Methuen History

 
 

Bridges From the Past

The following was originally published in 1976 by Town Historian Ernest Mack for the Town's 250th anniversary. The work is provided below in its entirety. Ed.

 

INTRODUCTION

How many of us can notice changes around us, making things different now from what they were when we first remember them? For instance, I am sure some of you remember the town taking over the old St. Therese's parochial school, built in 1925, making it the Glen Forest public school, with all the talk about the safety of the building and so forth. Then you were transferred from the Stephen Barker to the Glen Forest building to attend school. Changes like that and many other kinds of changes have been happening in Methuen since the beginning of the town nearly 250 years ago.


Right now, we are making plans to observe both the 250th anniversary of the Town of Methuen this year 1976, and the 200th anniversary called "Bicentennial" of the United States of America on July 4th this same year. You can find a photocopy of the original town charter in the Methuen Museum next to the Nevins Memorial Library. When a copy of the original Declaration of Independence was received in Methuen July 17, 1776, it came with instructions for it to be read from the pulpit of every church in the new nation, and it was copied into the town record book which is still preserved in the town clerk's vault. In later years, the town would provide gunpowder for firing muskets to celebrate Independence Day, and hardworking children of generations long gone could almost always count on a noisy and enjoyable holiday for the "Fourth of July".


I think we shall find it worthwhile to learn whatever we can about the colonial beginnings of our own town. The Methuen Town Historical Commission is trying hard to find any and all buildings built before 1776 and see if we can tell just about how old they really are. We can't tell easily by looking at them. We know there are big differences in the houses being built now from those built 50 years ago or 100 years ago. But there really isn't too much difference between the houses built 150, 200, or 250 years ago, all having rather plain shapes and the big fireplace chimneys, unless somebody has taken out the big chimney or made other changes. So we have to study land deeds recorded in the county courthouse and check on all other records that we can.


Three of the oldest houses in town are probably on Merrimack Street in Pleasant Valley, the old Cross homestead (number 49 owned by Contarino), the Frye-Bradley house (number 176-178 owned by Sheldon), and the old Gage place (number 361 owned by Mariano). A 3-room section of the old Cross house is said to have been built in 1708 on the site of an old log house, this land remaining in the same family around 250 years. What is commonly known as the old Bradley house was, according to a tradition, being built by James Frye at the time of a call to arms in the Revolution, and he just stuck his axe in one of the roof timbers and left the building open to the weather until his return. The Gage house dates back to Ebenezer Messer in 1763. On the other side of town, the Major Denison house (number 87 number Lowell Street, corner of Tyler, owned by Keyes), is said to succeed a log house probably of the 1660's, and is equipped with Indian shutters, wooden panels that slide across the windows to keep out Indian arrows. Actually there seem to be more really old houses left in the west end than in the east, including what are probably old manor houses on farms granted by the General Court to individuals in the late 1600's like the Denison house. It is amazing also how many houses were moved long distances back in those days of ox-power. The original part of number 367 Lowell Street (owned by Henderson) came from Richardson's ferry near the Dracut line. It would appear that the best preserved Colonial house may be the Capt. Oliver Emerson House (number 133 North Street owned by True) built 1775.



