Historian weighs in on fate of historic Byfield stone

RICHARD K. LODGE/Staff photoA carved early 18th century stone known as The Witchstone or Father Stone located along Coleman Road in Byfield.

NEWBURY —Author and researcher Mary Gage has weighed in on the fate of a historic artifact in town in a recent letter to the Planning Board.

In correspondence dated June 15, Gage asked that board members add two conditions to their written decision on an open space residential development, or OSRD, application for 15 Coleman Road. The conditions were tied to a carved stone, circa 1723, known as the Witchstone or Father Stone at the border of the property.

“The stone is an important part of Newbury’s history and a rare example of non-gravestone carved folk art,” Gage wrote.

The board approved an OSRD special permit for owner Tom Zahoruiko of Zendko LLC and an approval for an OSRD definitive subdivision application for the same project will likely be approved after a public hearing continuance scheduled for Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. at the town offices, 12 Kent Way.

Zahoruiko plans to build five single-family homes as well as two additional homes on bonus lots on a 440-foot cul-de-sac on the property — a former mink farm known as Witchstone Farm.

As part of the agreement, he will donate 82% of the property’s total upland acreage to the town for open space. A small parking area and public access would be provided at the back of the property. 

The author — who wrote about the Witchstone in her 2003 book “Stories Carved in Stone” — asks Planning Board members to document in writing that appropriate measures would be taken to ensure the historic stone is protected during the project’s construction phase.

“The Newbury Historical Commission can advise as to best practices,” she suggested. Gage would also like to formalize in writing a commitment to make sure the stone remains on public view along Coleman Road once construction is completed.

“If the stone cannot remain in its current spot due to the new access road, it should be relocated close by at a spot that will provide adequate stability for the stone ... and be sufficiently set back or otherwise protected from damage from snowplows and other hazards,” her letter states. The 4-foot-high carving rests on a stone or bedrock base.

Gage said that between 1869 and 1900, Alfred E. Ambrose moved the Witchstone to Coleman Road from its original site, which was once the Richard Dummer property but is now the location of Triton Regional School.

“The carved stone was commissioned in circa 1723 by John Dummer — 3rd generation of Dummers — to memorialize his father, Richard Dummer Jr.,” she states.

A second stone, carved to memorialize John Dummer’s mother, now resides in the Smithsonian Museum. Both stones were carved in the folk art fashion of the time period by Bradford gravestone carver Robert Mullicken Sr.

“For the past 120 to 150 years, the Witchstone has been a significant cultural and historical marker in Newbury. It has been featured in books, scholarly journals, and Antiques Magazine,” Gage noted. Planning Board members are working to determine who has jurisdiction over the stone, now located within a stone wall that runs along the property.

In other business, Planning Board members discussed a draft decision on an OSRD special permit application by DePiero LLC for a residential development at 105 High Road.

The property — owned by Arthur and Sandra Costonis — sits across the street from Tendercrop Farms and abuts a 20-year-old horse farm at 103 High Road owned by Kathryn O’Brien.

Developer Mark DePiero hopes to build a 10-unit condominium toward the front end of the 16.3-acre property. As part of the development agreement he will donate 69% of the property’s upland acreage and provide a separate access and public parking lot at the back of the property.

The hearing was continued to Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. when, according to Paicos, his board will “bring this to a conclusion.”

“You will be getting a notice from the court shortly,” responded O’Brien, who claims she plans to sue the town over the decision. Throughout the hearing process, she has repeatedly made the case to the board for why she and others think the project is ill-suited for the area and illegal.

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