About Middleborough

About Middleborough





Courtesy of Dorothy Thayer

The Nemasket River has been very important in the history of Middleborough. The importance of the Nemasket River can be traced throughout the development of Middleborough. Early settlers and Indian's were provided food and water from the river. The early industries were furnished water power for their grist mills, saw mills, furnaces and forges. The later cotton mills and shovel works were also powered by the river. The course of the Nemasket river begins at Lake Assawompsett which is the largest natural body of fresh water in Massachusetts. The mouth and first few miles were discovered in the western portion of Middleborough in 1853 when the town of Lakeville was incorporated and that section of the river became part of that town. The rest of the river flows through Middleborough until it reached the Taunton River. This area was called Nemasket until 1669 when the town was settled as Middleberry, later changed to Middleborough. The river was also called the canal river and the land, lowland, and swamps through which it flowed were called the Canal Swamps.

Excavations by Dr. Maurice Robbins of Attleboro at the area near the mouth of the Nemasket River have revealed an Archaic Village in Middleborough that dates back to at least 2300 BC. This date has been substantiated by radiocarbon dating. Also a rock located to the East of the mouth of the Nemasket River, revealed only when the waters of Lake Assawompsett are low showed a mysterious sign of presence of Mediterranean people. On the rock is a picture of a Phoenician ship. It was carved by some awe-filled Indian, who saw the ship anchored in the lake and was moved to record his sighting for all to see.


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Principal industries in Middleborough are: fire apparatus repair, lumber, novelty items, printed materials, and diversified products, as well as quality antiques. Middleborough is also the Cranberry Capital of the World. With Ocean Spray's World Headquarters in Middleborough and Lakeville. Middleborough is also home to the Christmas Tree Shop's Main Distribution Facility. Middleborough has been an industrial town since its founding, as many of the old factories are on the river because they were once powered by waterwheels.

History of Industry on the River:

Courtesy of Dorothy Thayer

When the town was rebuilt after King Philips War the Nemasket River became a major source of water power for the many mills set up on its banks. Although many dams and their accompanying mills were built on the river in the 1700's, the boom of the industries on the river took place in the nineteenth century. The dams and mills were located in three major places along the river, the Upper Factory on Water Street (Wareham Street); the Star Mill or Lower Dam or Lower Factory (location of Winthrop-Atkins Company today); and the Muttock or Oliver's Mill (Oliver Mill today). There was a dam on the river near Murdock Street where John Warren built and maintained a grist mill, shingle mill, and sawmill, but after his death they were destroyed. Since these other three areas had the most influence on the growth of Middleborough, for that reason they were mentioned.

Upper Factory:

The dam at the Upper Factory was built about 1762. Over the years a forge, cotton factory, grist mill, shovel mill, and saw mill were powered here by the Nemasket River. The forge operated for approximately 70 years. During this time the ownership changed several times and was rebuilt after being partially destroyed by fire in 1785. In 1813 a cotton factory was erected under the name of the "New Market", Manufacturing Company. An act of legislation created this new company for the purpose of manufacturing iron, cotton and woolen cloth, and yarn with power to hold real estate not exceeding $50,000, and personal estate not exceeding $150,000. Among the incorporators was a man named Peter H. Pierce, whose heirs have made a great contribution to the town of Middleborough.

The cotton factory did well until the depression of this industry in New England forced them to abandon it. The company then passed into a co-partnership in 1864 known as the Nemasket Manufacturing Company. A store and grist-mill were located here for many years. Colonel Peter H. Pierce was among the leading business men connected with this company too. The company was sold to others in 1867. The new proprietors expected to spend $40,000 for new machinery. This was a sizeable sum when one notices ads in the same paper for blankets costing $4.25, white shirts for $4.50 and umbrellas for $.75 each. The article further stated that the shovel business would employ between 50-100 people.

In a referendum to the town warrant in 1867 was a change in the location of the herring way at the Upper Works. The shovel and hammer shops were located very near the present channel. The new channel was cut through a few rods east of the works. The company would cut the canal while the town expense would be the moving of the bridge. The shovel mill, however, was destroyed by a fire in 1868. The ruins of the burned mill remained well into the 1900's.

