Public Affairs in the Early 1800’s

About 150 years ago, there were no municipal departments organized to care for public affairs in Amesbury. Road commissioners “perambulated” the public ways each spring, and if some proved impassable, they called upon the able-bodies men of the town to volunteer to work out their taxes in road repairs. Unless the mud was up to the buggy axles, impassable roads were considered just an affliction which New Englanders must bear to compensate for lovely summers, glorious autumns, and exhilarating winters. Occasionally, a shiftless property owner might be warned by the town fathers to clean up his homestead or mend his fences, but the town assumed no responsibility for upkeep.

The Village Improvement Society

Shortly before the Civil War, a few men decided that something should be done about the situation. With their own labor and that of their sons, using their oxen and donating gravel from their farms, they made the Amesbury roads, over a period of years, the envy of neighboring towns. This, the Village Improvement Society was born in 1851. Each year thereafter, the group carried on useful projects—cleaning up dumps; painting the town pump; tearing down old, dilapidated fences; mowing unsightly vacant lots; removing dead trees and replacing them with saplings from their own woodlands. Expenses were paid from their own pockets or raised by an occasional supper or picnic put on by their wives. All business was very informal and done in good fellowship.

Leaders Form the Amesbury Improvement Association

In March of 1887, an item appeared in The Villager, forerunner of the Amesbury News, announcing the first “May Supper” and stating, “The Village Improvement Society, now known as the Amesbury improvement Association (AIA), reorganized with a change of name on the evening of April 8, 1886 at the office of Dr. J. E. Blake. Dr. Horace G. Leslie was chosen President, and John French Johnson, Secretary and Treasurer.”

 With growing prosperity and sophistication, the aims of the organization were stated: “To encourage the community to act for the common interest of all citizens; to promote in each individual an interest in community improvement; to make Amesbury and attractive place in which to live and work; to create a desire in property owners to enhance their homes and surroundings; to protect natural scenery; and to preserve the historical places and memories of the valley of the Merrimac and transmit them unimpaired to our descendants.”

Women as well as men were now admitted to membership and committees were established to promote all physical and cultural aspects of the community.

In the early years of the Association, the group offered lectures on Amesbury’s past at monthly meetings. Speakers included the foremost local historians of the day: Joseph Merrill, author of The History of Amesbury and Merrimac, and the town clerk; John French Johnson, local stationer whose writings comprise a large part of the library’s genealogical department; Alfred Bailey and John Quincy Evans, both of whom contributed many good reminiscences; Samuel Hoyt, authority on Amesbury ships and shipbuilding; William Dennett Lowell, archeologist and horticulturist, knowledgeable about flora and fauna of the area; F. W. Merrill, local druggist and student of early Amesbury; and Dr. H. G. Leslie, first president of the Association. Historic markers were placed on many local buildings and sites.