Cogswell's Grant History
In 1636 the following entry appears in the Grants Book of the Town of Ipswich: “Granted to Mr. John Cogswell 300 acres of land at the further Chebokoe…”
John Cogswell (1592-1669) was born in Westbury Leigh, Wiltshire, England, and embarked for New England in 1635 with his wife and eight children. Their ship, the Angel Gabriel was wrecked at Pemaquid Point, Maine, and though the family survived, they lost more than £5000 worth of property, including cattle, furniture, and money. After travelling south, Cogswell established a farm on the land granted to him in the part of Ipswich bounded by the Chebacco (or “Chebokoe”) River, which is now the town of Essex.
Cogswell referred to this property in documents as “Westberry Lee,” naming it after his birthplace in England, and a mortgage record for 1641 indicates a house and other buildings on the property. The seventeenth-century buildings do not survive, but archaeological evidence has revealed that a structure from that period had lain perpendicular to the existing 1728 house. In 1651, John Cogswell began to divide his property among his sons, deeding sixty acres each to William and John Jr. John Jr. immediately sold his acreage to William, and by 1657, John Sr. had sold the remaining 180 acres to William as well.
William Cogswell (1619-1700) was a successful farmer, and also served as a selectman and parish meeting moderator in Chebacco Parish. Records from this period show his farm included a malt house, a saw mill or grist mill, orchards, and crops of barley, hay, and salt marsh hay. In 1656, William was granted compensation by the Town of Ipswich for a highway that crossed the property, leading from Ipswich to Gloucester. He was also given permission to operate a ferry across the Chebacco (now Essex) River as part of the highway, charging two pence a person; the ferry was replaced by a horse bridge in 1666. On William’s death, he left his property to his four sons in fifty- to 100-acre parcels.
Captain Jonathan Cogswell (1661-1717) inherited eighty acres from his father in 1700, including the present house site, and as his brothers predeceased him, his land increased. By the end of his life seventeen years later, the farm had attained its present 165-acre configuration, which has remained intact to this day. Captain Cogswell was a merchant, Justice of the Peace, and a member of the militia. There is little documentation of his time on the farm, but his will leaves “his Negro man, Jack, and his Indian maid, Nell” to his wife, and the contents of his widow’s will in 1723 indicate a high degree of prosperity.
Jonathan Cogswell Jr. (1687-1752) inherited the 165-acre property in 1717 at age thirty, and his time at Westberry Lee is the most significant in terms of buildings that survive today. Two years after inheriting the property, Jonathan built a salt hay barn, the oldest building currently standing at Cogswell’s Grant. In 1728, he built the western portion of the current house, possibly as an addition to the existing seventeenth-century house that was oriented north to south. The terraces in front of the house may also date to his tenure, as they are typical of country house landscaping in this period.
By 1749, Jonathan Cogswell Jr. was so prosperous that he had the second-highest taxable wealth in all of Ipswich. Sometime before 1752, the seventeenth-century portion of the house was taken down, and a new addition, the eastern portion of the current house, was constructed. It appears that this portion of the house was not entirely finished, however, before Jonathan Jr. died in 1752. The farm was leased to tenant farmers until 1761, when Jonathan Jr.'s son was old enough to take possession.
Colonel Jonathan Cogswell (1740-1819) lived at Westberry Lee and worked the farm for thirty years, starting at age twenty-one, when he came into his majority. He was Captain of an Ipswich alarm list company raised in 1774, promoted to Major in 1775, and was Colonel of the Second Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers in the army from 1776 until the end of the Revolutionary War. A Justice of the Peace, a member of the State Constitutional Convention in 1780, and part of the Massachusetts delegation to the United States Constitutional Convention in 1788, Colonel Cogswell was a prominent figure in the community. However, in 1791, Colonel Cogswell decided to move closer to Chebacco center, and upon the untimely death of his only son in 1813, Westberry Lee was once again leased to tenants. This was the last time that the Cogswell family resided at the farm, and though Colonel Cogswell’s widow refused to sell the property during her lifetime, it finally passed out of the family in 1839, two hundred years after John Cogswell’s original grant.
Prominent Essex shipbuilder Adam Boyd purchased Cogswell’s Grant from Colonel Cogswell’s daughters in 1839 for $10,000, but did not move in to the property until 1844. Boyd mortgaged the farm several times between 1839 and 1842, when he finally declared bankruptcy and the property was sold at auction to Joseph Bray. Bray sold the property back to Adam Boyd two years later, and Boyd maintained ownership and lived at Cogswell’s Grant until his death in 1865. After moving to the farm in 1844, the Boyds updated the exterior of the house, made cosmetic changes to the interior, and built the main barn sometime before 1863. Adam Boyd died without a will in 1865, survived by his widow and six children.
