Town Forest History

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WIGWAM HILL & MENDON TOWN FOREST

A Google earth satellite map of the Town Forest shows the bulk of the heavily forested area and adjacent properties.  It is located off Millville Road in the south-western corner of Mendon near the Millville & Uxbridge town lines.  A neighboring property and popular tourist attraction is Southwick’s Zoo.  The fire tower, indicated on the map, is the highest point on Wigwam Hill.  The large rock, carved by J. F. Taft in 1876, is a short distance from the tower. Other sites could not be identified due to the heavy foliage.

 

What’s In A Name?

       Wigwam Hill is highest point in the Town Forest.  The name “Wigwam” for this hill, and the nearby brook, has caused some confusion as to the origin of its name.  According to the Annals of Mendon from 1659-1880 by Dr. John Metcalf, Caleb’s Hill was so called because Caleb the Indian the last genuine Indian (a/k/a Native American), to whom the town paid bounties for killing wolves, had his wigwam there.    It would seem this would be the location of what is now Wigwam Hill, but Dr. Metcalf lists Wigwam and Caleb’s as being two different hills (see the 1831 map below). Caleb’s Hill is now called Inman Hill.

The name’s origin, according to Milford Daily Journal, August 14, 1897; “This hill takes its name from being the last place a genuine Indian lived in a wigwam.”

 

Early Years

Taken from Albert E. Jones, “Wigwam Hill”, The Transcript, 1904 or 1905.

         “The earliest inhabitants of what is now the Town Forest were the Native American Nipmucs.  This virgin people of the soil, as they were called by Albert E. Jones, were scattered and fast disappearing when the first Europeans came to our shores. Woodland Thompson was the first white settler on Wigwam Hill.1

         Looking westward from what is now Wigwam Hill, the landscape was unspoiled and undeveloped. No church spire could be seen pointing the way to heaven.  Nearly a hundred years were to elapse before the first tall chimney would mark the beginnings of industry in the Blackstone Valley, industry that would spur the growth and development of the surrounding communities.

         After the Industrial Revolution became established in the valley, the villages of Whitinsville, North Uxbridge, Uxbridge Center, the Woolen Mills, the long line of the Uxbridge Hills and the 3 rivers that wind through those towns could be seen to the west from the top of Wigwam Hill.  A score of neat farm houses which dotted the countryside and the blue peaks of Wachusett and Monadnock mountains could also be seen in the distance.

      Today (1904/05) very few people go here but, time was when the place was frequently visited and it is well worth a visit from anyone who enjoys looking at long stretches of landscape, immensity of blue sky, and a horizon far removed.”

 

Tower Road is built and later accepted by the Town.

“In 1726 a 3-rod way (1 rod= 5 ½ yards or 16 ½ feet or 3 rods = 49 ½ feet) was laid out from the Arnold Taft place over Wigwam Hill … to John Darling’s at Millville. The area around Wigwam Hill from an 1831 map of Mendon including the road over the hill built over 100 years previously.  Caleb’s Hill is at the top center of the map.

The map above shows Wigwam Hill and the surrounding area in 1870.

According to the Annals of Mendon from 1880; “On May 28, 1870 the Town voted to accept a road (an extension to Millville Road) laid out on Wigwam Hill northerly from the house of Nathaniel Taft and running easterly to intersect with the road from Mendon to Millville (then part of the town of Blackstone) and to discontinue that part of the road over Wigwam Hill (Tower Road) lying northerly of the point of beginning of the above new road.” 

Map of the Town Forest (above)-The numbers on the map indicate sites of interest which are identified below.

Key Points of Interest on the Town Forest Map.

#1. The first well site.  The observation tower, dance hall, grist mill and old foundations are located in the vicinity.

#2. The second well site.

#3. Fire Tower at the summit of Wigwam Hill.

#4. Taft/Anchor Rock which is located on Tower Road.

#5. Saw Mill and Dam site.

#6. Swampy area which used to be the reservoir or pond which held back the water which powered the saw mill.

#7. The “Big Wall Mystery” and former road.

