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The History of Rockland, Massachusetts

While 1874 marked the birth of the town of Rockland, it has a rich history and heritage which goes much further back in time and is intimately linked with that of Abington.  Originally known as the East Ward of Abington, Rockland’s development had its roots in the land grant to Timothy Hatherly and purchase by Cornet Robert Stetson.  In 1654, The Plymouth County Court granted Hatherly a large tract of land on the South Shore which included most of the northern area of the town.  Additionally, the southern part of town, stretching over Beech Hill, was part of the larger Stetson acquisition which also included parts of present day Hanover and Hanson.

      In the 18th century the earliest settlers of the region were drawn by the vast timber resources.  Large tracts of pine and oak were harvested and milled in East Abington.  One of the earliest lumber mills in the area was built by the Thaxter family in 1703 on Cushing Pond on East Water Street, followed by other milling enterprises, including Stephen French’s business on Market Street.  According to Historian Benjamin Hobart, “the lumber manufactured by these mills was of great use to the town, and was a source of great income,” and became a critical component in the growth of the shipbuilding industry on the South Shore.   continued, click to follow this history:

Thus lumber and natural resources spurred the first great development and growth of East Abington. However, the real boom began when shoemaking was introduced to the town by Thomas Hunt in 1793. Like other settlers from Weymouth and West Hanover, Hunt was attracted by the potential of the growing town, settling in the northern section known as Hatherly. Hunt revolutionized the shoemaking business, bringing together shoemaking in a centralized location and creating the forerunner of the region’s immense show factories. Prior to 1800, if a family did not make their own shoes, most footwear was made by itinerant shoemakers who went house to house, village to village, customizing a stock of shoes for families. A traveling cobbler would carry all their tools and materials (or a family would trade to have materials waiting for his arrival), board with a family for a period of time, and typically make up a year’s supply of shoes and boots before moving on to a neighbor. In East Abington, the collection of shoemaking tasks into a central location is attributed to Thomas Hunt when he established his “ten footer” shop in Hatherly. These small outbuildings soon popped up in many side yards in town, and several can still be seen today as extensions of older houses. Hunt and others bought the materials and tools and made the whole shoe in the ten footer. At first, a single man and, often, his family would make the shoe: young children were taught to peg the shoe by their father and older siblings, and women would bind and stitch. Soon, apprentices were recruited to learn the trade and help meet the increasing demand. Once a good stock of ‘market’ shoes had been made, the shoemaker would, prior to the advent of railroads, use “the more primitive way of packing the shoes in large saddle bags, and placing them on the old family horse, mounting the nag, and trudging off to Boston.” According to Benjamin Hobart, they would “return in due time with two or three sides of sole leather in one side of the bags, and, in the other, upper stock…” East Abington’s early 19th century growth was driven in large part by the creation of the fledgling shoe industry, evolving from ten footers dotting the landscape to large factories centralizing shoe production under one roof. The population of East Abington soared during this time period: indeed, between 1790-1830, the population north of Salem St. doubled. Much of the population was employed in the manufacture of shoes or related industries. One of the earliest factories, Loud & Hunt, operated until 1830 and was the predecessor to dozens of large manufacturers. By the mid 1830s, half a dozen manufacturers in East Abington had doubled the shoe production of their Brockton counterparts. Enabling the growth of East Abington’s shoe industry and opening up the east section of town to the rest of the world was the construction of the Old Colony Railroad in 1845. By 1869, The Hanover Branch Railroad linked Hanover to the Old Colony line in North Abington, a stretch of eight miles that passed through East Abington. The introduction of freight and passenger service provided not only an outlet for goods and residents, but also imports from distant domestic and international sources. In addition, the railroad brought Irish immigrant workers, many of whom established roots in the town and became a source of labor for the shoe factories. Prior to the Civil War, the primary markets for East Abington’s products were New Orleans and Cuba. Several businessmen had traveled and lived in New Orleans, building strong trade relationships both to sell finished products as well as supply raw materials. According to historian Benjamin Hobart, New Orleans was the largest consumer of East Abington’s shoes, and “gave a spring and great encouragement to the shoe trade, and did much to make this town what it is…” Similarly, prominent shoe manufacturer Abner Curtis, who acquired Loud & Hunt after its demise in 1830, built the Cuban trade upon the “Spanish shoe,” made with a Spanish pattern.

History of Rockland

The ballooning trade with the South led to significant tensions in East Abington prior to the Civil War as the economic interests of several shoe manufacturers faced growing opposition from a strong abolitionist movement.  East Abington became a hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, with early leaders such as Samuel Reed operating a station on the Underground Railroad in his Market Street home.  Religious opposition to slavery was the foundation of the abolitionist movement, and in 1812 Reed hosted the meeting to establish the Third Parish Church in East Abington.  Later, the abolitionist mantle was carried by members of the Congregational Church on Union St.  The Congregation’s 1842 resolves, chiseled in a marble plaque still hanging in the church today, declared “enslaving of human beings…a sin against God, …a dreadful cruelty,…and ought to receive unqualified condemnation…”  Further, the congregation urged its pastor “not to invite any who do thus sustain the system to the communion or pulpit.”  Indeed, when a member of the Stetson family attempted to donate a pulpit Bible to the church, he was rebuffed because of his business relationships in the South.

