Who Says History Isn’t Fun?

Watch the 1868 Southborough fire engine, the Falcon, strut her stuff, with the help of enthusiastic Heritage Day volunteers.  Fortunately our services weren’t required professionally, because we soon discovered pumping is hard work!

SOUTHBOROUGH HISTORICAL SOCIETY BRINGS A LITTLE HERITAGE BACK TO HERITAGE DAY

Southborough’s 1868 Fire Engine, the Falcon

More than a century ago, Southborough’s fires were fought by a handtub named the Falcon. A handtub is a hand pumped fire engine that shoots water over 200 feet — a major improvement over water tossed from a bucket! The Falcon was built in 1868, and purchased by the town of Southborough for $150 in 1896 after a series of deadly fires.

This coming Heritage Day, October 9th, residents will be able to see the Falcon in the parade, as well as watch a live demonstration — thanks to our firefighters — in front of the Southborough Historical Society Museum at noon. The Museum, which is half-way through its renewal process, will be open until 2, displaying its first two new exhibits in a decade: The Printed Word in Southborough: 1847 – the Present; and the 17th Century Sawin Family Papers 

Michael Weishan, current President of the Society, is working with board members to expand the Society’s mission and promote the educational and cultural value of the museum’s collection. “We have one of the most spectacular collections in the area, and it’s high time we put it to work showcasing the almost 4000 years of habitation in the place we now call Southborough.”

The Society invites all residents to stop by and watch the Falcon demonstration and learn something new about our town.

Find out more about Southborough’s history at www.southboroughhistory.org.

A Leisurely Day in the Life of Southborough, May 1, 1897

(click to enlarge)

Working with a collection as rich and diverse as the Society’s has constant rewards. Take this letter for instance, written to Susie R. Ingalls, of Cambridge Massachusetts, by her daughter Mabel. It records an idyllic May Day long ago, in an age long past.

Southborough  May 1, 1897

My dear Mamma

We arrived here Friday morning as half past eight after a very tiresome night. The boat arrived at New London at twelve o’clock but the train did not go until five minutes after four — arriving at Worcester at 6:55. We had no trouble at all changing cars as someone would show us right to the car even offering to carry our bundles.  I like it here very much. Mr. Burnett’s house is very much after the style of Mr. Beecher’s house at Peekskill. Auntie was very excited when we came, rushing to the door and losing her cap as I have often heard you tell of. Friday afternoon I went for a drive with Mary and Charlie Jimmerson and we were caught in a heavy thunder shower and the horse was afraid so we drove into a barn and stayed about an hour; we had a box of candy and had a real nice time. Mary’s father has given them a row boat which was a great surprise so we thought that would be an idea for a name, so it will be named “The Surprise.” We are going out in it every day and yesterday I tried rowing. Saturday afternoon Susie Sawin and her cousin George came; you  certainly would not take him for a teacher. He is an awful one to carry on — he plagues Auntie so gets she real angry in a good-natured way. He put the clock back and it got into about the shape our back parlor clock used to be and [he] did not get up until we were all through breakfast, so we put cayenne pepper in his oysters and coffee. Susie and Mary are both splendid, and so is Cousin Charlie’s wife; she looks young, not much over thirty, and goes around rowing and makes it just as pleasant as she can for everyone and she does not do any work except cooking; she calls Auntie “mother” and they all just love her. Last night we all went to an entertainment at the town hall. It was singers and a short play in which Mary was ‘Bridget’ and Mrs. Sawin took part. This is an awful place for clothes — the dog will run to meet us and jump up and get his dirty paws all over you. Alice stays at the mill all day and goes to ride with Harry a great deal. The Burnett’s were expecting the Vanderbilts but we did not see them come. Alice, Harry, Susie, Mary and I have just come home from church. George stayed home to shave. Alice and I sleep together in the front room. Mrs. Sawin is going to show us her room and all the things she got as presents. Auntie say she will be terribly disappointed if you do not come up and that we have to got to make a long visit at Riverside. She is going to give Alice money for a canary bird, and Susie Sawin has got a pair of shoes 4 1/2 and she wears a 5 so I guess that Auntie will send them to you. I guess I most close now as the table is set for dinner. So goodbye with much love to all, your loving daughter, Mabel

PS We are going to hang George a May basket tonight.

