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Needham history: Building, and rebuilding, Rosemary Lake

Rosemary Lake from the southern shore, showing Carter’s Mill #2 and a few fishermen, circa 1920. [Needham History Center and Museum].

Posted on March 16, 2020

Through the winter we have watched the excavators dredging muck from the bed of Rosemary Lake, removing some of the pollutants that have filtered in over the years (decades? centuries?). Earlier in the process, the drained lake was a magnet for birds, and herons, egrets, and even a bald eagle were spotted hunting fish in the shallow pools. But now, as the pools have dried and the machines dig in earnest, the birds have departed to bide their time.

Still visible along the lake bed is the channel along which the Rosemary Brook runs. The Lake, in fact, is artificial, fed by the Brook and controlled by a sluice gate that dates back to the early 19th century. It’s also our second Rosemary Pond/Lake; there was an earlier one.

Before either of the Lakes there was the Rosemary (Rosemerry/Rosemery) Brook and its marshy stream bed, the Rosemary Meadow. The term “meadow” can be used to designate any generic field or pasture, but more specifically is used to identify fields alongside rivers that were more or less constantly waterlogged. Wet meadows were highly valued because (1) they did not support woodland so did not have to be cleared for use, and because (2) cattle (the mainstay of Needham agriculture) needed the ample supply of water that they provided. Rosemary Brook and Rosemary Meadow are mentioned by these names in the Dedham records as early as 1648.

I have often wondered how the Brook/Meadow came to be called “Rosemary.” It is highly unlikely that the area was so called because it featured rich wild stands of the herb. For one thing, rosemary is a Mediterranean native; although it was introduced into northern Europe before the 13th century, it was only brought to America in the 1600s. Also, it requires drier soils and good drainage and cannot survive in the waterlogged environment of a meadow. Nostalgia perhaps? In medieval medicine rosemary had many uses, and was thought to promote memory, so was used as a symbol of partings and bereavements.

The Rosemary Brook runs from the Charles River near Lower Falls, through Longfellow Pond and the Wellesley Water Lands, into Rosemary Lake, and peters out in the marshy hollow at the bottom of May Street. The first Rosemary Pond was formed by damming the Brook for a sawmill; the dam is mentioned in town records as early as 1718, so was presumably built before this date. The pond formed by the dam was in the vicinity of Wellesley Avenue, and is (I am pretty sure) the current Longfellow Pond in Wellesley.

The Rosemary Pond/Lake that we now know was created in the 1831 by Lemuel Lyon for his beaver hat factory. The Brook was dammed by a sluice gate (that still exists under Roseamary Street) and the shallow basin was dug out to deepen it into a pond. Digging by hand, and removing the muck by horse and cart, took more than a year. When first built, the lake was known as Lyon’s Pond.

Lyon’s factory burned down in the 1840s and was rebuilt. By 1850, it was the silk mill of Lemuel Cobb, then (leaving out a few owners along the way) it became Galen Orr’s batting mill (1851), the Union Cycle Company (1888), Carter Company’s Mill # 2 (1902), and finally the Tillotson Rubber Company in 1935. Tillotson’s moved to New Hampshire, and the factory was demolished in 1971 and replaced by the current apartments.

But the lake was not just a resource for industry. AS the picture shows, people fished there. There was an ice house on its western shore (just about where the small parking lot is now) and from the turn of the 20th century to about 1931, the Union Ice Company harvested ice on Rosemary Pond. On the southern end, residences took advantage of the lakeside views – notably the gracious estate of the Burrage family, known as Twin Oaks (now the site of Tamarack Lane). William Carter cleaned up the Pond after he purchased the mill, and installed a swan house and four swans; within a few years, the swans attracted other wildfowl to take up residence as well. Carter also had a small motor boat, which he ran on the pond.

More recently, the pond famously became Needham’s swimming hole, a project started in 1933. The original plan was to create a “beach” on the southern margin, but competition from private residential property moved the location to the northern edge, near Rosemary Street. When the pond was dredged, they cleared out the remnants of Carter’s swan house and the abandoned ice house, and deposited enough gravel and sand to create a 300-foot beach. The lake was used for swimming until 1970, when the water quality became unsafe from the deep accumulation of silt and the chemical runoff from the growing number of homes near the lake and the brook. The “temporary” lakeside pool was built a few years later, and lasted for 45 years before our new pool complex opened in 2018.

Rosemary Lake has been transformed, over the many years, from an industrial tool to a recreational amenity. But that does not mean that past use and current residential habits have not left damage. No solution is going to be perfect, but the current dredging project will help to remove some of this damage from the Lake and Brook, and improve their ecological health. I look forward to resuming my summer lunch breaks watching the herons and egrets. And if I’m lucky, maybe another eagle.


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