Incorporated in 1808, West Boylston was created from parts of Shrewsbury, Boylston, Lancaster, Sterling and Holden. These lands had been parts of earlier grants made to the settlers of the region.
The first English settlers in the area that is now West Boylston came in the 1720s. These pioneers, being farmers and needing space, were spread out, and actually in several different towns. West Boylston is made up of sections of Lancaster, Shrewsbury, Boylston. Sterling, Holden and Worcester. Through most of the 1700s the greater part of our area was in Shrewsbury, then it became part of Boylston when that town split off from Shrewsbury in 1786.
Probably the largest landowner was Squire Ezra Beaman. He owned all the land along what is now the north shore of the reservoir eastward all the way to Boylston. (There was a road there then.) He had a farm , the Beaman Tavern, the Beaman Oak tree, the Beaman watering trough, the Beaman cemetery, and, later on, the Beaman textile mill. He rose to the rank of major in the Revolutionary War, He was a leader in breaking off Boylston from Shrewsbury in 1786, and served as a selectman and state representative.
Like many New England towns we became a separate entity in the 1790s because people were tired of going long distances to church. In Massachusetts in those days there was really only one denomination that had any great number of members - what had been the Puritan Church and would later be called Congregational. Ezra Beaman’s land was still in Boylston in the early 1790s when the Boylston parish proposed a new church building, and Ezra wanted the meetinghouse built nearer to the western part of town along the road that used to go to Boylston Center past his properties. However even the most influential people can run out of political clout eventually, and Ezra’s proposal was voted down.
So Ezra called a meeting of the people of the western part of town, and volunteered to pay for building a new meetinghouse. Construction began in 1793, and the new church was dedicated on the site of the present Congregational Church on New Year’s Day, 1795. In 1796, this area, after considerable objection from Boylston, was chartered as the Second Parish and Second Precinct of Boylston, Sterling and Holden.
The State Legislature was petitioned and precinct status was granted in 1796. Finally, in 1808, the General Court incorporated West Boylston as a town. Ezra Beaman served simultaneously as Selectman, Treasurer and the first Representative of the Town to the Legislature. The town clerk elected that day was Robert Bailey Thomas., the originator of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
In the early 1800s a great change began to take place – the development of industry in town. Again Ezra Beaman was a leader, aided by the industrial pioneer Samuel Slater in starting a textile mill on his property. Because of the water power available from three rivers – the south branch of the Nashua, the Stillwater and the Quinapoxet, many more mills would follow and the center of town would move north to the area now across the causeway.
As the century went on, the banks of the rivers in the center and in Oakdale would be lined with factories and housing for the workers. The textile industry dominated, but they also made flour, shoes and, later on , organs, and there were lumber mills, and, of course, blacksmiths.
However the reason for the coming of the factories was to be the cause of their destruction. The center of town had developed around this junction to take advantage of waterpower for industry. In the 1890s, the State of Massachusetts recognized the abundance of water as ideal for a reservoir.
Over the next several years the town’s center and almost all the industry were destroyed to create the Wachusett Reservoir to provide water for the growing city of Boston. Boylston, Clinton and Sterling all took losses as well, but not from the very center of town.
Because the original center, away from the rivers, remained untouched there was a place to move back to. Some residents had their houses moved, pulled slowly along the roads by horses and oxen. Others built new, but because of the loss of jobs many left entirely. Of the buildings in the reservoir area, only the Old Stone Church, our principal landmark, remains.
The building of the reservoir was a major engineering feat, done before the invention of much power equipment, mostly by workers imported from Italy, many of whom stayed on to become an important segment of West Boylston’s population.
The village of Oakdale is contained within West Boylston. It was on the fringe of the reservoir and only the first few blocks of streets were lost , The rest remains very little changed since it developed in the mid 1800s, a picturesque village of Greek Revival houses.
During the 20th Century the town gradually saw its population restored as improved methods of transportation made it a “bedroom town” for Worcester. New light industry came as well as a retail strip along the old trolley path, now Route 12. The town , however, maintains much of its rural beauty, somewhat because of the preservation of forest land for the protection of the reservoir, In an odd twist of fate, the reservoir saved West Boylston from being a drab, fading mill town.
The Old Stone Church was built in the early 1890s to replace the Baptist church which had been lost in a fire. Hardly 10 years later, it had to be abandoned for the reservoir. Because it was built of stone and was clearly going to be a scenic attraction, the commonwealth was persuaded by townsfolk to let it remain.
It stands alone on a point of land by the side of the water as a reminder of what was lost to the reservoir.