Mark Lyons moved to Topsfield nearly 25 years ago and he doesn’t regret a moment. The combination of natural beauty, deep history, and strong community, he says, makes Topsfield an ideal hometown.
“The people are very engaged,” says Lyons, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen. “I find them to be a compassionate and caring community.”
Topsfield may be best known as the home of the country’s oldest agricultural fair, which takes place over a nearly two-week span each fall. Nearly half a million people flock to town during those days, to eat fried dough, gawk at giant pumpkins, and watch livestock demonstrations.
But even when the Ferris wheels and farm animals are sent home, the town remains a charming, relaxing place for visitors and residents alike. Both Route 1 and Interstate 95 run through the town, but the moment you exit the highway, the bustle is replaced with tree-lined roads and bucolic properties that make traffic feel like a distant memory.
Parson Capen House dates to the 1600s.
First settled in 1635, Topsfield has been connected to many of the major events in Massachusetts’ early history. Three women from the town were among those hanged as witches during the Salem witch hysteria of the late 17th century. When the British marched on Lexington and Concord in 1776, a Topsfield commander galloped off to join the fight.
Today, the historical character is evident in local properties like the Parson Capen house, an outstanding example of late-1600s American architecture, and the Gould Barn, a carefully restored structure from 1710 that today hosts community meetings, weddings, and other events. Tucked away on a side street, a plaque marks the former homestead of the Smith family, whose descendant Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church.
Foote Brothers Canoe & Kayak Rental
The town has also been notable for its sense of community from the very beginning. As colonists from nearby Ipswich started moving west into Topsfield, they were greeted by Indian chief Masconomet and were surprised to discover that he spoke English, says Norm Isler, longtime president of the Topsfield Historical Society. Even as settlers in many regions experienced conflict with the natives they encountered, the residents of Topsfield enjoyed friendly relations with the Agawam tribe.
And the note of friendliness and cooperation on which the town started has endured.
Today, the heart of Topsfield is the town common, a quaint green surrounded by historical buildings, the Congregational church, the public library, and the town hall. The town hall is nearing the end of extensive renovations intended to modernize the building—barely updated since 1873—while maintaining its traditional character and beauty. The work includes the restoration of a large public hall to be used by community groups and events.
Valley View Farmstead Cheeses
“It was a really beautiful, large space used for dances and meetings and events that had been broken up into office cubicles,” Lyons says. “We’re recapturing that space.”
Residents are engaged in town meetings and civic activities, Isler says, and the historical society’s annual strawberry festival celebrated its 50th year this summer. Town volunteers and donations were integral in the restoration of Gould Barn. And over the last 14 years, the society’s John Kimball, Jr. Memorial Scholarship Program, funded by a bequest from a former town moderator, has awarded more than $270,000 to 78 local students.
Alfalfa Farm Winery
“It’s gratifying and very heartwarming to participate in something like that,” Isler says.
The sense of community and rich history of the town are complemented by the area’s abundant natural beauty. Rolling hills, a remnant of the glaciers that once retreated through the region, and vast wooded areas give Topsfield a distinctive natural character.
The adjacent properties at Willowdale State Forest and Bradley Palmer State Park offer roughly 50 miles of trails, providing opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers to explore extensively. The diverse ecosystem gives visitors a chance to glimpse deer, beavers, owls, and songbirds.
The Mass Audubon Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary combines natural preservation with education. Twelve miles of trails meander through meadows, wetlands, and forest; the Rockery Trail features a grotto and arches constructed from boulders in 1905. The vacation camps let young people delve even further into the wonders of the local environment. For Lyons, these factors come together to create a place he is happy to call home. “I consider it to be the best decision my wife and I ever made,” he says.
Topsfield Must-Do List
Wildlife Sanctuary Wander along more than 12 miles of trails through forests, wetlands, and meadows; canoe or kayak on the Ipswich River; or bring the kids to frolic in the natural playground. 87 Perkins Row, 978-887-9264, massaudubon.org
Bradley Palmer State Park/Willowdale State Forest
These two adjacent properties offer extensive networks of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. Bradley Palmer is home to an extensive splash park that is a draw for families on hot days. 40 Asbury St., 978-887-5931; Willowdale: 252 Ipswich Rd., 978-877-5931
Parson Capen House
A National Historic Landmark, this late-17th-century home is one of the best-preserved homes from the period. On summer weekends, docents are available to share the history of the house and grounds. 1 Howlett St., 978-887-3998, topsfieldhistory.org
Located inside Bradley Palmer State Park, this gorgeous stone Craftsman mansion hosts mostly private weddings, but opens to the public for food tastings, cooking classes, and historical tours several times a year. 24 Asbury St., 978-887-8211, willowdaleestate.com
Essex County Co-op
Get a taste of the town’s agricultural heritage at this 100-year-old shop that offers everything from grain for your horse and seeds for your garden to toys for your kids and home accessories for yourself. 146 South Main St., 978-887-2300, essexcountycoop.net
Frugal fashionistas will want to check out this bountiful consignment shop. Within the store, the North Shore Makers Mart offers a curated selection of locally made gifts. 30 Main St., 978-887-0331, franciesboutique.com
Fresh Look Designs Tanning & Gifts
An eclectic combination of floral design services, tanning, and charming gifts and home accessories creates a unique and compelling one-stop shop. 46 Main St., 978-887-3979
The country’s oldest agricultural fair, the town’s signature event offers more than a week of giant produce, livestock competitions, carnival rides, and musical performances. Throughout the year, the fairgrounds hosts events like wedding expos and crafts shows. 207 Boston St., 978-887-5000, topsfieldfair.org
Alfalfa Farm Winery
In its latest iteration, this 300-year-old farm produces award-winning wines. Visit for a weekend tasting, volunteer to help with the grape harvest, or attend a weekend festival in the fall. 267 Rowley Bridge Rd., 978-774-0014, alfalfafarmwinery.com
Natural Way Farm
Visit this small artisan farm to pick your own blueberries or shop a selection of honey, eggs, and vegetables. Open by appointment. 79 Hill St., 978-887-8580
Valley View Farmstead Cheeses
Pick up some locally made cheese, browse food offerings from other area producers, and maybe catch a glimpse of some frolicking goats. 278 High St., 978-887-8215, valleyviewcheese.com
Elegantly iced cookies, gorgeous cakes, and a wide selection of signature whoopie pies make this bakery an essential destination for any sweet-toothed visitor. 44 Main St., 978-887-0795, topsfieldbakeshop.com
This family-run breakfast and lunch spot is old-fashioned in all the best ways, with generous servings and a homey atmosphere. 30 Main St., 978-887-9580