Lower Mills is one of the most expensive and desirable neighborhoods within Dorchester.
The neighborhood's defining architecture – the historic mill complex built around the picturesque falls – is a direct result of its geography. The Lower Mills is the only rapids on the lower Neponset River, and the colonists quickly recognized this excellent source of water power. The neighborhood was the birthplace of American chocolate industry in the 1765 (although it was a known delicacy long before then), and generations of success expanded the Baker Chocolate Factory until the sprawling mill complex came to dominate the area. These mills have since been redeveloped into some of the most expensive condos in Dorchester.
The Lower Mills neighborhood is visually dominated by the historic mills around the falls of the Neponset River, especially the sprawling Baker Chocolate mill complex. However, the Lower Mills West area contains a remarkably-intact enclave of modest but elegant Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate houses built for the craftsmen working in the area's furniture trade.
Strong architectural identity. The mill complex has a remarkable visual unity because it was designed by a group of related architectural firms. Noted Boston architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee (yes, a relative of the legendary Washington Post editor, Benjamin Bradlee) designed the Steam Mill (now a wing of the Pierce Mill) in 1868, and successors of his firm continued to work for Baker Chocolate through the construction of the Forbes Mill in 1911. The Baker Chocolate complex has since been redeveloped as loft condominiums, commercial, and light industrial uses.
The southern section of Lower Mills is served by the Butler stop on the Red Line, while the northern section is convenient to the Cedar Grove stop just beyond the neighborhood edge.
Lower Mills is a neighborhood within Dorchester - which was once an independent city before was annexed to Boston. The neighborhood is at the southern edge of Dorchester, across the Neponset River from the town of Milton. To the west is the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, to the north are the Dorchester neighborhoods of Codman Square and Ashmont, and to the east is Cedar Grove.
The Algonquin name for the area is Unquety, for "Lower Falls", for the ____ on the Neponset River that came to power the sawmills and later manufacturing. Today, the falls are usually just regarded as picturesque, but these were a source of renewable and clean waterpower for the early manufactories. By 1634, Israel Stoughton (FOR WHOM THE TOWN IS NAMED?) operated a grist mill here (SPECIFY WHAT), and others soon followed: the first powder mill in New England in 1665, of an early iron slitting mill in 1710, of the first paper mill in 1728, and of the first chocolate mill in America in 1765.
The first water powered mill in New England was built by Israel Stoughton at Dorchester Lower Mills in 1634. Stoughton built a dam and a grist mill which supplied both the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pilgrims of Plymouth with ground corn or maise as it was called.
During King Phillip's Indian Wars, the manufacture of gun powder at Lower Mills was attempted in 1675. This was the first powder mill in the country. The first paper-mill in America commenced operations at Lower Mills in 1750 by Thomas Hancock and others, of Boston. This venture was not a success bur was profitably revived in 1760 as the Boies and Mc Lean Paper Mill. More important for the long term prosperity of this area was the establishment of a chocolate manufactory on the Dorchester shores of the Neponset River in 1765 by Dr. James Baker of Dorchester and James Hannon. The latter was a penniless Irish immigrant, who was a chocolate-maker by trade. The company that evolved from this partnership was officially incorporated as ?Baker's Chocolate? in 1780.
Between 1770 and 1830, residential development was concentrated along the arms of the village's early roads, and a stretch of impressive houses lined Washington Street from River Street to the foot of Codman Hill. In 1805, the South Boston Turnpike (Dorchester A venue) was added to the area's street system. By 1830, industrial activity at Lower Mills included a cluster of paper, chocolate, grist and fulling mills at the upper and lower dams.
Chocolate-making in the immediate area has a history dating to the mid-18th century, when Dr. James Baker and John Hannan established the business in 1765. The company they founded grew to national prominence in the first half of the 19th century under Walter Baker, James Baker's grandson, but a major portion of the present complex was built beginning in 1868 under the leadership of Henry Pierce, and continuing under his successor, H. Clifford Gallagher. In 1926 the company was acquired by General Foods, which continued to manufacture chocolate under the Baker name on these premises until 1965, when it consolidated operations at a plant in upstate New York.
Four chocolate companies were at one time
located here: Baker, Preston, Ware and Webb and
Trombley. Over the years Baker acquired the
other three, making Baker Dorchester’s largest
manufacturing concern. according to the
This is the neighborhood that [introduced] chocolate to the United States.
