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Historic New England shares more than 1,250 acres with the public at our historic sites. We offer outside spaces that range from formal gardens to woodlands and working farms.
One of our most popular is Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Mass. Visitors can enjoy the lovely manor house, spend some time with the farm animals in the paddock, and hike through the surrounding grounds.
Few, however, are aware of the scope of the 230 acres or the role the salt marsh on the property plays in protecting the coast from erosion and flooding, offering food and refuge to hundreds of species, and improving air and water quality.
A bird’s eye view of Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm sweeps up the lane, over the cruciform house and long barn, over the meadow, across the Plum Island Turnpike, and lingers on the expanse of salt marsh that lies beyond.
The farm holdings are part of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous salt marsh in New England, twenty thousand acres running from Cape Ann into New Hampshire. Indigenous people fished and hunted in the Great Marsh, and it is no accident that many of the first European settlers in New England made their homes here. The key to this fortuitous relationship for John Spencer, Daniel Peirce, and the farmers that followed, is the ubiquitous spartina patens, or salt marsh hay.
The people who settled in Newbury in 1635 came to establish a Puritan community, but they also had their eye on profits. As a stock-raising company, their ability to feed cattle and sheep in the first years of settlement determined their chances of success. The harsh winters of New England necessitated a large store of nutritious hay for these animals. For inland farmers, clearing land of trees and rocks to encourage the growth of meadow hay was a labor-intensive, years-long process. For the farmers in Newbury, the marsh was free of rocks and trees and provided nutritious and plentiful feed for animals that was available immediately. In addition, the coarser cordgrass (spartina alterniflora) that grew along the lower marsh provided valuable bedding, thatch, and insulation.
Over time, specialized tools, traditions, and techniques developed to harvest salt marsh grasses. In the spring, ditches were cut in the marsh for drainage and channels in the marsh dredged and widened. In the late summer, hay was cut and collected into small piles, or cocks, which were then transported on pairs of long poles to higher ground or gathered by flat-bottom boats that wound slowly through the channels cut into the marsh. Haying was often a community endeavor, with families sleeping out on marsh islands, cut off from the mainland at high tide. Despite its rigor and difficulty, haying often had a celebratory aspect, as friends and neighbors worked together in the sunshine. Oxen, and later horses, were fitted with large, flat “bog shoes,” so they would not sink as they walked. A special sled called a pung carried hay from the marsh during low-tide or when the ground was frozen. Farmers kept a close eye on the moon and the weather, knowing that a high tide or a storm would sweep away their stacks and threaten their livelihood.
Once cut, hay was often piled and stored on staddles, long stakes driven into the marsh bed and forming a base that rose above high tide. These haystacks, with their distinctive beehive shape, were carefully formed by skilled farmers, often specialists who helped to build dozens of stacks and were paid or bartered for their services. It was said that you could tell who had built a Newbury stack from a mile away, its layers carefully sloped to repel rain and resist high wind. When the ground froze, hay was brought to the barn and fed animals through the winter. Haying was difficult, often dangerous work. Richard Coffin, who rented Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in later years, noted in his diary in 1800, “My father… let a Ditch knife fall from his Shoulder & cut his healstring about half off.”
Today, salt marsh hay is used primarily in gardening and construction work, and it is still harvested at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm using modern machinery. The careful marsh stacks are nearly all gone, clusters of staddles the only indication of where they had been. The marsh still protects and defines the farm, however, and carries in its labyrinth of channels and slopes the memory of the years when it fed thousands of animals all winter long.
If you would like to help Historic New England maintain Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm and protect these important open spaces, make a donation. Just make a note on the form to indicate that your gift is for the farm. Your support helps.
All the information on the history of our salt hay marsh comes from Bethany Dorau. Bethany is Historic New England’s Regional Site Administrator for our North Shore properties.