Sudbury: 355 Years and Counting

Published June 24, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 7/1/2002

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Archaeological digs along the river meadows have established that Indians were here at least a thousand years before the white men came. They were Nipmucs, Red Paints, Naticks and Wamesits, sub-tribes of the Algonquin nation. During the warm summer months they camped near waterfalls or narrow spots on the rivers where they gathered shellfish and caught salmon in baskets and weirs. When the bugs became unbearable, they moved their camps to the uplands where they raised maize and squash, burying two fish in each hill for fertilizer in the time-honored custom.

Remains of their passing can still be seen. There is a large midden pile near the headquarters of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge off Weir Hill Road in Sudbury. An old grinding stone still stands just to the northeast of the junction of Green Hill Road and Singletary Lane. Legend says the campsite of Karte, the sachem known to the whites as Goodman, was nearby.

The first white settlers appeared in the valley in 1638. Some had helped to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were moving westward in search of more meadow for their burgeoning herds of cattle and other livestock. Others had come directly from East Anglia in England–a region which still boasts villages called Sudbury and Boston–on the good ship Confidence.

These people were destined to play a key role in establishing American liberty. In England they had ruled themselves with the open-field system of government in which a man’s influence depended upon how much meadow he owned. A man with no land, had no say in how the town was governed.

This all changed in 1654, six years after the town was granted a large parcel of land west of the river. While the older settlers insisted that the land be divided under the old rules set down in England, a group of younger men pushed through an article in town meeting that would divide the land by lot “To every man an equal portion in quantity.” This vote, which effectively separated church and state, was the forerunner of our open town meeting of today.

That meeting was held in a wood and thatch meeting house, the foundation of which may still be seen in the old Wayland Town Cemetery on a knoll overlooking the river meadows. Slightly more than a mile to the northwest, the four-arch bridge stands on the site of the first bridge to cross the river which was built by Timothy Hawkins in June of 1644. Cross the new bridge on Route 27 and immediately turn left and you’ll be on the remains of the old causeway. The trees that line this raised highway are descendants of willow
poles driven into the mud to mark the edges of the road during times of high water.

Sudbury was a frontier town in the latter half of the 17th Century and supplied Indian rangers and militia to settlements to the west. On April 21, 1676, the town itself came under attack as Philip of Pokanoket, son of the great sachem Massasoit, led more than a thousand braves on a frontier raid bent on driving the English into the sea. He attacked Marlborough on the 20th and then moved eastward to Sudbury where he attacked several garrison houses and laid an ambush for the militia under Captains Samuel Wadsworth and Samuel Brocklebank and Lieutenant John Sharp. The battle took place on the western slopes of Green Hill about 100 yards north of where the Wadsworth monument now stands.

The fighting went on all day with the English having the best of it despite being outnumbered more than ten to one. But as darkness fell, King Philip ordered the woods and brush set afire. Flushed from cover by the flames, 29 militiamen, including all three officers, were killed and another five captured and later tortured to death in Marlborough. Fourteen Englishmen managed to flee under cover of darkness to the safety of Noyes Mill on Hop Brook (where Mill Village now stands).

The skilled marksmen and Indian fighters from the Musketaquid Valley would serve their new country well in the 18th century. Ephraim Curtis was called upon to lead several raids along the frontier during the French and Indian War where Sudbury soldiers served at Louisberg, Fort William Henry, Crown Point and Ticonderoga, and later to Fort No. 4 on the Connecticut River near what is now the town of Charleston, New Hampshire.

Just as King Philip’s demise failed to quell the Indian troubles in the late 17th century, the defeat of the French accomplished little in the early 18th. Indians were still about when Samuel How and his son David built a two-room homestead on 135 acres of New Grant land that would later become world famous as Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.

The Wayside Inn was one of many taverns built along what was later to become known as the Boston Post Road. This was a time of expansion as boatloads of settlers arrived in Boston almost daily and started pushing west looking for land and opportunity. Roads were filled with peddlars, travelers and soldiers and the taverns and ordinaries along the way were hard put to handle them all.

During the summer of 1774, it was in the parlor of the Wayside Inn–then known as the Red Horse Tavern–that Lieutenant Colonel and innkeeper Ezekiel How sat down over a mug of flip with Major John Molineaux Jr., a member of the Boston Committee of Safety, to lay contingency plans in case the British now occupying Boston should make a foray into the countryside to seize colonial arms.

