History of West Boxford and Its Church

Located to the east on the coast, Rowley was settled by a group of Puritans from Yorkshire in England in 1638. They bought a huge tract of land, encompassing the present towns of Rowley, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Bradford and part of Middleton.

Boxford was Rowley Village, and began to be settled in the 1640s. The farms were dispersed; it was only later that the two villages grew up around the churches. The western end of the town was settled by families with the names of Tyler, Eames, Blake, Pearl, Chadwick, Kimball and Porter. Chances are, if your branch of the Tylers stayed in Boxford for any length of time, you have some of these families in your tree as well, because they all intermarried.

In Puritan times, attending church was compulsory, although most people were not full members. The churches were supported through taxes-no need to worry about pledge drives! At this time there was a distinction between the church (the body gathered) and the meeting house (the building). The town had the responsibility for the meeting house, and the financial needs of the church-these were discussed in town meeting and are part of the town records.

Gradually the population in West Boxford continued to grow, until there were more people than in East Boxford. The 1702 meeting house in Boxford began to be in disrepair and town meeting refused to repair it. West Boxford had a large enough population to control town meeting, and they didn’t want to spend money for a meeting house they didn’t use. The stalemate lasted for several years.

Finally, in 1734, the people in West Boxford solved the problem by building their own meeting house and hiring a preacher. The meeting house was located near the old Mount Vernon Cemetery. Having proven they were obviously populous and wealthy enough to support a second church in town, forty people, led by Stephen Tyler, petitioned the General Court to be incorporated as a separate parish. Upon legislative approval in July 1735, the first meeting of the parish was held. Once the parishes were incorporated, the western end of town received the designation of Second Parish. The original Town of Boxford no longer had any say in religious affairs in the town. Instead, each parish chose parish officers. Captain John Tyler was voted parish treasurer at this first meeting. Job Tyler was on the committee chosen to obtain books for the clerk and assessors (now at the Documents Center). When the church was formally gathered in 1736, among the first members were two women, both named Elizabeth Tyler, and also Ruth Tyler. Shortly after Richard and Samuel Tyler also joined the church membership.

The Puritans recognized the hierarchical arrangement of society-the most important people obviously enjoyed God’s favor, and thus were deserving of honor. They were given the best seats in the church. This recognition was based on their wealth, accumulation of land, military rank, or other title, age and length of residence. Every few years a seating committee would be appointed to “seat” the congregation, working out a formula to determine the relative dignity of each seat, as well as the status of each family, based on the head of the household.

The Tyler family served their church well. Bradstreet Tyler was a deacon of the church from 1806-1814, and held the title until his death. Captain John Tyler left a bequest of $30,000 to the church in 1873. A number of Tyler men served as selectmen for the town, including Moses Tyler (5 terms), John, Job, Jonathan, Gideon, Bradstreet and John Jr.

In 1774, the people of the Second Parish, dismayed by the state of their meeting house, voted to build a new one, similar to that located in New Rowley, but with no steeple and a porch with stairs on each end. This meeting house was located in the front lawn of the present church (the exact center of the parish).

Early 19th century West Boxford was a thriving community. Many new houses were built, often on the same site as, or even incorporating, older dwellings. The population peaked in 1855 at 1,034. And it was time to build yet another church! So at a cost of $4,917.62 the present building was constructed in 1843. Pews were auctioned off to offset the cost of construction, and owned individually. Since then, the sanctuary has been Victorianized, and then modernized, but it is substantially the same.

Existing West Boxford Church

By mid-19th century, West Boxford, like many other New England farming communities, started into a gradual decline. The railroad, which went through Boxford, missed both villages, thanks to the machinations of one resident who tried to increase the value of his own property. (He got his just reward many years later, when embers from one of the trains set his house on fire.) The disruption of the Civil War, all those Tylers and others who went west, changes in agriculture, and the decline of small industries, led to a stagnant economy.

It was the construction of the highways that really changed Boxford. Suddenly, the town was accessible as a suburb for those who work in Boston, as well as along Route 128. The population exploded. Land that was so worthless that deeds weren’t even recorded became quite valuable. New housing developments were built. Schools have been constructed and almost immediately altered to hold more children. Many of the houses built in the last few years are quite expensive, and there is growing concern about the preservation of open space. Look at Witch Hollow, and the new houses constructed behind it, and you have the two faces of Boxford today. But the old families live on in Boxford, if in nothing else at least in the road names of new developments.

Note: This article was written by Martha Clark, archivist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and coordinator of the West Boxford Documents Center. The following talk was given at the Job Tyler Family Association Reunion in North Andover in July of 1998.

For information, contact Norman Tyler at ntyler@emich.edu.

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