The Tale of Two Towns: Ipswich and Essex
Ipswich's Crane Beach
Photos by Robert Boyd
For two small towns, Ipswich and Essex can claim a lot of superlatives. Located along one of the most picturesque stretches of road on the North Shore, Ipswich and Essex boast between them America’s antiques capital, fried clam capital, First Period house capital, and what many would argue is the region’s most beautiful and idyllic beach. Although Ipswich and Essex aren’t as well known to outsiders as bigger North Shore locales like Salem and Gloucester, that’s OK. They can be our very own hidden gems.
Even people who don’t know much about history won’t be able to drive through Ipswich without noticing the distinctive historical houses and buildings that line the streets, all painted in various colors.
Ipswich has the most surviving First Period houses—built between 1625 and 1725—than anywhere else in the country.
“These very early houses are mixed in with Second Period houses, more Georgian in style,” says John Fiske, chairperson of the Ipswich Historical Commission. "Together they give a very beautiful streetscape."
Ironically, Ipswich's historical and architectural richnessis actually thanks to the town’s financially modest history. As towns like Newburyport and Salem found wealth through the China trade, rich residents tore down the older, smaller First Period houses and built grander, Federal-style ships’ captains’ houses instead. But that didn’t happen in Ipswich.
“The towns north and south of us that had deeper pockets than Ipswich also had big ocean-going ports,” Fiske says. “Our small port and shallow river was one of the reasons why we preserved so many of these early houses. Poverty is the great preservationist.”
Although many of Ipswich’s First Period homes are still private residences, visitors to Ipswich can get a glimpse of life in 17th-century America in the 1677 Whipple House museum, one of the best-preserved examples of this kind of architecture in the country.
Ipswich is also, of course, home to another iconic house, and one that’s certainly grander than the nearly 400-year-old post-and-beam-style houses that dominate the downtown landscape: The Crane Estate. The estate features a spectacular 59 room, Stuart-style mansion that sits atop Castle Hill, and a 2,100-acre expanse of land, which includes Crane Beach and the Crane Wildlife Refuge.
J.T. Farnham's Fried Clams, Essex
The early 20th-century mansion was the summer retreat of the industrialist Richard T. Crane, and now is open to the public for tours and events. Its grounds and gardens are also open to the public, and the pristine, sheltered, BONS award-winning Crane Beach is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and accommodating beaches in the area. In addition to its beauty, Crane Beach takes pride in its accessibility, offering disabled beachgoers rides from the parking lot right onto the sand.
Ipswich might be most distinctive for its historic and beautiful architecture, but the people who live there also appreciate its kindliness and small-town feel.
“I love the sense of community this town has. Everyone is really friendly and eager to lend a hand to one another,” says resident Rosie Pietal. “It feels like a very safe community with everyone watching out for each other.”
Pietal also says she loves all of the culinary options in town, and she’s not alone. In fact, Ipswich has become something of a craft beverage hub over the past couple of years, with Ipswich Ale Brewery, Turkey Shore Distilleries, Privateer Rum, Russell Orchards Farm Store & Winery, and, as of this spring, 1634 Meadery all calling the town home. Ipswich is also a great place for locavores, who will love the produce, meats, cheeses, and more that they’ll find not only at Russell Orchards but also Marini Farm and Appleton Farms.
Heading out of Ipswich and driving down the meandering curves of Route 133 (stop for a cone at Down- River Ice Cream along the way) will take you to Essex, considered the gateway to Cape Ann.
As in Ipswich, there’s something that’s impossible not to notice about Essex: the density of antiques shops and restaurants crammed along the salt marsh-lined Main Street.
“For the past 35 years, we’ve called ourselves America’s antiques capital because we believe it’s the largest concentration of antiques in a very small area,” says Bob Coviello, owner of Main Street Antiques and head of Essex Merchants Group. He estimates that there are about 30 antiques shops within a mile of each other on Route 133, where “you can spend a dollar on a post card or $55,000 on a painting.”
Endless hours spent scouring antiques shops can make even the heartiest New Englander work up an appetite, and luckily, Essex has its share of restaurants along the same one-mile stretch.
“We’re starting to think of ourselves as New England’s restaurant capital as well,” says Coviello, pointing to eateries where diners can get everything from pasta and pizza to Chinese food and Massachusetts’ classic seafood. Among the most famous of these restaurants is Woodman’s of Essex, birthplace of the fried clam, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. In fact, Maureen Woodman, the iconic eatery’s director of catering sales, says the summertime smell of fried clams coming from restaurants like Woodman’s and J. T. Farnham’s is one of her favorite things about the town.
