Digging peatHistory

The Peat Meadows

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.

Peat Meadows in the 1832 Ipswich map
Roads lead to the Peat Meadows in the 1832 Ipswich map

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.

This bog on Rt. 1 near the Ipswich-Topsfield town line connects with the peat meadow.

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.

Digging peat
Peat was dug in New England similarly to the way was traditionally done in Ireland, where it is still used as a fuel, and for the flavor its smoke gives to barley malt.

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.

Peat bricks
Peat bricks

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.

Willowdale State Forest trail map, showing the location of the Peat Meadows
Willowdale State Forest trail map, showing the location of the Peat Meadows.

Sources:

Categories: History, Nature

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4 replies »

  1. Loved this article. But, having lived in Ireland for two years, the Irish Whiskey has little “peaty smoke flavour”. HOWEVER Scotch whisky does smoke their malt with peat in the malt house.

    Irish whiskey (with an “e”) DOES use peat, but like the ro.an baths, the heat is indirect heat from the floor. The peat is burned below, with the smoke vented outside, not through the malt.

    • And we DID burn peat bricks in our coal fireplaces. In the winter, the burning peat wafts through the air, at least in Galway where we lived. I miss the smell now. We were there from 1987 through 1989. Hated to leave, miss it still ☘☘☘

  2. Hi Gordon,

    I enjoyed your piece about the “Peat Meadows” in Ipswich. Interesting since we often associate peat mainly with “the old sod” of Ireland. Been there a few times and still recall its smoldering scent.

    But back to Essex County. Lynnfield has a similar resource where peat was mined in the mid 19th century called Reedy Meadow. Hay and cranberries were also harvested there. The site is considered the “the major water retention area for the Saugus River Watershed, as well as a natural wildlife refuge.” A municipal 9-hole golf course has occupied part of Reedy Meadow for decades.

    Factoid about our ingenious Reedy Meadow farmers- When the ground was wet, horses were fitted with “rackets,” defined as “wooden squares or rectangles … of a size to prevent interference with metal fasteners to fit over the horse’s shoes” for them to navigate the terrain more easily.

    Reedy Meadow, bordered by Wakefield and Saugus, is a lovely area.

  3. Beirut’s MacDonald ( Don MacDonald’s wife) used to take long walks in Willowdale! What would Biden say abt burning peat? Uh oh! They caused climate change!!! Ha ha

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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