A big milestone, ‘a beautiful place’
At age 95, Albert Creighton Jr. doesn’t get around like he once did, and his eyesight is diminishing. But he stopped at the start of the trail to greet friends and supporters of the Manchester-Essex Conservation Trust before they headed into the Wilderness Conservation Area woods for the Big Walk on April 27, celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary.
"I wouldn't miss this for anything," he said.
Fifty years into the trust he founded with two others, Creighton remains an active part of the organization, said Charles Kellogg II, the trust's president.
"He's an absolute dynamo," added former executive director Helen Bethell.
The story of the trust starts in 1710, when a wooded area on the outskirts of the Colony of Ipswich was divided into hundreds of small woodlots. Deemed unsuitable for
farming, the 1- to 4-acre lots were given to colonists as a means of supplying them with firewood.
As families grew, the lots were divided and passed from one generation to the next, the deeds often describing the parcels as running "by the old pine tree, to the brook," Creighton said.
"Our challenge was to determine where the land was, and who owned the land," said Creighton, one of three founders of what is now the Manchester-Essex Conservation Trust.
Approximately 60 people made the trek into the woods for the Big Walk. They entered from points in Manchester-by-the-Sea and Essex, and met at the boundary marker between the towns for refreshments, a few words, and a little acoustic music.
The trust has many supporters, illustrated in 2006-2007 when it needed $1.4 million to preserve 100 acres from residential development. It was the first capital campaign, and it raised more than $3 million.
Back in 1963, Creighton and two social acquaintances — George Loring 86, and Frances Burnett, who died in 2001 — were concerned about development, and set the goal of preserving the woods as public open space.
All 3,000 acres of it.
"Route 128 was coming along and more and more was being developed in that area, and we were afraid some of these places would be destroyed," recalled Creighton, who formerly owned and ran Devcon, a manufacturing business in Danvers. "We didn't like that idea."
The trio set up the trust, then called the Manchester Conservation Trust (Essex was added to the name and the mission in 1999), to preserve the area's natural beauty.
The trust "is little-known but is 50 years old and has been extremely effective in land protection in Manchester-Essex," said Kathy Leahy, who has served as executive director for the past year after a 30-year career with Mass Audubon. "This is a real grass-roots partnership."
The trust currently protects 1,700 acres. The land stretches north of Route 128 between exits 15 and 16 (Pine Street and School Street). Some of it, called the Wilderness Conservation Area, is owned and protected by Essex County Greenbelt or The Trustees of Reservations, two nonprofits with similar but broader missions. Portions also are privately owned.
In the early days, the cofounders first convinced the town of Manchester that it should put some of the land aside as open space. Creighton and his associates then set out to acquire more parcels, a tricky process that included researching the deeds, finding the owners, and persuading them to donate or sell the land.
"A lot of it is swamp and woodland, but it's a beautiful property," Creighton said. "There are brooks and ponds and wildflowers and wildlife."
Determining ownership was not often easy.
"Originally, in 1710, they were probably 4-acre lots, 5 acres, 8 acres at the most, but then they came down through families, and families were large, and often they got divided among the kids," said Bethell, executive director of the trust from 1982-2012 and currently the director of land acquisition and protection. The result was individual lots shrinking from generation to generation.
Burnett was charged with the genealogical detective work for nearly 30 years, until her retirement in the late 1990s.
"She left tons of papers. Everything was in notebooks," recalled Bethell. "You'd need to know not just who owns it, but where are the bounds? Back in 1710 it was, 'By the old oak tree.' "
Burnett and later Bethell were the researchers, Loring the treasurer, and Creighton the salesman who sought to persuade the towns and individual landowners to contribute to the mission.
Some were happy to donate their land, and others were persuaded by tax breaks or outright purchase. The large-scale capital campaign six years ago was an outlier in the organization's otherwise quiet history.
"Mainly it was local people," Bethell said. "Manchester has had a pretty strong conservation ethic since [Route] 128 went through, and maybe even before that."
Trust secretary Mike Dyer of Essex, also a member of the town's Long-Term Planning Committee, said that there are benefits that come with having 3,000 acres of conservation land.
"We all think so," Dyer said. "There are benefits of clean water, storm-water storage, clean air, and a beautiful place for people to go. People are in there hiking and biking and skiing and snowshoeing, [using the land] at all times of the year.
"I can't give you hard numbers on it, but think in these green suburbs there's a correlation between available open space and property values."
Volunteers from the trust keep trails clear, and the trust provides grants to local schools to bus students to the woods for educational programs.
Among landowners, there are still holdouts, but Creighton remains optimistic.
"It isn't all protected, but most of it is," he said. "And we're still working."