Back to the Future: Maynard Continues to Look Forward

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Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assabet_River,_Maynard_MA.jpg

Drive twenty-five miles northwest of Boston down Route 2 into Middlesex County, and one will pass apple orchards, vineyards, and some of Massachusetts’ most beautiful wildlife reserves, ponds, and forests until eventually arriving at an old mill on the grand Assabet River. It’s idyllic, really – the town, its main street, small shops, and riverside trails under a historic clock tower that dominates the skyline. Maynard, Massachusetts, is charming; it’s also one of the world’s most historic centers of economic innovation – and home to a modern day emerging tech ecosystem, which, while not without its challenges, continues to evolve.

To understand Maynard (population 10,106 as of 2010) as a hub for tech, first travel back 172 years to the time of Amory Maynard, the town’s namesake and primary driver of its development. Maynard the man, who was running his own sawmill business by the age of 16, founded the now-famous Assabet Woolen Mill as a textile factory in 1847. Initially a production facility for carpets, during the Civil War Maynard’s company made uniforms and blankets for the Union Army. It eventually employed Irish, Finnish, Polish, Russian, and Italian immigrants, many of whom were escorted to the mill to apply for work immediately after arriving in the country.

By the 1930s, the town of Maynard was recognized as one of the most eclectic, multi-ethnic places in the state – a true destination teeming with shops and attractions for those living in surrounding, rural communities. It was the home of movie houses, barrooms, and the largest woolen factory in the entire world.

From textiles to tech

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of downtown Maynard today is the clock at Mill and Main (formerly Clock Tower Place). The clock, which was donated to the town in memory of Amory Maynard by his son Lorenzo in 1892, features four faces, each nine feet in diameter. To this day, custodians climb 120 steps to wind it each week; in an ode to the town’s past, it has never been electrified.

Mill and Main, the new name of the 11-acre mill complex, is the modern face of decades of systematic and evolutionary forces of innovation acting within the town. The Assabet Woolen Mill produced fabrics until 1950, over 100 years after the mill complex first began operating in the mid-nineteenth century. But of course, like most local textile businesses at the time, under pressure from southern and foreign competition, it eventually failed.

“The mill was really the source of the town’s prosperity,” says Paul Nickelsberg, President at Orchid Technologies Engineering & Consulting, Inc, a global tech consulting firm, which has called Maynard home for almost 15 years.

The mill complex remained, and in 1953, several Worcester businessmen purchased the property to rent out the space. Before the end of the decade, a new business, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), moved into the space with $70,000 and three engineers. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, a new era for Maynard’s development was beginning.

DEC, a major international vendor of computer systems, rapidly grew from the 1960s onward, expanding from 9,000 square feet of the mill complex to eventually fill the entire 1.1 million square foot space. The legacy of the company in Maynard is difficult to overstate. Within just twenty years, the small town was known globally as the “Mini Computer Capital of the World.”

DEC ran its global operations from Maynard’s old mill complex until 1998, at which point it was acquired by Compaq. The tech ecosystem and resulting activity that developed around it over the previous few decades has remained ever since.

An ecosystem outside of the city

Following DEC’s departure, the old mill complex was sold and rented again to a new crop of young and eager tech companies, many of which remain to this day. Since then, even more have joined, citing the economical real estate, pleasant commute and surroundings, and the noticeable cluster of tech companies. In 2018, Mill and Main won the BOMA Boston TOBY Award for “Outstanding Building of the Year – Suburban Mid-Rise Office Park.”

“It’s a great source of ecosystem,” says Nickelsberg, himself is no stranger to town; his first job out of college was working for DEC at its height. Orchid, though not located in the old mill complex itself, is a short walk away inside its own historic building, the original home of Lorenzo Maynard, Amory Maynard’s son, built at the turn of the nineteenth century. “We’re here because we provide services to some of the companies that are in the mill and vice versa.”

The original home of Lorenzo Maynard is now the home of Orchid. Source: Orchid Technologies Engineering & Consulting, Inc.