 

There are so many fascinating hints and clues about the times in this letter! The reference to taking the boat to New London, for instance, recalls an age when it was easier and far more comfortable to get to central Massachusetts from New York City by taking the night ferry than by taking the hodgepodge of competing rail lines. (The famed Boston consist of the 20th Century Limited wouldn’t arrive until 1902, for example.) And where precisely is Mabel staying? Obviously at one of the Burnett Houses, but which — the Burnett Mansion, or Edward Burnett’s house across Stony Brook?  That would tell us who Auntie is.

And then there is that fascinating reference to “Mr. Beecher’s House in Peekskill.” It turns out Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist, had a summer house in Peekskill, New York, which was a famous stop on the underground railroad. The house, which was described in a 2001 New York Times article when the building was proposed for a museum, still exists, though the museum project never went forward.  Take a look for yourself: it does rather look like a mini- Burnett mansion.

(NOTE 9.21/17  One of our board members, Deborah Costine, pointed out this probably wasn’t the house Mabel was referring too, but rather THIS ONE  which makes more sense, due to its country setting and resemblance to the now destroyed Edward Burnett House.)

The Sawin’s are now more of a known quantity, of course, since our recent discovery of their historic family documents.  But oysters for breakfast? It seems so: check out this recipe for Oysters a la Thorndike, listed in the 1896 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook.

All in all, Mabel’s letter is wonderful reminder of an age long lost, when Southborough was not only a bucolic farming community, but also a summer retreat of the New York and Boston elite.

 

 

SHS Announces the Discovery of Priceless 17th Century Documents

The Southborough Historical Society is absolutely thrilled to announce the discovery of 13 exceedingly rare early 17th-century documents relating to the Sawin family of Southborough. The items record, among other matters, the 1656 layout of the village of Praying Indians at Natick, the 1686 sale of 5 acres of land there for the construction of a mill by Thomas Sawin, and subsequent grants and transactions. These documents are critically important to our local area history, as they detail the early interactions between the newly arrived settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the native peoples of this region, the Nipmuc tribe. The Nipmuc, almost entirely forgotten today, had lived throughout central Massachusetts for thousands of years, including sites in Southborough. In fact, the basic layout of Southborough along the lines of Route 30 and Cordaville Road follows the fishing and hunting trails, farming fields and camps sites established by the Nipmuc people many centuries ago.

One of the trove of documents dating from 1650 -1701. This is one of the most historically significant, the 1659 document laying out the Praying Indian village of Natick (Click to enlarge.)

The Nipmuc initially welcomed the English to the area, believing there was “enough land for all.” However, tensions rose quickly, as English settlers began proselytize the natives, as well as impose their rigid system of land division on the formerly nomadic tribe. The English held the view that any “empty” land could be assigned to specific owners and enclosed for cattle and other grazing animals, while the itinerant Nipmuc felt that the land must remain open for the common good. Add to the mix the Europeans’ introduction of firearms and alcohol to the native peoples, and an already difficult situation became highly volatile. Our 1656 document is witness to this growing conflict, as it defines the borders of the Natick Village of “Praying Indians”— members of the Nipmuc tribe who had adopted Christianity and European ways —  while conveniently and simultaneously opening up surrounding areas for English settlement. Eventually there were a dozen or so of these Praying Indian villages, including at Marlborough, which led directly to the founding of Southborough. Needless to say, this quasi-coerced religious conversion and assignment to specific “villages” (which the white peoples would later term “reservations”) was resented by the majority of Nipmuc who remained faithful to their traditional ways. The inevitable conflict came in 1675, when the Nipmuc and their allies rose up against the English. The subsequent bloody conflict, essentially a battle fought to determine supremacy between two conflicting cultures, came to be called King Phillips War and marks the birth of one nation, and the death of another.

For the English, who were fighting for their vision of a Christianized New World, the war meant the loss of 1 out of every 10 military age men; 1000 civilian casualties; the complete destruction of 12 of the region’s towns; attacks on half the others; (including Marlborough and Sudbury) and damage to farms, mills and other property sufficient to set the colony’s economy back two decades. Fought entirely without English aid, King Philip’s War also marked the beginning of an American identity separate to that of Europe.

The 1686 deed granting land to Thomas Sawin to set up a grist mill at Natick, signed by the Nipmuc chiefs. (Click to enlarge.)

