JOHN PRESCOTT’S OLD MILL

THE OLD MILL POND... At the center of photo, the site of the John Prescott Mill (1668)

THE OLD MILL POND… At the center of photo, the site of the John Prescott Mill (1668)

Author: J. R. Theriault;  Research:  J. R. Theriault

Our ‘Historic Place of the Month‘ is a millstone which could have come from John Prescott’s mill built in 1668 at the Old Mill Pond or from the more recent Joseph Wetherbee mill built in 1755 at roughly the same location on the Old Pond. As discussed later, millstones are made in pairs, a Runner stone and a Bed stone. For this pair, the Runner stone is our ‘Old Mill Millstone’, our Town Marker and the Bed stone is owned by the Golden family who have been the owners of the Old Mill Pond site for nearly a century. The millstone is listed in our Local Register of Historic Places (HRV-988) as well as the Masschusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS and may be the only artifact left from either mill.

The millstone (shown in photo below) is installed in the northwestern corner of the Common in front of the Unitarian Church. While the old mill is no longer in existence, the Old Mill Pond with the ruins of the mill foundation, the sluice and the still-functioning mill dam (42.535871°  -71.579630°) of course is one of Harvard’s archaeological and natural treasures. It is an obvious candidate for designation as a historic landmark at least locally and hopefully also, at the State level.  The historical significance of the site is that it is the location of the first structure to be developed within present-day Harvard. The site is known as the ‘Old Mill’ and its water resource was used well into the early 1900’s. (Here is a short tutorial from WikiPedia on millstones.)

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The Town Marker; the Old Millstone

MILLSTONES.  Of the two stones in a pair of sculpted matching stones that were used in a mill, the ‘Runner stone’ is the stone with the sculpted ‘Spanish Cross’ in its center. (See photo at right.)  The Runner is mounted above its matching Bed stone at the mill and when the mill is in operation, the Runner  stone rotates at roughly 125 rpm. The Bed stone is mounted stationary.

Millstones typically could last 300 years and survived fires and other disasters. So this millstone would have survived most disasters and fires. Stone artisans sculpted the one-ton round stones for balance and sculpted the Bed stone with a slightly convex face to encourage the flow of grain out of the stone while the Runner stone was given a matching concave face. The facing surfaces of the millstone pair were then sculpted with deep grooves that provided the cutting edges and that channeled the ground flour out from the stones.  The grooved surfaces were periodically ‘dressed’  to sharpen the cutting grooves after some hours of operation. A good pair of millstones crafted to grind grain for human consumption would not generate stone dust.

OUR TOWN MARKER.  When the millstone was first installed in its present location on the Common in 1948, it was identified with a single bronze plaque installed at the top of the stone (See photo below) which reads as follows:

“TOWN OF HARVARD,  FOUNDED, JUNE 29 1732.  Set off from Groton, Lancaster, Stow by petition to the General Court. Incorporators  Simon Stone Groton, Thomas Wheeler Stow, Jonathan Whitney and Hezekiah Willard Lancaster, The name Harvard was inserted in the engrossed bill in the handwriting of Josiah Willard the Secretary of State. This was the custom when neither the Governor nor petitioners had suggested a name for the new town.”

Today, the Old Mill Pond is owned by the Golden family who in 1948 donated one of the two old millstones to the town of Harvard. At that time, Walt Harris chaired the Historical Society committee that was charged to find a suitable Town Marker for the Common. Walt wrote about the project in an article soon after on the subject of the millstone and the ‘Harvard Marker”. he writes:

“…An especially excellent and historically desirable millstone has been located by Ole Gabrielson, and T. Emerson Griffin went with us to examine it. Mr. Griffin also kindly contacted the owner as did Mr. Trueblood and Mr. Files.

All of this co-operation made it possible to meet and discuss the matter with George W. Golden, Jr. Mr. Golden generously said, “You may have the millstone when you are ready to use it. I was going to put it on my lawn and erect a flagpole with the hole for a socket.’ This stone comes from what is very likely the oldest mill site in the town. It is ancient and weathered looking–broad and thick– and thus has those qualities significant of the legend in bronze that will go upon it. On the back of this millstone we will hope to place a smaller tablet indicating its source, and when we asked Mr. Golden if his name should be there he answered, “No. Put my mother’s name on it–she would have given it to the Historical Society had she been living now.”

