The Preservation of Pipestave Hill, West Newbury, Massachusetts
Almost sold for a housing development and strip mall but
saved to be a natural treasure.
By Sophiea Bitel
Many users of Pipestave and Mill Pond do not realize how the conservation of the area came about. The connection between the horse people and Pipestave is historic. You see, conserving Pipestave and Mill pond for future generations of users all started in part with a city boy married to a horsewoman. What we know as Pipestave Hill and Mill Pond has been privately owned for most of its history.
The property indeed had a history. A history of uses which included its massive oak trees being cut down to make pipe staves for barrels, being the site of a mansion owned by a Privateer of the American Revolution, part of the hill being cut away to make way for a main road, as a site of a catholic orphanage just to name a few uses as it passed through the hands of many owners.
As described in a statement by the Massachusetts Historical Commission: “The property has a complex history that began when it was known as Pipestave Hill, owned in the late 18th century by the Dalton family. In 1795, Privateer Joseph Stanwood of Newburyport built a mansion house here. After a series of owners, the property by the early 20th century belonged to William Rogers. In 1925, it was bought by the Brothers of Charity…In 1947, the Brothers' orphanage in Jamaica Plain was combined with the West Newbury facility to become Boyhaven, serving more than 200 orphan boys…In 1963, ownership of the orphanage was transferred to the Boston Archdiocese, and Cardinal Cushing Academy, a college preparatory school…” By the late 1960’s attendance began to wane and the Academy’s future was questionable, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Many horse people dream of having a backyard barn. Mary Lee and Jerry Mahoney moved to West Newbury to have a backyard barn for Mary Lee’s aging mare. West Newbury had population barely reaching 2000 people back then. It had returned to being a small farming community after a brief flirtation with industrialization. The Mahoneys bought the property on Main Street abutting The Society of St. John the Evangelist. With only Mary Lee’s horse they then needed a companion for Artie the Morgan. So another horse was purchased. What came next was a husband who became a horseman and a conservationist was born.
Jerry Mahoney found his passion in riding and caring for their horse property. He learned to ride and then began trail riding. The trail riding lead him to discover the old trails on the St. John’s property. Jerry convinced The Society of St. John the Evangelist to allow him to clear the old horse trails on their property and his love of trails grew strong. Jerry and Mary Lee riding began riding with others in the area. Through them he discovered the trails, fields and ponds of Pipestave. Pipestave Hill and Mill Pond were then owned by the Boston Archdiocese servicing as the Cardinal Cushing Academy.
Pipestave Hill had an equestrian tradition. This area had also been a main gathering spot for the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club founded in 1920. Back then the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club was a social group enjoying what was considered the last days of the horse as cars became more prevalent. The group had pretty much dispersed after World War II. West Newbury still had many horses and some small and some large horse farms with national reputations for some of the best Morgan Horses of the time and one farm was known for its rehabilitating off track thoroughbreds. The Cardinal Cushing Academy also used its grounds for their equestrian program.
In the 1970’s West Newbury’s active riding community was growing again. The riders were united not only as a trail riding group but also as a group strongly concerned with what we now know as “open space preservation” and preserving equestrian access to the trails. One place to ride was on the Cardinal Cushing Academy which allowed riders to ride on their property. The Academy (now known as the Page School) had equestrian activities which included a riding ring where our current riding rings stand and a few unmarked trails.
During this period Jerry Mahoney, besides being an active trail rider, became politically active in conservation. He became a member of the planning board, the conservation commission and because of having children, the building committee for an elementary school. This all becomes a fortuitous grouping of activities because through these connections he confidentially learned the Cardinal Cushing Academy was going to be sold. Sold for development….
The school was being closed by the Archdiocese. Rather than re-purposing the property for church use it was being offered to a major commercial real estate developer. (Just a historical note: This was not a time of great land conservationism but more the time of split level housing developments and strip malls.)
Being a practical horseman Jerry Mahoney saw an opportunity to accomplish two things. The school buildings could continue to be used as a school (an Elementary School needed by the community) and the property consisting of trails, fields, ponds and woods could be protected and preserved for the equestrians and other passive recreation users. He just had to sell the idea to the Town of West Newbury.
The information was passed onto the town and local horsemen. The local horsemen unified and would reactivate the old West Newbury Riding and Driving Club temporarily to lobby for the purchase of the land. Although the WNRDC had been organized in 1920 it had become inactive as a group until its new purpose was found.
All rallied to save Pipestave Hill and Mill Pond along with the acreage surrounding the school. A town meeting was called. At the time the town population according to the 1970 census was 2,254. It was quite surprising that the small farming community unanimously passed the purchase of the Cardinal Cushing Academy property. On March 12, 1972, voters appropriated $1 million to purchase the former Cardinal Cushing Academy property; $750,000 to purchase the 343 acres and all the buildings, and $250,000 for improving the property (mainly building improvements). The area would be called Mill Pond under the conservatorship of the Mill Pond Committee and the Pipestave Hill Equestrian Area would be cared for by the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club(WNRDC). Jerry Mahoney was appointed the first Mill Pond Committee Chairman and was instrumental in trail development for cross country skiers, hikers and equestrians.
