Old Peabody Mills, Topsfield Massachusetts

By John H. Towne

Lt. Francis Peabody, the ancestor of the American Peabodys, was born at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England, in 1614. He came to America in 1635; lived first in Lynn, and then in Ipswich, in the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1639, he removed to Hampton, N. H., where he lived until 1657, when he came to Topsfield, Mass. He was useful in the new place, and was chosen to the office of selectman, as well as town clerk, both of which offices he held many years.

Peabody Grist Mill

March 4, 1664, the town voted that Lt. Peabody have liberty "to set up a grist mill and to flow so much of the town's common as is needful for a mill so long as the mill does stand and grind for the town." The next year (1665), Mr. Peabody established the mill on Pye brook.

Who can estimate the joy of the inhabitants at that early period of having a grist mill to accommodate them in the grinding of their rye and corn! It marked a new era in the history of the Topsfield commoners.

March 7, 1671, the town voted that it was "willing that Lieut. Peabody shall set up a saw mill provided it does not do damage to any of the townsmen in their meadows." The saw mill was built in 1672.

So far as the writer is able to learn, everything pertaining to these mills went along smoothly until 1691, when, the business having increased on account of the growth of the surrounding district, there was not a sufficient head of water during a part of the year to run the mills.

Howlett's brook, a branch of Pye brook, left the latter stream and ran off to the northeastward, a short distance above the Peabody mills. As, at that time, there was no mill on Howlett's brook, Mr. Peabody was granted by the town the privilege of building a dam across this branch a few rods below its parting from the main stream, providing he pay satisfactory damages to the adjoining owners by reason of his flowing their meadows.

The records speak of damages being received the following year by Thomas Dorman and sons, who had in 1690 erected a house within a few rods of the parting of the brook.1 There was probably water power enough at the mills after the building of the dam as there are no papers showing the want of it for more than fifty years afterwards.

During the year 1698 (?), after faithfully serving his day and generation, Lt. Francis Peabody passed away full of years and honors. By his will, dated Jan. 20, 1695, he gives his son Isaac Peabody the mills and mill-yard, the dwelling house by the mill, and other property.

The agreement under which damages caused by flowage were paid to Thomas Dorman, expired in 1700; and it was renewed by Isaac Peabody at that time and again in 1710. By the terms of the agreement, the water could be kept dammed from the last of September to the first of April, as high as was needed for the use of the mill. And it was further agreed " that when Mr. Baker and said Dorman do send word to said Peabody together to lower the water for them that they may mow the meadow that is commonly flowed by the mill dam the said Peabody is to lower the water such time as they may conveniently take off the hay of said meadow."

December 27, 1715, Capt. Thomas Baker applied to the courts at Salem to have damages allowed him by reason of having his meadows flowed on account of the dam, but the claim was not at that time allowed.

The mills were both run with more or less success until 1726, when Isaac Peabody died. By his will, dated Oct. 1, 1726, he gave to his son Joseph Peabody "my Grist and Saw Mills with all irons, wheels, stones, profits, privileges and appurtenances to the said mills belonging, also the Dwelling House and barn standing near the Gristmill, the mill-yard," etc.

When Joseph Peabody came into possession of the mills Mr. Baker renewed his demand for damages for flowing his meadows, and it was agreed the next year that Mr. Peabody should pay him eighteen shillings yearly; and this sum was paid to the Baker family for more than seventy years.

Until 1736, the Peabody grist-mill was the only one in the town. In that year, Thomas Howlett built one on Howlett's brook, the branch of Pye brook already mentioned; and three years later he added a saw-mill. These mills of Howlett's were at or near the present Donaldson grist-mill.

Joseph Peabody died June 7, 1755. By his will, dated Nov. 12, 1753, he gave all his real estate to his only son Jacob.

In the summer of 1760, the original grist-mill was torn down and a new one built on the same site, David Nelson performing the work. The millstones and some other things were put into the new mill.

In 1765, the old saw-mill was taken down and a new one built to take its place.

During the next few years, business in both mills flourished. Then there began to be a lack of water power on account of neglecting to keep in good condition the dam across the branch stream. In 1787, there was nothing left of the former dam but one stick of timber lying across the bed of the stream called a mud-sill. In September of that year, supposing that he had a right "in conformity with the grant of the town to Lieut. Peabody to build the dam," Jacob Peabody partially restored it. Mr. Hobbs, who then owned the Howlett mills, objected to this, and tore it down. The dam was repeatedly rebuilt, and as often torn down.

Mr. Peabody then entered the courts for redress, early in the next spring commencing an action of trespass against Mr. Hobbs. Two trials were had in the court of common pleas, and on exceptions the case went to the Supreme Court. Before a hearing was had in that court the parties agreed to leave the settlement of the contention to Nathaniel Lovejoy, Esq., Mr. Moody Bridges and Capt. Peter Osgood as referees. They made their report, which was accepted by the court in April, 1789. The decision was against Mr. Peabody, the report providing that the branch stream should be kept open.

In 1801, Joseph and John Batchelder, owners of the Baker farm at that date, brought suit against Mr. Peabody for flowing their meadows. The case was tried in November, of the same year, in the supreme judicial court at Salem and the plaintiffs were awarded ten dollars as part damages, the decree further providing that they should be paid three dollars yearly in the future. This amount was paid every year until 1870.

Jacob Peabody died Nov. 25, 1806, and by his will, dated Feb. 16, 1804, he gave the mills to his two sons, Jacob and John P. Peabody. These brothers continued the operation of the mills until the summer of 1824.

