“If you want to understand the essence of small-town New England, join a town committee.’’
For some, this might constitute good advice for newcomers. For Janice Weichman, it is more like a rueful — yet ultimately triumphant — summary of the 12 years since she arrived in Bedford.
Moving to the area for her husband’s job, Weichman found their house on the Internet. With barely enough time to check out the backyard, she didn’t know that the property, near the junction of Routes 3 and 62, abutted a long-neglected but richly historical 17th-century mill site.
But she would find out soon enough, when one of her neighbors, the late selectman Gordon Feltman, told her about the former Wilson’s Mill: not only its early Colonial days as a corn mill but the welcoming neighborhood park he imagined it could become.
“He said he envisioned it as a Huck Finn kind of space, a park where kids could go canoeing and fishing,’’ Weichman recalled.
It took a dozen years of hard work, but a committee launched by Weichman and others made that dream come to fruition. The formerly bedraggled property has reopened as Wilson Mill Park, five inviting acres listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Among the park’s highlights are a canoe launch into Vine Brook Pond, a refuge for wildlife, inviting landscaping, and a trailhead kiosk built by Weichman’s son for his Eagle Scout project. It also features a bridge dedicated in Feltman’s memory.
“At one time it was used as a car junkyard, and at another time a staging area for the development taking place on Route 3,’’ said another neighbor, Philippe Kelty. “It was stripped of all its loam and gravel. That piece of land has had a hard life. So now it is great to see it coming back to a more natural state.’’
Wilson’s Mill began operations as a corn mill in 1676 and endured for nearly three centuries, later serving as a sawmill, paper mill and cider mill, according to Don Corey, chairman of the Bedford Historic Preservation Commission and a director of the Bedford Historical Society. In the 1800s, Corey said, the site employed approximately 10 percent of the town’s population.
But when Feltman paid his first visit to Weichman and her husband, he was less concerned with sharing the past of the weedy, swampy lot they abutted than imparting his dream for the property’s future. Feltman was something of a legend in the town of 13,750 for his passion for community involvement and his love of local resources.
Weichman was easily won over by Feltman’s vision. With his encouragement, Weichman, Kelty, three other neighbors, and a representative from the Historical Commission formed the ad hoc Wilson Mill Park Planning Committee and began mobilizing an effort to restore the park and pond.
Various pieces of the 5-acre parcel had been previously owned by an out-of-town developer, a local family, and the Zion Alliance Church. By 2000, all of it had been either deeded to or purchased by the town — and yet there was still extensive cleanup to be done.
In 2004, Bedford voters approved around $112,000 in Community Preservation Committee funding for the earliest phases of the project, which primarily involved site drainage and planning. But it wasn’t only a matter of pulling the funding together. Invasive water chestnuts clogged the pond. The ruins of the mill needed to be stabilized. A parking lot would need to be reconstructed. Years of illegally dumped materials had to be hauled out. There was poison ivy and buckthorn to battle.
And then, after about six years of work, a contractor working on the site discovered a giant sinkhole, which eventually led to the state condemning the dam on the property.
“Work came to a screeching halt,’’ Weichman said. Eventually, according to Bedford finance director Victor Garofalo, a little over $1 million in CPC funding would go into constructing a new dam at the site of the former mill.
But now, “the park is gorgeous and amazing,’’ Weichman said. “People from all over Bedford can enjoy it. You can go canoeing or fishing, or ice skating in the winter. You can see herons, otter, fisher, mink, snapping turtles, deer, coyotes. People come here for their wedding portraits.’’
More than a decade has passed since Feltman first approached Weichman.
“We’ve come to refer to the Wilson Mill Park Planning Committee as ‘the little committee that could,’ ’’ Weichman said. “It took us over 10 long hard years to slog through, but we’ve managed to restore and revitalize a very special place in town that the rest of Bedford can now enjoy.’’
Selectman Michael Rosenberg believes the project is meaningful as more than just a visual enhancement to his community. “I think there’s a lesson for all of us in how we can take advantage of small opportunities to create natural areas for our own enjoyment,’’ Rosenberg said. “Unlike most communities, Bedford is really one big neighborhood. I live five miles away from the park but consider it part of my backyard. It belongs to all of us.’’