The Clark and Cole sawmill established around 1888 on this same dam was the largest one in the center of town. As the iron industry became the second leading industry in Middleborough and the shoe industry became the leading one, the sawmills wooden boxes for shipping of boots and shoes made it a thriving business. The very wide boards produced by the mills up and down saw were in great demand for the building of houses. The output of lumber is said to have been a million feet a year and boxes shipped by the carload every day. With the coming of cardboard boxes, the box business declined in 1909 the firm went bankrupt. The property was sold at auction in 1914 to Judge Sullivan who later sold it. The Lobl Manufacturing Company makers of surgical and hospital supplies was established.

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The Electric Light Plant:

One of the most innovative businesses to locate at this dam was the Middleborough Gas & Electric Company. The light plant was first privately owned. An entry in the local paper of 1890 tells how "ice clogged the water wheel at the electric works Wednesday evening and electric lights were dim." In another article a couple years later, the growth of the company is said to have grown during the past six months due to the excellent light offered at moderate costs. It also stated that applications of residences and businesses for the incandescent lamps was increasing.

On March 25, 1893 the town voted to buy the Middleborough Gas & Electric Company. The town Treasurer was empowered to issue bonds for $75,000 called the Municipal Lighting Bonds. This research will only investigate the electric portion of this purchase. By 1894 there were 101 electric customers. The electric plant had two arc machines running 103 street lights, one 600 light alternator, and one 150 horsepower steam engine all run by the two water wheels on the Nemasket River. The street lights were not lit during moonlit nights, so a petition was submitted to the Light Commission asking that the lights be turned on at least during the early evening, before the moon came out. On all other nights, except in the business section of town, lights were turned off at midnight. It was not until about 1917 that lights were allowed to burn all night whether the moon was out or not. The plant was not operated twenty-four hours while using all water power. This posed a problem for a varnish business on East Grove Street that used electricity to heat kettles of varnish. The electric plant would start up the water wheels for one or two hours during the daytime to accommodate the varnish manufacturer. It was not until 1908 that electricity was furnished in the daytime.

To help the flow of the water to the water wheels men would wade the river during August of each year and mow the weeds from the edge of the banks with scythes. The gatehouse erected at the mouth of the river often kept the water level so low that it affected the operation of the electric light plant. For that reason a suit was filed against the city of New Bedford in 1903 for putting a controlling device at the outlet of Quittacas in Pocksha Pond which affected the flow of water into the Nemasket River cutting power to the light plant. In 1906 the case was settled in court with $6,800 awarded to Middleborough. A similar suit against the city of Taunton was won and Middleborough was awarded $2,000. In 1906 the case was brought up again with a finding of $1,200 to Middleborough, but the town asked for a jury trial. The Superior Court Jury awarded $12,250 to Middleborough in 1907, but Judge King ruled the sum excessive, and instructed the town to accept $3,500 in thirty days. The town refused and the case was again before the jury. After the verdict awarded $13,241 to Middleborough. Taunton filed 27 objections. In 1909 the full bench of the Superior Court passed its opinion ordering the judgment on the verdict of the jury with interest and costs totaling $13,886.46. But $7,925 with counsel fees and other expenses deducted was all that was received from the City of Taunton.

A newspaper item in 1903 stated the plant was $15.71 ahead of the previous year. Money from the plant would be used to benefit the town. But in 1906 the people became dissatisfied with the plant. A committee brought in a consulting engineer to study the possibilities of improvement. The recommendation was that $20,000 be appropriated for two gas engines to improve electric service. Water power continued in use as evidenced by the April 19, 1916 town meeting vote that "the Municipal Light Commissioners contracted with the Plymouth Electric Company to furnish Middleborough all the electricity required, with the exemption of that produced by water power, for a period of five years." During this same years, service was expanded into the town of Lakeville.

In the early years, the electric light plant was administered by three members elected by the voters. Later the Selectmen served as the Lighting Board. In the 1980's the board returned to five members elected by the voters. Although today's power is purchased from neighboring electric companies at wholesale prices and redistributed to customers through a switchboard at the local station, this same original station once had the Nemasket River to thank for its power.

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The Star Mill:

The Star Mill or Lower Factory area had a dam, at first, located near the Wading Place. But the water was very shallow and there was only enough power for one mill. The legislature granted to Peter Pierce, mentioned previously, and Horatio Wood the right to dam the river provided they maintain a fish way. The water rights and the fish way agreement have both been passed to the successive owners of the mill buildings.