For the Nipmuc and their regional allies, it meant not only the extermination of their way of life, but their virtual extinction.  Those who didn’t flee were slaughtered by the thousands, and at the end of the conflict the remaining native survivors of the area were rounded up by the English — including the Christianized Indians of Natick and the other Praying Towns — and interned on Deer Island in Boston Harbor where they were left to die of starvation and disease. Hundreds of others were sold into slavery. Eventually, a small number returned to their former homes to live under English rule, but the viability of their culture had been destroyed. Our 1685 document, the Thomas Sawin deed, is an extremely rare survivor of this postwar period, and gives a rare glimpse of what life was like at Natick ten years after King Phillip’s War. The diminished Nipmuc, who had since become accustomed to eating ground corn, were desirous of a mill in their village. So they invited Thomas Sawin, who had already built a mill at Sherbourne, to come live among them and set up a mill. Their offer was 50 acres of land on the stipulation that he and his heirs and assigns were to maintain the mill forever, and that there was to be no other corn-mill built in town without the consent of  Thomas Sawin, his heirs and assigns. Thomas Sawin kept his word, built the mill, and lived peaceably among the natives for the rest of his life, but even more importantly, he became an advocate for native rights at the Massachusetts General Court. This progressive stance would remain the hallmark of the Sawin family,  as we shall see.

Notice of Moses Sawin’s Abolitionist Meeting at Southborough, published in The Liberator, 3 December 1847

So how did these remarkable documents wind up in Southborough? Well, long story short, the answer was the response to another epic battle in American history, the fight against slavery. Fast forward 148 years to 1833 where Moses Sawin is still running his grandfather Thomas’ mill at Natick:

To quote the 1876 History of Southborough by Dexter Newton:

“When the clarion notes of William Lloyd Garrison rang through the land calling the nation to repentance for supporting and main­taining chattel slavery, Mr. Moses Sawin did not hesitate to enlist in the great cause of humanity. He was convinced it was a sin against God and a crime against his brother man.

He had the courage to ask the members of the church to which he belonged to testify against the sin; when his request was rejected he refused to commune with them as a church of Christ, and when, for this refusal, they cast him out of the church, he exultantly quoted to them the words of Christ, viz.: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” He was especially gratified that he had lived to see slavery entirely abolished; it was what he had long labored for and sought. But the crowning glory of his latter days was in hearing his former opponents acknowledge the righteousness of his cause, and labor earnestly with him in the overthrow of American slavery.”

So translated to the modern vernacular: Moses Sawin became such an vocal abolitionist that when his fellow Natick church members tired of him and tossed him out, he picked up stakes and moved to Southborough. As Newton relates:

Moses Sawin purchased the grist and saw-mill and a small lot of land situate one-half mile west of Town Hall, in Southborough, of Deacon Gabriel Parker, in 1833. The year following he bought of said Parker seven acres of land adjoining same, and on south side of Mill Pond, and built thereon a spacious dwelling-house, barn and other buildings. The estate is now owned and occupied by Charles B. Sawin, youngest of his three surviving sons. (The sawmill and house are long gone, but were located just south of the MDC damn on Deerfoot Road, which in many ways mimics the Sawin damn and mill pond of old.)

And then comes the kicker:

Said Moses Sawin possessed and carefully preserved through life the curious old deed, signed and sealed by the Indian chiefs of whom his said ancestor purchased the land. They are now in possession of said C. B. Sawin, at the old home-stead, where antiquarians and others interested in curious legal documents can examine them.

And thus, our amazing trove of documents!

 

The Sawin Mill at Southborough. It sat on Deerfoot road just south of the MDC dam.

 

The Sawin family remained active in Southborough right up until the 1960s, owning the still extant brick building on Boston Road, now home to Falconi Oil, which was once their feed store. They owned too a large house at 10 Latisquama Road. It seems that when the last Sawin descendants left Southborough sometime in the 70s, they donated their precious family papers to the Southborough Historical Society. The various documents had by then been bound into an innocuous leather volume appropriately labeled Sawin Family Documents, but without any text or explanation. As such, it was dutifully placed on a basement storage shelf, and promptly forgotten.  Then came the 2015 flood, and  these priceless documents narrowly missed inundation. Returned to the Museum from temporary storage this spring, it wasn’t until we began the arduous process of unpacking, rehousing and cataloguing the material did we discover the true value of what had been sitting on our shelves for 50 years. Today, the 13 documents have been carefully removed from their leather binding, which was showing signs of mold, carefully rehoused in archival envelopes, and stored in our new climate-controlled safe.

