Pepperell's Highway of History
1987; revised 2010
From its beginning at the front steps of Town Hall to its end in Railroad Square Pepperell's Main Street is little more than a mile in length. Yet no road in town can rival the historical heritage of this one. The imprint of two centuries have left their mark on this highway.
Town records first mention Main Street in 1763 as "ye Bridle Road," but its origin was probably twenty or thirty years earlier. Indian resistance kept settlers from crossing the Nashua River into the part of Groton that later became Pepperell until after 1720. By 1742, however, enough colonists had located here that the Massachusetts General Court authorized the creation of Groton West Parish, so that Grotonians who lived beyond the Nashua could avoid the long trek each week into Groton Center to attend church services.
The residents of Groton West Parish being a contentious lot, a heated controversy arose over where the new church should be located. The dispute centered on two groups of settlers, one of which had located near Jo Blood's Ford on the Nashua, near today's covered bridge, and the other in the hills in the western portion of the parish (traditionally, the Bloods and the Shattucks, respectively). Each faction sought to have the church built convenient to itself (one of the proposed sites was near the intersection of Hollis and Tucker Streets in East Pepperell, close to where Pepperell's Episcopalians established a church). At one point the dispute degenerated into a wild brawl between the two factions. Finally the General Court had to break the deadlock, ordering that the church be erected about one mile south of the geographic center of the parish.
Pepperell's first church was raised in 1746 on the grassy common across Park Street from today's Community Church. Small, unpretentious, and unpainted--Pepperell historian Lorenzo Blood described it as looking more like a barn than a church--the Meetinghouse was the first public building in the parish. It took on added importance in 1753 when the General Court established Groton West Parish as the District of Pepperell. The church was thus the site of both weekly religious services and town meetings. The spiritual and political center of the community, the Meetinghouse was the focal point of a series of roads that radiated outward to all points of the town.
Continued growth led to the building of a new church building on the same site in 1769. The original church was removed to a farm, where it served as a barn until its destruction by arson in 1830. In 1836 the second church building was rebuilt with a steeple in the popular style of the day. This church, which then housed Pepperell's Unitarians, survived until its total destruction by fire in 1917. Today only a slight depression on the Pepperell Common marks the site.
For nearly a century the Meetinghouse was the only church in town. In 1832, however, the Pepperell church was torn asunder by controversy between Unitarian and Congregational elements. The Unitarian faction succeeded in getting the town to oust the pastor, the Rev. James Howe, from his pulpit; whereupon Howe and his Congregational supporters established the Evangelical Congregational Society of Pepperell, with Howe as pastor. That same year the new society built a large church across Park Street facing the Meetinghouse, on the site of an old tavern. This church burned in 1859, and the following year it was replaced at the same location by another building, today's Community Church.
In its heyday in the early nineteenth century, before the factory and the railroad came to town, the Meetinghouse was the undisputed center of Pepperell. Several stores and taverns were in operation nearby, as well as the town's post office. One of the community's first school houses was located here as early as 1764, and several schools were subsequently established in the immediate vicinity. The gracious Federal and Greek Revival style houses that we find on Park, Elm, Townsend, and Main Streets today mostly date from this post-Revolutionary period.
Off Main Street and down Park Street
Before starting our journey down Main Street it is worth stopping to look at several historic structures clustered around the site of the old Meetinghouse. The large yellow house that until recently stood across Elm Street from Town Hall was the Lewis Estate. This stately Federal-style mansion was constructed in 1819 for Squire James Lewis, a Billetica-born lawyer and prominent public citizen. For thirty years it had been the home of Dr. Charles Porter and his wife, Barbara Cooney, the noted illustrator and author. A 1990s-style suburban house now stands on its site.
Two doors north of the Community Church on Park Street is a large white Federal-style house which dates from 1817. It was built for Joseph Breck, a successful carriage builder from Medfield. In 1818 Breck founded a seed company that still exists today, importing bulbs from Holland.
Continuing north on the left side of Park Street another two doors brings us to the white Greek Revival-style building that now houses the Pepperell Grange. In 1834 a group of local citizens founded the Pepperell Academy to provide education beyond the elementary level. This building was raised in just three months at a cost of $900. For many years the academy flourished before declining in the 1850s. In 1864 the town acquired the building for use as a secondary school, and in 1880 when the state forced the town--which was quite reluctant--to provide a public high school, the Academy building was again called into service. Pepperell's high school remained here until 1889, whereupon the building was acquired by the local chapter of the Grange.
Returning to Main Street
We now return to 1 Main Street: Town Hall. This Victorian Gothic structure was built in 1874 when the Unitarian Church across the street could no longer accommodate town meetings. Pepperell's earliest known school house occupied this site in 1764. It was later moved to make way for a tavern and store, which continued until the town purchased the lot in 1873.
Proceeding down Main Street we pass several fine old houses. The second large white house on the left (no. 10), the Nathan Shipley house, was built in sections. The oldest part, the ell, is believed to have been built by the Rev. Joseph Emerson, the first pastor of Groton West Parish, in 1748. Opposite the Shipley house, across Main Street, is the Lawrence Memorial Library. This stately Romanesque Revival structure is unique in Pepperell in several respects, not the least of which it is the only building in town designed by an internationally prominent architect. Charles F. Lawrence had left his native Pepperell early to seek his fortune in New York City. A successful businessman, he retained a summer home here. On his death in 1897 he bequeathed $100,000--a considerable sum in those days--to construct a library. His executor commissioned the firm of the noted New York architect Ernest Flagg to do the design.
In its present form the Rotary itself dates back to 1946. The square white building on the northwest side, next to the pond, is an interesting Greek Revival building~ built around 1830 it originally occupied the site of the Lawrence Library. On the northeast side of the Rotary, a short way up Hollis Street, is the old Varnum homestead, now the office of the Brown & Brown Insurance Agency. This restored center chimney colonial, which dates from the 1740s, is the oldest building in the vicinity of Main Street. Jonas Varnum, who built it, is recorded as keeping school here in 1749. The house remained in the Varnum family until 1909, when it was acquired by the town along with the town field. The town sold it to the present owners in 1958.
The Rotary marks the division between two Pepperells, each with its own historical and architectural heritage. The Mill Village grew westward from the Nashua River while the agricultural Town Center expanded to the east along Main Street until they met at the Rotary at the end of the last century. Originally, Main Street itself ended here, the route to Jewett's Bridge (the covered bridge) following Hollis and Groton Streets to the Nashua River.
Present-day Main Street in East Pepperell dates from 1816 when the town voted "that the Selectmen be requested to lay out a route from Jacob Chase's [at the Rotary] to the Forge straight or nearly straight." The Forge was at today's James River mill