Woburn, Massachusetts, is located about 10 miles northwest of Boston, nearly at the head of the Mystic River Valley and roughly halfway between Lowell and Boston. L-shaped and comprising 13 square miles of land, it is a small city of approximately 38,000 people. The city is bordered by the towns of Wilmington on the north, Stoneham and Reading on the east, Winchester on the South, and Burlington and Lexington on the west. First settled in 1640 and incorporated as a distinct township in 1642, it is thus one of the oldest and most historic communities in New England. Colonial Woburn also once encompassed the modern Massachusetts towns of Wilmington, Burlington, and Winchester, but these communities eventually broke off into separate townships in 1730, 1799, and 1850 respectively.
Though small tanning and shoemaking activities had begun by 1700, Woburn’s economy remained primarily agricultural until the early 19th century. The opening of the Middlesex Canal in 1803 provided Woburn tanners with a new means of obtaining tanbark, and as a result, the leather business within the town boomed. The opening of the Boston & Lowell Railroad in 1835 and its Woburn Loop line in 1844 served to further expand the shoemaking and tanning industries.
Rubber & Tanning Industry
The nation’s early rubber industry was also established in East Woburn by 1836, and revolutionized by Charles Goodyear’s pioneer discovery of the vulcanization process in East Woburn in 1839. Demand for shoe leather during the Civil War gave a boost to Woburn’s leather production, and by 1865 there were 21 tanning and currying establishments in town. Immigrants from Ireland, Nova Scotia, and Canada moved to Woburn to take jobs in the tanneries. By 1885 Woburn was the leading leather producer in the area. The city retained this lead well into the 20th century, developing with it a range of associated support industries, including a chemical works, machine shops, and makers of tanners’ knives. Henry Thayer of Woburn developed the process of chrome tanning in 1901, which took the place of bark tanning.
By the 1930s, however, under the combined adversities of the Great Depression and changing markets, the tanning industry declined. By 1940 only six tanneries remained. Today there are none.
Woburn of Today
The Woburn of today is mix of quiet residential neighborhoods, vibrant office and industrial parks, and wooded conservation areas, such as the Horn Pond Reservation, Forest Park, and Shaker Glen. As a result of its long history, virtually all the historic architectural styles typical of New England are found in Woburn. These include the Baldwin Mansion, built in 1661 by Deacon Henry Baldwin and altered to its present Federal-era appearance by his great-grandson, Colonel Loammi Baldwin in 1803, and the Woburn Public Library, the first public library designed by the great Victorian-era architect H. H. Richardson, his first work after completion of his masterful Trinity Church in Boston. To learn more about Woburn’s intriguing history, visit historic Woburn.