George Sawin, direct lineal descendant of Thomas and Moses Sawin, inspecting the documents in the newly re-opened Museum conference room

So what’s next? Well, first of all we will digitize these documents and share them with the world. We’ve already been in touch George Sawin, who leads the Sawin Family Association, who’s come to see documents at the Museum, and who, coincidentally, is spearheading the preservation of Thomas Sawin’s endangered 18th century homestead, which still graces the banks of the Charles River at Natick. Next, partially based on this amazing trove, we’ve applied for funding for a new traveling exhibit, “The Nipmuc, the English, and New England’s First Forgotten War” which will debut at the museum in the fall of 2018 and then travel to local area schools and institutions.

The importance of this find can’t be understated. The documents are of Smithsonian-level quality and importance, incredibly rare paper survivors from the earliest days of our nation. We are honored to be their conservators — which we can only do with your continued help and generous support.

 

Your donations make discoveries like this possible. Please help support the Southborough Historical Society!

 




 

 

Lost Southborough: 3 Historic Railroad Stations

Ever wonder why Southborough lacks an historic railroad station, especially given the beauties that still exist in Framingham, Ashland, Westborough, and many other points along the old Boston and Albany line?

Well, in fact, we once had not one, but three!

The first, on the branch Agricultural Line to Marlborough, stood on Main Street, in the empty lot west of Lamy’s insurance:

It’s unclear what happened to this beautiful Queen Anne Structure after service was discontinued in the early 30s. Perhaps some of our older members might remember when this building was demolished? How we could use this building now as part of a revitalized main street! Wouldn’t it have made a fantastic pub?

My understanding was that Southville Station, seen below in its prime, was abandoned, vandalized and eventually demolished in the early 70s, the low-point of historical preservation in Southborough.

However, its near twin Cordaville Station had a different fate. I had heard tell that it had been moved to New Hampshire, but I was never able to confirm that.

 

Until now! Sorting through our files as we move back into our museum quarters, I discovered this remarkable clipping. Ho ho! A clue!

So now, do you suppose our once glorious station still exists somewhere in Dublin New Hampshire? I’ve contacted the Historical Society there, and hopefully we’ll soon find out.

Regardless, the sad lesson to be learned here is that if you don’t value your historical structures, there’s always someone else that does…. much to the detriment of your own surroundings.

Moving forward, we need to guard our historic heritage much more actively, Southborough friends!

New Additions for Southborough History Buffs

Our newly created exhibit and meeting space.

 

Dear Friends,

Thanks to your financial support over the last year, we have been able to make many strides in bringing materials previously locked away in the archives online for public viewing.  Here are just some of the most recent offerings:

A Slide Tour of the Old Burial Ground
Join the late historian Kay Allen as she takes you through highlights of one of our most important historical treasures.

Historic Homes Database
Get information on the history of your home without leaving your desk!

Holy Hill Walking Tour
Grab the kids and take a fun and informative walking tour around the Museum with this out-of-print guide.

Southborough Historical Photos Collection
Take a look at our ever expanding collection of online photos.

Southborough Genealogical Resources
New means to research your families history.

Of course, we rely on you to help us make this happen. We have a number of volunteer positions open at the Society, and are always in need of ongoing financial support, so please keep those donations coming!

The Oldest Living Thing in Southborough

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The Lyscom Apple

 

If you’ve ever spent a moment in the parking lot behind Town Hall, or in the playground near the old Town Pound, you may have noticed a somewhat forlorn tree at the edge of the pavement. This battered survivor is the remaining testament to the Historical Society’s 1977 Lyscom Apple Project, which sought to return this historic variety to Southborough to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the town. Of the 32 trees specially grown and planted throughout Southborough, this (with perhaps one other) is the sole survivor, making it possibly the oldest living thing in Southborough. How can that be, you ask? Well, it has to do with how apple varieties are propagated. Apple trees are not native to North America. The first trees were grown from seed carried by early European settlers to this area. Each seed produced a different kind of apple. Most of these new varieties were inferior to their parents, but occasionally a grower would find a tree with particular merit, and name it. Then, through the process of grafting scions, or shoots, onto apple rootstock, exact duplicates of the plant could be created. “Duplicates” is not precisely the right word here, as really, each “new” plant is simply a part of the original. That’s how our friend behind the town hall is so old — it’s a living piece of the original tree grown by Samuel Lyscom 300 years ago.

