Archive 2008 - 2019

Squatting on Miller Hill: Part 2, Where Next?

by Shirley White Nelson

It was never clear who had owned this building in the first place.  Brown-shingled, it had the look of a 1920’s cottage, though without a dramatic fireplace it lacked the romance of a summer get-away.  It sat atop a knoll, resting without foundation on the flat surface of a huge rock, the front door just a few steps away from a twenty foot plunge onto the road below.  “Road” is the correct term, though it was overgrown with weeds and shrubs and barely suitable for a car. Traces of this cart track, sprung with juniper and frost-heaved rocks, wound around our granite perch, past a frog pond—a vernal pool, most certainly—and over a shallow gully where we built a bridge, then connected to a half mile that stretched between Highland Street and the quarry.  Here, too, we repaired a bridge, hacked up weeds and filled in gaping potholes.  It became our private driveway.

  That was one way to get to the house, the way we drove.  The other was the way we walked—or bumped along on our bikes, or skied over drifts in the winter—following the same path we’d taken to the first camp, along the privately owned lane that had once been part of the Miller Road.  Only now, instead of climbing the hill, we veered to the right through a cow pasture, found our way between the cows and their dung flops, slipped under a barbed-wire fence and, bearing right again, followed another mysterious track a hundred yards or so to the foot of our rock ledge.   

This camp had not been cared for like the other.  It was full of spider webs and and smelled of field mice.  Our first night there we were assaulted by mosquitoes and I thought I heard strange animals in the bushes.  But in just days it began to feel like our own.  My father closed in the porch with mosquito netting, puttied windows and covered the floor with linoleum rugs.  He had already determined that the roof and walls were sound.  

One room, ten feet wide and a good twenty long, it sat without foundation or cellar, no insulation and no inside finished walls.  My parents tacked newspaper between the studs and added cardboard, the way one would install sheetrock today. I remember the big empty cartons they picked up somewhere and cut to size.  As inadequate as that sounds, it worked remarkably well as protection from the outside cold.  Its esthetic appeal was another matter, but by the time pictures were hung and furniture arranged it seemed just fine. 


We were not without amenities.  A double-hole backhouse stood fifteen steps away, at the end of a path lined with columbine and pink lady’s slipper.  It also came with an old well, a one-minute walk downward through woods and over springs we bridged with boards. The water out of those moss-lined rocks tested pure by whoever in town determined such matters.  It became not just our water source but our refrigerator, with milk and butter lowered in buckets into the depths on attached ropes.  In time even I did this chore, safely, through a wooden framework that narrowed the opening at the top. 

What the place lacked most seriously was a kitchen.  When it was clear we would be staying on into the cold months, we built on that addition.  Now we had a sink, albeit a dry one, and a big iron cook stove.  We’d been brushing our teeth and “showering” outside that summer, pouring cold water over our heads.  Now we could heat water and take baths in a galvanized tub in front of the open oven door, or do a stand-up sponge wash in a curtained corner.


In time, another room was added, a bedroom for the girls.  My brother had his own private space at one end of the living room, my parents theirs at the other end.   

Both the cook stove and a cast-iron potbelly were fueled by kerosene.  Some local company supplied us, bravely driving up the quarry road to fill the drum in our back yard.  From a spigot we filled the two gallon glass feeders for each stove. There were no chimneys, just pipes through the walls. I doubt it would have passed a building inspection today.  But we were cozy and I can still hear the glug-glug of the kerosene as it dripped into the burners.   

I can also still smell it, because it fueled our lamps, as well. In time we also added an Aladdin Lamp.  No wishes granted, but it did provide a much brighter light.  It sat on a small octagonal table in the middle of the living room.  Six of us could read by it or sew or do homework.  We each had our own flashlight too, for after dark trips to the backhouse or for reading in bed.  At age eight, I wrote my first novel by flashlight in an upper bunk. 

Outside the house, the woods around us were filled with life -- birds, insects and small animals.  Some species I have not seen since—the red squirrel and a particular blue bird, the indigo bunting.  Stories lingered in the area about wolves, wildcats and rattlesnakes.  We heard the yap of a fox now and then, but never the howl of a wolf, and saw lots of garter snakes and harmless water moccasins, but never a rattler.  A black widow spider stretched a huge web between branches outside the porch.  Black Widows, we knew, seldom spun their nests in the open like that, but there in plain sight was the black button body and the red hourglass, as if she were making a territorial statement to us, the intruders.  

In the summers, guests came for weeks and slept in our guest room, a tent.  We held hot dog roasts with a fire on a long flat rock, rode bikes to Lake Winthrop and played ball in the pasture, with dried cow dung as bases.  

By this time, the pastures were owned by Don and Edna Beebe.  Don Beebe’s dairy cows provided us with milk, his gardens with fresh vegetables.  He facilitated our daily trek across his land by constructing gaps through the fences we had crawled under, just wide enough for humans and too narrow for cows. 

