In 1829, Dr. Thomas Manning of Ipswich was granted permission to construct a 6′ tall dam and a wooden saw mill on the Ipswich River along Topsfield Rd, “Provided however The said Thomas Manning his heirs and assigns shall make and keep open through said dam a passageway for the fish to pass up said river or stream.” The dam was constructed and a sawmill was erected but it soon burned. The mill was replaced with another which was used additionally for the sawing of veneers and turnings. About 1834 a stone factory on the Hamilton side of the river was erected, along with a stone boarding house on the slope above. Looms were installed and the weaving of woolen goods began.
On the Ipswich side of the river, there was a country store surrounded by private houses. Workers were also provided housing in the large stone house and their children were transported daily to the public schools in Ipswich and Hamilton. A bell announced the daily startup early in the morning, and employees worked 12 to 14 hour shifts 5 days a week, with a half day on Saturdays.
When Dr. Manning, died on February 3, 1854, he bequeathed the greater part of his estate to the Town of Ipswich for the purpose of establishing the Manning High School. Still known as “Manning’s Mill,” the factory continued to operate, employing seventy people, producing 55,000 pairs of army socks and woolen goods for Union troops during the Civil War, valuing $135,000.00.
After the war, hosiery production gave way to the manufacture of blankets by the Willowdale Manufacturing Co., and more buildings were erected for the operation: five houses for supervisors, a barn and an office. The mill was closed during summer months because of low water flow. The mill began producing cotton textiles, but closed in 1870.
The mill burned in 1881 and again on Jan. 12, 1884. Most of the stone walls for the mill building collapsed, and it never reopened. The stone boarding house was taken down, and many of the houses at Manning Mills were moved in 1905 to Mill St. in Hamilton.
All that remains of the once flourishing mill and small community around it are the dam, the foundation of the mill, and a sluiceway that runs parallel with the river, which directed the water flow under the mill. In the early 1940’s a fish ladder was constructed on the Hamilton side of the river to allow for fish passage up the Ipswich River. This fish ladder was sturdy and still survives but was is found to be a poorly functioning fish ladder.
Foote Brothers Canoe Rentals was established at the dam in 1955 and is still in operation today with second and third generation family members operating the business. Foote Brothers has been working with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries for the construction of a new fish passage ladder at the Willowdale Dam.
Around 1891, Bradley Palmer, a prominent U.S. attorney and businessman began to acquire over 10,000 acres near the Ipswich-Topsfield line, including the former properties of the Willowdale Mill. In 1898 Palmer purchased the hereditary farm holdings of the Lamson family, some 747 acres and built a stone mansion near the Lamson house, leaving it standing. He named the estate Willowdale. In the years 1937 to 1944, Palmer donated all of the property to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, leasing back the 107 acres surrounding his mansion. The state established Bradley Palmer State Park and Willowdale State Forest on the properties.
Willowdale Mill Reservation, Parking on Winthrop St. near the Willowdale bridge with a trail taking you from the mill ruins along the old sluiceway to the dam.
Willowdale State Forest, 40 miles of trails. The East side on Topsfield and Linebrook Rd. connects to Hood Pond, Willowdale West.
Sources and further reading:
- Waters, Thomas Franklin:Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Vol. 2
- Hurd, Duane Hamilton: History of Essex County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches
- Hamilton-Wenham library: Manning’s Wool Mill
- Images: Digital Commonwealth, Hamilton Historical Society Collection
- Images: Digital Commonwealth, Myopia hunt at Bradley Palmer estate
- Historic Ipswich: William Lampson -Bradley Palmer estate
- Ipswich Mills and Factories
- Industrial History of the Ipswich River
- Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts CHAP CXXXV An Act to authorize Thomas Manning to erect a Dam across Ipswich River