The settlement by the English of the area known today as Peabody began when the Massachusetts Bay Company established the Town of Salem in 1629. As the population of Salem grew, emigrants began to settle to the north and west of the immediate coastal area. These outlying areas of Salem were referred to as Northfields, The Farms or Brooksby, and would, through a series of mergers and name changes, evolve into what is today the City of Peabody.
In the 17th century Peabody was largely wilderness, with many meadows, large hills, swamps and pastures and an extensive network of rivers and streams. The majority of the early settlers were farmers, but Peabody was also a center of industry. The first industrial venture began prior to 1635 when Captain William Trask established a grist mill at the head of the North River, the location of present day Peabody Square. In 1670, Joseph Pope opened the first saw mill, and in 1685 Jeremiah Meacham, a clothier, built a fulling mill for the preparation and processing of cloth. A glasshouse opened in the Aborn Street area in 1638, possibly the first of its kind in America. The leather industry, for which Peabody became famous, began as early as 1639, when Philemon Dickerson was granted land for tan pits and the dressing of hides.
In 1692 a group of young girls in Salem Village (now Danvers) claimed they were “afflicted” by witches, and accused several of their neighbors of practicing witchcraft. By the time the trials ended, twenty people had been executed. Two families from Brooksby, the Proctors and the Coreys, were victims of the witch hunt. Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of John Proctor, a famer and tavern keeper, was accused by her servant Mary Warren of witchcraft. While testifying on his wife’s behalf, John Proctor was accused himself. Outraged that his neighbors were among the accused, Nathaniel Felton Sr. drafted a petition in support of John Proctor. The document was signed by Felton, his son Nathaniel Felton, Jr., and twenty neighbors. This act of solidarity was courageous, since those who signed the petition risked being accused themselves. Ultimately the petition failed, and the Proctors were both found guilty of witchcraft. John Proctor was hanged, but Elizabeth’s sentence was stayed, as she was pregnant at the time. When the trials ended, Elizabeth was released and returned to her home which been stripped of the family’s belongings by the Sheriff of Salem.
Martha Corey, also a resident of Brooksby, was a vocal opponent of the trials. Probably because of her opposition, she was accused of witchcraft, found guilty and hanged. Giles Corey, her husband, was subsequently accused and found guilty, but instead of being hanged, he was pressed to death. Corey owned 150 acres of land in the area of Phelps Pond, and he knew that an admission of guilt was grounds for forfeiture of his property, which he wished to leave to his sons. When Corey proved to be obstinate in his refusal to “admit” his guilt, the Sheriff of Salem ordered a board to be placed on his chest and large stones set on top of it. Corey repeatedly baited his torturers with the demand “More weight” until he finally expired.
During the eighteenth century Peabody became a center for the production of redware, a type of earthenware pottery produced from the iron-rich clay found in abundance on the banks of the North and Waters Rivers. The clay is gray, but takes on a distinctive red color after firing. Early potters produced redware by “throwing” the clay on a potter’s wheel and baking it in a kiln that had been dug into the earth. The first pottery in Peabody was established by Jonathan Kettle in 1731 on Andover Street. In 1736, Joseph Osborn opened the first of several potteries run by the Osborn family in the Central Street area. Over the next century, the Osborns became the leading producers of redware in the region. Redware made in the Osborn shops became known as “Danvers Pottery.”
By 1775, seventy-five potteries were operating in the two towns of Danvers and Peabody. During the first half of the nineteenth century, demand for redware decreased because of an increase in the availability cheap imports. By 1855, only two potteries remained in Peabody. One was owned by Joseph Reed, who had purchased a pottery on Central Street from the Osborn family. In 1876, Reed sold the pottery to Moses B. Paige. Paige Pottery was the last establishment in Peabody to manufacture redware. Paige Pottery remained in operation until the 1950s when it was destroyed by fire.
Beginning in the late 18th century, Peabody experienced a tremendous growth in industry and manufacturing. The most far-reaching and lucrative of these ventures was the production of leather. By 1855 there were 27 tanneries in South Danvers and 24 currying establishments (which processed finished leather to make it more flexible and waterproof). Railroad tracks crisscrossed downtown Peabody as trains from Boston and beyond carried leather hides into the city to be tanned and exported all over the world. In 1919, Peabody was recognized as the world’s largest producer of leather, and was widely referred to as “The Leather City.” At this time, there were 91 establishments dedicated to the production and processing of leather. The industry began to decline with the onset of the Depression. A major leather-worker strike in 1933 further crippled the industry as well as devastating fires throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s, most of the remaining companies moved overseas, while others closed due to increasing state and federal environmental regulations. Today the Travel Leather Company is the only tannery still operating in Peabody. In 2009, the City of Peabody opened the Peabody Leatherworkers Museum on Washington Street (adjacent to the George Peabody House) to celebrate the rich history of the leather industry in Peabody.
