Archive 2008 - 2019

Squatting on Miller Hill: Part 1

by Shirley White Nelson

The house was on Miller Hill—though we never knew it had a name—a quarter mile west of Highland Street and not far from the abandoned trap rock quarry.  The land was owned by the town, and we were nothing more than squatters.  Squatters were not unusual throughout the country during the Depression years of the thirties, but this was not the mountains of Tennessee or the New Jersey Boonies.  This was Holliston, Massachusetts, a respectable little town with elm-lined streets, homesteads that dated back to the Revolutionary War and families who could trace their heritage to important people.  It was a town with a daily train link to Boston, a public library and three churches, a  working local government and good schools.  Plenty of families lived remote from the town center, some of them in difficult circumstances, but I was not aware of any other squatters.

Today our house would look down upon a golf course, a prospect we could never have predicted, any more than that our yard, filled with clumps of juniper and cedar, would someday be a smooth sweeping lawn with an eight room house above it—or that the woods behind us where we loved to explore would be groomed to popular bike and hiking paths.   

In fact, today I can only guess the exact location of what was our home for those five years.  It’s simply gone, not just the house, but the space it once had occupied.  When I study aerial maps, I feel sure I can pinpoint exactly where we lived. I can stand on Highland Street and look up to where passing motorists could see our light blinking between the trees at night, and I think I can surely follow my feet, step by step, all the way there.  But I’m wrong. The map in my head no longer matches the territory.  My feet can’t find the way.  And if they did, if I were by chance to stand exactly in the right spot, which might now be someone else’s kitchen or bathroom or bedroom, would I know?  Would there be a vibration perhaps, a buzz, telling me this is it, right here, this is where I slept and ate and played and grew into adolescence? 

(The author on the Old Miller Road.)

My parents were Arnold and Merlyn White, residents of Holliston for almost fifty years.  We moved from New Jersey in the fall of 1932.  I was just turning seven, my brother Dorrance was twelve and my two sisters, Phyllis and Elaine, were ten and three.  We moved to be closer to aging grandparents in Framingham.  Our home that first year in town was on Underwood Street near the intersection with Washington, across from Mrs. Weston’s cranberry bog.  We lived there one winter. Then, unable to continue paying rent, we stored our furniture in the Framingham attic and moved to what we would eventually call our “first camp in the woods.”  

That, too, was on Miller Hill, accessible by car on a two-track path that was once the Old Miller Road (though we didn’t know that either), a carriage route unused by traffic for over seventy-five years.  What we knew was that at the point where Prospect Street met Highland, a private driveway continued straight ahead.  With the privilege of neighborly right-of-way, we followed that through the barnyard, across a bridge over Chicken Brook, along a lane between stonewalls and on up the hill.  Today a turn to the left should bring you to the remains of a stone chimney. That chimney was part of a huge fireplace that once dominated a rustic one-room cabin.

( Old Miller Road over Chicken Brook, 1934.)

(The cabin chimney as it appears today)

Ironically, it was a cabin built originally as a rich man’s woodsy get-away.  At the time it belonged to the Eames family, who kindly gave us permission to bunk in the “camp,” as they called it, for the summer.  We thought it was a lark, even entertained overnight guests, sleeping on the screened porch and toasting marshmallows in the fireplace.  My mother cooked in a tiny semblance of a kitchen and seemed to enjoy the challenge.  Still, even as children, we understood why we were there. Times were hard.  My Dad was selling door-to-door, his product the Busy Kiddy, an indoor gym set of swing, trapeze and rings. The business faltered, as many others did. There were weeks that summer when our diet majored in the blueberries we picked from a nearby swamp.  Our snacks were hickory nuts, gathered from under a tree and opened with a hammer on the fireplace hearth. Yet we never went hungry and we never thought of ourselves as “poor.”

I don’t believe the intention was to stay there throughout the winter, but we remained long enough into the fall to see me through both chicken pox and measles.  It must have been in late October when a forest fire determined the next move. That afternoon in school, I counted the blasts from the curfew on top of the town hall.  I knew the number for the Highland Street area, two long and four short.  I ran all the way home,  through the Eames’s barnyard and up the hill into increasingly heavy smoke.  No one stopped me.  I found the rest of the family packing our belongings into Earl Weston’s truck, while fire fighters walked about spraying water into the bushes from containers on their backs. 

Things looked bad. There was no water supply.  Chicken Brook, below the hill, was too far away to be accessible.  We had been carrying our daily personal water supply from the Eames kitchen, and taking our baths in Framingham.  The fire, wind driven, was moving quickly in the direction of our house.  We were ready to go, leaving much of what we owned behind, when the wind suddenly changed direction.

The house was spared, but there we were, half moved out.  I don’t know where we spent the night. That was a minor problem.  In question were all the nights ahead. A former neighbor on Underwood Street came to our rescue, and we to his. His two boys were without a mother at the time, and his work on the railroad took him away from home for protracted periods.  We moved into their house for the winter, with two more children as part of our family.

Come Spring, we were once more looking for a home.  We kids were given a choice.  Move to Framingham to live with relatives, or—.  We voted for the “or,” to live alone, somewhere, somehow.

