Preservation of the Millbrook
Jack Crosby, age 67
552 Cambridge Turnpike
Interviewed November 16, 2000
Morton "Terry" Baker, age 80
100 Keyes Road
Interviewed May 15, 2001
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Jack Crosby -- Six generations of my family have lived on this land. My grandfather came here from Rutland, Massachusetts in about 1915. He had just graduated in the first class from Mass Agriculture School in Amherst. He had just gotten married and had a job working at a local farm. A few years later he had the opportunity to buy about 40 acres and a working farm. He brought his father and mother to this area about a year later. That would be the six generations, my great-grandfather, grandfather, my father, myself, my son Billy, and three of my grandsons, who have all lived on this land since that time.
Let me tell you a little bit about the pond on this land that my grandfather had related to me. It wasn't always a pond. It was at one time just a brook that ran through the land prior to when he bought it. Someone had the bright idea of damming it up. They did so by taking scoops behind a oxen and making a pretty extensive dyke all around it, and then a moveable dam in the middle which they would dam up in the fall, and when the pond got full and ice would form, they would cut ice off it and store it in an adjacent ice house near the road. Then in the spring they would let the water go and it would revert back to a marsh, and they would cut marsh hay off it in the fall to cover the strawberries. So it was a working pond. It wasn't there just for swimming or fun. It had a purpose.
The Millbrook starts very close to Sandy Pond in Lincoln. It doesn't begin at Sandy Pond, but it starts in a marshy area this side of the pond. It gradually picks up speed and size, and enters one end of my pond, and comes out the other end where the dam is still today, and eventually winds it way through town. This was a lovely area when I was a kid growing up. We called that brook that came from the Sandy Pond area "tingling brook" because of the sound it made as the water tumbled over the rocks. It was a lovely peaceful area to grow up in. We played cowboys and Indians and had all the fun that kids do. The brook runs parallel to Route 2 for a short distance, comes under Route 2, and then exits into my pond.
As the Millbrook exits my pond, it heads across a marshy area which is rather treacherous. My grandfather, whose name was Harvey, used to tell a story about a cow that got away and by the time they found it, it was mired in the muck and before they could get horses and traps to pull it out, it had disappeared. It is not necessarily quick-sand but it's very marshy and treacherous. I've personally taken a pole about 20 feet long and just kept pushing, and it just went down out of sight. There is no bottom to some areas of it. Then the brook goes out in the middle of a field that Louie Albano used to farm years ago, and then takes a left hand turn at that point, and heads toward Hawthorne Lane through the Kenney field area that Bill Kenney still farms. Then after it goes under Hawthorne Lane, it takes another left and goes under Cambridge Turnpike one more time in the other direction and goes down past Emerson's House, eventually onto Heywood Street and right through the middle of the town where it also goes under Concord Lumber and exits at the Concord-Assabet River.
I am a member of the Millbrook Task Force which was formed in 1995. I came aboard a year later. We're dedicated to preserving the Millbrook, possibly restoring it like it was years and years ago, making sure it's clean and as pretty as it always has been. We're doing anything we can to restore it and make people cognizant of the importance of it, and just make sure it's retained in its natural state.
The Millbrook Task Force has a core of about 10 or 12 members, and then we have another 5 or 6 that come whenever they can. When it comes time for a cleanup, we all rally our forces and everybody shows up, and we have a good time. The Task Force is under the auspices of the Natural Resources Commission. They know everything we do. We get permission from them for all of our projects and we work hand-in-hand.
I was just a kid when Route 2 was built. It was actually built just two years after I was born. It was built in 1935 and opened in 1936. People could get from Concord and Lincoln to Boston through 2A and the old Cambridge Turnpike without too much difficulty. They didn't need a super-highway, which at that time, Route 2 was called. But the reason for it, as I've been told by my grandfather and he was quite sure of this, the government pretty much knew or at least suspected that we would be going to war with Germany at one time. Fort Devens was 20 miles away from Boston. They felt they needed a quick way to get guns and tanks and ammunition and troops to defend Boston if necessary. So I've been told that that is the primary reason that Route 2 was built. Not for the traffic situation as we have today. They had no traffic problems. It was to get the troops to Boston to protect it should Germany attack.
