This small city is in the midst of thoughtful development that honors its history
Amesbury combines historic preservation with contemporary interests and offerings.
photo by rene burney
As a region that’s so steeped in history, the cities and towns of the North Shore embrace their heritage with zeal. But Amesbury stands out as it fully integrates its past with its present. In this small city nestled in the crook of the Merrimack River, the past not only is remembered, but is actually lived in the modern world.
Taylor Simpson, owner of Nest Enterprises, says that Amesbury is a “vintage” kind of town with a “Mayberry” feel to it, joking that she half expects to see someone with a bindle bag tied to a stick hoisted over their shoulder as they go whistling down the street.
“This is a town full of charitable people. It’s not just vocal; they’re activists, too,” she says. “And they are connected to each other. It’s
That feeling of old-fashioned connection is on display throughout the town. Simpson’s store, Nest, is devoted to what she calls “vintage retail,” and is about more than simply selling items from its “enchanted forest” garden center, baby and wedding products, accessories, jewelry, and high-end consignment clothing. Instead, the store has rendered elaborate window displays, weekly summertime live music and free homemade popcorn and cotton candy on the sidewalk, and welcoming employees.
There are others in the city who live connected to the past. Lowell’s Boat Shop is a National Historic Landmark and museum where they’ve been hand-building the same traditional wooden boats, like dories and skiffs, since 1793. People can go there to learn the history of boatbuilding, but there’s so much more to it than that. At Lowell’s Boat Shop, it’s a craft that’s still very much alive in the day-to-day workings and teaching of the shop.
The city was also once the epicenter of the carriage industry, and today, carriages appear on Amesbury street signs and gives it its nickname: Carriagetown.
“It really was the lifeblood of the community. We were the carriage center of the world. We were it in the entire world,” says Mary Chatigny, president of the Amesbury Carriage Museum. She says that at one time, there were about a dozen carriage makers in town. “It was really the center of everything in town.”
Although there is now a small Amesbury Carriage Museum that’s open by appointment and houses four beautiful carriages and one sleigh, the museum is planning the ambitious Amesbury Heritage Center. It will be located in the city’s Biddle and Smart building at 29 Water Street, which was once a carriage factory, and will also be home to an outdoor heritage park. “Our intent is to have programming not only inside the building but outside the building,” Chatigny says.
The new Heritage Center is a project of the Amesbury Carriage Alliance, a partnership between the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce and Amesbury Carriage Museum. It will not only house a new, larger carriage museum in the 12,000-square-foot space but will also act as a cultural facility and community center, house the Chamber of Commerce offices, and contain a visitor’s center. It will teach visitors about Amesbury’s larger history as well, beyond just the carriage industry, and is projected to be completed within three years. The Amesbury Carriage Museum recently hired its first executive director, and the next step is fundraising.
“The support from the community has been really exciting,” Chatigny says.
The development of a new Heritage Center is evidence that as much as Amesbury values and embraces the past, it does so with an eye toward the future. Another great example of that is Cider Hill Farm, which is, in many ways, an old-fashioned farm, with a vast farm store and very diverse crops, from heirloom apples to peaches to vegetables, grown on 145 acres.
“We love the families and their children, and we have grandparents now who were our first customers,” says owner Glenn Cook. But he’s also always looking for ways to bring his farm into the future, whether it’s by using increasing amounts of renewable energy to power the farm, having a thriving CSA operation, or providing produce to local restaurants, like Crave, Phat Cats Bistro, and Flatbread Company.
The farm is also venturing into the hard cider business this year, with a new project helmed by Glenn’s son, Chadd.
“It’s an interesting and exciting project that we’ve been talking about for half a dozen years,” Chadd says.
The city itself is embracing its future, too. “My goal is a vibrant downtown,” says Mayor Ken Gray. “It is vibrant now, and I want to see it grow and continue in that way.”
That vibrancy comes from its people, its interesting businesses, and its historical buildings. It’s quite charming, with a lovely, walkable town center and the rushing waterfall of the Powwow River. It’s become a “hidden gem” restaurant destination, too, with spots like Crave and No. 8 Kitchen & Spirits, not to mention the original Flatbread Company location, attracting foodies from around the region. Gray says he wants to build on that momentum with the addition of residential development downtown, as well. A new hotel is opening soon, too. All that adds up to a great place to call home that seems determined to keep getting better while retaining its welcoming and old-fashioned spirit and charm.
“The one thing we seem to have in common…is that the vast majority of people love Amesbury,” Gray says. “And that’s a great, solid base to build upon.”
See the Amesbury must-do list