Historic Amesbury, Massachusetts | A Small-Town Community in the City

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Historic Amesbury, Massachusetts, is a complex place, where bucolic country roads snake around historic landmarks bearing the time-worn stamp of the industrial age. Once labeled “The City known as the Town of Amesbury,” this municipality operates under a city-based governance but maintains the presence of a much smaller community. The Powow River carves through the city center, before rushing on to meet the Merrimack River, whose meandering banks mark Amesbury’s southern-most border— both important components of the maritime and mill trades that once powered the city.

downtown Amesbury, Massachusetts

Like many New England cities and towns, the heart of Amesbury, Massachusetts, sports a gazebo.

Brenda Darroch

I made my way to Amesbury on a sunny Friday afternoon to meet up with local Justin Chase to learn more about this city. He and his lovely wife, Jamie, had the most interesting, if somewhat unconventional, itinerary planned for me: one that would really give me a taste of their hometown’s historic past as it pertained to the industrial revolution, arts and culture, and its residents.

Our first stop was at Camp Bauercrest, a Jewish boys’ summer camp located on a wedge of land rising up from the shore of Lake Attitash, where we met with Director Eric Rightor. Though most buildings were shuttered for the season, he gave us an overview of the camp’s past as we trekked down to the waterfront. So how does this recreational getaway figure into Amesbury’s history? Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, passed many a happy summer day here when it was a private residence, as the guest of then-owner and Mayor of Lynn, Massachusetts, Ralph S. Bauer.

Camp Bauercrest beneath a blanket of snow.

Camp Bauercrest beneath a blanket of snow.

Brenda Darroch

Photographs of former campers line the walls at Camp Bauercrest.

Photographs of former campers line the walls at Camp Bauercrest.

Brenda Darroch

Attitash Lake

Attitash Lake

Brenda Darroch

From there, we sped along Pleasant Valley Road, trailing the path of the lower Merrimack toward Hatter’s Point. Once home to the Merrimac Hat Company, portions of the stately brick buildings that hug the river’s edge have since been renovated into condos. But that wasn’t our destination. We were headed across the street to R.E. Kimball—makers of small-batch jams, jellies & relishes.  All the items produced at the “Jelly Factory”—nicknamed the “Pickle Palace” in its early days due to the popularity of their watermelon pickle—are made completely by hand in one 75 gallon steam vat. But it’s not that single kettle, the hand-stirring, or even the historic building they occupy that makes this place so special. It’s the tradition of using pure, quality ingredients that the founding family infused into this business, now run by third-generation family members, Kim and Kate Gilbert.

This old-fashioned label stamper was once used for shoe boxes from the Haverhill shoe factories before being retrofitted for jelly jars.

This old-fashioned label stamper was once used for shoe boxes at the Haverhill shoe factories before being retrofitted for jelly jars.

Brenda Darroch

Jars of jelly and chutney are boxed and shipped from the back of R.E. Kimballs.

Jars of jelly and chutney are boxed and shipped from the back of R.E. Kimballs.

Brenda Darroch

All the products produces at R.E. Kimballs are hand-stirred in this single vat.

All the products produces at R.E. Kimballs are hand-stirred in this single vat.

Justin Chase

How do you follow up a visit to the former pickle palace? With a stop at Lowell’s Boat Shop, which has been credited with producing the first fishing dory. Step through the doors, and before you even see the hulking frames of wooden boats taking shape (under the watchful eye of Graham McKay—part boat-building manager, part museum curator), you’re hit with the smell of freshly hewn wood. Now a working museum dedicated to preserving the craft of wooden boat building, Lowell’s was established in 1793, making it the oldest continually operating boat shop in the United States.

Lowell's Boat Shop.

Lowell’s Boat Shop.

Brenda Darroch

According to my guides, boatshop manager Graham McKay always wears a tweed blazer to work.

According to my guides, boatshop manager Graham McKay always wears a tweed blazer to work.

Brenda Darroch

Niki, the boat shop dog, may have the best gig in the place.

Niki, the boat shop dog, may have the best gig in the place and certainly the best “office” view.

