If you are a North Shore resident, you’re probably familiar with most of The Trustees of Reservations’ (The Trustees) Northeast properties, whether it’s Agassiz Rock in Manchester-by-the-Sea or Misery Islands in Salem Sound. But did you know, for example, that there is a trick rock at Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich? That owls often hide in the pines at Weir Hill in North Andover?
These are just a few of the “hidden gems” on The Trustees’ properties that are not obvious to the casual visitor, nor necessarily mentioned on The Trustees’ website. Ergo, we’ve done a bit of sleuth work to unveil a bounty of treasures that are just waiting to be noticed, beginning with that trick rock.
According to legend, Richard T. Crane, Jr., had a playful streak and wanted to show off his “Herculean strength” to guests who visited Castle Hill on the Crane Estate. Therefore, he had a pin used for spinning heavy objects installed under a large boulder that appears to be part of a stone wall “blocking” the Wildflower Garden Trail. To impress his guests, Mr. Crane would exert a little effort and spin the stone to clear the path. Now that you’re “in the know,” you can attempt to do the same.
If you walk over to the estate’s Vegetable Garden, that is where part of the 1984 movie The Karate Kid was filmed. For true movie buffs, The Trustees offers a tour in July, pointing out the exact spots where various other movies were shot on the estate over the years. While you’re in the Vegetable Garden, don’t miss the Caste Hill insignia of a castle turret on the left tower door; it also graced the Crane family’s Wedgewood china and Tiffany stationery.
Pressed into one of the concrete steps in the Italian Garden, you can see the small footprints of young Cornelius and Florence Crane, along with the paw prints of their dog! Look to the top of the garden columns to see a pair of mermaid figures that Boston sculptor Johan Selmer Larson designed. Near the garden stands a fieldstone chimney, marking the remains of the 1911 log cabin playhouse built for six-year-old Cornelius. Then, if it’s low tide when you visit, head down to Steep Hill Beach on the western edge of Crane Beach to see the ribs of a shipwreck, said to be the Ada K. Damon, a 90-foot schooner built in 1875 that sank during a Christmas snowstorm in 1909.
Inside the Great House at Castle Hill, many easily overlooked riches abound, including artist Abram Poole’s painted rotunda ceiling on the first floor depicting the Crane children, Florence and Cornelius, their maids, and the family’s Siamese cat. In the main stair hall, there hides a walk-in silver safe. Via guided tours, you can see that safe, along with a concealed circular staircase, a butler’s key cabinet, Mr. and Mrs. Crane’s cleverly hidden toilets in their elegant bathrooms, and a John Singer Sargent portrait of Mrs. Florence Crane in her bedroom. If you climb the spiral staircase to the estate’s top roof-deck on a special tour, you’ll encounter a unique panoramic view of Cape Ann, Crane Beach, and Crane Wildlife Refuge.
Last, not everyone realizes it’s possible to spend the night on the property at The Inn at Castle Hill. Once the Crane family’s summer cottage, the home was renovated by The Trustees in 2000 and redecorated by interior designer Wendy Hodgson of design firm Carpenter & MacNeille in 2014. Each luxuriously appointed room comes with a full hot breakfast and complimentary admission to Crane Beach.
Over in Ipswich and Hamilton at Appleton Farms and Appleton Grass Rides, more hidden treasures await, including a rare pair of portraits in the Old House of Daniel Fuller Appleton. Both were signed and dated in 1884 by painter Eastman Johnson, co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who was known as the “American Rembrandt.” The house, which also serves as the farm’s visitor center, also displays many family portraits and paintings of the Appleton family’s special horses. If you walk into the cozy sitting room, you’ll find a 19th-century tiled fireplace with the words “East or West, Home is Best.”
Inside the old carriage barn sits another jewel: an antique carriage that you can climb aboard. At the entry to the stone paddock, don’t miss the pair of 1847 stone lions said to have once graced the former Staten Island Ferry Terminal in New York. Further along the grounds near the Grass Rides, you’ll encounter four granite pillars from Harvard’s library, Gore Hall, which was completed in 1841. It’s believed the pillars were given to Mr. Francis R. Appleton, Sr., when Gore Hall was torn down to make way for the present Widener Library, which he helped establish.
