Tales of Old Billerica Road ~ Part One

October 6, 2022

~ Contributed by Donald Corey, Bedford Historical Society

Editor’s Note: This presentation was offered by Corey during the Society’s lecture in September, 2022

It’s a pleasure to be here today to help recognize the 40th anniversary of Carleton-Willard Village.  I’d like to share some stories and history to give you a little background on this Old Billerica Road neighborhood as well as this property.  A surprising amount of Billerica’s and Bedford’s history is related to its people and places.  I’m going to start with some of its earliest history.

People have been along this way for thousands of years, far longer than the 400 or so years since the first English settlers arrived. As the glaciers retreated from New England at the end of the last Ice Age, large animals including mastodons and mammoths migrated into this area.  The earliest human occupation of New England happened about 10,000 years ago, when Paleoindians followed them here.  Paleoindian archaeological sites are rare in New England, but the Historical Society has a spear point found here in what is now Bedford that dates to that time.

We also know that people were in this immediate area as far back as 6,000 years ago during the Late Archaic Period, A site was found near where Vine Brook joins the Shawsheen River and they flow under Route 3 (about ½ mile from here) that contained remains of a campfire, fire-cracked rocks, and stone flakes from making spear points and knives.  Charcoal from that campfire was carbon-dated as over 5000 years old.  It was probably a camp site used for hunting, fishing, and wild food gathering.

A resident found these spear points on his Old Billerica Road property near where Springs Brook joins the Shawsheen River (about ¼ mile from here). They date to the same Late Archaic Period at least 3700 years ago.

During the Woodland Period as far back as 2900 years ago, maize, beans, and squash became important Native American crops. In the same area along Route 3 near the Shawsheen River that I mentioned a minute ago, an Early Woodland site was also found.  It contained a rock-lined hearth that had been used repeatedly for heating or cooking and a so-called “sweat bath’, where water was thrown onto heated rocks to produce steam.  Charcoal from that hearth was carbon dated as over 2300 years old.

So, this area had been a well-established crossroads for Native Americans over multiple cultural periods long before the first English colonists arrived 400 years ago.  The colonists found intersecting Native American trails that generally followed Old Billerica Road and Page Road connecting three Algonquin-speaking tribes – Pawtuckets were to the north along the Merrimack River, the Massachusetts tribe was to the east around Boston Harbor, and Nipmucks were to the west in central Massachusetts.

The earliest documented Colonist visit to this part of what became Bedford was in 1642.  Concord (which included the southern half of what became Bedford), Woburn (which included Burlington), and Cambridge Farms (which is now Lexington) were already established by then.  In that year the General Court sent Simon Willard, a Concord fur trader, and Edward Convers, a prominent Woburn resident, to survey the “Shawshin” wilderness.  It was the unorganized territory now occupied by Billerica and the northern half of Bedford.  They started at “Shawshin house”, a trading post located where a Native American trail crossed the Shawsheen River (near the Page Road bridge). The house located there now is also referred to as the “Shawsheen house.” It is very old (built about 1725), but the much earlier trading post would have just been a crude log structure.

The surveyors reported, “from Shawshin house wee began to go downe the river 4 or 5 miles …”. So, the very first survey of the Shawshin Wilderness by colonists started on the trail that followed Old Billerica Road and certainly passed by this site.  After following other trails through the wilderness, the men returned via the Two Brothers Rocks on the Concord River and from there followed another trail, roughly along Dudley Road to North Road to Pine Hill Road and Page Road back to the “Shawshin house.” They weren’t impressed with what they saw.

Nevertheless, Billerica was established a few years later in 1655, which included what became the northern half of Bedford.  In about 1663 Michael Bacon leased land by the falls on the Shawsheen River and built a sawmill and gristmill there. It is one of the very earliest colonial sites in Bedford.  The mill is gone, but a small park and signs mark its location, and a trail leads down to the old foundations.

Michael Bacon then settled here in 1671, and the east half of his house (at 229 Old Billerica Road) we believe to be the oldest house surviving in Bedford.