When they brought the plans of Route 2, it came right through the middle of my grandfather's property. So they took that portion by eminent domain. There was no question in those days. They just said, "Harvey, we want your land. This is what we're going to give you for it." And that was it. No arbitration. But what they did do for him is create a corner where Route 2 comes down the hill and takes a hard left at a perfect spot for a gas station. My father, whose named was Edwin, hated farming. He didn't want any part of that, he was learning to be a plumber. He worked for Al Coffey, the local plumber, and was working towards his plumbing license. My grandfather said, "Ed, if I build a gas station on that corner why don't you run it?" So he thought it was a good idea. So Crosby's Corner became Crosby's Gas Station, and my father ran it. A car went by once every half hour or something like that and he eeked out a living until the war started. In 1942 he was drafted into the Navy. Well, who's going to run the gas station? Well, my mother and my grandfather did. My grandfather had given up farming at that point. My mother and grandfather ran the gas station until 1946 or late ‘45 when my father got discharged and came back and took over again. I can remember as a young boy of about 9 or 10 at that time, my job was to lick the stamps that you needed to buy gas and put them on these sheets so we could buy another load of gas. We not only had to pay for the gas but you had to have enough stamps to qualify to get another load again. That was the ration stamps.
When the war was over, my father came back to the gas station and my mother went back to being a housewife. By this time there was enough traffic on Route 2 to make a living for two people, so my father and my grandfather both ran the gas station until 1957 when I got out of the Navy and didn't know what to do. I suggested maybe we build a repair garage on the back, and I could repair cars, and my father and grandfather could continue pumping gas.
He was adamant about not going to the market. He would never truck things into the Boston market. He'd say he would throw the stuff away before he'd go into the market. He was a old rough Yankee, and he had his own way of doing things. There were a lot of truck farms in this area. I would say everybody did about the same thing. There were a few a little bit later like Andy Boy broccoli where the Nashawtuc Country Club is now that were very, very big, and they would send everything to market. There were two ways of doing business. You either grew it like that or you sold everything yourself. He elected to do his own.
My grandfather's father lived to be 96, Harvey died at 90, my father died at 88, so I think I have about 20 years to go until age 86. My mother was Margaret Sheehan. Jeremiah Sheehan came over from Ireland during the potato famine back in 1840s. So my mother's family go back even farther than my father's.
This piece of land that I have is the last piece of the 40 odd acres. We finally came down to the four that I sit on and there's no more. When it came time to build my house, I went to the conservation department because it sits on a pond, and my neighbors came and rallied for me. I guess the final vote came down because Heddie Kent came over and said, "You know this is the last piece of land that the Crosby's owned, and his grandfather and my grandfather used to farm it together for years and years, and I think it's only appropriate that he can live out the rest of his life on that land." So they gave me a permit and here I am. I built this place in 1994. It's a lovely spot.
Terry Baker, who has long been interested in the history of the Millbrook and very active in its cleanup, continues the Millbrook story.
Terry Baker -- The Millbrook Task Force was formed by Dan Monahan in 1995 as an outgrowth of the Natural Resources Commission. The idea was to examine the problems of the Millbrook and do something about them. I came into the Millbrook Task Force sideways because I've only belonged to it since 1998, and I'm no longer able to help and I resigned as chair in December of 2000 for health reasons. The present chair of the Task Force is John Mack. He and his wife have been active members. The workers who took over the roles Betsy and I had of stream keeping of the Millbrook are Jack and Fran Neville on Magnolia Street. They are starting to pick up where we left off.
