The early history of Topsfield

National Register of Historic Places Documentation

Prepared by Gretchen G. Schuler & Anne M. Forbes, Preservation Consultants, April 2005

I. Contact Period and Early Settlement (ca. 1500-1670)

The native inhabitants of Topsfield at the time of the first European contact were members of the Pawtucket group who occupied an area that extended northeast from Salem, Massachusetts to southern Maine. Locally, these people were known as the Agawam or Naumkeag Indians, who may have been a sub-tribe of the Massachusetts under Penacook leadership. They utilized the territory that became Topsfield, which they called Shenewemedy, for hunting and fishing, establishing trails along the Ipswich River and its tributaries. Known transportation routes used by the native tribes were consistent with the seasonal activities of hunting, fishing, gathering, and perhaps some summer agriculture.


Fish Brook near the western border of Topsfield was a particularly active area. A native trail leading west from Ipswich Village with a ford at Hewlett Brook later was developed as the main European settlement travel route to the New Meadows along Ipswich Road. Parts of this trail roughly following Perkins Row and Howlett Street were officially laid out about 1640. One inland trail connecting Topsfield with Salem may have existed as a north-south native corridor prior to the laying out of Main Street and Salem Road in 1656, which together comprised the major route south to Salem.

A few native inhabitant sites– possibly of the village type, as well as a few special purpose sites-may have been present, though thorough documentation of such established villages or camps in the Topsfield vicinity is lacking. Native fields of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and/or tobacco were likely located along the river or its tributaries and associated wetlands. The local native population is believed to have reached 200 or more prior to the epidemic of 1617-19, after which their numbers probably dropped to fewer than fifty.

Historic map of the Town of Topsfield
Historic map of the Town of Topsfield drawan for the town’s 1953 tricentennial

In 1638-1639, John Winthrop, Jr., representing the Massachusetts Bay Company, purchased the rights for the territory that included Topsfield from the Sagamore Masconomet. English settlement may have begun as early as 1634-35, when the first land grants here in the “back country” of Ipswich were awarded to a small group of proprietors. By 1642 about half the town’s acreage, most of it north of the Ipswich River, had been given out in large grants of 300 to 800 acres each.

The early years of English settlement were largely characterized by tenant farming on the large land grants given to these first proprietors, most of who resided in Ipswich and Salem. In fact, only one of the large landowners who received a grant at New Meadows in the 1630s and 1640s, Thomas Dorman, actually lived in Topsfield prior to receiving the land grant. Among the recipients of 500-acre grants were two governors of the Bay Colony, Simon Bradstreet and John Endicott. John Winthrop, Jr., who was the son of another governor and later became Governor of Connecticut, received 300 acres.

Over the course of the 1640s and 1650s, several of the larger grants were broken up into smaller farms ranging from under 10 to over 100 acres some through sales, others under lease agreements. By the 1680s many of the larger tracts also had been divided into 100 to 200 acre lots for the second generation heirs of the early proprietors.

By the time Topsfield was officially established as a village of Ipswich called New Meadows in 1643, several colonists apparently were living and farming in the area as squatters or as tenants of the large landowners. At the time of the town’s incorporation in 1650, the English population was between 25 and 50 individuals in what were probably fewer than a dozen families. By 1675 there were about 250 people in the town, virtually all of them members of farming families.

While the first lands to be cultivated were located on the earliest grants north of the Ipswich River, the farms established there were dispersed throughout that area, rather than concentrated a land-use pattern consistent with the contemporary meaning of the term “village” as an outlying area of scattered farms. Despite the land grants to the proprietors and the subsequent division of those early grants, late in the 17th century, large tracts of common land still remained, most of them located south of the river. Some common land was transferred into private ownership in two divisions in the early 1660s, but a considerable part of the southern section of town remained commonly owned and undeveloped through the end of the century.

Until after 1700, Topsfield’s residential development remained dispersed in its outlying farmhouses, most of which were still north of the river, consistent with the land grant disposition described above. The first meetinghouse, built between 1655 and 1658 at a presumed site at the northwest corner of Hewlett Street and Meeting House Lane, was located in what is now the north part of town. The location was chosen to accommodate residents of Rowley Village (Boxford) to the northwest, with whom the first church was gathered. While the establishment of Haverhill Road in 1668 leading north from the meetinghouse completed the regional north/south corridor through town, no dense village center around a meetinghouse and common was to grow up for at least another generation.

The first Colonial settlers in Topsfield probably relied on hunting and gathering wild foods for a good part of their subsistence in the years when the forest was being cleared and agricultural activity was beginning. It was a combination of agriculture and husbandry; however that was to become the mainstay of Topsfield’s farming and of its economy for the next century and a half. Cattle, sheep, swine, and some fowl were raised for each family’s sustenance, with oxen and some horses kept as work animals. Many of the main crops Indian corn, wheat, rye, and barley provided food for both livestock and people.

The raising of vegetables and fruit, especially apples for cider, also was a significant part of the early agricultural pattern. Cider was made at home throughout the period. Textiles were produced in the home, and by 1670 some local professional weavers were fabricating cloth from the yarn that family members spun from their own sheep, or from the vegetable fibers raised in their own fields of flax or hemp. By 1666 farmers also could bring their grain to the first local gristmill, established by Francis Peabody on Mile Brook in the north part of town.

One of the earliest farms was that of Zaccheus Gould (d. 1668) on Washington Street near the Boxford town line. Gould owned up to 3,000 acres, of which only 580 acres are said to have been in Topsfield. Successive generations of Goulds farmed this land along Washington Street through the 17th and 18th centuries. Zaccheus Gould of a subsequent generation settled along Prospect Street and River Road in an area that later became known as Lake Village, for the Lake family who established a farm in the same area by 1718.

Other early farms established by families whose descendants remained in Topsfield for over two centuries include the farm of Jacob and Edmund Towne, which started at 47 acres, and Thomas Perkins’ farm on Perkins Row. Mills were an important part of early farming communities. The Peabody gristmill stood on land purchased from William Evans in 1666 near what became the intersection of the Newburyport Turnpike and Ipswich Road. In 1670/71 Francis Peabody was granted permission to establish a second mill a sawmill near his gristmill.

Architectural characteristics

Early Topsfield records indicate that farmhouses built by the first generation of settlers were clapboarded, and that their roofs were shingled. Documents from 1668, for instance, report that Edmund Bridges was desirous of “getting clapboards for his house” (Dow 83). Some information about Topsfield’s early farm buildings is revealed in deeds and probate records. Barns were mentioned as early as 1660. In that year, the widow of George Bunker, who had been in Topsfield before 1653, sold her husband’s former farm east of the meetinghouse with a house and barn on the property. When George Bunker died in 1658, his probate settlement, the first recorded from Topsfield, also showed that he owned oxen (“working cattle”), cows, heifers, calves, and swine, all of which would have required shelter from the cold New England winters.

Zaccheus Gould House, Topsfield
Zaccheus Gould House, Topsfield

The ca. 1670 Zaccheus Gould House at 85 River Road was originally a humble single-cell house now embedded in the greatly expanded house. It is believed to be typical of the form and size of most of Topsfield’s early farmhouses. Expansions of additional rooms, stories, and lean-tos, and structural and decorative features such as the closely spaced joists (18 V* inches on center) and chamfered frame with lamb’s tongue stops on the longitudinal summer beam are probably representational of the houses that have been demolished.

Expansion of Early General Farming (ca. 1670-1810)

While Topsfield was little affected by King Philip’s War of 1675-76, one indication that an initial frontier period of economic and social instability was coming to an end was the sharp rise in population soon after the war ended. 57 men were recorded as representing as many as 285 individuals in 1677; the number jumped to 74 representing about 370 people in 1678. Immigrants and other newcomers who arrived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were mainly farmers, many of them attracted by the fertile land and wide meadows along the Ipswich River.