#8. Granite Quarry.

#9. The Stone Bridge over the mill stream.

There are other points of interest in the forest, like the Brick Kiln site, which have not been identified or which remain undiscovered.

Photos and text for these key points are below in this document.  Each site number corresponds with the number on the Town Forest map and is identified by MAP #XX.

 

 

The Observatory, Dance Hall and Grist Mill

Map #1-(Near the well) - See the Town Forest Map below for the key to the map numbers.

        “Thompson Taft, who represented the 4th generation of Taft’s who owned Wigwam Hill, recognized the great view of the valley an observation tower could provide.  He decided, in 1849, to build one on the summit of that hill.”

        The Observatory (sometimes called the Monument) was 55 ft. high, 12 feet square at the top, and 24 square at the base.” Another account from Milford Daily Journal, August 14, 1897 states; “it was 84 ft. tall, 10 feet square at the top, and 20 feet square at the base, although they admit their measurements may not be exact with proper arrangement inside to get to the top (stairway).”

      Caleb S. Taft, a blacksmith from Blackstone (now Millville) testified; “The framing of the building was done by Thompson and Austin Taft.  The 4 tall uprights, 2 of chestnut and 2 of white pine, were brought from Burrillville & Smithfield, R.I.   The iron to brace it against the wind was Lowmore Iron, the best in the world, and was forged in my smithy by my father Caleb Taft. Thirty-eight men by the name of Taft assisted in raising the structure.  The admission price to the observatory was 10 cents.

         An elderly gentleman (not identified) who was born and lived near the hill his entire life said to Albert Jones; ‘Why, sir, from the top of the observatory…one could easily discern, with the aid of a good glass, on a day when the atmosphere was very clear, the masts of the shipping in Boston harbor.’

        A year or so after the observatory was built, Mr. Taft made an extension to it 40 feet long and 22 feet wide which was used as a dance hall, at the dedication of which a large company of ladies and gentlemen were present. Among the ladies were 3 of the most beautiful in the country who afterward became wives of men who were financially, socially and politically prominent. There was feasting and dancing and Prof. Absalom Daniels, famous in his day as a dancing teacher and master of ceremonies, presided on the occasion where he entertained the company in dancing a hornpipe in a most lively and energetic style.

        From the Milford Daily Journal, August 14, 1897; “Later a grist mill run by horsepower was added.  These buildings stood for some years until the dance hall was taken down and made into a mill.  Soon after the timbers of the observatory were found to be coming unsound, it was taken down rather than repaired.”

         The spot upon which the fire tower now stands is the highest point on the hill at 573 feet above sea level, so the observation tower and other buildings probably stood near the present tower.

          There is what appears to be part of a mill stone across Tower Road from the fire tower and near the beginning of the path which leads to the old mill and dam site.  There is also a well for supplying water which is no longer active.  This may have been the site of the dance hall and grist mill which replaced it. More investigation needs to be done as this location is not at the summit of Wigwam Hill, but across Tower Rd. from it.  The observatory was said to be on the summit of the hill and the dance hall and later grist mill adjacent to it (see above),

           For a long time the hill was popular as a picnic ground and site of Sunday school and other parties who frequently visited it and remained for the whole day.

 

“Wigwam and Miscoe Hill (located in the northern corner of Mendon) were also occupied as stations for observation in the Trigonometrical Survey of the State made for the construction of a topographical map by Simeon Borden Esq.” According to  the Annals of Mendon from 1659-1880 by Dr. John Metcalf.

The remains of what appears to have been a mill stone.

 

 

Mendon Acquires the Town Forest

“The land was taken as tax title property in 1934 by deed Book 2617 Page 258 for failure of the former owner, Charles L. Robinson of Providence, R. I. to pay the taxes due in the amount of $63.29.  The Town voted to convert the tax title property to a Town Forest under Mass. General Law, Chapter 143, Section 35, in 1944.  The total acreage acquired was approximately 120 acres +/- which includes the area known as Wigwam Hill.  Another 2.5 acres was located across Millville Road (on the east side of the street, known as lot 210).

