A Brief History of Winchendon
By: John H. White
According to the published histories, Winchendon was first settled by Europeans about 1752. There is evidence of Native Americans having been in the area previously, though regular settlements are uncertain. The early settlers were faced with clearing the land, building homes, and surviving in a virtual wilderness. They feared attacks by the Native Americans as happened in other places. Early on, available waterpower was harnessed to provide a sawmill and a grain mill. A tannery was established. It was soon found that wood products were marketable and became the first source of local income. Undoubtedly agricultural products such as meat, wool, hides, and grain were also sold for income. The Millers River had a number of good mill sites and the power generated was utilized in woodworking factories, woolen mills and shops for a number
of other purposes that were needed in the local economy. One wood product, shingles, was produced in such volume that Winchendon became known as "Shingletown."
Even though much of Winchendon is rocky hillside, after the forests were cleared agriculture was an important local occupation for many residents. Men would work in a number of different occupations depending on the season: logging in winter, working in wood and other shops when the river provided waterpower, planting, haying, and harvesting. Care of livestock was a year round chore. As in any local economy, trade and transportation were important occupations. Women mostly took care of the home and family but many probably worked alongside the men when needed.
Winchendon Becomes a Manufacturing Community
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the small Monomonac Lake was dammed raising the water level by maybe 15 feet and increasing the water area to more than 500 acres, the larger portion lying in New Hampshire. Other reservoirs were built on the east branch of the Millers as well. These reservoirs could be drawn down in dry seasons making water power much more dependable at the many mill sites down the river. With the available water power, working in the mills became the principal occupation of many and the town grew.
Manufacturing became an important factor in the local economy. The woolen mill in Winchendon Springs was acquired by the Nelson White family and became a cotton mill It was substantially enlarged and additional factories built in Glenallan and the Winchendon village. Factory sites were developed away from the river powered by steam generated from, almost certainly, wood waste and low quality wood.
Local men invented a number of woodworking and other machines and these were built here generating a metal working industry as well. Men in the Whitney and Murdock families invented machinery for making tubs and pails more easily and these products became important Winchendon products. Baxter Whitney invented the first successful wood thickness planer. His factory was near the middle of Winchendon and the dam and pond behind it still bear his name. The planer won prizes at international exhibitions and was marketed throughout the world until the 1950s. Morton Converse made wooden collar boxes (for the men's collars popular at the time) and then switched to wooden toys. This was very successful and Winchendon ultimately had the largest toy factory in the world. The town became known as Toy Town and the name has stuck. The business, however,
succumbed to metal by the 1930s. Plastic toys have now largely replaced metal and those are still manufactured in Winchendon by one firm.
In 1847 the railroad came to Winchendon and the ability to move goods in and out of the town more easily and cheaply further spurred the growth of manufacturing. The first railroad was the Cheshire which connected to Boston at Fitchburg and ran through Winchendon and Keene to Bellows Falls in Vermont. Some trains later ran through to Montreal. Later the Monadnock Railroad was built which ran from Worcester through Gardner, Winchendon, Jaffrey, and Peterborough to Concord, NH. These both later became part of the Boston & Maine system. A third railroad, the Ware River, was built from Palmer, where it connected to the Boston & Albany, through Ware, Barre, and Templeton terminating in Winchendon. It ultimately became part of the New York Central System. These made Winchendon a considerable hub in the latter part of the nineteenth
century and the first part of the twentieth. With the growth of highway transportation, rail service to Winchendon ended in the 1970s and the tracks have mostly been torn up. There was also a street car line from Gardner to Winchendon by way of Baldwinville, Lake Dennison and Waterville in the first part of the twentieth century. The last of the tracks were torn up during World War II.
Transportation and trade were important along with manufacturing in the nineteenth century. Of particular note was Ephraim Murdock, Jr. He was involved with all and became very wealthy. At one point he was president of the Cheshire Railroad. His wealth ultimately benefited the town through his church and his endowment of the Murdock high school.
