Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gunpowder Mill on Powder Mill Road

Label would have been on a wooden keg or tin can
of black powder. Courtesy Maynard Historical Society
Ka-boom! There was a 105-year history of gunpowder manufacture in this area. A 1921 history of Maynard noted that many local men found employment in the American Powder Mills, adding, "...occasional explosions, sometimes serious, do not permit us to ignore their [APM's] existence." A newspaper account of an explosion on March 12, 1878 described widely scattered body parts of two workers being gathered in pails, including a detached finger with a gold ring. The location of this spread-out complex was along what is now Route 62, encompassing parts of Maynard, Acton, Concord and Sudbury, on north and south sides of the Assabet River.

Millstone in the woods, likely deposited by an explosion.
Ruins of a building, including bent one inch diameter
steel rods and broken timbers, about twenty yards away.
The black powder manufacturing process in brief: potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal are each milled separately to a fine powder then mixed together while dampened with water. The blend is pressed to remove water, the resultant slab, called "presscake" then broken into the desired coarseness (for cannon) or fineness (for guns) in the kernel-house, sieved to remove dust, resulting grains glazed with graphite to prevent sticking, dried in a drying oven, and then packed into copper-nailed oak barrels or tin containers. 

Same stone, uncovered; estimated weight 4,000 pounds.
Dimensions are 58 inches across and 16 inches thick.

Thoreau’s journal mentions the gunpowder mills several times. Passing by on an 1851 walk to Lake Boon, Thoreau complained that the harsh chemicals irritated his throat. Later the same year he recounted having asked a worker about the dangers of working with gunpowder. Per his journal, the workmen wore shoes without iron tacks, so as to reduce the risk of striking a spark. The workers considered the kernel-house the most dangerous, the drying-house next, and the press-house next.

Two years after Thoreau's first journal entries there was an explosion at the mill. Thoreau wrote: “About ten minutes before 10 a.m. I heard a very loud sound and felt a violent jar which made the house rock and the loose articles on my table rattle... I jumped into a man’s wagon and rode toward the mills.

"Arrived probably before half past 10:00 a.m. There were perhaps 30 or 40 wagons there. The kernel mill had blown up first and killed three men who were in it said to be turning a roller with a chisel… and fragments mostly but a foot or two in length were strewn over the hills and meadows, as if sown, for 30 rods [165 yards]. Three other buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Courtesy Maynard Historical Society
"Some of the clothes of the men were in the tops of the trees where undoubtedly their bodies had been and left them. The bodies were naked and black. Some limbs and bowels here and there, and a head at a distance from its trunk. The feet were bare, the hair singed to a crisp. I smelt the powder half a mile before I got there."

Henry David Thoreau was rubbernecking at the site of the gunpowder mills that Nathan Pratt built in 1835 and owned until 1864. Because of the dangerous nature of gunpowder, this type of operation was typically composed of modest-sized wooden buildings quite a distance apart. Under subsequent ownerships by the American Powder Company, American Powder Mills and American Cyanamid Company, the operation grew to some 40 buildings scattered over 401 acres, employing at times as many as 70 men and women (the latter to assemble cartridges).

Descriptions of the time mention willow tree trunks being brought in from Sudbury to make the charcoal, and of unshod mules being used to pull wagons within the mill compounds because of the fear that horseshoe shod horses might strike sparks. Coming off work, men would leave their gunpowder-soiled clothing in the changing room and wash thoroughly - including their hair - before changing into clean clothes to go home. 

"DEAD SHOT" watch fob (Internet download)
Click on any photo to enlarge.
American Powder Mills added production of smokeless powder, including the renowned brand "Dead Shot," but continued making black powder. Interestingly, during World War I the facility's entire production was contracted to the Russian government. And why weren't they selling to the U.S.? Because DuPont had an exclusive contact.

The first fatal explosion mentioned in historic records occurred in 1836. The Concord Freeman newspaper reported that three men were blown to bits and a fourth succumbed hours later to burns and fractures. Various records documented 23 explosions - most with fatalities. A New York Times article told of five deaths in a multi-building series of explosions on May 3, 1898. A September 4, 1915 explosion was heard as far away as Lowell and Boston. The last three explosions on record took place in 1940; the mills were closed shortly thereafter.

Soon after gunpowder manufacture ceased ownership of most of the land in Acton devolved to W. R. Grace, an international chemical company, and later still to various business sites such as the Stop & Shop Plaza and the car dealerships on both sides of the river. Remnants of gunpowder mill buildings can be seen on forays into the woods. The dam still exists, with an adjoining, recently modernized hydroelectric facility operating under the name Acton Hydro Company. Electricity is sold to customers of Concord's municipal power company.

Tax records show that in addition to the various mill buildings the facility included boarding houses for workers and also a small gauge railroad. The latter was probably used to bring raw materials in and finished goods out to the regular railroad. The engine could have been a fireless steam locomotive - meaning that it operated off a pressurized tank filled with superheated water at a site distant from the actual gunpower manufacturing buildings. This would eliminate the risk of a trains' smokestack cinders setting off fires and explosions. Oh, and the A.O. Fay shown as President in the label was the son of A.G. Fay, previous owner, who died in an explosion in 1873.    

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

You know you're from Maynard if...

