About Our Town

About Our Town

The history of West Newbury begins with its Indigenous past. The land on which the town resides is the traditional homeland of Indigenous cultures for thousands of years before the Algonquians of the Wabanaki culture, who lived here in the 500 to 800 years or more prior to European contact. They were the Pawtucket, an expansion of the Pennacook of the Lower Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire. At the time of contact with European settlers, Indigenous Peoples in the region had developed sophisticated societies, systems of social organization, and cultural networks. The Algonquians of Essex County were not tribes or chieftainships, but tributary patrilineage-based bands in shifting confederations and alliances. Ample ethnohistorical data indicate they had agricultural villages prior to European contact, with mixed economies combining maize agriculture, intensive horticulture, hunting and gathering, fishing, and fowling, and clamming. While keeping camps for seasonal subsistence resource procurement, they moved their agricultural villages within arable areas to whatever fields they were planting in a given year (Lepoinka 2020). It is hard to know the experience of the Indigenous people who lived in West Newbury before and during European contact as there are only a few available sources on the Pennacook that provide us with a limited glimpse into the 17th century, and there are virtually no materials from the pre-contact period (Strobel 202). It is clear though that early contact between Native peoples of the Merrimack River Valley and European colonizers resulted in a demographic catastrophe for the Indigenous Peoples due to epidemics, warfare, massive dispossession, poverty, and enslavement. Until its incorporation in 1635, the territory of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury was known by its Indian name, Quascacunquen. Settlers sailed through Plum Island Sound and up the Quasacundqud (later Parker) River and landed to name the place “Neweberry” after the English community where Reverend Parker last preached. As more settlers arrived and families increased, land in Newbury became scarce so some people moved westward to the “upper woods” beyond the Artichoke River (Coffin 1845). 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, Captain 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. During the Anglo-Abanaki wars, the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued bounties for capturing and killing Indigenous people. At this time of conflict, in 1695, French-allied Native Peoples raided the Brown farm at 135 Turkey Hill Road, capturing and killing members of the Brown household. It was also reported that Hananiah Ordway (1665-1758), who lived on Indian Hill Street at the end of Garden Street, shot and killed an Indian he thought was trespassing around his house. 

In 1820, the Town of West Newbury was incorporated, breaking away from Newburyport and Newbury. There were 1,279 residents reported in the census that year. Established as a farming community, industries also developed in the mid-18thcentury. In 1759, Enoch Noyes began making horn buttons and coarse combs at his home near 127 Main Street. In about 1778, William Cleland, a Hessian soldier who had been captured during the Revolutionary War, joined him, bringing his comb-making tools from Germany. From these beginnings, other farmers started making combs, and by the 1830s and 1840s there were 32 comb shops in town, the largest was the Somerby C. Noyes Company at 320 Main Street. As the comb industry expanded throughout the country, the industry declined in West Newbury. The last comb shop in West Newbury closed in 1904. Another local industry was shoemaking, which began with farmers making shoes for their families in little shops on their farms. Later, large shoe shops were established and in 1875 West Newbury became a booming industrial town with over 2,000 people and doing a half million dollars’ worth of business a year. The last shoe factory, J. Durgin & Sons, moved to Haverhill in 1889. Other industries that flourished in West Newbury were a carriage business, a tannery, a wharf at the foot of Whetstone Street, a brickyard near the Groveland line, a straw bonnet business by women on Crane Neck Hill, a 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 along the Merrimack River and for its Christmas tree farms.

A notable feature of the town is the Rocks Village Bridge that connects Haverhill to West Newbury at the shores of the Merrimack River. Built in 1794 to replace an earlier ferry, it was rebuilt in 1828 after the first one was swept away and remains an important historic feature in the landscape. In 1976 the Rocks Village Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The population of West Newbury decreased to a low of 1,405 in 1904 due to the decline of the shoe, comb, and other industries. Residency has steadily increased after Interstate 95 was built in 1958, opening up the possibilities of commuting to Boston. The current census lists the population of West Newbury to be approximately 4,500.

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, as well as professional wrestler and actor, John Cena, who grew up on Coffin Street.