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Rockport’s  “Magic Place”

Frm: Thursday, February 28, 2013

Preserving our Green Jewel

Millbrook Meadow

Rockporters have loved the beautiful green Meadow that lies between Front Beach and the Mill Pond. There have been Maypole Dances, the Scandinavians have had their festive Midsommer celebration with dancing Finns, Swedes, Norwegians.

People have brought all manner of dogs, cats, horses and even a stuffed unicorn down to the Blessing of the Animals.

The annual Acoustic Festival has brought people in, as well as the Peace Festival.

People from all over have brought their kids down to the fastest Easter Egg hunt on Cape Ann. You blink your eyes and the kids have scooped up every egg in sight.

Kids from all over the North Shore have come down on the train for our Library’s “Story Hour” with storytelling and clowns and all kinds of fun. One long line of excited kids! As one group was leaving the Meadow, others were just getting off the train.

When Rockport native Penny Olsen died, she left money to the Rockport Garden Club for a beautiful garden at the Beach Street entrance to the Meadow, in honor of her grandmother, Meg Day. The Garden Club people do a careful, thoughtful job of keeping that garden up. And other Garden Club people help battle the invasive plants that grow there.

Millbrook Meadow wasn’t always a nice green place. For the first several centuries of life in Rockport, this was a pretty grungy place. It may be hard for visitors who come now to imagine that Rockport in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a bare town of fishermen, granite workers and farmers. Life was hard for the men who cut, drilled and blasted huge chunks of granite from the quarries.

What is now “the Meadow” was “Millbrook Valley” then. From the earliest days—the early 1700s, John Pool was milling lumber to send down to Boston. There were always mill wheels spinning, turning out ground meal, lumber, pianos, buggy seats, glue, ground fish bladders and more glue. And did that place stink! The oldtimers always complained about the smell coming up from there.

Haskins Isinglass Factory in Meadow (left) and Norwood Ice House (right), ca. 1900

. About 1920 the mill for grinding fish bladders, or isinglass, stopped work. With Prohibition, there was little need for this product, used for making beer. The empty mill sat idle, until during the Depression of the 1930s, it caught on fire and burned down. The man who then owned the property had trouble paying his taxes, so he deeded it to the Town, and even agreed to take down the remnants of the old burned-out factory. The ladies of the Rockport Garden Club bought it, for $1500, and then, in 1938 they donated it to the Town, and work began to turn it into a park.

It became a park, but in 1951 some businessmen downtown were looking for additional parking for visitors. This is something businesses have been doing for many years here. [See “Lura” below.]

The Mill Pond

Mill Pond in November, 1975 (By Stephanie and Jim Cole)

Rockporters have a long relationship with the Mill Pond, going back to 1702 when workers dug it to create a water source for a grist mill and a lumber mill.

Many have skated on the pond. There have always been people fishing there. In the old days, when the fisheries people stocked the Pond, they caught some pretty good sized fish there.

In the winter, the Norwoods hired a lot of people to help cut ice on the Pond and store in two ice houses, one over by their house on Mill Lane and the other below Anderson’s house on King Street. Times were tough and men really counted on the money they made sawing chunks of ice from the Pond, then hooking up a team of oxen to haul it to the ice houses.

The dam built originally was made of boulders, logs and mud, but was improved to one of large granite slabs in 1830. That dam blew out in May, 2006, and it took six years to get the funding and all the permits to rebuild it. Work began in July 2012.

The new dam, built according to 21st century standards, was completed by T. Ford & Co. of Georgetown, with the supervision of Rockport’s Department of Public Works in January, 2013. The project cost about $980,000, paid for from FEMA, State and local funds.

Mill Pond and our new Dam

And now….

We’ve all gotten a lot out of this brilliant green jewel right in the middle of town, but now, it needs help.

We are going to have to do some things to make sure that it can continue to be there for us.

The day the Dam blew out, May 15, 2006

When the Mother’s Day rainstorm of 2006 blew out our old dam, water from the pond flooded the Meadow and scoured out huge troughs.

When the work was going on last fall to build a new dam, they drained the Mill Pond so that it was mostly mud with a few puddles. We got a chance to see better than ever how it has been loaded with a century of sediment, washed down from Railroad Avenue and all of that part of Rockport. And the Pond is clogged with all kinds of invasive plant life. Those who skated on the Pond as kids know how much smaller the Pond has become.

