West Newbury’s history as a town really began in 1635 when 23 men and their families, all from England, sailed through Plum Island Sound and up the Parker River, landing in Newbury. As more settlers arrived and families increased, land in Newbury became scarce, and some people moved westward to the “upper woods” beyond the Artichoke River. The town granted large parcels of land to early settlers: in 1638, 300 acres to Edward Rawson; in 1644, 80 acres to John Emery; in 1659, 103 acres to Francis Browne, all around the Artichoke River. In 1663, Capt. William Gerrish was granted 260 acres at the Groveland line. What was referred to as the “first division of lots” occurred in 1686, parceling out the remaining land between the Bradford Road and the Merrimack River, from the land of Emery to that of Gerrish. The rest of what became West Newbury was granted to settlers in five subsequent divisions.
Relations between the settlers appeared to be amicable; there are only two reports of troubles—a child was killed and nine persons captured in a raid on the Brown farm at 135 Turkey Hill Road in 1695. One girl hid, then ran to spread the alarm, and the captives were soon rescued. The other incident was when Hananiah Ordway, who lived on Indian Hill Street at the end of Garden Street, shot and killed an Indian he thought was skulking around his house.
With the exception of two early mills (Emery’s grist mill at the mouth of the Artichoke, and a dam and sawmill at the mouth of the Indian River), the area that became West Newbury was totally a farming community until the late 1700s. Enoch Noyes began making horn buttons and coarse combs in 1759 at his home near 127 Main Street, and about 1778 a Hessian soldier, William Cleland, came to join him, bringing his comb-making tools with him. Cleland had been captured, probably at the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War. From these beginnings, other farmers started making combs, and by the 1830s and 1840s there were 32 comb shops in town, the largest being the Somerby C. Noyes Company at 320 Main Street. Other large shops were on Pleasant Street and on Harrison Avenue. The comb industry expanded throughout the country, and business declined in West Newbury. The last comb shop in West Newbury closed in 1904.
Another local industry was shoe-making, which began with farmers making shoes for their families in little shops on their farms. Later large shoe shops were started, and West Newbury in 1875 was a booming industrial town with over 2,000 people and doing a half million dollars’ worth of business a year. There were three large comb factories and seven shoe factories. The last shoe factory, J. Durgin & Sons, moved to Haverhill in 1889.
Other industries for a time in West Newbury were a flourishing carriage business, a tannery and a wharf at the foot of Whetstone Street, a brickyard near the Groveland line, straw bonnets made by housewives on Crane Neck Hill, a short-lived cigar-making business, and Cherry Hill Nurseries, internationally known for their peonies for over 100 years. Now West Newbury is mostly known as a beautiful residential community and for its Christmas tree farms.
In 1794 the first Rocks Bridge was built over the Merrimack River, replacing a ferry. A second bridge was built in 1828 after the first one was swept away. This bridge was a 6-span covered drawbridge, which was gradually replaced by steel spans between 1894 and 1913.
In 1819 West Newbury finally became a separate town from Newbury, after years of petitioning the General Court of Massachusetts for that privilege. There were 1,279 residents reported in the next census, taken in 1820. The population increased to 2,087 in 1865, then decreased to a low of 1,405 in 1904, not to increase appreciably until after Route 95 opened up the possibilities of commuting to Boston. Since then population has steadily increased, to 4,235 in 2010.
Well-known residents include Cornelius Conway Felton, president of Harvard College in 1860-62, who was born here; also: E. Moody Boynton, inventor of the monorail and a crosscut saw; noted tenor Roland Hayes; Julian D. Steele, the first commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Development. The beloved children’s book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, was written by Virginia Lee Burton while she was living at Chestnut Hill Farm in West Newbury, and twelve-year-old “Dickie Birkenbush” suggested the ending to her.