History of Easton, Massachusetts (From the Easton Historical Society, 2004)
When Easton celebrated its 250th Anniversary in 1975, the commemoration of the past was for one of the most historic towns on the South Shore. Unfortunately, most of Easton’s history was little known outside the town and only recently is getting the national recognition it deserves. Evidence of this is the North Easton Railroad Station, one
of architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s five buildings in Easton, which was declared a National Historical Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior. In 1988 a National Historic Landmark District was established, and Easton now has FOUR National Register Historic Districts.
Easton’s heritage begins long before the first Europeans came to America. It was a border area of the Wampanoags and many evidences remain today. Easton has several campsites used by the Native Americans during the summer months, mostly along streams from which they got food. Arrowheads and other artifacts have been frequently found, and many legends circulate about King Philip’s cave near Stonehill College and the warriors who once roamed the area.
Some time after King Philip’s War ended in 1676, Easton experienced its first English settlers. In 1668 the Taunton North Purchase, which included all of Easton, most of Mansfield, and part of Norton, was acquired for 100 pounds by a land company. This amounted to roughly two pounds per square mile. Although the land was purchased in 1668, it wasn’t until 1694 that the first settlers made their way to Easton.
These first settlers desired the water power that the three main streams afforded, as well as the bog iron and farming land in the southern part of town. It soon became evident that travel to Taunton, the “shire” town, was long and difficult, and the people objected to traveling those distances for church meetings. In some respects, Easton was more fortunate than many of the other towns, as Bay Road passed directly through this area. Bay Road served as the main connecting way between Narraganset Bay and Massachusetts Bay. However, the Hockomock Swamp forced travelers some distance to the west, and Easton residents wanted autonomy. In 1710, Norton separated from Taunton, but it wasn’t until 1725 that the “East-end of Norton” was allowed incorporation as Easton.
Early Easton was definitely filled with individuals who were tight-fisted with money. At one town meeting in the 1740’s, it was voted to pay the fine for not having schools because the fine was less than the schooling costs would be. On several occasions, Easton was forced by the state to improve its roads under penalty of court action. This frugality came to the foreground in the late 1790’s when Raynham, the town to the south, petitioned the state to have a road built through the Hockomock Swamp. Since this road would be in Easton, but would really help only Raynham, Easton refused. Finally, after many delays the state ordered the building of the road and at that point Easton offered to give the swamp to Raynham. Raynham didn’t want the expense either and so refused and Easton was forced to build the road. Some of the funds were taken from school appropriations, and this road through the swamp was set up as a turnpike to get back the investment. Thus, Turnpike Street came into existence.
Early Easton must have been a rather rough and tumble sort of place, as by 1786 the town was already on its third set of stocks, having worn out two sets by this time.
Easton’s citizenry, as well as its resources, steadfastly supported the Revolutionary War, and much was done to assist freedom. Cannons for George Washington’s army were cast at Perry’s Furnace and proofed along Poquanticut Avenue (the designation of one section of town as “Furnace Village” came from this), and muskets were made at Quaker Leonard’s Forge on East Elm Street. It was at this forge that some of the earliest steel produced in America was made. Even today, charcoal “pits” (rings in the ground) exist throughout the town as physical evidence.
Two militia companies marched from Easton after the “Lexington alarm,” and these two companies became part of the rebel forces surrounding Boston. Easton continued support throughout the war, with 23 men serving with Washington at Valley Forge, an incredible number considering the town’s population.
George Washington supposedly spent at least two nights in Easton at taverns along Bay Road. The first place was at the Kingman Tavern which was located near Rockland Street, and the other night was spent at the Benjamin Williams Tavern while he was negotiating for cannon and shot. This tavern is still standing, and one of Easton’s four milestones along Bay Road is in the front yard with the initials B.W. carved in it.
The women also worked for the Revolution, and several times Boston papers reported on the “patriotic activities” of Easton’s amiable Daughters of Liberty. Only one recorded Tory was found in Easton, perhaps due to the zealousness of the patriots. This zeal carried over to the British prisoners being held in Easton, as two of the seven ended up serving in the Continental army for George Washington.
