A Walking Tour of Historic Main Street

Pepperell's Highway of History

by
Ronald Karr
1987; revised 2017


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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 its historical heritage. 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 would establish a church 250 years later). 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.

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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.

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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. 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.

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The cemetery on the opposite side of Park Street--actually two separate cemeteries, the Corporation and the Walton--has stones which date back to 1750, and many of the old grave markers make fascinating reading. To the south of the grassy common just off Main Street is the Bunker Hill monument, presented to the town in 1899 by Edith Prescott Wolcott to commemorate the Pepperell men who fought and died at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. The low brick building behind the monument near the cemetery wall, which today houses the Pepperell Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was originally District School #1. Built in 1831, this two-room school house became a fire station in 1877 and was deeded to the D.A.R. in 1891.
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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.

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The first stretch of Main Street to the Rotary is particularly rich in architecture. Nearly every significant style of the first half of the nineteenth century--the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Stick, and Carpenter Gothic--is represented, as well as several examples of the Colonial Revival style from the beginning of the present century.
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As we descend Chase Hill toward the Rotary the Peter Fitzpatrick School is on our right. In 1888 the town erected its first new high school building here. The earliest part of the present Fitzpatrick School (the part closest to Main Street) was built in 1938 to replace the original high school. Fitzpatrick remained Pepperell's High School until the establishment of the North Middlesex Regional School District in the 1960s.
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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 Ten Broeck Insurance Group. 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 private parties 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

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The side streets that intersect Main beyond the Rotary, Franklin and Crescent, were laid out in the 1890s, just before the collapse of Pepperell's industrial economy. Franklin Street in particular is worth a glance. Even after 90 years of alterations it is obvious that the houses here must originally have been nearly identical. These solid cottages housed workers in the paper and shoe factories farther down Main Street.
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Opposite the outlet of Crescent Street looms the Shattuck School. When its doors first opened in 1898 it represented, along with the Groton Street School (1893) and the High School, the height of educational progress in Pepperell. Within 20 years all of the town's numerous one- and two-room school houses had been abandoned. Closed in 1980, the Shattuck School became the town's public safety complex a decade later.
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Cross Street, which intersects Main across from Donelan's Market, was laid out in 1875 through farm land on the edge of the Mill Village. The houses on the east side of the street date from the 1870s and 1880s while those on the west were not built until the 1890s. Both sides of the streets are found good examples of the popular or vernacular interpretation of Victorian architectural styles.
 The white Cape-style house just beyond the supermarket was built in the 1830s. Formerly, it was flanked by another Cape of the same vintage with attached barn, which was demolished in 1986 to expand the supermarket. Until recently, the site of the Southern New England Medical Center was occupied by a fine Greek Revival side hall house with a Benjamin Asher doorway. In the late nineteenth century this stretch of Main Street was a pleasant residential district, but in the past fifty years a commercial strip has been hacked out of this neighborhood, producing the present scene before you. Numerous buildings have been demolished here.
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Beyond the medical center on the left lies the old Brookline & Pepperell Railroad station. Now the Pepperell Family Pharmacy, the depot dates from 1892 when the B&P constructed its line through Pepperell from Ayer to Brookline, N.H. (and ultimately, to Milford). This well-maintained Stick Style building is Pepperell's only surviving railroad station. The Boston & Maine Railroad, which took over operation of the line in 1900, used it until passenger services ended in June 1931. The B & M abandoned the line north of Tucker Street to New Hampshire in 1939 and south of Main Street to Ayer in 1942. Formerly one the best-preserved rural rail depots in New England, the station recently underwent an addition that more than doubled its size. 


Pleasant Street, which intersects Main opposite the depot, was constructed in the 1880s. Nearly all the houses on this Victorian street were built within a decade or so of the street's opening, mostly in the vernacular Victorian style. High Street, the next street to intersect Main on the right, is two decades older than Pleasant. It presents an even richer assortment of vernacular Victorian architecture, featuring Mansard roofs and elaborately rolled hoods over doorways.


Leighton Shoe Factory

Nearly all of the early inhabitants of Pleasant and High Streets, as with most of East Pepperell, were either employed by the shoe or paper industries or were associated with retail stores. Owners and managers of factories and stores, not just workers, resided in the Mill Village in convenient walking distance of work. For example, the large yellow house that formerly stood on the corner of Main and High--it was demolished in 1986 to make way for a bank (now Mariano's Restaurant)--was the home of Hewitt C. Winslow, the superintendent of the paper mills from 1865 to 1890. Next door, on the site now occupied by the Century 21 Real Estate office, was the home of Albert Leighton, the founder of Pepperell's major shoe factory.