In the Great Pasture near the Great Rock, you can behold a special plaque to honor the first Appleton family member, Samuel, who left England for America. Make sure to ask a farmer if it’s safe to see the plaque, since the pasture often abounds with bulls! Of note, The Trustees also has special behind-the-scenes tours of the cow herd, dairy, and cheese-making operation at the farm, which is the oldest continually operating farm in North America.
In Rockport lies Halibut Point, once home to a thriving granite-quarrying operation around the turn of the 20th century, which provided rock to pave city streets and build bridges, tunnels, monuments, and buildings, such as Boston’s Custom House Tower. Since The Trustees and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (MDCR) jointly manage the property, you might not realize that MDCR operates an on-site visitor center and museum, where you can learn the history of Cape Ann’s granite industry.
Over at Long Hill in Beverly, you’ll find a magnificent array of flowers at this 114-acre hillside property with a 1.2-mile looping trail. But unbeknownst to many, the property also houses several dawn redwood trees, whose seedlings came from the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. The trees, which thrived during the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, were thought to be extinct until they were discovered in the Himalayas in the 1940s. The copper beech tree in front of the property is celebrating its 100th birthday, and if you look carefully, you’ll discover that what appears to be one tree is actually two trees planted in the same hole, with an eybrow-shaped branch marking where the two trees merge, part, and then merge again.
In Gloucester, deep in the swampy area of Ravenswood Park, there lies a rare stand of sweetbay magnolia trees, which are easier to spot when they produce creamy white blooms, usually around June.
Also in Manchester, you’ll find Coolidge Reservation comprised of 66 acres. Vistas from the Ocean Lawn are of the Atlantic, North Shore coast, Boston skyline, and even Cape Cod! Bungalow Hill, the highest point on the reservation, offer views of Magnolia Harbor.
Over on Great Misery Island, easily accessible by the Sea Shuttle that leaves from Salem Willows, you can see the ruins of an early-20th-century resort. Perhaps less appreciated are the area’s beautiful aspen groves, open meadows, and rugged shorelines. On Little Misery, which you can reach at low tide by wading across a narrow, shallow channel, you’ll find the remains of a steamship called The City of Rockland, wrecked off the coast of Maine and washed ashore many years ago.
At The Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover, you’ll encounter numerous gems both inside and around this 18th-century-farm-turned-20th-century-country-estate that belonged to President Thomas Jefferson’s kin, John Gardner Coolidge. Since you can only visit the house’s interior once a month, from May through September (or by appointment), that’s when the fully furnished property’s “hidden gems” come to light, including colorful murals by Spanish artist Joseph Remidas depicting a European-style landscape. Don’t miss the Chinese silk lantern in the central hallway that once hung in Mr. Coolidge’s home in Peking, where he served as the first Secretary of the Legation from 1902 to 1906. During two special Open Drawer Curator Tours (June 4 and November 12), you can peek inside the drawers of the home’s dressers, tables, and cabinets. On Home Sweet Home Open House Day, May 20, you can view many of the Coolidges’ treasured garden books from the 1800s and early 1900s, which will be on display.
On the home’s grounds, tucked behind a 6-foot stone wall, are the gardens. In addition to an heirloom rose collection, you can see a French garden brimming with Mediterranean-style herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, and annuals (which you can turn into a bouquet every Saturday and Sunday from July through September). Don’t miss the Thomas Jefferson–inspired serpentine wall in the French potager garden, an unusual architectural design that Jefferson employed when helping build the University of Virginia.
Nearby, at Ward Reservation in North Andover and Andover, you might glimpse some of the resident beavers. The 704-acre property has a beaver wetland with a beautiful boardwalk that winds its way through the wetland, where you can see beaver huts, dams, and, if you’re lucky, the creatures themselves. Another boardwalk leads to Pine Hole Pond, where rare insect-eating pitcher plants grow in the spongy, boggy area.
Finally, over in Newbury at Old Town Hill, you can embark on the Little River Quest to hunt for the hidden Quest Treasure Box. Using a map and a series of rhyming clues, you’ll encounter special views, a story about the area, and much more.