Upper Boston Post Road #9 (UBPR#9) Alternate Route Entry #4
“I receiv’d the Vote of the Town of Westborough in which I am call’d to the great and arduous Work of the Gospel Ministry among them.”From the Diary of Ebeneezer Parkman, Minister to the town of Westborough from 1724-1782, February 28, 1724.
The old road to Worcester in the town of Westborough is, for the most part, well and truly a back road. What was once the main road between Framingham and Worcester, a road along which John Adams and the British spies Captain William Browne and Ensign Henry DeBerniere traveled in the 1770s, a road that once passed through the center of the original town of Westborough, is now for large sections literally the back road behind the convenience stores, restaurants, and gas stations that line the Worcester Turnpike, the inglorious back entrance to these modern conveniences for the traveler on today’s main road. Broken into disparate pieces, this section is unmentioned by most of the narrators I have been using to trace the old road. There are no milestones, few significant buildings of note, and no population centers as the road skirts the northern, less populated section of the town. It is a road that was once important but was obviously living on borrowed time as the center of town shifted away from what was the original settlement at “Chauncy Village,” near Lake Chauncy.
Of course even Route 9, the anodyne name for the road called the Worcester Turnpike on the map of the town surveyed by Nahum Fisher in the “Fall of 1830” is no longer the true main road, the baton long ago having been passed to the Massachusetts Turnpike (Interstate 90) which skirts the southern edge of Westborough and links with the outer ring road of Boston, Interstate 495, in the southeastern corner of the town. So Oak Street, as the old road to Worcester is known for the longest section in the town of Westborough is a back road to what is no longer even the main road, and it feels very much like a road forgotten.
As is usual on these walks, it turns out that walking along the old road leads to the discovery of many traces of interesting stories revealing the rich and complex histories of the small towns through which the road passes. There are many layers of history along these old roads, too many even to recount in any meaningful way in this relatively brief entry about a short stretch of the way across a quiet part of a suburban town more than thirty miles from Boston. Entire books could be written about the various important places that lined the road, from the first church in Westborough to the State Reform School for Boys, to the estates of Revolutionary war heroes, all of which are long gone. So how did the road end up in this sorry state? Once again the early development of the town, specifically the placement of the meeting house for the congregation, was a decisive factor in the evolution of the road.
So let’s begin at the beginning. The towns of Southborough, Westborough and Northborough, the next stop along this alternative road to Worcester taken on occasion by many of the travelers whose diaries and records I have used to follow the route of the Upper Boston Post Road, all were once part of the town of Marlborough. As the distant sections of the once very large town were settled, residents in these far-flung areas were eager to acquire a meeting house closer to their residence. The location of the meeting house was often the single most contentious issue in the early annals of most New England towns, as I have discovered again and again during these walks while researching the history of the road using local sources whenever possible.
The “Boroughs”, as the four towns that derived from the mother town of Marlborough are sometimes collectively called, are no different from towns like Watertown, Waltham, Weston, Wayland, and Framingham through which I have already passed. As early as 1683 a petition was made to separate the western section of Marlborough: “The Marlborough town meeting ruled that such a division of the town be granted, ‘if the westerly part of the town shall see cause afterward to build another meeting house, and find itself able to do so, and to maintain a minister.'”1 Kristina Nilson Allen, On The Beaten Path: Westborough, Massachusetts, Westborough Historical Society, 1984. p. 20. available as a PDF from the Westborough Historical Society Website It was not until November 18, 1717 that “the town of Westborough was incorporated; it was the hundredth town to be established in Massachusetts. The town’s name derives from the fact that it was the western section or ‘borough’ of Marlborough. Southborough at that time was the southern section of Marlborough. Northborough was the northern portion of the original town of Westborough until it was incorporated as a town in 1766. 2On The Beaten Path, p. 21.
The original meetinghouse was located along Oak Street as we shall shortly see. However, further agitation within the town of Westborough about the distance to the meetinghouse led to the formation of two precincts in the town in the 1740s. The north precinct eventually became the town of Northborough, while a new meeting house was established for the southern precinct in what is today the center of Westborough, about two miles south of the original meeting house. Thus the road through the original center, no longer the center at the time of the Revolution, was already somewhat obsolete in the eighteenth century; the construction of the Worcester Turnpike around 1810, a small section of which runs along the route of the original old road to Worcester, further pushed the original road into the shadows. When the railroad arrived in the 1830s it passed through the modern center of town and subsequent development in the town occurred predominantly in Westborough Center. A brief resurgence of the northern area of the town occurred with the arrival of automobiles in the twentieth century, which revived the fortunes of the somnolent Worcester Turnpike, but the construction of the highways after World War II once again marked the decline of Route 9. Only the general increase in population in the towns surrounding the city of Boston has enabled the Worcester Turnpike to maintain a semblance of importance as a shopping road and a cheaper route east and west, ironically being free even though it was originally built and maintained as a paid toll road.