CHAPTER 1

Going back to prehistoric times, the land area now Methuen was once covered by ice a mile or more in thickness, which had pushed down as a glacier from the Arctic region over land already inhabited by plant and animal life. The Merrimack River once flowed south from Lowell to Boston Harbor, but the course was changed to where it now is when the Ice Age passed away, and many of our hills were shaped and boulders were scattered around, by the movement of the glacier of ice. The first human inhabitants of the area were probably the red men called Indians by Columbus. The name Bloody Brook was said by George Frederick, late town treasurer and authority on Indian lore, to come from a terrific battle between the Agawams and the Tarrantines in the days before the English settlement. As near as white men could tell after they came, about September 1615 the Tarrantine Indians of Maine had a poor harvest so they invaded the Merrimack Valley to raid the fields, and naturally the local Indians resisted as best they could. It is said that clubs and stone axes, rather than arrows, were found in this area, indicating the closeness of combat. The second "Battle of Bloody Brook" so-called recently involved an attempt to further fill in and develop the swamp near the Lawrence line, in spite of the fact the Lawrence sewer into which Bloody Brook has flowed for many years cannot handle the water from a heavy downpour without flooding the surrounding area. We have Indian relics found in Methuen in the town historical museum. The last Indian known to follow the old ways locally was one Indian Joe, who visited town occasionally up to about 65 years ago, setting up a tepee in some field around Tyler Street and making bows and arrows to sell to neighbor children.


There also seem to have been other prehistoric peoples from Europe living around here, such as at Mystery Hill Caves in North Salem, N.H. Research into matters connected with such prehistoric peoples seems to be producing some altogether new interpretations of the Bible and other ancient literature, with new concepts of the origin of mankind connected with space travel. (In modern times, there has been at least one documented instance of an "unidentified flying object" in Methuen when on January 20, 1967, Ellen Kenney, Kimberly Lodge, and Janice Shafer observed a strange craft which did not conform to earth-known rules, and which affected the ignition system of their car on Washington Street).


Our present civilization dates from the establishment of settlers from England in the territory then known as Pentucket Plantation or Haverhill in the early 1640's. These settlers received a grant of land in common from the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay, and then as "proprietors of the common land", divided the granted area among themselves. They also got 2 Indian leaders of the Pentucket tribe, Passaquo and Saggahew, to put their marks on a deed of the land Nov. 15, 1642. This territory included the present Haverhill except Bradford, most of Methuen, the north part of Lawrence and most of Salem, Atkinson, and Plaistow in New Hampshire. The story about one of the early settlers in Pleasant Valley buying from the Indians what land he could walk around in a day, is either totally false, or if true, should have been needless from the Indian standpoint in view of the 1642 deed, and would still be invalid from the standpoint of the conflicting English colonial grant.


It is hard for us to imagine what life must have been like here in earliest times. Most of the land except the meadows was heavily covered with trees, and there were many wild animals, some of them very dangerous, such as wolves and bears. Trouble also developed with the Indians, and there are stories of isolated incidents of settlers being killed or houses burned in what is now the east end of Methuen. And it is said that when an old house now gone on Pelham Street was being built, the carpenters walked up to the even older house number 366 Hampshire Road (owned by Wrobel), for overnight protection against Indians. This house was on a trail known as "Dracut Path", which can still be followed over the hill through the Town Forest. There were numerous heavy plank houses known as blockhouses where settlers gathered for protection. One blockhouse is said to have been on Meeting- House Hill, and another on the site of Poirier's Exxon station at Marston's Corner; others by World's End Pond and Spicket Hill now in Salem, N.H., and still others were on the east slope of Tower Hill, this one being a real stockade, and near the mouth of the Spicket River, both of these locations being now in Lawrence.


Incidentally, the name Tower Hill dates back more than 175 years before the erection of the Lawrence water tower in 1897 which appears to give the hill its name, and the Indians are said to have used this hill as an important signal station. The present area of Methuen was part of the American frontier for a number of decades in the 1600's with civilization, such as it was, to the south and east, and almost complete wilderness to the northwest. The names of World's End Pond off Pond Street and Land's End Meadow in the Hampshire Roads section, which was corrupted to London meadow as early as the 1730's, are among survivors of that early era and directly relate to the frontier. Also the present name Hawke's Meadow is used in the proprietors' records of 1650, and Timber Lane appears to run along the line of the "Timber Land Lott" in the third division of upland, 1653.


