NEWBURY — A piece of land that for centuries has been of great significance to the people of Newbury will be protected if a partnership between two local nonprofits succeeds.
The 28-acre property, Four Rock, named for a colonial road, functions as the outdoor classroom of Boat Camp Nature School and includes the historic Devil’s Den quarries.
Together with Essex County Greenbelt Association, a champion of conserving farmland, wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes, they are now on the path to secure the parcel for future generations.
The effort kicked off at the recent Boat Camp Bash with a $50,000 challenge from an anonymous donor, leaving the two organizations to complete a $100,000 fundraising campaign.
“This is incredibly important to me,” said Kate Yeomans, executive director and co-founder with her husband, Rob Yeomans, of Boat Camp. “We both grew up in Newbury and to know going forward that kids will forever be able to explore that landscape is something I’m very excited about.”
David Santomenna, director of land conservation at Greenbelt, said helping Boat Camp is an added bonus to the larger mission of protecting the parcel from future development.
“We can’t do this without funding partners,” Santomenna said. “This has been in the planning stages for a couple of years, so I’m very pleased it’s coming together.
“It’s a very different kind of property.”
Located at 82 Boston Road, it features a diverse habitat of maritime forest, a wet meadow, swamps, wetlands, quarries and a variety of migrating birds and native wildlife. The landscape is so unusual it has been identified as a priority habitat by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP).
It is also part of the larger Great Marsh ecosystem, ties in with previous Greenbelt acquisitions in the area and is the only location in the state where serpentine granite is found.
The property has a long cultural history as well, dating back to the 1600s when the road was built to a mill near the Four Rock bridge (the bridge is held up by four rocks), according to Eva Jackman, lead docent at the Historical Society of Old Newbury.
In 1697, limestone was discovered in an area referred to as the Devil’s Den, Jackman said. The cave later became a popular party spot.
Local lore maintains limestone was taken from the den to the Devil’s Basin down the road where it was ground up and turned into mortar, while the devil himself watched the glow of the cauldron from the Devil’s Pulpit.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to preserve a historic site in Newbury,” Jackman said. “It takes the worry off someone going in there, developing it and wiping it all out.”
Yeomans recalled walking the property three years ago when she was considering the launch of a forest kindergarten, a program that is now offered on site twice a week.
“It was such a magical and unique place,” she said. “We’ve a lot of experience taking kids outside and knew what kind of outdoor classroom we were looking for, but we don’t have experience in land conservation, how to acquire it and the best way to piece it together for the best result.”
After leasing the land to Boat Camp Nature School, land owner Jim Lagoulis has given Greenbelt a window of opportunity to acquire the land for a total cost of $225,000. Santomenna estimated $125,000 will come from state and federal grants. Once the mission is complete — Santomenna hopes by the end of this year — Boat Camp will lease the land from Greenbelt for a symbolic cost of $1.
Since Boat Camp launched after-school programs and summer camps at Four Rock, they have become as popular as the water-based offerings. This summer there will be eight weeks of camps compared to three weeks in 2012 when the Yeomanses decided to turn the organization into a comprehensive nature school.
“This has been a great opportunity for us, working together with another nonprofit for the benefit of the kids,” Yeomans said.