The number of artisans associated with the agricultural economy gradually increased as well, with millers, coopers, blacksmiths, tanners, weavers, and carpenters all recorded in Topsfield during the later Colonial period. Many of the artisans, of course, also were farmers, who performed their services for their rural neighbors. By 1705 for instance, Henry Lake was known as a “slaughterman” who had a slaughterhouse on his farm at “Lake’s Hill” on Prospect Street and River Road. Shoemaking was undertaken by many early farmers as a winter occupation, and was to continue as a home industry for nearly two centuries.

The Howlett-Donaldson's grist mill in Topsfield
Howlett’s gristmill when it was owned by Donaldson in the late 19th Century

By 1740 the town had a second gristmill, Howlett’s Mill, erected on Howlett Brook at the east edge of town. Timber cutting was a significant activity associated with farming, with a relatively large number of Colonial sawmills processing the wood cleared from agricultural land. So much wood was cut, however, that as early as 1677 the town passed orders to protect the local timber reserves.

The dispersed land development patterns of the Early Settlement period in Topsfield continued throughout most of the Colonial era. The larger proprietary grants continued to be divided into smaller parcels for members of succeeding generations, perpetuating a family-oriented settlement pattern in the various quadrants of the town. Surnames of farmers in the northwest sector, for instance, included Howletts, Bixbys, and Goulds. Cummings, Perkins, and Bradstreet were still the predominant names in the northeast, just as they had been soon after the original land grants were divided, sold and established as farms in the “wilderness” in the late 1600s.

Further divisions of the Topsfield common lands were made periodically to ca. 1729, until the only sizeable parcel remaining under common ownership was the town training field. Over the course of the Colonial period, while the number of privately-owned agricultural parcels increased, their average size diminished. Toward the end of the period, many farms were made up of a collection of small disconnected parcels.

A clustered village slowly evolved at the town center in the late 17th and the early 18th centuries. While its first buildings were constructed around the original meetinghouse, residential growth gradually shifted south along Main Street to the intersection of Washington Street, which now connected with Boxford Street as a regional route west out of town. Eventually, the location of the meetinghouse itself was moved south along with the residential development.

Topsfield’s second meetinghouse was built at the intersection of Washington Street and Main in 1703, and rebuilt on the same site in 1759. The distribution of most of the rural population living north of the Ipswich River, however, remained for a longer time. This was evidenced in a 1723 town vote to keep school two-thirds of the year north of the river, and one-third on the south side.

General agriculture and mixed husbandry were the basis of Topsfield’s economy throughout this period of development, but over the decades, increasing amounts of agricultural products were being marketed outside the town’s borders, a fact attested to by the unusually large number of tanners and weavers listed in Topsfield in the early 1700s. Grains continued to characterize the main agricultural products, although there was a significant shift toward corn as a predominant crop. Cattle, sheep, and swine still were the main types of livestock raised. Orchards were increasingly mentioned in the local records through the 18l century, and a cider mill was in operation on the Bixby Farm (later known as Meredith Farm) on Cross Street by 1751. By 1798 four farmers were operating cider mills, and six more had “cider houses” on their farms.

Parson-Capen house, Topsfield MA
Parson-Capen house, Howlett St.

During the long period of self-sufficient farming in Topsfield, dwellings evolved from the small single-cell buildings of the First Period to the comfortable 2/2 story center-chimney buildings that were to continue well into the Federal era. It is likely that the well known Parson Capen House, 1 Howlett Street dated at 1683-84 from an incised date on the summer beam, was built as a 2/2 story dwelling featuring the distinctive gable overhang with decorative brackets and drop finials, which were restored based on evidence of the original construction.

Toward the end of the 17th century a few house dimensions were recorded. In 1691, farmer William Perkins, II signed a contract with Joseph Hale of Newbury for the building of his house, in which the dimensions were specified to be 25 feet long, 20 feet wide, and “14 foot stud”. Shingles were specified for the roof, the “poasts” were to be split, and the studs and joists “sawd.” (Dow 83-84). A century later, farmhouses listed in the Federal Direct Tax Census of 1798 for Topsfield had reached dimensions of over 1,000 square feet, and many were two stories high.

Stanley-Lake house
Stanley-Lake house, Topsfield MA

While documentation of any local resources remaining from the early First Period in architecture is scant, rural Topsfield is more fortunate than most eastern Massachusetts communities in having a handful of pre-1730 benchmark buildings that have been fairly reliably dated by First Period authority Abbott Lowell Cummings. Another example, besides the Parson Capen House and the Zaccheus Gould House mentioned above, is the Stanley-Lake House at 95 River Road, (built between ca. 1680 and 1693, with an early enlargement of ca. 1710 house), which like the Parson Capen House had a second-story overhang with high-style carved embellishments including carved brackets and pendant “drops.” On the interior, the Stanley-Lake House has such high-style First Period features as chamfered timbers and posts with carved shoulders.

Over the course of the 18th century, early houses were expanded with additional cells and lean-tos, and some one-story buildings were raised to two stories. The dominant house types of the later Colonial period, whether as-built or enlarged, were the five bay, 2/2 story “saltbox” with center chimney and rear lean-to, and probably the 1 /2 story center-chimney cottage. Building documents show that the small first house of John Balch at 9 River Road (MHC #134), which may date to as early as 1752, was not raised to two stories until 1851. His large gambrel-roofed second house of 1769 at 1 Hill Street, however, (MHC #174), was constructed in its full double-pile, 2/2 story form, and with a center through-passage and the pair of massive ridge chimneys. Three and four bay wide houses also are known. Early 20th century photographs of the John Gould, Jr. house at 119 Washington Street (MHC #154) show a tall three-bay house, which was substantially rehabilitated in 1953 to gain the more traditional five-bay, 2 l/i story form. The two adjacent Gould properties were built in the traditional form, but they differed in overall dimensions, reflecting their different periods of development. The earlier ca. 1730 house at 129 Washington Street (MHC #155) was constructed with a wider roof mass and depth than the later ca. 1765 dwelling at 111 Washington Street (MHC #153).

Beginning in the mid-18th-century, some farmhouses in Topsfield were built with gambrel roofs. The 1769 Balch House is one 2 1A story example. The Lake-Bradstreet/Webster House of ca. 1760 at 70 River Road (MHC #137) is a five-bay, VA story building. The most common 18th-century roof form, however, remained the side-gabled roof. Some were built with an incorporated lean-to, such as the “saltbox” roof-ed Matthew Peabody House at 86 Salem Road (MHC# 343,) constructed before 1744, and the Capt. Joseph Gould House at 129 Washington St. (MHC #155, NRTRA 1990), built ca. 1710. Both have symmetrical, five-bay facades.

Similar to the development pattern of surrounding communities, most of which had prosperous farming economies during the 19th century, most of Topsfield’s early side-gabled barns were replaced by larger, more efficient “New England” gable-front barns during the town’s commercial farming era. A few Colonial English barns (with the wagon door in the side of the building) appear to have found life as secondary outbuildings, however, and one rare large early-18th-century barn survives, the massive pre1718 Stanley-Lake Barn at 95 River Road (MHC #140, NRTRA 1990). A long building of four structural bays, with a fifth bay added a few years after it was constructed, the barn remains a windowless building with vertical-board siding and a pair of high swinging doors on one long side. Its heavy timber frame, with massive hewn beams, braces, flared “gunstock” posts, and a roof with principal rafters, purlins, and cambered tie beams dates to the early period of construction of this unique barn. This general building type continued through the rest of the century in Topsfield. Judging from barn dimensions listed in the 1798 Federal Direct Tax Census for Topsfield, these English barns tended to have at least a three-bay plan of haymow bay/threshing floor/tie-up bay. The 1798 list also mentions several other very large barns on the scale of the Stanley-Lake Barn, their large size attesting to Topsfield’s agricultural prosperity in the late 18th century.