The early settlers provided food for themselves mainly by hunting of wild animals, fishing for eels shad, salmon, and other kinds of fish in the streams; and growing Indian corn, pumpkins, and a few other vegetables. Eels were so common they were known as "Merrimac beef". Orchards were planted beginning about 1650, and of course there were wild berries and nuts. Growing plants and trees were severely damaged by hordes of caterpillars in the 1730's; it was said these insects swam across the streams, and cartwheels were stained green from crushing them in the paths. Domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry had been brought from England but not so many as could have been easily used, and it took many years to develop more plentiful numbers. Honey bees were kept in hives from very early times. The Scotch-Irish immigrants brought the first white potatoes in 1718, and potatoes became one of the main staples of the New England diet. Clothing was mostly homemade from sheep's wool and from the hides of animals, except what could be imported, and later the Scotch-Irish introduced the art of weaving linen from flax grown in the fields. Crude shoes also were made at home with no difference between right and left feet. The earliest industry was said to be a tannery for processing hides into leather, followed closely by a grist mill for stone-grinding corn into meal. Two grindstones from the mill on Bartlett's Brook now stand in front of number 87 North Lowell Street, cor. Tyler, along with a rare and distinctive buttonwood tree, which went out of fashion for planting as a shade tree over 150 years ago. Wood of course was plentiful for construction and for fuel, but nevertheless it is said that some of the earliest temporary homes were little more than eaves in the hillside, such as the one on the part of the Old How farm, now country club property in 1717. Bricks were made from deposits of clay in certain sections of town. Window glass was very scarce and in earliest times had to be imported from England by those who could afford it. Very few houses were painted until way down around 1800. In fact, due to difficulty in making clapboards and nails, many houses were only covered by thick boarding with the cracks between slanted upwards from the outside to keep out storms, called feather lapping. Boards made from the virgin growth of hard yellow pine, called pumpkin pine, contained a great deal of pitch and could stand the weather well for 100 years or more; we have a sample of this boarding from the second-last saltbox-style house (with the low back roof) in Methuen, on Osgood Street torn down May 1970, the last being the old Boles house on Myrtle Street torn down 1972.

There was an iron works on the Spicket River near what is now East Haverhill Street in Lawrence by the middle 1700's, which probably used bog iron ore from the vicinity; and there was said to have been at least one small nickel mine near the Dracut line somewhere. It was illegal under English law for the colonies to trade with countries outside the British Empire, but there was a very considerable illegal fur trade that passed through this area from Albany and points west, headed for Amsterdam out of Newburyport around 1700, according to New England Archaeological Research Association. The climate and life of Methuen have always been influenced in different ways by its comparatively short distance from the Atlantic Ocean, and some early settlers found it worthwhile to own salt marsh land and travel back and forth by ox cart to harvest the grass to feed cattle. From Methuen's highest hills one could always see towards the mountains of southern New Hampshire as far as the Grand Monadnock, not really part of the White Mountains as many think; now the high-rise buildings of Boston come into view in another direction.


Obviously there was much less time in colonial days than nowadays for such things as reading and playing. The Bible and a religious book popularly known as the "Domesday Book" were often the only books in cabin homes. Amusements consisted chiefly of folk stories, songs, and games dating back to Elizabethan England. "West Methuen of Long Ago", written by the Noyes sisters after the town celebration of 1926, seems to be the best writeup on local colonial life.