The Beebes, the Hoyts, the Jurseks, these were our neighbors at the corner of Prospect and Highland, the people close enough for regular interaction.  Behind us was only the woods— and the quarry, a silent neighbor.  It had not always been silent.  On Underwood Street we often heard its thunderous blasting and watched big Mack trucks pass the house filled with gravel.  Now inactive, it seemed like the remnant of a lost civilization, a bleak moonscape of jagged cliffs and deep pockets to nowhere, filled with rain water.  Here and there spiked the remains of mysterious machinery, cement blocks sprouting rusted iron coils. 

We were its only visitors now.  When my brother turned sixteen he got his driver’s license and bought an ancient Model T truck with an open cab.  It turned out to be distinctly unfit for public use, so we tooled in it up to the quarry, where we would stop to explore.  I wonder that my parents permitted this.  The truck was reasonably safe but the quarry should have been out-of-bounds.  Once Dorrance, rock climbing there, was just missed by a huge boulder as it plunged to the ground.  Yet there was no fence, no locked gates, no signs or warnings, and no indication of ownership. 

Over the years memory of the quarry has represented what for me was a dark side to our life in the camp, a hovering sense of isolation and insecurity.  


Above, the quarry as it exists today and below, remnants of a building foundation.

To be continued

Comments (11)

Wow! Your story brings back memories of the quarry that my friends & I used to explore back in the late 60's. I grew up on Marked Tree Rd. This area was very mysterious and held many old treasures (junk) that we poked around in. I remember an old rusting car/truck and the quarry rocks being littered with small bones. I believe they were the results of many rabbit dinners by the foxes that lived there. Thank you for the flashback!

Jon | 2015-09-04 10:32:15

I have eagerly awaited part II, and wasn't disappointed. I LOVED the photographs of the author's mother in her beautiful kitchen. I can imagine what she might have cooked: simple, nourishing food, made from scratch, using plenty of starch/bread/potatoes to fill hungry bellies along with seasonally available produce. I know we'll never get back to those days, and it's easy to romanticize that era (which had more than it's fair share of hardship), but getting to visit through this story is such a treat. Thank you!!!

sarah commerford | 2015-09-01 11:05:33

I love these stories from past days. Thank you so much for sharing. My house is currently in the area of the "second camp". When we moved to the house in 2005 my younger daughter was playing in the back woods and came across an old glass bottle laying on the ground. She then proceeded to dig in the area and found a goldmine of artifacts from broken bits of china, blue and while enameled pots, several more bottles, shoes, batteries (perhaps the ones used in the flashlight the novel was written by) and even a large jaw bone from a cow or horse. I am sure there are more items to be found. In the same area is a large granite out-cropping that my kids used as a play ground and I suspect was used the same way in the past. An old tea kettle and wash board was found in this area too. Shirley, we still have all of these items so if would like to have them or just want to see them let me know. Looking forward to part 3.

James Keast | 2015-09-01 10:19:27

Thank you, Shirley, for sharing this with us. I have been waiting eagerly for part 2. It seems there can be life without the internet and cable TV. A wonderful tale of life in a simpler time.

Peter | 2015-09-01 04:22:04

We often go to the quarry near the building foundation and found a old car with an open can that we believe could be your brothers model t truck please email us If you get the opportunity we are very curious.

Kyle Mcdevit and Hampton Boyd | 2014-03-22 15:56:21

Hi Reporter, I missed the Miller Hill Part 2 on the front page, but searched for it in the "back pages". Thank the author Shirley for me -- very interesting and looking forward to part 3.

Karen | 2012-06-02 19:59:55

I enjoy these articles. We live nearby and when my children were growing up, we often walked in these woods, so we are very familiar with the structures. It is interesting to know Shirley's experiences.

Sheila | 2012-05-31 10:39:27

Thank you Shirley for the article and great pictures. My mother grew up downtown (Q.P.) and knew your family and she told me about the cabin in the woods up beyond the end of Prospect St but the pictures make it real. We also would cross country ski across the bridge over Chicken Brook past the quarry and up onto Miller Hill Road. This explains how my mother knew this area. I have to send the article to my Aunt who was in your sister's class. I bet she had been in the cabin.

Carol | 2012-05-30 13:54:01

Shirley has so successfully brought forth a different Holliston but one I like. The images and smells are so real - I feel the creepy-crawliness and think I could not have endured. But I guess we do what we have to do. Wonderful story. Thanks for writing it, Shirley, and to HR for publishing it. I trust that the Historical Society will maintain a copy in its library so we don't lose it.

Mary Greendale | 2012-05-30 13:33:40

I continue to be fascinated by this series. I eagerly look forward to the third installment.

Michelle Zeamer | 2012-05-30 08:39:39

This is so interesting! Thank you for continuing the story. I love seeing the pictures from how the home originally looked and the site now.

Andrea | 2012-05-28 23:15:19