III. Early Commercial Farming and First Rural Retreats (ca. 1810-1840)

The population of Topsfield grew from 773 in 1776 to 1010 in 1830, with the greatest increase between 1820 and 1830. However, the town did not undergo the explosive growth of some of the neighboring communities during the early industrial period, as it remained a largely agricultural town. In 1820, 68% of the men were employed on farms. At the turn of the 19th century, the division of Topsfleld’s schools into three districts reflected the continuation of the dispersed pattern of the town’s settlement, although it was more equally distributed than before. One schoolhouse was built near the meetinghouse, one in the northeast part of town, and a third schoolhouse was located south of the river. Although some residential growth took place at the town center between 1810 and 1830, by the end of the period most dwellings were still widely scattered.

Until 1800, the pattern of self-sufficient general farming, in which each individual farm provided the food (and most of the clothing) for its occupants, who sold what surplus they could, remained unbroken throughout Topsfield. Changes began to occur at the beginning of the 19r century, however. With improvements in agricultural technology and farming methods, local farms became more productive, and more farmers were producing agricultural goods to sell to regional markets. By 1812 two more cider mills were in existence, one of which, built by David Towne on Rowley Bridge Street, became the largest in the greater Topsfield area. The Towne mill not only processed local families’ apples into cider for their own consumption, but purchased apples outright from local growers. The Towne mill operated for nearly seventy years, marketing cider and vinegar to individuals and storekeepers as far away as Marblehead and Lynn.

In 1804, a major transportation improvement opened up wider regional markets for all farm products when the Newburyport Turnpike, which ran from Boston to Newburyport, was built through the center of town. Soon, as a result of increasing residential development, especially at the town center, more farm goods could be sold within the town, as well. By 1830 the population of Topsfield exceeded 1,000, an increase of nearly 30% following the Revolutionary War. The establishment of several stores, and the growing number of residences on small lots at the town center increased the demand for what the farmers had to sell, as did the opening of three early hotels and taverns that catered to stagecoach riders and wagon drivers who traveled the turnpike Perley’s (1808), Meady’s (1809, later known as Munday’s and the Topsfield House), and especially the large and well-known Topsfield Hotel, built the year the Turnpike opened. Also, after 1818 there were daily stage coach connections through the Eastern Stage Company, and Topsfield, situated at the halfway point between Boston and Newburyport, became known as the stage center of Essex County.

At the same time and in part due to the development of better road access to Topsfield, the earliest rural retreats were established as secondary residences by wealthy Salem shipping magnates who converted existing colonial farms into comfortable “country seats.” Similar activity occurred in surrounding towns during the same period. In 1814, for instance, Joseph Peabody, an owner of a major Salem shipping fleet, purchased a farm and substantially enlarged the farmhouse in Danvers, now known as Glen Magna.

Topsfield was only a short distance inland from the coast, and featured rich and pastoral farmland. Captain Thomas Perkins (1758-1830) had been born in Topsfield where his father was a farmer and innkeeper. As a young man, Captain Perkins had gone to Salem where he signed on to one of Joseph Peabody’s ships. By the 1790s the two men formed a partnership as owners of sailing vessels, and reaped their fortunes in the thriving West Indies shipping trade. In 1807 Perkins inherited his father’s farm on Salem Road, and hired local builder Samuel Hood to build him a high-style Federal country house commensurate with the tastes and ornamentation found in Salem at the time.

In 1821 Benjamin Crowninshield (1772-1851), one of the four powerful Crowninshield brothers, of the family firm which owned the second-largest fleet in Salem, purchased the old Esty Farm that straddled the Newburyport Turnpike. Like his neighbor, Thomas Perkins, Crowninshield transformed the old colonial farm into a stylish and comfortable country seat. Although the famous Crowninshield firm closed in 1817, Benjamin Crowninshield had become involved in local and state politics and later made a name for himself in banking, still allowing time and fortune to pursue the development of his country retreat. With the assistance of a resident farm manager, he turned his nearly 200-acre Topsfield farm into a rural showplace on the European model, with a main house approached by an avenue of planted firs and maples and surrounded by ornamental trees and gardens. While the Topsfield property was truly a retreat from city life, its substantial working farm with pedigreed cattle, specimen crops and orchards of fruit trees also supplied the tables of the Crowninshield mansion in Salem.

In 1818, during the period of development of the Perkins and the Crowninshield estates, the Essex Agricultural Society (EAS) was established. Following on a number of agricultural societies that had been established in other parts of Massachusetts, about twenty men from the Topsfield area gathered at Cyrus Cummings 1 Tavern (no longer extant) to form the organization. Its stated mission was the promotion and improvement of agriculture in Essex County. Although it was a county-wide organization, the EAS was dominated by Topsfield farmers. In 1822, 34 of the over 120 members were from Topsfield. The society’s first Annual Cattle Show was held in Topsfield in 1820. Others followed in 1825, 1837, and 1838, with shows held in surrounding communities in the intervening years. In 1858 the society received the bequest of Dr. John G. Treadwell’s farm on Boston Street, which survives today as the Topsfield Fair Grounds.

In the 1820s several Topsfield farmers won prizes at the EAS cattle show for cattle and pigs. The categories in which farmers could win prizes, or “premiums” were expanded over the years, keeping pace with new trends in agriculture. Prize categories in fruits and flowers were added in 1835, for example, and bees and honey in 1844. Categories in which Topsfield farmers won prizes reflected some of the local specialties of the time. In the 1830s, local farmers received recognition for their squash, pumpkins, and corn, all of which were major local crops in that decade.

Functioning as a clearing house for agricultural ideas and interests, the Essex Agricultural Society disseminated information both through publications and at the cattle shows, which always began with a speaker telling of newly tried agricultural methods and related materials. All of this was consistent with the Society’s mission -the promotion and improvement of agriculture. Examples of talks given at the shows reveal the broad range of up-to-date information the members received. Reports were made on irrigation, reclaiming meadows, domestic manufactures, working oxen and steers, bulls, swine, plowing with single and double teams, dairying, and the cultivation of potatoes. Like the prize categories, topics presented also give a glimpse into what was popular in agriculture at any given time. In the 1830s, for instance, when a fad for silkworm raising swept Massachusetts’ rural communities until it was abruptly ended by a combination of disease and the economic panic of 1837, the EAS reports were full of information on silk culture, including the types of trees necessary to support the silk worms and how to cultivate them. The raising of cattle always was a primary topic, and by the end of the 1830s the Ayrshire breed was declared the best suited to the Essex County climate.

The active presence of the EAS and its members in Topsfield was one of the most important factors in the rapid improvement in local agriculture and its growing profitability through the middle of the 19th century. Competition for prizes and the continual flow of information on improved farming methods honed farmers’ skills and kept them abreast of the latest agricultural information. An 1837 report summarized the purpose of the Society, its programs, and the intent of its top prize category, stating “in offering premiums for the best cultivated farms, the Essex Agricultural Society has two principal objects in view; first to induce individual farmers to pay a more particular and systematic attention to the manner of cultivating and improving their lands, and second, to collect a mass of valuable practical information on agricultural subjects, by requiring that each candidate for the premiums shall furnish a written statement of the character of his farm, and his method of tilling it, together with any improved modes of cultivation which his experience may have taught him.” (EAS Annual Reports, 1837, Vol. II.)