There is a shallow valley below Sandy Pond in Lincoln which is bog. There is a spring part way down it where the Millbrook rises as a little trickle flowing north to Route 2. It falls about one foot in 66, which means it is quite a tinkling stream. It drops over rocks. It's a very nice little thing only about a foot or two wide, and it's in heavy woods which are not yet developed. Two roads have crossed it recently and there are various things which will happen in that area which may make it less primitive. It flows under Route 2 through a very large culvert by the Massachusetts Public Works highway maintenance yard into Crosby's pond. The Crosbys own on both sides of Route 2 and that is nice wild country. Crosby's pond is about three acres, and it is becoming totally overgrown with lily pads and is very shallow. There is a dam of about 6 feet and once the water falls over that dam, the Millbrook only falls one foot in 492 all the way to the Concord River. This means it is a slow moving stream with no ripples.
The NRC is totally caught up in reducing violations. The policy of certain people of the town is that if we leave everything alone, all the dead trees lying where they are, it will go away sooner or later. This is not so. People want the shores to look reasonable but not like Wellesley. They do not get good leadership from the NRC in my opinion.
Under Dan Monahan there was something called the Green People who went out and cleaned up from time to time under supervision. Markus Pinney has dropped that and there is a minimum or no cleanup or participation by people so they can find out what they can do and can't do. It is an educational process and the NRC in my opinion is falling down in developing an education program for what can be done. There are so many federal, Commonwealth and other laws about how far from the running water you can disturb the ground or do certain things, and these overlap. If someone pulls the worst one on you then you are stuck. I think that is very bad.
The Millbrook Task Force is a protection crew for the Millbrook. The mission is to raise public consciousness, protect the watershed and preserve it as a single ecologically sound stream. The Millbrook is Billerica's drinking water. The Millbrook can be a nice, little sandy bottom stream when it is clear and running unobstructed. As soon as it is obstructed, mud builds up and you get hydrogen sulfide and various other bad chemicals which reduce the viability of the stream.
I have town reports on the Millbrook that date back to 1936. It's very interesting material in there such as how the ditches have been drained and in the beginning they used prison labor. There is a shortage of prison labor this year for all public works. Back in the early 19th century the sheriff put the prisoners from the jail to work improving the cultivation possibilities of the fields of Concord. Concord is almost a swamp or marsh and by altering the water level a foot or two you reduce the amount of agricultural product you can produce, and if we discourage the farmers and they go away, then we're going to have a problem if they aren't tending the fields.
Over time the Mill pond became worse and worse until finally the town did something about it in 1837. My research on that is incomplete. But they filled in part of it and eliminated things that were happening such as people throwing awful and worse into the brook. At that time the Middlesex Hotel and various other places had all their sewage draining into the brook, so that it was pretty bad. The Millbrook was under the Board of Health for a while. The mosquito problem apparently went up and down, but it was mentioned in town reports.
In 1949 when I came to Concord it was a village surrounded by fields, and there was none of the development that we have now. The first development was Conantum in 1952. Then there was those houses out Bedford Road where one house sank into the mud before it could be finished. The village was 5,000 people and it was centrally located.
We lived in Conantum across the street from the river and I had a canoe and I had a little lab in which I would look at all the water life. I've been interested in water biology since I was 15. That enabled me to look at the Millbrook as an ecological totality, at the plant life and the animal life in it, particularly the microscopic and the minute which the fish feed on.
During World War II nothing was done with the Millbrook, and after the war the Millbrook was plugged up with dead trees and things. The town started in 1943 asking for money from the Board of Health to clean up the brook. It was Flannery, an individual, who just got into it and cleaned it up every day all summer for which he got paid a day laborer's wages. It was a very simple process. He did that until 1949 and by that time the water table had gone down 2 1/2 feet in the center of town.
The Merrimack River watershed has the Concord River flowing into it. If Lake Winnipesaukee and snow runoff in New Hampshire fills the Merrimack, the Concord has no place to go. If the Assabet has a backup and the Concord has no place to go, then there is more water. Meanwhile there is water coming down the Sudbury River and so the water will come up to 121 feet or so above sea level and the Millbrook has no place to go.
