Originally founded as the “Antiquarian and Historical Society of Old Newbury”, the Historical Society of Old Newbury was organized in 1877 in response to celebrations happening throughout the United States commemorating the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The Society’s beginnings were modest, having the use of rooms at the Newburyport Public Library to hold meetings and collect genealogies, histories, documents and ephemera pertinent to the earliest beginnings of Newbury’s first settlement.
In 1909, Society member Helen Balch Fowler bequeathed her home at the corner of High and Winter Streets in Newburyport, to the Society. A fireproof brick addition was built in order to store many of the precious documents collected since 1877. For 15 years the records of Newburyport’s United States Custom House were deposited here until they were given to the Essex Institute of Salem where they remain today.
The Newburyport Marine Society was founded in 1772 by local sea captains in order to improve knowledge of navigation and to provide insurance for widows and orphans of members who were disabled or lost at sea. During their heyday they began a private museum where they exhibited curiosities which they had collected from all over the world together with some of their prized possessions such as ship portraits, half hulls and other nautical-related objects. However, by the turn of the 20th century its membership had dwindled to fewer than 10 members with no new prospects in the future. They subsequently sold their headquarters located on lower State Street and continued to hold bi-annual meetings at the Historical Society for the next 10 years until they ultimately disbanded. Their entire collection was given to the Historical Society officially in 1912.
The 1950s brought the next big change to the Society. Longtime member and benefactor, the grand dame of 19th century Newburyport society, Margaret W. Cushing, passed away in 1955 at the age of 100 leaving 98 High Street in a veritable 19th century time capsule. It also left the Cushing family home of three generations empty with no prospective Cushing willing to occupy it.
In 1955, the heirs of Margaret Cushing’s estate generously offered the Cushing House, grounds, garden and outbuildings to the Historical Society. Today the property continues to remain the headquarters of the Society and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
The collection of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, housed in the Caleb Cushing House Museum, is a repository of tens of thousands of paintings, furnishings, textiles, decorative arts, photographs, and documents relating to Newbury, West Newbury, and Newburyport’s past. It is enjoyed by visitors from all over the world and the Society continues to grow and maintain its collections through the generosity of its members and the community.