Between 1865 and 1909, the farm was owned jointly by several Boyd family members, and a complicated series of inheritance rights has somewhat obscured the progression of ownership and residency on the farm. Sometime in the 1870s, a single-story connecting shed was built between the small dairy barn built in the late eighteenth century and the main barn built by Adam Boyd. By 1894 this connector had been altered into a two-story structure with sash windows, indicating that a growing and productive farm was in operation here during the late nineteenth century.
In 1937, Essex antiquarian Mrs. Mardie Pollys wrote to Nina Fletcher Little describing her memories of childhood visits to the Boyd farm. “Adam Boyd and his sons brought the farm to a high degree of cultivation. Large flocks of peacocks were raised at one time, the meat selling in Boston markets for $1.00 a pound. Many new vegetables of that day were cultivated and in the lovely terraced gardens of the Misses Boyd, rare and beautiful shrubs were to be found. The apple orchards of Mr. Boyd at one time were probably the finest in the country.”
The last of the Boyd family to own the farm was Frank A. Boyd, who held all rights to the property by 1909. Oral history interviews with his children revealed a substantial farming operation that involved a milk route to Gloucester, and employed five or six hired men in season. Unfortunately, through some bad investments in oil stocks in 1920, Frank Boyd fell into a pattern of multiple mortgages on the property. He also sold some of the original architectural features out of the house to a salvage dealer in his last few years of ownership, as the Colonial Revival had become a very popular style, with eighteenth-century architecture and artifacts in great demand. Ultimately, through foreclosure, Boyd was forced to sell the farm at auction in 1925.
Arthur Dana Story (1854-1932) purchased the farm at auction in 1925 after Frank Boyd lost the property through mortgage foreclosure. Mr. Story was a prominent local shipbuilder and owner of the Arthur D. Story Shipyard, Inc., in Essex. In Dana Story’s book about the shipbuilding industry in Essex, Frame Up!, he recounts that his father Arthur had worked on the Boyd farm as a boy, “one of his jobs being to care for the peacocks they had in the flower gardens they had about the yard. He resolved then that some day he would like to own the place himself.”
After purchasing the farm, the Storys continued to reside in the center of Essex, and the property was tenanted to several different families over the next ten years. Essex residents remembered a pick-your-own orchard operation during this time, but little else is known about the use of the farm during this period. It is likely that a combination of tenant farming and the financial pressures of the Great Depression contributed to the buildings being neglected, leaving the property in the somewhat run-down condition it was found in by the Little family in 1937. On the other hand, these same factors over the years allowed important eighteenth-century features of the house to be preserved, escaping the dangers of a careless and destructive “restoration.”
Bertram Kimball Little and Nina Fletcher Little first saw the property in August of 1937, which was then still known around town as “The Boyd Farm.” At the time, the farm had been up for sale for a number of years, probably sometime after Arthur Dana Story had passed away in 1932. They immediately fell in love with the house, and purchased the property for $13,000. Once Mrs. Little was able to trace the history of the farm, she discovered the 1636 land grant to John Cogswell in the manuscript archives for the Town of Ipswich, and she named the property “Cogswell’s Grant.”
The Littles owned a house in Brookline, Massachusetts, but were looking for a summer home appropriate for their growing family and collection of antiques. As a young married couple in the 1920s, they had purchased a small weekend cottage (c. 1825) in Hudson, Massachusetts, which they enjoyed restoring and furnishing. In choosing pieces for this house, they were guided by Mr. Little’s cousin, Edna Little Greenwood, who lived nearby, and whose celebrated collection of Americana is now in the Smithsonian museum. She inspired in the Littles a lifelong love of hunting for and studying American decorative arts. The Littles particularly loved folk art, which Mrs. Little preferred to call “country arts,” and as their collection grew, they began to look for a larger house, closer to Boston, while still offering a secluded atmosphere.
Cogswell’s Grant was ideally suited for the Little family. Not only was it conveniently located in Essex, but the surrounding 165 acres gave them a sense of being pleasantly isolated on the farm. They were excited by the prospect of restoring the eighteenth-century farmhouse, which had been modified very little over the years, with limited electricity and no running water. They quickly set about investigating its eighteenth-century features, carefully documenting all their findings and work, while modernizing some elements to make it a comfortable summer home for their family.