By 1675 relationships between the English colonists and Native Americans had deteriorated.  New immigrants wanted the Native Americans’ land, and they encroached onto it in many places.  Some of the land was purchased through treaties, but other lands were just occupied by settlers.  The Wampanoags, under their leader referred to as “King Philip” by the Pilgrims, and the Nipmucks saw their land and their customs being destroyed by the colonists, and they started “King Philip’s War” to drive the colonists back to the sea.

Michael Bacon and his friend Timothy Brooks, who had settled nearby, fled back to Woburn during the war. The mill on the Shawsheen River was burned during the war but was rebuilt after the war.

The war ended with the death of King Philip in 1676. The Native Americans around Bedford were relocated elsewhere, ending their occupancy here after thousands of years.   One footnote is interesting. The Billerica town records mention:

“January 1682. Whereas Mr. Muzzey makes a complaint for want of ye
knowledge of ye highway from his farm … to the town, the Selectmen do
order … [several men] to go and renue ye markes of ye said way, that it may be
obvious to all travelers.”

The Native American trail that existed back in 1642 and which had become “the way to Bacon’s Mill” (now Old Billerica Road) had become completely overgrown and was lost within five years without the Native Americans’ constant use. The road was realigned along the edge of one of Michael Bacon’s fields, resulting in the sharp S-turns on Old Billerica Road that have existed since then.

The road has had a few names since those colonial times – first it was just “the way to Bacon’s mill.” It was East Road to Billerica in 1830, then East Street, then Mill Street, and then just Billerica Road.  The current legal name adopted by Town Meeting is Old Road to Billerica, but we’ll stick with the familiar Old Billerica Road for today

After King Philips War, Michael Bacon acquired most of a land grant originally given to Reverend Jonathan Mitchell of Cambridge. Michael also received a grant of more land from Billerica and, with other later land purchases by his sons, by around 1700 there were five Bacon families living in five separate farms totaling over 800 acres around Old Billerica Road.  It became “Baconville”.

One of Michael Bacon’s sons, Jonathan, was very important when Bedford was established in 1729.  Besides being a former Billerica Selectman, he was one of the petitioners to form the town of Bedford, was the first Town Moderator and a member of the first Board of Selectmen.  The Bacon name even appears in Bedford’s Charter describing the town bounds, which run “… to a White Oak East of the High Way from Bacons to Billerica, …, a strait Line from thence to the Northwest Corner of Bacons Farm, …”

From Bedford’s establishment in 1729 through the Revolutionary War, the village center had only the meetinghouse, a school, and four residences.  In contrast, the Bacon-Fitch mill, the nearby Wilson corn mill on Vine Brook, and the “Baconsville” neighborhood made Old Billerica Road a commercial center of sorts, and through the 17th and 18th centuries this was one of the most populated areas in what is now Bedford.

The Bacon mill and adjacent farm were sold in 1732 to Benjamin Fitch, and he built his house just up the road from the mill.  His original house is gone, but his grandson David Fitch II (who continued to operate the mill) built a new house on the same site ca. 1803, which still stands opposite the driveway entrance here as the guest house.

Benjamin Fitch’s wife was the source of one of Bedford’s most well-known legends – she was the “Witch of the Shawsheen.” Early in 1732 Benjamin Fitch married Miriam Gray, whose family lived down the river in what is now Andover.  When the couple came up the river to Bedford, their arrival at the village supposedly caused great consternation.

Miriam wore her scarlet wedding cloak made of fine imported English wool.  Her appearance was in sharp contrast to the subdued dress of other villagers.  Her mother had also testified at the Salem witch trials.  Miriam became the “Witch of the Shawshin” and was shunned by neighbors and blamed for droughts and other natural disasters.  This supposedly continued until an epidemic of throat distemper struck Bedford.  Miriam went to the aid of her neighbors and nursed many children through the illness.  After that, the ugly incidents were forgotten, and the villagers accepted the “Witch.”