Oak Street, the original road now barely recognizable as a principal thoroughfare, has undergone quite dramatic changes in time as well, despite appearances. Before we get to this section of the road however, a review of the route of the road to this area from the border with Southborough is required. Most of this part of what was the main road to Worcester is also hardly identifiable, and has been broken into sections that have been commandeered by other pretenders to the status of the “main” road. Yet, unlike the road in Southborough, it is at least mostly still extant, having avoided being submerged by reservoirs or eliminated by interstate highways. It still exists.
Smith Street in Westborough is the continuation of the old road from Framingham which is called Burnett Road in Southborough. This quiet residential street running from a quiet corner of Southborough seems an unlikely candidate for the main road from Framingham and the main road from Westborough to Boston in the eighteenth century. Yet a glance at the earliest maps of Westborough, Nathan Fisher’s map of 1795 and his son Nahum Fisher’s map of 1830 clearly show it is indeed the main road. In particular, the younger Fisher drew a line in pencil between what is today Smith Street and Walker Street in the northeast corner of Westborough (see the map above) which became what is now called East Main Street but which was only being developed in 1830 and can be seen on maps by 1837.3The end paper of On the Beaten Path has a reproduction of the 1837 map for those who really want to see the details of road development in northeastern Westborough in the 1830s.
There is not much to see on the initial half-mile stretch of the old road along residential Smith Street until the junction of Smith, Walker, and East Main Streets, where the Amsden house sits prominently on the northeast corner. The main brick section of the house dates to 1830 but the ell in the rear dates to 1705. Jacob Amsden and his descendants operated a tavern across the street from this house through the eighteenth century.4On The Beaten Path, pp. 28-29. Unfortunately none of my sources describe stopping at any specific taverns in Westborough, although Robert Treat Paine does record that the party traveling to Philadelphia in August, 1774, of which Paine and John Adams were members, “set out at 5 in the morning of the 11th (from Buckminster’s tavern in Framingham, breakfasted at Westborough, and proceeded through Worcester…”. Perhaps it was at this tavern which in 1775 was run by the daughters of Jacob Amsden and called Gale’s tavern, although a number of taverns are recorded in Westborough at the time. Adams himself omitted this section of the trip from his diary and the spies Browne and DeBerniere do not specifically mention the town of Westborough, although perforce they traveled this road to and from Worcester and Framingham in February 1775. It appears that even my trusted contemporary narrators have forsaken this section of the road.
The old road and East Main Street are one and the same now for a short distance. In fact, the distance is only 150 yards; it is clear from older maps (for instance Fisher’s or Walker’s map above) that the road between Smith Street and Lyons Road had a more pronounced bend that has clearly been smoothed out by the construction of a straight stretch of Route 30 just beyond Smith Street. A short narrow road called Warburton Lane is likely the old road, continuing in a pleasant winding manner for one fifth of a mile before rejoining Main Street at Uhlman’s Ice Cream Stand, an obligatory stop on a warm spring day. I believe there remains an old Blue Law on the Massachusetts books that requires one to stop when passing an ice cream stand on the road. As a law-abiding citizen I am therefore obliged to get an ice cream, even if it is not yet even lunch time. Despite the newly built homes nearby there is still a predominantly rural feel to this area, especially as cows roam the fields behind the ice cream stand. The Bruce tavern, another of the early Westborough taverns unmentioned specifically by my eighteenth-century predecessors along this road, once stood somewhere in the vicinity of the ice cream stand, so this is the closest I get to recreating the eighteenth-century travel experience. At least I am not drinking rum or beer at eleven in the morning, as they undoubtedly would have done.
