Foxborough Town History
Foxborough was settled on land which was purchased from Native Americans. In 1666 King Philip sold the land between the Old Colony Line and a grant made to Dedham for the sum of 28 Pounds. This tract covered land now belonging to the present towns of Canton, Stoughton, Sharon, Foxborough, and a part of Wrentham.
The town’s first settler was an unintentional one: Thomas Brintnall and his wife Esther rafted up the Wading River from Taunton in 1664. While the pair intended to settle along the Wading River in what is now West Mansfield, they journeyed slightly too far north and landed in what is now Foxborough. Others would follow to stake a claim and provide for their families.
By 1766 seventy three families lived in town and they petitioned the legislature for incorporation. While the petition was denied, they were not deterred. They resubmitted it in 1768, 1771, and again in 1773, with each petition raising hopes they would eventually succeed, and each denial met with a vow to try again. Finally the legislature reconsidered the 1773 petition again – this time favorably. The date was June 10, 1778, but for whom would the new community be named? News had just reached the Colonies of yet another impassioned presentation before Parliament by Charles James Fox, who was unrelenting in his support for those desiring independence. It was decided that he would be a fitting choice and that the new community would be named Foxborough.
More people came and chose this place as their home. The town’s straw hat industry started by chance in 1798 when twelve year old Betsy Metcalf stood admiring a straw bonnet displayed in a store window in Providence. When she could not afford it, she gathered rye from her father’s field, split the straw with her thumbnail, and fashioned the first straw hat made in America. When Betsy attended Day’s Academy in Wrentham, her new friends from Foxborough were fascinated by the new bonnet, and Betsy showed them how to split and braid straw. The commercial value of the hats was obvious, and quickly there were small manufacturing shops everywhere. Soon Ezra Carpenter, Jr. began taking straw hats made in Foxborough to market in Boston. Demands for the products lead to more stores and more manufacturing in town; The Union Straw Works was built on Wall Street and eventually became the world’s largest straw hat manufacturer. A business district evolved and families were drawn to the center of town.
In 1850 the Foxborough Fire Company was formed and purchased its first apparatus, an 1851 Hunneman engine, the following year. The straw hat industry had spread throughout the community and in 1853, the Union Straw Works was built on Wall Street. Good times followed and the population neared 3,000 with hundreds more living in boarding houses provided by the local manufacturers.
In 1857 the town beautified the area in the center and the town common was laid out as we know it today; the fence was cast at Cary Foundry on Mill Street. Nearby, the Town House, a magnificent structure built to house town offices and later a public high school, was built on the present site of the Town Hall.
The Civil War would be a time to test the young community, which would be called on to bury twenty one of its sons as a result of the conflict. Deciding on a "suitable monument," the community erected Memorial Hall as a tribute "to all those whose lives were touched by the war."
At the close of the conflict, relative prosperity returned to town. The business district was now populated by tinsmiths, grocers, cobblers, apothecaries, barber shops, and launderers. Passenger trains passed through town on their trips between Boston and Providence, and a freight line opened the center to the broader world. The community was truly coming of age: There were demonstrations in Town Hall of telephones and electricity, and natural gas produced by the Union Straw Works would become available in the town center.
In 1879, the Foxboro Water Supply District was formed and within a few years, indoor plumbing became a reality for many families. But by the turn of the century, the straw hat industry was in decline. Hopes for continued prosperity rested with the Van Choate Electric Company which held patents for manufacturing electric devices. While the company was erecting a large complex of buildings on Neponset Street, residents hoped that new jobs would soon come to the town. But, 1900 would be a disastrous year, a time of challenge for the village.
The Van Choate Electric Co. went into receivership. There would be no jobs or return on investment for the hundreds that had purchased stock in the company. On May 28th at 7:20pm, the fire alarm rang. The Union Straw Works, the world’s largest straw hat factory, was engulfed in flames and totally destroyed in about ninety minutes. The community was stunned, but worse news was on the way. On June 4th at 4:40am, even while a fire watch remained on duty at the Straw Works, the Town House became engulfed in flames. Without warning, the front tower collapsed, and the building’s large bell came crashing down. Three firefighters lost their lives that night, another was seriously injured, and a community mourned. All of the town offices and the high school were gone. But concern rested with the widows and children of the firefighters, and volunteer efforts turned to raising funds for their care.
The Van Choate buildings stood empty in 1908 when Bennett and Edgar Bristol broke away from the family business in Connecticut. They formed the Industrial Instrument Company, then acquired the Standard Gauge Company, and purchased the brick complex on Neponset Avenue; the economic recovery of the community was underway. In 1914 the Bristols reorganized and changed the name of their business to The Foxboro Company. While the company started with close to 100 employees, within fifty years, it would number over two thousand.
When the country went to war in 1941, Foxborough went with it. The Foxboro Company made control mechanisms for British torpedoes, eventually working three shifts around the clock under tight security. The community rallied with blackout regulations, air raids, war rations, scrap drives, and successful war bond drives. When news of the first Foxborough men lost to war arrived in town, the community pressed on. The news that the war was over was greeted with spontaneous celebration: fire whistles blew, factory whistles sounded, sirens wailed, and hundreds of automobile horns could be heard through the community. While the community was proud, the price was high: fourteen men from Foxborough would not return home.
The town continued to mature. Needs brought by an increasing postwar population, when the town doubled in size, were met with the construction of roads and schools, the creation of a new town hall and public library, the building of two senior housing complexes, and renewed interest from the community to improve the town. Foxborough stands proud of its past and ready for a bright future.
Reprinted and edited, by permission. Jack Authelet, Introduction, Foxborough (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 1996), pp. 6–10.; When The Nation Called, Foxborough Gem of Norfolk County (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), pp. 98–111.)
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