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Rediscover Mill Brook via video, Schwamb Mill exhibit

New video by Glenn Litton of Arlington.

UPDATED, May 22: Mill Brook. You may have quickly stepped over this small stream on your way from Trader Joe’s to Reservoir Beach, or likely you have seen the name attached locally to many local businesses, from a nearby veterinary clinic to an upscale suite of residences.

But you may not have known what it was, what it is, or what it could be and perhaps should be, local environmentalists say. They have been making multipronged efforts to educate the public. Actually, the idea of a “linear park” in the vicinity is not new, having been broached 93 years ago in the town’s comprehensive plan of 1926. But creating such a greenway seems more relevant in the light of climate change.

Part of these educational efforts now take the form of a high-quality eight-minute video documentary viewable online >>

“Mill Brook Rediscovered” was part of the exhibit “A Brook Runs Through It: Arlington's Mill Brook Legacy,”at the Old Schwamb Mill last year. 

Developed by Old Schwamb Mill

Old Schwamb Mill logo

Both the video and the exhibit were developed by the Old Schwamb Mill, a small living-history museum in Arlington Heights.

“Mill Brook Rediscovered” was produced and directed by Arlington resident Glenn Litton under the auspices of the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust. Litton is a former producer and executive producer for WGBH-TV, associated with Emmy-winning programs, including “The Advocates, “ “The Living Planet” and “Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.” His own production company, DocuThis

“I hope that anyone who watches the video would have an emotional response to it—that the viewer would feel pride in all that Mill Brook contributes to the town’s natural environment and history,” Litton said in a recent interview with YourArlington. “I also hope that the video will prompt curiosity about that history, encourage the viewer to take a walk along those parts of the brook that are still accessible and pay a visit to the exhibit at the Old Schwamb Mill.”

Another video currently playing at the mill as part of that exhibit is a recently conducted photography tour of the length of Mill Brook itself, showing water flowing where it is visible and the places in between where it is underground and not visible.

2019 exhibit in 5 rooms

The exhibit in 2019 took up five rooms – most of the publicly accessible space at the mill -- featuring posters, photographs, documents and a diorama – and it includes three hands-on activities geared to children. On a recent visit, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust President Dermot Whittaker said that the exhibit was a year in the making. “We really had interest in telling this story,” he said, as it is in fact the mill’s own.

“This exhibit gives people in Arlington a unique opportunity to see all the former mill sites in town, along with their ponds and businesses over the centuries,” he noted. “That history is largely erased from our modern maps and landscape, but it can all be viewed in an afternoon on the second- floor gallery at the Old Schwamb Mill.”

Not quite three miles long, Mill Brook is a natural waterway running from the Great Meadows through Arlington Reservoir to Lower Mystic Lake. Descending a total of 150 feet, it once generated enough water flow to fill seven mill ponds powering eight mills, according to exhibit literature. However, only the Old Schwamb Mill itself remains in operation in any capacity. The others many decades ago were dismantled, with no remaining traces. In their stead are many local landmarks, such as Arlington High School, Penzey’s Spices and Jimmy’s Steer House.

The videos and the exhibit overall provide historical perspective, from Mill Brook’s crucial role for the indigenous population in the early 1600s, through its industrial use in the 19th  century, up to the present. Mill Brook is now envisioned as the centerpiece of a greenway near the Minuteman Bikeway, Mass. Ave. and Summer Street.

Stemming future floods

It’s not just about enhancing aesthetics or play space. Without remediation, flooding in future remains a real possibility, as some shorelines and underground channels are unstable, many local environmentalists say. They believe this could potentially threaten surrounding both private property and public institutions such as AHS.

Last year, the town received a state grant of almost $400,000 to improve flood controls in the Mill Brook corridor. Officials plan to use much of that money plus $171,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to increase capacity for part of Mill Brook; stabilize the banks; add underground flood storage; and take out invasive plants and replace them with wetland vegetation.

The Wellington Park project is the first major town project now underway to implement the recommendations of the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program report, which identified flooding in the Mill Brook corridor as the primary local threat related to climate change.

Read background >> Read the report >>

Other concerns outlined in the report are anticipated increased snow/ice in the winter and higher heat in the summer and their potential impacts on transportation, ecosystems and vulnerable populations, such as the ill, disabled, very young and the elderly.

In a happy coincidence, initial work toward this goal is set to begin in May at Wellington Park. Town officials say that the construction, which will make parts of the park temporarily off-limits to the public, is expected to be completed by June 30.

LeRoyer 'thrilled'

“After many years of working to raise awareness of the natural and historical significance of Mill Brook, I am thrilled to see progress in improving both flood control and recreational access at Wellington Park,” said Ann LeRoyer, clerk of the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust Inc., chair of the Arlington Open Space Committee and secretary of the Arlington Land Trust

That trust was formed in 2000 to advocate for permanent protection of open green spaces. Its leaders say such conservation provides for environmental beauty, natural cooling on hot days, water drainage, flood control, wildlife habitat and outdoor play space.

The trust has owned the two-acre Elizabeth Island in the middle of Spy Pond since 2010 and works with other private groups including Friends of Spy Pond Park and Friends of the Great Meadow, as well as public institutions such as Arlington’s Conservation Commission.

To learn more about Mill Brook and the decades-long history of the mill industry throughout Arlington, drop by the Old Schwamb Mill, 17 Mill Lane, at 29 Lowell St., off 1215 Mass. Ave., Arlington Heights. It is generally open to the public on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free tours usually available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on those two days.

The schedule sometimes changes, though, so it is recommended to call ahead at 781-643-0554 before arriving. Admission is free, but donations of $5 per adult visitor are encouraged. 

April 18, 2019: Improvements to Mill Brook, Wellington Park due by summer

This news feature was published Thursday, April 25, 2019, and updated May 22. 

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