          There were 1900 red pine and 900 white pine seedlings set out at the Town Forest and planted by volunteers. Many of the trees planted were lumbered in 1987 and, more recently, about 2007.

           The well on the property was cleaned out, which made drinking water available.  This well was located along Tower Road not far from the fire tower and near where the mill stone was found. The well is no longer sanitary for drinking or washing.

          “The many stone walls indicate the property was farmed in the past probably as pasture for sheep and/or cattle.  It does not appear to have been cultivated.”

 

Taken from the Town Forest Reports dated January 1, 1945 and January 23, 1989.

 

           An earlier Town Forest Committee worked on plans to further the usefulness of the Forest in 1945 and it was hoped that groups from Town would avail themselves of this site.  Unfortunately, in most cases these plans or those proposed below in 1989, which were similar, were not carried out.

 

Fire Tower and Mill and Dam Sites

“Frank M. Aldrich, Fire Warden of Mendon, received word in August of 1915 that the State was to begin, at once, the erection of a fire tower on Wigwam Hill in Mendon.  The tower would be similar to the one on Fay Mountain in Westboro. The tower was 50 feet high and was opened for the first time in May 1916 when a watchman was installed. It served the State and protected the area for 38 years in what was to become the Town Forest in 1944.”  Milford Daily Journal, August 20, 1915 and May13, 1916.

“In 1954 a new 70 foot high fire tower was built.  The new tower rose 20 feet above the old one which stood nearby and was later torn down. A public dedication of the newly completed fire tower was held on August 20, 1954 at 10:30 am.  In charge of the formal dedication was Howard Hurlihy, the State District Fire Warden.” Milford Daily News, August 20, 1954.

Map #3-The current and former fire towers in 1954 (above).  The old tower is in the process of being taken down.

 

 

Other Town Forest Points of Interest

Note: Some of the information about these sites is speculation on our part.  The Mass Historical Commission has expressed interest in having Mendon pursue an archeological study of the Town Forest.

 

Map #4 - Taft or Anchor Rock

The large rock with carvings by J. F. Taft.  The carvings made into the rock are indicated by “photo #’s” and are shown in detail below.

Photo #1: One of the 3 individual carvings.  The date, April 28th, 1876 was nearly 2 months before the Battle of Little Big Horn (June 25th), known as Custer’s Last Stand. Ulysses S. Grant was President of 37 states. Our nation’s 100th birthday was July 4th of that year.

 

Photo #2 (above): A 2nd carving nearby with the date “1876”.  The two “3 rings” symbols and “F.L.T.” carved inside the rings in photo #1 on J. F. Taft’s Rock represents the Independent Order of Odd Fellows - also known as "The Three Link Fraternity" which stands for Friendship, Love and Truth.  J. F. Taft must have been a member of this organization.  “G. B.” is an unknown.

 

Photo #3 (above): The 3rd carving is the largest and most impressive image.    The meaning of the anchor and name “A. I. ALEXANDER” is unknown to us.  There were, however, residents of the town by the name of Alexander at the time.

 

 

Map #5 - The Saw/Shingle Mill and Dam Site

In 1852/1855 a saw and shingle mill built, owned and operated by Thomas Taft,  was located along a stream in the Town Forest that feeds into Wigwam Brook.  Fortunately, after so many years, the foundation is remarkably well preserved.

The granite walls which were the foundation of the saw mill stand along the stream which flows through it. The water wheel was likely located close to the falls with an axle attached to the granite foundation walls. The dam could be closed to back up the water and build pressure, or opened to provide the power to run the machinery or saw the wood.

The foundation as seen from the waterfalls.

Map #9-The stream passes under a stone bridge and the fire road on its way to the mill site.

Foundations of abandoned buildings (area nearby well site) – Map #1.

People lived along Tower Road in those days before electricity and central heating.  They must have endured cold winters and dark nights.  The danger from wild animals must have been extreme.  Below are pictured the foundations of some of those homesteads and barns.

 

This is one of the best preserved of the foundations.

