From the days when Newbury was rated as one of the leading agricultural towns in Massachusetts, farming has dwindled to a few working farmers. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly every house along High Road, from the Upper to the Lower Green, was occupied by a farmer and his family. Each family unit was pretty nearly self-supporting, depending on its gardens, poultry, cows, and grain crops for food. As late as World War I, grain was taken by local farmers to the remaining grist mill in town to be milled into flour. A single farmer might raise as many as 40 acres of wheat.In addition to supplying their own needs, Newbury farmers shipped their produce to Boston, loading freight cars at both Knight's Crossing in Newbury and at Newburyport. Renowned Newbury apples were shipped as far away as Europe. Onions were also a principal crop in the town, and at one time Newbury was considered to be the country's leading onion-growing district. In a good year, a farm family might sell 40,000 pounds or more of onions.
But it is the heyday of apple growing in Newbury that local farmers recall most vividly. Thousands and thousands of apples were harvested and shipped to major centers such as New York, Philadelphia, and London. Local men stationed in England during World War I found Newbury apples for sale in the markets.
Although it was common for early settlers to bring trees and seeds into the new country, it was not until 1712 that the first apple tree was planted in Newbury at the Adams farm on Orchard Street in Byfield. At that time, five Russet cuttings were imported from England: One of these lived to the age of 150 years, and in spite of its great age, 4 barrels of good apples were picked from the tree. By the year 1854, it is estimated that 21,000 apple trees were under cultivation in Newbury.
Baldwins and Russets were the popular varieties at the turn of the 20th century. The Macintosh came in later years. The Graff Stein, or Gravenstein, apple (the latter is to this day spelled incorrectly) was successfully grafted in Byfield due largely to the efforts of H.D. Rogers. There was no need to import pickers in those days, as many men were available from surrounding towns. In the days when electric cars ran to the Parker River, the early morning car at the height of the picking season would be completely filled with apple pickers on their way to the local farms, and the late afternoon cars would be equally filled with pickers returning home after a day in the orchard.
Today, Newbury has less than a half-dozen large active farms and approximately 30 small properties that raise mainly vegetables, hay, and flowers. Hard work and careful management plus a love of the land keep these farmers in business. Two farm properties have been preserved by the town against future development through the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Act, thereby insuring their rural character for future generations. The farming tradition will continue in this town, which has for over 375 years depended on farming for its livelihood.
The early Colonists were apportioned marsh property when land was first granted. Persons who owned marsh lots knew that they had something substantial. The land was valued so highly that in 1805 a proposed bridge to Plum Island was opposed by petition of the proprietors of the salt marsh. Well into the 19th century marsh land continued to be prized by the farmers who cut it by hand.
Women played an important part in the haying process. All female hands old enough to be of service cooked for days to prepare nourishing and tasty food to supply the small army of men who hayed the marsh. Beans, ham cuts, bread, beef stew, pies, tars, and apple pan dowdy all had to be prepared in advance. In later days, women also helped with the hand-raking if the crew was short in supply.
Children of salt hay farm families were also pressed into service at an early age; older children would trim or rake. By the age of 16 a young man might be allowed to be a stacker. Children grew into salt haying on the marsh, and they were trained on the site for the task required.
Tents were often erected on Plum Island for the salt hay season, especially by the "up country" people from New Hampshire. Families living in the area soon replaced these with some permanent wood-frame camps. The camp building itself sat on the marsh, and like the haystacks, it was elevated above the ground on wooden posts. Food was kept beneath it in a hole dug in the marsh. A chunk of ice was added to help preserve the food; this would last roughly three days, when it would be replaced by a fresh chunk brought in from the ice house.
More than just a farm chore, salt haying developed into a craft, and nothing was wasted. The men on the marsh took pride in their scything technique, and often the mower's well-sharpened scythe would be his and his alone. A clean, wide swath was prized, and a well-built stack was the rule, not the exception. It is claimed, especially by the marsh farmers, that a man's stack was his signature.