In 1764, Dr. James Baker, a Harvard alum, and John Hannon, a recent Irish immigrant who knew how to make chocolate, for which colonists were willing to part with steep sums. And even after paying for the pricey product, imported from the West Indies, people had to “work” for their “fix” by grinding chocolate with mortar and pestle or with cumbersome, expensive “hand mills.” But the enigmatic Irishman and the Dorchester doctor were poised to “cure” “chocolate-lovers’ elbow” - the soreness that colonists endured from grinding their own cocoa beans with their own pestles or hand mills. according to the Dorchester Reporter.
More significantly, the Irishman also how to set up and run a chocolate mill. Several New Englanders had tried to set up chocolate-grinding operations, but none succeeded. The closest was in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1752, when Obadiah Brown had built a water-powered mill and had churned out four hundred pounds of the treat for Newport merchants. But Brown was not in the business for the long haul, just for a quick and lucrative profit. Baker, once he had determined that the Irish immigrant knew the chocolatier’s trade, staked both savings and energy on the venture, which he hoped would prove long-term.
Although Hannon and his Dorchester backer and partner did not need a huge space to launch their scheme, they did require unlimited water power. They looked no farther than the Neponset, Baker getting his hands on a sawmill nestled alongside the river.
In the spring of 1765, Hannon was ready to put the plan to the test by grinding cocoa beans between two massive circular millstones. Now, his Dorchester partner would learn whether the Irishman knew his craft or had sold him a proverbial bill of goods.
Hannon set the top millstone to one third, the speed used to grind corn.
As the stone groaned and began to spin, he poured cocoa beans into a hole cut through the stone’s center. Then, the Neponset’s flow set the bottom stone whirling, and the motion of both “wheels” pulverized the beans into a thick syrup. The Irishman and Baker poured the liquid into a giant iron kettle and then into molds, where the concoction cooled to form chocolate “cakes,” more like “bricks” in weight and consistency.
With that first batch, Hannon proved that he could deliver the goods. America’s first bona fide chocolate factory had been born along Dorchester’s banks.
No one knows exactly how and where Hannon had honed his expertise with chocolate. His past was - and is - elusive.
Rising orders compelled Baker and Hannon to move the operation in 1768 to a larger space on the Neponset, Baker renting a fulling (cloth) mill from his brother-in-law, Edward Preston. Preston, however, was not satisfied with merely being the chocolatiers’ landlord. He had his eyes on the business - literally. For the moment, he appeared “interested” in only a curious fashion, but all that would change.
In 1772, Baker, with sales continuing to swell, opened a second Dorchester mill. Speculation that he and Hannon, who continued to operate the other plant, had quarreled and had either parted ways or forged a looser partnership, abounded. Baker had learned much from the Irishman: the new mill turned out nearly nine hundred pounds of chocolate in 1773.
Baker’s decision to branch out proved both profitable and lucky, for in 1775, Hannon’s concern burned to the ground. The Irishman, probably able to foot his own operating costs now, rented space in a Neponset snuff mill, grinding and pouring “cakes” once again and presumably making sure that no tobacco residue from the adjoining business drifted into his pouring kettles.
With the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, the Dorchester chocolate-makers struggled to stay in business. Their dependence upon cocoa from the West Indies forced the pair to smuggle shipments of beans through the web of Royal Navy warships prowling the eastern seaboard. Even after the Patriot cannons bristling atop Dorchester Heights helped force the “lobsterbacks’” departure from Boston, Baker and Hannon still faced the headache of running beans through the Royal Navy’s gauntlet, not to mention paying the war-inflated costs of cocoa.
In 1779, Hannon reportedly vanished on a voyage to buy beans in the West Indies. No one in Dorchester ever again saw or heard from him. Various sources believe he perished in a shipwreck; however, others contend that he vanished only from his vitriolic marriage to a Boston woman named Elizabeth Doe. To Hannon’s partner, Dr. James Baker, business history beckoned.
Baker was soon enmeshed in legal wrangles with Hannon’s “widow,” who seemed intent on running her husband’s mill with his capable apprentice, Nathaniel Blake, as her workhorse. Blake, deciding that Mrs. Hannon was running the business into the ground, walked out on her. He had little trouble in finding a new post - with James Baker.
By 1780, Baker had wrested his former partner’s mill from the widow. Chances were that the Dorchester entrepreneur had bought her out. Consolidating the operation under one roof on the site of the mill that had burned down in 1775, Baker’s sales soared.
The cash that Baker’s chocolate poured into his account spurred his brother-in-law, Edward Preston, to make a move after twelve years of watching Baker struggle and eventually succeed. Preston had studied the operation from millstones to handbills. In the 1790s, Preston’s chocolate vied for space on tables and in cupboards with Baker’s wares.
James Baker, the Harvard doctor and businessman who had launched America’s first permanent and profitable chocolate factory, stepped down after nearly four decades as “the king of cocoa.” He chose his son Edmund as the successor to the family business.