    On the eve of the Civil War, East Abington boasted over 43 shoe factories with an aggregate output valued at $2.5 million and a workforce of several thousand men, women, and children.  While trade with the South quickly evaporated at the beginning of the war, it was replaced by U.S. government contracts to meet the needs of the Union Army.  Abington manufacturers were the beneficiaries, aided by efficiencies from the McKay stitching machine (invented in South Abington).  The focus on shoemaking in Abington, the Union demand for shoes, and the improved stitching technology drove the expansion of East Abington factories, hiring of new employees, dramatic increases in wages and higher standard s of living.  Indeed, all these factors made Abington the leading source of shoes for the Union Army, with over half the supply coming from this growing South Shore town.

           By 1871, the dramatic growth in East Abington had generated pressures to secede from the town.  Development throughout the previous decades had created a strong sentiment amongst many residents that the East Ward had greater prospects for future growth and increased population.  Further, the geographical isolation from the “Old Town” had led to East Abington’s distinct character and sense of self-identity.  The catalyst for separation was a school construction controversy: in 1871, a proposal to build a new school in Abington center led to concerns about school inequities in the East and South Wards.  When the actual cost of the school had doubled the initial appropriation of $12,000 the separatist movement gained momentum.  By 1874, the separatists in East Abington ad petitioned Massachusetts to form a new town, and on March 10, 1874 Rockland celebrated its birth with a torchlight parade, 100 gun salute, dinners, speeches, and fireworks.


    The lofty expectations of those separatists who envisioned a thriving town and growing population in Rockland were met in the late 19th and 20th century.  In addition to the railroad access, residents and workers also took advantage of a trolley car network which began shuttling passengers across town in 1892.  Improved working conditions, higher wages, better transportation, and more efficient machinery boosted the primacy of the shoe industry in Rockland.

    There were several prominent factories at the turn of the 20th century.  The largest, Jenkins Lane & Sons, was located at the intersection of Market and Union Streets, known as “Lane’s Corner.”  Jenkins Lane had a humble beginning to his showmaking career, starting his shop at 5 Union Street:  the business grew quickly, and along with the guidance of his business partners, sons Richmond and Zenas, the Lane factory employed hundreds of workers and generating over $1 million income at its height.  Similarly, the J.S. Turner & Co. factory on Howard & Park Streets was the second largest shoemaker, employing several hundred people.  As shoe businesses grew and consolidated, other manufacturers were attracted to Rockland: Rice & Hutchins (Boston) on East Water Street, Hurley Shoe (Brockton) on Church Street, and Emerson Shoe (Brockton) on Maple Street.    By the early 1900s, only E.T Wright (on Liberty and Webster Streets) remained as the largest native-owned factory.  Wright’s famous arch preserver shoe was a great success, and E.T. Wright went on the serve Rockland in the Massachusetts State House as both Representative and Senator.

    Rockland’s prominence as a shoemaking hub spawned the creation of numerous other businesses and organizations.  Many of the town’s families and their successive generations became involved in new ventures, such as banking, railroading, real estate, and retail.  Rockland center boasted numerous shops and a bustling downtown throughout its heyday in the 20th century, including a furrier, millinery, jewelry and grocery stores, Amos Phelps Insurance, Woolworths, meat markets, Estes Drug store, Rice Furniture, and an Oldsmobile showroom. 

    In addition to thriving downtown businesses, Rockland also enjoyed active social and philanthropic activites promoted by numerous organizations.  As is often the case, economic success and commitment to one’s community permits individuals to become very active in non-commercial interests.

An unknown salesman for a wholesale house visited Rockland and was so favorably impressed with its general beauty that he was inspired to write this poem which appeared in The Independent newspaper.


Oh Rockland! Rockland !

Solid as thy name;

Truly thou art grand,

History gives thee fame.

Heaven's border-land could not be

Fairer than art thou;

Far into eternity,

Thy fragrant breezes blow,

Thy lands fill my soul with love For thee O Rockland, I look above Gazing that way through thee,

A glimmer of heaven's lights I see.

The greeling of thy pleasant face,

Fully does my soul embrace

Thy hand so welcomely extended, With my heart is truly blended.

Wherein can love be found On earth, if not in thee.

Surely thy sweet notes resound,

Filling me with thy majesty.

Thy flowers, thy birds, they tell to me Silent words of love for thee.

Oh, Rockland, may my eternity

Give to me thy purity.

Should even Satan see thy land,

Me thinks 'twould be his first command

To the many in his band,

To gaze at good old Rockland.




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