Brenda Darroch

With our stomachs rumbling, we left the river’s edge for the Millyard—a cluster of 19th century buildings that once supported Amesbury’s textile industry—to grab a bite to eat. Flatbread Pizza opened its doors in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 1998, offering “real food, served by real people, in a real environment.” While tempted to gobble our pies up, Jamie managed to save some for the ducks who paddle along the placid surface of the Powow before it tumbles over the crest of the waterfall and into the chute that curves between the historic mill buildings.

Historic mill buildings curve along the Powow River.

Historic mill buildings curve along the Powow River.

Brenda Darroch

Rows of neatly stacked firewood line the walk to Flabread Pizza.

Neatly stacked rows of firewood line the walk to Flabread Pizza.

Brenda Darroch

Mallard ducks crowd the walkway alongside the Powow River.

Mallard ducks crowd the walkway alongside the Powow River.

Brenda Darroch

Having fed as many ducks as possible while saving a few slices for later, we wended our way around to an 1800s era mill building on High Street that now houses Amesbury Industrial Supply, a massive hardware store. I have to admit that visiting a hardware store while exploring a town is a first for me, but it all made sense once I met 2nd-generation proprietor Greg Jardis. Sure, he’s a character and I suspect people pop in to his store just to chew the fat with him, but it’s his company philosophy that illustrates the connection Amesbury residents feel for their city’s heritage. While not everything in the store is, or can be, manufactured in the United States, they carry as many American-made products as possible. Our ancestors built this city with their labor to provide a better life for future generations, Greg tells me, so why would we turn away from that to save a few pennies at a big box store that fills its shelves with products made in other countries? Why, indeed?

Greg Jardis displays some of the goods available at Amesbury Industrial.

Greg Jardis displays some of the goods available at Amesbury Industrial.

Brenda Darroch

What's so special about this brick? It's signed by Robert Patten, the Master Mason who built the building Amesbury Industrial now occupies. Masons traditionally scratched their names into a brick laid on the East side of a building.

What’s so special about this brick? It’s signed by Robert Patten, the Master Mason who constructed the building Amesbury Industrial now occupies. Masons traditionally scratched their names into a brick laid on the East side of a building.

Brenda Darroch

A view of the mill buildings that surround Amesbury Industrial.

A view of the mill buildings that surround Amesbury Industrial.

Brenda Darroch

We could have whiled away several hours volleying “do you have…” inventory questions at Greg, but Bob Schledwitz was waiting for us, ready to open up the John Greenleaf Whittier Home to give us a tour. Open to the public between May and October (check hours of operation before visiting), the museum gives visitors a chance to observe the house as it would have appeared between 1836 and 1892 when Whittier (along with his mother, aunt, and younger sister) was living there, penning several of his most famous works—some poetic in nature, others advocating against the evils of slavery.

John Greenleaf Whittier House

John Greenleaf Whittier House

Brenda Darroch

Step inside this room, and you can almost imagine John Greenleaf Whittier working away at the desk.

Step inside this room, and you can almost imagine John Greenleaf Whittier working away at the desk.

Brenda Darroch

You may have known Whittier as an author and an abolitionist, but he was also a Quaker, and so our next stop was to the Friends Meeting House, “Where Whittier Worshipped.” Justin’s mother, Paula Chase, was on hand to show us around the simple white building. You might think the structure plain were it not for the luxuriously over-sized windows that allow a flood of sunlight to sweep through its two main rooms, imbuing it with a sense of peace and well being. The Amesbury Quakers are an active group in the community, working to improve the lives of others through charity work and peaceful protests.

Friends Meeting House -- "Where Whittier Worshipped"

Friends Meeting House — “Where Whittier Worshipped”

Brenda Darroch

Friends Meeting House

The partition to the right can be cranked upward to join the two main rooms a the Friends Meeting House.

Brenda Darroch

We couldn’t wrap up our tour without visiting two places that operate at the heart of the community. The Amesbury Public Library, where John Greenleaf Whittier served as one of the first trustees and book curators, and Our Neighbor’s Table, a non-profit organization dedicated to feeding those in need. Justin and Jamie, along with their two boys Derek (7) and Bradley (6), are so committed to the mission of Our Neighbor’s Table that they volunteer there as a family, and last Christmas their oldest son Derek asked Santa to donate food for the organization rather than a gift for himself.  Santa delivered and managed to sneak a toy or two in as well.