Leighton's factory was a few doors farther down Main Street beyond the intersection with Foster, where Cumberland Farms now is located. Today paper is the only industry we associate with Pepperell but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century shoes were even more important. The shoe industry arrived in the 1820s, but for years manufacturing was confined to small shops and home production. Large scale production began in 1868 when Leighton, a native of Danvers built his first factory on Main Street, where the Community Garage stands today. The factory, which employed 70 hands, burned in 1879, only to be replaced by a much larger building at the Cumberland Farms site. Three hundred people were employed at this factory. When a second fire claimed this building in 1890, a third and even larger one was constructed on the same site. It was claimed that 700 workers could be employed there, about 3 times as many as worked in the paper mills at that time.

Competition from even larger and better capitalized factories in Lynn, Haverhill, and elsewhere, along with the business depression that began in 1893, however, led to the rapid decline of Pepperell's shoe business. After a series of closings and layoffs, the factory closed its doors in 1900 and did not reopen for two years. On March 10, 1903, the already ailing industry was dealt a staggering blow when the worst fire in Pepperell's history destroyed the factory and much of the surrounding area. Although a new and much smaller shoe factory was built in 1905 across the river on Lowell Road--what now is the Pepperell Braiding plant—the industry was virtually dead.

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The great fire of 1903 also leveled several buildings on the north side of Main Street that stood where we now find the Paugus Mall and its parking lot. The Saunders Block (later McNabb's Pharmacy) and the Foster Street Fire Station were both constructed in 1903 to replace similar buildings on their sites that perished in the flames.


Some of the earliest houses in the Mill Village are found on lower Mill Street and the eastern half of Cottage Street. Constructed between 1835 and 1860, the vernacular Greek Revival style of these buildings contrasts with the typically Victorian styles of buildings erected from 1860 to 1900. The Federal-style house on the river side of the intersection of Mill and Main was built around 1835, although it has been heavily altered over the years. The four cottages on the river side of Mill Street, just north of Main, are at least as old.
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Paper was been manufactured continuously at Babbitasset Falls on the Nashua for more than 150 years. As early as 1726 a grist mill was in operation here. A forge and small foundry, a powder mill, and a carding mill followed. In 1834 or 1835 And Emerson established the first paper mill. (Paper had been made to the north on the Nissitissitt River even earlier.) A series of companies operated the mills over the years, until the mills closed for good in 2002. The machinery was sold overseas, and the long-vacant buildings were demolished in 2011. 1-A Auto, an online retailer of auto parts, plans to construct a headquarters building on the site. .


Until 1851 Main Street ended at the paper mills. The east side of the river was still included in Groton and largely unpopulated. In 1848, however, the Worcester & Nashua Railroad was constructed between its namesake cities, with the line extending along the east bank of the Nashua River northward from Groton Junction (Ayer). With the opening of the Main Street bridge across the Nashua three years later a settlement began to take shape. The railroad added a stop, North Groton, which further fueled growth. Thanks to the Main Street bridge the residents of North Groton were far closer to the center of Pepperell than to that of their own town, and in 1857 the legislature authorized the inclusion of North Groton into Pepperell.

The combination of the railroad and the bridge to the Mill Village assured that growth would continue in the Depot Village, as North Groton was renamed after its annexation. Stores, coal and grain dealers, lumber yards, and other commercial establishments located here. In the 1890s the Prescott Hotel (where the Seven Eleven now is) was built here to serve businessmen and vacationers.

Railroad Square

Railroad Square--the final few hundred feet of Main Street--has seen more change in the present century than any other area along our route. Most notably, of course, is the absence of the railroad: the Boston & Maine shut down its line in 1982 and pulled up the tracks. The railroad depot, unused by passengers since 1932, was already gone. A series of fires, the latest within the last three decades, has destroyed most of the architectural heritage of the square, which currently awaits redevelopment. Main Street ends at Groton Street, at the far end of Railroad Square. Our journey from Town Hall has measured only 6000 feet. Six thousand feet--and 200 years.