3 - Georgetown Into the 20th Century

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Georgetown continued to prosper as more industries and shops, such as the manufacturing of clothing, cigars, soap, furniture, coffins and caskets, began their businesses here. Hardy’s Lumber Mill cut lumber and also made wooden boxes and crates. Moses Atwood made patent medicines and was best known for his "Atwood’s Bitters". A New York City firm bought the Bitters formula and, under another name, sold the medicine nationally until the mid-1900’s. Atwood also made the first daguerreotypes in town in 1847. Newspaper publishing began in 1846. All attempts to publish locally were short-lived until the Georgetown Advocate began printing in 1874. It was the first successful Georgetown newspaper, publishing local news for over twenty years.


About 1853 another industry began in town, the cutting of ice by Little and Tenney. During one particular period, there were four icehouses cutting ice blocks for local consumption and for shipment to Boston and nearby areas. Over the years, many icehouses were erected on Rock Pond and Pentucket Pond but, because of their construction, fire was a major problem. Eleanor Stetson in her book Tales and Reminiscence of Georgetown, describes the icehouses as made of wood with double walls spaced 24 inches apart at ground level and tapering to 18 inches at the top. Sawdust for insulation filled the space between the walls, which explains why these structures burned often and completely. In 1952, the Elliott Brothers closed their icehouse, ending the era of ice cutting in town. The structure was in the process of being dismantled when this last icehouse met the same fate as all the others and burned in June 1953.


Prosperity encouraged the building of a railroad between Newburyport and the interior of the county through Georgetown, Groveland and Haverhill. In March 1846, the Massachusetts Legislature granted the Newburyport Railroad Company the right to construct the line. From the outset, the company experienced continuing financial problems and in February 1860 was forced to lease the line for 100 years to the Boston & Maine Railroad. The glory days for railroading continued until after World War I when motorized transportation had a ruinous effect on rail travel. Increasingly, automobiles and trucks used improved highways and rail transportation declined. The last passenger train traveled the tracks from Boston to Georgetown to Newburyport on December 13, 1941. The rapid population increase in Essex County over the past twenty years has brought the railroad back to this area in 1998. The commuter train now runs between Newburyport and Boston with the nearest depot for Georgetown residents in nearby Rowley.


In 1855, the Town purchased for $2,000 the Universalist Meetinghouse and lot, the site of our present Town Hall. The Town kept the lot and sold the house to Mr. Sawyer who moved it to 21 Central Street to be used for his store. Selling a lot and building separately and moving the structure to another site within town or even to another town was common practice. Usually, a structure was cut into sections to make the move less difficult. The Universalist Meetinghouse, however, was transported as a unit by using 20 oxen. It was several days before the house reached its destination across Andover Street and up the slope to the site where it still stands today as a residence on Central Street. The following year, at a cost of $10,000, a Town House (Town Hall) was erected on the old meetinghouse lot. The high school occupied the first floor. Then, in 1898, fire destroyed the Town House. High school classes were temporarily held in the Central Fire Station on Middle Street until completion of the Perley Free School in 1899. The town offices were housed at an East Main Street location.


The town’s first public library came into existence through the generosity of George Peabody. He was a London banker and philanthropist, giving generously to causes he deemed worthy. Peabody’s mother, Judith Dodge Peabody, was born in Georgetown and his sister lived here. During visits to his sister, he developed a fondness for the town and gave funds for the construction of the Orthodox Memorial Church and a town library. Work for the library began in 1866 in the area to the rear of our present town parking lot on Library Street. The church was built on the same lot, fronting on East Main Street. After 22 years, the library building became inadequate for the Town’s needs and a more favorable site for a larger structure had to be found. There was much controversy over various locations until the issue was settled in 1904 when the Town accepted from Milton Tenney of Georgetown and his sister Lucy Tenney Brown of Ipswich the one and on-half acre lot now known as Lincoln Park. Construction for this new library began that same year and was completed in 1905. However, it did not open its doors until September 1909 when arguments concerning the payment of bills were finally settled in court. The original library, known as Library Hall, was used for movies and entertainment until the mid-1930’s when it was demolished.


The Odd Fellows Building Association constructed a four-story brick structure on the corner of North and West Main Streets in 1870. Because it was built on Little’s Lot, this imposing building was always referred to as Little’s Block. ("Block" is the term for a structure housing several businesses.) At street level there were a number of shops, a grocery store and the street railway waiting room; a shoe manufacturer occupied the upper floors. It was the center of activity at American Legion Square for fifty years until fire destroyed it on July 9, 1923.


In 1874, to commemorate the Civil War veterans, a monument was erected on the green in front of Town Hall at a cost of $3,000. The two Civil War cannons that were on both sides of the monument were removed during World War II and it is believed used in the manufacture of armaments.


While the town experienced growth and prosperity, it also suffered devastating fires. On October 26, 1874, a fire began in Tenney’s stable at seven in the morning and was out of control until noon. Destroyed were a number of East Main Street properties, the Tenney residence and shoe factory, stables, store buildings and the old Boynton house. Dr. Huse’s residence (the present Baybank) to the west and the old Masonic Block to the east were spared.