The intricate detail of some papers or written reports provides valuable insights into both farming methods and the local diet. For instance, Topsfield farmer Erastus Ware’s 1838 statement described the cultivation of wheat, rye, oats, and barley. In that same year Moses Pettingill wrote about producing forty pounds of butter in July and August. He stated that his cows were fed “common pasture food” and that the milk was stored in tin and earthen pans on the brick milk cellar floor for thirty-six hours, after which the cream was skimmed into white oak firkins. The buttermilk would work out of the butter that was salted and allowed to sit for twelve more hours on the cellar floor. After the butter was packed, a “strong pickle of Turks Island salt to which we added saltpetre” was poured on at a rate of one ounce of salt per pound of butter. (EAS Annual Report, 1838, Vol. II.)

Among the Essex Agricultural Society’s strongest early supporters and most active members were those who represented the emerging class of wealthy “gentleman farmers.” Like Thomas Perkins and Benjamin Crowninshield, they were merchants or entrepreneurs from Salem and elsewhere who established lavish “country seats” on some of the old Topsfield farms. Their influence, coupled with rapidly advancing farm technology and the up-to-date information disseminated by both the Society and the growing body of popular agricultural literature, led to continued improvement and rising productivity on Topsfield’s farms into the middle of the 19th century.

Toward the end of the period, the mix of crops planted by Topsfield’s farmers began to change, hi particular, more hay, potatoes, and corn were being grown. While sheep were still being raised, and some flax and tobacco were still being cultivated, considerably more orcharding was being done. Large quantities of butter and cheese were produced for the commercial market, and two local operations begun during this period grew to a substantial size in later years. In about 1820, Capt. William Munday began a butchering business on his farm, and in the 1830s, brothers Joel, William, and later Eleazer Lake, Jr. established a nursery for fruit trees on Lake’s Hill north of River Street.

Architectural development: Residential

During the first half of the 19th century, farmhouse types became more varied, although most of the surviving examples from the period are still 2 1A story, side-gabled, five-bay dwellings. The center-chimney house continued to be constructed until about 1820; houses with paired chimneys and ntral through-hall plan. The Federal taste for the hipped roof appeared on at least three farms, among them the country houses of the two early gentlemen farmers, Thomas Perkins and Benjamin Crowninshield. The Perkins House of 1806-07 at 49 Salem Road (MHC #132) was built one room deep with a pair of tall interior end chimneys, and much later expanded to the rear to become a full double-pile, four-chimneyed building. Although typical in other centers such as Salem, the high-style Federal entry with Ionic half-columns and a gabled and semi-circular fanlight over the door was more elaborate than most farm houses being erected in Topsfield in the early 1911 century. Likewise, two interior fireplace surrounds were adorned in the Adamesque manner of Samuel Mclntire-with garlands, roping, reeding, shafts of wheat, and fluted pilasters. A similarly ornamented fireplace survives at the 1821 Crowninshield House at 116 Boston Street (MHC #94), although other features of that building were changed over time, including the original hipped roof which became a mansard roof in the 1870s.

By the end of the period, local architecture had come under the Greek Revival influence. Although a radical change to the sidehall-entry, gable-front house was in evidence at the town center and on a few farms, the few farmhouses that were built toward the end of this period continued to follow more conservative plans. Two and one-half-story, five-bay houses still were constructed, but now displayed Greek Revival detail as seen at the 1836-37 Annar Pingree House built by Capt. Perkins for his sister, Annar (Perkins) Pingree. Located at 45 Salem Road (MHC #144), next to Captain Perkins’ house, this new Greek Revival dwelling was constructed with typical features such as 6/6 sash windows, projecting roof eaves, and a side-lighted and pilastered entry. A variation on the old two-room-deep, V/2 story, side-gabled Cape Cod house also continued through the end of the period, now often with higher front and rear walls, and displaying Greek Revival detailing.


It was over the course of the commercial farming era that the New England barn, with its main wagon doors in the gable ends and its predominately three-part plan divided lengthwise rather than crosswise, reached its fully developed form and supplanted the old English barn. Its eager adoption by Topsfield farmers was at least partly the result of the up-to-date information they received through the Essex Agricultural Society and from the widely-read agricultural journals that had appeared by the 1830s. By mid-century, most Topsfield barns also displayed other advances, such as cellars and vertical-board, and interior sliding doors.

Toward the middle of the 19th century, with continued improvements in technology, farming methods, and transportation, Topsfield’s farms became increasingly specialized in their operations. Again, some rural retreat owners took the lead. The primary focus for commercial farming in this period shifted to dairying, to which Topsfield’s many large surviving New England dairy barns attest. Topsfield’s growing butchering businesses, whose customers extended well beyond Topsfield’s boundaries, also supported a secondary concentration on meat production. At the 200th anniversary celebration of the incorporation of Topsfield in 1850, prominent citizen and farmer Nehemiah Cleveland spoke of the approximately 20,000 animals that were slaughtered that year in Topsfield for markets in Salem, Lynn, and other regional centers. The coming of the Danvers & Georgetown Railroad through Topsfield in 1854 meant that both meat and dairy products such as butter, cheese and, later, milk could be shipped to markets as far away as Boston in less than a few hours. Improved methods in both breeding and nutrition meant that cows gave more milk, and Topsfield’s dairy output soared in the middle of the 19th century. Home production of butter and cheese became increasingly profitable in those years, and in 1850 the town’s farms produced nearly 26,000 pounds of butter and 4,500 pounds of cheese.

In spite of the mid-century boom in agricultural productivity, however, the percentage of farm employees in town was actually declining. From 1840 to 1865 farm employment dropped from 59% to 42%. Most of the shift, which paralleled a rise in manufacturing employment from 40% to 58%, was due to the establishment of several small- to mid-sized shoe factories in Topsfield. These shoe factories helped to form the nucleus of a growing commercial area with post office and the depot of the 1854 railroad. Still, many local farmers continued to run small shoe-making operations on their farms until about 1850s and 1860s, when the increased competition from factories in other communities put an end to this longtime sideline. At about the same time the town’s true civic core was firmly established at the common and the Congregational Meetinghouse which was replaced in 1842; the Methodist Church was dedicated in!854; and the Town Hall was built by local builder John H. Potter in 1873.

Acreage planted in apple orchards increased at mid-century, although with the pressures exerted by the temperance movement the production shifted more toward apples for vinegar and “winter fruit” (eating) than for cider. Many improved apple varieties were raised, some of which, such as the “Governor Bradstreet,” were developed in Topsfield. Most of the apple trees probably came from the Lake family’s Topsfield Nurseries on Prospect Street and River Road, which in the 1850s and 1860s was selling thousands of trees annually, largely through mail-order catalogs.

In addition to apples, the Lakes raised and sold pear, peach, cherry, and plum trees, and introduced apricots and nectarines to the Topsfield area. The Towne family also entered the nursery business as their cider mill expanded, planting apple seeds left from the “pumice” that remained from grinding apples for cider. Their Rowley Bridge Road cider mill was the largest in Topsfield. In this period it developed into a commercial cider manufactory, where farmers from surrounding towns brought apples to sell or grind.