The Mill Brook as it passes through the Meadow floods its banks often. Stones lining the brook are all askew, and the high embankment near Beach Street is in danger of compete collapse.

Granite blocks in Mill Brook channel all askew

Two huge old willow trees in the Meadow are at the end of their lives, and large boughs could come crashing down on some unsuspecting child any time.

It is time for us to take steps to repair our Meadow and our Mill Pond.

Lura Hall Phillips (1900-1994)


Lura Phillips was the lady who, back in 1951, went head-to-head with businessmen who wanted to convert the Meadow into a parking lot. She was a one-woman bulldozer, raising funds for Millbrook Meadow. Lura was expert at wringing donations out of people, whether art from artists, or goods from other merchants, or dollars from regular citizens. All for the Meadow.

Rae Francoeur, a Rockport writer who now spends most of her time writing in New York City, lived in Lura’s house for several years. Lura told her this:

Saving the meadow

Lura was standing on the upstairs deck of her house with me and she pointed in the direction of Millbrook Meadow.

“Do you know how I got interested in saving the meadow?” she asked. “One day, I was standing out here just like this and I heard noises coming from the meadow. I ran over and saw a backhoe. I thought they were going to turn it into a parking lot. So I rolled up my sleeves and got busy.”

“Whenever I go into the meadow,” she said, “I realize what a magic place it is. It doesn’t matter how I feel when I arrive. But once I get inside, I feel the magic and everything changes.”

When my wife Marty and I came to town in 1990, Lura was already into her nineties, but still full of energy. She lived in a house up on Main Street. She was having one of her frequent yard sales one day when we walked by. We stopped to admire some antique glass doorknobs. When she found out that we had just moved in on Mill Lane, around the corner, before we knew what was happening, we were signed up to join the Millbrook Meadow Committee.

When you joined a committee run by Lura, you pretty much gave up your freedom.

Lura was continually holding events in the Meadow. She held a fund drive to build a pretty stone bridge, dedicated to the Founders of Rockport—the Tarrs and the Pooles, and some of the other old names in town.

She launched a fund drive to build a nice winding stone stairway from King Streetdown to the Meadow. It was in honor of the Quarry workers.

She grabbed us to help run “Pets and Hobbies Day”. She had 19 members in her committee when we joined, and all we had to do was line up people to bring their pets to the Meadow on “Pets and Hobbies Day”.

And line up vendors to sell hamburgers and soft drinks, all for the Meadow.

And line up ladies to bake pies and pastries to sell, for the Meadow.

And write stories for the newspaper, and print and put up posters all over town.

And talk people into displaying their hobbies, and charging everyone who set up a display.

Of course someone needed to rent the tables and chairs, and put up the markers for each booth, and run the electrical lines from the abutting businesses, like Peg Leg Restaurant. Bob Welcome (restaurant owner) had already agreed to donate the electricity.

Lura had an interesting leadership style. She would ask about five people to do the same task, figuring that at least four would forget, or do it so poorly that someone else would have to fill in.

Lura loved that Meadow, and protected it, and raised funds to keep it up.

Lura left money in a trust, and now we are using that as seed money to start our restoration of the Meadow.

I mentioned above that in 1951 some businessmen downtown were looking for additional parking for visitors.

They decided that it was time for a nice parking lot right where Millbrook Meadow was. That was when Lura “rolled up her sleeves and got busy.” She harangued and badgered and cajoled the Selectmen; she found a good local lawyer to support her cause. She fought and argued, and gathered signatures and supporters, and finally, the Selectmen saw that the law was on Lura’s side, and she stopped the hot top.

All during Lura’s later years, she saved her money. In her 90s, she sold her house to Rae Francoeur and moved into DenMar. (Local Rehab. Center).

When she died in 1994 she left money to the Lura Hall Phillips Trust, for the improvement of her beloved Millbrook Meadow.

Lura loved Rockport, and she loved the Meadow. Now, her money can be used to help restore the Meadow and make it the Magic Place for future generations.

Frog Pond, photo by Joe Doakes, 2011

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