Old Town Road part of Hopkinton’s lost history

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Old Town Road
Remnants of the original Old Town Road, including stone walls marking the trail, can be found just off South Street. PHOTO/DAVE CORMIER

Lake Maspenock is well known for its glistening waters, bubbling springs, abundant wildlife and forested hills, but what many do not know is that the area also is a historian’s treasure trove. The Towns of Milford and Upton have set aside the watershed lands near Lake Maspenock as conservation land, and their historical sites can be easily visited today.

These include the sites of the first woolen mills on Mill River. The Peppercorn Hill conservation area in Upton also has many historical sites, including Nipmuc sites.

In Hopkinton, not a single plot of land on the east side of Lake Maspenock watershed has been preserved for conservation.

When this property became available in 1999, the town of Hopkinton not only showed no interest in acquiring this valuable resource, it changed the zoning to make it favorable for an influential corporate buyer to acquire the property. Then a vote was brought to Town Meeting to have the town road that ran through the property discontinued. This was approved by the voters of Hopkinton at Town Meeting in 1999. That road was called Old Town Road, and it was the original settlers roadway between Mendon and Hopkinton.

Old Town Road is a forgotten relic of our pioneering ancestors. Walking through this area today, we find that the stone walls and roads they built, the foundations they laid and the wells from which they drank are still there for us to see.

How old is Old Town Road? As best I have been able to put together, Old Town Road is the original cart path used by the first settlers of Hopkinton and Mendon, now part of Milford. It seems to have been given the name Old Town Road sometime around 1732 when the new town road, South Street (which continues onto Purchase Street in Milford), was laid out parallel to it. The earliest documented mention of the road is a 1732 deed from William Brewer to Josiah and Peter Ball, the second settlers of Milford. Brewer acquired this land from the Nipmuc in 1691, and it is in this deed that the name Maspenock is first mentioned.

In a handwritten letter from 1848, Josiah Ball’s great-grandson writes to a historian, Rev. Adin Ballou, describing Old Town Road as a “bridle way” from Hopkinton to Mendon. The Ball family will play a key role in discovering the history of Old Town Road due to the fact that Harvard University has archived Josiah Ball’s personal papers, which includes the deeds to the old farmstead at the end of Old Town Road.

The original Old Town Road began at the Dunkin’ plaza at the intersection of South Street and Hayward Street. Behind this area stood a saw mill operated by a man named Littlefield. If you follow the roadway walls on Google Earth, you can see that this original cart path ran past several farms all the way to Camp Street in Milford. Using land documents and old maps, we can trace the original settlement of this area, which began in the 1690s by the Nelson family of Hopkinton. From old deeds, we know that Seth Nelson sold the land to Zenus Ball in 1809, in this deed he referenced that it had been formerly owned by John Nelson.

According to an 1887 publication in the Worcester Society of Antiquity by Oliver Johnson: “John Nelson graduated from Williams College in 1807, being one of three to be honored with an English Oration. In scholarship, said one of his class, he had no superior. He had struggled hard for his education, his course had been interrupted by teaching, he was diffident and depressed in spirit. He gave his father’s note for his college bills, and had five dollars in his pocket, which he had borrowed.” John Nelson became a pastor in Leicester, where he served for 59 years. John Nelson’s farm at the end of Old Town Road was sold to the Ball family of Milford in 1809, presumably to pay his college debts.

Zenus gave the farm to his sister, Rachel, and her husband, John Dispah, who were newlyweds, and they lived on the farm for another 30 years. I have been unable to determine when these farm lots were combined into the one large parcel it sits on today or what happened to the land after John and Rachel died.

There is presently no organized effort to conserve this land for future generations nor to protect the watershed from development. The fact of the matter is today, the entire eastern watershed of Lake Maspenock and all these historical sites and the road are owned by Texas-based Dell, which has not responded to inquiries about possible conservation. The town of Hopkinton has left itself little option as to what will happen to this land, even giving up rights to the historic town road that ran through it. What the future holds is anyone’s guess.

To learn more about the history of Old Town Road and the Lake Maspenock area, visit maspenock.com.