After this disastrous fire, the town voted $8,000 to build an engine house on Middle Street and purchase a steam fire engine. The June 12, 1875 edition of the Georgetown Advocate describes the new engine house as "an ornament to the town. . . It’s dimensions, we should judge, are about 40x42 with 25 foot posts, a pitch roof surmounted by a tower for drying hose, rising 50 feet from the ground. The lower floor is all one room and intended for the Steamer, Hand Engine No. 2 and the Hook and Ladder carriage. The second floor is divided into three rooms being connected by folding doors, for the companies, and a room for the engineers, each provided with convenient closets, the three separate rooms may be thrown into one for sociables."


The greatest devastation by fire with loss of life occurred on December 26, 1885. It is remembered as the Christmas Day fire though it actually began shortly after midnight on the 26th. The fire spread rapidly from the Main Street business block to Tenney’s brick building that housed the National Savings Bank, the post office, Butler’s law office, the A. B. Noyes Boot and Shoe factory and G. J. Tenney’s Shoe Manufactory. Again, Dr. Huse’s residence to the east and the Pentucket House to the west were spared. This time, the old Masonic Block did not escape destruction. Killed, were two members of the Steamer Company, Chase and Illsley, when the brick wall of the Adams Block fell, crushing them instantly and injuring several others. A member of Empire Company died several weeks later from "complications of amputation". The buildings to the rear, including the Pentucket House ell that survived this 1885 conflagration, were destroyed in 1898 by another fire.


The Haverhill, Georgetown & Danvers Street Railway began service in 1896 from Haverhill terminating near West Main Street in the area of our present Trestle Way Housing. Here, passengers would have to disembark and walk to the center of town because the railroad commission would not allow the streetcars to cross the track. This inconvenience was eventually corrected by building a trestle that crossed high over the tracks. Later, the street railway line was extended to South Byfield with the terminus at the car barns on North and Chute Streets. Fire destroyed the car barns in 1901. The era of the street railway system ended in 1930 when buses operated between Georgetown and Haverhill.
Paul Nelson Spofford purchased the old Mighill mansion on Baldpate Hill in 1898. Dr. David Mighill enlarged the house, built in 1733 by Deacon Stephen Mighill, when he and his wife resided there. Mighill descendants continued to occupy the house until Spofford obtained the property and began converting the mansion into an inn. The Baldpate Inn remained a popular hostelry for thirty years until it was sold to a group of doctors who converted it into the Baldpate Hospital in 1938.


Fires continued to plague the town. In 1915, the Erie 4 Firehouse including the Erie #4 handtub, the North Star, the tub "Old Bill" and all records from 1854, when the group was organized, were completely destroyed. It is believed that a poorly discarded cigar caused the fire.


The Orthodox Memorial Church on East Main Street, built in memory of George Peabody’s mother, burned in October 1920 and had to be torn down. The concrete pillars and fence are all that remain to remind us of the church that once stood on the site of our town parking lot.


Perley Free School opened in 1900 on North Street with the high school occupying a portion of the building. On January 28, 1935 fire gutted the school but the exterior brick shell remained standing. The school was rebuilt within these outer walls and rededicated as Perley High School in September 1936.


With the installation of electric lighting in 1912, the era of the lamplighter came to a close and Georgetown entered the modern age. The first section of the public water system was completed in 1935 and, during the same period, gas pipelines were laid in the center of town.


Central School served the town for seventy years from 1905 until June, 1974 when the structure housed the Town Hall with town offices and school departments sharing the facility. The Police Department moved into the former lunchroom in the basement area. Prior to finding a home in Central School, town offices and Police Headquarters were in the Masonic building, the present location of the Pingree Insurance Agency on East Main and Park Street.


Georgetown Junior/Senior High School was built in 1961 on Winter Street and an addition completed in 1969. Penn Brook School on Elm Street began classes for fourth through sixth graders in 1972. By the early 1990’s all three schools, Perley Elementary, Penn Brook and the high school were in need of extensive renovations and enlargement for the burgeoning student population. Funds were appropriated at the 1993 annual town meeting to begin the building process with a feasibility study. The official School Building Project groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 13, 1995. Classes continued during the renovations and construction and 1998 completed the projects.


By the 1980’s it was obvious that the Police Department, located in the basement of the Town Hall since 1975, and the Central Fire Company, still housed in the 1875 engine house on Middle Street, were in need of larger and more up-to-date quarters. The Town approved construction of a Public Safety Building at the 1985 Annual Town Meeting. Work by the building committee began immediately and by the November special town meeting of the same year a preliminary design was presented to the Town and approved. Funding problems and delays during construction kept the police and fire departments from their new home until 1988. The efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers made the completion of the building possible by conducting fundraising projects, seeking donations and obtaining volunteer construction workers.


From the beginning, what has made Georgetown special is the spirit of community evidenced by the many volunteers who come forward when a project is in need of assistance. It is this spirit that retains the feel of a small town and is its attraction.


There is more that can be written about Georgetown's past. Many people and places of interest and some highlights in the town’s history have not been included on these pages, but that is for another time.