They worked with Eugene Dow as a general contractor, who was very knowledgeable about old houses. He was also the brother of George Francis Dow, a respected antiquarian who had overseen the restoration of the Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Massachusetts. Dow consulted closely with the Littles on every detail of the restoration, even seeking out period doors and a corner cupboard to replace the originals sold out of the house by Frank Boyd. They installed plumbing and electricity, and were especially thrilled to uncover the original kitchen fireplace with two beehive ovens. They also expanded the rear ell of the house, to enlarge the service wing for the caretakers they knew such a property would require.
Studying and restoring the interior finishes of the house was an important part of the restoration process. The woodwork and trim had all been painted white in the late nineteenth century, and there were Victorian-era wallpapers throughout the house. Mrs. Little was especially fond of overmantel paintings of this period, and when she saw the paneled walls above the fireplaces she hoped they might find some landscape paintings under the white paint. The Littles asked Esther Stevens Brazer, a decorative paint specialist from New York, to investigate the layers of paint, and she discovered a series of paint schemes including grain painting and marbling in different shades of green, brown, and red. In 1939, she returned to the house to spend two weeks recreating the original paint schemes as closely as possible, leaving samples of the original paint exposed for reference.
As the years went by, Cogswell’s Grant became a special retreat for the Littles and their three children, Jack, Warren (known as Renny), and Selina. Their life at the farm was documented with a series of scrapbooks containing photos and notes of farm activities and gatherings, favorite animals, special events, and antique cars collected by Jack. It was also a center of study and research, as the Littles had a wide circle of friends, fellow collectors, dealers, and scholars with whom they enthusiastically shared their collections and exchanged information. They hosted gatherings of collectors' clubs, such as the Rushlight Club (for collectors of early American lighting fixtures), the China Students Club, and the Walpole Society, and the visitors' books over the years show many prominent names from the world of decorative arts.
Cogswell’s Grant was more than just a summer house for the Little family. Though the property was a beautiful historic setting for their always-growing collections, it was also a working family farm, maintained by live-in, year-round caretakers who operated the farm and produced food for the Littles’ consumption. Cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens were raised, and milk and eggs were both sold from the farm into the 1970s. Vegetables and fruits from a large garden behind the house were preserved and produced enough to provide the Little family with farm produce all year long. The caretakers made deliveries of preserves, frozen meats, and fresh eggs throughout the winter to the Brookline home, and the Littles took great pride in telling guests at their table that everything on it had been raised on their farm.
Bertram Little was the director of Historic New England from 1947-1970, and as early as 1962 the Littles declared their intention to give Cogswell’s Grant to Historic New England. In a letter in November of that year, Mrs. Little laid out a plan to make annual gifts towards the establishment of an endowment fund to care for the farm. She also granted a preservation restriction on the property to Historic New England in 1976, specifically to ensure the preservation of the historic landscape as open, cultivated land, and the historically significant dwelling house and barns.
In 1984, Mrs. Little transferred property ownership to Historic New England, reserving life tenancy rights for herself and her family. In letters at this time, she outlined her desire for Historic New England to maintain the entire property, not just the house and collections, but also the fields themselves in their traditional character as a working farm and as open space. She wrote: “As time goes on, I realize that the upland and marsh surrounding Cogswell’s Grant in Essex are becoming increasingly important as a conservation area, and that fast diminishing wetlands as a necessary protection for coastal wildlife should be firmly protected as a natural resource.”
After Mr. and Mrs. Little both passed away in 1993, a transition period began during which Historic New England made preparations for opening the property to the public as a museum. In 1994, Cogswell’s Grant was opened briefly for tours just as it had been left by the Little family, as a “sneak peek” of what was to come. Then, during the next two years, the entire contents of the house were numbered, photographed, and cataloged. Finally, as some conservation work was needed on the building, necessitating the removal of the objects, a traveling exhibition was formed featuring the highlights of the Littles’ collection. A Passion for the Past comprised seventy-five objects and traveled for two years to museums around the country, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York, allowing the public to enjoy the Littles’ collection while work was done at Cogswell’s Grant.
In 1998, Cogswell’s Grant opened to the public, and became the only place in the country where such a major, pioneering collection of American folk art could be seen in the home setting for which it was assembled. Objects are arranged as the Littles lived with them, not as period rooms, but in a comfortable and natural way that still feels like a home. Cogswell’s Grant is still a working farm, honoring nearly four centuries of that tradition, and keeping alive an important part of the Little family life here. Since the property opened, collectors, scholars, and decorative arts enthusiasts have flocked to the museum, reveling in the rarity and quality of the collection, and beginning a new chapter for the house, experiencing firsthand the Littles’ passion for collecting and for sharing their collections with others.