The new dam, just a short distance upstream from the first dam provided water power for a very successful cotton mill. As the industry declined, Pierce and Wood erected a shovel manufactory, which employed many people. This business coupled with a general retail store added to Mr. Pierces other successful endeavors, already mentioned amassed for him a nice fortune which his heirs added to successfully. When Peter Pierces last surviving son Thomas died, he left over half a million dollars to the town of Middleborough, $100,000 to the public library, and this was after providing for twenty-five of his relatives.

The Star Mill incorporated August 5, 1863 succeeded these industries. Its name has been used to refer to this area on the river even today. The mill manufactured cashmeres with eight sets of machinery. The capital of $100,000 was furnished by New Bedford parties.

Throughout the years the Star Mill Bell would ring at 5:30 A.M. every morning except Sunday, as our alarm clocks wake us today. The bell would ring again at 6:30 A.M. at which time all employees should be at work. The final ring would come at 6:00 P.M. as the employees left for home. Employees worked on Saturday too.

The Star Mill was a successful business, if one can judge by the item in the December 7, 1867 local newspaper, which was a card of thanks for the turkeys given to the employees of the Star Mill. Not many companies carry on that tradition today.

In 1867 the name of the mill was changed to Star Mill Corporation. New machinery was added for the manufacturing of ladies dress goods. Coal boilers became the main source of power and the water wheel was used only for auxiliary power.

The Star Mill building continued to house textile businesses until a strike in the 1920's closed it. The building was vacant until 1935. Then at varied times and sometimes sharing the building with Walker Co., Wing Innersoles Co., and Gerlich Leather Co. used the building. In 1944 Winthrop-Atkins Co., manufacturers of desk calendars occupied the building. With the growth of the calendar business an addition for printing and gluing operations was necessary. As the business continued to grow, the problem of storing calendars until the fall when they are shipped around the world ,reached a critical point. There was no room for expansion, except into the Nemasket River. Like all previous owners of the mill, a fish way had to be maintained for the herring migration. So in May 1965 work began to build a new channel and bridge over it to the farm on the east side of the river. The peat from the old river was dredged out and replaced with solid fill. A new commercial fishing site would have to be found, but the addition would not hamper the herring because of the new channel.

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Muttock (Oliver Mill):

The next major dam, millpond, and mills were located at Muttock, later called Oliver's Mill. After the Indians moved to Titicut, a dam was built in the place of the Indians weirs. Later in 1734 a petition to the court requested to build a slitting mill on the Nemasket River. But it met with opposition from those who felt enlarging the dam might effect the catching of herring. The petition was finally granted and after provisions were made for the herring the dam was built.

A man who moved to the Muttock Area in 1744 would become a prominent citizen in the colony and perhaps do more for our town than any other individual was Peter Oliver of Boston. He bought most of the land around the Muttock including the dam and the water privileges. He erected a forge and slitting mill on the dam. The iron foundry, called Oliver's furnace was located just below the dam. The dam had to be enlarged and strengthened to provide power for these new works. While the construction was going on the bed of the river was changed by digging a canal above the pond, which extended along and then ran back into the river. Afterward the ditch was refilled.

In 1747 Oliver was appointed Judge of the common pleas. Later he became judge of the Superior Court of Judicature (1756) and was appointed chief justice, the second man in the colony next to the governor, in 1762. These positions undoubtedly helped him obtain large contracts from the crown for cannon balls, mortar, howitzers, shot and shell. Letters still exist to substantiate these orders. Hollow-ware was also manufactured. This business made the Muttock the largest and most enterprising village of the town. Besides employing many full-time men at the slitting mill, over 50 men, when not working on their farms, aided in the making of establishments at this location such as the blacksmiths shop, shovel shop, finishing shop, and nearby was a store.

Oliver Hall, the judges home, was one of the finest country residences outside Boston. The style was of "an old English mansion with steep roof and deep jutting eaves, with walls of white plaster and portico oak." It was located between two hills at the Muttock. The grounds and park included all the land from Nemasket Street to the river.

