History of Valley Pond
Valley Pond is a private organization founded in the 1960s dedicated to environmental conservation and community recreation on our property located off Conant Road straddling the Lincoln/Weston town line.
The early history of Valley Pond is entwined with that of Brown's Wood, a neighborhood of 23 homes crisscrossed by Laurel Drive and Moccasin Hill between Weston and Conant Roads in Lincoln. Brown's Wood was started by Ann and Ranny Gras in 1953 as a do-it-yourself subdivision with members earning sweat equity by participating in finding and acquiring the land, laying out lots, contracting to build the roads, and creating a cooperative community.
Who was the Brown of Brown’s Wood? According to Betty Little, who was a local historian and Brown’s Wood resident, Benjamin Brown purchased numerous parcels of land in and around" the present Valley Pond beginning in 1703. Brown, one of the founders of Weston and later Lincoln, had a number of sons who lived on his extensive acreage. Most of the land on both sides of Conant Road from Weston Road to the Weston town line belonged to Brown.
Neighbors getting together
As early as 1958, members of Brown’s Wood were exploring the possibility of creating a recreation area and pond adjacent to their neighborhood. The first proposal was a three-acre pond on land in Lincoln and Weston that now includes the Valley Pond leaching pond. In the spring of 1960, Ranny Gras asked Mort Braun and Dick Morgan, both of whom lived in Brown's Wood, to join him in a larger land development project. He wanted to create a bigger pond by damming up the brook that flowed through the land between Brown's Wood and Conant Road. The additional land involved was mostly owned by Louis Dean of Dean Dairy. It included one house, which neighbors called Tobacco Road because of its condition. After Valley Pond acquired the Dean property, the house was sold to Jim Anthony, who rehabilitated it. The house, which is off the pond driveway to the right as you drive in, was once the Weston Poor Farm.
Gras had negotiated with Dean for a couple of years to buy his property. In the midst of the negotiations, Dean died, and negotiations began again with his heirs. Finally, about 40 acres of land was purchased from the Dean estate. A parcel of 12+ acres parcel adjacent to the Dean land (the area for the initial Brown’s Wood pond plan) was acquired from David and Esther Shapiro. Later, about 4 acres of land belonging to Prescott Davis near where the brook crosses under Conant Road was added.
Subdividing, buying, and selling
The Dean land had frontage on Conant Road well into Lincoln. This land could be divided into lots without going through a Planning Board subdivision approval process because the new lots were being created on an existing road. Eight lots became available as a result: three in Lincoln and five in Weston. It was hoped that the sale of those lots plus the sale of shares in the Valley Pond Realty Trust would cover the cost of construction. Some people bought shares because they were interested in the swimming and recreational aspect, but a large number of people bought shares because of the conservation values. People from all over bought shares — Lexington, Brookline, Weston, Belmont, Cambridge, etc.
Along Conant Road at the north end of the boating pond was another farm that belonged to Prescott Davis. His property started at a line connecting the Fenijns’ property to the east of the pond and over through the Van Leers’ to the west, and extended west along Conant Road to Brown’s Wood. Davis had planned to give his daughter Rachel Van Leer land to build on with a frontage strip of 120 feet to Conant Road that would have run through the boating pond.
Ann and Ranny Gras drew up a subdivision plan that would give Rachel the 120-foot frontage and allow the trustees to flood the boating pond to the 170-foot elevation. Gras offered to purchase the land for the boating pond. Subdivision of the Davis land needed approval from the Lincoln Planning Board. After a number of talks and much thought, Davis decided prior to the Planning Board meeting to donate that land to the Valley Pond project. This amounted to about four acres of the boating pond. Planning Board approval was granted. The trustees then gave Prescott Davis four shares, one for him and one for each of his three children.
Water, money, and engineering
If there was to be a pond, it had to hold water. In digging some test holes, Gras found clay — a good sign that a pond could be constructed there. He consulted the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, which agreed that a large pond was feasible in the area.
Another major requirement was money. The plan was to form a nonprofit corporation in the form of a realty trust, which would enjoy certain privileges under Massachusetts tax laws. The Valley Pond Realty Trust was established in March 1960. Gras, Braun and Morgan each lent money to this trust, and that enabled them to borrow money for the purchase. They put in a total of $17,500 (Gras loaned $10,000, Morgan $5,000, and Braun $2,500.