So, the millstone was accepted and installed on the Common by the Historical Society on the occasion of the Society’s 50th anniversary. In her  “History of Harvard: 1850-1940″, Ida Harris writes in the Bequests and Gifts section that:

“An old millstone from the site of the Jonas Prescott mill given by George W. Golden in memory of his mother with a bronze town marker and a granite step given by the late Mrs. Michael Griffin will ere long be placed on the Common, as a gift from the Harvard Historical Society.”

While it is clear that the Historical Society had intended to place a smaller ‘tablet’ on the back of the millstone to present its history and to identify the Golden family as the contributor, it was never installed.

(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Half a century later in the early 1990’s, Norm Golden (brother of George) came to the Historical Society to ask if they could help with the matter of the old millstone on the Common. He explained that back in the 40′s, his family had contributed one of the two millstones that was used at the Old Mill before it burned down earlier in the century. Norm and his wife, Mary were not living in Harvard at the time and so he did not have all the details, but he felt sure that there should have been a plaque on the millstone that presents the history of the millstone. He said that the other millstone (the mate) was placed in front of his family home by his brother, George. After some research into their records of their anniversary celebration in 1948, the Historical Society confirmed that it had been their intention to install a second marker as mentioned by Walt Harris.  On May 30, 1997, the outgoing president of the Society, Joseph R. Theriault officiated over a memorial ceremony at the Old Millstone which now displays a second plaque at the bottom of the stone. The memorial plaque reads as follows:

“TOWN MARKER.  This historic millstone was presented by the Harvard Historical Society as a gift of the George W. Golden family. One of a pair of millstones from the oldest millsite in Harvard. The John Prescott Mill. Built in 1668 at Nonacoicus Brook on Old Mill Road. July 4 1948.”


Woodson’s Mill, in Lowesville, Virginia is very similar to the Prescott mill. Here is a 20 minute video on its construction and operation.


Mill probably of similar construction as the Old Mill built by Prescott.

Mill probably of similar construction as the Old Mill built by Prescott.

HISTORY OF PRESCOTT’S OLD MILL.  As taken from Henry Nourse’s ‘History of Harvard‘, our history for the Old Mill begins in the late 1650’s when John Prescott, Ralph Houghton, Sr.  and other Lancaster settlers had begun to develop the second division of lands to the east approaching present-day Harvard but at that time, they were still on the west side of the Nashua. John was the founder of Lancaster. Although not a church-going Puritan or so-called ‘freeman’, he was a huge personality… a trail-blazer, a trader, a fighter, entrepreneur and a millwright. He was not educated, but he knew the physics of mills and he built several. Since arriving in 1643, John and other settlers developed a close relationship with the Nashaway tribe to purchase land and trade furs, tools, food and other commodities. The land trades were very lucrative for the white settlers which would become a contributing cause to the King Phillips’ War later.

In 1659 Major Simon Willard  of Concord acquired several hundred acres of land in present-day Still River and Bare Hill for his sons and their Still River Farm. Later in 1668, Groton asked John Prescott to build a mill for them.  So, when John Prescott received permission, he built a grist mill on present-day Old Mill Pond for his son, Jonas Prescott as a wedding gift.  Later, when Jonas married, he made his home in Groton and worked at his grist mill on the Old Mill pond and established the first neighborhood in present-day Harvard. In very little time, the site became an important meeting site for the farmers to conduct their commerce and to socialize.  Not long after, Major Simon Willard built a home in Jonas’ neighborhood about a mile west by Robbins Pond.

Henry Nourse relates an interesting love story associated with the mill. Here is his account:

“In tradition the story of the old mill is bright with a gleam of romance which the lapse of two centuries has not dimmed. Jonas was a stalwart youth, good to look upon, efficient at his father’s forge and mills, successful in every manly sport, a favorite withal; but his education had been only that of labor and life upon the frontier. When he won the heart of the Sudbury belle. Mary Loker, her ambitious parents flouted at his suit, and bestowed  their favoring smiles upon a rival aspirant for Mary’s hand-one who boasted the culture of the schools and asserted high social claims. Their daughter being earnest” in her own choice, and proving contumacious, was kept under close surveillance; but love’s messages, as usual, laughed at threats,  bolts and bars. Then the vexed parents secretly sent the damsel to an out-of-the way place, in the hope that long separation might chill the affection which had grown only more ardent under their opposition.