The horsemen remained united in the refurbishing of the equestrian area. The old Academy ring was refurbished by those who would become the “new” West Newbury Riding and Driving club a few years later. Freddie Crafts, a thoroughbred trainer from Garden Street, flattened and graded the stone dust ring initially, and oversaw a work party from the Army Corps of Engineers who created some of the best drained riding rings ever constructed. The ring fencing was rebuilt using salvaged materials from some of the old camp cabins that used to overlook Mill Pond. The boards were hauled up the hill by WNRDC volunteers.
Freddie Crafts found new work to do once the ring was finished; carving out trails out toward the Artichoke River and behind Parson’s Woods as well as across Garden Street through what is now Ocean Meadow out to Chase Street.
The Pentucket Pony Club assisted WNRDC volunteers in constructing a cross-country course, which was used for pony club rallies and later for 3 phase events. The main purpose of the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club unification was accomplished. The WNRDC returned to being a loosely organized group of riders. Pipestave Hill had been purchased and saved for equestrians and nature lovers but….
It wasn’t happily ever after with West Newbury’s population increasing with newcomers. A few years after the purchase to save Pipestave from development a new threat to Pipestave loomed. New groups began to eye the equestrian area for use and development. In the words of Mary Lee Mahoney “Jerry was one of the first to react when he learned that there were other interests for the “equestrian” portion at Pipestave Hill. The WNRDC was reactivated….” Accounts of the period indicate there was a great deal of emotion against the “interlopers” but thankfully it was all worked out and once again Pipestave Hill was preserved.
A fair agreement was formed to share the facilities with other interests trying to take over the area for organized sports and conservation of the area was to be foremost. Precautions were taken to maintain the area as a passive recreational area prohibiting the use of recreational motorized vehicles and preserving the equestrian area and network of trails for all. It was obvious Pipestave’s future would be intertwined with the horse people of West Newbury and those of the surrounding area as they became the primary caretakers and guardians.
In 1977 the trail riders and other horse people led by Jerry and Mary Lee Mahoney were discussing starting a trail network at Pipestave and to construct new horse rings for local shows. From these discussions The West Newbury Riding and Driving Club was reborn.
A news article dated March 30, 1977 reads: “Plans for a permanent riding ring and hunt course are on the drawing board of a once defunct sports club, now reactivated, West Newbury Riding and Driving Club…."
Steering committee members include
Judy and Dr. Frank Greelish
Mary Lee and Jerry Mahoney
Dr. Howard Nichols
Others who participated in initial meetings and discussions included
Heather Hull(our current WNRDC Treasurer)
Official work was soon begun by the club members in earnest to create what is now known as Pipestave Hill Equestrian Area. The WNRDC members worked to preserve and clear trails, the rings you know today at Pipestave Hill were constructed replacing the old. Remarkably this was all done with volunteers, a lot of volunteers, and the club began to have social activities. Later on The Town of West Newbury and the WNRDC would form a Management Agreement where the WNRDC would take on the responsibility of the maintenance and use of the facilities at Pipestave Hill/Mill Pond for equine events.
Seeing Freddie Crafts and Jerry Mahoney along with other WNRDC members out and about at Pipestave mowing Pipestave Hill, building new cross country jumps or clearing various West Newbury trails was a common sight back then. Today you still see West Newbury Riding and Driving Club members doing the same.
Some WNRDC members like Jack Alden, Alex Hamilton and Rick Feehery are out fixing cross country jumps and maintaining trails; Deb Hamilton and Ellen Alden are representing West Newbury with the Essex County Trail Association who helps fund our improvements, Amy Bresky is always about even though having left the area and made sure her tractor would still be available for use on the “Hill”. There are just too many names to name. In June WNRDC organizes an all hands on deck clean-up day. The greater part of maintenance of Pipestave is by the members and volunteers of the WNRDC to this day which includes clearing trails, clean-up, mowing etc. As members move away or pass on others step up to continue the work and the work continues year round especially on the trails.
Although both Freddie Crafts and Jerry Mahoney have passed away their legacy and that of other club members remain in the fields and trails. The horse people have remained the strongest supporters of maintaining Pipestave and Mill Pond in its natural state and supporting conservation efforts as the town’s population almost doubled since acquiring Pipestave Hill and Mill Pond in 1972. The town has since acquired other large parcels for open space such as Dunn's Field and Riverbend and WNRDC members are active in the creation of riding and walking trails on those as well. Pipestave however is always their priority.
Members of WNRDC can be seen throughout the year taking care of Pipestave. Horse people do tend to appear a little possessive of Pipestave but not because we are selfish but rather because we are caretakers of a very rare resource. We know how important it is not only for us but for all users. We also are more aware than most as to how it was almost lost more than once and how it is our responsibility to maintain it for future generations and for all users to exist in harmony in our very special and unique open space.
Document ©Sophiea Bitel 2016 // Photographs ©Sophiea Bitel
All Rights Reserved
Conversation with WNRDC Members and other local equestrians
GAR Memorial Library
Mary Lee Mahoney Camp
United States Census
Privateer, (sometimes called corsair or buccaneer), was a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign vessels during wartime, and take them as prizes.