THE EAST VILLAGE
The crossroad near the head of Webster lake known as “The East Village” is an area of historical and possibly prehistoric significance.
Prior to being built up as two country roads, the crossroads may have been an intersection of old Indian trails. The Bay Path, Great Trail, and Mohegan paths converged nearby. These trails were probably among the routes used by the colonists as they gradually spread West.
According to an article published in 1889 in the “Webster Times”, during the mid-1700s, people living in this vicinity, and “south upward of 50 to 75 miles,” went to Worcester and Boston to trade. “They came through what is now the East Village, and at the four corners near the residence of Mrs. H. N. Slater (“The Hermitage”), stood a sign post, a slab of common field rock, from the Douglas Woods, and bore this inscription ‘Right hand road to Boston, Left hand road to Worcester’.” (Apparently this sign which had stood at the intersection prior to 1775, was taken by one Nathaniel Mosely in 1782. A deacon from Hampdon, Connecticut, he had the sign made into his gravestone marker.)
Since the intersection had importance early in New England’s transportation network, a tavern was built near it as early as 1756. At one time a man by the name of Joseph Kelley, owned the building which also served as an inn. Mr. Kelley was driver of the old Webster Stage Coach which made two weekly trips from Webster to Providence via South Framingham (19th century).
The inn has long since been torn down, and in the 19th century, a boarding house associated with Samuel Slater’s cotton mill was erected on the site on Pond Street in the East Village. In 1906 the barn, which was an adjunct to the tavern, was torn down.
Some of the earliest industrial efforts in Webster, originated at the head of the lake near the intersection which grew into “The East Village.” Prior to 1728, a sawmill and gristmill was in operation in the area, run by Asa Robinson (grandson of George Robinson, the first settler of the land).
Philip Brown and John Healy bought out Asa Robinson in 1798 and added a furnace and forge to the area. They then embarked on what would have to be one of the earliest industries in Webster (then Oxford South Gore), the making of bar iron. The ore was mined on a hill along the Mine Brook (east of Sucker Brook) and taken to Healy and Brown’s furnace and forge for smelting and working into bars.
SAMUEL SLATER, THE FATHER OF AMERICAN MANUFACTURERS, EXPANDS HIS TEXTILE MANUFACTURING ACTIVITIES TO OXFORD SOUTH GORE.
As early as 1811 there apparently was an interest in this vicinity in spinning cotton and wool by machinery. John Hudson, Thomas Kendall and Ephraim Edson bought land with water power rights in what came to be known as the East Village, but soon gave up what was an unsuccessful venture in manufacturing yarns. Some say, Edson contacted Samuel Slater to interest him in expanding his manufacturing activities to Oxford. Mr. Slater sent a trusted partner, Bela Tiffany, to look over the land, and in 1811 a property purchase was made. The first deed was given on January 6, 1812 from Elijah Pratt; included were approximately 9 1/2 acres, a dwelling house, barn, grist mill and trip-hammar shop. (This is the land at the northeast corner of the mill pond.)
Samuel Slater was attracted to this area for several reasons. First, cotton manufacturing had increased in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and the vicinity to such an extent that it was difficult to find outlets for all the yarns made, as every family for miles around was employed in picking, spinning, and weaving; the latter at home. It became necessary, therefore, to enter a new territory, and especially a farming country because among the families of farmers were to be found those skilled with the hand loom process. (Not until 1829 did Samuel Slater start “fancy” weaving of cloth by water power. Until that time weaving was done on a small scale by Yankee wives and daughters, mainly at home.)
Oxford in South Central New England was particularly suitable for Samuel Slater’s needs. In addition to farming families, skilled in hand weaving, and only too glad to supplement their meager incomes by weaving, Oxford South Gore had a geologic advantage suited to the needs of Slater. Its hilly, rocky landscape, while unsuitable for more than subsistence farming, was ideal for the development of the textile industry. The beds of most rivers, which were abundant, sloped steeply from source to mouth, providing the fall prerequisite to suitable water-power sites.
Slater, whose second Massachusetts mill (the first being in Rehobeth) was in this area, was aided in the expansion of his textile manufacturing activities by the outbreak of the 1812 war. The ensuing war engendered prosperity and created an increased demand for textile goods (uniforms).
Slater’s cotton manufacturing activities prospered at the intersection of the old Indian paths until expansion was necessary; in 1822 woolen manufacturing was commenced in the South Village, and in 1824, cotton manufacturing in the North Village. Eventually the prosperity engendered by the Slater corporation led to the incorporation of the town of Webster.
Apparently a variety of manufacturing activities associated with the production of cotton yarn and cloth were carried out in the East Village (including woolen manufacturing from 1815 to 1821), until December of 1876 when the East Village was entirely given over to the bleaching and dyeing and finishing of cotton goods.
As the East Village was the first center of concentrated industrial activity in the area (which came to be known as Webster), the first post office was located in the East Village. It was established on January 7, 1828 in the old Green Mill office (gone) with George W. Kimball, an accountant at the mill, holding the office of first post master. Also, the first Sunday school in South Central Massachusetts, was established in the East Village in 1820, when Slater was permitted to draw money and open a school. Situated on the north side of the mill pond, it was in session on Sundays, the only day the young operatives weren’t working. Mill workers were expected to attend, where they were instilled with Christian values in addition to the “Three-R’s.”
According to one historical writer, Holmes Ammidown, the men of prominence in the area which came to be known as the East Village, just prior to the arrival of Samuel Slater in 1812, were “…Elijah Pratt, Asa and Samuel Robinson, John and Alanson Bates, and several by the name of Kingsbury, all being men of considerable character and standing, maintaining good moral, social and religious society.”
Unfortunately, this crossroad, rich with the ghosts of Webster’s past is but today, a tawdry collection of gasoline stations, stores and restaurants. Nothing remains to remind us of the early Indian paths, unless it be a busy, commercial intersection, grown to its logical conclusion. Likewise, nothing remains of the early industries.
Samuel Slater, who, in the annals of American textile history, is treated with respect bordering on reverence, is remembered by a couple of modest monuments and a few, tattered Federal style mill houses across the street from Cranston Print, the successor to the East Village mill complex.
Addition: Asa Robinson who had a sawmill and gristmill in operation in the East Village area in the 18th century was a Minuteman (as was George R. Robinson), reporting to Cambridge for duty immediately following the battle of Lexington.
Addition: Upon Horatio Nelson Slater Jr.’s death in 1899, the management of the three villages was split; the Honorable Charles G. Washburn took over the East Village.