The route of the original road to Worcester continues along East Main Street for a mile before reaching the Worcester Turnpike (Route 9). In the earliest days the turnpike was merely a nearly straight road built across swamps and over hills that was designed to shorten the distance between the two largest cities in Massachusetts. The enterprising people who conceived this rather headstrong plan to draw a straight line on a map and then reproduce it in real life occasionally had to revise their strategy, as they did here at the junction of East Main Street and the Worcester Turnpike. As can be seen on the 1830 map above by Nahum Fisher, there is a distinct angled change to the road at this intersection, a result of a number of failed attempts to build the turnpike over a particularly swampy area just south of Chauncy Lake. The route ultimately chosen for this short stretch of the turnpike exactly followed the route of the original road west through here, which sensibly curved around the southern border of the swamp.
With the advent of the automobile the Worcester Turnpike was expanded and has continued to be expanded to the point where today it is a multi-lane state highway with cloverleaf access ramps along this section in Westborough. East Main Street now passes under Route 9 and continues to Westborough Center. The old road to Worcester shifted west at this point and for half a mile follows the route of the Worcester Turnpike as explained above. At Lyman Street the old road veers north away from Route 9, but is ignominiously accessed only by crossing the parking lot of a strip mall and walking along a short path between a low stone wall to reach Oak Street.
Oak Street, as I have foreshadowed earlier, has seen better days. After the odd beginning, the road does not improve much for the next 1.3 miles; In the map above from 1910, there is a large gap in the road, which has subsequently been restored but the narrow, rough road has a distinctly back alley feel. There is a hodgepodge of eclectic buildings, some abandoned, a few modest houses, a few empty lots, the rear entrances (and backsides of the buildings) to CVS, Walgreens, Exxon, and Dunkin, a kids gym (!), a fitness center, a “Well-being Center” (separate from the fitness center), the Westborough Department of Public Works, a large parking lot for Westborough school buses, and a curiously ramshackle campus-like area which turns out to be the most interesting section of the road.
In the midst of the vestigial remains of old buildings, surrounded by the various newer and rehabilitated buildings of a detoxification and recovery center, sitting inconspicuously next to the road as public works trucks heading to and from the DPW headquarters roar past, is a stone marker commemorating the site of the first church in Westborough. It is difficult to imagine this somewhat forlorn spot was once the center of the new town of Westborough and that the meeting house stood here along Oak Street from 1718 until August,1749, when “The Precinct Met and Voted to pull the old Meeting House down, The Time to go about it next month” in the words of the first minister for the town, Ebeneezer Parkman.5Parkman was not the first to preach to the congregation in Westborough but an earlier minister, Daniel Elmer, was never ordained and left the congregation; Parkman was the first minister ordained in Westborough. On the Beaten Path, p. 23. Parkman, minister from 1724 until his death in 1782, maintained a detailed diary for almost the entire period, with descriptions of numerous trips along the old roads to Boston, Worcester, and points in between. He also describes the complicated arguments about splitting the congregation into two precincts and the building of new meeting houses north and south of the original building. Parkman turned down the offer to be the minister of the northern precinct which eventually separated to become the town of Northborough; prior to the split, he was minister for the residents of both towns for more than twenty years, he was then the minister for the southern precinct for more than twenty years, and he was around for almost twenty more years after the northern precinct became a separate town, all the while keeping track of affairs in the area. He was also the longtime secretary of the Marlborough Association of Ministers, and records his travels to the frequent meetings held in various towns in the area. In the words of the Ebeneezer Parkman Project, where the transcribed diary is available to search online, his writings “provide one of the most complete pictures of life in a rural New England town during the colonial period.” Parkman’s detailed descriptions of his decades of travels around Massachusetts in the eighteenth century have already proven useful for this project and as I move through the remaining “Boroughs” and other towns in Worcester County along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road I look forward to comparing his descriptions with my contemporary experience of the road.
Part of the explanation for the sense of decay around this street is the long association of the area with various state institutional facilities, most of which were shut down and abandoned by the 1970s. On the north shore of Lake Chauncy, the most noticeable geographical feature on the map in this part of Westborough, the Massachusetts State Reform School was established in 1848 with the idea that the rural atmosphere would be conducive to the moral improvement of truant and damaged children caught up in the legal system. The school had a work component and an educational component and was largely self-sufficient, but (in the words of a wayside exhibit on the property) “After a riot by the boys broke out in 1878, rumors of extreme punishment at the school began to circulate in the press. Even though the legislature considered the congregate-style reform school a failed experiment, the school was not closed. Instead, in 1884, the State decided to move the reform school a few miles away to Powder Hill, and the abandoned buildings were used to establish the newly chartered Westborough Insane Hospital on the shore of Lake Chauncy.”
