NOTE: “A Drover’s Tale” will be published in three separate posts, of which this is the first.
Part 1: “Pasture Day”
“May twentieth was what they used to call Pasture Day–go get the cattle from down country.” Marion Buck Davis lived in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, in the hill country just to the north of the Massachusetts border and to the east of Mount Monadnock. “Down country” was Concord, Massachusetts. That’s where Frank Robbins, her neighbor, friend, and briefly her husband, in the early decades of the 20th century headed with his “little horse” Sukie to “visit the different farmers [to] find out how many head of cattle they had to come up over the road” to graze in the hill pastures in New Ipswich, Sharon, and neighboring towns.
Davis was recounting for her niece Connie Hall her days with Robbins as a cattle drover. Her recollections were incorporated into a brief essay by Mortimer Peebles in the wide-ranging and richly illustrated 2006 compendium, Where the Mountain Stands Alone: Stories of Place in the Monadnock Region. The route along which Davis, Robbins, their farmhand, and Sukie annually drove the herds of Concord cattle followed sections of today’s Massachusetts routes 2A and 119, from Concord through Acton, Littleton, Groton, Pepperell, and Townsend, then New Hampshire routes 123 and 124 into the towns of Mason, Greenville, and New Ipswich.
The cattle drive of about 45 miles usually took three days, by Davis’s account. The Massachusetts leg followed what had been called from at least the 18th century the “Great Road,” an important pre-railroad travel route northwestward from Boston, connecting that important New England hub city to its rural hinterlands in north-central Massachusetts, southwestern New Hampshire, and southeastern Vermont. “Great Road” was a frequent usage throughout New England and elsewhere in early America, often designating an important long-distance public thoroughfare. The drovers’ route Marion Davis described also bore various other local names, over time and as it passed through individual towns.
I grew up and lived directly along the route of that cattle drive for the first decades of my life, during the 1950s and 1960s. The era of cattle driving along the Great Road had ended around 1920, Davis observed, as automobiles began to rule the road. But I was familiar with every mile and landmark she described to her niece. Along the stretch of Rt. 119 in Pepperell where I lived, there were three or four dairy farms, all long gone today, whose families I knew. I was not a farmer’s boy, though we kept a few horses, ponies, and a donkey in the big barn that, according to a possibly apocryphal story, had been moved across the road from a former tavern that served once-busy stagecoach lines. It is not hard for me to imagine another boy earlier in the century, sitting on the stone wall in front of our rambling old house on a May day, watching the stream of lowing cattle driven by Marion Davis and Frank Robbins plod slowly upcountry.
The route of the cattle drive, besides traversing the gradually changing landscape and environment between the outermost Boston suburbs and the southern New Hampshire hill towns, also provides a timeline through the region’s history. As modes of travel and transportation evolved from generation to generation, the facts and perceptions of time and space experienced by that region’s inhabitants evolved as well. Marion Davis’s description of her own journey through that landscape a century or more ago offers a vivid glimpse back to a long-standing regional agricultural practice and tradition.
A week after Frank Robbins journeyed to organize the year’s drive upcountry, the Concord farmers “would meet with their cattle at Meriam’s Corner. There was a big barnyard there,” Davis recounted. She and Robbins, with one or two farmhands and the dependable Sukie, “had to get down there the night before because all of those cattle had to be tagged and the descriptions of them set down in a book with their tag number. It took a long evening job doing it because we generally had about 125 head.”
The busy but bucolic scene at Meriam’s Corner on such a May evening, adjacent to the house built by Nathan Meriam some two centuries earlier, contrasted sharply with the more violent and fateful events that had played out at the same location on April 19, 1775, at the outset of the Revolutionary War. “It was where April 19 changed from a day of small violent skirmishes to a running 16-mile-long battle that marked the opening salvo of an eight-year war,” as the National Park Service describes that clash between British troops and colonial militia men. Militias from Reading, Billerica, and Chelmsford assembled at Meriam’s Corner that day, as British troops were retreating to Boston. Captain John Brooks, who led the Reading minutemen, by one later account gave the order to open fire first, leaving two British soldiers dead. “This would make the fight at Meriam’s Corner the first offensive action taken by the colonists in the war.” Today Meriam’s Corner marks the western end of the five-mile Battle Road Trail in the Minute Man National Historic Park.
Marion Davis and Frank Robbins traveled to Meriam’s Corner simply to rendezvous with cows and their owners. Since the colonial era, Concord farmers, especially the more prosperous ones, had been sending their cattle to summer pastures in upcountry towns to the north and west of Concord, first to Massachusetts towns nearby, gradually to more distant New Hampshire towns as well. Brandeis University environmental historian Brian Donahue, in his 2004 book The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, has meticulously documented the economic and environmental challenges encountered by Concord’s early farmers, individually and as a community, to secure and manage land for the crops, woodland, hay, and pasture needed to sustain the town’s growing population of both humans and livestock.
Partly to provide more pasturage and room to grow, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as early as the 1650s, granted the town a large tract immediately to the west, then occupied by Native Americans at the Christian “praying village” of Nashoba and later to become the town of Acton. Concord farmers soon began using the area as common pasturage for “dry cattle,” which “usually included barren or unbred cows, together perhaps with fattening steers,” Donahue explains. “The practice of sending dry stock to summer pasture up-country,” he adds, “would persist into the twentieth century.” Davis and Robbins, in other words, were participating in a regional agricultural tradition and annual round that had been initiated more than two centuries earlier.