Though the loss of the tanneries was a blow to Peabody’s economy, the city has been able to compensate, in part, by other forms of economic development. In 1930, the Eastman Gelatin Corporation took over the American Glue Company factory on Washington Street to produce the gelatin used in Kodak film. Eastman was a boon the city during the Great Depression, and the factory continues to operate today. Centennial Industrial Park, which was developed by the Peabody Community Development Authority in the mid-1980s, is the headquarters of many medical, technological and manufacturing firms. The retail industry has thrived in Peabody since the opening of the North Shore Mall in 1958, which was then the largest shopping center in New England.
But Peabody’s main resource continues to be its people. Every September the city celebrates the diversity of its heritage with the annual International Festival in Peabody Square, where thirty-six nationalities and cultures are represented through exhibits, art, and cuisine. In 2012 we were among the 100 Best Cities to Live by Money Magazine and in April 2009, Forbes Magazine listed the City of Peabody as Number 14 on its list of most livable cities in America, signifying that Peabody remains a vibrant and flourishing community.
Important People in Peabody History
George Peabody, the international financier and father of modern philanthropy, was born in South Danvers in 1795. Peabody had to leave school at the age of 11 to work and help support his family. Because of his lack of schooling, Peabody’s desire to provide access to education became the foundation of his philanthropic philosophy. Following the war of 1812, Peabody started a wholesale dry goods company based in Baltimore, Maryland, then a major hub for trade and commerce. By the 1830s, he had transformed the company into a mercantile banking empire based in London. Peabody’s vast earnings enabled him to donate more than $7 million to museums and educational institutions in England and America.
Many of Peabody’s foundations still exist today and continue to serve as modern philanthropic models. In America, he funded and supported the Peabody Institutes in Peabody and Danvers, Massachusetts and in Baltimore, Maryland; the Peabody Museums at Harvard, Yale and in Salem, Massachusetts; and the George Peabody College for Teachers, in Nashville, Tennessee. In England, he established the Peabody Donation Fund, which is today London’s largest non-profit housing foundation, providing homes to 40,000 low-income people. When Peabody died in 1869, he became the first American to be given a funeral service in Westminster Abbey. His last wish, however, was to be buried in his hometown of South Danvers. The funeral train from Maine, where his body arrived from England via the H.M.S. Monarch, to South Danvers, was the longest procession in U.S. history, surpassing that of Abraham Lincoln. Peabody was laid to rest with great ceremony during a blizzard at Harmony Grove Cemetery in Peabody. Today the George Peabody House is maintained as a museum by the City of Peabody.
Peabody is the birthplace of Revolutionary War hero General Gideon Foster. At the age of twenty-six, then-Captain Foster led a group of Minutemen from Danvers (now Peabody) toward the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Foster’s company met with retreating British soldiers in Menotomy (Arlington), and seven of his men were killed in the resulting skirmish. In addition to his distinguished military career, Gideon Foster was prominent in the affairs of South Danvers, serving as a surveyor and Justice of the Peace. He also operated grist, bark and chocolate mills in the Foster Street area. In 1835, Gideon Foster was present at the dedication of a monument memorializing the Minutemen from Danvers who were killed during the Battle of Menotomy. Originally located at the intersection of Main and Washington Streets, the monument was moved to the corner of Washington and Sewall Streets in 1961. Gideon Foster lived to the age of ninety six, and today the Foster House is the headquarters of the Peabody Historical Society.
Timeline for the Evolution of Peabody
Settlement of Salem. Peabody was referred to as Northfields, The Farms or Brooksby.
Formation of the Middle Precinct of Salem consisting of the area between Salem Village (now Danvers) and Salem Town.
Founding of the District of Danvers. The Middle Precinct became known as the South Parish of Danvers.
Official separation from Salem and incorporation of the Town of Danvers. Peabody was still known as the South Parish of Danvers.
Official separation from Danvers and incorporation of the Town of South Danvers.
Change in name from South Danvers to Peabody.
Incorporation of the City of Peabody.