The EAS continued to function as a clearinghouse for information and an inducement for farmers to excel at their profession through its meetings, speakers, publications, and annual Cattle Shows. In the 1850s many premiums continued to be won by prominent local farmers such as Moses Pettingill and William H. Balch. By 1854 Benjamin Crowninshield’s country estate farm had a new owner. Frederick Boyden, former proprietor of several prominent East Coast hotels including Boston’s Tremont House, turned it into a successful stock farm, where he raised pigs, cattle, and horses. At the EAS he won premiums for his pedigreed Suffolk pigs and a first prize for his stallion. The Lake brothers often won prizes for the products of their nurseries, and their entries reflect the trends of the times. In the 1850s, for instance, when breeders were trying to top the phenomenal success of Ephraim Bull’s Concord Grape, the Lake brothers presented several varieties of grapes they had developed, and the EAS committee reports gave recommendations of which varieties to cross-fertilize to produce improved strains. Other fashionable fruits in the 1850s, besides the continually expanding number of apple varieties, were pears, quinces, and cranberries. The society’s establishment of a Committee on Cranberries in 1855 is indicative of their popularity as a cash crop at that time.

Agricultural experimentation was encouraged and promoted by the EAS, and it was considered a public benefit to cultivate to the highest quality and to aim for new and improved crops and methods. Spurred on by the EAS and facilitated by the resources of some of Topsfield’s most prosperous farmers, at midcentury Topsfield also became a center for “scientific” farming. A new opportunity for large-scale agricultural experiments came in 1856, with the death of Dr. John G. Treadwell of Salem, who bequeathed his 150-acre Topsfield farm on the Turnpike (Boston Road) to the Society, specifying in his will that it be used “for the promotion of science of Agriculture by the instituting and performance of experiments and such other means as may tend to the advancement of science” (Waters, Thomas F. “The History of the Essex Agricultural Society 1818-1918”, unpublished.). In its plans for the property, the Society contemplated two schemes: to establish a school of practical agriculture, or to offer a long term lease to an “experienced and intelligent farmer” who in lieu of rent would care for the farm and engage in experimental farming. The Society made the latter choice, and entered into a detailed lease that among its many provisions required the first lessee, Nathan W. Brown of Newburyport, to conduct experiments with various types of plowing-in of manure, and to keep a journal of the weather and a diary of his work. By 1862 an enormous barn had been built on the property by local carpenter John H. Potter, builder of many of Topsfield’s barns. The Society soon began to lose money on the Treadwell Farm, however, and the tenant was unable to live up to his obligations. For a while some experiments in sheep raising were conducted there, and some Society members used the farm to pasture their own livestock. In 1866 the Society gave a new seven-year lease to fanner Ariel H. Gould, which required him to keep the place in a good husband-like manner. The crops Mr. Gould grew in 1867-oats, potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, turnips, beans, English hay, meadow hay, winter rye, and cranberries reflect a typical local mix for the third quarter of the 19th century. When Gould’s lease expired in 1873, the Treadwell Farm was leased to its adjacent neighbor, Col. Thomas W. Peirce, who had succeeded Frederick Boyden as owner of the former Crowninshield Farm. Among the experiments he conducted on the property were trials in the comparative value of manure and commercial fertilizers. Col. Peirce and his farm manager, Mr. Philbrook, maintained the Treadwell Farm in tiptop shape for many years. In 1878, they grew the same combination of crops there as in 1867, with the addition of corn, onions, cabbage, pumpkins, and Hungarian hay. Following the Civil War, with the exception of the 1873 recession, people in Topsfield enjoyed a period of economic growth and increasingly comfortable life styles. Both wealthy citizens and members of the growing middle class found they had more leisure time, and recreational resources expanded to accommodate their tastes. Vacations in rural New England communities, which were believed to provide a far more healthful environment than the city, became the trend. Topsfield proved to be a popular destination for summer travelers, and many local residents rented out rooms in their houses to Bostonians who wished to escape the city in the heat of the summer. By the mid 1850s, significant transportation improvements, including passenger service on the Danvers & Georgetown Railroad, had made the North Shore, including Topsfield, accessible to more than just the privileged class, and the third quarter of the 19l century saw increasing numbers of summer visitors coming for extended stays on Topsfield’s farms. A newspaper article of 1871 noted that Charles H. Lake was “finishing his new house in anticipation of a large business in the line of summer boarders.” (Salem Gazette, 1871). Referring to Topsfield, an article in an 1877 issue of the Salem Gazette said: “this picturesque town has become a favorite resort of summer sojourners…” (Salem Gazette, 1877)

By the early 1870s, the first two country estates that had been established in the early 1800s also entered a new era of development. Capt. Perkins’ country seat, which had been inherited, expanded, and occupied year-round by his nephew, Asa Pingree, II, passed to Asa’s nephew, David Pingree II. With that transfer it again became a second home, a country retreat for a successful Salem resident. Col. Thomas Wentworth Peirce (1818-1885) first used his Newburyport Turnpike farm, the former Crowninshield Farm, as a country retreat while living in Boston. A shipping magnate who had begun his career in New Hampshire and had moved his mercantile house, Peirce and Bacon, to Boston in 1843, he later increased his considerable fortune by investing in railroads. His first wife died in 1862, after which he apparently lived in Topsfield full time, supervising the farming activities and participating in the local agricultural fairs. By the 1870s he had remarried, and having invested heavily in southwestern railroads, maintained residences in both Topsfield and San Antonio, Texas. In 1872 he hired well-known local carpenter, Jacob Foster, to transform his Topsfield house into a three-story Second Empire mansion and to build a new stable. In addition to the enlarged country mansion and stable, the transformation of the old Crowninshield country retreat to an up-to-date gentleman’s farm of the late 19th century, complete with model dairy, involved the construction of a large cluster of specialized outbuildings. On a farmstead across the Turnpike from his house Col. Peirce built what is reputed to have been the largest cow barn in Essex County, along with at least two smaller barns, an ice house, a blacksmith shop, and a manager’s/boarding house. In 1880 the manager’s house was occupied by Peirce’s farmer and his family, twelve farmhands, a housekeeper, and an Irish-born gardener.

Today, of the farmstead on the east side of Boston Street, the farmhouse, some stone walls, and the foundations of the outbuildings are all that remain. Col. Peirce also made significant site alterations on the west side of the road. Based on professional landscape plans by the eminent landscape designer and engineer, Ernest Bowditch, the designed landscape around the owner’s house included picturesque walks, ornamental shrubs and trees, and formal gardens. At the same time, state-of-the-art drainage systems were installed on various parts of the property. As described above, from 1873 until his death in 1885, Col. Peirce also leased the Essex Agricultural Society’s Treadwell Farm, located just north of his property, where he expanded his experimental farming.

In 1867, another Boston entrepreneur, candy manufacturer Albert Webster (1824-1902), purchased the Lake-Bradstreet Farm on River Road, and by 1873, according to the Salem Gazette, was fixing the farm and putting it in a “high state of cultivation.” He remodeled the 18th century gambrel cottage for his house, and repaired other buildings, gates, and stone walls. Webster and his family initially used their Topsfield property as a summer retreat, but over the years spent increasing amounts of time on the farm until Webster’s death in 1902.

Farming in Topsfield in the last quarter of the 19th century, as documented in the records of the EAS and Treadwell Farm, was a period when the growing popularity of ensilage as cattle feed led to a great increase in corn-raising and other grains for fodder production, while the cultivation of grains for human consumption virtually ceased, having lost out to competition from farms in the midwest. At the end of the century there was only one remaining gristmill in Topsfield, the Howlett/Perkins Mill off Camp Meeting Road at Hewlett Brook. This saw and grist mill had been established as early as 1738 and into the late-19th century was a small secondary village with several residences, an 1847 North Schoolhouse, a shoe shop, and some farm structures.

