Beverly’s Civil War – Secession or Bust

In the second half of the 1880s, a published map of Beverly showed a dividing line between the “old” town and the proposed new town of Beverly Farms. The line started near what is now Prince Street and ran north to Wenham, cutting off almost 40 percent of Beverly’s territory but only about a tenth of its population.

The secessionists, or “Divisionists” as they were generally called, included most but not all residents of Beverly Farms, cutting across economic lines from the wealthy “summer people” to the shoemakers and artisans who made up the bulk of the Farms folks. They even had their own newspaper, the Beverly Farms Advocate. Their grievances included a complaint that the Beverly assessors valued land in the Farms much more highly than in Beverly proper, while services to the outlying area were largely lacking.  Beverly had a new steam fire pumper while the Farms had to rely on a hand tub. Downtown Beverly had electric lights by the beginning of 1887, while the Farms, according to the Divisionists, had to rely for illumination on “kerosene lamps and the moon.” Distance was another factor, as the difficulty at the time of travel between the outlying village and the center of town made attendance at town meetings problematic. The local weekly, the Beverly Citizen, ridiculed the Division movement.

A division bill was first introduced before the Legislature in 1886, but it went nowhere. In a vain attempt to quell the secession movement, the Beverly town meeting voted in 1886 to build a new fire station for Beverly Farms with a steam pumper. This did nothing to calm the storm, especially when horses were not included and the fire laddies had to borrow a team from a nearby stable whenever the alarm came in.

Undaunted, the Farms was back armed for another try in 1887 and came within one signature of succeeding. After weeks of bitter debate by advocates of both sides, both houses passed the Division bill that spring by less than a two-thirds margin (the Senate vote was 19-11). The Citizen headline complained of the “disgraceful action” by the Legislature. Beverly Farms celebrated victory, but prematurely, because Beverly still had an ace up its sleeve. Led by John I. Baker and other Beverly advocates and with help from an influential state senator, the Division foes persuaded Governor Oliver Ames to veto the bill. The Citizen trumpeted the veto. Now it was Beverly’s turn to celebrate.

The Divisionists were game for another try in 1888, but legislators were tired of the contentious debate and the House of Representatives sent the bill down to defeat. A last attempt in 1889 never got out of committee. Bitter feelings on both sides persisted for years, but Beverly’s “civil war” was officially over. Beverly moved to prevent a renewal by adopting a city charter in 1894. While a town could be divided by the Legislature, a city’s boundaries are sacrosanct unless the voters agree to amend them.


Beverly Downtown Trick or Treat has been postponed until Thursday Nov. 3rd from 4:00 PM-6:00PM. We hope to see you then!