An old mill on the South River in Marshfield, circa 1940. Now the location of Veterans Memorial Park.

When considering the industrial history of the North River, what first comes to mind is shipbuilding. From the late 1600’s to the end of the nineteenth century, over one thousand wooden ships were built on this waterway. Less well known however is the North’s manufacturing history.

While shipyards were established along the main stream — dotting the shores of the deeper portions of the North River from Humarock to Hanover’s Barstow’s Bridge — mills and factories were only constructed on the tributaries. Narrow and often more steep in slope than the river itself, the tributaries offered the intense flow of water necessary to power a mill. The two industries worked well side by side. In fact, many of the mills and factories in the North River Valley produced goods for the shipyards, which demanded a constant supply of boards, nails, rope and anchors.

On the tributaries, water flow generally varied throughout the year, with the largest volume appearing in the late winter and early spring. Many mills operated seasonally, working around the clock when the water flow was high, less intensely at drier times.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were mills or manufacturing establishments in all of the towns in the North River Valley. Nearly every tributary in the region was dammed in at least one location, if not more, in order to power even the smallest of mills. With a good number of brooks, ponds and streams, Hanover was perhaps the busiest among these.

The first mill dam in Hanover was on the Indian Head River at Luddam’s Ford, erected by Thomas Bardin in 1704. Bardin built an anchor forge, which operated for 150 years until it was sold to Eugene Clapp. Clapp converted the forge to a rubber mill, where products containing rubber were ground and cleaned for reuse. By 1888, he had expanded the operation to the Pembroke side of the river, employing 100 men, and processing 20 tons per day.

Further up the Indian Head River were Waterman’s tack factory, and an operation run by Col. Jesse Reed, whose dam first powered a grist mill, and later a nail factory and machine shop. Even further upriver was E. Phillips & Sons’ factory which made anchors, locomotive cranks, and later, tacks. Barstow’s Forge, built on this site in 1720, made cannon balls for the Revolutionary War.

In 1886, a heavy rainfall brought serious flooding to the Indian Head River, damaging and nearly destroying just about all of the dams.

The first dam on the Drinkwater river was built in 1716 by Deacon James Hatch, who established a grist mill on the site. Hatch went on to manufacture cotton for sheets and shirts, and later tacks and shoe pegs. Eventually the operation was converted to a sawmill. Further upstream there was a fulling mill, and later a foundry which cast stoves, hollow ware, and machinery.

Also on the Drinkwater River was Stetson’s Machine works. Originally the site of a forge, as well as grist, saw, box, and shingle mills, the operation later became a machine manufacturing shop, where rubber hose and electric light wire covering were made.

In Pembroke, Herring Brook and Furnace Pond were the most favored industrial sites. As early as 1702, Lambart Despard operated a blast furnace on Furnace Pond. Raw material was obtained from bogs and from the pond itself, and, with the use of a smelting furnace, was cast into a wide variety of iron ware. The first cannon ever cast in the U.S. were made here as well.

Pembroke was also home to cotton and shingle mills and a tack factory. The Isaac Hatch mill on Herring Brook did brisk business making shoe boxes, eventually employing a steam mill which enabled the manufacture of a million feet of boards annually.

Norwell and Scituate, originally one town, were also popular milling sites. At one time, Third Herring Brook, which marked the town’s boundary with Hanover, contained three grist, one shingle, and three sawmills.

In 1677, the town of Scituate offered “30 acres of land to any person who, within 6 months, should erect a grist mill on Third Herring Brook, and engage to tend the mill for 14 years.” Charles Stockbridge accepted the offer. In 1830, a tackworks was built nearby by the company Salmond and Sons. There were also mills on Second Herring and Wildcat Brooks.

Probably the first sawmill in the Colony was constructed on First Herring Brook in Scituate, at what became the Stockbridge grist mill site. The Clapp and Torrey families also operated mills on First Herring Brook, and later there was a nail factory.

The milling center of Marshfield was Two Mile Brook, which was settled by Walter Hatch in 1647. Beginning in 1670, Hatch and his family created four ponds along this waterway, providing power for a number of mills. The Walter Hatch Mill manufactured box boards, the Magoun Mill made short logs and box boards, the Deacon Joel Hatch Mill processed grain and then lumber, and the David Hatch Mill was at different times a fulling and carding operation, a sawmill, and a box/coffin factory.

In the early 1800’s, a large manufacturing company was constructed on the South River at two sites, one at Chandler Pond and one at what is now Veterans Memorial Park. The Duxbury & South River Manufacturing Company produced cotton & woolen goods, employing both men and women. The mill complex included boarding houses, and even — for a short time — a school. Formerly on the “Upper” site, the Baker family had operated a grist mill. In 1847 it was converted to a woodshop where barrels, buckets, trunks and coffins were made. The “Lower” site was the location of Marshfield’s first grist mill, founded by William Ford and Josiah Winslow in 1654. Later it became a saw and boxboard mill, and still later a laundry service.

Also in Marshfield were a rivet factory at the foot of Nelson’s Hill, a grist mill on Spring Street, and a tack and nail factory at the junction of Summer and Prospect Streets. Organ parts and violin cases were manufactured at Randall’s Pond on Little’s Creek, while cordage, sails and rigging were made at White’s Ferry.

Also of note was Jesse Reed’s Furnace Brook nail manufacturing complex, which included a forge, factory, water wheel, and canal system.

Milling and manufacturing, especially in conjunction with the shipbuilding industry, brought considerable wealth to the North River Valley. It also brought change — and not always for the better. Dams erected across just about every major and minor stream in the watershed blocked the passageways that herring, shad and other migratory fish relied upon in order to reach their spawning grounds. Mill and factory refuse significantly polluted the waters. It is also interesting to note that very few of the ponds in this region are natural: just about all of them were created by the damming of tributaries for water power.

Milling and manufacturing in the North River Valley set into decline by the end of the nineteenth century, as larger industrial cities such as Brockton, Fall River, Lawrence and Lynn gained momentum. This brought major change not only for the region’s human inhabitants, but also for the river system itself. As the North River and its tributaries grew quiet, the waterways were granted a much-needed opportunity to cleanse and restore themselves. By the middle of the twentieth century, water quality in the North River was greatly improved.

by Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
February 1997