Dairying became an even greater specialty among local farmers toward the end of the century and in the last quarter of the 19th century, this burgeoning dairy industry and its associated pastures, cornfields, and hayfields that dominated Topsfield’s landscape included several large farms of over 100 acres in outlying areas. Benjamin Conant’s dairy farm on the old Porter family land at the southwest corner of town, for instance, covered 105 acres when he died in 1904. In the same area, Frank Towne’s farm on Hill Street included his house on over 100 acres that was sold in the early 1900s to James Duncan Phillips for his estate at 120 Hill Street. In the northeast part of Topsfield was the Bradstreet Farm on Perkins Row, with well over 100 acres farmed by four generations of Bradstreets until it was sold to Thomas Proctor at the end of the 19th century.

The number of cows in the town almost doubled from 1875 to 1885, and milk production increased over 150% between 1875 and 1895. The Ayreshire continued to be a popular breed of dairy cattle in Topsfield, as were Guernseys. A growing demographic trend in Topsfield’s rural development was illustrated in 1875, when two Irish-born farmers, Thomas Cass and James Manning, won premiums for their Ayreshire entries at the annual EAS Cattle Show.

In 1882, a serious drought affected all farms in the region, and the potato experiment then underway at the Treadwell Farm failed. When Col. Peirce died in 1885, he was eulogized as a man of wealth who had benefited the farmers of Essex County in many ways, including improving the local dairy stock by introducing choice cattle. At one time he had owned five bulls, all of different breeds, which he offered for breeding to other farmers in Topsfield. After Col. Peirce’s death, the maintenance of the Treadwell Farm began to slip, but revived again under the leadership of local farmer Charles Peabody, head of the Society’s Farm Committee. Experiments under the tenant farmers of the end of the 19th century centered on the feeding of cattle, as the new rage for ensilage swept New England. In the 1880s tenant farmer J. Plummer conducted experiments in the production of ensilage corn which was stored in a newfangled structure called a silo. By 1895, tenant dairy farmer John M. Bradstreet was experimenting with new methods for the curing of fodder corn and ended up with more cattle feed than the silo could hold.

Topsfield’s brief period of industrial prosperity had ended with the Civil War and the loss of both the southern and military boot and shoe markets. The town’s population declined considerably between 1870 and the turn of the 20th century, probably due to diminished local manufacturing jobs. The percentage of those employed in manufacturing dropped from 44% in 1875 to 22% in 1905. Topsfield’s farm output, however, continued relatively unabated through the turn of the 20th century, when agriculture again dominated the local economy. Between 1875 and 1905 the percentage of local workers employed in farming increased from 42% to 48%. The number of livestock in Topsfield doubled between 1875 and 1885.

Butchering continued during this period, though on a smaller scale than before. In the 1890s a new specialty, poultry raising, emerged and increased through the turn of the century, as it did in many rural Massachusetts towns. In 1895, dairy, hay, and poultry accounted for 71% of the $175,000 agricultural output of Topsfield, while fruits and vegetables were a close second. The amount of the town’s agricultural land actually increased toward the end of the period. By 1885, 8729 acres of land were in agricultural use, reflecting an increase in acreage for haying and pasturage. A comparison between land use in Topsfield and the rest of Essex County in that year reveals the town’s greater reliance on dairy farming: 38% of the land was under cultivation (largely for hay) compared to 32% county-wide, and the large amount of pasture land resulted in 48% of the land being classified as uncultivated, versus 45% in the county overall. Woodland had been reduced, representing only 14% of the land, compared with 23% for the county as a whole.

Behind these changes was the growing presence in Topsfield of a new generation of “gentleman farmers” coming to Topsfield from the city. Attracted by low taxes and reasonable land costs, they bought up farmland, established country estates and summer homes, and took up scientific farming as a leisure-time pursuit. As Capt. Thomas Perkins, Benjamin Crowninshield, Frederick Boyden, and Col. Thomas Peirce had done before them, many of the new estate owners joined the Essex Agricultural Society.

At the turn of the 20th century, Topsfield’s growth was taking place primarily in the rural sector, where rincipal of Meredith & Grew, purchased a large farm on Cross Street in 1898, and in 1899 Percy Chase, of Brookline, built a large summer “cottage” on Prospect Street. In the same year Daniel O. Earle purchased the old Cummings farm on Asbury Street and substantially remodeled the property into what was soon the summer residence of Bostonians Mr. and Mrs. C.F. Hemenway.

Two of the largest country estates that survive today were established in 1898 and 1899. Bradley Webster Palmer (1866-1946) purchased the old Lamson farm at the east edge of town and turned it into a 3,000-acre rural retreat. His estate was rivaled only by that of another new arrival, Thomas Emerson Proctor (1873-1949). Proctor’s estate, which began with his 1898 purchase of the Dudley Bradstreet farm on Perkins Row, and included subsequent purchases of surrounding lands such as Dr. Henry Sears Estate in 1901, ultimately covered about 4,000 acres. Both Proctor and Palmer hailed from Boston. Both had graduated from Harvard in the 1880s and remained bachelors, eventually retiring to Topsfield, where they remained until their deaths. Bradley Palmer was a founding partner of the noted Boston law firm, Palmer and Dodge. Thomas Proctor dabbled in business and was the beneficiary of his father’s amassed fortune from the leather business. In the 20th century, these two gentlemen alone were largely responsible for the preservation of both vast areas of land and many historic structures in both Topsfield and Ipswich. Most of the turn-of-the century newcomers participated in farming and in the development of crops, horticulture, and livestock, with contributions to the EAS and entries in the yearly Agricultural Fair. Both Proctor and Palmer joined the Society immediately upon establishing themselves in Topsfield, and as early as 1899 Proctor won first prizes for his Berkshire boar and his Berkshire cow. Throughout the early 1900s he continued to win prizes for his Jersey cows, plowing teams, potatoes and other crops. Other new members of the EAS were Perkins/Pingree relatives, Richard Wheatland and David Pingree, II, who had winter residences in Salem; John Lawrence of Boston in 1905, J. Duncan Phillips of Salem in ca. 1912, and Miss Margaret Cummings of Boston by the 1920s.

The 20th century landscape in Topsfield took on a new character with the development of horticulture on several of the rural retreats. An interest in horticulture was part of the social milieu of the prominent and wealthy families. As a leisure time activity of the well-to-do, it went hand-in-hand with the study of architecture and importation of English and European concepts. Charles Sprague Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum moved in the same social circles as many of these Bostonian and North Shore families, and advised them on landscaping their country estates. Prominent early 20* century landscape architects, including Arthur Shurtleff (changed to Shurcliff in 1930), and horticulturists such as Ernest Wilson and Professor J.G. Jack of Harvard, also advised proprietors of Topsfield’s estates.

Both Thomas Proctor and Bradley Palmer invested vast sums of money in indigenous and imported ornamental plant material. A letter from Palmer in 1905 asked for a “couple of carloads of rhododendrons…. as an experiment.” (Letter from B. Palmer to W. K. LeBar Esq, Mount Pocono, PA, 1905). Many of his bills of sale from nurseries throughout New England show the large quantities and varieties of plant material that he was adding to his Topsfield estate. Thomas Proctor set a goal to plant a specimen of every hardy North American tree on his estate, where his arboretum and rockery gained wide recognition. Following the advice of Charles Sprague Sargent, he searched in the Far East for exotic plant varieties to add to his collection. Over the years, he maintained a network of carriage trails on his estate which were open to the public, so that all who wished could enjoy these landscape features.

Some of the country seats, both newly built and created from older farms, were developed by out-oftowners who already had Topsfield connections. In 1904 David Pingree II of Salem, who had inherited the Perkins-Pingree farm and estate on Salem Road, purchased land to the south on Hill Street to establish another summer retreat, which he first leased for the summers of 1907 to 1911 to Salem residents James Duncan Phillips (1876-1954) and his wife. Attorney Franklin Balch (1876-1962), who had grown up in Topsfield and served as Town Librarian at the turn of the century, returned to Topsfield from Cambridge to convert the family homestead on Hill Street into a country seat called “Elmcop,” hiring landscape architects Pray, Hubbard, and White of Boston to design the landscape near the house.