The Amesbury Library is a community gathering spot.

The Amesbury Library is a community gathering spot.

Brenda Darroch

With the sun just starting to fade behind the tree tops, our very unusual tour wrapped up. Have you figured out what all of these establishments had in common for Justin to choose them for our outing? All are anchored in traditions that celebrate Amesbury, Massachusetts’ sense of history, community, and even that old Yankee work ethic.

Comments
  • Why wasn’t there photographs of the historical hat factory or the Carriage museum? Or Lebaron Bonney? There is a lot of history in Amesbury. So much more that should have been included.
    The man who created Lil Abner, AL CAPP, was from Amesbury. You did not include that either.

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  • What a lovely article on Amesbury Ma! Love Love Love this area of New England where I was born (Newburyport) and brought up. My mother was from Amesbury and being Newbuyports Next door neighbor we spent alot of time there when growing up. Amesbury and Newburyport are football rivals and have the game of the year on Thanksgiving Day. And yes, my mother from Amesbury married a boy, my dad from Newburyport! This happens frequently. In closing thank you for highlighting this area frequently in your wonderful Yankee magazine! I look forward to each issue, for it reminds me of home, I may live in Ohio but my heart and soul remain in Newburyport – forever HOME!

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  • Christine

    Great article about my beloved city! But curious to not see a carriage or mention of Amesbury as the Carriage Center of the World. We have a rich history as the center of carriage manufacturing as well as early “horseless carriages!” There is so much to learn and see about Amesbury, it obviously can’t all be included in one article! Come back again once Heritage Park and the Carriage Museum is complete! Thanks so much for telling New England about our gem of a city!

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  • Hi Kathy,
    Thanks for your comment. As much as we would like to visit and include everything a town has to offer, there just isn’t enough time to see and do it all in a day.

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  • Hi Christine,
    I focused on the the places we visited that day. I think I could probably spend a week there and not see or do it all.

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  • Brenda and Yankee Magazine,

    Thank you for the wonderful article about our little Northshore city. Amesbury is an fabulous place to reside, hosting multiple water-bodies, fields and forests, as well as an incredibly rich history. Thanks for showing the not-so-known aspects of this awesome place, rather than the same-old carriage stuff. It was fun to read about places I’ve never been, even though I live here. Pickle Palace?!

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  • Beautifully written, Brenda. You did a wonderful job showcasing some of our town’s hidden gems. Thank you very much for writing this lovely article.

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  • Hi Brenda,

    I grew up in Northampton, MA often playing in the Smith botanical garden and I now live in Newburyport and am a member of the Amesbury Friends Meeting. I have visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord several times and have ancestors buried in the Charter Street burial ground in Salem. Yeah, I have been to Boston too! I have always enjoed Yankee Magazine and think this is a good protrait of Amesbury even though it doesn’t mention carriages, the huge Catholic work force for the factories, etc.

    Reply
  • Christine

    That’s for sure. We hope you’ll come back next year! Thanks again!

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  • We moved to Amesbury almost 6 years ago and haven’t looked back. We are so happy to call this wonderful town/city home. You did a beautiful job of capturing some of the wonderful places in Amesbury. Thanks for featuring my “new” hometown!

    Reply
  • We also have a TWO fabulous farms open to the public for walking (dogs welcome) and and another swimming lake. right behind downtown.

    the millyard has the most beautiful waterfall. so please come back.!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Colleen

    How about the park where Washington trained troops during the revolutionary war, powder house where they hid gun powder from the British, the statue of Josiah Bartlett signer of the Declaration of Independence and future governor of NH? Or the witch sent to the Salem witch trials?

    Reply
  • Christine

    Wow, I really enjoyed this piece, because as a 14 year resident from Rockport, Mass I had NO idea about some of which you featured.

    Your article really informed me about my amazing town in a new way – so thank you. I moved to Amesbury from Marblehead and grew up in Rockport. I have seen towns that inherited a picturesque town as a bonus for residence….Amesbury does that and MORE. Amesbury exudes HARD WORK.

    Amesbury has historical nuggets at every corner. Robert Frost and Amelia Earnhardt have walked our streets. The historic homes in our registry also are truly gifts to all of us, and their preservation is so important.

