Sometimes it can seem as if the modern world simply passed Hamilton and Wenham by. A drive through the two small, closely linked North Shore towns reveals no remnants of abandoned industry, no tall contemporary buildings, no major shopping areas. But there are plenty of rolling fields edged by stone walls, clapboard houses that are hundreds of years old, and small clusters of local businesses.
“It’s a peaceful place to live,” says Jack Wilhelm, chair of the Wenham Board of Selectmen. “People just come here and stay for years—I’ve never heard someone want to move.”
Wenham, then part of Salem, was first settled by colonists in 1635. Colonists first moved into Hamilton, then a village in southern Ipswich, in 1638. As the towns grew, farming remained central to their identities. In the 1800s, ice from Wenham Lake was a popular export—even Queen Victoria was said to be an enthusiast—but the business subsided by the early 1900s and left little industrial mark on the town. In Hamilton, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy families were attracted to the open land and built country estates.
Today, the towns retain a quiet pace of life, connection to open space, and strong sense of community. The school system is consistently among the state’s most highly rated, parks and public farms offer access to the outdoors, and locals support a strong core of small, local businesses.
“We love the community,” says Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s “This Old House,” who moved to Hamilton 10 years ago in search of good schools and a big backyard for his three children. “You have a very strong-knit, like-minded community of adults who put education and family first, and that’s who you end up meeting.”
Yet, even as the towns are steeped in history and bucolic charm, there is more going on than meets the eye: New eateries, new civic groups, and new people reviving old traditions can all be found within the borders of the two communities. The towns are definitely not standing still.
In 2017, acclaimed pastry chef and Wenham native Lauren Moran returned to the area and opened Honeycomb in Hamilton, a bakery and cafe that has quickly become an integral part of the community. For about 10 years, Moran had worked at high-end restaurants in Boston, including Sel de la Terre and Island Creek Oyster Bar, but knew she wanted her own place.
She was drawn back home by warm memories of her childhood and the conviction that the area was the perfect place to start a family of her own (she now has a one-year-old daughter). Honeycomb, she says, has become a place were locals meet to catch up and relax, and she has been delighted by the support the eatery has received. Even when the pandemic forced her to change her model to takeout only, her customers kept coming.
“It was nice to be able to give back to the community I grew up in and add something special to the town,” she says. “We have really, really tremendous regulars who have supported us since March.”
Businesses in town also have a new route for marketing themselves. Shop Local Hamilton Wenham was founded last year as a way for small business owners to band together and promote themselves through social media, shopping guides, and events. The group ran a Christmas event that attracted more than 1,000 shoppers, and published and mailed a business directory aiming to drive customers to local businesses during the pandemic.
Further change is afoot on the western edge of Hamilton at Green Meadows Farm, a property originally owned by World War II hero Gen. George Patton. For years it remained in the family and operated as one of the North Shore’s only certified organic farms. Earlier this year, the Patton family sold the property to Essex County Greenbelt, which is actively seeking a farmer to lease the property and begin farming it next year. The group is looking for a farmer who will use organic or regenerative practices, and will open the farm in some way to the public, continuing the connection between farm and community.
“People have really good memories of the former farmstand,” says Chris LaPointe, director of land conservation for the Greenbelt. “We’re hopeful that we’re going to find a good match.”
For visitors, this ongoing evolution creates a mix of familiarity and novelty that keeps the two towns comfortable, inviting, and always interesting. It’s a mixture that’s, well, timeless.
Date of Settlement: 1638
Date of Incorporation: 1793
Area: 14.9 square miles
Zip Code: 01982
Median Household Income: $112,250
Notable Residents: TV host Kevin O’Connor, Actor Bo Burnham, Gen. George S. Patton, actor David Morse
Date of Settlement: 1635
Date of Incorporation: 1643
Area: 8.1 square miles
Zip Code: 01984
Median Household Income: $109,712
Notable Residents: Pulitzer Prize–winning author Paul Harding, former Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley