The Mills

As we have visited Ashland’s past numerous times, I have spent a lot of time on the rivers that pass through us. The Sudbury is one of my favorites because it parallels Cordaville road across from my house all the way downtown and beyond. Despite all the efforts of various companies over the years to tame the Sudbury, and even to pollute it, she survives. But today I want to focus on the power of these rivers.

The unforgiving soil in Ashland and most of our surrounding communities made it difficult to make farming a choice of trade. Just look at all the stone walls that delineate property lines in town. Early farmers had to remove these obstructions if they wanted to utilize the land, and if some cases abandoned the property if it was too unsuitable. But what choice did our fore fathers have in the early years? Farm or move I guess. Fortunately we had the Sudbury, or Concord River as it was known until roughly the mid 1850’s. This resource provided the means our community needed to survive, and with our Yankee ingenuity, and opportunity to make a buck or two. Or was it a shilling or two?

Some of the first mills were built by our earliest settler, Savil Simpson. Simpson purchased 500 acres of land from the heirs of Col. William Crowne in 1687, and built his home near what today is the Ashland Technology Center (old Telechron building on the corner of Union and Homer streets.). One of Simpson’s mills was located at what is today Mill Pond on Myrtle St. It was a saw and grist mill at first. Simpson’s daughter married Col. John Jones who along with Simpson added a fulling process to the mill. Fulling is a cleaning and thickening process, particularly for wool, and water power made the process easier. Jones built homes near the dam, including the Ocean House which is currently the home of the Ashland Historical Society.

Other mills were located further upstream. Metcalf’s Mill was located near the new train station on Pleasant Street, and Bigelow’s Mill sat further up on Cordaville Rd. Bigelow’s Mill was known for their “fine quality hand-made paper” and later, around the time of our incorporation, made wallpaper. According to “History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts” published in 1890, the Bigelow Mills ceased their operation and sold the water rights and property to the Dwight Printing Company in 1869. Little did Dwight Printing know what was going to happen in 1872 with the City of Boston. Downstream, Shepard’s Paper Mill stood off Union St. near Chestnut St. along with other smaller ones that may not have had buildings.

These mills brought their own problems though. If you stop water by creating a dam, water will back up further upstream. If the dam is too high, flooding will occur on land preceding it. If the water isn’t regulated properly, other mills further downstream will stop operating. Evidence of this is documented. Around 1711, John Howe built a dam downstream from Savil Simpson which flooded his land. Simpson sued, and Howe bought the affected land from Simpson. Howe built another dam which destroyed one of Simpson’s crops, and damaged a bridge and causeway leading to his property.

The last mill of note was built in 1813 by Richard Sears, on Fountain Street near the Framingham town line. Actually, it was all Framingham then where Ashland did not incorporate until 1846. Over the years the mill passed ownership to other notables in town; James Whitmore, William Greenwood, and eventually to S. N. Cutler, who was probably the best known. Cutler and his son built a successful business which included bringing in grain from other communities, processing it, and selling it to wholesalers in the area. Cutler died in 1867, and later that year the mill was torched by an arsonist. The man was caught and convicted, and a new mill was constructed that included a spur track to the Boston and Albany railroad.

Prosperity was fleeting though, as it was apparent that water rights were as important as deeded land. Businesses along the river prospered until the City of Boston acquired the water rights for the Metropolitan Water Works (now the MDC) in 1872. As we have seen from other visits, the MWW essentially ended any future for businesses along the Sudbury River. The Dwight Printing Company near Mill Pond never opened their doors, and Reservoir #2 now covers the location of the Cutler Mills.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
May 2011