In 1962 Keyes Road was built. That altered the drainage in the area somewhat. They put a culvert under Keyes Road near what is now Brooks Pharmacy, and water could flow one way or the other and we have seen it flow both ways. There's a denial that that culvert exists, but I'm sorry the water goes both ways. It bubbles up. Culverts are the block points in urban and suburban watersheds, such as Hawthorne Lane, Cambridge Turnpike, Heywood Meadow, the tunnel under Main Street, and the lumber yard 175 yards total all back up with water if they are flooded. They have not been cleaned lately. You can't do it once a year, it has to be small increments after storms.
Concord can flood very easy. In the 1996 storm the fire department pumped 30 basements. There has been an awful lot of that. When we first came, there was a brook from Crosby's Market under Sudbury Road to the river at Riverdale. There was bit of ledge there where the water was held back, and those fields before they built anything had great big deep ditches, 6-foot deep ditches, full of water. When they macadamized part of that and built buildings all over it, it has been drained and that brook has been improved but I guess some of those basements still have problems.
Betsy and I moved here to Milldam Square in 1982. We are aware of the Chamberlin bridge over the Millbrook and that area is very sensitive to flooding. Anne Chamberlin Newbury complained to Betsy about the lack of cooperation from the town to maintain her sister's gift. So Betsy first of all got hold of Town Manager Steve Sheiffer and bent his ear, and it went on to Alan Edmunds, the next Town Manager, who was not very responsive, but the present Town Manager Chris Whalen has been as cooperative as possible. The problem is that the Natural Resource Commission has claimed the park so that Public Works doesn't have a free hand. There's kind of a troika as to who makes decisions and gets things done. The park was sadly neglected. It needs, like any horticultural project, yearly maintenance, paying attention to overaged trees and various things. The sense of history that Concord has is if an old tree is falling down, watch it fall and fall and fall.
Looking at Thoreau's journals about the temperature of the Millbrook then and now, it is pretty much unchanged. It's only been 150 or 175 years and things have not altered and the topography hasn't changed. The same amount of sunlight gets in and the same amount of water comes up out of the ground.
Betsy and I have pulled out enormous amounts of trash out of the Millbrook. It was kind of a fitness program for us. It is kind of fun to pull out something dreadful and take it to the dump and watch the water flow more freely. It is incredible the things people try to get rid of and succeed in getting rid of such as office chairs, a lot of plastic. During the flood, all the milk cartons from the shops and things came down and sat in the bottom of the brook and filled with sand and became sort of anchors. After all that work we were able to achieve a nice sandy bottom to the brook. Some people said there is sand coming in from somewhere and I said, no it's there all along, we've just revealed it. We found some freshwater mussels and I donated those to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Natural History of which they were duly grateful. We tried to record the fish of which there are mostly white suckers. There's been trout stocking for years.
Beavers have invaded Concord. Personally, I think there is no place for beavers in the country. Quabbin Reservoir has many square miles full of beavers. There are 60,000 beavers presently in Massachusetts up from 25,000 five years ago. They are very prolific. If it weren't for the beaver hat, North America might not have been colonized.
Local farmers certainly have been affected by the flooding because of the beavers. I believe some of the beaver problem has been taken care of. I hear some of the numbers have been reduced. The beaver problem is more than a farmer's problem. It's everybody's problem. If the water goes up a foot, a lot of people's septic systems begin to complain.
In the 1996 storm the northeaster dumped 6 3/4 inches of water overnight which is a lot of water. It actually affected the whole region. The Assabet flooded to the point where the Sudbury was going uphill back toward Framingham. The water was within two inches of Alcott School. That was the storm that put a tremendous amount of trash all at once into the brook. Alice Moulton took a picture of me with a cultivator pulling out beer bottles or things that people throw in. People drink a half bottle of Snapple and put the cap back on and throw it in and let it float downstream. For a while the shops in the center of town were pretty bad because the dumpsters were inadequate. Whole boxes of plastic peanuts would blow into the brook. The shopkeepers have become better at taking care of their trash. There's a book called Streamkeepers Field Guide. I've been a streamkeeper.