Easton — Before he finished high school and joined the Navy during World War II, and long before his hair turned white, Robert Johnson worked for the company that built the town.
Johnson did a little bit of everything at the Ames Shovel Works. He loaded coal into the boiler room, inventoried parts and tested finished products for shipment all over the country.
Now 84, Johnson had not set foot in the shuttered 1857 shovel factory for more than a half-century.
But on June 8, when the doors swung open on the whitewashed stonewalls and wood-beamed roof of the Long Shop for the groundbreaking on a new housing project, he was there.
“I was a 14-year-old kid. We worked hard but it was a very congenial environment,” an emotional Johnson said. “Everybody knew everybody.”
Lifelong residents and newcomers, local and state politicians, developers and preservationists gathered at the site of the eight-acre complex to celebrate the formal launch of a $40 million housing and historical preservation plan.
Developed by Beacon Communities, the project will transform the 117,000-square foot former shovel factory and a second structure into 113 residential units. The event marked the culmination of a strenuous effort on the part of local officials, concerned residents, government agencies and a private developer to save the historical buildings from demolition under a previous plan.
The success is the result of people “coming together to make the right choice rather than take the easy path,” Easton historical commissioner Gregory Galer said.
“The backhoe was literally at the doorstep,” he said.
Named one of the country’s most endangered historical sites, the shovel works made the tools that built America’s railroads, the Erie Canal, dug foxholes and dug for gold.
It was the factory where Oliver Ames set up linear production years before Henry Ford’s assembly lines and kept generations of local residents working. Reading an excerpt from the 1857 New England Farmer, Easton historical commission Chairman Melanie Deware said the factory made a shovel every 15 seconds, 200 shovels a day and 750,000 shovels a year.
The site lies at the center of North Easton’s renowned historical district that includes the Ames Free Library, Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, Unity Church and Queset Gardens.
David Ames, great-great-great-grandson of Oliver Ames, said he was thrilled to have participated in the Friends of the Historic Ames Shovel Works preservation effort.
“It has been immensely gratifying to our family to have a role in the shovel works,” he said.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki thanked the town on behalf of Governor Deval Patrick and lauded the local enthusiasm and support for this partly affordable housing project. He called Easton “a shining example of what we can do to make Massachusetts better and stronger.”
For most people, the ceremony marked the first time they had seen the inside the 1857 stone structure that will be at the core of the redevelopment project.
“Oh my gosh, look at this building. Look at this amazing building,” selectmen Chairman Colleen
Corona said when she got up to speak.
Corona credited voters for saving the site by approving the use of $7.5 million in Community Preservation Act funds that allowed Beacon Communities to take over the project from George and Robert Turner. A total of $4.3 million of funds is being loaned to Beacon until market units are sold as condominiums while another $3 million dollars is being used to place a preservation restriction on the site.
“Easton did what it does best. When preservation, or historical treasures or open space is at risk, it rallied to save the site,” she said.
The event ended with the ringing of the bell that had chimed over the town since 1857 to awake workers to their shifts and send them home at night.
The cast iron bell was discovered during construction last month. It will be cleaned up and given a place of honor when the project is completed in about 18 months.