(Searching the paths on Miller Hill.  The author with her husband, Rudy Nelson, and Joanne Hulbert, Holliston Town Historian.)  

to be continued

Comments (21)

I grew up on Underwood St and spent much time in the woods exploring the "Old Miller Road' lined with stone walls. I used to climb a tree at the top edge of the quarry to see the Boston skyline. I recently came across a map of Holliston dated 1831. It in fact shows "Old Miller Road" although not labeled as such, starting at Prospect & Washington St. , crossing Highland St, over Miller Hill and continuing on what is now Gorwin Dr. in Brentwood and ending at Kramer's farm on Adams St. Some other interesting items on this map; No street names just family names of the homes, Highland St between Washington and Prospect not yet in existence, Lake Winthrop was not dammed yet and so it was half the current size, the Winthrop canal was instead a meandering brook, no railroad. I enjoyed the article very much and brought back memories of pleasant and much simpler times. Ted Valpey III

Ted Valpey | 2018-10-01 16:46:35

Thank you for this story. Many years ago, when our children were smaller, we took a family walk into this area from Brentwood. After we got through the brush at the end of the entrance path, a roadbed between two stone walls, lined with trees opened up, and we found ourselves walking down what must once have been a fairly well traveled road. We ended up coming out by the stone tower, before it became part of the driving range. We somehow missed the quarry...

Peter | 2015-08-26 04:18:51


JOHN BRESNAHAN | 2015-08-23 14:27:11

What a wonderful story! You made the setting and experience come alive with every detail. I could see everything so clearly in my mind's eye that I felt completely transported to those woods and your cabin. I can't wait to read the next installment! Brava!

Sarah Commerford | 2015-08-23 08:35:45

Many thanks, on behalf of my whole family, to all who have offered responses to this story. Shirley Nelson

Shirley White Nelson | 2013-10-14 04:23:30

What is your email shirley? Me and my friends explore back there every day and would like to know more about it.

Hampton Boyd | 2013-10-11 12:34:37

What is your email shirley? Me and my friends explore back there every day and would like to know more

Hampton Boyd | 2013-10-11 12:33:04

What is your email shirley?

Ethan Pracher | 2013-10-11 12:32:19

Looking at the map above I can see in the lower right hand corner Greenview Drive. This is where I have lived with my husband and 3 children since October 12, 1972. I would pack up a picnic lunch and walk Miller Hill with my children, enjoying nature at it's best. We would look down at the quarry and sit and eat our lunch before going home. As my children got older they would talk to me about feeling a presence there. I too felt this presence. Probably many men lost their life while working the quarry. Thank you Shirley Nelson for sharing your story with us.

Shirley Melle | 2012-06-05 10:52:51

Very enjoyable story! We are looking forward to the next installment!

JoAnn and Todd Nelson | 2012-05-26 11:16:27

That is such a well written story. And I'm not just saying that because my Aunt Shirley wrote it. I grew up hearing this story and often played in those woods. I live in California now but I was born to Holliston and have wonderful childhood memories of my time there. Thank you Aunt Shirley and Uncle Rudy and for putting our family story into words and pictures.

Cheryl Currie | 2012-05-22 22:46:44

This story is a treasure. I encourage the Reporter to seek similar stories from long time residents about the Holliston that no longer exists.

John Shannahan | 2012-05-22 17:16:50

I loved reading this - and Chicken Brook runs through my back yard but on the other side of Washington Street. Holliston has so much history - thank you very much for sharing!

julie fjeldheim | 2012-05-22 16:13:41

Shirley: Thank you for the wonderful story of growing up during hard times in Holliston. It is amazing what people go through in life! Richard Kattman

Richard Kattman | 2012-05-22 12:01:26

What a delight to finally hear the history of a place I have wondered about many times while walking in the woods! Ms. Nelson, thank you for teaching us about the places we walk on and by -- now I will think of you and your family when I pass the old chimney/hearth. Looking forward to more of your memories! Many thanks,

Katie Connors | 2012-05-22 11:57:57

Wonderful story! Perhaps it'll help my kids understand just how priveleged they are... Maybe not!

Dan Mades | 2012-05-22 09:34:28

Editors Note: Shirley Nelson is an award-winning author and has written two books, The last Year of the War, and Fair Clear and Terrible - The Story of Shiloh. Both are available at the public library (reference only) and the Historical society library.

Editor | 2012-05-22 09:28:05

Thank you Aunt Shirley for that picture of the bridge over Chicken Brook. As a pretty small child, I was fascinated by that bridge and brook. I would float my homemade "boats" and feel very adventurous being near running water! Then on up the path with Grammy White to sit under the apple trees and watch Mr. Bebee's cows. I was definitely enriched by my adventurous family!

Kaaren Pidgeon Mayfield | 2012-05-22 08:45:43

It's amazing to hear a first-hand account of all this. Looking forward to part II!

Andrea | 2012-05-21 23:07:20

I love stories like this. Miller Hill road has a lot of long forgotten history. Most people don't even know where to find it. We would like to hear more!

James Read | 2012-05-21 21:50:09

What a fascinating story! I can't wait to read the next installment.

Michelle Zeamer | 2012-05-21 12:39:51