High street from the spot where the original settlers landed, up to Newburyport, things get tidier. By the time you reach the Upper Green, houses are restored a bit better, a bit more often. But in comparison to that even, Newburyport sparkles.
As the name implies, Newburyport is on the Atlantic Ocean, and I didn’t have a chance to get down to the water, or even more than a cursory walk around the historic area. So I can’t tell you other than what I’ve seen and heard about the town’s reputation as a beautiful resort. But based on what I saw of the rest of the town, I think that’s a fair assumption.
You ever set aside a few hours for a day trip, and just before you have to leave, you find yourself in one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever been? Newburyport is like that. I got out of the car to take a photo, and found myself drawn down the street, then around the corner and I had the distinct feeling I could have gone on and on for another day or so.
Instead I found myself parked next to Bartlet Mall, the site of the Superior Courthouse (pronounced Mal, as in rhyming with pal for you newcomers), and the curiously named Frog Pond. According to legends, which according to the newspaper isn’t legend but fact, there are tunnels which run beneath the pond down to the ocean, used either by the Underground Railroad in the Civil War, or were used by bootleggers. Or both. Both the Gaol and Frog Pond are reportedly haunted. And hovering over Frog Pond is the Old Burying Ground, which in addition to holding countless curious headstones, is also home to the Pierce Mausoleum, site of some of the strangest graveyard desecrations to take place in this country.
By then the sun was hanging low and I still had Concord to go, and then home to New York later that night, and it was with a heavy heart I left Newbury and Newburytown. It was there I came to the realization which is probably apparent to anyone who lives in New England, but was quite unexpected to me. If you’re looking for early American history, historical attractions, or just like to feel the past wash over you, you could spend a lifetime in New England and never see it all.