Less than a year later, How’s worst fears became reality, but Sudbury was ready. More than 350 men, some of them armed only with sticks and pitchforks, marched the 12 miles to Colonel James Barrett’s farm in Concord. Two of them, 81-year-old Deacon Josiah Haynes and Ashael Reed, failed to return.

The soldiers who fought in the Revolution returned to a town that lived simply and frugally.Fields were tilled with oxen or horses drawing wooden plows. The village blacksmith in Sudbury center (the building is still there, across from the intersection of Concord and Goodman’s Hill Roads) turned out hayforks, hoes and other metal tools, and the wheelwright shop (now The Frame Loft) near the Hop Brook Mill, made wheels and fine carts and wagons.

The late Forrest Bradshaw remembers that white flour was a luxury and that even the most prosperous of farmers didn’t buy it by the barrel. Cheaper rye flour was used commonly and at Thanksgiving, a pound of it was made to serve for a family. Only the top crust of the pies baked for the occasion were made of it, thus coining the slang expression “Upper Crust”.

The War of 1812 brought about a reawakening in the valley. Soldiers returning from the battles brought with them new dress and new ways. Captain Enoch Kidder’s shoe shop (now DeWolfe Realty at the intersection of Concord Road and the Boston Post Road) became the center of political activity for the town.

As befits a man who was born in 1777 in the middle of one war and who lived to be a sprightly 88 years old before passing to his reward in 1865 just as another was ending, Captain Kidder was proud of his town and took an active part in its government. He was a devoted member of the Whig party and later the upstairs rooms of his shop were the site of some of the first caucuses of the Republican Party in Sudbury. Before the Civil War,
Abolitionist meetings were also held there.

One hundred and sixty eight Sudbury soldiers saw action in the Civil War and 11 never
returned. Three were killed or mortally wounded in battle and eight died of disease and hardship, among them Curtis Smith, who starved to death in the Confederate prison at Andersonville.

Some Sudbury residents who stayed at home served as well. Israel How Brown, whose house still stands beside Concord Road opposite to the entrance to Wadsworth Cemetery, ran a station of the “Underground Railway” in his barn. He had wheelwright John Garfield build him a special wagon with a false bottom to transport escaped slaves headed for Canada to the next station along the way which was in Lancaster.

At the Close of the Civil War Sudbury had a tax valuation of a million dollars and a population of 1,700. A century later the population remained the same but its way of life had changed drastically. Dams in Billerica had flooded the pastoral meadows of the Musketaquid, making them all but useless for agriculture.

Motor car magnate Henry Ford tried to rectify the situation. He purchased the Wayside Inn and 1,500 acres of land in West Sudbury in 1923, moved the Redstone School, where Mary Sawyer brought her little lamb, from Sterling; established a trade school for underprivileged boys from Boston and built the Martha-Mary chapel
on a knoll near the Inn.

Ford picked up parcels of land all over Sudbury and announced his intention to start a small factory to manufacture airplane parts, but the deal fell through when he was unable to obtain two key parcels of land. Ford ran the Inn until his death in 1947 when it was turned over to a public trust which continues to run it today.

Change came in a big way in the ’50s. After World War II young couples wanted a peaceful cottage in the country within driving distance of Boston and unscrupulous real estate developers were more than happy to oblige them. Huge tracts of land were bought up and subdivided before the town had a chance to realize what was happening. By the time sensible zoning ordinances were in place, hundreds of houses were erected on tiny half-acre lots and four new schools were under construction.

Today a resident has no need to go to Marlborough, Framingham, or Maynard, all towns that were once part of Sudbury, in order to shop or buy groceries. You can buy anything from a croissant to a computer without leaving town.

But some things never change. The politicians still show up at the town dump (nobody calls it a “recycling center”) every Saturday in March, there’s always at least one good fight at town meeting and you can count on the Minuteman Fair starting at 10 a.m. on the last Saturday in September. Unless it rains, of course. There’s othing that 355 years of history can do about that.

Photos on this page published from “Sudbury A Pictorial History” by Laura Scott.

Pictures from top: Sudbury Center, circa 1875; The Redstone School built 1798; The Wayside Inn, circa 1900.

Curt Garfield is the Sudbury Town Historian.