Topsfield also continued to draw new wealthy families from Boston, Salem, Lynn and other north shore cities in the early 1900s. Most of them purchased working farms and converted them to summer retreats with a farming component that was not only maintained, but often expanded. William Niles of Lynn, for instance, purchased and remodeled part of the Towne farm on High Street in 1904. And in 1905 George and Annie B. Shattuck of Salem purchased an old farm and subsequently hired architect William G. Rantoul to transform it into a gentlemen’s farm. They greatly expanded it in 1907, and operated it for many years as a renowned dairy farm.

While farming was an important component of many country seats, some new owners came to Topsfield to establish rural retreats that became showcase properties that did not include farming. Such was the case with the large summer cottage built for the Percy Chases of Boston onProspect Street. In 1905 Maiden residents Arthur H. Wellman and his wife purchased farmland on Salem Road to construct a country estate. Wellman was an attorney in Boston in his own firm, Wellman & Wellman, and also served in the Massachusetts Legislature representing Maiden in the early 1900s. In 1910 James M. Marsh of Lynn, owner of the Goodwill Soap Company, built his architect-designed estate next to the Wellmans’ also on Salem Road. Like several other early-20th century owners, Marsh and his family had summered in Topsfield for a few years before purchasing property. Beginning in 1905 they stayed at the “Pinelands,” a Gould property on Washington Street, and later at the “Hickories” owned by A. A. Clarke on Boston Street. When the time came to develop their own country seat, the Marshes purchased land from David Pingree II, then owner of the Perkins-Pingree Farm.

Other summer sojourners who established country seats amidst the working farms of Topsfield were Miss Margaret Cummings (1876-1965) of Boston and James Duncan Phillips (1876-1954) and his wife, Nannie Borden Phillips (d. 1963), of Salem and Boston. As noted above, the Phillips had stayed at the new Pingree mansion on Hill Street for several summers before purchasing over 100 acres of farmland across the street from Frank H. Towne (1859-1957), where they built their country seat in 1911 and 1912. Phillips descended from another prominent Salem family who had made fortunes in the shipping business. An 1897 graduate of Harvard, he was a Vice President at Houghton Mifflin publishing company, and a renowned historian who wrote articles for the New England Quarterly and the Essex Institute’s Historical Collections. While the Phillips retained residences in Salem and Boston, they developed Donibristle Farm as a model dairy farm and prominent rural retreat. They hired prominent Boston-based architectural firm, Putnam & Alien, to design their large summer mansion as well as other buildings on the 100-acre estate. Like the “gentleman farmers” before him, Phillips was a member of the Essex Agricultural Society and participated in the annual agricultural fairs.

Margaret Cummings purchased land that had been part of the Lake family’s farm adjacent to the nurseries, and in 1909 developed a fine estate designed by her brother, architect Charles Kimball Cummings, and landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff (1870-1957). Miss Cummings became an active member of the Essex Agricultural Society, and maintained part of her estate as a working farm with gardens and crops.

In the same period, the EAS, which continued to hold its annual agricultural fairs at various locations throughout Essex County and to maintain its experimental Treadwell Farm in Topsfield, determined to develop the farm into a permanent location for the annual fair. The decision was based on concern for the viability of the Treadwell Farm, on the increasingly difficult yearly struggle to find a large enough site with appropriate buildings for the fair (which had grown substantially over the years), and on the belief that permanent buildings would enhance the fair’s quality and success. Still known as the Cattle Show and Fair, (later to become the Topsfield Fair), the first annual fair at the permanent location was held at the Treadwell Farm in Topsfield in 1910.

As had been the case in the past, many early 20th-century Topsfield gentleman farmers and estate owners joined the EAS and took part in the annual fair. In the first quarter of the century, awards went to Thomas Proctor for his Jersey cattle, John S. Lawrence for his Guernseys, J. Duncan Phillips for his draft horses, David Pingree II for his plowing teams and farm horses, and Margaret Cummings for her crops and garden products. An increasing number of women competed in the horticultural and food categories. Among the country seat owners, prizes were awarded to Mrs. Percy Chase, Mrs. Lawrence, Mrs. Percy Smerage, and Miss Margaret Cummings.

V. The Decline of the General Farm and the Permanent Residency of Rural Retreat Proprietors (ca. 1915-1955)

Topsfield entered the modern era with both its economy and its landscape dominated by agriculture, which in turn was centered on the dairy industry. Cows were raised on most of the family farms, and on many of the “gentleman’s farms” as well, where resident farm managers maintained the pedigreed herds and oversaw the care of the fenced and walled pastures, rolling meadows, and large barns and outbuildings. However, by the time the First World War was over, local farmers were struggling on two counts. Large scale dairy operations in New England and the huge farms of the midwest had developed into insurmountable competition. In addition, stringent new federal health regulations of the 1920s required costly adaptations such as the building of milk rooms that were separated from the cow barns. An attempt was made to increase the volume of local farm production to a more competitive level through the formation of the Essex County Cooperative Society in 1917. The goal of the new Cooperative Society was “to provide and rent modern farm machinery, to purchase and sell seeds, fertilizers and small tools best suited for production in the County, to advise farmers how best to use modern equipment and materials, and to undertake such other services as the Board of Directors deemed wise.” The old Essex Agricultural Society, which supported the establishment of the cooperative as consistent with its mission and the terms of Dr. Treadwell’s will, readily leased land and farm buildings on the old Treadwell Farm to the new society.

In spite of the establishment of the Cooperative, the 1920s was a period of decline on Topsfield’s family farms, and several more local farmers sold their land to wealthy out-of-town owners. Agriculture was even discontinued on some of the rural retreats, where the former fields and pastures were allowed to grow up to woods, were mowed periodically to maintain vistas over the Topsfield hills, or, at best, were converted to paddocks and pastures for a new wave of equestrians. Fortunately for the preservation of agriculture in Topsfield, however, some 20th-century buyers were serious farmers a few had even retired from other professions and they managed to keep a large part of Topsfield’s farmland in agricultural use through a time when it would not have survived the test of the marketplace. After George Shattuck died in 1915, for instance, his wife Annie continued to run their dairy farm at 51 Wenham Road, enlarging it from 38 to 45 acres by 1945, and eventually transferring its management to their daughter, Jane.

Much of the large Meredith Farm as it exists in 2005 was developed over the course of the early 1900s. J. Morris Meredith purchased the 124-acre farm south of the river in 1899, and built his own main house set back from Cross Street, leaving the old Bixby Farmhouse,on the farm working farmstead for the farm manager. By 1923 the estate, well-known by that time as Meredith Farm, was taken over by J. Morris’s nephew, Edward Wigglesworth. Mr. Wigglesworth, who lived on Beacon Hill in Boston, was the Director of the Boston Society’s National History Museum. Wigglesworth developed a nationally recognized Guernsey herd at Meredith Farm, and for many years was an active member of the Essex Agricultural Society, where his ascendancy to the presidency of the Society in 1928 was the result of a heated campaign and election upset. Meredith Farm’s reputation for agricultural excellence was perpetuated into the mid-20th century by later owners David and Irma Lampert, who maintained a nationally recognized herd of Ayrshires on the property. In spite of the uncertainty of farming in Topsfield in the early 1900s, establishing a permanent location for the EAS annual fair in Topsfield stabilized that event, and the fair showed a marked increase in entries and attendance from 1911 on. Adding to the health of the EAS were the contributions of both money and time that were made by many of the out-of-town farmer-owners of the large estates. In 1916, several new buildings, including the Grange, a large barn-like structure, were constructed on the fairgrounds, ensuring the permanence and indicating the prosperity of the fair at its Topsfield location. In the 1920s three more permanent buildings, the Fruit and Flower Building, Vegetable Hall, and the Dance Hall, were constructed. Entertainment attractions were added to the four day fair, and the event benefited from advertising. The EAS also gained some income through the sale of some of the land on the west side of the Newburyport Turnpike one parcel to the Commonwealth for the State Police barracks (1934), and another to the Cooperative Society (1947).