As luck would have it, haying usually took place on the hottest and sometimes buggiest days of the year, while the "sledding-in" of the hay came on the coldest and most wind-swept. Large wooden hay sleds, painted "dumpcart blue," were used to retrieve the stacks in the winter when the marsh froze over. Sometimes a tricky venture, the sled would be driven by oxen, and later by horse teams, across the frozen marsh. At the river bank the cakes of ice would be tested by the drop of a heavy 5-foot crowbar. If the ice withstood the blows, the heavily-loaded sled was pulled across.
Salt haying flavored the geography of our area. Names like Club Head, The Knobbs, Cow Bridge Meadows, and Hog Island are placed that a salt hay farmer could pinpoint. Boundaries in the marsh were often no more than a rock, a point of land, a clump of trees, or other kinds of natural landmarks. The lines and curves in between these points were marsh ditches, creeks, and rivers. In some places these colorful names still persist.
Once an ordinary and necessary part of the local farming scene, salt haying was an operation which required teamwork and one which produced a highly-visible product: haystacks. These stacks populated the marsh and stood as a testament to the hard work which required a strong back, good judgment, teamwork, and "a little hard cider." On a good day a team might put up eight stacks. Today it's hard to visualize the number of stacks that once dotted the marshes. It is said that there once were so many, that when you looked down the marsh from the Plum Island Turnpike you were unable to see the horizon.
Newbury's 375th Anniversary Committee partnered with the Cunningham family in 2009 to build a salt haystack as part of Essex Heritage's Trails and Sails weekend. To watch an 8-minute film of the process, click here.
Business and Industry
Newbury business and industry in the 18th and 19th centuries reflected the pattern that developed throughout New England: Activity centered on the river because of the water power it generated. The Parker River Falls in Byfield created a manufacturing area known as "Mill Village." The primary manufacturer was the Byfield Woolen Mill, an important source of employment in the area. Other mills that drew power from the Parker River were the Tappan Grist Mill on South Main Street, the sawmill on River Street, and the Larkin-Morrill Mill, originally a sawmill but converted to snuff in 1804, on Larkin Road.
In addition to the mills, a general store, post office, blacksmith shop, and a tannery clustered around the Falls area in Byfield. Downriver, a small shipyard owned by Captain Abraham Adams built coastal schooners.
As decades passed, technologies changed, and water power became less important. Mill Village also changed; its hub, the original woolen mill, burned to the ground in 1932. The Pearson Snuff Mill continued to operate into the 1980s, but then sat abandoned in the trees for many years until the building was finally taken down in the spring of 2012.
Byfield was also fertile ground for inventors. The first American machine to cut and head nails was made in Byfield. Moody Boynton invented the first monorail train in the early 1800s, but unhappily his patent was circumvented. The well-known swan boats in the Boston Public Garden were developed by Newbury entrepreneur Robert Paget, who started his enterprise with rowboats in the early 1870s.
In 1878 Newbury became a boom town when silver was discovered in a field that would later become the site of Chipman Mine. Reports from the ore assayers were so good that land values soared. Fantastic real estate deals were made. Land that had been valued at $300 for 12 acres, sold for $100,000 after the discovery of silver ore. The students at Governor Dummer Academy who tore up their campus searching for ore reflected the enthusiasm and hope of all the prospectors digging in the area. Towns surrounding Newbury also fell under the spell and gold and silver mining. Thirty-six mines were developed in the area, following a trend in New England during that time. The promoters of the Chipman Mine did well: reports say that $500,000 worth of silver was mined there, and nearly $100,000 was paid in dividends to speculators. The mine closed in 1925.
Newbury has always had links with the sea although there has never been an organized Newbury-based fishing industry. It has instead been the pursuit of individuals. Fishing grounds in the Atlantic have long been visited by town fishermen, while close-to-shore enterprises such as clamming, surf fishing, eeling, and lobstering have constituted a way of life for generations of Newbury residents. The basin of Plum Island and the Parker River mud flats are still worked for clams to this day.
Newbury Historical Commission : : 25 High Road : : Newbury MA 01951 : : HistoricalComm@TownOfNewbury.org : : www.Newbury1635.org