After the Revolution, the Embargo and the War of 1812 it took several decades for the local economy to recover. The fields and hillsides in Essex County had been stripped of trees, and the cost of shipping wood from the still-ample forests of Maine had become prohibitive. People in New England began digging into an estimated 20,000 acres of peat bogs as an alternative fuel source. Essex, Middlesex, and Norfolk counties in eastern Massachusetts posses the largest quantity of burnable peat in New England, outside of Maine. About 500 acres of nearby Wenham Swamp is layered with dark peat mixed with the remains of decomposed trees. “Turf,” as it was also called, became a fairly common fuel until the mid-19th Century, when anthracite coal became widely available.
Deep in the heart of Willowdale State Forest is a bog which in the 1832 Ipswich map is labeled the “Peat Meadows.” The wetland still exists, drained by Bull Brook to the east, Potters Brook to the west and Gravelly Brook to the south., and was known as Pine Swamp. The western edge of the marsh is visible from Old Right Rd. and Rt. 1 before crossing the Topsfield town line. The smelly peat found in these wetlands became assets to their owners. David Pickard on Linebrook Rd. was taxed for several acres of peat meadow, and the map shows Daniel Kneeland’s causeway from Old Right Road to his portion of the peat meadow, the remnants of which are no longer visible.
In our area, peat is found in damp forests where decaying plants are deposited on the bottom and sides of a swampy depression. Peat covers about 3% of the Earth’s surface, but stores one-third of the soil’s carbon. Peat bogs form over thousands of years and are estimated to hold up to 550 gigatons of carbon globally, making them the most efficient carbon sink on the planet.
Peat deposits can be over 15 ft., deep, and the darkest and densest stuff is at the bottom. The first step was digging a deep trench to drain water from the peat meadow. The saturated mass of old organic materials would be cut into blocks with steel knifes on long wooden handles, pulled from the bog and stacked into blocks for drying, which could take several weeks. After the fuel was thoroughly dried, it was stored in a turf shed at the peat meadow, and the large blocks were cut into bricks for burning.
In the book Massachusetts in the Bay Colony Vol. II, Thomas Franklin Waters wrote, “Wood held its own as a popular and convenient fuel for many years, and peat, too, was much used. The High Street folk owned lots in the great turf meadows back of the Rice farm, and in Linebrook, the ancient West Meadows. In the spring or summer as soon as the meadows were dry, the surface was removed, and then the long turf spade was thrust down three and four feet into the dense, black peat. The long bricks were dried and stored in the peat houses as soon as they could be handled. In the Fall, they had become dry and solid and were carted home for winter use in stoves and fire places. The pungent “peat reek” which pervaded the houses and the neighborhood is well remembered.”
Some of the old roads leading to the peat bog in the the heart of Willowdale still exist as part of the Bay Circuit Trail, and are shown in the Willowdale trail map. Peatfield Street in Ipswich, however, is named after the two brothers who invented the rotary warp frame and introduced lace machinery to Ipswich.
- Old Time New England: When they burned peat in Middleton
- 1832 Ipswich map
- 1856 Topographical map of Essex County, Massachusetts
- Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society
- Massachusetts in the Bay Colony Vol. II, Thomas Franklin Waters
- United States Geological Survey, Peat Deposits in Maine
- Wikipedia: Peat
- The Occurrence and use of Peat in the United States, produced by the Department of the Interior in 1922
- Willowdale State Forest trail map, Pineswamp Area