The town of Ipswich was founded on land that was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, who called the area “Agawam.” Agawam was colonized in 1633, when a group led by John Winthrop Jr. established Ipswich, a settlement named for a town in England from which most of the first settlers originated. The banks of the Ipswich River provided an ideal location for establishing a new community. The settlers enjoyed the advantages of fresh water, waterpower, excellent fishing, and transportation.
The small settlement quickly prospered and by 1646 Ipswich had nearly 800 inhabitants. The early residents of Ipswich were farmers, fishermen, shipbuilders, and traders. By the mid-1700s bridges criss-crossed the Ipswich River, wharfs and storehouses aligned the shore of the navigable water, and a salt works, tannery and ship building yard were in operation. Fishing was the most profitable industry on the river. Ships from the West Indies unloaded molasses at the wharf. The barrels were rolled directly into a thriving distillery, the town’s second largest commercial operation in Ipswich.
Lace and stocking making developed as a home industry. The first stocking machine, which had been smuggled from England, arrived in Ipswich in 1822. For several years, small and intermittently successful textile industries came and went. In 1868, Amos A. Lawrence established the Ipswich Hosiery Mills in the old stone mill on the Ipswich River. By the turn of the century, the enterprise had become the largest stocking mill in the country.
The industrial revolution brought greater and more diverse population to Ipswich as a result of its water-powered mill industries such as tanning, shoemaking and machine knitting. Immigrants from England, Ireland, Canada, Poland and Greece found their way to Ipswich to work in the mills. Many of their descendants remain here today and consequently, Ipswich has a diverse cultural heritage. For most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Ipswich remained a sparsely populated country town. Today, Ipswich is well known for its early 17th century homes; fifty-eight houses in town were built prior to 1725 – the largest number still standing and occupied of any community in the country.
The town of Ipswich is located in Essex County in northeastern Massachusetts, about 30 miles northeast of Boston. Hamilton borders Ipswich to the south, Rowley to the north, Essex to the east, and Topsfield and Boxford to the west. Ipswich is a traditional New England town with a highly developed “town center” surrounded by rural landscape and residential neighborhoods.
Ipswich is approximately 33 square miles of rolling topography, forests, fields, farmland, marshes, dunes, and beaches. The rural setting provides for exceptional river and ocean views and extensive open space. Ipswich is home to popular destinations such as Willowdale State Forest, the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, and the Sandy Point State Reservation. Crane Beach has been noted as “one of the most beautifully scenic beaches in all New England.” The Massachusetts Department of Environmental significance to the state. The many preserved and protected lands in Ipswich provide open space and critical habitat, as well as providing residents and tourists with numerous recreational opportunities.
Agricultural land, which accounts for 10% of the town’s land area, is no longer a major economic resource. However, farm and agricultural lands add to the community’s character, provide open-space and recreational opportunities, and make natural habitat available for local wildlife.
Water is an integral component of the landscape, setting, and history of Ipswich. The Atlantic Ocean defines the town’s eastern border and contributes significantly to Ipswich’s character and maritime history. Approximately one-third of the town’s land mass is protected salt marsh and estuaries, which limits development and helps to preserve open space and scenic views. The Ipswich River flows 35 miles from the west to the town center, where a dam marks the change to a tidal estuary that continues to the Atlantic.
Ipswich has enjoyed and benefited from its proximity to the ocean and river. It has used these and continues to be one of the top shellfish producers in the state. Although the hosiery mills, leather tanneries, and big shipyards are now gone, the river remains central to the character of Ipswich.