 

The Brick Kiln

According to the 1831 town map a brick kiln (Taft’s Brick Kiln) was located in what is now the Town Forest. 

Although we are not sure exactly where the site is located today, we have found a possible location near the north-western edge of the forest. A future survey by archeologists will be needed to determine whether or not this is the correct location.  Upon completion of the survey, images of the brick kiln and documentation of any other identified point of interest will be posted to this history.

 

 

Map# 7 - Big Wall Mystery

From Shirley Smith and the Town Forest Committee Aug. 9, 2013

 

      On the southerly side of the Town Forest, not far from the lookout tower, there is a mysterious 10 ft. high stone wall that appears to be part of a foundation for an abandoned road. A segment of this road stretches 8 to 10 ft. wide across the top of the wall. There was a road abandoned by 1870, but it is on the northerly side of the forest, some distance away (see the map from 1831). It must have taken a lot of human effort, without the help of machines and power equipment, to construct such a road.

      The Town Forest Committee is hoping that the proposed archeological reconnaissance survey will help to solve the mystery of the origin and purpose of this road.

 

The roadway along the Mystery Wall which is wide enough for a vehicle to traverse.

 

 

Two wells (Map #1 & #2) are located in the Town Forest. This is a picture of the second well in the south-east corner of the forest.

 

Footnotes:

1New England Families, Genealogical and MemorialA Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, Volume 2  edited by William Richard Cutter. Lewis historical publishing Company, 1913 - New England.

Other Sources:

John G. Metcalf, M.D, Annals of Mendon from 1659-1880,

E. L. Freeman & Company publisher, Providence, R.I.—1880

Albert E. Jones, “Wigwam Hill”, The Transcript, 1904 or 1905.

Odd Fellows Symbol taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Milford Daily Journal, August 14, 1897.

Milford Daily Journal, August 20, 1915.

Milford Daily Journal, May 13, 1916.

Milford Daily News, August 20, 1954.

Taft Family Association, “Taft Tree Talks”, June 2004

From the research of Richard Taft Messinger and others.

Town Forest Committee Report, January 1, 1945.

Rexford V. N. Baker, Yankee Forest Cooperative Project, (a Town Forest Report)

P. O. Box 760, Chepachet, R.I. 02814.-January 23, 1989.

 

Photographs submitted by members of The Town Forest Committee, Preservation

Mendon and the Mendon Historical Society.

 

Compiled and written by Town Forest Committee member, Paul A. Doucette.

 

 

Granite Quarrying

        There is ample evidence of granite quarrying in what was to be the Town Forest. An actual pit quarry exists near the southwestern boundary and there are also the unmistakable signs that the glacial erratics were used as a source of granite.

        The early settlers needed granite for foundations, stone walls, cellars, wells, fireplaces, dams to harness water power for grist and saw mills and for grinding wheels. The owners of Wigwam Hill were the Taft family who migrated from Braintree around 1800. At the time Quincy was a part of Braintree and Quincy Granite was the best known granite throughout the country. King’s Chapel in Boston was built from Quincy Granite in 1750. In 1825, the Bunker Hill Monument was also built from Quincy Granite. It is likely that the Taft’s brought with them a knowledge of granite quarrying. Another source of information could have been Milford but Milford quarries opened in the mid 1800’s and Town Forest quarrying seems to predate that. The Town Forest granite is said to be part of the Milford granite vein.

        The granite blocks in the Town Forest show the characteristic marks of the feather and wedging methid of cutting the granite.   Holes were cut several inches apart and 4 to 5 inches deep using a metal hand drill or hammer and chisel. Two feathers, pieces of curved metal, were inserted into the sides of each hole and a metal or wooden wedge was inserted between them. Each wedge was hammered a few times before moving on to another wedge. This applied even force and the rock eventually split under the pressure of the wedges. If the granite did not break into the desired shape it was discarded. This would account for the pieces left lying around the site.

       Please view the Slide Show to see examples of the saw mill and farmstead foundations built from granite that was quarried in the Town Forest.