What’s in a name?

Past comes alive for ‘mill by the ford’

MILFORD – In the mid-18th century, Milford was a wilderness, its forests logged by Massachusetts cities to support their schools.

British soldiers came here and tried to start a town they called Monson, but their efforts failed when they couldn’t compromise on a location for a meetinghouse and couldn’t raise the money to build one.

Farther north, though, near the center of a huge piece of land that stretched from Hollis and Brookline up to Mont Vernon and over to Hudson and Pelham, part of the Ancient Township of Dunstable, there was another try at starting a town. This one succeeded after John Shepard started two mills – a gristmill for corn and a sawmill for lumber – at a shallow place in the Souhegan River people could walk across.

Soon the spot became known as the “mill by the ford,” a name that eventually evolved into “Milford.”

Still, the lives of the settlers must have been hard. It took them 12 years to raise the money to build a meetinghouse, a legal requirement for chartering a town.

In her recent presentation at the Ledgewood Bay assisted-living facility, Polly Cote, past president of the Milford Historical Society, gave a lively talk on Milford’s history, showing dozens of old photos. One of her favorites was of horse-drawn carriages going every which way around the Oval, probably in the 1890s, before a direction of travel was established.

We tend to think in terms of “the good old days,” when there were fewer rules and plenty of parking. But before the roads were paved, Cote said, Milford “was a very busy and very dusty town,” and the streets would be watered most days to keep the dust down.

A photo of an early version of the pedestrian bridge, called the Swing Bridge, that spans the Souhegan River in downtown Milford, shows ladies in long skirts making what seems like a precarious way across the bridge that was likely swinging.

By 1889, a new bridge was constructed. Cote remembers that in the 1950s, teenagers would drive their cars over it until the town set cement posts at both entrances. Those teenagers would also drive ’round and ’round the Oval, watching to see who was hanging out in the park.

A photo of what was called the Ladies Exchange dates to the time of her great-grandmother, Cate Langdell, located in what is now the dining room of the Red Arrow Diner.

The women called it the “Busy Store” run by a Mrs. Knowlton and a Miss Bullard, Cote said. From 1892-1907, they sold notions, thread, needles, cloth – whatever a woman needed to sew.

There is a photo of the French & Heald manufacturing building when it was located next to the Swing Bridge. The company made bedroom furniture for all of the hotels in Boston and New York.

A photo taken by Cote’s great-uncle, Charles Langdell, shows an ice dam in the river near the Stone Bridge. Another one shows the White School, a precursor to the Garden Street School that burned down in 2004.

In the audience was Tina Guidmore, who grew up here and remembers that she was in the nearby movie theater when the Milford Inn burned down. The historic structure, located roughly where Foodee’s Pizza is now, burned at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 3, 1959, according to the town history.

Milford’s famous White Elephant Shop, which burned down in 1966, is part of Cote’s personal history.

“My mother, every Sunday, would drag my sister and I” there,” Cote said.

Her mother would buy one piece of Blue Willow china, and amassed a huge collection, she said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.