True Tales from Canton’s Past: Waterwheels

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A view circa 1880 of the falls that drop through the Revere & Sons Rolling Mill (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

A view circa 1880 of the falls that drop through the Revere & Sons Rolling Mill (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

There was a time when the early factory system in New England was inextricably tied to the social welfare of the workers and their families. This was part of the social contract in the early 19th century that led to the building of large-scale factories and industrialization throughout the waterways of the region. When you see water, think mills, and especially growth. Growth patterns tend to follow the streams and rivers as they wend their way through the landscape.

We never really grew like the great mill towns of Lowell and New Bedford. Instead, our growth took on a more parochial flavor as a result of a much denser geography and a handful of big players who occupied most of the tributaries feeding the Neponset River. If you had to name the key players it would be Kinsley, Draper and Revere. They were the giants who set the foundation for Canton’s growth.

It all makes sense, of course. The rivers were the fuel for the powerful wheels that turned the machinery. And as a source of power, the waterways were a property right of sorts. Mill privileges were negotiated along with the sale of the properties served by the water that flowed through the site. Only three years after buying property from the upstream abutters, Paul Revere was in court in Dedham suing for the rights to use the water for his new mill. Revere lost that case in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Soon thereafter, vowing to never again be held hostage for water rights, he purchased all of the upstream bodies of water and the streams that fed his mill.

The stakes were high in the early ventures as a result of startup costs that involved building large-scale factories and then sourcing the products and labor followed by delivery and sale to consumers. Many of the mills changed hands with surprising frequency, and technology improvements played a big part in the success of many. Draper is the best example, where water played hardly a role, yet the steam engine and ultimately electricity would build that company. Although it started small, the Draper Woolen Mills grew as a result of shrewd investment and later war contracts in the 20th century. In its heyday, Draper Mills was a valued brand that was known nationally.

In Canton, the earliest factories were born out of small forges that smelted iron on a trivial scale. Bog iron from the area fed the early need for materials. Extremely primitive forges were located on the waters that flowed from Sharon into South Canton just where the Shepard’s Pond waterfall is today. Situated here was the 1743 bloomery of Nathanial Leonard, yet he had purchased a smelting mill there that may have existed as early as 1722 by the name of London New. And research is still ongoing to discover more about this site. Leonard paid three shillings for every ton of iron ore he brought from Massapoag Pond in Sharon.

Of course, the Neponset River and the tributaries that feed into it are the greatest part of our history. Forge Pond gets its name from the fact that this man-made pond had historically powered more than one forge throughout the years. Interestingly, most of the ponds in Canton owe their creation to the need to control nature for the use of industry. If not for the rivers that run through Canton, the westward expansion of the railroad in America may not have been possible. The Ames Shovel Shop was a contender for the National Register of Historic Sites before the town demolished the building a handful of years ago.

An early 20th century view of the Neponset Woolen Mills on Walpole Street (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

An early 20th century view of the Neponset Woolen Mills on Walpole Street (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

And the ghosts of the mills throughout the town are numerous. The Messenger Silk Mill, Kinsley Iron Works, Mansfield Fish Line Company, and of course the Revere Copper Rolling Mill. But perhaps the grandest mill was the one that stood at the Canton Viaduct. The Stone Factory — the name owing to the fact that it was entirely built of stone — was a magnificent building, even to the day it was destroyed at the hands of development.

The Stone Factory was the home of the Neponset Woolen Mills, and before that it was the Canton and Boston Manufacturing Company. It was the last mill on the waters that coursed from all of Canton into the Neponset. It was a huge complex where generations of men and women worked to produce textiles for more than 125 years. There was a small blacksmith shop on the site in 1822, but by 1824 the site was purchased by three “young, rich and enterprising gentlemen” for the purpose of constructing a mill.

The Stone Factory village changed dramatically and almost overnight. Looking through the lens of history, these three men were building more than a mill. They were building a social contract with the town and the workers, to which, alongside the mill, they built boardinghouses, extensive barns, and a schoolhouse for the children of the workers. A chapel was built to serve the neighborhood and for a few years this neighborhood flourished. One of the examples of this growth is a petition on a brittle scroll of paper in the collection of the Canton Historical Society. The petition to the then Board of Selectmen states that at the request of “a number of freeholders, and other inhabitants of the town, that the road leading from Taunton Road near Mr. Joseph Downs’s by the Stone Factory might be widened and straightened until it intersects said Taunton Road near the school house in School District No. 3.”

Seventeen landowners paid the betterment amounting to $281.14 to widen and approve what was then “The Factory Road” and is today Neponset Street to Washington Street. The plan shows that the community was in need of better roads to transport the goods being manufactured at the Stone Factory. Joseph Warren Revere paid the most for the roadwork — almost $80 in total. The cost was based on the amount of roadway that would pass by the property. Ironically, the petitioners paid the cost for the public improvement. Of course, the landowners along that stretch of road knew that the key to their prosperity would be a better infrastructure.

What is true now was true then. Roads and schools and access to housing as well as sources of labor and power and raw materials defined the strength and growth of a community. The Viaduct was constructed less than 10 years after the road was widened, and again through the hands of Joseph Warren Revere. Being on the board of directors of the fledgling railroad had its benefits. Chiefly, it was Revere who ensured that his company and the Kinsley Iron Works had perhaps the first railroad spurs in America.

Today, we are no longer a “mill town,” but our heritage is built on that of the industrialists who harnessed the water and built the roads we travel on today. The rich history is still flowing into the Neponset and the reminders are all around us.

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avatar Posted by on Nov 11 2017. Filed under Canton History, Featured story. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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