The grist-mill at this time being very much out of repair, needing a new waterwheel, set of mill-stones, new flume, etc., it was torn down and a new one, built. It was taken down in August and the new one, built on the same spot, was raised Sept. 25, 1824, the work being done by Ezra Dodge and others from Beverly. John P. Peabody took one-half of one of the original millstones for a door-step, which is still used for that purpose. The new millstones, weighing over three tons, were brought from Lynn. The cost of the new mill was $52.06.

The mills were run by the brothers until Feb. 14, 1829, when the mills had been in the Peabody family for one hundred and sixty-four years. On that date Jacob sold his farm and his interest in the mills to Hon. Nathan Dane of Beverly. Mr. Dane transferred the same to Samuel Bradstreet and Samuel Gould, as tenants in common, June 16, 1831.

April 12, 1836, Samuel Bradstreet sold his one-fourth interest to Samuel Gould, who owned another quarter. Mr. Gould sold his one-half to Jacob Towne Sept. 14, 1841. April 2, 1845, Mr. Towne having died, his administratrix and widow, Sophia Towne, conveyed this one-half interest to their son J. Waldo Towne.

During all the years after Jacob Peabody sold his interest in the mills in 1829, the other owner, John P. Peabody, continued to run them, paying rent to the different owners of Jacob's undivided half.

In 1842, the old saw- mill was taken down by Alfred P. Towne, and used for firewood.

November 1, 1843, John P. Peabody sold his farm and one-half of the grist-mill to his son-in-law, Benjamin B. Towne, the mill having now been in the Peabody name one hundred and seventy-eight years.

In 1846, the old Peabody house by the mill in which Lt. Francis Peabody lived in 1660, was torn down by A. Porter Kneeland and others. Some of the boards and timbers taken therefrom were used in the construction of the house erected on that spot by J. Waldo Towne in 1847, which is now owned by George F. Pevear.

The mill was run by Benjamin B. and J. Waldo Towne until April 10, 1848, when they sold out to John McKenzie, who made extensive repairs, being a wheelwright. In 1850, he took out the old reversible water-wheel, sixteen feet in diameter, and put in a new circular tub-wheel.

When putting in the foundation for the new wheel, Mr. McKenzie found an old pine-tree shilling. This ancient coin was afterwards purchased by Dea. Joel R. Peabody and with some appropriate verses, written by his wife, was sent by him as a present to George Peabody, the eminent banker of London. Mrs. Peabody received in return a present of a silver pitcher lined with gold.

In 1851, after making many repairs, Mr. McKenzie added a corn-cracker, up to this time only clean grain having been ground. The introduction of the cracker marked a new epoch in the history of the mill. Not much corn was shelled after this, as thereafter kernels and cob were ground together.

Mr. McKenzie's health failing, he was assisted by John Boardman jr., his son-in-law.

The mill was run with good success until 1854, when Mr. McKenzie sold it to his son Alfred McKenzie, who lived in Danvers. The mill was then let on shares to Benjamin B. Towne, who ran it continuously, with the assistance of George W. Brown, until April 1, 1870. During this period, the principal repairs were the building of a new flume and bridge in 1857.

March 19, 1870, the property was sold to William Locke. He made some repairs upon the mill, putting in a new rim to the waterwheel, and substituting iron floats to the wheel instead of the wooden ones.

During the first portion of Mr. Locke's ownership, the mill was run by David Smith and Benjamin Austin Perkins, and then by Mr. Locke himself until July 17, 1873, when he conveyed the property to John B. Perry of Somerville.

Mr. Perry ran the mill until he sold it to Mrs. Licenetta Ham of Wakefield Aug. 19, 1875. During her ownership it was run by John B. Perry, Jr.

Mrs. Ham sold out to Mrs. Catharine Hanford of Lexington Jan. 4, 1876. The mill was run during her ownership by her son Clarence C. Hanford, who made some repairs.

June 27, 1883, Mrs. Hanford's interest, in the property was sold to Leon F. Chamecin.

October 2, 1883, Mr. Chamecin sold out to Mrs. Teresa C. Carr, the present owner.

The most successful period of the mill's history probably began with the introduction of the corn cracker in 1851, and ended in 1875, for during the civil war and for some years afterwards grain was very high, often bringing two dollars per bushel.

Many amusing incidents could be related in connection with this mill. Some people would come to the miller's house, and say in pleading tones, "I want to go to mill." Others would say, "I have come to get some meal ground." The writer's father, who was miller for many years, often spoke of a Linebrook parish man who occasionally came to mill generally rode in a two-wheel shay, and coming down the turnpike hill by the grove he began to cry out in stentorian tones, "Where is the miller? " And this cry he repeated more or less frequently until he had reached the miller's house. If the miller was within an eighth of a mile, he would be almost sure to hear the cry.

The old mill stands today in quiet re pose. No busy sound is heard save that of the ceaseless flow of the running brook, bringing to mind the words of Tennyson:

'For men may come and men may go,'
But I go on forever."

The saw-mill has been gone for more than half a century, and the grist-mill, unless soon repaired, will also shortly be a thing of the past, and this ancient landmark will be obliterated forever. It is not probable that the grist-mill will ever be again rebuilt, although the water power may be utilized for some other purpose in the long distant future.

The frontispiece is a picture of the grist-mill as it appeared in 1895. Bennie B. Towne, of the eighth generation in descent from Lt. Francis Peabody is standing in the foreground.

AHGP Massachusetts

1. This house was occupied for several years during the latter part of the eighteenth century by Asahel Smith, and here was born, July 12, 1 77 1, his son Joseph, who was the father of the celebrated Joseph Smith, the noted founder of Mormonism in this country. The house, one hundred and eighty-five years old, was torn down by Francis C. Frame in 1875, and another was built upon the same spot.

Source: The Essex Antiquarian, Volume I, Number 7, July 1897

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