Good News from A Great City Haverhill, MA
Witches, Fishes, Strong Women, and Combs make up part of the fascinating history of historic Rocks Village in Haverhill, Massachuesetts. The Heartbeat of Haverhill was transported to a different time and place during a walking tour of Historic Rocks Village in Haverhill. We had always been drawn to the stunning homes (on par with the best restorations seen in Newburyport or other more tourist central communities) in a magical place along the Merrimack River, but they seemed difficult to access so we never tried. Recent road construction and detours temporarily make it even a bit more complicated to reach, but visiting as the plants and trees rebloom after a long winter’s slumber and learning the fascinating history, make it worth the effort. Please remember the houses are private property so if you visit, be respectful.
Twice a year tours of Rocks Village are offered to the public. Historic New England (HNE), the nation’s largest and oldest regional heritage organization, headquartered in Haverhill, partnered with Rocks Village Memorial Association to conduct the informative walk along the almost hidden lanes. Several stops along the hour long walk afforded time for our HNE guide, Sarah Sycz Jaworski, to recount the stories of real people and their adventures, and histories along our Merrimack River, and more specifically in Rocks Village, but what we heard is just the tip of the iceberg. Rocks Village Memorial Association has many more stories to tell. Fortunately these are available for sharing because some homeowners, business people, even communities were very detailed records keepers.
1) We met at the most visible icon of the village – the Hand Tub House, a old time fire station that housed wheeled contraptions requiring fire fighters to pump up and down to increase pressure for the water they used to extinguish fires. While some may have been moved to fires by horses, many were pulled into location by the firefighters of the day. Considerable effort and finances have come forward since 2009 to preserve and restore the building, primarily the exterior. The foundation was stabilized, roof reconstructed, electrical upgraded, and shingles replaced. In 2013 Whittier Tech students replicated the bridge toll house using original plans. Want to know what happened to the original toll house? Henry Ford bought the toll house in 1928 and brought it to his museum of American collectibles in Michigan where it is on display today. The Tub House offers a lovely view of the river and the bridge from its backyard. Also note – that extra tall cupola – isn’t a look out station, it is a fire hose hanging feature. Hoses were dangled from the top to drip dry.
2) The Village is so named because Nicholas Holt was sailing from Newburyport and encountered some large boulders that made this section of the Merrimack River difficult to navigate. That spot on the river became known as Holt’s Rocks and eventually Rocks Village. The obstructive rocks were subsequently moved or exploded to allow for easier passage.
Slideshow of historic homes in Rocks Village….
3) In 1977, twenty-five houses, the Hand Tub House (a site for early hand pumped fire apparatus), and the bridge were accepted as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
4) The bridge, the center of the Village, was originally built of wood. Prior to the bridge, the river was crossed by ferry. The ferry became known as Swetts Ferry for its ferry operator John Swett. The ferry service was replaced by the first bridge in 1794 and has been rebuilt several times, including once when giant pieces of ice came down river and swept it away in 1818. This bridge is the ONLY remaining manually operated Swing Bridge in Massachusetts. How it works: if you want to bring a larger boat through the bridge, you call 15 minutes or more ahead of time and volunteers run down to walk around and around to operate the gears that swing the central bridge span out of the way.
5) Rocks Village has six recorded earthquakes, and one report of a meteor coming to earth. Other natural phenomenons were equally vicious – Floods, drought, swarms of locusts and caterpillars. FWIW – 2016’s record breaking drought is also listed as a notable and significant natural event.
6) A cement garden feature on a property on Wharfs Lane is actually a burial site.
7) Women were property owners in Rocks Village long before it was considered “normal”
8) Massachusetts is not exempt from the slave trade. There is evidence of slave holdings among the Rocks Village residents. One slave, Prince Chase, married a white woman in the late 1700’s, though interracial marriage may not have been recognized at the time. He eventually secured his freedom and moved to NH.
9) Much like today, the economy often grew through cottage industries. Thriving in-home businesses included making elaborate hair combs from bone (this lent a certain stench to the region as the bones were heated and molded), shoe making entire shoes or shoe pieces before factories stopped outsourcing and brought shoemakers downtown to the factories, even shipbuilding was a cottage industry at least certain pieces of ships were created in home workshops.
10) The strictly residential area we see now has undergone many changes – moving from thriving to struggling and back again. Now with its pristine houses (many painted in the vivid colors of the day), one could never imagine that once there were shops, a post office, tavern, and businesses crowded into this small nook of Haverhill. The Rocks Village fishing industry exported pickled herring, Atlantic salmon, and the now protected sturgeon to Europe after 1750; there was a pickling house at the end of Wharf’s Lane. By 1790, there was a shipyard and a distillery.
Bonus story.… This one is a little tricky (read: impossible) to validate but we have a Rocks Village Witch Story. Supposedly a woman who was not demur enough, was not as friendly a neighbor as some would have liked, passed out or fell to the ground at the exact moment when a persistent flying bug was swatted to the ground at a community gathering. And we all know what that means…. or at least they thought they did back then: She must have been a witch. She was also rumored to have cursed the property she was allegedly forced to sell. Hmm I wonder if that’s where all the earthquakes and locusts came from.
The Heartbeat of Haverhill came to explore the beautiful houses, but the fascinating stories are the real draw to this area. Consider helping to preserve our history through the Rocks Village Memorial Association that was established in 1908, and is a 501 (c)3 non profit organization. Keep up to date with what’s happening by following the Rocks Village Facebook page. The next goal of the organization is to improve the interior of the Hand Tub House to make it more accessible to the public for increased its usage.
Know before you go: Other than the Hand Tub House, the walking tour is held entirely outdoors. The houses you pass are private residences…be respectful. The tour was just a bit over an hour walking at a slow pace and stopping to hear stories about the places we passed. The terrain is relatively flat if not exactly even with some dirt roads and wooded pathways. There is one very short, modestly steep hill at the end of the walk off of Back Lane near the school where we parked. Tub House parking is limited. On street parking is not advisable. Go before you go – There are no public bathrooms and no businesses within the Village. Public facilities are a short drive away
NOTE: Though we visited and wrote this post on a rainy drizzly cold and 40 degree day, we returned the next day to supplement the photos when it was sunny and 64-degrees. That in a nutshell (especially if you threw in a snow squall) is April in New England.
(c)Photos and Text copyrighted by Alison Colby-Campbell