The Essex National Heritage Commission (Essex Heritage), in keeping with its long tradition of supporting the region’s unique cultural heritage, hosted its 20th Anniversary Gala: A Toast to the Trailblazers on Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. 

More than 300 people from local, regional, state and national heritage-related organizations and businesses attended the bash to Toast the Trailblazers: the extraordinary organizations and people who make the Essex National Heritage Area (Essex County) so exceptional. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was among those in attendance. Secretary Kerry played a key role in passing the federal legislation designating the Essex National Heritage Area. During his “toast” Secretary Kerry said that “Twenty years of community commitment and effort is a big deal in today’s world… [Essex Heritage has] done what it was set up to do. “It has a wonderful impact on the community in so many different ways.”

The event also included celebratory cocktails, an auction full of unique items donated by local “makers and shakers”, announcement of a new scholarship program and its recipient, and of course, toasts to the Trailblazers.

Thomas M. Leonard Scholarship Recipient: Nàdely Nuñez Díaz

Essex Heritage was pleased to award Nàdely Nuñez Díaz a $2,000 scholarship in honor of our co-founder and first President, Thomas M. Leonard.  Like Tom, Nàdely exemplifies a commitment to community that is extraordinary for her young age.  Nàdely came to the United States with her family in 2013 speaking very limited English, but she never let this limit her aspirations. She has been an active participant in Salem at SEA, a summer literacy and service learning program that Essex Heritage offers with other partners. There, she consistently showed her passion for building relationships between native and non-native residents of her city. She is a volunteer at the House of the Seven Gables, acts as a translator at community events, and works at a nursing home, all while maintaining excellent grades. She has been accepted at many area colleges and will soon be making her choice about where she will attend.

About The Trailblazers

The Trailblazers represent the incredible partners that Essex Heritage has spent the last two decades working with to preserve and enhance the significant historical, cultural, and natural places that make the Essex National Heritage Area like nowhere else. The public submitted nominations for 131 Trailblazers – and Essex Heritage received 4,077 votes to determine which Trailblazers were to be toasted at the Gala. The following Trailblazers were celebrated for their exemplary work in:

Preserving this Special Region: 

  • 1st place – Essex County Greenbelt Association:  Recognized nationally as a model organization for conserving open space, woodlands, and scenic lands for public access, this high functioning land trust is scaling up efforts to protect 10,000 acres of the county’s most important land in ten years.
  • 2nd place – Ipswich River Watershed Association: Long known as a very effective advocate, the watershed association fights the hard fight every day to protect the source of drinking water for 350,000 people and businesses in 14 communities.
  • 3rd place – The Cabot: Since their 2014 purchase of the iconic North Shore theatre, the “new kids on the block” have made great strides transforming the former 1920s movie and vaudeville palace into a performing arts juggernaut.

Connecting People to Place: 

  • 1st placeThe Trustees of Reservations: This venerable organization does it all, and does it well. With programs of all types for young and old, the Trustees clearly understand the need and value of connecting people to place. For over 125 years the Trustees have been preserving, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value.
  • 2nd place Mass Audubon: With its dedication to protecting nature for people and wildlife, we are blessed to have several Audubon sanctuaries in the heritage area.  
  • 3rd place – Essex Agricultural Society: Best known for the hosting the Topsfield Fair, the agricultural society plays the critical role of perpetuating our understanding of the region’s important agrarian past, present and future.

Building & Growing Our Future

  • 1st place – Peabody Essex Museum: The Peabody Essex Museum is an international museum of art and culture. In support of its mission to celebrate creativity and to offer experiences that transform peoples’ lives the PEM offers a wide range of programs that challenge the participant to view and engage the world differently.
  • 2nd place – YMCA of the North Shore:  With a mission that includes a significant focus on the education and health of the region’s youth, the Y is a strong partner for organizations that share its interest in shaping the well-being of our future leaders. 
  • 3rd place – Valley View Farm: A pioneering small family farm in Topsfield, Valley View Farm demonstrates that it is possible to use sustainable practices in way that connecting community, people and good food.

Advancing Our Educational Mission: 

  • 1st place (tie) – Lowell’s Boat Shop:  Acknowledged to be the oldest continuous boatbuilding business in the country, Lowell’s Boat Shop is a working boat shop and living museum perched on the shores of the Merrimack River in Amesbury. In its efforts to preserve and perpetuate the art and craft of wooden boat building, Lowell’s engages people of all ages in a range of hands-on boat building and boating activities.
  • 1st place (tie) – The House of the Seven Gables: Known by tourists as the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, the organization in recent years has enriched its interpretation and education programs by linking its own remarkable history with the present through the public examination of some of today’s most pressing social issues.
  • 2nd place – Maritime Gloucester: Founded in 2000 and blessed with visionary leadership, Maritime Gloucester has established itself as an indispensable education partner in Gloucester and beyond.
  • 3rd place – Essex Shipbuilding Museum: The “pride of Essex”, this “little museum that could” excels in providing a truly personal learning experience at its riverside location in Essex.              

“We are happy to celebrate the many accomplishments of our friends and partners over the past 20 years,” commented Annie Harris, Essex Heritage CEO.  “Each nominee contributes to the Essex National Heritage Area’s successes, and together, our trailblazing accomplishments are truly inspiring: We are improving quality of life, supporting the regional economy, and creating an even brighter future for all of Essex County.”

In 1996, the United States Congress recognized the national significance of Essex County, Massachusetts – the historic 500 square mile region north of Boston – by establishing the Essex National Heritage Area. Essex Heritage is the non-profit organization that manages the Essex National Heritage Area by developing programs that enhance, preserve and encourage recreation, education, conservation and interpretation projects on Boston’s North Shore and the Lower Merrimack River Valley. 

The Essex National Heritage Area is comprised of the 34 cities and towns of Essex County, MA. For more information, visit or call (978) 740-0444.