A Brief History of Ashburnham, MA
by Christopher J. Gagnon
In 1690, the Province of Massachusetts organized an attack on Quebec in retaliation for French and Indian attacks on the New English in New York, New Hampshire and Maine. The towns surrounding Boston supplied the officers and soldiers and from Dorchester, Massachusetts came Captain John Withington and his soldiers. The Canada Expedition was a failure, it cost the Province more than it could afford and the soldiers were never paid.
For many years the soldiers and their descendants petitioned the Great and General Court for payment and in this effort, the soldiers of Dorchester were represented by Thomas Tilestone. In 1735, 45 years after the Expedition, the soldiers were paid by a grant of unappropriated land lying northwest of Lunenburg to be 6-miles square, not including any smaller grants in the area. This “Canada Grant,” one of many, surrounded 6 previous small grants and filled the void between them, they were; Bluefield, Cambridge, Lexington, Starr, Converse and Rolfe. For the next 29 years, the area was known as Dorchester Canada.
Few of the soldiers were still living when the original 60 deeds were distributed and the surviving relatives in possession of these deeds lived near Boston. The first town meeting was held at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Dorchester on September 22, 1736, officers of the company were selected, surveyors appointed, committees assigned duties. By 1737, the Meeting House lot and Mill Lot were selected and by 1740, a mill and meeting house were in various stages of completion or operation. Lots were surveyed, bridle paths and tiny roads laid out to the mill, Meeting House and various other lots from the only road previously laid through the territory from Lunenburg to Northfield. The threat of Indian attacks curtailed most development between 1744 and 1750.
Wood ash and hogs were the most profitable bartering products that the wilderness could produce but one product could reap Sterling Pounds, Pearl Ash. Used in makeup and glass manufacture it was prized in England where there wasn’t enough wood to produce it.
In 1761, the issue of the Province Tax began pushing small “Plantations” to incorporate into townships and in 1763, the inhabitants of Dorchester Canada petitioned Governor Bernard to incorporate with a requested name. Between 1763 and 1765, the parchment was damaged and the requested name was illegible. In 1765, John, the second Earl of Ashburnham, was appointed “Master of the Great Wardrobe,” a position considered to be the closest to the Kings ear and the same year Dorchester Canada was incorporated as Ashburnham by our Royalist Governor, Sir Francis Bernard.
The first official survey of our town in 1795 shows the only industries as two Pot and Pearl Ashies. Ashburnham’s location on the Central New England Divide and high altitude, sends water to the north, south, east and west providing water to the Merrimack River and the Connecticut River and in the early 1800’s sustained enough water power to establish tanneries and mills for the manufacture of lumber, tubs and pails, cotton spinning and furniture, the last bringing it to its manufacturing zenith between 1870 and 1880 employing 480 men, 100 who were convicts due to lack of a workforce. At this time Ashburnham was the second-largest manufacturer of chairs in the world, behind only Gardner.
Location tempered the growth of manufacturing and only one industry began to develop as chairs declined; education. Cushing Academy was established in 1875 and has grown into an international institution. Today Ashburnham’s largest attribute is open space. State Forest, Town Forest and private and public ownership in trust has given Ashburnham 1/3 of its undeveloped land to open space; a very large swath of green with seven lakes, numerous ponds, two Watatic Mountains, a number of hills and the convergence of two major New England hiking trails, the Mid-State and the Wapack. Ashburnham is the source of the Souhegan River flowing north, the Millers River flowing west, the North Branch of the Nashua via the Phillips Brook flowing east and the Whitman River flowing south.
As Ezra Stearns said in his 1887 History of Ashburnham, “The altitude of the town and the bold and rugged outlines of the landscape, are the elements of scenery unsurpassed in beauty and grandeur. These features of nature are a living inspiration and enjoyment to all who inhabit here, and treasured among golden memories are the visions of matchless sublimity which delighted the childhood and youth of every absent son and daughter of Ashburnham.