The next step was to hire an engineer to plan the dam and related structures and design a pond. The trustees had to deal with planning boards in Lincoln and Weston, as the town line goes through the property. A granite marker located in what is now the swimming pond south of the north dam pier marked a point on the boundary between the towns. Most of the. boating pond, which is about 17 acres, is in Lincoln. And most of the swimming pond, which is about an acre, is in Weston. After the house lots along Conant Road were sold, Valley Pond land totaled about 30 acres in Lincoln and about 18 in Weston.
If you drive on Silver Hill Road away from Trapelo Road, the large swampy area on your left is the Rando swamp. A brook that drains this swamp feeds Stony Brook, which flows into the Cambridge Reservoir along Old County Road and Route 128. The brook flowed under Conant Road through what was Prescott Davis’s and Dean land and under Route 117 toward Weston center, then turned and paralleled the railroad line. Because Stony Brook also fed the Cambridge water supply, any changes were subject to approval by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the City of Cambridge.
The Lincoln Planning Board was in favor of what the group wanted to do, but their Weston counterparts were not as enthusiastic; in fact they were initially negative. Finally, with some help from Lincoln Planning Board members, the trustees were able to persuade the Weston Planning Board that they were an able group and were doing a lot of good as an alternative to development.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health was persuaded that the project was permissible, but Cambridge was more difficult to deal with. The city was concerned that swimming would pollute Cambridge's water supply. Finally Cambridge agreed, with one proviso: the swimming pool outflow had to be filtered. A third pond was built to provide a leaching area where pollutants would settle and filter out.
Building the ponds
The trustees had a good engineering firm and were fortunate in having on the property gravel that compacted easily. The gravel was used to build the earth dams that divide the ponds. Coming down the entrance road on the right, there is a big gash in the hill; the gravel came from there. To excavate for the ponds, the bulldozers scraped down to clay, which is less than a foot thick. The deepest point in the boating pond is 10 to 12 feet.
Construction of the dam began in the spring of 1961. The first thing that happened was the trees came down. Esther Braun and Molly Morgan recall sitting there on the side of the future pond and saying, “What has Valley Pond wrought?” They used to sit there and watch the birds and then all of a sudden, the trees vanished. The contractor hired people from Canada who were specialists in clear-cutting, and they came in — six or eight Paul Bunyan types — and cut all the trees down, put them into big piles, and set them on fire. For days, there was smoke from the pond area.
Next the land was cleared. The contractor bulldozed the stumps out and the material was stockpiled or moved around the edges of the new pond. Huge boulders were found. Some were put where the spillway is, and many were put on the peninsula. Later, Ann Gras and Esther Braun planted the huge Scotch pines at the end of the big dam and all around the back of the beach. The sand on the beach is a special kind which comes from a quarry in Rhode Island.
Ann Gras thought some of the costs could be met by selling the loam, but it turned out that Valley Pond loam was much too sandy and didn't hold water. There are still some mounds of it on the edge of the parking lot, and the peninsula in the boating pond is piled with unsold loam. Contractors came and looked but couldn't use it for lawns.
When the dam was complete, and the ponds filled up as Gras had predicted. Valley Pond was essentially complete as a physical structure by the winter of 1961-62, and it opened officially in the summer of 1962.
A financing boost
The financing concept was that revenue would come from two sources — sale of shares and sale of the building lots — and that would pay for everything. The trust instrument stated that the cost per share was set at $500 (though after the trust became a corporation, the price of new shares was raised to $3,000 in the early 1990s and $5,000 in 2016). Harvard Trust Company, as it was known then, loaned the group the difference between the $17,500 from Gras, Braun and Morgan and the amount needed to get started and pay the engineers and contractors. But the lots did not sell at the rate needed, and the interest charges from the bank kept climbing. The cost of the dam was greater than expected — about $120,000 in 1960. The Valley Pond trust still owed Harvard Trust $40,000, so to raise more money, a new kind of share was offered to shareholders.
It was Lincoln lawyer Bill Swift's idea to issue Class A shares of $100 each. You now needed to pay $800 to become a member — the cost of a basic share and three Class A shares. People who were already members of the pond and had purchased a $500 share were asked but not required to buy more shares. They could buy either one, two, or three Class A shares. They had an incentive: if you bought before a certain date, you could buy a $100 share for $75.
In I964, Brown’s Wood sold its last remaining house lot and used the money to buy permanent shares in Valley Pond for each of the 23 lots in the neighborhood. In only a few years, the entire loan was paid back, including the original loans from the Grases, Morgans, and Brauns.
