Cogswell's Grant (1728)

A museum of American folk art

Essex, Massachusetts

A mecca for lovers of American folk art, Cogswell’s Grant was the summer home of renowned collectors Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little. The colonial-era farmhouse is a rich backdrop for their celebrated collection, assembled over nearly sixty years. Though known for their research, the Littles decorated with an eye for visual delight rather than historical accuracy. Their home is rich in atmosphere and full of strong, even quirky character.

The Littles purchased this 165-acre property overlooking the Essex River in 1937 and carefully restored the 1728 farmhouse. Cogswell’s Grant was the perfect setting for the Littles’ antiques, but was also important as a working farm and family retreat where they relaxed and entertained. The rooms overflow with folk art portraits, painted furniture, redware, hooked rugs, weathervanes, and decoys. It is one of the only places where you can visit such a collection in the home for which it was assembled.

Plan Your Visit

Location

60 Spring Street
Essex, Mass. 01929

Days & Hours

Wednesday – Sunday
June 1 – October 15
11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Tours on the hour.

Last tour at 4:00 p.m.

Closed July 4

Admission

$10 adults

$9 seniors

$5 students

Free for Historic New England members and Essex residents

Directions

From Route 128, take Exit 15, turn onto School Street towards Essex and follow to junction with Route 133. Turn left on Route 133 west (Main St.), bear right at intersection of Route 22, then turn right onto Spring Street and follow to the end.

Parking

There is ample free parking at the site.

Contact Information

Exterior of Cogswell's Grant

The Littles chose the name because Cogswell's Grant was part of the original land grant of 300 acres from Ipswich to Jonathan Cogswell in 1636.

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  • Exterior of Cogswell's Grant

    The Littles chose the name because Cogswell's Grant was part of the original land grant of 300 acres from Ipswich to Jonathan Cogswell in 1636.

  • Aerial View of Cogswell's Grant

    The property comprises 165 acres.

  • Mrs. Little's Study

    Mrs. Little was an avid researcher and meticulous record keeper when it came to the objects in her and her husband's collection.

  • Green Sitting Room

    This room was a place to entertain casually and, yes, to watch television. One of the Little’s primary passions was the painted surface.

  • Renny's Room

    Warren "Renny" Little slept in the parlor chamber, which features five portraits of the McArthur family painted by Royal Brewster Smith in 1836.

  • Downstairs Guest Room

    The lower chamber, a rustic-looking guest room on the first floor, is probably the most photographed room of the house.

Cogswell's Grant - aerial view

Cogswell’s Grant – aerial view

Cogswell Family: Westberry Lee

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 traveling 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 sawmill 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 one hundred-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.

Cogswell’s Grant Main Barn

Boyd Family: Bankruptcy, Prosperity, and Peacocks

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.

Could not find original in RS.

Could not find original in RS.

Arthur Dana Story: Tenant Farm

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 rundown 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 K. and Nina Fletcher Little outdoors.

Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little outdoors.

Little Family: Country Arts and a Country Home

Bertram Kimball Little and Nina Fletcher Little (pictured) 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 at the Smithsonian. 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.

Cogswell's Grant. Sitting Room Chamber.Planning for Preservation

Bertram Little was the director of Historic New England from 1947 to 1970, and as early as 1962 the Littles declared their intention to give Cogswell’s Grant to the organization. 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.”

Cogswell's Grant. Exterior of house.Becoming a Museum

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 catalogued. Finally, because 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.

Collections on Display

Nautical Painting of the Ship "Dredenot"

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"Apple Tree Farm" Hooked Rug

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High Chest of Drawers

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Portrait of Diantha Atwood Gordon

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Tape Loom

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Painting of the Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm

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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 provides an important and diverse habitat for local and migrating wildlife, as well as public 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 300 acres, and though that property was partly divided and sold or given to various 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. 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.

Property FAQs

Find out about parking, accessibility, photography policy, and more.

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  • Are there restrooms at Cogswell's Grant?

    Yes. There are two restrooms, one of which is handicapped accessible.

