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Killing the Sawmill rumor mill

Sawmill graphic
Sawmill Road checks ’em all.

If you live anywhere near the Wilmington line, you’ve probably heard tall tales about Sawmill Road, like this one about suicide, or this one about a ghost. A Burlington firefighter says he grew up hearing about “dark arts” practiced there.

Why such intrigue?

A very unusual A-frame house, possibly the only one in 20th century Burlington, occupied a tiny slab at the end of Sawmill Road, off Mill St, for some 35 years beginning in the late 60s. Perched on the edge of a stunning rocky gorge, with the Sawmill Brook churning audibly below, the scene befit Burlington for sure. Vermont, that is.

What kind of character would set up a household there? A large, muscular, self-employed carpenter and welder named Richard W. Scott. “Dick was a character, and I mean a character,” recalls David Runyan, his neighbor from Skilton Lane, where Scott lived prior to Sawmill Road. Scott had bought a seven-acre chunk of the Sawmill Road property in 1955 when he lived in Santa Barbara, and then moved to 65 Skilton Lane with his wife Claire M. and three sons, John, Bob and Steve, while he built the A-frame from 1963 to 1968.

He built a skating rink, swimming pool and tether ball court in his Skilton Lane yard, for the neighborhood children. And before he’d finished his Sawmill A-frame, he held large sleepover campouts there for his sons and their friends.

Scott had some quirks:

  • He burned his lawn every spring, a valid agricultural strategy in some books.
  • He became the Skilton Lane traffic enforcer. “He had this VW bus, and whenever someone came speeding through the neighborhood, Dick would fire up that VW and chase the guy down,” Runyan says. “Sometimes he came back claiming he dragged the guy out of the car.” Chasing speeders with the slowest-accelerating vehicle of modern times? “I know. Perhaps the speeder ran into traffic and Dick caught up. Of course I never joined him on his private cop excursions so I can’t say with certainty that he caught them. But it was a common sound in our neighborhood. Dick firing up the bus and giving chase.”

Scott built the Sawmill A-frame himself, from the foundation to the electrical to the plumbing. For the woodwork, he used his homemade saw mill mounted on a 40-foot trailer chassis and powered by a transversely-mounted truck engine and transmission. The source of the wood? The trees in his yard. Clearly this was no ordinary DIY guy. “For me,” Runyan says, “Dick Scott represents the last of a breed of stubbornly independent males, the likes of which the country would do well to encourage.”

When he and his wife split, he moved to Woburn and she settled in Pennsylvania with the couple’s three sons. The abandoned house left Burlington and Wilmington with a mess on their hands. Vandals gutted the house, tossing the home’s tossable contents into the woods and heaving the furniture down the gorge into the river. Wilmington razed the house in the early 2000s.

Why Wilmington? Because town officials discovered the house was in Wilmington even though the street begins in Burlington. This surprised even the Burlington Fire Department, which had provided occasional ambulance service.

Dick died soon after moving to Woburn. Claire is also deceased. Bob, his wife Denise, and Jon are alive and well in Pennsylvania. Denise says the rewards of woodsy living were many; the drawbacks few. “No lights on the road, just the moon. Lots of animals. I grew up in the city and saw my first fox at that house.” One drawback was the long, unpaved, often muddy driveway. The family sometimes had to park at the very beginning of the driveway, where it was somewhat dry, and walk all the way down the unlit, rutted mire to get home. Bob spread small stones on the driveway to help the school bus get a grip.

Saw Mill sluiceway, Burlington MA
The Sawmill “sluiceway,” or water channel, is the only testament to the ancient mill. But stay out. See the tunnel on the right? The ceiling has an ominous crack.

Burlington and Wilmington, along with the state’s Trust for Public Land, conducted a study delineating the various segments of the Sawmill area. The three parties successfully bought some sections, including the Scott property, for preservation. Other property owners weren’t so agreeable, so some sections are still up for grabs, but nobody is grabbing. Burlington realtor Paul Conti cites the expensive site work required. Building roads to town code would devour much of the residential space due to the obligation to replicate disturbed wetlands, says Conservation Administrator John Kelley. Who wants a muddy bog in the front yard? And back yard?

There are no photos of the Clapp Mill. Fogelberg’s Burlington, Part of a Greater Chronicle suggests this “might be” the mill (below).  It’s fun to ponder, but the chances are slim. First, the photo shows nothing but conifers, yet the area is now overwhelmingly deciduous. Could the canopy have undergone such a radical succession? Okay, maybe, given the elapsed time. But the pictured ravine is much wider than actual. Plus the actual site has no large, smooth rock formations as shown. Both sides are equally choppy.