The name Lyscom rings large in local  history, as Samuel Lyscom was one of the signers of the petition to separate Southborough from Marlborough in 1727. During his lifetime he held every office in the new town and, and eventually became a judge. He was also Southborough’s second representative to the Colonial legislature. Lyscom married twice and had ten children. His eldest surviving son John sold the Lyscom farm (presumably with its orchard of Lyscom apples) in 1772 to Josiah Fay. The exact location of the property isn’t known, though it is assumed to have been in the vicinity of Chestnut Hill Road. Over the years, the original tree continued to be grafted, until the Lyscom apple became a common site in Southborough and the towns around Boston, as we learn from an 1889 book published by Deacon Peter Fay, who was a prominent farmer with an intense interest in fruit culture:

In the fall of 1834, at the Worcester Cattle Show, I carried 2 barrels of Lyscom’s apples and hired a boy to sell them in front of the Old South Church. They were very large and quite a throng of people collected around the boy. Some men from New Braintree call them Mathew’s Stripes, but the true name was Lyscom. The original tree stood on a farm owned by Samuel Lyscom 130 years ago. The reason they were called Mathew’s Stripes was because a man by the name of Mathews (John, I think) went from Southborough to New Braintree about 100 years ago and to with him scions of this variety.

lyscomThe Lyscom apple – with its distinctive large red fruit streaked with yellow – was last recorded as being grown in Southborough about 1917. Miss Mary Finn (of Finn school fame) remembered seeing a tree along Flagg Road, where the apples would fall into the path and be eaten by the cows. Probably others survived too, until a Depression era WPA program eradicated “wild” apple trees thought to be a source of disease for commercial growers.  Fortunately, a few avid collectors in the 1950s began to rescue old varieties, and a Preservation Orchard was founded at Old Sturbridge Village in 1973, which is where the one sole surviving example of the Lyscom apple was discovered by members of the Southborough Historical Society. From this, 32 new trees were propagated, and carefully spread throughout the town to the celebrate the 250th. Unfortunately, rather than giving them to longer-lived institutions, they were mostly distributed among then-members of the Society, and over the years have fallen victim to development, disease, decay and destruction until now there is once again only one left. (Well, maybe two: the other may be in the courtyard of the Neary School.)

So to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Southborough in 2027, the Society has decided to try this project again, albeit a bit differently. In conjunction with our dedicated Director of Public Works, Karen Galligan, this spring we will take grafts from the Town Pound tree, but this time we will distribute them to organizations as well as individuals, with the goal of having bushels of Lyscom apples available for our 300th anniversary celebrations. If you are interested in adopting a tree, be in touch as we’re taking names for 2019 delivery. (Yes, 2019, things move very slowly in the tree world, but if you are Lyscom apple, you already have learned plenty of patience.)

 

 

Lincoln’s Store and Post Office

Southville’s old depot has had a long and storied history, first as a train station, then as a store, and currently as a residence on the corner of Parkerville and Southville Roads. Rather than tell you the history myself, I thought I would let you read this charming account from an undated newspaper article from sometime in the late 40’s, judging by the clothes worn in the pictures. The simple serenity that once was Lincoln Square seems almost impossible to imagine today. To step back to another time, simply click the images below to enlarge and enjoy!

(Note: the file sizes are large, so be patient on slow connections.)

lincolnstore1-copy

lincolnstore2-copy lincolnstore3-copy

 

 

The Outlaws of Cordaville

[It seems hard to think of Southborough as a wild-west kind of town, but for a while from 1860s-1890s the area around the Cordaville mill was a pretty rough place. The Kelly family, Irish immigrants who came to work in the mills, had settled around Oregon road and soon were running a protection racket (your house might suddenly go up in flames unless you agreed to pay up; a bootlegging operation; a widely notorious whorehouse; and another, Chattanooga, where women were also available. Needless to say, “proper folk” were appalled, but the gang was entrenched and enjoyed the support — loyal or otherwise — of the locals. It wasn’t until the coming of the reservoir system that this changed: As part of the deal to take the land for the reservoirs, the city of Boston was forced to supply and pay for 5 police officials — the beginnings of the Southborough Police Department — and the end of the Kelley gang. 

