Special to Natick Report from the Natick Historical Society
Some stretches of the Charles River in South Natick still look much the way they did when the “Praying Indians” and Rev. John Eliot did their first walk-around at the site and decided to build a town in 1651.
This waterway was a source of food for the Algonquian Indians, and they quickly built a bridge (now the Pleasant Street bridge) to connect their farms on either shore. The river was a well-traveled route to Boston and other towns along its 80-mile course. In time the mills of Thomas Sawin (1657-1727) and other water-powered enterprises were built along the northern bank.
Two iconic features of the river are visible to motorists on Eliot Street (Route 16) and, of course, to hardy river travelers in kayaks and canoes. A stunning red Japanese-style footbridge crosses the Charles on private property upstream from the Pleasant Street bridge, and a picturesque white statue of the Virgin Mary stands on a rock on the south shore a short distance upstream from the footbridge. We have Daniel Sargent and his wife, Louise Coolidge Sargent, to thank for both of them.
Daniel Sargent (1890-1987), the uncle of former Massachusetts Gov. Francis Sargent, was a World War I veteran who taught history and the history of English literature at Harvard. He and Louise bought riverfront property in South Natick for a summer home (it became their permanent home), and later purchased land directly across the river. To connect their two properties, they built the private footbridge on the foundations of a dam that Thomas Sawin had dismantled in 1723.
Near the bridge, on a rocky formation at the water’s edge, the statute of the Virgin Mary in prayer keeps watch over the Charles. It was Louise Sargent’s idea to erect the statue there in 1929. The Sargents believed it symbolizes “the desire to overcome evil, with the snake beneath her feet.” The statue was carved from Indiana limestone by John Howard Benson (1901-1956) of Rhode Island, whose other projects included many notable works in the early 1900s.
The words carved at the base of the statue are “Apparverunt in terra nostra flores.” This can be translated as “flowers shall appear on our earth.” Sargent planted several varieties of rhododendron along the river bank, just upstream from the footbridge. These bloom at different times in different colors, so that the floral display continues throughout the late spring and early summer in an annual celebration of the statue’s inscription.
The historic Charles River in South Natick has always been a distinctive part of the local landscape. The native trees and bushes on its banks in Natick are not particularly unusual, but without question they looked about the same 365 years ago, especially along the sector of the Charles where both banks lie within the Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary.
Story and image courtesy of the Natick Historical Society
Natick History Museum: 58 Eliot Street (Route 16), Natick