Town Focus: Ipswich and Essex

These two towns offer history, natural beauty, cultural interest, and more.



Photo by Arlene Taliadoros

 

As we head into spring, it’s the perfect time of year to get out of the house and wander the North Shore in search of new adventures. A couple of our best-known towns—Ipswich and Essex—have lots of little-known treasures hidden in plain sight.

 Take Ipswich. The next time you stop for coffee at Zumi’s on Market Street, exit through the back door, take a 30-second jaunt down Union Street, and head over to the Riverwalk. You’ll find yourself at the back of the old mills (which now house EBSCO Information Services) looking at a mural, painted by Alan Pearsall, depicting the town’s history. It’s a good spot to start a walking tour.

 Enter Gordon Harris, Ipswich’s town historian. When the weather cooperates, he leads walking tours starting at the mural and through the town that are comprehensive in scope but easy on the legs.

 “The nice thing about Ipswich,” says Harris on a recent excursion, “is that it’s a walkable town and there’s a lot of eye candy.”

 For example, there are 59 First Period homes—houses built between about 1625 and 1725—in Ipswich. Harris will fill you in on what makes a First Period home, from the steeply pitched roofs to the asymmetrical framing, and because he’s a carpenter by trade, he can tell you the reasons homes were built in such a fashion. He can even tell you why First Period roofs often sag, or why the second floor of many homes juts out over the first.

 In addition to his fact-based stories, Harris knows great anecdotes, like how the devil’s footprint ended up embedded in the rocks at the base of the First Church in Ipswich. (For more information, visit Harris’ website, storiesfromipswich.org.)

 After the walk, it’s a short drive to Appleton Farms, a working farm gifted to the Trustees of Reservations by Joan and Francis Appleton (Joan lived on the farm until 2006). The farm’s dairy store is stocked with products made on-site, including grass-fed beef, milk, and the four types of cheese produced on the premises.

 When you get your second wind, take the cheese-making tour, or explore the property’s 16 miles of trails. There are plenty of activities daily, including some that are off the beaten path. “We had hundreds of people stopping by recently to get a look at a rare red-headed woodpecker spotted here,” says engagement director Beth Zschau while walking the property.

 For the less ornithological-minded, there are other options, including taking in the twice-daily milkings. “At 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, 365 days a year, the cows are milked and it’s open to the public,” says Zschau.

 One of the many highlights of Appleton Farms is the hiking, with trails for humans, dogs, and horses. Everything is clearly marked so you know where Fido and Seabiscuit are welcome and where they’re not. Plus, in the winter, the trails are groomed for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

 When on foot, seek out the four granite pinnacles located throughout the farm. Each is dedicated to an Appleton family member and sourced from the long-demolished Gore Hall at Harvard. (The pinnacle near the commuter line is a particularly lovely spot, with pine needles softly crunching beneath your feet as the train rushes by in the distance.)

 But for the ultimate hidden-treasure search, there are probably more things hidden in plain sight in Essex than anywhere else. That’s because there are antique shops from one end of town to the other, and who knows what you’ll find unless you look?

 On the north end of Main Street is Essex mainstay The White Elephant Shop. Current owner Rick Grobe bought it in 1985. “We sell things for five dollars or one dollar, and people love it,” he says. “We’re selling to the average joe.” There’s a little bit of everything at The White Elephant, from musical instruments (no fewer than five violins and three electric guitars at this author’s last visit) to books to furniture.

 A couple doors down is Main Street Antiques, where owner Robert Coviello sells “everything from the 18th to the 20th century on four floors,” he says.

 Sandwiched between The White Elephant and Main Street Antiques are two disparate shops. First, there’s The Scrapbook. Co-owner Vincent Caravella stocks rare (and beautiful) maps and prints and does custom framing—and he’s a wonderful storyteller, too.

 “Half this business is being lucky, and half is having a little bit of knowledge,” he says as he motions to a map of the Western Hemisphere (“as they knew it,” he adds) that hangs on the back wall. It’s from roughly 1615, though the plate from which it was printed dates to 1597. Caravella tells people he doesn’t know when, exactly, the map was made, but he knows when printing ended: 1615.

 “No one’s complained about anything that’s actually from earlier than when I said it was,” says Caravella with a chuckle.

 Next to The Scrapbook is David Neligan Antiques, where owner David Neligan specializes in exquisite pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries. His favorite piece in the shop at press time was a stunning English Regency pen work box from about 1810.

 “It’s meant to look like inlaid wood,” he says of the design, “but it’s literally work done with a pen.”

 At the other end of Main Street is Andrew Spindler Antiques & Design. He stocks pieces from the 18th to the 20th century, but describes his purchasing process as very selective.

 “It’s curated and eclectic,” he says. “But I like to find a correlation between objects.”

 At any time in Spindler’s shop, one can find pieces as different as a Federal-period one-drawer writing table and a table designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. “In the end it’s about great design and great style,” he says. And no doubt you’ll find hidden gems if you know where to look.