The Economy

Industry, Business and Agriculture in Historical Dorchester

Dorchester’s economy grew out of agriculture and the industry that is connected to agriculture.  Every family need to provide food by farming their land, but most men had another occupation, such as milling or furniture making.  The Neponset River furnished water power for the first industries.  By the time of the American Revolution, the river was home to the largest number of mills in what is now the United States. Following the Revolution, these mills were the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in America.  They produced chocolate, cotton, paper and much more.  They were supplemented by ancillary businesses for the production of wagons and harnesses, furniture and the other goods that people who worked in the mills needed.


The mills on the Neponset River have been referred to as the precursor to the American Industrial Revolution. Manufacturing was given a boost by the trade embargo enacted in 1807. Without goods from England and France in the market, domestic industries grew to satisfy demand.


Local craftsmen and service providers grew businesses at Lower Mills and Upper Falls (Mattapan Square) and other locations that were transportation nodes.


Crops and livestock sustained the local population for nearly two centuries.  Leading up to the American Revolution, Dorchester provided locally-grown food to Boston, which was under occupation by the British.  Dairy farms continued in Dorchester into the early twentieth century..

Consumer Services

Grocery stores, drug stores, funeral homes and more appeared to serve the needs of Dorchester residents.


Food Services

497 Liberty Tree Tavern

Local markets were important to the residents, and Dorchester’s villages grew out of the desire for new opportunities. Village by village, dining establishments became popular in the twentieth century, replacing the taverns of earlier years.

Transportation Services

Transportation began with roads and cartways and developed into turnpikes and avenues. Dependence on horse-drawn vehicles changed to reliance on railways, street cars and subways.

Dorchester has been home to many industries and commercial enterprises from factories to local stores and taverns as well as theaters and rollerskating rinks.

Israel Stoughton, in 1634, constructed a water mill on the Neponset River, which may have been the earliest water mill in the country.

Hayward’s Gazetteer 1839: The beautiful Neponset washes the whole of the southern border of the town, and besides its navigable privileges, affords it a large and valuable water power. The first water mill in America was erected in this town, in 1633; and here, about the same time, the cod fishery, the boast of New England, was first commenced. There are now 4 vessels employed in the whale, and 16 in the cod and other fisheries. Total tonnage, 2,210 tons. Capital invested, $190,000. Product, in one year, $138,349. The manufactures of Dorchester consist of cotton goods, boots, shoes, hats, paper, cabinet ware, block tin, tin ware, leather, wearing apparel, soap, candles, chocolate, and playing cards; the aggregate amount of which, in one year, was $457,400.

The following history comes verbatim from The Dorchester Book published in 1899:

The successful power of old Dorchester was that of masterful men, directing enterprises and pushing economic pursuits. The most noteworthy contribution of New England to the world’s history is in her steady application of common sense to the problem of living. We know that a higher principle than mere gain was in the minds of the early settlers, yet there was some common clay in these men and women; and they also hoped to better their condition economically and socially. The early settlers of Dorchester, as we know, evidently were attracted by the salt marshes, which offered food for their cattle, and by the Neponset River, which has been identified with the whole history of Dorchester down to the present day. The country furnished springs, brooks, and water-power which they were not slow to utilize. The swarming myriads of fish were the chief motor in starting the round of exchange. The profit of early corn planting was large, especially when the crop was converted into beaver through trade with the Indians, beaver being in demand for use as currency in all transactions.

Accounts of the early fisheries are meager; but history says that the future of the country was assured by merchants and traders who came to Dorchester, trained in Dorset, Devon, or elsewhere, and were the first to set up the trade of fishing. In early times the Neponset River was full of fish of various kinds, which afforded a large revenue to the early settlers, and contributed in no small degree to the support of the inhabitants through the protracted wars of the last century. In 1634 the General Court granted to Israel Stoughton a right to build a weir below his mill, upon condition that he was to sell the alewives at five shillings per thousand and as much less as he could afford. Of the quantity of alewives then taken we have no account, but from the price we should think them very plenty. In 1681 the town granted Ezra Clap and Thomas Swift liberty to catch fish at Neponset and to make a stage for the purpose. From an old diary of 1769 we extract the following: –

“Caught 2,000 shad one day in the seine.”
“Made a large haul of shad. Caught 4,000. Sent 40 barrels to Boston.”
“Caught 3,000 shad. Carried 80 barrels to Boston.”

