Until the second half of the 19th Century, much of the area bounded by Central Street, Washington Street, Mineral Street and Market Street was a wetland with an open sewer known as Farley Brook running through it.
The railroad came to Ipswich in 1839, changing the town forever. Stagecoaches no longer made their way up Town Hill, and the center of commerce moved to Market Street. After the Civil War, the economy in the industrial Northeast grew rapidly and the population swelled as immigrants came to work in the mills. Population growth increased the pressure to convert unused land to residential and industrial use.
Also in 1839, William Otis, a native of Pelham MA, received a patent for the first steam shovel, making it possible to move vast quantities of soil and gravel to fill wetlands, notably BackBay in Boston by 1882. The Ipswich Town Report for 1881 shows considerable expense for hauling gravel, offset by the sale of depleted gravel pits near Washington St. and Topsfield Rd. By 1885, Brown Square was being developed as an industrial area, and by the end of the 19th Century, the geography of the center of Ipswich looked much different than it had only a few decades before.
Shown on the above map are the wetlands which divided the western half of Ipswich from the center of town (Meeting House Green and North Main St.) as indicated in early records. The wet area extended past Dirty Lane, given that name because it was so muddy; afterwards called Baker Lane, and now known as Mineral Street. Farley’Brook was trenched to drain the swamp, and the land was filled such that it became habitable in the late 19th Century. The 1634 wetlands map was created with an interactive map that shows the effect of predicted sea level rise for selected communities.
Central Street didn’t exist until 1871. Hammatt Street followed, and William G. Brown acquired the uninhabited land as a site for his coal and gas business. Industries moved into Brown Square in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and it has become the town’s oldest surviving industrial park, with direct access to the railroad.
Land grants to the settlers
Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about the original land grants in the area bounded by Mineral and Washington Street in his two-volume book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mark Quilter: “An acre lot was granted to Mark Quilter, and recorded in 1638. His son, Joseph, succeeded and his heirs sold a house and six acres of land to Dr. Samuel Wallis, April 4, 1724. His daughter, the Widow Sarah Rust, inherited and her heirs in turn. It is now included in the B. & M. railroad land and the Burke shoe factory lot. The cellar was near the brick building of the Burke factory.”
John Wyatt “owned a house lot in 1638 and the Town Record describes it as “lying in Bridge Street (now Washington St.) and butting upon the south end upon the same street, having a house lot of Mr. Norton’s on the east, and a house lott of Mark Quilters on the west.” It was included in the Quilter lot in 1717.
The Rev. John Norton, “Teacher of the Ipswich Church, he received a grant of three acres, called a “house lot” in the record of grants, but later “a pasture.” It was a low swampy lot, and could never have been used for building purposes. It was on “the lower side of the Mill St.” (Market St.). Joseph Quilter acquired possession and conveyed to Michael Farley, measuring 15 rods on the street, in exchange for another lot, Sept. 20, 1710. John Treadwell owned in 1753. Capt. John Lord owned, and later Wm. G. Brown.
In 1635, Christopher Osgood had received a grant, bounded by John Proctor south, John Robinson north, William Fuller east, the swamp west. Waters writes that in 1710, Osgood’s property was transferred to Capt. Beamsley Perkins, who “carried matters with a high hand.” An ancient footway crossed the rear section of his property from Wildes Court, continuing up the hill to Loney ‘s Lane. He obstructed this way and forbade travel, and the matter was carried to Court. The complaint read as follows:
“The way is stopped, and is in the possession of Captain Beamsley Perkins, who it is molests us, the lots of Proctor and Osgood being in his possession. And the squared loggs that were laid over the brook and the low watery mirey ground to the brook have been taken from thence. Then this draught does but only signify such a way for a foot way in ancient times granted and used by a considerable number of the town inhabitants, but now deny’d to be and molested therein by Captain Beamsley Perkins.”
Gen. Michael Farley, conspicuous for his civil and military service, was a delegate to the Provincial Congress at Concord, and “a citizen of sterling quality.” The settler Mesheck Farley (1) was granted a lot which was at or location of Micheal Farley’s home on today’s Market St. Michael Farley first plied his vocation as a tanner on this spot, and added to his lot through purchases of land behind it from Joseph Quilter, as mentioned above. The brook that ran through the wetland crossed the Farley property and was thus named.
The swampy lot on which the Ipswich mill and dam are situated was granted to Richard Saltonstall in 1635 for the site of a grist mill. The millers were for many years Michael and Mesheck Farley (2), after which Michael Farley and Nathaniel Brown purchased the mill, and the Farley family owned and operated the mill for a century.
William G. Brown creates the town’s oldest industrial park
Michael Farley’s lot was conveyed to John Brown of Ossipee, NH in 1850. John Brown sold the lot to Jacob Brown (whose home at 11 Topsfield Rd. still stands). Jacob Brown owned a coal wharf on the River and operated the town’s only ice business. Jacob’s son William G. Brown extended the family holdings, bought the wetland that is now Brown Square, and became one of the most prominent Ipswich businessmen. In 1863, William G. Brown became sole owner of his father’s coal business, and in 1877 he incorporated a private Gas Light Company at the rear of the Market St. lots (along today’s Hammatt St). Pipes were laid, and a limited area in the center of the Town was lighted. The plant was enlarged in 1890, but the company closed when coal gas was replaced by natural gas in the 20th Century.