  • Is Cogswell's Grant accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Cogswell’s Grant has not been equipped with accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. We are glad to offer guests a visual tour of the museum. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are always welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I take photographs at the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • Can I walk around the grounds? Can I bring my dog(s)?

    Yes. The grounds are open to the public daily year-round, from dawn until dusk, and dogs are welcome. Please park in the marked parking area, and please ensure that your dogs are under your control.

  • Do I need to take a tour or can I just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • What is in the attic? Is the attic on the tour?

    There are some fascinating things in the attic, including a room that belonged to Jack Little, the eldest son, which contains some of his personal boyhood memorabilia. The attic is not on the regular tour, simply because there is not enough time; however, you can see the attic on our Favorite Things, Hidden Treasures tour.

  • Why do you have a television in a historic house?

    The house is arranged just as it was when the Little family lived here in the summer. The Littles disliked “period rooms” and wanted their home to be comfortable for modern life. The room arrangements changed many times over the years between 1938 and 1993 as their collection grew, so Historic New England has chosen to interpret the house at a period in the 1980s, when the Littles’ active collecting had slowed and fewer new objects were being introduced. The TV set was in the green sitting room during that period.

  • I have heard that itinerant portrait painters used to paint bodies on canvases in advance and then added the faces of their subjects later on. Is this true?

    This is a much-discussed theory that art history scholars now agree is unfounded, and unlikely to be true. Though folk art portraitists often used the same poses and backgrounds for multiple paintings so that they could do more paintings in a shorter period of time, there is no evidence of bodies being painted without heads. It is now widely accepted that this is a myth.

  • Is the Little family of Cogswell's Grant related to the Littles of Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm?

    There is no immediate link between the two Little families that we are aware of, though certainly there may be a distant relationship, as both are old families that originated in Essex County.

  • What did Mr. and Mrs. Little do for a living?

    Mr. Little’s career began in the publishing business at Little, Brown & Co., but he also owned a rare book shop in Boston and for several years was an editor of a magazine called The Open Road For Boys. During World War II, he was director of the Blood Donor Center for the Boston chapter of the American Red Cross. Between 1947 and 1970, Mr. Little was the director of Historic New England, directly succeeding William Sumner Appleton, the founder and first director. Mrs. Little wrote six books and published more than 150 articles, monographs, and exhibition catalogues. She also lectured and acted as a consultant for various museums and collecting societies.

  • What happened to the collections in the Brookline house when the Littles passed away?

    The contents of the Littles’ Brookline home were sold by Sotheby’s at two auctions in 1994. While recognizing the importance of their collection being preserved in a museum open to the public, the Littles also wanted their collection to be shared once again with private collectors, as they had found great joy in finding, acquiring, and living with their own objects. They achieved both goals by donating Cogswell’s Grant intact to Historic New England, while re-introducing their Brookline objects into the collecting world. Most of the objects sold are now in private collections, and some surface from time to time at antiques shows and auctions. However, many were also purchased by other museums, such as the American Folk Art Museum, Winterthur Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Williamsburg, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Historic Deerfield.

  • Was this house originally pained orange? Why is the back a different color?

    The color of the house was Mrs. Little’s choice, called “persimmon” in 1938. There is no evidence of the original 1728 paint color, but the bright orange color is an appropriate color for the eighteenth century. The gray paint on the back of the house and barn follows a traditional New England practice, saving the brightly colored, expensively tinted paints for the clapboarded front of the house and barn, while covering the part that doesn’t show in shingles and cheaper paint.

  • The tour seems to be mostly about the Little family and its folk art collection. What about the Cogswell family history?

    Historic New England interprets the property as it was restored, lived in, and donated by the Little family in the twentieth century. However, the Cogswell family heritage is very important, and was clearly significant to the Littles, as evidenced by their naming their home “Cogswell’s Grant,” though it had been known as the “Boyd Farm” for a century before their arrival. Our tour of the house understandably focuses on the important Little family folk art collections within, but we also offer special outdoor tours that focus on the history of the farm throughout its four centuries.

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