The Decline of Manufacturing
As electric power largely replaced small water power for manufacturing, metal and later plastic items replaced wood, and good local timber was used up, local manufacturing declined to a very low level in the middle of the twentieth century. One factory, which makes plastic toys, is the only one of any size in the town. There are, however, a number of small operations, many engaged in wood furniture manufacturing.
Agriculture, once an important part of Winchendon's economy started to decline in the 1830s as better and more fertile land opened in the West. The decline has been gradual and now there are only two commercial farms in the town, though there are some "hobby" farms. Much of the land that was once cleared has grown back to woods or is being developed for homes.
Because of the danger of attack the center of the town, including the common, the meeting house, and a number of homes and businesses, was located on a hill, a section now known as Old Center. The Richard Day house, located just off the common dates to 1752 and was the site of Winchendon's first town meeting. The first meeting house and church (they were the same in those days) was located near the southwest corner of the common. It appears to have been a crude building and was never finished inside. The second building was located near the site of the present church. This present building was built in the 1850s with materials from its predecessor.
With the local economy based more on manufacturing than agriculture, the effective center of the town moved down the hill to the proximity of the river. The North Congregational Church (now the United Parish) was built in 1843 and the town hall in 1850. This village now includes most of the town's public buildings and businesses. Other villages grew up around mill sites. These include Waterville and Winchendon Springs. Other onetime villages such as Bullardville, Hydeville, Harrisville, Centerville, New Boston, and Glenallan, have nothing to distinguish them but their names and the memories of elderly inhabitants.
The town was known as Ipswich Canada until it was incorporated as a town by the name of Winchendon in 1764. The town was named for one in England which had some connection with the then royal governor of Massachusetts. The basic town organization of an town meeting open to all registered voters with a board of Selectmen as executives continues to this day. In 1981 the town adopted a home rule charter which established the position of town manager as the chief administrative officer and provided that the town officials other than moderator, selectmen, school committee, board of health, and housing authority be appointed.
In the early years, since children had to walk to school, one room district schoolhouses were built in various sections of town. A Winchendon Academy, at least partly a boarding school, was established on the site of the present Colonial Bank around 1835. A brick "New Academy" was built at the north end of Academy Street in the 1850s. With the growth of the village, graded schools were introduced though the district schools were continued in the outlying parts of town. Multi room schools were located in Waterville, halfway between Winchendon Springs and Glenallan and in the village in the 1860s and 1870s. Through the bequest of Ephraim Murdock, Jr. the Murdock School was opened as a public high school in 1887. In time the district schools were closed and the children transported to the larger buildings. Other schools built were
the Marvin (1904); Poland (about 1924); and Streeter (1939.) In 1961 a new Murdock High School (now Toy Town Elementary) was opened because of overcrowding in the older Murdock building. Again overcrowding persuaded the town to build an elementary school, Memorial School. When it opened in 1975, four older buildings were closed. The present Murdock Middle High School (opened 1995) was built to accommodate the increasing student population.
As mentioned the first church was in Old Center. The next was the New Boston Baptist Church which was established in the southwest part of town around 1800. That section of town had been settled largely by people of that persuasion. This area is now included in the Birch Hill flood control area and only the cemetery remains. The next was the North Congregational Church in 1843, consisting substantially of members of the older church who now lived in or nearer the village. To accommodate citizens of different religious persuasions, the First Methodist church and the First Baptist churches were established in the village. The Methodist Churches were successively on School Square and the corner of Oak Street and Lincoln Avenue. The First Baptist Church was on Central Street, now the location of the Community Action Committee's operation. These
two congregations joined with the Congregationalists to form the United Parish of Winchendon in the 1970s. The first Roman Catholic masses were held in a railroad shed in the late 1840s. Later they started a building and held masses in the basement area until they were able to complete the building in 1908. The Unitarian Universalist Church was built in 1866-67 though Unitarian services had been held intermittently since the early 1850s in other locations. There was a Protestant Episcopal church on Oak Street. It appears never to have been strong, shared a minister with the Methodists for some time and was closed and torn down when the Methodists joined the United Parish. In recent years several evangelical Christian congregations have been organized. The Bethany Bible Chapel has built a building on Spring Street; the Cornerstone Church of the Assemblies of God has built on Gardner Road; and the Church of God has acquired a building on Beech Street. There are also a couple
storefront Christian churches in the town.