The early nineteenth century saw a man move to Easton who would change the entire town’s character. This was Oliver Ames, son of John Ames of Bridgewater, maker of some of the earliest iron shovels in America. Oliver Ames set up a shovel business that prospered to such an extent that by the end of the century it was the largest in the world. The Ames family directly influenced the growth of North Easton, and due to the different character of the areas of the town, it separated into factions that only recently think of themselves as one town.
A disastrous fire in 1852 forced the Ames Shovel and Tool Company to build the stone shops, which still stand, and this date marks the start of a fabulous era for North Easton. In addition to constructing new shops, the family set up many other buildings. One of the best examples of nineteenth century housing still exists as a row of homes on Elm Street, and these houses form part of a living museum that is North Easton. The Ameses were also philanthropists, and they hired Henry Hobson Richardson to build a town hall and a library. Due to dissent from other sections of town, Oakes Ames Memorial Hall was never accepted as a town hall and does not serve that purpose today. Perhaps it is ironic that the Frothingham House, another Ames mansion, serves that purpose today. Frederick Law Olmsted, the noted landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York and the “Emerald Necklace” in Boston, was commissioned to do the landscaping around Memorial Hall. The Rockery, still occupying a prominent place in North Easton center, was part of his work. He also helped landscape many of the estates in North Easton.
Frederick Lothrop Ames, richest man in New England in the late nineteenth century, commissioned Richardson to design three more buildings. One, the North Easton Railroad Station, was given by him to the Old Colony Railroad, of which he was a director. This building was purchased by the Ames family in 1969 and given to the Easton Historical Society. This building is part of the National Historic Landmark District.
F. L. Ames also had the Gate Lodge designed by Richardson, and it is one of his most personal works. Also, a smaller wooden building called the Gardener’s Cottage was designed by him to be used as a model worker’s house. These two buildings are both still in existence on Elm Street.
The philanthropy of the Ames family was carried still further with the gift of the high school, and Easton’s high school is still called Oliver Ames High School in memory of this gift. In addition, trust funds were set up for the school department, the highway department, and for trees, and many of the streets of Easton have towering maples along their sides which were donated by this family on a matching basis with the town.
The attentiveness to education was a trademark of the Ames family, and through their generosity, Easton became the second community in Massachusetts to have a public kindergarten, starting in the 1880’s. The original Oliver Ames High School Band was also funded by Anna C. Ames in 1901, as well as gymnasium facilities for the schools. In 1948 one of the Ames estates became the home of Stonehill College.
South Easton was also growing steadily during this time. It too had major industry with the Ross Heel Company, the J. O. Dean Mill, and Easton Machine Company, makers of the Morse automobile. One of the cars made by this company is still in existence in North Easton.
The J. O. Dean mill is symbolic of the many mills in Easton’s past, and Henry Ford purchased the turbine from this mill for one of his museums. On the Stonehill College property, not far from this mill, is one of the few millstone quarrying sites in America that still has millstones in various stages of completion. One can see there the granite outcroppings, the roughly outlined stones, round millstones broken loose from the bedrock, and the finished products waiting to be hauled away. Until recently, this site was little known.
Simpson Spring Company, the oldest bottling company in the United States on its original location, is also in South Easton. Mr. Frederick A. Howard began bottling spring water for commercial use in 1878. Two years later he began manufacturing quality carbonated beverages. The spring is still used as the source of water and has never gone dry.
Easton’s total past can’t be told with justice to it in so few words. Much of the town’s history has to be seen firsthand to be understood. At the Church Street Cemetery, one of 35 or so in Easton, is the burial site of a lady who died in 1747 and it contains two headstones and two footstones for her. This mystery is still not fully explained. Off Chestnut Street, one can find the double cellarhole that horse thieves in the early 1800’s used to hide their newly acquired steeds, and near South Street is a mill site with several millstones built into its foundation. Easton had the remains of the last working icehouse in New England, the only Bull Cemetery in the world (according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not), and many other areas and sites that help one to reflect on this fascinating town’s past.
Hopefully Easton, a community aware of its unique history, will continue to appreciate and preserve its historical resources. The Easton Historical Commission, appointed by the Selectmen, and the Easton Historical Society are always looking for support in this objective.