The wedding reception of Dr. Peter Oliver Jr. and Sarah daughter of Governor Hutchinson, a most brilliant affair, was held at Oliver Hall in February 1770. Guests attended from Boston and abroad. The couple moved into the home of Dr. Oliver which his father had built for him in 1762. In the attic of this home were built rooms for the slaves of the family. Many prominent men of the colony visited the Oliver's. They included Governor Hutchinson for part of the summer, Benjamin Franklin whose three day visit in 1773 would be the only one he would make to Middleborough. A reception was given in the evening by Dr. Oliver for Franklin was attended by some of the prominent men in Middleborough. On Sunday Franklin attended a meeting at the Old Meeting House on the Green.

The Oliver's continued to gain in wealth from their salaries for serving the colony and from their business enterprises on the river. At the outbreak of the revolution in 1776 one might have expected the town of Middleborough to stay loyal to the king. After all the Oliver's were influential people and had greatly helped the growth of Middleborough. But the town was opposed to the British from the beginning of the war. Judge Oliver "was impeached for receiving a salary from the crown" and he and his family then left the country along with the other Tories. The Judges home ,Oliver Hall, was burned to the ground, in 1778, but the son's house was sold and although owned by others, has returned to the ownership of Oliver descendants.

The works on the river were managed for short periods of time by many different men, but Abiel Washburn carried on a successful business there until his death in 1843. Eventually the industrial complex fell into ruins. An entry in the newspaper of 1867 notes that on Saturday night a severe storm of rain and wind set in motion a thaw of previous snowstorms which swept away the herring weirs and the dam at the Muttock works. The old dam had served as the road from Muttock Hill to the Green until 1818 when the town voted "that an agent be appointed to petition the court to locate a highway across the mill pond at Oliver's Works." A wooden bridge was built, but the road over the hill was so steep it was considered unsafe. Not until 1859 was a committee appointed to replace the bridge with a stone structure, raise the grade several feet, and cut down the top of the hill by eight or ten feet.

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Recreation On The River:

Recreation on the Nemasket River consisted of swimming and boating. The places to swim were identified by the person who owned the property: Frost's Landing, Waterman's Landing, Packard's, Bump's, Ludden's, and others. No fees were charged, there were no clothes changing facilities, people went for a swim when they felt like it. Several areas had slowly sloping shores acting like beach areas. The swimming holes were usually where the water was deepest. The river banks were high and used for jumping into the river. There were a couple of deaths involving the river. In the 1870's or 80's a boy drowned while swimming with a friend near Waterman's Landing. Another drowning was mentioned in 1905. A six year old boy fell from the "Ocean House" window across the street from the electric light plant, hit his head on a stone wall, and fell unconscious into the river and drowned. Although the building was finally condemned in 1908, it wasn't torn down until 1910.

Boating on the river consisted mainly of rowboats and canoes. Even this size craft would just barely fit on the river in places today due to the growth of weeds into the channel from the rivers edge. The original width of the river however, is still visible. Before overgrowth of the weeds, the relaxation of boating was very popular. There were boat houses at the East Grove Street Bridge used primarily for storing canoes. The canoe was paddled in between two platforms used for disembarking from the canoe. The individual would lift the canoe out of the water, turn it up-side-down and store it on one of the racks attached to the inside walls. Space was at a premium so a rental fee of $15.00 a year was charged. Boating in the late 1800's and early 1900's was truly a social affair. One often met friends on the river and passed the time chatting.

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From the late 1870's to the 1890's a side wheeler operated on the Nemasket River. The Pioneer was built in 1877 by John LeBaron. It was 40 feet long and could accommodate about 40 passengers. The following advertisement describes the trip:

Steamer Pioneer. On and after June 1, 1879, a steamer will leave Riverside Wharf, Water Street, on the wing days: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 1 o'clock, sailing up the Nemasket River to Assawompsett, touching at Stony Point and Lake View, sailing through the narrows to Long Point; returning, stopping at Sear's Grove, then returning home at 4 o'clock in time for any train on the Old Colony Railroad, making a trip of about twenty miles. Fare for the round trip, 50 Cents. Charities, Families, and Private Parties accommodated on any of the remaining days of the week at reasonable rates by contacting Baylies LeBaron, Box 26, Middleborough. Moonlight excursions every month.

