The Bigelow Mills in South Natick
South Natick’s industrial heritage is a story of days gone by.
The village at the bend of the Charles River has a notable history as the first “Praying Indian Town,” as a popular stop for New England travelers beginning in the middle of the 18th century, and as the home of the “Harriet Beecher Stowe House” at 2 Pleasant Street (although the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin never actually lived there).
Nevertheless, this site on the Charles River has tempted entrepreneurs since the early 18th century, when water was the chief source of power for any kind of mechanized process, such has grinding grain and sawing logs. South Natick was a successful and growing center of human activity, and the European colonists took advantage of the reliable source of water power for their mills. Mills were established at several locations along the river, both upstream and downstream from the original village location. Mill work got started in 1686, when the Algonquians who settled in South Natick deeded land (within today’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary) to Thomas Sawin of Sherborn so he could erect a mill to grind their corn, on a stream near the river.
Nearly a century later, beginning in the 1770s, another successful mill owner was Deacon William Bigelow, who operated a complex of mill operations on the north bank of the river where the present dam and Pleasant Street bridge are located.
An 1830 “Plan of Bigelow Mills” by John G. Hales shows the mill structures and dam, immediately west of the Pleasant Street bridge. (Click here for larger image)
Bigelow acquired an existing mill and expanded operations to include a grist mill, saw mill, and paper mill. The deacon raised the mill dam two feet, and later (about 1800) built related facilities—in “a large low building”—on the south bank of the river, including a small machine shop, blacksmith shop, and a trip hammer. In one section of this shop complex he installed machines to make nails (still a labor intensive process at that time, it was one of the first nail manufacturing operations in America). In 1814 he established a wheel factory, and also manufactured wagon and pump parts, bed posts, and cabinetry, employing 20-30 men. Members of Bigelow’s family had houses, barns, and farms on the south bank of the Charles.
The Bigelow family sold the mill complex in the 19th century, and subsequent owners repeatedly rebuilt the mill structures and the dam to repair the ravages of time and spring floods. By the end of the 19th century, the mill operations had been replaced by a succession of utility companies, including the Eliot Falls Lighting Co. which supplied Natick with electric power. In 1903 the sole remaining grist mill structure was demolished.
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.