Cold Harbor Brook History

Northborough (Library of Congress Historical Maps Collection)

Josiah Coleman Kent reports a traditional account of this brook's appellation in his 1921 Northborough History:

"Cold Harbour Meadow, in the western part of the town, so called from the circumstance of a traveler, having lost his way, being compelled to remain through a cold winter's night in a stack of hay in that place, and on the following morning, having made his way through the wilderness to the habitations of man, and being asked where he lodged during the night, replied, 'In Cold Harbour!'"

Rocky Pond in Boylston
Rocky Pond, where Cold Harbor Brook begins, is the largest of five naturally occurring ponds in Boylston, occupying an area of 45 acres according to a survey done in 1830. Its name is derived from the many boulders in and around the pond, and it appears to have been known as Rocky Pond for over 300 years. Rocky Pond is home to a curious "runaway island." In 1870, the Atlas of Worcester shows a large island in the lake near its western side about halfway down its length, but by 1890, its position had shifted to the southeast corner of the pond. In the great hurricane of 1938, the island again shifted so that it was now attached to the western shore, destroying the waterfront of many of the cottages there. From a current map of Rocky Pond, it looks as though the island hasn't moved again from that position.

Rocky Pond Grant
In 1677 the General Court granted 200 acres of land on the northern side of Rocky Pond to Thomas Eames of Framingham. This grant was at least in part given as remuneration for the suffering and losses he had sustained during King Philip's War, when his wife and five of his children were slain and five more of his children were taken captive, his house and other buildings were burned, and his crops and livestock were destroyed. Neither Thomas Eames nor his son John, to whom the grant was passed, ever even had the land located, but in 1686, John Brigham purchased the land from John Eames and had it located and laid out.

Rocky Pond Farm
Rocky Pond Farm is situated to the west of Rocky Pond. The land appears to have first been granted for the benefit of the schools in Shrewsbury in 1718, but it later came into the possession of Charles Bigelow. Bigelow farmed the land until he died at the age of 52 in 1782, and his widow sold the property to Captain James Longley. Capt. Longley acquired more land for the farm until it occupied nearly 300 acres, and he also constructed new buildings and increased its productivity. Although the soil there was naturally rough and stony, Longley worked hard to improve it and eventually had one of the largest and best farms in the town. He was one of the first Boylston farmers to plant orchards and to introduce improved and grafted fall and winter fruit, and he was also the first Boylston farmer to use a steel plow instead of the old wooden model. The neighboring farmers apparently scoffed at Longley's experiment until they witnessed the amazing results. Longley lived out his long life on the farm and passed it on to his son Otis, but after Otis's death in 1848, much of the farm was sold. The property eventually passed out of the Longley family and has since had several other owners.

Cold Harbor Brook in Northborough

William Holloway and the division of Westborough
In the first half of the 18th century, Lt. William Holloway built a corn-mill and a gristmill on the upper waters of Cold Harbor Brook, located in what was then the northern part of Westborough. Holloway was the largest property owner in this area and was also one of the biggest advocates for the separation of the north section of town from the south section. He and other "north siders," as they were known, felt that they were not getting fair treatment from officials elected by the more numerous "south siders," and also complained that the meeting house was too far a walk for them. Holloway was especially displeased with the town's minister, Reverend Ebenezer Parkman, because Parkman did not visit the north side often enough and, more egregiously, had not attended the funeral of his son or that of another north-sider's child. Since town votes were dominated by the south siders, the north siders had no luck getting the town meeting to approve the separation of the two sections. Finally they took a petition to the General Court, and on October 20, 1744, Governor Shirley "concented two" a bill that divided the town of Westborough into two precincts. The organizational meeting of the new precinct took place the next month in Holloway's house, which, dating from 1711, is probably the oldest house still standing in the town today. The north precinct was officially incorporated as the town of Northborough in 1766.

Mills on Cold Harbor Brook
In 1799, after William Holloway's death, Stephen Williams purchased his mills on Cold Harbor Brook from Holloway's mill operator, Nathan Rice. Williams built a new gristmill in 1808, just a few dozen yards upstream from the old mills. This mill was known as "Tub Mill" because of its unusual water wheel, a crude water turbine that ran in a tub-like case. Tub Mill operated for many years, and it appears that it was later owned by Joseph Ball, as it became known as the Joseph Ball gristmill. Ball added a sawmill to this site, creating two complete sets of mills within a quarter mile of each other. Luckily Cold Harbor Brook had enough water to power them all.

In the 1820's, Jacob Pierce manufactured scythes, hoes, and other tools in a small shop with a trip-hammer located where Howard Brook joins Cold Harbor Brook. (A trip hammer is a large, power-operated hammer that is lifted by a cam or a lever until it is released and dropped.) The shop burnt in 1828, and Pierce rebuilt on a smaller scale without the trip-hammer. This mill became known as "Toad Mill" for unknown reasons, but one theory has it that the building looked like a toad. Today a candle factory operates on this site.

Another mill on Cold Harbor Brook, located near where the present day Crawford St. crosses the stream, was the Toren cider mill. This mill was owned by a Russian immigrant originally named Benzoin Tartakovsky, but his wife, Leah, simplified the surname to Toren when they were married. The couple settled in Northborough around 1920 and for the next 40 years they produced cider that was prized for its quality.

Comb manufacturing
Comb manufacturing was by far the largest industry in Northborough by the middle of the 19th century. Although there may have been a small comb manufacturer earlier, the first major comb factory was established in 1839 by Bush & Haynes of Feltonville (now Hudson). They built their main factory on Howard Brook, just upstream of where it joins Cold Harbor Brook, but one branch of their operation occupied Toad Mill. They mainly manufactured dress or ornamental combs, which were in high demand as they were very much in style. Soon other comb factories sprang up, mostly small businesses in buildings that could easily be adapted, since combs were only profitable so long as the fashion remained. One of these comb factories was located just below the Cold Harbor Bridge, which is on the current Church St. In 1850, six of the town's fifteen "industrial establishments" were comb factories, manufacturing an enormous combined production of well over 2.6 million combs in a variety of sizes and styles. There was also variety in the quality and prices--one factory's combs were worth only three quarters of a cent per dozen, while another's cost seventy-five cents a dozen. Comb manufacturing dropped off dramatically after 1870 as combs began to go out of style.

Kent, Josiah Coleman. Northborough History. Newton, MA: Garden City Press, Inc. 1921.

Mulligan, William H. Jr. Northborough: A Town and its People, 1638-1975. Northborough American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1977.

Northborough Historical Society. Images of America: Northborough. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

Wright, George L. "Historical Notes on the Town of Boylston Massachusetts, Prepared for use in the Public Schools."

Researched and written by Joanna Solins for OARS.