Three years later this side wheeler was replaced by a larger one. The Assawompsett was about 60 feet long with a hinged smokestack which was lowered to allow passage under bridges. The claim that it could hold 100 passengers seemed a little high, since a count of passengers from a photograph reveals about 65 people. Although Mr. LeBaron built the boilers for the boats, he had to be issued a special fireman's license to operate them on the rivers and lakes only.

A canal dug by hand in 1816 with the aid of horses was to provide a greater flow of water in the river for the cotton mills located further down the river. The project failed and was abandoned. The canal was used by the steamer eliminating a section that contained two almost right angle turns. This canal is still visible from the Vaughan's bridge today (1984). There were several places along the river where "settin poles" were required to push the craft off the rocks and shoals.

The steamer took many passengers to the memorable 4th of July celebrations at Stony Point, now known as Nelson's Grove. As the side wheeler entered the waters of the Lake a salute from a two foot brass cannon mounted on a boat would announce its arrival. The boat was owned by Tom Thumb, one of the well known Little People. He married Laninia Bump of Middleborough, also a little person. They owned a home not far from the river in the Warrentown section of town. They were best known for their appearances in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus. On this day a sudden squall came up and the tiny boat, cannon, and owner aboard, capsized. The owner and boat survived, but the cannon was never seen again.

The joy of riding the side wheeler ended around the turn of the century when the City of Taunton built a gatehouse across the mouth of the Nemasket River. They were authorized in 1875 to use the lake as a water supply. The gatehouse allowed them to regulate the water by raising or lowering the planks. Although a big rock north of Bridge Street, visible only from the river, had a drill hole made in it back in 1897 to designate the high water mark of the river, the water rarely reaches that point even today. Without access to the lakes and the low level of water in the river, the side wheeler cruises were stopped.

The side wheeler was pulled up on shore and left to rot near the East Grove Street Bridge. The watershed waterworks built, to take water from the Nemasket River to supply inhabitants with water for domestic, manufacturing, and fire fighting purposes, has been located near the East Street Bridge since 1885. According to a letter from Ralph Sampson who worked at the pumping station across the river, the vessel laid near the bridge, but broke loose, floated to the bridge, wedged against the abutment, and blocked the river entirely. The vessel was pulled upstream to a cove across from the pumping station. He further states the engine was used to haul ice at LeBarons ice houses, and the smokestack was left in the meadows to rust away. He recalls, during World War one, two boys carrying a long birch pole between them ripped most of the iron parts, hung them on the pole, and trotted them away for scrap. The keel may be the only part still buried in the mud today. A letter of Harold F. Dunham relates how a cousin and he would borrow a rowboat hitched to a post in back of the pumping station, cross the river, and play pirates around the ribs of the vessel. George Ward Stetson, not far from the river, remembers as a young boy seeing the ribs of the boat when he went for walks with his father.

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Herring In The River:

The Spring migration of the herring from Mount Hope Bay up the Taunton and Nemasket Rivers to Lake Assawompsett and other ponds to spawn announces by the sea gulls who follow them, always ready for a meal. This migration of herring has always governed any changes considered on the Nemasket River. The fish were generally used as food or fertilizer, or lobster bait, but there is a record of them being used as a payment of services. There were laws to protect the fish, to regulate the catching of them, and to decide who would receive them. There were agents who would supervise the catching, distributing, and collection of the money for the herring. They were also to see that the fish were caught only at the weir, by those appointed by the town, and at the appointed times. Anyone caught fishing illegally would be arrested and fined. There were some who did not like the laws protecting the herring as evidenced by an article in the Bridgewater News in 1868 which stated several hundred voters from the City of Fall River petitioned the legislature "to repeal all laws in regarding taking alewives and shas in Taunton Greater Fall River and Nemasket River so far as relates to the City of Fall River." The petition was not published according to statute so they had to withdraw it for want of a legal notice.

Near the old grist-mill at the Muttock was a community herring house. Here the herring would be smoked and salted for distribution to inhabitants who were eligible for free fish. Later a nominal fee was charged for 200 fish. They would still be given to widows and spinsters and others who couldn't afford to buy them. About 40,000 fish could be caught before noon of which 6,000- 7,000 would go to the poor house. Youngsters earned one cent a stick for putting a dozen fish on a stick ready for smoking. There were herring peddlers in the spring and summer.