Whether the legend has any truth we will never know.  However, Town Historian Sharon McDonald did some research and discovered that Miriam was convicted of theft in later years and was placed in the stocks in Boston with a sign “notorious cheat” on her. In any event, what was claimed to be the Witch’s red cape was donated to the Historical Society by the family, and Bob Slechta was able to trace its provenance directly back to Miriam Gray. Only remnants of the silk lining remain on the carefully stitched cape. Other clothing experts have authenticated the garment stitching as appropriate to that period 300 years ago. It is the oldest textile in the Society’s collections.

In the same year that the Fitches bought the mill, 1732, other new neighbors also moved in. The Maxwell family settled here right across the road from the mill and the Fitch’s home.   Three Maxwell sons and a daughter who grew up here I’ll mention again shortly.  Also, several years later Christopher Page built his home near the southerly end of Old Billerica Road.  He was a grandson of another early settler, Nathaniel Page, who had arrived in 1688 and whose homestead was a short distance away on Page Road.

The Old Billerica Road resident who found the spear points also found this pewter button with engraved star that probably dates to colonial times

Beginning in the late 1600s, the French and Indian Wars were waged as the British and French fought – first to control the beaver fur trade and then for territorial control of this part of North America.  Some men who lived on Old Billerica Road, including some Bacons and Maxwells, served during those wars.  The last war ended in 1759 with the British in control of New England. Ironically, the British Regulars who had armed and trained Militia companies in every town to fight with them in the French and Indian Wars would be facing off against them in a few years during the Revolutionary War.

Most of you are surely aware of the Boston Tea Party, Boston’s response to a new tea tax in 1773.  One of the Colonists who deposited the King’s tea in the harbor was Thompson Maxwell, one of the sons that I mentioned who grew up here. By 1773 Thompson Maxwell was about 30 and then lived in New Hampshire. He was a teamster who traveled into Boston frequently.  His log contains the following entry, “I had loaded my team at John Hancock’s warehouse and was about to return when J. Hancock requested me to drive my team up into his yard, and ordered his servants to take care of it.  He requested me to be at Long Wharf at 2 PM and informed me what was to be done.  I went, accordingly, and joined the band under Capt. Hughs.  We mounted the ships and made tea in a trice.  This done, I took my team and went home as an honest man should. ”

Thompson Maxwell was a friend and former neighbor of Minuteman Captain Jonathan Willson, who lived just up the road.  They were brothers-in-law through Capt. Willson’s marriage to Thompson’s sister.  On the evening of April 18, 1775, Thompson was visiting his friend Capt. Willson when word of the British Regulars marching to Concord reached them.  Thompson Maxwell went to Concord with the Minuteman Company, “well armed” in his words, and was there when Captain Willson was killed during the British retreat down Battle Road.

Old Billerica Road neighbors who also answered that April 19 alarm included William Maxwell (Thompson’s brother), David Fitch (from across the road), Christopher Page (next farm down the road), and probably four Bacon family members from farms up and down the road –virtually every farm in the neighborhood! And of course, Nathaniel Page, Cornet of the Minuteman Company, lived in the old Page house and carried the flag to the Old North Bridge.

In June 1775 Colonists fortified the hill in Charlestown opposite Boston, leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Thompson Maxwell was there, of course, along with another brother Hugh Maxwell, who was then a Lieutenant in the Minuteman Company from Charlemont.  Both took active parts in the Battle of Bunker Hill, laying out the entrenchments the night before and then manning them during the battle.  Hugh Maxwell was severely wounded, but he continued to serve in various Massachusetts regiments and in the Continental Army until the end of the war. Other Old Billerica Road men who fought in that battle included Reuben Bacon, who died there.

Both Nathaniel Page’s and Christopher Page’s homesteads still stand and are listed by the National Park Service on the National Register of Historic Places. An Old Billerica Road historic district running north from Michael Bacon’s house (the oldest in Bedford), past Capt. Jonathan Willson’s house to beyond the sharp turns is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the century following the Revolutionary War, the owners of the mill and farms along what by then was called East Street had all changed.  Bedford had built a school in each quarter of town to serve children in that quarter, and the East School was located on Old Billerica Road.  The schoolhouse still stands but is now a private residence.