Williams Adams Mill at the Old Mill Pond. Fishin’ the Pond at the Old Mill in 1870. This grist mill is the third and last mill at the Old Pond. It was built by William Adams in 1818 after he discovered that the water flow was insufficient for his needs. The new dam and mill are a short distance below the historic Prescott dam to produce more power. The mill was later owned by the Shakers until it was destroyed by fire in 1888. (This very old photo is in exceptional quality and is courtesy of the Golden family.)

Fortune favored the lovers, for accident gave Jonas a clue which soon led him to the  farm-house where his sweetheart was hidden. Whether with or without the blessing of her father and mother is not known, but Mary and Jonas were married at Lancaster, November 14, 1672, and perhaps took up their residence at or near the Nonacoicus mill.”

In the mid-1670’s, the relationship between the colonial settlers and the native Americans deteriorated into King Phillips’ War which lasted for about three years. The settlers fled to their original homes in the Boston area for some time. In the town of Groton records dated June 15, 1680, we find mention of Prescott’s lands and his mill. So, it seems that the mill survived the war. The next year however, Nourse reports that Jonas Prescott decided to build a mill on Stony Brook in present-day Chelmsford. He dismantled and brought with him ‘such portions of the Nonacoicus mill as could be utilized’ including one would think, the millstones but Nourse does not make this clear. So, there is some probability that our millstone belonged to the mill that was later built on the Old Mill pond. Nourse also notes that the location of the mill and its pond became known as the ‘Old Mill Place’ in records thereafter.

In 1716, Jonas Prescott transferred his four hundred and forty acres to Jonathan Farmsworth. The description of the property makes no mention of a mill. So, apparently much of the mill was moved to Chelmsford where Prescott reassembled the mill in its new location perhaps also including the millstone pair.

In 1755,  Joseph Wetherbee, a blacksmith was in possession of a grist-mill at the site of the old Prescott dam. But we do not know whether the mill was built by Wetherbee or by Nathaniel Farnsworth.  Wetherbee sold the property to Jabez Keep of Westford in 1768.  Jabez, his son and later his grandson of the same name managed the propoerty until some time after the Revolution. Later in 1774, Captain Jabez Keep operated a small triphammer forge and bloomery at the Old Mill. Nourse explains that the bog ore that was used in the bloomery was taken from the swamps in Groton. It made a very” hot-short” metal, difficult to weld which was called ‘Groton iron’. The fabricating at Keep’s forgery was mostly bar stock and parts for farm implements like plough points and plates for the wooden ploughs. Captain Jabez Keep, senior, died in 1774, and Captain Jabez the second in 1784. Jabez III acquired the mill when the elder Keep died.

The Keeps lived in a house on the site of another large house with brick ends, known as the Blanchard house. The mill privilege has had many owners since the forge was abandoned by the Keep family. Ellis Harlow. a mariner from Plymouth, bought it in 1798. but he probably did not use it as a forgery. Certainly in 1818, when Ellis Harlow transferred his property to William Adams, a grist-mill had taken the place of the forge. But Adams found the water flow insufficient and built a new dam and mill a short distance below the historic Prescott dam to produce a mill with a greater capacity.

In 1824. Arna Wetherbee bought the mill, but sold it to the Shakers in 1829. The Shakers used the mill to pulverize herbs, spices, etc. Their purchase of the water rights, was the beginning in the Shaker initiative into the herb business. The herb industry grew tremendously and became the Shakers’ main business operation.

Henry Hapgood was the next owner of the mill, which he purchased in April, 1838. He introduced a shingle-mill and some other wood-working machinery. In 1853, Edward A. and George L. Winslow, who were marble workers proposed to develop their new process of turning marble for decorative and structural uses but the enterprise did not succeed.  Frederick Copeland, a wheelwright. purchased the grist-mill from Edward A. Winslow in 1864 and used the mill for a few years to manufacture mechanical devices, such as wagon jacks, corn-shellers, etc. Unfortunately, that business also failed and in 1870 he abandoned the estate to the mortgagee, William Blanchard. William and George Haberly leased the shop for a time and made hammers and a few other tools. The next owner, Willard Bacon, in 1873 expanded the mill and added new buildings adapted to the manufacture of glue. His business, originally established in 1852, had grown to an aggregate of about ten thousand dollars a year giving employment to six hands. Tragically, on the night of October 18, 1888. the buildings were entirely destroyed by fire. The mill would never be rebuilt.

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