One of the most prominent of the later estates was established in 1920, when John L. Saltonstall (1878-1959) of Beverly and Boston purchased the old Lake-Bradstreet Farm on River Road that had been turned into a country seat in the 1870s by Albert Webster. Saltonstall, a Harvard graduate of the class of 1900, was a first cousin of well-known Massachusetts governor, Leverett Saltonstall. Both of his parents had descended from prominent Boston families that included original settlers of Watertown and the founder of the pre-eminent banking firm of Lee Higginson and Co. Saltonstall was a successful stockbroker from 1903 to 1935, had served as a State Representative in 1911, and was a member of the War Trade Board during World War I. He hired fashionable architects and landscape architects to develop the estate with a new riverfront Georgian Revival mansion and formal gardens, while retaining and enhancing the surrounding pastoral agricultural setting. The Boston architectural firm of Richardson, Barot, and Richardson designed the house, with Philip Richardson, son of Henry Hobson Richardson, as principal architect. The architectural firm had an established reputation in developing country estates. Much of the landscaping was laid out by Harold Blossom (1879-1935), who had graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and trained for twelve years in the office of the Olmsted Brothers.

In the late 1920s, once John L. Saltonstall was firmly established in Topsfield at his estate, which he named “Huntwicke”, he began to accumulate surrounding properties. He purchased a property on South Main Street and had its house moved to land on the north side of River Road to serve as housing for his property caretakers. By 1928 he had purchased the Chases’ summer retreat on Prospect Street, which he eventually occupied in 1941, after selling Huntwicke to Frederick Sears.

Another old farm was converted to a 1920s agricultural estate when the long standing Towne Farm on High Street passed to a Maiden resident, Ichabod F. Atwood, who with his wife established their country seat, which they called “Newtowne Farm,” at 279 High Street. In the process, they expanded the old farm to 130 acres. Although the Atwoods were summer residents, they raised cows, sheep, and horses and joined the Essex Agricultural Society by 1927.

The personalization of property by giving it a picturesque name was a common fashion among the socially elite and was a common practice in several surrounding communities that had country seats or estates. The derivation of names is unknown in most cases, although some gave an indication of their origins. Many, such as Miss Cummings’ name for her River Road estate, “Innisfree”, came from British sources, and illustrate the popular Anglophile fashion of the period. Historian James Duncan Phillips, a noted Anglophile, used the name “Donibristle” even while he and his wife were staying at the Pingree Estate on Hill Street, and later transferred it to their own model farm at 120 Hill Street. Beginning in the late 1920s, many of the early rural retreats became the permanent residences of their owners. Margaret Cummings, who had lived at 300 Beacon Street in Boston, adopted Topsfield as her legal residence as early as 1927, and gave up her city home altogether in about 1932. In 1934 Mrs. George Shattuck and her daughter, Jane, became permanent residents of their prize Topsfield dairy farm.

The Arthur Wellmans retired to Topsfield in the late 1920s. As early as 1921, however, their son Sargent and his wife, Mary (Lines) Wellman, had purchased the adjoining Peabody farm at 28 Wenham Road for their permanent residence. There they planted extensive gardens, remodeled the old farmhouse, and called the property “Windridge.” Sargent Wellman, also a lawyer, commuted from Topsfield to his father’s Boston firm. He became deeply committed to Topsfield, served on many local committees, and was elected Representative to the state legislature in 1924.

In the second quarter of the 20 century, while farming as a profession continued to decline, an occasional new country seat was constructed for out-of-towners who came to live in Topsfield yearround. In 1931, Gilbert Steward and his wife, Annie purchased 63 acres overlooking the Ipswich River and established their estate, “Windy River,” at 51 Asbury Street with a large brick Georgian Revival mansion, a farmer’s house, and several outbuildings.

The Steward property is located in the northeast part of Topsfield opposite Bradley Palmer’s vast estate, where riding and hunting were important leisure time activities. In fact, Palmer had been one of the founders of the well-known Myopia Hunt, and had built a steeplechase course on his property. His rival in acquiring land, Thomas Proctor, had polo fields on his nearly 4000-acre property (in Topsfield and Ipswich) just south of the Asbury Street area. The Stewards joined them as some of the area’s most prominent equestrians until Mrs. Steward, the former Anne Beekman Ayer, met with an untimely death in a fall from a horse.

The operation of the vast new 20th century farms was largely placed in the hands of farm managers, who in most cases lived on the properties. By the early 1900s, for instance, Thomas Proctor had acquired the former Josiah Perkins farm and others on Perkins Row, which were managed by his farmer, Thomas Pierce, who lived at 64 Perkins Row. Although the farm-manager arrangement was essential for the farms owned by out-of-town residents, nearly all of the later estates, even those occupied year-round by their owners, included at least one house on the property for a gardener or other employee. Most of these dwellings were built by the estate owners in such modest 20th-century forms and styles as Craftsman bungalows or Cape Cod cottages.

In spite of the infusion of capital provided by Topsfleld’s wealthy gentleman farmers through the Great Depression and the early 1940s, only two major Topsfield cattle farms survived into the middle of the 20l century the Meredith Farm, then owned by the Lamperts, and Alfalfa Farm on Rowley Bridge Street at the southwest town line. The latter farm had evolved from Benjamin Conant’s successful turnof-the-century dairy farm, and was by then owned by the Cain family. Today there is virtually no dairy farming left in Topsfield, and considerable tracts of former fields, pastures, and meadows have been converted for residential development.

Even if dairy farming and other animal husbandry had not precipitously declined in profitability, the residential building pressures of the post-World War II era would have doomed much of Topsfield’s remaining farmland. With the coming of the automobile era, in the second quarter of the 20th century part of the old Turnpike corridor (US Route 1) attracted mixed commercial development. A generation later, the construction of Interstate 95 through Topsfield’s southwest corner suddenly placed the region’s major metropolitan centers within easy commuting distance. Since that time Topsfield’s evolution into a residential community and increasingly affluent exurb has progressed steadily, with pockets of suburban-style neighborhoods spreading out from the town center, and outlying farmland giving way to big houses on large lots, such as those recently constructed on Alfalfa Farm.

In spite of the trend toward subdivision and residential development on former farmland after World War II, one of Topsfield’s largest estates gradually took shape through the 1940s and well into the second half of the 20th century. In 1940, John L. Saltonstall sold his “Huntwicke” property to Frederick Sears III (1855-ca. 1946.) Mr. Sears was the son of Frederick R. Sears, Jr. a renowned early lawn tennis player who summered in Nahant. Frederick Sears III was living in Palm Beach with his wife Norma Fontaine at the time that he purchased the Saltonstall estate for a summer residence. Soon thereafter he began acquiring adjacent agricultural properties, including the ca. 1769 Balch farmhouse at 9 River Road, which had lost its surrounding agricultural land to John Saltonstall in the 1920s. Sears died about 1946, and his estate was purchased by his cousin, William Coolidge (1902-1992), who added and consolidated properties, accumulating over 400 acres by the 1980s.

Download the full document: Topsfield National Register of Historic Places Documentation