You can get some sense of the goings-on from this amusing article from the Westborough Chronotype dated Saturday Morning Jan 26, 1895, which was reprinted in the Boston Advertiser the next week. “License” by the way, is the right to sell liquor in a town. At the time, Southborough and the surrounding towns were ‘dry.’ Eds.]

•••••••

Cordaville is a village, lying partly in Hopkinton township, partly in Southborough, and partly in Ashland. Southborough is in Worcester County; the other two towns are in Middlesex County. The Kelly wine place is in Hopkinton; but it lies within 160 rods of the Southborough line and for this reason may be legally raided by officers of Worcester County.

The three towns have generally voted no license; and when license has received the popular vote Kelly has always been refused a license because of his reputation. “But men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.” License or no license, Kelly’s is always open.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t keep Kelly from selling gin. Middlesex has about 17 deputy sheriffs, Worcester 28; Hopkinton has 5 constables, Ashland 3, Southborough 6; Yet even with the State Police added the army isn’t enough to eject Kelly.

77.34.4 Cordaville Train wreck 1 copy
In addition to the dangers of the Kelly gang, Cordaville residents faced other threats, such as the not-so-infrequent wrecks on the B&A line, such as this on in 1912, which happened to be a deliberate derailment in order to rob the train.

“Yes,” said Constable Tidsbury of Ashland, “no license was voted in all three towns, except Hopkinton, and there the vote was so close that the selectmen refused to sign any licenses; but for all that liquor is sold in all three places.”

Then he related the same tale as before, that if Hopkinton selectmen gave him authority he would proceed to raid the Kelly mansion.

Driving over to Southborough from Ashland, I asked my driver why it was that at the Central House, Ashland, it was necessary to go up stairs to get a drink. “Oh” he answered, “they’re ‘fraid to let the girls serve it at the dinner table ‘fraid they’ll drink it themselves. They’re of no count; they come over from Worcester County, them girls did.” (This illustrates the unhappy feeling between the citizens of the two counties in juxtaposition, and it is largely because of this feeling that the Kelly’s et al.  are suffered to maintain themselves). “At our hotel,” my driver continued, “yer don’t have to go upstars. Matt Tierney does the biggest business, though. He’s wholesale as well as retail. He’s got bar’ls an’ bar’ls ‘er larger, ‘en whiskey, and he’s got a re’lar rowte through 5 ‘er 6 towns.”

“Why does the town vote no license and then allow liquor selling?”

“Oh, I guess there’s some sort of deal.”

The road leads through “Chattanooga.” The name is appropriate, for the place is evidently a battlefield. In some houses even the doors are gone; none have their windows entire. This is the habitat of the “hoboes” who labored on the water works, when they labored at all. Cordaville has a new lockup since “der gang” smashed the old one.

In the two counties of Middlesex and Worcester there is one brave officer of the law: Constable Dorr. For 35 years he has fought the Kelly gang. He it was who looked down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of desperate Jim Rafferty. Jim tried to prevent Mr. Dorr from making an arrest, but the old man said shoot away! I intend to arrest this man.” Jim fired, but by some miracle the bullet glanced along the side of the old hero’s head, and Jim didn’t got a chance to fire again! For this playful act on Jim’s part the court gave him 18 month’s vacation. The short sentence was doubtless due to his reputation as a man of war.

But even Mr. Dorr has declared a truce against the Kelly gang. Since the loss of all his property by fire last July he has been living with his daughter; his wife is an invalid and for the sake of his family the valiant and venerable old man has relinquished the war.

Since the burning of Mr. Dorr’s buildings and the attempted burning of the mills, (Mr. Wilson, the manager, is also an uncompromising enemy of the Kelly’s,) the gang is held in greater awe than ever. More than one who talked with me said; “Don’t print my name in the paper, I beg you, else we shall feel the vengeance of the Kelly!

I asked Selectmen Morse of Hopkinton why such a set of outlaws was allowed to remain in town. “We’ll we’ve raided them 15 or 16 times but we don’t seem to get anything. You see Mr. Chaflin, he’s chairman of the selectmen. He said he was going to drive them out.”

