“The Neponset River rises in Foxborough and enters Walpole at the extreme south corner, and takes a northerly course to the centre, then changes to an easterly course, and enters Norwood just below Hollingsworth & Vose’s paper mill, formerly known as Hon. F. W. Bird’s mill.”
George Bird was granted the tenth water privilege in Walpole, referred to as “Bird’s lower mill.” His neighbor, Eleazer Rhoads, was granted the ninth water privilege, and operated a gristmill, approximately where Mansion Drive (today) begins, this mill was later referred to as “Bird’s upper mill,” as it was purchased by the Bird company in the 1830s. Bird’s lower mill was the first to manufacture paper in Walpole. Walpole history books, and those that outline the history of papermaking in Massachusetts, note that George Bird began making paper on the banks of the Neponset River in East Walpole/South Dedham around 1817/1818. Deeds in the Norfolk County (MA) records office show he began acquiring property and water rights there five years earlier. George Bird first purchased on February 12, 1812 three acres on the Neponset River on the South Dedham/East Walpole line. This included the water rights to raise the water level of the dam. The deed does not note “buildings there on,” indicating there was not a house, barn or a mill, suggesting that George had to build a mill, complete with a water wheel, out buildings and a new dam. Several more deeds show George not only purchased more acreage, but also water rights and the right to build a dam that would increase the water level by twelve inches. All other paper mills he was associated with were either purchased as a standing mill that had to refitted to make paper, or he was the superintendent (manager) to an already established mill.
It is not necessarily clear what initially brought George Bird to the banks of the Neponset River – his son’s biography suggests it was the devastating fire his mill in Dedham experienced in 1809. However, he appears to have had insurance on the facility and his neighbor, Ruggles Whiting offered to pay for the construction of a new foundation, because this neighbor did not want his mill so close to the Bird mill as the burned out one had been. Perhaps he was looking to expand his paper making business, because he operated two paper mills in the late 1810s, one in Dedham and one in Walpole. Advertisements appeared in local Dedham newspapers for several months in early 1818 to lease Bird’s Dedham paper mill and house for one year, from April 1818 to April 1819. A year later in May 1819, he was managing the Dedham mill as he advertised for 2 journeyman paper makers and 2 apprentices for that facility. By then the Walpole paper mill had been up and running for a couple of years, and 1819 deeds indicate George was “of Walpole” and the 1820 census confirms he was indeed living there. Also in 1819, George Bird, bought his Dedham neighbor’s, Ruggles Whiting’s mill and it’s water privileges. He and Jabez Chickering, his partner, retooled the mill to comb worsted fabric. In 1823 Chickering left this partnership, and Bird began working with Frederick Taft making cotton fabric. It was about this time in 1824, George Bird sold all his interest in the Dedham mills, and from that time on, he focused solely on his business on the South Dedham/East Walpole line.
George Bird’s new Walpole paper mill produced a coarse wrapping paper, used to wrap items for packing or shipping, similar to how we use bubble wrap today. In April of 1825 George Bird was issued a patent for a machine that polished paper. This paper-polishing patent was signed by president, John Quincy Adams and the Secretary of State, Henry Clay. It was around this time that sons, George (Jr) and Josiah joined the company. They had most likely worked in the family paper mills during school breaks in their youth and teen years, learning the business from the bottom up. In the late 1820s, George (Jr) sold his interest in the mill to his brother Josiah and in 1833, Josiah sold his interest to youngest brother Francis. In 1838, Francis bought the mill up stream, (the upper mill), which had been the Rhoads gristmill, and a few years earlier had been purchased by Jabez Bullard and retooled as a paper mill.
Although it is not clear if George Bird had retired by then or if he was running the lower mill with his son Francis, but when Francis bought the upper mill, he formed a partnership with his father and his brother-in-law, Harrison G. Park. The upper mill, under Jabez Bullard made newsprint, and the Bird company continued in this endeavor, but within a few short years, it switched production to make coarse wrapping paper. Within two years Park left the partnership, and in 1842, when the company began to experience financial problems, it is said George Bird stepped down. However, another account of George Bird notes that he had been retired, but when the mill began to have financial difficulties, he returned to work as a day laborer on the floor of the mill.
It is not known when George Bird actually retired….or even if he retired. In 1850 census, George Bird lists himself as a paper maker, indicating he may had still be working, to give further credence to this notion the town of Walpole recorded his occupation as “paper maker” when they recorded his 1853 death. When George Bird died, he left behind a legacy not only for his family, who continued to run the company for well over the next 100 years, but for the people of Norwood and Walpole, who benefited greatly from all the jobs the company provided during times of economic strength and hardship. It is almost likely sure, that when George Bird formed a partnership in 1795 to build and run a paper mill on the banks of the Charles River, he never dreamed that company would still be around today.