    I’m not disappointed that some facts were missing, because honestly, our town is filled with so many treasures most towns do not have. As Amesbury struggles financially, and as our shops close – I’m always so fascinated and proud that they are not shuddered long. We WANT our town to thrive and I give big kudos to the folks of my town…Amesbury has so much to offer. Thank you, Yankee Magazine for coming for a tour. It really made my day reading this article!

    Reply
  • Thank you for taking the time to leave me such a lovely comment, Sharon!

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  • It seems like a wonderful community, Emily. Where did you live before Amesbury?

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  • Thanks, Christine. There’s a lot of heart in Amesbury. It’s a very impressive place.

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  • Thanks for writing in first person. I’m accustomed to reading travel essays that are third person and it’s not as personal for me. I live across the river in Newburyport (which Yankee has also profiled in the past) and the two communities share a treasure chest of history, culture, and tourism. Hope you come back!

    Reply
  • Great article Brenda. I was born and brought up in Amesbury and actually worked for a summer at the Merrimac Hat Shop the year I graduated high school. After a hitch in the Air Force and a few years living in Salisbury, I married a Newburyport girl and lived there for 46 years in the house we built. Last year we sold out and moved back to Amesbury where we will, no doubt stay for the rest of our lives. Who says you can’t go home again?
    Thanks,
    Karl Shook

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  • Thanks, Ari. I’m beginning to realize just how intertwined the communities of Newburyport and Amesbury, Massachusetts, are!

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  • I really enjoyed your article. Amesbury is a great little city that has been the center of the American industries from its beginning in 1654 to 1960. In most cases, it was the first, the most, and the best. Thanks for visiting us and come back again

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  • I was born and lived in Beverly for 79 years before I moved to “Brooksby Village” some 12 years ago. I loved Beverly so much…I thought I could never leave. My daughter married a man from Amesbury, and it naturally followed that Amesbury would become their hometown. I hated to see them leave our area. To me Amesbury was soooo far away. Little did I know what a charming place it turned out to be. My daughter e-mailed your story to me today, and I must say you have such a lovely way of portraying that quaint city. I’m wheelchair-bound now but the photos of places I’ve never visited, made it all seem so real. Many thanks. I hope you will continue to spread the word about all the historic cities and towns that still await your visit, Perhaps Beverly, (my hometown) could be placed on your list. I would love that.

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  • My Dad’s family came to Amesbury in the early 1900’s and our family moved to NH in 1964. I love Amesbury and it has many interesting places. You should give it another look. The carriage industry I am sure would provide a good place to start. While I like Flatbreads it is certainly not part of the town’s history.

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  • Thank you for your wonderful comments, Rita. You never know where we’ll turn up next!

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  • Melissa

    Great article Brenda! Amesbury is a great place to live and the history s really promoted here. Thanks for including John G Whittier connection with Quakers.

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  • Town of my birth, 85 years ago. Ray & I grew up in Amesbury, went to school there, married there, 65 yrs. ago. Moved to be near youngest, miss it terribly. I was Pres. of Whittier Home, Pres. of Bartlett Museum & Historic Association at onetime. As I said we are very homesick. Jean Davis

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  • You captured Amesbury’s essence beautifully. True, there’s much more, but those who visit will enjoy exploring our community and get to discover that for themselves. The Chase family are great guides!

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  • Brenda, moved to Amesbury just 4 months ago and I love it. Your article made me hope this winter passes quickly so I, too, can discover some of the places you raved about! Of course, we’re battening down the hatches for a Nor’Easter tonight, so I may have to wait AWHILE! lol

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  • Good for you Karl. I too left my hometown of Holyoke to join the Air Force. Lived in Houston, TX and now in Alabama. After the snows clear it might be a good time to move back up there as well.

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  • I am from Monterrey, Mexico and lived in Amesbury in 1984 as an exchange student. Have been back three times to visit my American family; I love them. They baptized two of my joda and named the third one after one of my American sisters. Lovely place; great to live there. A jewel. Histórico, charming, great people. AHS is very nice. Amesbury is all what we dream about in a place to live. Congratulations for the article and to everybody who lives there.

    Reply

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