Shad was the principal stock in trade, and it is said that the hardy fishermen always waited for moonlight to spread their seines. There was no light upon the Gurnet, and no beacon on the bay to protect the lone fishermen; and they were imperiled by the Indians. Yet they were not daunted in their regular exercise of this industry, which greatly aided in consolidating the settlements on the shore. These old fishermen were born traders, and they have been rightly called” hucksters of the sea.”

Without ships, no industries; and, without industries, agriculture would languish,- thought the Dorchester fathers. And we find ship-building carried on in Dorchester from 1640 to 1815. Shallops of thirty or forty tons’ burden were built at or near the landing-place called Gulliver’s Creek as early as the first year mentioned. In 1693 Enoch Baddock built the ship “Mary and Sarah,” receiving for the same $2,700. Some of the vessels here built lasted into the present century (19th).

When farming was established, and wheat and maize plentiful enough to require mills for grinding, the primitive mortars borrowed from the Indians gave place to millstones driven by wind and water. Dorchester claims the first water mill, built by Israel Stoughton, and in the autumn of 1634 the waters of the Neponset turned the first wheel ever set upon its shores, and ground the first corn ever ground by water-power in New England. This mill proved of incalculable advantage to the Dorchester Plantation, and gave name and character to the locality.

Before railroads were known and bridges obstructed the passage of the stream, the head of navigation on the Neponset River was a point of no little importance. The center of trade was a large wholesale and retail store of Daniel Vose, a man of great business activity and capacity; also, a leading man of his day. He seems to have been the factor of the farmers and producers for a wide section of country. Loaded teams bringing in merchandise from country stores made this their terminus, and received in exchange West Indian goods and other commodities. Butter, cheese, eggs, flaxseed, and hoop-poles were the chief articles of traffic; and in return for them the store furnished everything from a hogshead of molasses to a paper of pins. Mr. Vose owned sloops running to Boston, Salem, and Gloucester, to meet the demands of his business and carry the various products of the mills already located. In 1833 navigation on the river reached its greatest extent, when seventy-four vessels of an aggregate size of six thousand tons discharged their freight at the village. Thus on the Neponset River, which now looks so small to us, were started most of the industries which were so important to the welfare of the early inhabitants and have since contributed to the prosperity and wealth of the whole country.

With the dread of the Indian war-whoop at any moment, Dorchester attempted the manufacture of gunpowder in 1675. Randolph claimed that it was as good and strong as the best English powder. This was the first powder-mill in the country.

The rolling and slitting mill in Dorchester was an important industrial link, when the human hand did most of the work now done by automatic machinery. The mill took the bar iron, rolled it into a ribbon, then slit it into rods, which the farmer bought, and, while sitting by his kitchen fire, hammered it into nails. The slitting process was a secret jealously guarded by the craft; but a man by the name of Hashian Thomas disguised himself, and hung around the mills, and, when the workmen were at dinner, stole the principles of the machinery, and built a machine for himself.

A new enterprise, small in pounds, but large in power, was the establishment of the first paper-mill. In the year 1750 Thomas Hancock, Mr. Deering, and other gentlemen of Boston, desirous to introduce the manufacture of paper into the province, erected a mill in Dorchester, procured utensils and such workmen as could be obtained, but, after a few years of experimenting, found it a losing business, ceased operations, and sold the mill for a small sum to Mr. Jeremiah Smith, of Milton. It remained unoccupied till about the year 1760, when Mr. Boies, who married Mr. Smith’s daughter, found an Englishman who understood the business and who made a success of it. In those days there were no junk men to collect rags. The mill-owners advertised that they would be in Boston on Saturday mornings at a certain store, and would purchase rags. The women and boys came on those days, bringing their rag bags and selling to the manufacturer. The great-grandsons of Mr. Boies are running a paper-mill on the same spot. There are about as many rags used at the present mill in one day as Mr. Boies used in a year. In connection with the advertisement for rags appeared the following bit of poetry, published in the Boston News Letter in 1769:-

“Rags are beauties which concealed lie;
But, when in Paper, how it charms the eye!
Pray, save your rags, new beauties to discover;
For of paper truly every one’s a lover.
By Pen and Press such knowledge is displayed
As wouldn’t exist if Paper was not made.
Wisdom of things mysterious, divine,
Illustriously doth on Paper shine.”