In the early days, the trustees continuously created new shares to meet the demand. There was no restriction on the number of shares sold, nor on the residency of the purchasers. At some point, in response to concern by some shareholders over perceived overcrowding, the trustees stopped creating new shares. In the beginning, when a shareholder wanted to sell a share, it had to be offered to the trustees first, who then decided whether to buy it back at the original purchase price. If they did not purchase it, the shareholder was free to sell it, but again at the original cost. Most of the time, if there were sufficient funds, the trustees did repurchase the shares.
After the decision was made not to create new shares, the Valley Pond Corporation always repurchased shares that shareholder no longer wanted, since the repurchased shares were the only ones available to sell. This, then, limited the number but allowed for turnover in membership. It also created demand, and a rapidly growing waiting list. Later, however, the corporation decided that shares could also transferred for a fee to shareholders’ adult children.
As original shares began to be redeemed over the years, new shares began to be sold, with the number of new shares issued each year based on how heavily the pond was being used by summer members. As of 2020, the Valley Pond Corporation has about 800 shares outstanding, though a number of those shareholders have been inactive for some time and have presumably moved or passed away.
Where does the water come from?
The swimming pond is connected by pipes with valves to the boating pond at the north pier and the leaching pond under the westernmost swimming lane. There is also a pipe and valve between the boating pond and the outlet brook so that when it is necessary to drain the larger pond, it can be done there. When the water is high, the water from the boating pond drains into the brook via the spillway. There was no need to filter the boating pond, because no swimming is allowed. The spillway was constructed at about 168 feet above sea level. The culvert that goes under Conant Road is at an elevation of 180 feet. The water could not be made any higher because it might endanger nearby homes.
The water for the swimming pond was originally intended to come from the boating pond, and this was the case for the first few years. However, the surrounding oak trees caused trouble — oak leaves produce tannic acid, which makes the water turn dark brown. Water clarity is extremely important for safety in a swimming facility; one must be able to see a minimum of four feet into the water.
To improve water clarity when necessary, the valve between the boating and swimming ponds was shut and the old well from the Weston Poor Farm, located just behind the beach, was used as a source of water. This is now the sole source of water for the swimming pond. Pipes run under the sand from the well to the pond, providing a constant flow of cold, clean water. As required by state regulations, the pond water is now regularly tested for bacteria (it must be closed if levels are too high), and the water is treated as needed with organic chemicals to minimize bacteria and algae.
Running the pond
The original trustees (Gras, Braun, and Morgan) in effect owned the pond and established policy. As the trustees did not want to get into administration — hiring lifeguards, paying bills, etc. — the shareholders formed a swimming association because the trust wasn't allowed to tax shareholders. The association, which was necessary to pay for running the pond, was funded by shareholders via annual dues, but the three trustees could still decide how late the pond was going to be open and when it would close. When Morgan moved away, the remaining trustees had the power under the trust instrument to appoint a replacement, who was Ed Rawson, and when the Grases moved, Sarge Janes took his place.
The trustees had been paying a little over $400 a year in insurance premiums for the pond, which covered the trustees for any and all accidents, or so they believed. But insurance companies were increasingly being hit with large settlements, so they raised their rates, and suddenly the trust was confronted with an annual bill of $8,000. Being a trustee was not a very secure place to be; someone suing the pond for damages could go after the trustees personally. When Rawson became seriously ill, he said he did not want to be a trustee anymore. He resigned, which left only Janes and Braun, who told the association the trust needed to become a corporation. This would give legal immunity to the members of that corporation’s newly created board of directors.
At that time (1986), Braun decided to bow out after 20-plus years of being a trustee. Janes stayed on and became a director. The Valley Pond Corporation was established on June 18, 1986 with a maximum of 400 shareholders and nine directors, including a president, clerk, and treasurer. The Corporation continues to run the operation and maintain the facilities much as the trust had.
Valley Pond came about because of the vision of Anne and Ranny Gras and the help of Mort Braun and Dick Morgan. Their hard work has made this the recreational area what it is today — enjoyed by hundreds of families and their guests for swimming, boating, fishing, and relaxation. Thanks also go to members who have served on the board of directors, many of whom have done “hands-on” work — maintaining the well, fixing the dock, and performing the necessary household repairs.
This material was gathered by Betty Smith primarily from Mort Braun in April 1994, Ann Gras in June 1995, Scott Burk in August 1995, and other members of Valley Pond. Revised in June 1996. Edited by Fred Tingley and Ruth Wales, August 2003. Edited and updated by Alice Waugh, July 2020.