George B. Brown built a grain mill just across the tracks at the end of Brown Street, facing Washington St. The facility was purchased by Dustbane Products, founded in 1908 by two entrepreneurial Canadians, Chester E. Pickering and George W. Green. The company continued its Ipswich operations, but the building was totally destroyed by fire in 1964.
The 1884 Ipswich Village Map shows the George B. Brown Grain Mill (large building in red) at this location. Brown built a nice Victorian home nearby on Liberty St. Note the multiple railroad sidings behind the mill.
Hammatt Street, Wildes Court and Brown Square in the 1910 Ipswich MA map. Brown Square and Granite Street are developed, anchored by the large Burke Shoe Heel Factory.
The Burke Shoe Heel Factory
In the 1880’s, George V. Millett house, whose home still stands on Spring St., was a partner in the company “Millett, Woodbury & Co., Shoes,” which operated out of shop on Brown Square. In the 1896 Town Report, we read,
“Millett & Woodbury have permitted us to use their whistle as a fire alarm, and have kept a steam pressure sufficient to blow at any time. To compensate them for coal burned, we suggest the town remit their water rates, about $16.”
The company closed its Ipswich plant in 1899 and moved to Beverly. F.L. Burke & Son heel Manufacturers of Rowley purchased Millett,Woodbury & Co’s shoe shop in Ipswich, and built a large factory on Brown Square.
The Burke & Son heel factory at Brown Square burned on June 19, 1933. In the adjoining lot was the Canney Lumber Co., where most of the building and lumber was destroyed. The lumber business was eventually purchased by Tedford and Martin.
In 1940, Soffron Brothers Clam Company purchased the Brown Square property and built a seafood processing factory on the site. The four brothers, Tom, George, Pete and Steve, were the children of Greek immigrants who came to work at the Ipswich mills. The brothers got their start digging Ipswich clams. They moved their shucking house to Brown Square from its initial location on the family farm at Locust Road. Their largest customer was a rapidly growing restaurant chain, Howard Johnsons. Soffron Brothers were the exclusive suppliers of clams to the Howard Johnson chain for 32 years, which featured Ipswich Fried Clams on the menu.
To keep up with demand the Soffrons opened additional soft-shell clam shucking plants from Seabrook, New Hampshire, up the Maine coast to Nova Scotia. As demand continued to grow and the soft-shell clam became more difficult to source, the Soffrons invented the Tendersweet Clam, which was a sliced clam strip made from an ocean sea clam that could be harvested in large quantities from ocean shoals far at sea. Pete and Steve built ocean fishing vessels, invented the dredging techniques for harvesting, and built patented processing equipment and new processing facilities in New Jersey.
At Brown Square they constructed a large industrial freezer that used the same flash freezing technique then being used in Gloucester to freeze fish. Tom and George perfected cooking techniques for breading and frying the product, and traveled throughout the Howard Johnson chain teaching the restaurant staff to properly prepare the delicious clam strips. The frozen Tendersweet Clam strips could be shipped from Maine to Florida and was exactly the product Howard Johnson needed for his restaurant chain, which grew coast to coast to 1000 locations at its peak. Soffron Brothers continued in business into the 1990’s spanning three generations of family ownership until the building and land was sold to Mercury Brewing. (thanks to George A. Soffron, son of Stephen Soffron, for this information.)
A few years ago, Ipswich Shellfish’s neighbor on Hayward St., the Ipswich Brewery, bought the old brick building where thousands of shoe heels had been manufactured, and millions of clams shucked. The facility now produces many varieties of Ipswich Ale.
Until the early 20th Century, Hammatt Street did not exist, and the east end of what is now the Hammatt St. parking lot from Central Street to Farley Brook (now underground) was owned by the Wildes family. Sometime after the 1884 Ipswich map, several houses were built or moved to Wildes Court, which formerly was a muddy path between Central and Washington Streets.
Only two houses now remain on Wildes Court. The large house on the right in the map above is behind Marcorelle’s.
The other surviving house is attached to Super Subs, which is across Wildes Court painted white, owned by J. H. Lakeman in the 1910 map. James Howard Lakeman was appointed Ipswich Postmaster in 1914.
On August 2, 1916, J. H. Lakeman and his wife transferred the deed to 5 Wildes Court to Annie A. Gaudette (2338, 530)
The wetland is gone, but Farley Brook still runs underground from behind the laundromat on Central Street, under Brown Square and the Hammat Street parking lot, beneath Market St. and Zumi’s, emptying into the Ipswich River. Harold Bowen wrote that much of the sewage from High, Central and Manning Streets once flowed into the brook, and that the Ipswich Gas Company and the Burke Heel factory used it for waste disposal. Charlotte Lindgren informs us that before Farley Brook was piped underground, the oft-quoted phrase was “Manchester by the sea, Gloucester by the smell, and Ipswich by the sewer.“
- Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. 1, page 339
- Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay colony, Vol. 2
- Coal and Coal Trade Journal, Volume 35
- Biography of William G. Brown
- 1896 Town Report
- Additional research by Alan Pearsall