Plains and Hills, Pathways and Roads
Arrowheads in your backyard?
It’s not unheard of in Natick to find a cache of arrowheads or curiously carved stones while digging a flowerbed or garden. Examples of these “lithics” are in the collections of the Natick Historical Society.
The oldest history of our town is intimately rooted in the culture and Eastern Woodlands lifestyles of Algonquian peoples. The pathways they forged followed a pattern.
It was a pattern in sync with the topography of plains and hills. Every traveler’s goal in moving from place to place in precolonial and colonial times was to use as little time and energy as possible. The layout of the land was a prime consideration in navigating a route. In the 17th century, Natick's geographic features consisted of three major plains and six hills, and their names are prominent in the town’s early history.
Three of the principal features were Pegun Plain, Broad’s Hill and Train’s Hill. The Pegun Plain is now the site of downtown Natick, with Broad’s Hill (Union Street area) to the south and Train’s Hill (University Drive, and Pond Street in Wellesley) to the east.
The Pegun Plain area developed mostly as a thoroughfare to points west. Early 19th century travelers leaving Boston on horseback, heading for the Old Connecticut Path in Framingham (Route 126), would have reached Natick by nightfall, finding there a lodging house, mill, tavern, and a couple farms. The mill, run by Rufus Morse, was about where Casey's Diner is now on South Avenue, and the tavern and lodging house were on the future Common. The modern railroad bed was then a stream running to Lake Cochituate and powering the Morse Mill.
Pond Street ran through today’s Common and was the main road to Framingham. The street ran on high ground past the future site of Dug Pond on the south and curved up to present-day Mill Street and on to Hartford Street. Hartford Street connected to the Old Connecticut Path in Framingham. Route 27 south of Pond Street was originally called School Street.
As Natick's population in the Pegun Plain grew, there was growing talk about having a downtown meetinghouse. By 1799 a new wooden, two-story meetinghouse was built downtown. The brick Congregational Church today stands on that meetinghouse site. The original wooden building was moved across the street to where Clark’s Block is today. Photos from the 1850s show the building as a residence.
Broad's Hill and Train's Hill
Broad's Hill was cleared farm land, as was Walnut Hill through to the "Needham Leg" to the north. Train's Hill remained forest (along Pond Road) and because of ledge and rock formations was considered poor land for agriculture. Bacon Street was a main trail in the north for the Native Americans prior to European settlements and was actually an extension of Pond Road in present-day Wellesley. Needham initially held the area from Bacon Street north to today’s Pine Street. The meetinghouse for those residents was where the Wellesley Country Club is now. Natick became a town in 1781, and by 1797 the “Needham Leg” was permanently assigned to Natick.
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The first school on the Pegun Plain was a house on the site of today’s parking lot next to the Mr. Sweeper store. The Kimball, Morse and Perry families sold land to Natick for a common in the 1850s, and the Kimball house was moved to Kimball Court where it is today. Later, in the 1880's when the Wilson Grammar School was built on the Common, School Street was re-designated in its present location.
The western half of West Central Street (Maple Street to Speen Street) did not exist until a railroad was built and landfill extended the route. When the railroad fully opened for business in 1839 it was at grade level and downtown was complete with crossing gates and new warehouses. Commerce and industry took off in the center of town. The shoe industry, initially a cottage industry in Natick, expanded into factories along the railroad tracks. The shoe workers needed housing and old Natick names like Walcott, Perry, and Underwood financed the residential developments that spread out from Natick Center. Neighborhoods beyond Maple Street, Western Avenue, Avon Street and North Avenue doubled the town’s population between 1840 and 1860.
The post-Civil War decade saw growth of neighborhoods north along Main Street beyond Cochituate Street, and south beyond Walcott Street. Municipal water service from tanks built in the late 1870s helped to support economic growth. The downtown benefited from steam-powered public works financed by the growing commercial prosperity. Benefactors established a hospital, a free library, and a home for the aged, and the selectmen established a Town Home for the Poor, which was built on West Street near its juncture with South Main Street (Route 27). In 1878 a new high school was constructed on Grant Street. New primary schools were built in the north, west, east, and south sectors of town. New fire stations were constructed in a similar pattern.
Ultimately the Common assumed its present-day square shape, and West Central Street became a Victorian avenue all the way to the lake and continuing beyond to Speen Street.
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.