“I like every restaurant in town,” she says. “For a small street we have the best food.”
Woodman also says she loves the town’s natural beauty, and its centerpiece is the lovely Essex River, which changes constantly throughout the year.
“It’s the most beautiful thing at high tide,” she says. “Look at how many people just come and paint it.”
Coviello agrees, saying, “I have a boat on the river.... I’m prone to sit on the boat and just go out and float.” And like the residents of Ipswich, both Woodman and Coviello love the small-town intimacy of Essex. “When you live in a big city you’re just one cog in the wheel,” Coviello says. “But in a small town like Essex an individual can have an impact on what’s happening.”
1640 Hart House
Not only does 1640 Hart House serve excellent food in a cozy, historic house, but it’s also got a world-renowned claim to fame; one of its original rooms is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
51 Linebrook Rd., Ipswich, 978-356-1640, 1640harthouse.com
Ithaki is the gold standard BONS award winner for Mediterranean food on the North Shore.
25 Hammatt St., Ipswich, 978- 356-0099, ithakicuisine.com
The Crane Estate
The Crane Estate transports visitors back to early 20th-century grandeur.
290 Argilla Rd., Ipswich, 978-345-4351, thetrustees.org
Soak up the sun, sand, and surf at the pristine and family-friendly Crane Beach.￼￼
310 Argilla Rd., Ipswich, 978- 356-4354, thetrustees.org
Russell Orchards Farm Store & Winery boasts pick-your-own fruit crops, a large farm store, activities for kids, and a wide variety of delicious locally made wines.
143 Argilla Rd., Ipswich, 978- 356-5366, russellorchards.com
Choate Bridge Pub
A downtown local favorite serving up brews, burgers, pizza, and more in a friendly, casual environment.
3 South Main St., Ipswich, 978-356-2931, choatebridgepub.com
Visit the Whipple House museum to get a look at life in 1677 America.
53 South Main St., Ipswich, 978-356-2811, ipswichmuseum.org
SALT Kitchen & Rum Bar
Elevated comfort food and spirits have quickly made SALT a North Shore foodie favorite.
1 Market St., Ipswich, 978-365-0002, saltkitchenandrumbar.com
The Clam Box
With its clam box- shaped building and ever-present line out the door, The Clam Box is an Ipswich icon.
246 High St., Ipswich, 978- 356-9707, ipswichma.com/clambox
A restored 1728 farmhouse and home to one of the country’s most important folk art collections.
60 Spring St., Essex, 978-768- 3632, historicnewengland.org
Essex Shipbuilding Museum showcases the town’s reputation as shipbuilding capital, building more two-masted wooden fishing schooners than anywhere in the world.
66 Main St., Essex, 978-768-7541, essexshipbuildingmuseum.org
Main Street Antiques
One of the town’s largest antiques shops, specializing in furniture.
44 Main St., Essex, 978-768-7039
Andrew Spindler Antiques & Design
The place to go for high-end, exquisitely selected art and antiques.
163 Main St., Essex, 978-768- 6045, spindlerantiques.com
The White Elephant Shop
At The White Elephant Shop you’ll find an eclectic array of antiques and collectibles.
32 Main St., Essex, 978-768- 6901, whiteelephantshop.com
Woodman’s of Essex
The birthplace of the fried clam and an Essex institution for more than 100 years.
121 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6057, woodmans.com
J. T. Farnham’s
Another iconic seafood shack with die-hard fried clam-loving devotees.
88 Eastern Ave., Essex, 978-768-6643
Blue Marlin Grille
Come here for fresh salads, seafood, steak, sandwiches, and more.
65 Eastern Ave., Essex, 978-768-7400, bluemarlingrille.com
Periwinkles Restaurant and Bar
Periwinkles offers riverfront dining and a fine art gallery.
74 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6320, periwinklesrestaurant.com
The Farm Bar & Grille
The Farm supplies horseshoes and volleyball outside, and burgers inside.
233 Western Ave., Essex, 978-768-0000, farmbargrille.com
Enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, and the outdoors at Chebacco Lake.
Essex River Cruises & Charters
Tour the tidal estuary on a narrated cruise with Essex River Cruises & Charters.
35 Dodge St., 978-768-6981, essexcruises.com
Essex River Basin Adventures
The BONS award- winning Essex River Basin Adventures offers guided kayak tours, lessons, and more.
1 Main St., Essex, 768-3722, erba.com