Edmund Baker soon began taking the venture to levels that his father and Hannon could scarcely have dreamed of in 1765. In 1806, Baker Chocolate’s new chief opened a state-of-the-art chocolate mill alongside the Neponset, as well as opening a gristmill and a cloth mill nearby. With the Baker complex the focal point, the Neponset was dubbed “the river of American business.”
Baker expanded sales from the Northeast to the western outposts of the young republic’s widening borders. But in 1812, America’s second war with Britain suddenly heaped upon Edmund Baker the same shipping problems his father had suffered during the Revolution. This time, the Royal Navy’s squadrons choked off cocoa shipments so effectively that the kettles and molds inside the Baker chocolate mill stood virtually empty for two years.
With the war’s end in 1814, cartloads of cocoa beans rumbled into the impressive, three-story stone edifice Baker had built. Soon, Baker’s best was on the shelves of America’s general stores again.
Edmund Baker entrusted the company to his son Walter. One of Walter’s first gambits was to expand his work force. In a sign of the changing times in the nation, two of the Dorchester businessman’s hires were young women, Mary and Christiana Shields, who walked onto the plant floor in petticoats in 1834. By 1846, Baker’s payroll included several women.
Walter Baker’s mill, the fragrance of its chocolate to many passersby notwithstanding, was hardly a comfortable workplace. In summer, employees swooned from the kettles’ brown molten fumes and from the temperature within and outside the factory. In winter, gusts roared from the Atlantic and up the Neponset, the chill assailing workers inside and outside the plant and making the steaming kettles a desirable spot around which to gather.
The Baker workers nonetheless made their boss the first name in American chocolate. Such success also led to tough competition from chocolate-making interlopers. By 1835, the Preston mill rolled out 750 pounds of the product a day. The banks of the Neponset featured a third chocolate competitor, Webb & Twombley, by 1842. The scent of chocolate permeating the area led locals to call the site “Chocolate Village.”
The pressure to fill endless wagonloads of “brown gold” was acute for Baker and his Dorchester rivals alike, for, with refrigeration for chocolate products nonexistent, the millstones ground to a halt in summer. Finally, in 1868, the advent of refrigeration turned the Chocolate Wars into year-round “combat.”
Walter Baker died in 1852, before the family could reap refrigeration’s benefits to the business. His passing marked the end of the Bakers’ hegemony in the chocolate business, which they had ruled for nearly ninety years. The Baker Chocolate Factory continued to turn out its near-legendary products along the Neponset until 1965. In that year, two centuries after a Dorchester doctor and shopkeeper and an Irishman set their first two millstones into motion, General Foods, Baker’s parent outfit since 1927, shut down the venerable red-brick plant and moved the operation to Dover, Delaware.
It is in the annals of Dorchester, not Dover, or anywhere else, that the proud legacy of Baker Chocolate truly lives on. For Dorchester was the site of America’s first successful chocolate mill, where Dr. James Baker and John Hannon turned cocoa into cash.
Today, America’s love affair with chocolate waxes unabated, testimony to the “taste” and acumen of Dr. Baker and Hannon.
During the 1840s and 50s, this new residential area became a community of furniture and building trades workers who operated shops behind or alongside their houses. Some of these residents were employed in the larger cabinet and carpentry shops along Sanford and Washington streets. As early as 1798, Benjamin Crehore of Milton, designer of theatre set machinery, manufactured the first bass viol in the country at Milton Lower Mills. Additionally, the first piano in America was produced by Crehore in Milton as well as the first artificial leg ever made in this country. Crehore's brother Thomas also figured prominently in the annals of early 19th century industrial history at Lower Mills. He is best known for his partnership with Jabaz Ford in the first playing card manufactory in the United States. This playing card factory (demolished) was located on the Dorchester side of the Neponset on River Street in the vicinity of Temple Street. Also located on River Street was the extensive cabinet shop of Stephen Badlam (1751-1815) who was turning out exquisite pieces of furniture at Dorchester Lower Mills by 1790. He was a skillful cabinet maker who also produced cases for tall clocks for the great Willard clockmakers of Roxbury. The residence of one of Badlam's most prolific apprentices, Edward Hutchinson Robbins Ruggles is still extant at 1061/1063 Washington Street. Built ca. 1800, Ruggles owned this house from the 1830s to the 1880s. Undoubtedly this house was furnished with examples of the-rich Empire mahogony veneer furniture for which Ruggles was widely known. Additionally, Ruggles was a prominent Lower Mills businessman, Representative to the General Court and owner of extensive Dorchester real estate.