The town always received a revenue for the privilege of catching and selling of the herring under the rules decided at the annual town meeting. The auction of fishing privileges would be held in February or March. The privileges provided that herring be taken between March 1st and June 15th, 4 days a week. Since part of the river and lake are in Lakeville, the town gets a share of amount paid for the fishing rights based on the proportion of ratable polls in Lakeville to those in Middleborough.

Commercial fishing in the early 1900's was done with hand nets or seines and the fish were put in barrels. In later years it was mechanized and they were dumped into trucks. The main fishing site was at Star Mill. There was no municipal fishing pool because of the cost to maintain a bridge. The prices of $100 to $250 in the early 1900's rose in the 1940's with the highest bid of $8,600 in 1944. This year the rivers water level was extremely low and pollution in the Taunton River killed most of the fish, making a disastrous year for the fishing bidder. The fishing rights continued to be sold at the Star Mill until 1965 when the Winthrop-Atkins Company cut a new channel to allow for expansion.

The abundance of herring continued to decline, as a strange disease in 1965 killed many of the fish. It was during this year that many projects were started to improve conditions along the river for the fish. A new bridge at Wareham Street near the light plant with automatic gates under the road for the fish was constructed with the funds of 50% from the Department of Public Works, 25% from the county, and 25% from the town. The interest in low water affects on herring and surrounding marshland prompted a study of methods of controlling weed growth in the river. There was even a demonstration of mechanical weed cutters.

During the 1960's through the 1980's many of the proposals for river improvements took years to complete. The building of a fish ladder at the headwaters of the river took three years. In 1968 a "denil fish way" the first of its kind in Massachusetts was constructed by Marine Fisheries biologist Joseph "Buzzie" DiCarlo and his crew. The town only pays for materials, the Marine Fisheries Division supplies the design and does the construction at no cost.

The Nemasket River Environmental Corridor Plan was first introduced in 1974. The progress of this plan has been extremely slow. The objectives were stated, allocation of Federal Funds were sought; the possibility of a joint venture with Lakeville for cleaning and protecting the upper section of the river was explored; final approval to clear accumulated silt from the gatehouse area was received; and easements to allow test borings at the headwaters prior to the removal of sediment and installation of a sediment trap were obtained. But any visual changes in the river have not yet taken place.

Other projects of the Conservation Commission were to establish a greenbelt along the river with land acquired by gift, donation, or purchase; to conduct a study of the three-year cycle of the herring by tagging the fish (1967-1970); to transplant herring into Tispaquin Pond for 5 years while construction of fish ways on Fall Brook a tributary of the Nemasket River is completed; to plant millions of shad eggs in the river in hopes of re-establishing the "shad" run in five years (started in 1969); and to renovate the fish ladder at Nemasket River near the light plant by making it deeper and wider insuring easier access to the fish (1969), as a note it was renovated in 1997.

A very worth-while project was the restoration of the Oliver Mill Park. The work was conducted by Roland Wells Robbins. Two stone fish ways were completed in 1968, one in 1969, and a new fish ladder in 1982. Much of the beautification of the park was done by organizations and individual volunteers. The park has become a nice place for a summer picnic. The stonework offers a nice setting for picture taking. In the spring it is a popular spot to observe the annual canoe race and of course, the herring migration.

The importance of the Nemasket River is evidenced by its inclusion on maps of the town as far back as 1831 and 1855. The river mentioned in an article titled "An Indian Journey" in November 1885 Harper's Monthly Magazine. There was a poem written by James Rily, who had lived in the Muttock section of town, about Billy Allen who worked in the grist mill on the Nemasket River. The poem published in 1888 was entitled "Miller in the Mill." A more recent use of the river's name was in a column of the Middleborough Gazette called "By the Clear Nemasket River of Echos from Shad Row." The river is also included in a small handout map of the historic "sights" of Middleborough prepared in 1984 by the local historical commission. Although the Nemasket River today just passes by such places as the Ocean Spray Cranberry processing plant, the original waterworks, the original light plant, the Thomas Pierce Playground, the Winthrop-Atkins Company, the Nemasket Hill Cemetery, Oliver Mill Park, and beautiful countryside, it will be a remembered as a contributing force in the development of the town of Middleborough.

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