The earliest roads were little more than very rough paths for walking or riding horseback or pulling loads on ox carts, and likely following old Indian trails which were apt to run right over the tops of the hills. Communication was by mail to and from Boston once or twice a week on horseback. Everybody belonged to the Puritan church, which was the ancestor of the Congregational Church of today, until the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians came in 1718, and nearly everyone went to the church services on Sunday in the meetinghouse in the business district of Haverhill. They had to go to the business meetings of the town in the same meeting house, which was also used for the storage of gunpowder and had wolves-heads nailed to the walls. One family of 4 people named Mansur went to meeting in Haverhill from the east end of Dracut every Sunday, each person taking a turn riding on the one horse, then waiting for the others to catch up walking. It was, of course, very inconvenient for the people to put in 2 or 3 hours or more of rough travel each way every Sunday, and this inconvenience was given as the reason for asking the General Court to set off the territory of Methuen as a separate town in 1725. On December 8, 17251, a charter for a new town was granted by the General Court and was signed by Governor Dummer. This new town consisted of about 29,040 acres taken mostly from Haverhill, but also including lands between Haverhill and Dracut not previously belonging in any town. Some people in this area had been connected with the church at Andover by crossing the river in their small boats. Governor Dummer apparently inserted the name "Methuen" in honor of a prominent Englishman friend of his, Sir Paul Methuen, a member of the King's Privy Council and Ambassador to Portugal. The Methuen family crest has been featured by Mrs. Mary Ann Normandin on our museum sign. This charter became effective with the first town meeting March 9, 17 26 which was held in the house of Asie Swan, said to have been situated on Prospect Hill in what is now Lawrence. This house is believed to have been moved about 1808 and set up as part of the present house number 669 Prospect Street owned by Russell. This house, like the old red one number 328 Pelham Street owned by Jones, was commonly known as a sun-line house, built with the long side facing south to take in as much sun as possible rather than necessarily facing the road.

The first public building, if it can be called a building, in the territory of Methuen is said to have been the pound, a stone- walled enclosure about 40 feet square for containing stray animals, built in 1725 on a comer of the present Nader property number 606 Prospect Street abutting the Living and Learning School. The frame of the first meetinghouse was erected in 1726 directly opposite the pound on property now of Smith number 625 Prospect Street In the fall of 1727 this unfinished building was taken down and re-erected on Meeting-House Hill where the old cemetery was next laid out 1728. The headstones in the cemetery all face towards the west, in the old tradition that the persons buried behind them should face the rising sun on Resurrection mom. The smaller stones with initials on them, now used to brace up the headstones in many cases, were originally placed as foot stones. The shortening of this cemetery on the west side in the 1950's does not appear to have obliterated any grave sites according to a 1939 plan.


Our other Meeting-House Hill on Forest Street was named for a short-lived building placed there about 1798 in the west parish which had been set off in 1766. There was also another pound on this hill, and a small cemetery which was vandalized and disappeared many years ago. The other old West End Cemetery, now part of Elmwood, was commenced in 1772. The Baptists are said to have had a small meeting-house near here for a few years beginning about 1778. There was at least one ancient private burying-ground in town, nearly opposite the old Bradley House on Merrimack Street, 8 rods square. There is also a tradition of a few old gravestones in the woods on the southwest side of Tyler Street., formerly "Pelham Path", somewhat substantiated by one version of the oldest town map listing "Whittier Burying Ground" on perhaps present day Arakelian property number 179 Tyler Street formerly an old Whittier homestead.


In 1738 a separate north parish meeting house was built 48' long x 38' wide x 22' high being nearly the present size of the Salem, N.H. old town hall. In 1741 the province line, now the state line, was established, cutting off much of the territory of the town and creating an odd entity called "Methuen district in the province of New Hampshire." In 1750 this area was incorporated as Salem, N.H. but for many years was commonly called "New Salem" or "Salem New". The sharpest turn in this state line is marked by grooves and a drill hole in the top of a granite column on the north side of the power line by Route 213. You can put your hand on this column and have your middle fingers in Salem, N.H. while keeping your thumb and a little finger in Methuen, Mass.


The first schoolhouse was erected in 1735 on Meeting-House Hill, and school was also kept in several private homes so scholars would not have to walk so many miles each day. One of these homes was said to be the old schoolmaster Thomas Eaton house, now the Feindel home number 156 Hampstead Street In 1775 the town was divided into 7 school districts, with school being mostly kept in private homes at first. Speaking of dividing the town, there was serious discussion in 1774 of making the east and west ends into separate towns, but nothing to this effect was allowed.


