Grafton's heritage began well before its formal boundaries when in about 1660, several Nipmuc Indians joined missionary John Eliot, to join in an English Christian "praying village" called Hassanamessit. . The Native American village, however, was abandoned after the 1675-6 King Philip's War although the Nipmucs still own four acres of land off of Brigham Hill Road that have never been owned by the white man.
From its written beginning in the 1700s, Grafton has consisted of a fine blend of modest homes owned by laborers and farmers with business owners often owning more gentrified houses that can be seen along North and South Streets. The well-known Common, a four acre parcel, was established in the 1720s when the region was sold to about 40 investors from several towns with the 4 acre center becoming our Common. This lovely old New England Common is now the center of the Historic District, regulated to uphold strong standards of historic preservation.
In 1735, the town incorporated and went on to become a very productive and prosperous farming community with many cottage industries still operating out of homes or small shops. Grafton became well-known and a prolific producer of leather tanning and currying as well as shoes and boots. Production began in small shops by individuals producing an entire product with hand tools and hard work, but then transformed into the industrialization of manufacturing where parts in quantity were made in one place to be joined with parts made elsewhere and then combined. The beginning of the industrial age for Grafton focused on work boots made for Southern slaves with production peaking at over 671,000 pairs of shoes and 18,000 pairs of boots made around Grafton Center in about ten scattered shops and two tanneries by the year 1837.
Grafton Common maintained its quaintness when water power of the Blackstone and Quinsigamond rivers drew investors towards mill building along the river, rather than at the Center of Town. This led to the creation of the Mill Villages of Kittsville, Saundersville, Fisherville, Farnumsville while the Common stayed industry free. In 1935, the bandstand was built at the site of the original first meetinghouse for a production by Hollywood's MGM studios of Eugene O'Neil's Ah Wilderness. That bandstand remains today.
The oldest structure on the Common , the Grafton Inn, was built by shoe manufacturer Samuel Wood, in 1805. The Inn provided a stopping place for food, drink and overnight stays as stagecoaches passed from Boston to Hartford or Providence to Worcester. When it was run in the 1890s and known as Hotel Kirby, it was considered a "first class experience". The Pardees manage the lovely restaurant there today and rooms can still be rented for a charming stay.
In the early 1830s, three new churches were built around the Common, reflecting the competition to the dominant and long-established Congregational Church, mostly by immigrants arriving or native Baptists overcoming former odds against building their Church on the Common. The Congregational Church steeple and clocks were built by the world famous Willards, the noted clockmakers whose many other creations and innovations can be explored at the Willard Clock House and Museum, 3-4 miles north of the Common.
It is very noticeable on South Street as you can see the small shops blended in with the magnificent homes of the shop and mill owners. All the shops have been turned into housing, but are still quite identifiable. Probably the largest home on the Common is the Victorian built in 1885 by George W. Fisher, a Fisherville textile mill owner. This mill, now lost to a 1999 devastating fire, once employed as many as 700 workers and produced over 1.5 million yards of cloth by 1930. During the Depression, the mill was forced to shut down. Currently, this area in South Grafton is being remediated with plans to rebuild the building footprint. It is also abutting an area highly regarding by environmentalists for its bird habitat. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to make this area its highest priority within 2003-2004 to re-establish its significance environmentally.
There are two noticeable statues on the Common. One is a memorial to war veterans and the other was built with funds from a $50,000 donation from Jerome Wheelock who died in 1902. Wheelock was a famous engineer whose innovations revolutionized the steam engine. The remainder of the money was used to build the town library in 1927 right across the street from his statue.
The charming bandstand was built for the MGM movie, Ah, Wilderness.
On the northern end of the Common still stand the commercial buildings, full of charm and appeal and home to the charming and well-stocked Grafton Country Store, Latte and More , Peggy's Place and several other shops of unique interest and high quality.