Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Gleasondale, MA, aka Rock Bottom

The definition of “rock bottom’ is of being the very lowest. The phrase is often used nowadays to describe someone deep into drug, alcohol or gambling addiction as “hitting rock bottom” before attempting a recovery. The historical origin, however, appears to be more of mining term, meaning the layer of solid rock that exists beneath soil, clay, glacial till and alluvial deposits. Thus, "rock bottom" started out as a simple synonym for "bedrock" in the mid-1800's, mostly in the context of mining. Once a miner or driller hit rock bottom, the quest for water, gold or whatever was over. Later it carried over to ‘rock bottom’ prices on items offered for sale.

Gleasondale Dam, Stow, MA. This is one of six historic dams
on the Assabet River, none of which are currently providing
any function. The Powdermill Dam in Acton may be restored
 to generate electricity. Click on any photo to enlarge.
For the years 1815-1898 the hamlet sprawled across south Stow and northeast Hudson was initially called, then named, Rock Bottom. The story goes that in 1815 – or thereabouts – the Randall family sold land, mills (saw mill and corn mill) and water rights to businessmen intent on constructing a factory on the site. When the men who were digging the foundation for the factory hit bedrock, Joel Cranston, one of the owners, called out that they had reached rock bottom. Apparently, the owners were so taken with the phrase that in 1815 they incorporated their nascent business as the Rock Bottom Cotton and Woolen Factory. In time, the name carried over to the community, to the point that it had a Rock Bottom Post Office, and on an 1888 map of Massachusetts, the Rocky Bottom train station.

Prior to this infusion of the Industrial Revolution, early owners of the land surrounding the river were the Whitman family, with a dam and mills built by Ebenezer Graves. Whitmans and Graves are buried in the Stow Lower Village Cemetery. The river gained a bridge in 1769. The land and mills were sold to Timothy Gibson in 1770, a few years later sold by him to Abraham Randall. The area was known as Randall Mills from 1776 to 1815. Of note, these early mills were on the east side of the Assabet River, and the dam was about 80 feet downstream from the location of the currently existing dam. On Abraham’s death the property went to his sons, who in turn sold to Joel Cranston. His business partners included Silas Jewell, Silas Felton and Elijah Hale. The business failed during the Recession of 1829, ownership ending up with a Benjamin Poor, who was responsible for having a new dam circa 1830 and a factory building constructed.

Gleasondale mill, original brick building at back right, with belfrey.
Extension on right and building to left were later additions.
Hard times persisted. In 1849 the mill was purchased by Benjamin W. Gleason and Samuel Dale. They expanded operations, and replaced the waterwheel with a more efficient turbine. Then, disaster stuck! On May 9, 1852 the entire mill burned to the ground. It was replaced by a brick factory building, 125 feet long, 50 feet wide, and five stories high, completed in 1854. A description from a 2011 Massachusetts Historical Commission Inventory report: “The structure’s granite lintels, slate shingles, and gabled roof, capped by a distinct belfry at its northern end, are reminiscent of the Greek Revival style popular in the early era of mill architecture.” The dam was replaced by what is the current dam in 1883.

Ownership and management continued into a second generation of Gleasons and Dales while the name transformed from B.W. Gleason & Co., to Dale Bros & Co., to B.W. Gleason’s Sons, and finally settled down to being Gleasondale Mills in 1898, acknowledged by a name-change for the post office. With this went the end of Rock Bottom and the beginning of Gleasondale, which name persists to this day, although the hamlet no longer has a post office or a train station to call its own. As a remnant namesake, the road into the mill building shows up on Google maps as Rockbottom Road.

An anecdote: On March 31, 1911, Phineas Feather, former superintendent of the Gleasondale Mills, attempted to murder Alfred Gleason, mill owner. At the mill headquarters he confronted Gleason over money he felt due him, then drew a revolver from his pocket. Mill superintendent Charles E. Roberts was shot through the chest, and although severely wounded, disarmed Feather, and with Gleason’s help wrestled him to the floor. Robert J. Bevis and others ran into the office to help subdue Feather. During the struggle Bevis and Feather were both shot, in the hand and arm, respectively, by a second gun Feather drew from another pocket. Feather was arrested. All survived their injuries. Feather was remanded to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, an institution under supervision of the wonderfully named Massachusetts State Board of Health, Charity and Lunacy. He was released in 1915.

Today, the mill buildings stand as host to small businesses that at one time or another have included printing, engraving, woodworking, furniture refinishing, product warehousing and antiques storage. The dam exists, but serves no function. Various studies to revitalize the mill complex have come to naught.

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