The first road laid out by the town of Methuen was in April of 1726 from a point on Hampstead Street above Grosvenor's Corner (North Street), down to a little south of the original James How homestead on the present Locke property number 195 Howe Street This information comes from a thorough and accurate study of the original town record. The Currier-Howe Street route described as the town's first road by Charles W. Mann Sr. in New England magazine of July 1902 is probably even older. There is one rather ancient house still remaining on this route, number 70 Currier Street owned by Peredna. The present straight stretch of Currier Street towards Howe Street was new in the early 1800's the old road probably curved around more to the northeast to avoid the low ground.


The first county road was laid out in December the same year (1726) from Swan's Ferry (at the training school in Lawrence), over Ferry Street, Prospect Street, Howe Street and Hampstead Street following the whole length of the new town road and on into what is now Salem, New Hampshire. A large rock, a glacial erratic, one of the original bounds of the road, still sits on the west side of Hampstead Street between number 208 and number 214. This section of the road was a substitute for "Spicket Path South" which joined the old "Spicket Path" from Haverhill to what is now Salem, N.H. on the summit of Spicket Hill. This county road was referred to as the "King's Highway" in the 1902 Mann article, but I have seen no other record of this name for the road. A King's highway was supposed to be one laid out with no sharp curves or steep grades to hinder hauling out the long white pine logs for masts for the royal navy, but there were no specifications to this effect in the layout authorization from the Essex Co. Superior Court at Salem. The present McGowan Nursing Home number 489 Prospect Street was originally a farmhouse on this road owned by one William Russ, who received a captain's commission in the "1st military company of foot in the town of Methuen" March 5, 1760; this commission is on exhibition in the Methuen Museum.


The famous Major Robert Rogers of the Old French War, later known as the French & Indian War, was born in Methuen Nov. 7, 1731, the son of James & Mary Rogers, and baptized Nov. 14 by the Reverend Christopher Sargent, first town minister. It has been established that the land his father owned lay in the immediate vicinity of the intersection of Hampshire Road (laid out March 1, 1736) and Cross Street and you may have noticed that a marker has been placed at this comer. The Rogers family removed to Dunbarton, N.H. in 1739. The Rogers exploits are extensively described in "Northwest Passage" by Kenneth Roberts, and very greatly aided the preservation of the English colonies in America. At about this time in Methuen a number of the Acadian French refugees were quartered here. The Methuen High athletic teams are named the "Rangers" after Rogers' Rangers of the 1750's and 1760's. Major Rogers stayed with the British side but fought in only one battle during the Revolution. His rules for guerrilla warfare were still officially published by the U.S. Army in the VietNam conflict. In his later years he also authored the first play published in North America.


In the middle 1700's a number of persons who had come from Africa lived in town and were considered at that time to be the property of the citizens for whom they worked. Two of these "manservants" named "London" and "Salem" lived on the Caleb Hall place near London Bridge and the Salem line.


An 18th century barn is a real rarity but there is reported to be the frame of one, the old Boles barn, still surviving in Methuen, remodeled at some time in the past into the house number 71 Myrtle Street owned by Snell; and possibly there are I or 2 other 18th century barn frames with later boarding and hardware.


Methuen did fully its share in the American Revolution, sending 156 men on the first call in 1775 when there were only 1326 total inhabitants about that time, providing ammunition and supplies for the continental army, and taking in refugees from the British occupation of Boston. Methuen sent 2 delegates, John Bodwell and John Sargent, to the Essex Convention at Ipswich Sept. 6 and 7, 1774. Not counting the brief uprising of 1689, this convention is said to be the real origin of government independent of royal authority in the colonies, protesting the rulings of the English King and Parliament which violated the Charter of the Commonwealth. Following on Sept. 20, a Methuen "Committee of Safety" was formed to help preserve law and order in those troubled times, perhaps comparable to police detectives today. Then on Oct. 6, the first company of independent militia or minutemen was organized, and its charter has been reactivated in honor of the Bicentennial.