The newer version of the school aimed to create a more family-style atmosphere; instead of a large compound with vast dormitory halls, the newer school, named after Judge Theodore Lyman of Brookline whose legacy helped fund the project, consisted of smaller buildings each housing a small groups of boys under the care of a live-in adult or even a family. The Lyman School survived in this manner for decades but was closed, along with the hospital, in the 1970s as ideas about child development and the care of people with mental health issues evolved and scandals continued to plague state institutions.6The discussion of the school in the histories of Westborough is somewhat erratic: DeForest & Bates (1891) are enthusiastic boosters of the town and wax lyrically about the school and its administration; Allen (1984) does not spend a lot of time on the school and what statements she does make are curious and perhaps a little tone deaf: About crime in Westborough: “There is little street crime in Westborough, beyond occasional car thefts, shoplifting, and store robberies. Before the Lyman School for Boys closed in 1971, a lot of stolen cars were reported. Boys would run away from the school, steal a car in Westborough and dump it near Boston. A few days later, they would steal a car to come back and leave that stolen car in Westborough.”(p. 283). About the closure of the school: “there was a move against all institutions, good and bad, in the late 1960s.” (p. 323) Obviously this is a superficial analysis of the long history of these institutions but this project is more about the road than it is about analyzing the role of government in child development or in healthcare; the upshot is that there was a state reform school here for nearly a century through which the old road to Worcester (Oak Street in this area of Westborough) passed.7For an example of a more detailed analysis of the cultural response to scandals at Massachusetts state institutions see this article about the Frederick Wiseman Documentary Titicut Follies (1967) The abandoned institutional buildings and the contemporary presence of the campus of the detoxification and recovery center as well as a variety of state institutions, including the headquarters of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, are obvious legacies of the former Reform School.
Another state institution that has moved to this area is the Westborough District Court, which is located along the last section of Oak Street before it merges with Milk Street (Route 135). The short section of Oak Street along which the courthouse sits was remodeled at the same time the building was put up to make access to Route 135 and nearby Route 9 more straightforward. The original old road to Worcester is today the rear entrance road to the headquarters of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Police, after which the old road peters out into a short stretch of woods through which Milk Street can be seen a few yards beyond. One curiosity along this “road” (at this point it is just a driveway) is a large concrete building built into the side of the hill with a sign reading Massachusetts Environmental Police Bunker. I can only imagine if the bears come for them this is where they are hiding?! Truly an odd structure for an organization I frankly did not know existed until this moment. The truth is out there.
The last section of the old road from Framingham to Worcester in the town of Westborough follows Milk Street (Route 135) about one third of a mile to Davis Street. On the right the wooded areas are still part of the state lands once part of the Lyman School. Today the old Lyman School entrance road leads to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative; immediately after that is a small cul-de-sac with a new housing development. Just beyond that is the dirt road entrance to the Wayne McCallum Wildlife Management Area, where the bulk of the old farmland on the north and west side of Lake Chauncy now comprises a variety of ecological niches including a beaver pond, hedgerows, a pine forest, and fields in various states of growth. As a birder this is an opportunity too good to pass up, so a fair few hours are spent meandering the trails.
Eventually I find my way back to the road and continue along the last hundred yards of Milk Street where I am immediately brought back into the eighteenth century; just past the entrance road to the wildlife management area is the Howe-Cobb house from 1714. Other eighteenth-century houses once lined this road, including one of local importance and perhaps some relevance to this project. On the left-hand side of Milk Street visible on the map above from 1910 is the estate of “B.J. Stone.” The house is no longer there but according to Heman Packard De Forest, in his History of Westborough, the house was originally built by “Captain Stephen Maynard (who) was perhaps the wealthiest of all (residents of Westborough); he lived in the house on the Northborough road now occupied by B. J. Stone, was a very prominent figure in the town, and one of the leaders in military affairs.”8The History of Westborough, Massachusetts. Part I. The Early History. By Heman Packard De Forest. Part II. The Later History. By Edward Craig Bates. Published by the town, 1891. p. 190 John Adams, in his diary entry for January 25, 1776, after recording his visit to see the artillery brought by Colonel Henry Knox and stored in Framingham near Colonel Buckminster’s tavern, writes that “after dinner, rode to Maynard’s, and supped there very agreeably”. The following day Adams was in Worcester. Maynard was a known Whig, the representative of the town of Westborough to the General Court from 1768-1777 and the man “foremost in military affairs.”9De Forest, p. 153. Although there was also another (Jonathan) Maynard along the road in Framingham, his house was less than a mile from Buckminster’s tavern and thus it seems unlikely he would have dined at Buckminster’s, then “supped” a half hour later. Instead I find it much more likely that the Maynard house mentioned in Adams’ diary is the house of Captain Stephen Maynard, a little more than ten miles distant from Buckminster’s in Framingham and eleven miles from Worcester.