“Maynard provides a bit of a city atmosphere, but out in the suburbs,” continues Nickelsberg. “From a lifestyle perspective, one can walk to the post office, walk to the bank, walk to restaurants, and stores, and so on. In the summer, it’s even better because the mill is on the Mill Pond, and it’s pretty. There’s a trail for bikes. If people want to be a in a downtown setting with an ecosystem that’s lively, Maynard is probably the best. It’s certainly not the city, but it’s not an office park either.”

Lisa Crewe, Director of Marketing Communications at Acacia Communications, Inc, a global optical networking technology company that has called the old mill home for nearly a decade, notes that when her company was founded in 2009 and in need of a home, Maynard’s mill space was a natural fit.

Acacia Communications has called Maynard’s old mill complex home for nearly a decade. Source: Acacia Communications, Inc.

“Maynard is a thriving, active community with cozy neighborhoods and a unique, compact and walkable town center clustered around the Mill,” says Crewe. “There are many perks to the location including numerous restaurants within walking distance, the commuter rail, and the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge and newly opened Assabet River Rail Trail for after work recreation.  It’s centrally located between 95 and 495, which is the perfect location for commuters who live in the suburbs and don’t want to commute to the city.”

Plus, there is the obvious grandeur of the old mill space with its exposed brick and beam. At Acacia, among modern spaces and high-tech meeting rooms, boardroom tables are made from recycled wood from the original mill beams.

The boardroom tables at Acacia Communications are made from recycled wood from the original mill beams. Source: Acacia Communications, Inc.

Nickelsberg, praising the space’s “beautiful wooden floors and facilities,” notes, “It’s actually a worthwhile space for companies to come, and from our point of view, technology companies can succeed here.”

Tomorrow

Modern day Maynard is certainly very different from the Maynard of Amory Maynard’s day; it’s also notably, similar. Evolving, resilient, transforming, dynamic. These traits, over the years, have come to define this small place, whether producing textiles or tech, carpets or computers.

As Nickelsberg is quick to emphasize, though, the town’s future trajectory depends on its members, the individuals and companies, big and small, that call it home. “The [tech] ecosystem has functioned better and worse at different times. It’s best when the mill is full.”

And that is the greatest challenge facing Maynard today.

While both Acacia and Orchid point out the allure of its geography, neither can ignore the fact that it’s the city, with its active nightlife and walking commutes, that predominantly attracts the attention of young people (i.e., young talent).

Nickelsberg remains optimistic. “It’s an easy commute from Boston to Maynard, 20-25 minutes reverse commute in the morning. It’s not unreasonable,” he says. Not to mention, there’s a commuter train from Boston. For those interested, there is regular transportation from the South Acton rail stop to the Mill, including easy-to-access rental bikes.

Still, all are aware that keeping the mill – and town – as full as possible must remain a primary focus if Maynard is to remain the thriving,picturesque, and economic escape-from-the-city that it is today.

The town of Maynard, for its part, is in the process of updating its master plan, looking ahead to the next twenty years of its history.

According to the master plan’s website, “While the emphasis is on buildings and infrastructure, it does not ignore the important social, natural resource, and economic values of the community. The Master Plan is a method of translating the community’s values into specific actions.”

“They are working very hard to improve Maynard’s overall prospects,” says Nickelsberg. “That being said, it’s important to be a part of the community. Our business, together with other businesses that are successful in town, can really help. For many years, Orchid has provided work-opportunities and college scholarships to the town’s high school students.”

Crewe and Acacia agree. “It is up to [us] and the other companies that call Maynard home to support the town’s history of innovation and to be good representatives of the community. We can do that by continuing to innovate in our respective fields and by giving back to the community to help encourage and support STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives.”

Maynard, like most small communities, is bracing for change. Yet its companies and residents aren’t afraid; they know that, together, over 100 years of history, they have done this before – always adapting, always ready to transform.

“As we celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary this year, we are proud to be a part of the Maynard community,” says Crewe of Acacia. “We look forward to continuing to support this local legacy of innovation.”

The Mill and Main complex has been the center of Maynard’s economy since the nineteenth century. Source: https://www.townofmaynard-ma.gov/projects/millandmain/

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