After word of the British attacks reached Methuen on Apr. 19, 1775, Capt. John Davis gathered a company of men and boys and marched to Concord Bridge, arriving in the evening at the close of battle. The Methuen company under Capt. Davis in the regiment of Col. James Frye also of a Methuen family, was in the very thick of the Battle of Bunker's Hill, however. Three Methuen men were fatally wounded in the battle that could be plainly heard in Methuen that day., -Ebenezer Herrick (who would not have had a beard as portrayed in "The Fifer"), Joseph Hibbard, and James Ingalls. James Ingalls' sister Dorcas rode to Cambridge on horseback and took care of him until he died July 8 that year. In 1758 their father James Ingalls had built the old Hill farmhouse demolished for the Methuen Mall on Pleasant Valley Street; he was a Justice of the Peace and held court sessions in his home for many years. Capt. John Davis lived directly on the site of the marker at the intersection of Pleasant and Pleasant View Streets although his home was previously reported to have been in an old house further back on Pleasant View Street The original Davis grant extended from near east of Marston's Comer to Spicket Falls, much of Pleasant Street following this lot line when laid out in 1759, and running some distance south on Powder House Hill, Bloody Brook, and Spicket River, also called "Back River" in some early records.


A company of Methuen men was joined with a Southern New Hampshire regiment under General Stark and marched to Bennington, Vermont, arriving a day late for the Battle of Bennington, Aug. 16, 1777. This company of men gave a good account of themselves later at Saratoga, helping force the surrender of British General Burgoyne. The grave sites of Revolutionary soldiers in Methuen were well researched by Donald Robbins in 1947.


In the Methuen Museum are numerous relics of the Revolution, including an ancient rifle, a handmade iron utensil for dipping lead being melted into bullets, a wooden canteen, and $3.00 and $8.00 bills in the Continental currency that became so inflated during the Revolution that prices in 1781 were up about 200 times over 1777. The museum also has a link from the huge iron chain that was laid across the ice on the Hudson River in February 1778. This chain was intended - to keep the British fleet from sailing up the river and taking West Point when the ice melted in the spring and the chain did the job it was intended to do. Each link weighs about 300 pounds. It is said that one Joshua Swan, who had served as a blacksmith's helper at Marston's Forge before going in the service, worked on the forging of this chain at the Stirling Iron Works in Orange County, New Jersey. The Marston family lived around this corner for exactly 100 years, from 1753 to 1853, and research indicates a shop of earlier years (Peter Marston 1802) stood about opposite Howe Street from the site which is so marked because it was known to be the site of the forge of later years. It is still possible the site of the Revolutionary forge is correctly marked, however, as Peter Marston is said to have learned the business from an uncle, and this site could well have been with the old buildings on the east side of the road. This old Marston place was where a number of the Boston refugees were housed in the Revolution. We have branding irons of the 1700's from the "'Masten"' forge in the town historical collection.


In addition to the affairs of men, the town records of the colonial and Revolutionary period make special mention of two natural disturbances. The first was a severe earthquake that began late Sunday evening October 29, 1727, and lasted all night. This quake was a lot worse towards the ocean from here, breaking open the ground in many places down around Newbury and being felt frequently for a full 2 weeks. Then there was the Famous, Dark Day of 1780, covering all New England on Friday, May 19, when candles had to be lit at high noon. It has since been thought that the cause was some kind of stagnant upper air mass becoming filled with smoke from forest fires in the west.


Before leaving our study of this era and its evidences remaining today, it may be of interest to note that there seem to be at least a few living things in town from the days before the Revolution and possibly even before the Town, particularly ancient oak trees such as the one on the Borgesi farm, number 459 Merrimack Street The last of the real wilderness trees that were here before the settlers, was said to have been the great forked pine that fell in the Portland Gale of November 27, 1898 on the old Kimball property, number 255 Hampshire Street.


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