Cogswell's Grant Landscape History
Cogswell’s Grant is a coastal farm of 165 acres located along the banks of the Essex River, just two miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. As one of the largest land masses remaining in the Town of Essex that originated as a seventeenth century land grant, and with extant landscape features on the property dating from each of its ownership periods, it is an extremely significant historic agricultural landscape.
As one of the few protected stretches of open land along the Essex River, it also provides an important and diverse habitat for local and migrating wildlife. Today the landscape at Cogswell’s Grant is open to the public and offers access to pristine marshland, rolling hayfields, and beautiful views of the river stretching to the sea.
The original grant of land to John Cogswell in 1636 was for three hundred acres, and though that original property was partly divided and sold or given to various Cogswell heirs, the current parcel of 165 acres has been intact since it was passed to Jonathan Cogswell, Jr., in 1717. The property has been farmed continuously since 1636, and is still a working farm today. Seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century town tax valuations show that the acreage was used consistently for pasture and hay to support livestock, with some cultivated crops of rye, barley and corn, and orchards with apples and pears.
When the Little family purchased the farm in 1937, they continued to operate it as a breadbasket for their own family, and produce from Cogswell’s Grant supported them year-round. Today, a mix of timothy and clover hay is still harvested on approximately thirty-five acres, and local farmers lease other fields to grow corn, pumpkins, and other crops for local farm stand sales.
Some remnants of historic man-made landscape features can still be seen on the property, including a dam and pond in front of the house that dates to the mid-seventeenth century and likely serviced a small mill. The water collects in the pond at high tide, and would have drained slowly through a mill system on the dam, providing tidal water power to either a grist mill or a saw mill, both of which are mentioned in period documents.
Another seventeenth-century feature was the road from Ipswich to Gloucester, which passed through the property and for which William Cogswell was granted three and a half acres of land in Ipswich in 1656 as compensation. Timbers in the riverbank, still seen at very low tides, are believed to be the remains of the horse bridge built as part of that road in 1666.
The terracing of the lawn in front of the house probably dates to the eighteenth century, as that was characteristic of country estate landscaping at the time, and some of the flowers there and unusual species (such as the yucca plants) date to the Boyd family period during the nineteenth century.
The Little family continued the traditional uses of the farm at Cogswell’s Grant, raising cattle, lambs, and pigs for freezer meats; cultivating a large vegetable garden based on the preferences of the family members; and keeping a flock of chickens to provide fresh eggs, which were consumed by the family and also sold locally on a small scale. Fields were used much as they always had been, for pasture and for hay, both to feed the livestock and for sale. Flowers were grown in a section of the garden for cutting and decoration in the house, but there are few formal flower beds around the property, as preserving the character of Cogswell’s Grant as a “typical New England tidewater farm” was important to the family.
When the time came to plan for the future, Mrs. Little gave very clear instructions for the preservation of the landscape and not just the buildings and collections. 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.”
Visitors to the landscape are invited to walk the grounds year-round from dawn until dusk. Dogs are welcome and allowed off-leash, as long as they remain accompanied by their owners and under voice control. Please be aware of farm activities while here, keeping a safe distance from tractors, and respecting wildlife. A variety of public programs and events take advantage of the extensive landscape at Cogswell’s Grant, including birding excursions, historic walking tours, plein air painting, and other outdoor activities. Visit the Events Calendar for more information.