Part 5C: The First Mills

John Sinton © November 2014

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

The First Mill Dams[i]

The English arrived at Nonotuck with a full range of needs that were foreign to the Natives, who had acclimated themselves over centuries to the vagaries of the local rivers.  Just as New Jersey suburbanites, when they move into rural New England, expect to build McMansions and shopping malls to fulfill their idea of a proper lifestyle, so the English settled at Nonotuck with their own list of requirements, many of which had significant impacts on the Mill River.

First up were food, clothing and shelter.  We have already had a glimpse of the settlers need to try to control the river for grazing and mowing on the meadows for livestock.  Just as important in their minds were the needs for grinding grain and sawing timber for houses.  (These were not the backwoodsmen of a later era who were satisfied with log cabins.)  The proprietors made it clear that they would reward any capable millwright with free land and water rights if he would build a gristmill and sawmill.  Since women were capable of making homespun clothing, which could also be imported from England, the need for fulling mills, which made felted materials, was secondary.

Where on the Mill River could one find a significant drop, not even a waterfall, but a drop of just 10 feet to provide sufficient head to power a waterwheel?[ii]  Remember that the Mill River drops almost 1,400 feet from its headwaters to its discharge, but only 20 feet from Paradise Pond to the meadows, and most of that drop is at Paradise Pond, about a mile from Northampton’s center.

Charles Dean, the late local historian and indexer of the Hampshire Gazette, found the first reference to a grist mill in the town records of 1659 concerning a mill that was probably built in 1657 or 1658 on the Mill’s north bank “at a point just west of the site now occupied by the Northampton Gas Company’s plant, and a little south of the lot now used by the Hawley Grammar School.”  This was a two-acre site, given to William Clarke, Joseph Parsons, Alexander Edwards and Samuel Wright, Sr., who hired Robert Hayward to run it.  We know the approximate location, which appears as unsuitable today as it apparently did to those first settlers.  The mill had gone out of business by 1666 probably because there was insufficient head to run it.  It was Northampton’s first mill, later called the Lower Mills, but no more mills were built there for another 75 years.

Now, a quick word about early mills:  These were very basic structures, which, nonetheless, required a good deal of work to carve grooves in the millstones and shape the spindle, gears, and waterwheel.  Millers also had to contend with a milling season that was only seven or eight months between ice-up and ice-out.  Furthermore, the mills needed a controlled flow of water rather than the quirky free run of the Mill’s seasonal flow, and therefore the mill owners had to build dams to ensure enough head to power the waterwheel in times of low flow.  A trench, called a raceway, would then be dug upstream, adjacent to the bank, into which a flow of water was diverted when the miller needed to run the waterwheel, and another trench, the tailrace, was dug to direct the water away downstream of the mill.

It was a risky business to invest in a building that was at the whim of flood and fire, so the community ensured that all citizens shared in that risk by providing incentives to mill owners, much as towns today court business opportunities.  It was a struggle to maintain the infrastructure of a 17th-century town – its buildings and roads were so exposed to natural disaster.  No wonder the colonists had little thought of preserving “wilderness,” which to them was a dangerous state of nature that lay just beyond their doorsteps.

A new mill site was needed, so in 1666 “Lt. William Clark & Thos. Meekins asked [the town] to be released from their promise to build a grist mill under the old conditions [of 1656] & made a new proposition contingent on town to help furnish the gravel for a foundation & other work.  A bridge would be maintained & a road for access [built].  The highway was to be taken out of Lt. Wm. Clark’s home lot.”[iii]   Thus, the construction of Green Street, built to gain access to what was to become the Upper Mills at Paradise Pond where the only logical dam site existed close to the center of Northampton.  Clark and Meekins built Northampton’s second gristmill “about midway between Paradise Pond and College Lane,”[iv] but it was carried off by a flood in 1667, a year after its construction.[v]

These little mills led an ephemeral existence, which must have made for a harrowing livelihood for the mill owners and millers.  Undaunted, Clark built another mill and a long raceway a bit upstream at the Upper Mills.  Two conflicting stories are told about its fate.  According to some, the local Native Americans burned it, but Rev. Solomon Williams wrote that in 1675 the Indians attempted to burn it, but it was too well defended.[vi]  Whatever the case, Clark built yet another mill at that same site in 1678.  That makes four Northampton gristmills built in the span of 20 years.

