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First mills, now malls

Captain Reed House
THE FIRST PRISONERS OF WAR during the American Revolution were housed here in the Swithin Reed, or Capt. Reed House on Lexing- ton Street. The house, built in 1740, was destroyed by fire in 1948.


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, December 11, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 025)

First mills, now malls

Someone once wrote that there were three essentials a New England settlement needed in order to be self-sufficient in the 17th century: a minister, a blacksmith, and a grist mill. He further added that perhaps some of the early settlers would have been happier without the first, but all would have agreed that the last two were indispensable.

In the very early days of the settlements here, food consisted of such game as could be shot or caught, some fishing, the growing of pumpkins, squash and Indian beans, and the picking of wild berries, but primarily and basically, life depended upon Indian corn. Wheat did not do well in New England. Rye did better. By the 1700’s, it was mixed with corn meal to make bread. But native Indian corn, sometimes called by colonists “guinny wheat” or “turkey wheat,” remained the basic staple.

The Indians ground their corn by cracking the kernels between two rocks or by mortar and pestle. The early settlers followed suit. But pounding corn in a mortar was hard work and took a long time, something the newcomers did not have, for there always was a shortage of labor. A grist mill would process the corn much more easily and quickly, and even more important, it produced a meal which could be made into bread.

The first recorded grist mill in New England was built in Plymouth in 1631 and was only a pounding mill. Almost at once, however, true grinding mills with revolving mill stones came into use. The first water operated grist mill seems to have been built by an Israel Stoughton at the lower falls of the Neponset River at Milton in 1634. And, very shortly after Woburn was founded in 1642, Edward Converse built his mill on the Aberjona River almost in what is now Winchester Square. His mill dam was just below the bridge whose modern counterpart carries Main Street across the same stream. Most of Winchester, Burlington and Wilmington were part of the Woburn settlement then.

Edward Converse was born in 1590 in Northamptonshire, England. He came to New England in 1630, a member of John Winthrop’s company. He became, along with Capt. Edward Johnson, one of Woburn’s most influential charter citizens. A farmer as well as a miller, his land included all of what is now Winchester center and considerable other acreage besides. He died in 1663 and left his mill property to two of his sons.One cold winter day some six years after his father’s death, Samuel, then a young man of 26, picked up an axe and went out to clear the water wheel of the ice which was threatening to stop the mill from functioning. Icing was a problem every New England miller faced in the winter time.

Because of the weather, he was bundled up in a heavy overcoat. Samuel had not stopped the wheel, and some part of it caught his coat and pulled him into the race. Still shouting to stop the wheel, he died of a crushed head and chest. The coroner’s inquest said, “cutting ice from off the water wheel of the corn mill, and overreaching with his axe, was caught by his coat with some part of the wheel…wherehy his head was drawn down till it was sucked in between the water-wall and the waterwheel.” Thus Samuel became the new town’s first industrial accident victim.

There were several mills in the Burlington area very early also, but just how early is not known. It is entirely possible that the mill known for years as Clapp’s mill on the Burlington-Wilmington line may have been erected shortly after the Butters family settled in Wilmington, for Mill Street is a very old road and a surprisingly small stream could turn a water wheel. The dam for that mill, now at the end of Sawmill Road, is still in good condition.

But the most active mill area in Burlington was in the Vine Brook lowlands. Before the Revolution, the area supported at least one fulling mill, two grist mills and a saw mill. Here to the southern part of Woburn Second Parish came Swithin Reed in 1740. He bought considerable acreage. One of the two mills he operated may well have been there when he arrived. The Burlington Mall now sits on his property.

Swithin was born in 1712 in what is now Hudson, N.H., but at that time was a part of Dunstable called Nottingham West. He became a good farmer as well as a fine miller. It was he who brought home to his wife one day one of Burlington’s two slaves. He carried the baby all the way from Boston well wrapped in his saddle bag. He named her Venus.

Robert, the oldest of Swithin’s two boys, went fishing with friends one warm summer day off Boston Light, fell overboard and drowned. His younger son James thus inherited the mills and property. He took an active part in the Revolution and rose to the rank of captain. His statement made under oath some 50 years after the Battle of Lexington and Concord reveals that the first prisoners of war were held by him in his house that day. Six were captured during the morning engagement and several more were brought there in the afternoon. All were moved to one of the Johnson houses deep within the Second Parish for safe keeping that night and then marched to Chelmsford the next morning.

James married Elizabeth Wellington and fathered eight children, all born in the family homestead situated on the road from the meeting house to Lexington. James, the second child born to them in 1783, grew up on that farm and stayed to operate the two mills. When but 20 years old he married Suzanna Johnson. He also attained the rank of captain and served in the War of 1812. Born to James and Suzanna were five children: Artemis, James, Susan, Edward and Luke. Artemis beat his father’s record by marrying his first wife before he turned 16. James married a girl from Nova Scotia and moved out of town, Susan married Jessie Fowle of Woburn. Luke went to Louisiana. Edward remained on the old homestead and carried on as a farmer and miller until he died in 1904.

One mill had disappeared long before Edward died and the other had been used as a cider press. Much of the farm, in the Reed family for 165 years, was sold to the Acme Sand and Gravel Company. The old house, then the property of Orrin E. Bowman, was moved to make way for Route 128 in 1948. In its new location, empty and uncared for, it caught fire and burned.