By the time of this 1875 map, the new Burlington Road had been built as an improved shortcut to town from Burlington.

Other changes were in the air.  The last Bacon to live in the Michael Bacon house moved into town in 1845. The house had been a two-family house for the Bacons since the 1760s, but with his departure each half of the house had a different owner for the next century.  The west half of the house and related farmland to the north and west was acquired by an investor, John Clifton, who also bought the Capt. Jonathan Willson farm and established a large 220-acre Clifton Stock Farm there.  It helped to supply the growing needs of the Boston market for meat and livestock, and it was a major departure from the family dairy farms surrounding it.  After John Clifton’s death, Orin Fiske continued the operation.

South of the Stock Farm, by 1889 John Butterfield had bought the former Maxwell farm and built his new house there. Fitch descendants still owned their farm, but the mill had been sold and was owned by Charles Clark.  South of the mill around the intersection of Burlington Road, former Page family land had been sold, which was William Lyons’ farm.  I mention all this because the Clifton Stock Farm to the north and the Maxwell/ Butterfield farm, the Fitch farm, and the Lyons farm all figured in major new undertakings along the road by the turn of the 20th century.

The arrival of the railroad in Bedford in the 1870s changed Bedford from a remote agricultural town to one that was in Boston’s backyard. The railroad was extended from Lexington through Bedford to Concord in 1874. A narrow-gauge railroad ran between Bedford to Billerica briefly. and it was replaced by a standard-gauge line. The Middlesex & Boston electric street trolley came through Bedford in1902 and eventually connected from Boston as far north as Lowell and as far west as Hudson.  It was faster and more convenient to travel between Bedford and Boston a century ago than it is now.  Bedford became an attractive country retreat for some wealthy families.

The Parker family was among the wealthy families to arrive in the late 1800s.  Arthur Parker and his brother, Frederic Parker purchased the Clifton Stock Farm in 1893, which they renamed Shawsheen River Farm.  Arthur Parker also acquired the Skinner farm (opposite the Michael Bacon house) and the Ireland farm to the south for his dairy herd.  He was also a prominent breeder of championship trotters. His stallion, Bingen. was the sire of several dozen outstanding trotters. One of them, Uhlan, set a world trotting record and rose to international fame. Parker had a half-mile practice track for his trotters where Bandera Drive and Temple Terrace are now located.

Frederic Parker renovated the Jonathan Willson house (261 Old Billerica Road) and moved there with his family.  He was an astute businessman, and he built a number of commercial greenhouses to grow fresh lettuce and cucumbers that were shipped daily to Boston markets.  There is a substantial addition on the old Jonathan Willson homestead which appears to have been added to support the market produce business.

Their sister Eleanor Parker soon purchased the east half of the old Bacon house (reuniting the house within one family), the barn. and the farmland to the south and east.  In 1903 another brother, Francis Stanley Parker, arrived and purchased another farm northeast of the others.  By 1911 the family owned more than 350 acres along Old Billerica Road extending from Springs Brook on the west to the Shawsheen River on the east.

Over the years, the family bought and sold parcels through dozens of land transactions.  They created an enclave along both sides of Old Billerica Road during that period, like the “Baconville” enclave two centuries earlier.  Both Arthur and Frederic Parker served on the Board of Selectmen, and the family was involved in town affairs.  During Old Home Week in 1912, Mary Parker and her chauffeur were in the parade. Frederic Parker, Sr., and three of the Parker sons enlisted and served during WWI.

Click this link to read Tales from Old Billerica Road ~ Part Two

 

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Joan E Ogg
October 9, 2022 9:51 am

Thank you Don for the history of the street not only where I grew up but my Dad and his family grew up. I remember a lot of the names of that street.

Mercedes Kane
October 7, 2022 9:19 am

Great article, very well researched. Many thanks!

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