Bikeworx moved to Hudson remember ten or more of the following: 17 Summer restaurant, 51 Main Street restaurant, the A&P, The Alchemist Health Foods, Allen's Cafe, Alphonse's Powder Mill restaurant, Amory's, Anderson Ford, Army & Navy Surplus Store, Assabet Institute for Savings, Avalon restaurant, the B&M Railroad station (passenger trains to Boston until 1958), Bacharach's Grocery, Batley & Sons Florists, Beacon Santa Telethons, Bikeworx, Boeske`s gas station, getting driving lessons from Bug-eyed Bob...

Opening Day, 2011 (note snow on roof)

Brick Oven Pizza, Butler Lumber, Cafe La Mattina, Carbone's Twin Tree Cafe, Cast Iron Kitchen, Center Dance Studio, Ciro's restaurant, the Clothes Inn, Colonial Theater (movies for 9¢), The Copper Kettle restaurant, The Corner Closet, Dennison Manufacturing Company, working for DIGITAL, Donutland (now Babico's), Dunia, Dunn Oil, Easter Egg hunts at Crowe Park, Elizabeth Schnair's newsstand, the Elmwood Street bath house and sauna, Erikson's Ice Cream, Factory Outlet, feeding Mill Pond ducks and geese at the Farmers' Market...

Mill Pond goose, Farmers' Market
Fine Arts Theatre, why the fire station horn sounds at 12:10, Fleepo the Clown (aka Philip Bohunicky), Flipside Records, the flood of August 1955 (Hurricane Diane), Fred's TV, Geek Boutique, The Gail Shop, GO TIGERS!, Grandmothers' Trunk, Gramps' Garage, Grappas restaurant, Gruber Bros Furniture, the gym at Emerson-Fowler School, the hurricane of 1938, ice skating on Cemetery Pond, India Palace, Irene's Stitch-It Shop, JJ Newberry variety store, Jacob's Market, Jimmy's Variety, John J. Tobin  ("Mr. Maynard"), Johnson Pharmacy, JoJo's West...

Kelly's Bowling Lanes (candlepin, of course), Knights of Columbus, La Petite Auberge, Leapin' Lena appearing in parades, Lovell Bus Lines, M&B Lunch, Malcolm's Steakhouse, Manning Pharmacy, Massa's Bakery, Martin & Doran Funeral Home, the Charles A. Welch Lodge in the Masonic Building, Maydale Beverage Company, Maynard High School bonfires at homecoming, Maynard Motel, Maynard Smoke Shop...

Peeking through the door into the Maynard family crypt, Maynard's centennial celebration in 1971,  motorcycle charity rides parading through town and ending at the Rod and Gun Club, Mr. Takeout, Murphy & Snyder Printers, Nason Street Spa, New Idea Store, Northern Recording Studio, helping OAR (Organization for the Assabet River) pull tires and other trash out of the river, Oktoberfest fireworks, "Only in Maynard" T-shirts, Oriental Delight, drinks at the PC, Parker Hardware, Parker Street Hall (the Finnish Workingmen's Socialist Society)...

Patty's Donut Shop, Paul's Bakery, Peoples' Theatre (movies for 25¢), Prescott Paint, Priest's Cafe, Quinteros, The Red Door (and Ma), Rickles Cut Rate, Rob Henry's Tavern, Rodoff Shalom Synagogue, Russo's restaurant, St. Casimir's Polish Catholic Church, St. George's Episcopal Church, St. John's Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, Salamone's, Samuels Studio, Santa arriving for the Christmas parade by helicopter, Screech Owl yearbooks, elementary school trips to the Clock Tower to see the clock...

Sears & Roebucks catalog store, Sheehan and White Funeral Home, Sid's Airport, drinking Bud Light on Silver Hill, live music at the Sit N' Bull Tavern, skating at Thanksgiving Pond, sledding at the golf course, Sons of Italy, Speedy's Pizza, Stretch's Tavern, T.C. Lando's Subs & Pizzeria (and the fire of 1998), Taurus Leather Shop, horrible smells from the Taylor mink ranch, Tennis Court Dances, Teresina's vintage clothing, Tobin's Pizza, Town Paint, Tutto's Alleys & Pool Hall, Taylor Chevrolet, United CO-OP, Victory Market, Vincent's Antiques, W.A. Twombly Funeral Home...

When traffic was two ways on Main and Nason Streets, Walking the trestle, WAVM, W.B. Case & Sons, Western Auto, Woodrow Wilson School fire (1952), going to a woodsy, Woolworth's, and Ye Olde Town House Pub... With apologies to all the other businesses, people and events, both past and present, worthy of mention but not identified in time to make this litany.

Compiling this list would not have been possible without all the people who posted at the Facebook site "You know your from Maynard if," so many, many thanks to them. Please share it with people who have moved away from Maynard. Who knows? Perhaps they will move back. Or at least visit.

Various businesses and people came to our attention after this article was published: 38 Studios, Chin Lee Laundry, Firestone, Gutteridge Jeweler's, Irwin's Cigar Store, Maynard Taxi, Leher's, Muzzey's, The Nickel Inn, Speedy's Pizza, Tarny's Barber Shop, Whitmac Furniture... 

With apologies to Maynard, IA (pop 513), Maynard, AK (pop 426), Maynard, MN (pop 366) and Maynardville, TN (pop 2,390).