Elizabeth Brook History

Forms of the names "Assabet" and "Elizabeth" seem to have been shuffled around considerably in the past. An 1830 map of Stow identifies the former "Assabath Brook" as the "Elizabeth Brook," but also labels the current Assabet River as the "Elizabeth River." In nearby Marlborough, the river was referred to as the "Assbath" in 1660, but 7 years later was called the "Elsabeth." In a 1794 map it was again labeled as the "Assabet," but then in maps from 1803 and 1835 it was once again the "Elizabeth," which corresponds to the appellation on the 1830 map of Stow. The final name of "Assabet River " must have been settled upon sometime after 1835.

Elizabeth Brook is still known by both names. A 1982 state inventory of rivers and streams identifies "Elizabeth Brook" as originating in Harvard and going to Fletchers Pond; from Fletchers Pond to the Assabet River the brook is called "Assabet Brook."

Conant's Mill
Elizabeth Brook has played an important role in the history of the town of Stow. It is believed that the earliest mill built in Stow was located on Elizabeth Brook, as a deed dated August 1681, two years before the town's establishment, conveys a parcel of land with a mill on "Assabath Brook"* from Jonathan Prescott to John Buttrick. This mill has been identified as the old sawmill at the end of what is now Bradley Lane, near the entrance to the Gardner Hill Conservation Area, and in its time it provided much of the lumber for the building of the town. The mill remained in the Buttrick family until it was deeded to William Conant in 1808, and then to Baily Conant in 1829. It appears as "Conant's Mill" in the official 1830 map of Stow, so it must have still been operating at that time, but was not in use for very long after that.

This stone wall in the Gardner Hill Conservation Area was probably part of Conant's Mill or the surrounding buildings

Fletcher's Pond
Taylor's Mill was also in operation on Elizabeth Brook by the 1730's and is still labeled as such on the 1830 town map. At that time it was a saw and gristmill, and a dam built for the mill in the 1700's had formed the first pond on Elizabeth Brook, now known as Fletcher's Pond. This dam was a type called a timber buttress dam and is still standing today, which is fairly unusual for a dam constructed of timber.

Timber buttress dam at Fletcher Pond
In 1810, a recently widowed Mrs. Lucy Fletcher brought her ten children to Stow from Littleton and established them in a house across the street from a farm owned by the Warren family. At the age of 12, her son Peter went to work for Abijah Warren in the tannery that he operated, and when the tannery was later passed on to Warren's son Jonas, Peter became his partner. Around 1840, the men moved their business to Ashburnham to be closer to New Hampshire's ample supply of hemlocks, the bark of which was necessary for the tanning process. Warren retired in 1848, leaving the business to Fletcher and a new partner, his son-in-law Nehemiah Abbot Newhall. Two years later disaster struck when a flood caused three dams above the factory to break and the tannery was destroyed in the surge of water.

A painting of Fletcher Pond from the late 19th century
A Col. Elijah Hale offered Fletcher a generous loan if he would rebuild the business in Stow, and so he bought the land on both sides of Elizabeth Brook from Paul Taylor in 1850. This property was the best water site in town, and Fletcher built his tannery on the north side of the brook, digging a canal from the pond to bring water directly to it. He operated the tannery until it became unprofitable in 1870, at which point he sold it to B. F. Folsom. Folsom converted the tannery into a sawmill and box factory and installed a unique horizontal waterwheel to run the box shop equipment.

C.D. Fletcher
C.D. Fletcher bought the box shop in 1909 and owned it until his death in 1965. Boxes were made for the Concord Reformatory, the American Powder Company, and the Allen Chair Factory, and during WW I, large wooden boxes were made for woolen blankets for the war effort. Local farmers also used the boxes to ship their produce to Boston, and boxes were constructed for the shipment of artillery harnesses that were manufactured in Concord for Czarist Russia. The site of the mill is now home to the Carver Hill Orchard, a retail and wholesale apple and cider business.

Wheeler's Pond

E.F. Wheeler
Andrew J. Smith built a sawmill and a gristmill on "Assabet Brook" in 1856 or 1864 (sources disagree), also constructing a dam at that time that formed what is now Wheeler's Pond. Smith sold the mill to Abraham Priest and Benjamin Folsom around 1880, and eventually the mill was purchased by Edward F. Wheeler, who had been the sawyer while Folsom ran the gristmill.

Wheeler's Mill
Wheeler operated the mill, as well as a store and a grain business, until about 1920. After his death, Wheeler's wife rented the mill to Prescott Burroughs of Boxborough, but it then fell into disuse.

Children enjoying Wheeler's Pond in 1942
In the 1940's Wheeler's Pond became an attraction for local children in the summer and for skaters in the winter, but now it is less accessible. The land along the southwest side of the pond is now the Butternut Farm Golf Course. The dam, although broken, is still there, but the mill is gone.

