Since Beverly’s settlement in 1630, many changes in the natural landscape have occurred. A primary reason for many of these environmental alterations is the constant change in Beverly’s economy and industry. In order to explain the effects of Beverly’s economic development on the natural landscape, the focus of this research has been on the land once owned by John Balch, as designated in the “Old Planter’s Grant” . These estimated 200 acres are located in somewhat scattered areas in what is now the city of Beverly. Balch’s homestead was in the area of the current Balch and McKay Streets, where the “Balch House” still stands today.
The original 200-plus acres owned by John Balch in 1635 have gone through many different owners and have been divided throughout the years. Most of the land eventually became residential, especially in the North Beverly area. 1 However, previous to the development of these homes, most of the land saw some industry or was at least seriously altered in some way.
The most easily charted, and obviously altered piece of Balch land is the area surrounding the current Balch House. When John Balch built his house, the waters of the Bass River were nearly lapping at his doorstep. This was an ideal situation for the “Old Planter”, because in the early days of the Beverly, or Naumkeag settlement (the original name of the Beverly, Salem and Wenham area), this river was a vital source of transportation. 2 Trying to picture the Bass River flowing through the now Balch Park can be difficult. Consider the small stream that flows behind Beverly High School and seemingly ends at the corner of Cabot and Herrick Streets. Now picture the Shoe Pond, which is located behind the Balch property. To follow the last leg of the river, visualize the body of water across the street from the Cummings property, behind Stop and Shop. These are the remains of the Bass River.
Other than the obvious building of new roads, the division and changes in the river are a result of Beverly’s economic growth. When the Old Planters arrived in Beverly in the 1630s, the Shoe Pond was just another part of the Bass River. This changed in 1647, when John Friend erected a corn mill on a piece of Balch’s property. He was granted permission by the town elders to dam the Bass River in order to create power for his mill. The Shoe Pond appeared as a result. The corn mill was eventually bought by Lawrence Leach, who operated it until is death in 1662. Friend’s mill was located in the area of the current Mill Street, hence the name. 3
A missing piece to the Bass River puzzle, is when exactly, and why, was the land where Balch Park currently resides, reclaimed? By comparing original maps of the area, it is clear that this section of the river was filled in sometime before 1884. There are several possible reasons for the owner of the Balch homestead at this time to make the decision to reclaim a portion of the river. For one, transportation in Beverly must have changed since the settlement of the area for the river to no longer be a vital source for the landowner. When John Balch built his house along the shores of the Bass River, it was considered a prime location because of this need. To no longer need the use of the river, one would assume that the construction of roads was taking place in Beverly. Therefore, the land owner must have decided that since the use of the river was not a necessity, and it would be more advantageous for him to reclaim the land where he could possibly raise more cattle or grow more produce. However, no matter what the exact reason was for the reclaiming of this section of the Bass River, the decision to do so has changed an important feature of Beverly’s original face, and also indicates a substantial development of the town’s land.
When John Balch passed away, his numerous acres of land were handed down to his three sons, Benjamin, John and Freeborn. After the two youngest sons died unexpectedly, Benjamin received their shares of the land, thus gaining nearly all the original acres, except what was allotted to his father’s second wife. 4
When Benjamin Balch died, he passed the family land onto his four sons, one grandson, and William Dodge Jr., who had married into the family. To his son Samuel, he conveyed sixty acres, to John he gave sixty-two, Benjamin Jr. was allotted twenty-five, and Freeborn was given fifty-one acres, some of which are located in current Wenham. His grandson, another Benjamin, was given fifty acres, and William Dodge Jr. was allotted seventeen acres. 5 This system of land inheritance continuously divided the Balch land throughout subsequent generations. Along with the division of land by inheritance, John Balch’s original piece of the “Old Planter’s Grant” was also sold to numerous people and associations.
One of the first significant sales of Balch land came when Benjamin Balch’s grandson (another Benjamin), sold nine and three quarters acres of land to James Taylor Jr., and six acres to William Prince. Prince’s land was located on the corner of Cabot and Dodge Streets, and was eventually sold to Simeon Baker, who opened a tavern that was to become well known among travelers and frequenters of the Beverly area. 6
Besides the introduction of small businesses on the original Balch land, acres were also sold for the building of two churches in Beverly, the Second Parish and another church in North Beverly. 7 Although the building of churches is not a true portrayal of economic change in Beverly, it does indicate that if there were sizeable acres of fertile land up for sale, the agricultural based economy of Beverly was changing.
Clearly, as John Balch’s original land was continuously divided, it’s former use as agricultural land was diminished. Instead of grassy fields, swamps, rivers and other natural attributes, the Balch land was becoming cluttered with new businesses and homes. This model of generational land division can be applied to all of New England and the United States. It is only natural to pass land down to younger generations, and along the way pieces will eventually be sold outside the family. Instead of sprawling fields and woodlands, land becomes more varied, as a result of the different interests of the individual landowners. Thus, continuous stretches of similar land growth are no more, or are at least more difficult to detect.
Balch House Associates and Beverly Historical Society and Museum (BHA and BHSM). BHA and BHSM Online, 25 September 2003,
http://members.tripod.com/BALCHNews/our.htm (25 September 2003).
Lapham, Alice Gertrude. The Old Planters of Beverly in Massachusetts and the
Thousand Acre Grant of 1635. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1930.
Pierce, Calvin P. Ryal Side From Early Days of Salem Colony. Cambridge: The
Riverside Press, 1931.
Raymond, Robert. Beverly, “Massachusetts Maps,” Sept. 2003,
BeverlyMaps/BeverlyMaps.html (25 Sept.2003)
Stone, Edwin M. History of Beverly: Civil and Ecclesiastical, From its Settlement in 1630 to 1842. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1843.