As Donahue traces the evolution of Concord’s agricultural history through the colonial era, he tracks how the primarily communal and subsistence practices of the mid-seventeenth century had become significantly transformed for the purpose of raising and selling cattle as a cash crop. “By mid-eighteenth century Concord yeoman had moved from that commons approach to privately owned backcountry summer pastures,” Donahue writes, “but for the same dual purpose: to accommodate the offspring of their own cows and eventually to accommodate some of their own offspring.”
Thus, some Concord farmers began to purchase pastureland in newly settled towns to the west and northwest, where some of their children moved to establish farms and homes for themselves. “By 1750,” Donahue declares, “the town of Concord was full.” He carefully documents the generation-by-generation departure of young family members in search of land and new opportunities. Indeed, two sons of the Meriam clan had moved to Mason and New Ipswich, New Hampshire by mid-18th century. As these more remote Massachusetts and New Hampshire towns were settled in the latter 1700s, hill-country pasturage provided a foundation for the local agricultural economy.
In 1850, generations before Davis recalled May 20 as “Pasture Day,” Henry David Thoreau offered the same date as a unique benchmark of the region’s seasonal calendar:
Every one will have observed different epochs. There is the time when they begin to drive cows to pasture, — about the 20th of May, — observed by the farmer, but a little arbitrary year by year. Cows spend their winters in barns and cow-yards, their summers in pastures. In summer, therefore, they may low with emphasis, “To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” I sometimes see a neighbor or two united with their boys and hired men to drive their cattle to some far off country pasture, fifty or sixty miles distant in New Hampshire, early in the morning, with their sticks and dogs. It is a memorable time with the farmers’ boys, and frequently their first journey from home. The herdsman in some mountain pasture is expecting them. And then in the fall, when they go up to drive them back, they speculate as to whether Janet or Brindle will know them. I heard such a boy exclaim on such an occasion, when the calf of the spring returned a heifer, as he stroked her side, “She knows me, father; she knows me.” Driven up to be the cattle on a thousand hills.
Writing in his journal a decade later, as he observed the springtime pilgrimage of Concord’s herds, Thoreau once again noted that for a male youth of Concord, the journey north with their family’s cattle was a significant rite of passage:
Now many a farmer’s boy makes his first journey, and sees something to tell of, – makes acquaintance with those hills which are mere blue warts in his horizon, finds them solid and terra firma, after all, and inhabited by herdsmen, partially befenced and measurable by the acre, with cool springs where you may quench your thirst after a dusty day’s walk.
Marion Davis, from a woman’s perspective, wasted few words in depicting the process and the progress of the cattle drive upcountry from Meriam’s Corner to her own “solid and terra firma” home terrain. “The next morning we generally left about four o’clock to drive the cattle,” she recalled. “We had a man who would go ahead and take ten or twelve of the cows that had been over the road and knew the route. It was quite a job. Sometimes they’d start ahead and the man that was with them would have to get ahead of them and kind of hold them back a little. It was worth keeping them all on the go; it took quite a crew to start us out.”
During their first day along the Great Road they traversed the towns of Acton and Littleton, reaching the eastern edge of Groton at Knops Pond, the largest of a complex of “kettle” ponds sculpted by the retreating Laurentide glacier. “There was a big pasture that went down to the edge of a pond where the cattle could drink.”
It was the next leg of the drive, through Groton, Pepperell, and Townsend, that would have taken the herds past both the Pepperell home where my own family later lived and the home four miles further westward along the road in Townsend Center where we had previously lived in the early 1950s. I have had reason to visit or pass through these towns and these roads quite regularly since I last lived there more than forty years ago. In 1966, my family moved to Harvard, a few towns to the east. My wife Nan and I lived and worked there in the late 1970s. Then, in their own later years, my parents moved to Groton, near the center of town just off Route 119.
All these towns are proud and protective of their heritage and landscapes, with active historical societies, historical commissions, conservation commissions, and land trusts. Bike paths replace former railroad lines. Eighteenth and nineteenth century houses, most of them well maintained, surround town commons and line the streets of the old town centers. Some long-established family-run farm stands still flourish along busy roads.
But over that same span of time, these once mostly rural towns have, for better and worse, felt the impact of the region’s economic and technological growth and development. Partly due to their relatively modest real-estate values, they have in some degree evolved into exurban commuter towns, within range of Boston, the ever-expanding technological and service businesses along Interstates 495 and 95 (Rt. 128), and smaller cities such as Nashua, New Hampshire to the north and Leominster and Fitchburg to the south.
In an era not so far beyond the horizon of living human memory, Route 119–the “Great Road”–made room and time for cattle drives. Today it is often a river of cars and trucks, its side roads the tributaries of commuters adding accumulating traffic to the main vehicular stream. The busy road intersection in Groton near Knops Pond, where a stagecoach tavern formerly stood and Marion Davis and Frank Robbins once rested their herds just over a century ago, is now controlled by an array of traffic lights and is the site of a shopping mall, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and various other commercial buildings. ♦
Part 2 of “A Drover’s Tale” will encompass some of the early 19th-century history of stagecoach travel and toll-road turnpike development along the route Marion Davis and Frank Robbins followed in the early 20th century.