Today, only a slab foundation, punctured by a single wiring harness, remains earthbound at the end of Sawmill Road, a spot in Burlington that has zero ghosts but may forever be haunted by the tortured, grinding rasp of saw mills, both stationary and portable, from three different centuries. It could be worse. Skilton Lane will forever hear a VW bus.

Sawmill Road

19 thoughts on “Killing the Sawmill rumor mill Leave a comment

  1. i own the land on the right side going down the road its a beautiful piece of land thank you J. R.

  2. My mother and Claire Scott were very close friends. i used to drop mom off and pick her up at that A-frame house. also remember going through that property in mid 60’s to sneak into the wilmington golf course to look for golf balls in the woods, sometimes on the fairways, and getting chased by the jeeps back through the woods.

    • It certainly looks like there was a cottIage there, the evidence of framing on the side of the chimney would indicate that. I’ve walked this area for years, but never found other evidence of a well, or other outside structures. Very different than some of the old foundations in the area around Mill Pond.

    • That was a huge farm area with many different buildings. What is now Burlington/Wilmington was part of a farm that started in Woburn. They need to protect that area. It’s one of the oldest Mill Sites in the country. some info in my last comment.

  3. Thanks. I love reading these articles. This one reminded me of another mysterious Burlington site – Dudley Road. I think it was off Francis Wyman Road. It was a long, dark road with a couple of abandoned buildings. One was said to be (of all things) a convent. Another was supposed to be a place for devil worship or exorcism. This was in the early 70’s – the influence of movies and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist was significant. Thanks again.

  4. I was a good friend of Bob (Scott) while growing up on Mallard Way in Burlington. Along with several other kids from the Mallard Way neighborhood. Around 1969-1974. I remember the A-Frame House (and the vicious pet Peacock). The Huge Saw Blade and a great Tire swing that swung out over the Gorge mentioned in the article. Bob’s dad had a Trailer on the property that we used to “sleep out” in. And later (mid teens) we would drink beer at night around a campfire. Great times. Bob was a great guy though I can honestly say I never met (or even saw) his Dad. Never knew the history of the place but remember the fun times and have fond memories of our time there. Glad Bob is doing well too! (Hello to Bob if he ever reads this).

  5. im praying to god sometime soon i can build my new home down there thats moms and r,i,p, dads land on the left side best piece of land down there had it since 1970 2,5 acres grandfarther land he helped with paying for power line poles i have a dream thank yous JR never give up joe

  6. Here is a book on the Geneaology of the Butters family who owned the property starting in the 1600’s Mass Bay Colony!!! There is a map of the property in Colonial/1700’s times on page 38.

    The map shows Sawmill Brook and the road to the “Wood Mill” and the Mill listed on it. That whole area around Woburn/Burlington/Wilmington was called “Butters Row”. There may be a mix up on the property because Burlington was part of Lexington and I bet the lines were vague there as the family had owned a farm at a corner where 3 towns met since before the two furthest towns even existed.

    I’m looking into the history of the Mill. Burlington was the frontier of the Mass Bay Colony and “Towns” were deeded on the edge of the frontier. Colonists wanted fast flowing streams to run mills. That brook and Burlington are on some of the first hills outside of Boston. Burlington was one of the first areas to start clearing lumber when the Middlesex Canal opened and shipping it down the canal for shipbuilding in Medford and houses in Charlestown/Boston. That Mill no doubt provided it. Notice the canal passes very close by. It’s by no coincidence. Loammi Baldwin engineered the canal, lived a few miles away and I believe married into the Butters family. I believe the Butters were on the board and benefactors.

    I lived in those woods, on that brook and around that house. even when people were still living there I believe. Creepy things could have happened. We built forts in the 70’s-80’s there. I’m glad some conservation land is still there. Scott may have had something to do with the large sailing yacht that was parked on Mill St. that supposedly went around the world. I’m guessing Scott bought from Butters family or descendants. Butters Farm started in the 1600’s was there in the 80’s (still?) and some of it had been a golf course/ski hill.

  7. The yacht mentioned belonged to Sally Stewart and her husband. They sailed it from California and ended up in Sally’s parent’s yard in the 70s. Sally graduated from BHS in 1964. She now lives in Florida last I heard.
    Young Bob Scott was in High School with me. Now I know why he was the size he was back in the early 60’s as a teenager.

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