I recently gave myself an indulgent present on my birthday and spent a wonderful day exploring the quaint town of Essex, Massachusetts with my husband. I must say it was one of my best birthdays ever. Essex is located north of Boston in Cape Ann,bordered by Gloucester and Rockport. Although I’ve driven through many times, I had never stopped to explore. When I learned about the newly introduced Historic Walking Tour of Essex, I thought it would make the perfect day away for my birthday celebration.
Known as the ship building capital for producing sleek wooden watercraft, Essex celebrates and preserves its boat building heritage. The new Historic Essex Walking Tour, guides you along a one mile route through the Essex Cultural District where you travel back in time while strolling through one of New England’s most charming small towns.
The self-guided tour begins at the Essex Town Hall, circa 1893, and T.O.H.P. Burham Library, which is one of the last Shingle Style buildings with a working clock tower, in New England.
Traveling along the trail you will see; the 1797 Paul Revere bell, which is still in operation, walk along to the Essex River Crossing, stand atop the Memorial Park, paying respect to all who served in World War I and II, and learn about the grave robberies of 1818 and view The Essex Causeway, Great Bridge and Spar Pond.
A dozen interpretive signs share lots of history about Essex. Did you know, for instance, that clams were used as bait food until 1916 when frugal Bessie Woodman decided to fry some in batter and serve them as a meal? And the rest, as they say, is history – And there is no better place in the world to enjoy some of Bessie’s fried clams than in Essex!
Our tour took us to the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, which is far more than your typical museum. After a brief orientation, you are guided to the shipyard, which is still building ships to this day. The first shipping vessels built here were schooners built entirely by hand. It took 3 to 6 months to build a vessel and the launch was a major local event. As you stand at the launching dock it’s hard to imagine how they could launch a vessel of any size, but you quickly learn that the vessels are launched on their side, and once they are in the water the vessel rights itself. Very impressive.
The history of shipbuilding is displayed in the historic Central Schoolhouse, including several exhibits on loan from the Smithsonian Museum. Nearly 4000 vessels have been built in Essex, some as large as 190 ft. The EVELINA M. GOULART, the only one of seven historic vessels built in Essex, is housed in the shipyard. The Goulart was symbolic of the story of shipbuilding. Shipping building is still practiced in Essex, with smaller luxury yachts very much in demand.
Next we were introduced to The Great Salt Marsh which is the largest contiguous acreage north of Long Island, extending from Cape Ann to Salisbury, Massachusetts. As you stand on the waterfront, there is swaying marsh grasses as far as the eye can see. Haying took place at low tides each summer, being stacked on poles to raise above the high tide and kept dry to use in the winter. We quickly learned the Essex River provides some of the best Kayaking in New England, a mere 4 miles to the ocean.
As the history trail continues, you cannot miss the newest industry in Essex, Antiques. Essex has become the Antique Capital of New England. Antique shops vary from nostalgic shops to high-end decorating emporiums. The White Elephant Antique Shop, displays a large 1960’s record collection as well as fully working Juke Box. The shop contains unusual gifts for those who have everything, and if you were looking for a guitar to jump-start your musical career, you might just find it at the White Elephant.
If you like old-fashioned rambling Antique shops with floors filled with unusual items, Main Street Antiques may be a favorite stop on your walk. Antiques and collectables spill out the front door and out onto the lawn and occupy every nook and cranny of this large Victorian.
Now, if you are looking to furnish your home with an impressive antique dining room and dramatic lighting, step into Alexander Westerhoff Antiques, located in the beautiful renovated Methodist Episcopal Church. The Westerhoff experience will be truly spiritual.
All of this walking made us very hungry so we lunched at the Windward Grille built in 1680. I highly recommend this restaurant, the Windward Haddock was the delicious, and the wait staff was outstanding.
At the end of our trip, we ate with all the locals at The Village Restaurant, www.wedigclams.com, where we ate THE BEST FRIED CLAMS. In speaking with Kevin, one of the owners, he shared the family story. All the food is made on the premises as well as all the pastries. They surprised me with a birthday desert. The Chocolate Lava Cake, which can only be described as decadent.
As we departed Essex , our day had proved to be highly educational, fascinating and entertaining. If you are coming to New England, or looking for a great day trip, Essex is a must for connecting the past with the present.