Park re-dedication event features music and memories of Fredonian Mill

Gerry Wheeler, who recalls attending the first Fredonian Park dedication over 40 years ago, was on hand for the recent re-do on Columbus Day and is seen here taking a snapshot of the Memorial Stone.
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SHIRLEY — On a warm, sunny Columbus Day afternoon, a re-dedication celebration was held at Fredonian Park Nature Center on Fredonian Street.

First dedicated in September 1979 with a big brass band (Army Band, from former Fort Devens) and memorable local hoopla, the recent event was low key by comparison.

Gerry Wheeler recalled that earlier party. “It was a neat day … ” he said, with “great music” by the Army Band and a crowd of familiar faces. Lots of those “old folks” are gone now, he said.

The park became a quiet draw, less so in recent years, which in one sense sparked the recent event, which organizers hoped would help spread the word about an under-appreciated recreational resource.

One neighbor recalled coming there “a lot … years ago” with her grandkids. Not lately, though.

Billed as a bring-your-own picnic and lawn chair affair, entertainment was provided by an area band, Ashbrook Haynes (Mark Rines, Karen Rines, Bob Soar and Paul Bradley.) Eric Shapiro, owner of nearby Phoenix Park, an office and small-business complex, covered the cost.

Event turnout included neighborhood residents, folks ambling through with their dogs, parents wheeling baby strollers and event organizers, among others.

One family came prepared, with a blanket for the adults and hula hoops and bubbles for the kids.

Speakers included Historical Society Museum curator Meredith Marcinkewicz, who paged through a brief history of Fredonian Park, and Dave Bortell, past chairman of the Conservation Commission, who sketched plans for its future. The commission oversees the town-owned property.

Marcinkewicz set the scene. “Behind you is Catacunemaug Brook,” she said, which runs from Lake Whalom and Massapoag Pond, through Lake Shirley and Shirley Village and into the Nashua River.

The park and the street it’s on are both named for the Fredonian Cotton Mill, built on the banks of the Catacunemaug in 1832. It was the town’s fourth cotton mill.

The word “Fredonian” was coined by Samuel Mitchell in 1900 as an alternative name for the United States of America, Marcinkewicz said. Although the country was not re-named, it caught on. There are 15 towns called Fredonian in the U.S. “The mill owners liked it,” she said.

The Fredonian Mill was a formidable structure: 115 feet long, 36 feet wide and three stories tall.

In the 1880s, at full tilt, it produced over a million yards of fabric per year.

Following the model of the times, the mill complex included boarding houses and small cottages built for workers. Not only was Fredonian Street named for it, another street that runs from the mill’s former site to the railroad depot in Shirley Village was called Mill Street and still bears that name today.

In 1892, Samson Cordage Works bought the Fredonian property and built another factory downstream, using water to power both buildings.

After the original mill building burned down in 1897, its water power plant remained in use.

The next ownership shift was in 1962, when McElroy Electronics bought the property.

Fast forward to 1975, when the Conservation Commission acquired the 7-acre site from McElroy and began drafting restoration plans. By then, the dam that had created a mill pond and later a local swimming hole was gone and the landscape had changed.

Today, an expanse of green grass with an old-fashioned gazebo/band stand in the center has replaced the former swimming hole. A small pond still exists on the property, fed by the brook, which is separated by a berm from the park area and surrounded by a short nature trail.

Most of the heavy lifting to transform the area into a park was done by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Funding came from the Ford Foundation, a HUD grant, a grant from the Middlesex County Conservation District and support from the Nashua River Watershed Association.

The town also pitched in, along with more than 100 businesses and individuals, Marcinkewicz said.

When the four-year park project was completed, Oakmont Regional High School students created a guidebook of “interesting plants” that grew on the banks of the brook with illustrations by Kathy Lewin. The Nature Trail Guide, unveiled at the 1979 dedication, has been updated twice, in 2000 and 2005.

Other contributors included Shirley American Legion Post 183, which donated the flagpole and VFW Post 10340, which donated the Memorial Stone. Community members, MCI crews and Conservation Commission volunteers planted trees. A wooden bridge crossed the brook, for hikers. It’s not there now.

The family of one of the mill girls who worked at the Fredonian factory, the Perlsteins, donated the park’s bandstand “in memory of the people who lived and worked here,” Marcinkewicz said.

A Perlstein family descendant, Theresa Prokoview, read the speech her ancestor gave at the 1979 dedication, summoning images of times gone by. Skinny dipping in the mill pond, local kids skating there; selling ice cream, apples and vegetables to people from the mills.

Bortell’s remarks focused on the future. The town owns the property now but the Conservation Commission “has its heart here,” he said.

With a volunteer trails group established a couple of years ago, commissioners want to make the Fredonian Park Nature Center fully handicapped accessible, Bortell said, the town’s first ADA-approved park. Steps already taken in that direction include a 12-page technical review that Phoenix Park Management helped them prepare and the selectmen submitted on their behalf.

“We have a five- … and a ten-year plan,” Bortell said, with work to start next summer. Volunteers are needed and will be welcomed, he said. Anyone interested may call the Conservation Commission, he said.