Delaney Pond

Delaney Pond Today
The first mill at Delaney Pond was called Brown's Mill, which appears on the 1830 map of the town as a saw and gristmill. This mill then became Zander's Cider Mill. After the deaths of Thomas and Nils Zander, the mill's equipment was moved to Bolton, where it was still in use in a cider mill as of 1983. A larger dam was built at Delaney Pond in the latter half of the 20th century as part of a flood control project to prevent the flooding of Elizabeth Brook and Great Brook. The area around Delaney Pond is now called the Delaney Complex and is maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife as a conservation and recreation area.

Ice harvesting

An ice-cutting demonstration on Lake Boon in the 1970's using authentic handsaws
From about 1890 to 1920, Henry Warren led a crew that harvested ice in Stow. The ice harvest began at Wheeler's Pond, which was in a shady location, as soon as the ice was 10 inches thick. The crew worked there for a week, harvesting about a thousand 150-200 lb. cakes of ice a day. Once the crew had finished at Wheeler's Pond, the work continued at Fletcher's Pond, then Delaney Pond, then Boon's Pond, and occasionally the crew harvested from the Assabet River as well.

Francis W. Warren explains the process of ice harvesting in his book Recollections of Stow:
"The harvest and storage of ice in winter was a welcome innovation. Ice houses, built as early as 1800, were improved over the years to become triple-walled buildings with the space between the walls filled with hay or straw and often sawdust.

"In the infancy of America, axes were the first tools used to chop ice from the ponds. Then came hand saws. By 1850, horse-drawn ice plows were used for cutting grooves part way through the ice. The ice plow consisted of 6 to 8 chisel-like two-pointed teeth made of quarter-inch flat steel. These teeth were set in a line, one in front of the other, into a wooden or steel beam with handles similar to those of a land plow. This plow was pulled back and forth by horses as many times as necessary to make grooves about half the thickness of the ice. A boy often received his first lessons in ice harvesting by leading or riding the horse while a man steadied the plow. By the 1920's, when horse-drawn plows were replaced by circular saws driven by a gasoline engine, perhaps from a Model T Ford, the process was speeded up.

"Before the ice was cut, a "field" or checkerboard-like grid was laid out on the pond. A straight line was laid out in one direction and a groove cut with the plow, then another at right angles to the first. Sometimes a large square was made of wooden strapping to be used as a guide. It was crucial that this angle be correct. Any error in the "squaring" would be compounded with each line, and although the price was 2 to 5 cents per 150 lb. cake, customers complained if the cakes were not square. If the cakes were "cockeyed," packing in the ice house was complicated and the ice did not keep as well. A guide was attached to the plow to make the next mark, or sometimes separate markers were used. The process continued until a large grid was completed.

"After marking and plowing, and before the channel was opened, all grooves or marks perpendicular to the channel would have to be "caulked." This meant that each groove had to be filled with snow and ice chips, and tamped tight for a distance of four inches to make a dam to prevent water from flowing through the plowed field and freezing tight before the area could be harvested. Tight freezing of the field would mean that the area must be abandoned and a new field made…

"To harvest the ice, a channel extending from the field to the shore would be cut with hand saws. The channel was fitted in with a ramp, or chute ("run"), for loading sleds and wagons, or an elevator for filling large ice houses. Cuts were made by hand saws and a few cakes were split off with needle bars or chisels. As more ice was removed, larger blocks and rafts could be sawed and split off. When loading sleds or wagons, the ice was split off in blocks of six cakes for hauling up the run. This was done with the horse hitched by a rope to a grapple. The grapple had a toggle and long handle to carry it when loading, and the horse had to be led back and forth. This was about the hardest job when harvesting ice. Farm sleds and wagons were generally four feet wide and twelve feet long so the checkerboard was laid out in 22 inch squares and the normal load was 24 cakes. The ice would be hauled onto the wagon or sled in blocks of six and the driver would break the block into separate cakes with a needle bar. Then the run was raised for the second layer.

"…Every farmer had his own ice house. He needed ice to cool his milk and for his ice chest to preserve food in the house until the next winter…It was a neighbor-help-neighbor operation, each assisting the other in hauling the ice and stacking it in the ice house…After the ice was stored, sawdust had to be replaced and more hauled to pack around and cover the ice until it was about two feet deep. If this job was done with care, the ice would last until cold weather again."

Childs, Ethel B. History of Stow. Stow, Mass.: Stow Historical Society Publishing Company, 1983.

Halprin, Lewis and Barbara Sipler with the Stow Historical Society. Images of America: Stow. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.

Warren, Francis W. Recollections of Stow. Stow, Mass: Stow Historical Society Publishing Company, 1990.

The historical images on this page were taken from Images of America: Stow, and were used with permission from Barbara Sipler.

Researched and written for OAR by Joanna Solins.