 

When Southborough Was a Mill Town

A circa 1900 advertisement for Cordaville Woolen Mills
A circa 1900 advertisement for Cordaville Woolen Mills

In 1847 Milton H. Sanford of Medford purchased several parcels of farm land along the Sudbury (then Concord) river in Southborough, Ashland and Hopkinton. One of them conveyed the mill privilege – the right to dam and use the water of the river. In addition to this ample power source, the area was attractive for milling because of the proximity to the new Boston & Worcester railroad, which ran through the site. Not only would transport to far-away markets be assured, but the railroad would supply the workforce needed for the new facility. Sanford began building workers’ houses on Parker and Cottage Streets, and by 1850, a company store on Main Street, later named Fitzgerald’s, which still stands. The village he named for his wife Cordelia.

By 1854 the Cordaville Manufacturing Company consisted of a cotton factory and a building that housed a machine shop and planing mill. The company produced a rough fabric for use by slaves on the Southern plantations, as well as woolens. (For reasons of culture and geography the South had few manufacturing centers of its own, and most industrial mill production was carried out in the the Northeast with its abundance of river power and ample immigrant work force, then shipped southward.)

millonpondcordaville web
The mill pond with the mill buildings, looking east

The workers for Sanford’s mill were largely newly arrived Irish immigrants, who had fled the devastating potato famine that had begun in 1847 and would eventually lead to the emigration of almost 2 million souls. Approximately sixty workers were employed at the mill; two-thirds were women, and paid only half that of their male counterparts.  The influx of Irish to the mill caused the first Catholic mass to be said in Southborough, on Easter Day 1849, in Wilson’s Hall above the company store.

A fire — a very common occurrence in mills with their highly flammable cotton dust — destroyed the original mill complex and killed three workers in 1855. It was rebuilt, this time including both water and steam-powered apparatus. With the outbreak of war, Sanford quickly abandoned the manufacture of plantation goods, and instead manufactured woolen blankets for Northern troops. This quick response allowed his Cordaville mill to survive when many competing mills failed due to the loss of the Southern market. The mill’s location on the principal rail line between Boston and points West also helped; it was a major transport line for the Federal army.

In 1864, the complex was sold and the business converted to a joint stock venture, the Cordaville Mills Company. By 1870, the mill had grown considerably. There were now two mill buildings, an office, three freight houses, a waste house, a picker house and factory store, now operated by the Wright brothers, which also housed the post office. The village of Cordaville grew with the addition of its own train station, school, and in 1872, St. Matthews Church; and in 1876, a jail. That same year, the company was reorganized as the Cordaville Woolen Company, and the shift to steam power, already underway, accelerated — aided by a prolonged period of drought in the 1880s that dried up many mill ponds. Once again, this timely shift to steam allowed The Cordaville Woolen Company to remain a profitable concern well into the next century.

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Cordaville Station with Fitzgerald’s visible behind

By 1928 however, the corporate model of a company owning an entire village seemed out-dated and unprofitable, and the Cordaville Woolen Company was sold off in pieces. Individual workers were allowed to buy their homes if they wished, and the owner of the company store, a certain Mr. Fitzgerald, purchased it as well. Under various owners the mill buildings continued in one industrial capacity or another until 1957. After that, the buildings sat abandoned; by 1974 the complex was deemed unsafe, and was torn down by the Town of Southborough, which sold off the bricks of the once proud buildings. (The fate of the mill buildings much resembled that of Cordaville’s H.H. Richardson-designed train station, which the Selectmen voted to demolish in the 70s with seemingly little public opposition. The stone was sold to a builder in New Hampshire.)

The loss of the Cordaville Mills is but one of Southborough’s many historical “if-onlys”.  If only the buildings had been allowed to survive a little longer, the nascent historical protection movement would have realized their incredible value as a mixed commercial, office or residential site. Can you imagine how handy a condo complex with a hip restaurant and bar right next to the commuter rail station would be viewed by today’s consumers? Or how much land might have been preserved from controversial state-mandated 40B projects if we had converted the complex to affordable housing and filled Southborough’s quota of units? Of course hindsight is 20-20, but Southborough needs to be far more vigilant these days in protecting its remaining architectural heritage.

More images of industrial Cordaville and Southville: