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Donna Roy moved to Essex with her family when she was 11 years old. As an adult, she stayed in town to raise her own three children. Now her grown children have returned to start their own families in the place where they were brought up.

And Roy wants everyone to discover what her family has known for so long. “I tell anyone shopping for a home, ‘This is where you want to be,’” says Roy, who is the manager at The Essex Room, the banquet facility that is part of the iconic seafood restaurant Woodman’s. “It has the best of what the surrounding communities have come to offer.”

Essex is nestled between a pair of neighbors with more name recognition—Ipswich and Gloucester. However, it doesn’t have the expansive beaches that are such a draw for those towns, and it is a small community of fewer than 3,700 people. So visitors are sometimes surprised to discover the shopping, dining, and natural beauty hidden away in Essex.

In fact, Essex has been a tight-knit community full of the unexpected since its very beginning. It was first settled in 1634 under the name Chebacco as part of the town of Ipswich. The people formed their own parish in 1679; local lore has it that the town’s women built the meeting house after Ipswich authorities attempted to ban the construction by ordering that “no man” would be allowed to do so.

Essex incorporated as its own town in 1819. And this year the town is celebrating its bicentennial with monthly celebrations. A packed ice cream social kicked off the festivities in February, and a progressive dinner, a food truck festival, and a winter solstice celebration are all on the calendar for later in the year. A parade and fireworks in August will be the centerpiece events.

While this is a year of celebration, the sense of community in town is not limited to special occasions, say locals. In January, the Village Restaurant threw a dinner in honor of the town’s first responders as thanks for their service when the eatery’s new owner was in a serious car accident last fall. Fundraising events are always well attended, and residents help each other out regularly, says Robert Coviello, owner of Main Street Antiques. “It really has that small-town character,” he says. “Everyplace, someone is doing something for someone else.”

The Essex of today is very much informed by the town’s history. The river that runs from town into Essex Bay was, from the earliest days, home to an extensive shipbuilding industry. Though the industry faded out in the early 20th century, today the Essex Shipbuilding Museum offers visitors perspective on the role shipbuilding played in shaping Essex into the town it is today.

The town’s center, along with most of its businesses and restaurants, is still located on the river. Outside of the center, largely residential roads meander through farm fields and woods. Along Route 133 sits a string of more than 20 antiques shops that have earned the town a reputation as a go-to destination for antiques shoppers. Some shops cultivate a polished, urbane atmosphere that caters to discerning collectors; others with a more casual vibe offer the chance to poke through volumes of furniture, art, tools, and decor to unearth a hidden treasure.

The small town is also home to a dozen restaurants with settings ranging from classic to casual to elegant to eclectic (though just about every menu is heavy on the seafood). The fried clams at Woodman’s and J.T. Farnham’s each have their die-hard fans, but diners will also discover unexpected culinary delights on the menus at other locations: lobster biscuits and gravy at Ripple on the Water, grilled sirloin at the Village, and a weekly ramen special at C.K. Pearl.

And even with so many shops and eateries packed into such a small space, the town’s business owners act more like cheerleaders than rivals, Roy says. Both Roy and Coviello are part of the Essex Merchants Group, a coalition of local businesses that have banded together to promote the town for everyone’s benefit.

The thriving art scene is another surprise to some visitors. Throughout the summer, it is difficult to drive through town without spotting painters sitting at easels on the side of the road capturing views of the river and marsh. At an event called ArtTalk, scheduled for May 4, 10 local artists—a glassblower, a sculptor, a poet, and some mixed-media artists—will discuss their art and their influences, including the inspiration they draw from their community and surroundings. “We’re kind of tucked away here in Essex,” says event organizer Lynne Havighurst, a local graphic designer and resident of 26 years. “We’re a small town, but there’s a lot of really interesting art happening.”

Visitors who want to stay the night to take full advantage of what Essex has to offer can choose between a fully renovated motel and a country-style bed-and-breakfast. But if you want accommodations in town, Roy warns, plan ahead: Eager visitors can quickly fill up the available rooms.
“Once you come,” Roy says, “you’ll want to come back.”

THE DETAILS

Date of Settlement: 1634
Date of Incorporation: 1819
Area: 14.1 square miles
Population: 3,687
Zip Code: 01929
Median Household Income: $109,327

SCHOOLS

Schools: Essex Elementary, Manchester-Essex Regional Middle (in Manchester), Manchester-Essex Regional High (in Manchester)

NOTABLE RESIDENTS

New Kids on the Block member Jonathan Knight, musician and actor Evan Dando, colonial political leader John Wise