In the fall of 1764 a wayfarer who seemed to be in distress and in need of sympathy, giving his name as John Hannan, from Ireland, a chocolate-maker by trade, was loitering around the paper-mill. Mr. James Boies carefully investigated his case, and was convinced of his sincerity. He interceded in his behalf, and induced Wentworth & Sons, who at that time were erecting a new mill on the site of the old powder-mill, to make provision for the manufacture of chocolate. This was done; and on the spot where the large chocolate-mills now stand, owned by the late Henry L. Pierce, John Hannan, in the spring of 1765, made the first chocolate manufactured in this country.

In 1798 Benjamin Crehore, who was born in Milton, was assisting in getting up machinery and appliances of the stage for the play of “Forty Thieves,” which was soon to be introduced in Boston. His inventive skill was so admired by the leader of the orchestra that he applied to him to repair his broken bass-viol. Mr. Crehore undertook the job, and is said to have improved the tone of the instrument. This resulted in his beginning the manufacture of bass-viols, the first ever made in this country, and said to rival those imported. One of them at the present time is in the possession of Mr. John Pristine, of Hyde Park. In the early part of this century a good deacon of Dorchester was visiting at Thomaston, Me., and, being quite musical, was trying the big bass-viol belonging to his friend. He remarked, “What a fine-toned instrument this is!” ” Yes,” said his friend, “we prize it very highly for its tone and its great antiquity; but we don’t know just how old it is.” This led the deacon to look it over very carefully; and, looking through the opening in front, he discovered a small paper within, which read, “Ben Crehore, maker, Milton.” And this gave, approximately, the desired date. Mr. Crehore’s reputation in the musical world of that day caused all sorts of disabled musical instruments to flow into his shop for repairs. Among these was a piano. After analyzing it and mastering its movements, he entered upon the manufacture of pianos. The first piano in this country was made by Benjamin Crehore, in Milton.

Upon the eastern branch of the Neponset River, Paul Revere, of Revolutionary notoriety, established the first copper works in America in 1801, for the making of brass guns, bells, etc. It is probable that the bell which now rings in the Second Church, Dorchester, was there cast. He made two bells for the Second Church. The first one having cracked, he cast a second one, which has withstood the wear of time till now. The bill for the same, signed by Paul Revere, is now in the possession of the church.

The manufacture of rum in Dorchester was a large factor in the movement of trade. The lumbermen and fisher-folk demanded a strong stimulant to offset their heavy diet of pork and Indian corn. At the present day it is. hardly called a necessity; but our good old fathers could not raise a building, hang a bell, or gather the harvest without it. We find one of the old merchants advertising his goods in the following poetic strain:-

“Lay out your dollar when you come,
And you shall have a glass of rum”;

and then, with a keen eye to business, adds:-

“N.B. Since man to man is so unjust,
‘Tis hard to say whom I can trust.
I’ve trusted many, to my sorrow:
Pay me to-day, I’ll trust to-morrow.”

The woman who finds so much enjoyment in playing whist (if she lives in Dorchester) should have the added pleasure of knowing that the first playing cards ever manufactured in this country were made in Dorchester. She can also remember, as she enjoys her chocolate and fancy cracker at the club tea, that they were both first manufactured in Dorchester.

Weaving and spinning were done at home. The young women realized fifty cents a week, as they went from house to house with their hand-looms. Those who owned silk-looms must have been especially skilled in the art.

The War of 1812 created a great demand for broadcloth and satinets; and, to meet this, a large stone mill was erected for the manufacture of woollen cloth and chocolate. The manufacture of the broadcloths and satinets continued for some five years; and, as the demand decreased, the woollen part of the mill was shut down.

So many things were first manufactured in Dorchester that the rest of the world is under obligations to prove that any good thing was first made anywhere else.

Elizabeth W. Hazard.
Published in The Dorchester Book, Illustrated. Boston: Branch Alliance of Christ Church (Unitarian), 1899.