Milling About

When Paul Revere rode through Arlington, Massachusetts (then known as Menotomy) warning of the approaching British troops, he passed by a some old water-powered gristmills. Old to Paul Revere, that is. English Puritan colonists had first settled in the area in 1630’s and by 1637 the first mill was built, powered by the briskly running waters of the Mill Brook which drops over 150 feet in two miles. Soon others were built.

The Olde Schwamb Mill is the most well known old mill in the area. The site of the mill stands is considered the oldest continuously operating mill site in America. The mill that stands there now dates from 1864. It was rebuilt after a fire and became, under the ownership of Charles Schwamp, the foremost creator of oval picture frames in the country. Their frames can be found in nearly every major museum in the United States as well as the White House, The Vatican and Buckingham Palace. The mill avoided demolition in 1969 by a community preservation effort and appears today as if untouched for a century. It welcomes visitors as an all volunteer mill-museum.

Closer to the route of Paul Revere’s ride is The Theodore Schwamb Mill (pictured here) named for Charles Schwamb’s brother. This mill is older then the Olde Schwamb Mill and was also powered by the Mill Brook, which was reduced to trickle on my visit. Theodore’s mill manufactured high quality piano cases for the burgeoning Boston piano industry. For a time, it was the largest business in Arlington. The Schwambs, five brothers in all, were immigrants from Germany in the mid-1800’s and they employed many skilled fellow German immigrants in mills that they owned. The invention of the radio hurt the piano business and the mill turned to architectural woodworking, surviving into the 1970’s. Today, the connected mill buildings house small businesses and artist studios.


The Gruesome Landmark

The Gruesome Landmark

Early on in Paul Revere’s ride, as he left Charlestown and rode toward what is now the border with Somerville, he was forced to change course abruptly.

Revere writes of what happened in a letter from 1798:

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. One tryed to git a head of Me, and the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, and Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him, and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, and up to Menotomy.”

There’s a marker signifying the spot where Paul Revere changed direction. It can be found in a surprising spot: across the street from Royal Pizza & Subs (featured in the drawing) by the doors of a Holiday Inn, at the edge of its parking lot. A long time ago, this area was referred to as Charlestown Commons.

The landmark that Revere used to describe where he changed course was quite different from the one outside of the hotel. He wrote that he changed course “nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.” That place was certainly a gruesome one.

Mark was one of three slaves who, in 1755, were arrested and tried for the murder of their owner, the Charlestown merchant and former ship captain, John Codman. They were also charged with petit treason, the crime of killing a master. The three plotted and poisoned Codman with arsenic, which they added to his meals seven times. Mark, it is written, was upset with his separation from his family. He had set fire to Captain Codman’s workshop six years earlier in an effort to prompt his dismissal.

In the end, the three slaves were found guilty and suffered different fates. Mark’s two companions were female. Phillis, an elderly woman, was found guilty of both crimes (murder of an owner and petit treason) and was burned at the stake in Cambridge at a site called Gallows Hill, near present-day Porter Square. Phebe was found to be a lesser conspirator and sentenced to be transported to a plantation in the West Indies. Mark, 30 years old, was also found guilty of the two crimes and was hanged (also at Gallows Hill). His body was then tarred, and gibbeted (hung in chains) for all to see, including Paul Revere, who came close to passing the decayed corpse, still hanging over the street, 25 years after the crime.