At the junction ahead, the old road to Worcester continued west along today’s Davis Street. A bridge over the Assabet River less than a hundred yards along Davis Street marks the boundary between the two precincts that once were both part of Ebeneezer Parkman’s congregation which met in the meeting house along Oak Street and are now the separate towns of Northborough and Westborough. The Assabet River rises in Westborough and merges 34 miles downstream with the Sudbury River in Concord to form the Concord River, famously described by Henry David Thoreau. I began this walk, along an alternate road to Worcester, near the border between Weston and Wayland, initially walking through the eastern watershed of the Sudbury River, before crossing the river in Framingham just before reaching Buckminster’s tavern. The Sudbury River watershed continued to dominate the road as I made my way through the town of Southbourough, the dam built across the Stony Brook branch of the river in the late-nineteenth century even submerging over a mile of the old road under a reservoir. It was not until I reached the area around Chauncy Lake that I crossed imperceptibly into the Assabet River watershed area. Yet it feels as though I have moved into a new landscape and crossing this admittedly little stream into Northborough somehow feels as though I have crossed the border between two ancient kingdoms.
One of the reasons I admire Henry David Thoreau is his ability to reveal that what usually is thought of as trivial is often monumental. Thoreau took a walk 30 miles further downstream along the Assabet River in Concord, which he recorded in his journal entry of July 10, 1852: “I wonder if any Roman emperor ever indulged in such luxury as this, – of walking up and down a river in torrid weather with only a hat to shade the head. What were the baths of Caracalla to this?”
Ebeneezer Parkman records in his diary entry for Monday June 4, 1759 “Visit Ensign Josiah Rice who is Sick and low. Pray with him. N.B. The Bridge over Assabet River repairing. Capt. Maynard leaves home for the Army. Visit his Wife.” A terse entry perhaps, but pregnant with importance to the people involved. The ailing Rice, incidentally, died at the age of 92, almost thirty-three years later. In 1745 Rice, who lived in what is now Northborough, had asked Parkman to help him to get “excepted” out the north precinct. The bridge was necessary to cross the Assabet River to get to Northborough and beyond to Worcester without having to take a large detour or risk injury crossing the river, while the visit to the wife of Captain Maynard upon his departure for the war is obviously poignant. It becomes even more poignant upon discovering that, while Maynard was previously away fighting, “seven family members – including his father and mother, wife and four children – died of the Great Mortality of 1756 (measles).” Maynard returned home to bury his family members, married the widow Anna Brigham, and left his remaining children with his new wife to go back to the French and Indian War. In these clipped diary fragments is the “great and arduous work of the Gospel ministry” but also the stuff of great novels. To paraphrase Thoreau, what is the crossing of the Rubicon to the crossing of the Assabet River?
As I mentioned earlier, the northern precinct of Westborough became the separate town of Northborough in 1766. The old road from Framingham to Worcester continued in Northborough for another two miles along what is today called Davis Street before merging with the Upper Boston Post Road a little under a mile east of the border with Shrewsbury. I will now return to the Upper Boston Post Road and follow it through Sudbury and Marlborough before reaching the town of Northborough. Then I will come back to this last section of the alternate road that I have followed from Wayland here to the bridge over the Assabet River between Westborough and Northborough, and cover it along with the route of the Upper Boston Post Road in an entry specifically devoted to the old roads in Northborough. I have been diverted long enough from following the road that is of primary interest to me, spending time tarrying along an alternate road through the towns of Wayland and Framingham, Soutborough and Westborough when the main goal of this project is to follow the route of the Upper Boston Post Road. Blame Henry Knox and his artillery, or the spies Browne and DeBerniere, or blame John Adams; in truth I haven’t really minded spending time I could have used to advance along the Post Road burrowing through the history of these towns. As it happens, there is still more “boroughing” to do, as the Post Road passes through Marlborough and Northborough, two of the four “borough” towns. I have time to do more time-traveling in these boroughs. I’ll be back.
Total distance traveled in this entry: 4.1 miles
Total distance covered on the Framingham Diversion Route: 19.7 miles
Total distance covered for all the walks described in Boston Rambles: 81.2 miles