A Short History of the Town of Acton 

Present day Acton is comprised of portions of four early land grants. The two largest were: Major Simon Willard's Grant (known as Iron Work Farm), and the New Grant or Concord Village. Next to these grants was the praying Indian Township of Nashoba Plantation, which lay entirely outside present day Acton, although artifacts from earlier Indian hunting and fishing villages have been found in Acton, especially in the area of Nagog Pond.

The early landscape included large areas of meadows. These prime grazing lands were the reason Concord sought to annex these additional lands in 1655. The earliest European settler was John Law, Concord's shepherd, who built his home in 1656 on School Street near Lawsbrook Road. John Shepherd who was granted land by Concord to build his house near Hosmer Street joined Law in 1661. Capt. Thomas Wheeler built his house in 1668 near the intersection of present-day Concord Road and Alcott Street, under a lease from the town of Concord to herd their cattle.

The Iron Work Farm, which was entirely separate from the Concord New Grant, was worked in the manner of a plantation to support those employed at the iron works, which had been established in 1658 in what is now West Concord. The farm had at least three families living on it in 1684. The Knight-Forbush house, on Martin Street built in 1709, and the adjacent Stonefield Farm lie within the bounds of the original iron work farm.

By 1730 there were at least two-dozen settlers scattered across the town. The proprietors of Concord Village or the New Grant proceeded to divide their lands among the proprietors. The records of the proprietors' clerk, which have only recently become available for research, give a picture of the Acton landscape from around 1730 until 1780 when the last lots were divided.

In 1735 Acton was incorporated as a town. A meetinghouse was built in the center of town with roads coming from the outlying farms to it. Early industry included the mills on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton, as early as 1701; the Forge on Nashoba Brook below Ice House Pond in 1728; and at least four mills along Nashoba Brook as early as 1738. Portions of these mill sites are still in existence. A number of sites are located in the Nashoba Brook Conservation Area including the Robbins Mill Pond Dam, which was repaired by the town in 1990.

Although Acton was primarily an agricultural community in its early days, sawmills, and gristmills were necessities. The manufacture of barrels to store and ship foodstuffs become the first light industry. It continued into the early 1900s, as young birch trees became hoopoles for Florida citrus crates. The woolen industry centered around the Faulkner Mills; one of the first large-scale manufacturers of woolen clothe in this country. Parts of that original mill still exist.

In 1835 the powder mills were started on the Acton/Concord/Maynard (then Sudbury) line, and continued to operate into the 1940s. The dam on Old High Street has been repaired and is generating electricity again. In 1848 a pencil factory opened on Nashoba Brook at Brook Street; continuing in use until 1888. Another pencil factory was located further upstream. 1843 brought the railroad to Acton, with the line running through South and West Acton. Only with the arrival of the railroad did the villages really begin to grow, especially West Acton Village. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the railroad finally went through East and North Acton. The rail beds remain today and are possible locations for proposed rail trails.

The 1870s brought several other industries to Acton; a piano stool factory (later to be Merriam's) on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton, Hall Brothers pail and churn factory and the Knowlton cigar factory both located in West Acton. Hall Brothers cut the trees from local woodlots for their products, which were shipped, across the country.

Quarrying was done in Acton throughout the 1800s but did not become a major industry until the 1880s. The Harris quarry, one of several in North Acton, was noted for its "slickened sides" granite This was formed by faults in the ledge that rubbed together, heating and forming a polished look. The final product had a look similar to a light green and beige marble. Earlier times saw small scale quarrying being done by the farmers to cut fence posts and foundation stones. Many examples of this can be found scattered through the woods, one such example is located near a trail at the Arboretum. Some of these small quarries form the upland vernal pools that the Conservation Commission sought to protect with the bylaw changes at the April 1996 Town Meeting.

The 1890s brought a shift in population towards South and West Acton, which caused the precincts and school districts to be realigned. The North and East District Schools were combined into the Center District. Although the districts were officially changed the residents still thought of the villages as East and North Acton. The 1990 Master Plan proposes to revitalize these areas and rebuild their village character. Both the North Acton Recreation Area and Ice House Pond are located in close proximity to these village areas and will certainly be included as part of the village plans for these areas when they are completed. In addition the North Acton Recreation Area will become the town's major recreation facility.

At the turn of the century Acton was still an agricultural community, with five villages and a population of 2120. Apples were Acton's main agricultural export being shipped not only to Boston but to Europe. Before modern refrigeration space in the cellar of the town hall was auctioned off for storage. Apples were stored in the center of West Acton into the 1950s. Improvements were coming however; a water district was formed in 1912 for West and South Acton; the Center was added later. A town department starting in 1915 with West Acton replaced the independent fire companies.

1950 marks the shift from apples to houses, with most of that development in the southern half of the town. There were 3500 people in Acton in 1950; by 1974 there would be 17,000. The orchards and open fields turned into subdivisions; although Acton still kept its agricultural ties with apples being a major crop into the 1960s. The town was then three villages; Acton Center, West Acton and South Acton. The form of government would eventually change to the current Town Manager -Board of Selectmen - Open Town Meeting form.

Further information on the history of Acton can be found in the History of the Town of Acton, by Harold R. Phalen, 1954; and A Brief History of Acton, Acton Historical Society, 1974. Acton's Historic Properties Inventory updated in 1989 is a source of information on some of the older structures in town. The early proprietors records and many other papers and photographs on Acton are available for research in the collection of the Acton Historical Society. Isabella V. Choate - June 1996

 Acton Historical Society     Acton, MA 01720     Telephone: (978) 264 – 0690     Email: jenkslibrary@verizon.net