The early settlers in Winchendon were mostly of English and Scottish ancestry. With the railroad came a number of Irish people. Later the town saw a substantial number of immigrants from French Canada, Italy, and Poland. Smaller numbers came from Finland, Sweden, Syria, Lebanon and other foreign countries. There were few African Americans in Winchendon until the last twenty years. More recently we have seen immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Latin American, and Asian countries.
As industry declined, many residents found work in other communities, mostly to the east. This portion of people working out of town has increased as most of the newer residents are also employed elsewhere. With people living longer, the proportion of the elderly has increased.
Winchendon's population grew fairly steadily from its early beginnings through its industrialization until some people dreamed of it becoming a city. By 1930 Winchendon had about 6000 residents. However the decline of manufacturing and the great depression of the 1930s brought growth to a halt.
Winchendon grew barely at all from the 1930s to the 1970s. The population was still under 7000. Then the availability of relatively cheap undeveloped land in Winchendon began to attract people who worked further east but sought affordable housing and a little elbow room. Developers built several subdivisions and many houses along the existing roads. Growth since the 1970s has been much more rapid. The official population of Winchendon according to the 2000 census is 9611. Many people feel that it now stands above 10,000.
Winchendon housing has historically been mostly one family units. Until recently there have been few multiple units constructed. Even now there are only two projects, other than public housing, that have more than four units per building. Except where larger buildings have been divided, there have been few of the two, three and four unit buildings built. The Winchendon Housing Authority, a governmental unit, has built two projects for low income elderly people, one project for low income families, a mixed project and now has acquired a number of scattered site homes.
As motor vehicles replaced the railroad, highways have become important. The town is now served by three numbered routes, state routes 12 and 140 and United States route 202. While these are all two lane highways, they do provide convenient access to the Boston area, southern New Hampshire, central Vermont, central Massachusetts, and western Massachusetts. With the exception of route 140, which ends at route 12 a couple miles east, these routes all pass through the main village. The town also has many local roads, some of which originally served outlying farms. The town has over 100 miles of road within its 42 plus square miles.
Businesses and Trade
Retail trade was an important economic activity before the advent of the automobile. There were a number of stores in the villages. This was largely as many people had no transportation beyond their feet and probably bicycles and hand drawn carts. Convenience was important. Various stores provided most of the necessities of the populace: groceries, meat, clothing, shoes, millenary, dry goods, notions, drugs, housewares, furniture, tools, hardware, harnesses, hay, grain, seeds, mason supplies and many other items. With the advent of the automobile, the number of small stores declined in favor of larger establishments that could offer a wider selection and lower prices. It is now no longer possible to buy a number of these items in Winchendon.
Except, perhaps, in the very early days, there have been physicians in Winchendon. Two hospitals were established. The first was "The Highlands" which was essentially a mental hospital and was located in a surviving building on High Street. A little after 1900, Dr. John G. Henry established the Millers River Hospital which was located across from the Beals Memorial Library (building is now apartments.) Though Dr. Henry died earlier, this operated until the late 1940s when it was reorganized into the Winchendon Hospital. This continued until the state would no longer license small hospitals and the facility became the Winchendon Health Center, a satellite of the Heywood Hospital in Gardner. All the Winchendon physicians are now affiliated with the health center, though at least one chiropractor practices
Generally, the other professions and trades have been well represented. There have almost always been lawyers, dentists, barbers, beauticians, insurance agents, real estate agents, and accountants though the numbers have varied. Over the years there have been many persons employed in the building trades. While blacksmiths and livery stables have gone the way of draft horses, newer services such as computer repair and fitness centers have sprung up.