Looking out over bucolic Paradise Pond and the Smith College athletic fields, a scene of deep nostalgia for Smith alumnae, one is hard put to imagine the frantic activity at the Upper Mills during the last quarter of the 17th century, a time when Northampton’s industry was focused at that site, when Green Street was a hubbub of carts carrying grain and lumber.  Here’s what happened after William Clark built that fourth gristmill in 1678:

  • 1678 John Parsons built a sawmill a few rods (1 rod=5.5 yards) below Clark’s mill, and it continued working for 10 years.
  • 1680 Samuel Clark and Joseph Parsons built a gristmill on the opposite (river right) bank of Clark’s mill.  Both mills used the same dam and were connected by Green St.
  • 1685 Joseph Parsons built a saw-mill as an addition to his grist mill.
  • 1686 Clark’s and Parson’s mills burned down.
  • 1688 Samuel Clark and John Parsons built a new gristmill at the same site.  A new road, Welsh End, was built, which became West St.
  • 1692 A new bridge, and probably new mills had to be built after the flood of 1691.
  • 1697 The Upper Mills all burned down and were immediately rebuilt and the site remained in continuous use until the land was sold to William Edwards in about 1800.[vii]

While the Upper Mills hosted the largest number of industries in Northampton, two other sites had been found for mills, both of which would become permanent industrial locations.  Although there was likely a sawmill built in the 1660s, the first one recorded was in what we now call Bay State, formerly called Paper Mill Village.  In 1670 the Reverend Solomon Stoddard and his partner Joseph Parsons constructed Northampton’s first recorded sawmill at a small falls area near the Yankee Hill Machinery Co.[viii] Shortly thereafter, John Coombs established a fulling mill at the Bay State Cutlery site in 1702, a place we know as Yankee Hill Machinery.[ix]

Another sawmill was built in 1681 at the best mill site yet discovered, this one in Florence at what became the Corticelli Silk Factory and later the Pro Brush or Nonotuck Mills building, then known as Broughton’s Meadow (later called Ross’s Meadow) on a piece of land that had been granted in 1657 to John Broughton, one of Northampton’s original settlers.  Town records noted that Thomas Lyman, Samuel Wright, and Samuel Parsons were allowed to construct the mill “if [there would be] no damage to the corn mill,” so we must assume a grist mill was already located there.[x]  While these dam sites were superior to those of the Upper Mills, they were almost three miles from the center of town, an inconvenient distance to transport their products.


[i] There are five essential sources for mills on the Mill River: RJB’s collection of primary sources, the Judd manuscripts, Charles Dean’s manuscript, the (Daily) Hampshire Gazette, and Hannay.  Since Charles Dean did not cite his sources and because his manuscript has at least one major error, his work on 17th and 18th century history may be problematic.  See bibliographical note.

[ii] Every dam site has a head at the top and a discharge at the bottom.  A given amount of water falling a given distance will produce a certain amount of energy.  The greater the head, the greater the potential energy to drive turbines.  More head or faster flowing water means more power.

[iii] Judd ms. Vol. I, 455

[iv] Dean, p. 8

[v] Judd, I, 455

[vi] Dean, 9

[vii] Dean 10-11; DHG 6/3/1904 supplement

[viii] Hadley had a sawmill in 1661, and it is difficult to imagine that Northampton did not have one, as well. RJB.  Daily Hampshire Gazette  6/3/1904; Dean, 11; Sheffeld, 24

[ix] Dean, 11

[x] Judd, vol. 1, 449

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