Southeast of Worcester, Grafton is a town in the Blackstone Valley, made up of a loose assortment of historic mill villages.
During the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th century onwards, Grafton was known for a number of trades like shoemaking and furniture, and was a cradle for clockmaking in America.
Grafton Common, the historic site of the town’s earliest European settlement in the 1720s, has a sedate feel, with its lofty old trees and historic landmarks like the Grafton Inn, open to travelers since 1806.
Grafton has a lot of interesting local businesses to check out, from a cherished lakeside ice cream stand to a cheese shop, importing all kinds of epicurean goodies from Europe.
1. The Willard House & Clock Museum
The Willard Farm in North Grafton is held as the birthplace of early American clockmaking. It was here in the late 18th century that the brothers, Benjamin, Simon, Ephraim, and Aaron Willard manufactured clocks in their workshop, before moving production to Roxbury.
The most successful of the brothers was Simon Willard (1753-1848), remembered for his banjo clock, patented in 1802 and becoming America’s first commercially successful wall clock.
At the museum at the former Willard homestead you can browse the only remaining 18th-century clockmaker’s shop in the United States, and view galleries filled with intricate Willard timepieces.
The museum also features plenty of other enthralling items, including family furniture, portraits, ephemera and a patent signed by Thomas Jefferson.
2. Grafton Common
It’s fascinating to think that Grafton’s central common has the same outline as when it was laid out by the town’s early settlers in the 1720s.
It’s hard to come up with a scene more typically New England than this oval green space, part shaded by mature trees and bordered on all sides by elegant architecture.
Catching the eye are the Congregational Church (1833), the Grafton Inn (1805), the Unitarian Church (1863), and the Georgian Revival Grafton Public Library (1927).
The granite fence posts marking the green’s limits have been here since 1845, while the newly restored bandstand was a prop for the MGM movie Ah, Wilderness (1935) and gifted to the town after filming wrapped.
This is the stage for Grafton’s summer concert series, with shows held on Wednesdays, mid-June through August.
3. Grafton Historical Society Museum
The Grafton Historical Society runs a beautifully presented museum, open Tuesday and Sunday afternoons.
In 2018 this was relocated to the long vacant South Grafton Library building, which was converted from a schoolhouse in the 1920s.
Inside you can get to grips with Grafton’s 19th-century industrial prowess, seeing dioramas of old mills, as well as some of the items made in these factories, like shoes and furniture.
Other artifacts including fine ladies’ clothing, farming implements, china, military uniforms and Civil War diaries, give you a clear picture of life in the town over the course of more than 300 years.
4. Silver Lake Beach
Wrapped in woods in the southeast of Grafton is a gorgeous lake with a little sandy beach on its eastern shore.
Mid-June through mid-August, Silver Lake Beach is the perfect getaway, with a lifeguarded swimming area, changing facilities, a concession stand serving hot food, picnic tables and charcoal grills.
You can even rent kayaks and tandem kayaks for a little paddling trip around the lake. During the season, Silver Lake Beach is open to both residents and non-residents, although non-residents are required to purchase season membership to use this facility.
5. Grafton Inn
An enduring fixture on the east side of Grafton Common is this historic inn, dating back to 1806.
The Grafton Inn has a Federal design, inspired by the architecture of Charles Bulfinch (1764-1844) who popularized this style, and was enlarged some 60 years later when the Italianate porch was completed.
Composed of a wood frame with brick ends, and crowned by a magnificent cupola/belvedere, this building is remarkable as it still fills its original role. There are seven rooms, and a restaurant serving hearty pub grub, craft beer and fine local wines.
6. Highfields Golf & Country Club
In Grafton you can play a round at one of the top public golf courses in the region. This is Highfields Golf & Country Club, opened in 2002 on land that was part of the Magill dairy farm.
A keen golfer, John Magill hired Mugeam, Cornish golf design to create an extraordinary layout, over 220 acres on the rim of the Blackstone Valley, accommodating golfers of all abilities, while still challenging the most experienced players.
Rambling hills and soaring views distinguish this course, with 18 holes that take you on a journey through open terrain and wetlands, and mature natural woodlands.
You can talk over your round at J & J Tavern, serving satisfying pub cuisine, paired with views of the 18th green and practice areas.
7. Lake Ripple Dam
Head north along Worcester St from Grafton Common and in a couple of minutes the green shores of this 70-acre impoundment will come into view.
The Lake Ripple Dam was built in 1982 on the Quinsigamond River, and there are a few spots where you can get down to the water.
You’ve got a public launch at the highly picturesque Ekblaw Landing Canoe And Kayak Launch, at 111 Worcester St in the north.
There’s a picnic area, and an abundance of birdlife in summer, here at the tapered north end of the lake.
Off Brigham Hill Road in the south, is a gravel ramp owned by Grafton, and close by you can get onto Grafton Land Trust trails, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.
When it comes to fishing, there are good numbers of chain pickerel, largemouth bass and carp, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
There are a lot of local businesses around Grafton that merit a closer look, and one of the best of these is Pecorino, a European-style cheese shop.
An Aladdin’s cave for gourmets, this place has a mouth watering array of local and imported cheeses, from gouda to gorgonzola, all cut and wrapped to order.
There’s also a wealth of complementary specialty foods, like charcuterie, fresh breads, crackers, spreads, honey, jams, olive oil, vinegars, nuts, dried fruit and an assortment of artisanal European candy.
And for the perfect pairing there’s a wine boutique, with bottles sourced from small and sustainable producers, as well as a top-notch array of craft beers.
9. Swirls & Scoops
Making summers in Grafton a little sweeter is a seasonal ice cream stand, along Worcester St and on the eastern shore of Lake Ripple.
On a normal year, Swirls & Scoops is open for six months, April through September, and scooping close to 50 flavors of hard ice cream, as well as Flavorburst soft serve, sundaes, dairy free Dole Whip, frappes, ice cream floats and frozen lemonade.
Everyone has their favorite hard ice cream flavors, but a few worthy of mention are maple walnut, s’mores, black raspberry, cake batter, choc peanut butter and pistachio.
10. Hassanamesit Woods
In a quiet corner of South Grafton there’s more than 220 acres of woods co-managed by the town’s Conservation Commission and Historical Commission.
In that spirit, the main looping trail at Hassanamesit Woods has a choice of downloadable guides, whether you want to know more about the natural setting, or the woods’ hidden human history, or want to have an educational diversion for children.
Hints of human habitation can be found at stone walls, granite boulders bearing drill marks, a cellar hole, cart paths and coppiced multi-trunked trees. The nature guide is a companion as the path transitions from oak to white pine forest to wetlands.
11. Gummere Woods & Marsters Preserve
Founded in 1958, the Grafton Land Trust looks after hundreds of acres of natural space, and dozens of miles of trails in the town.
You’re never far from a restorative walk in the woods, and one of the best can be had on the western shore of Lake Ripple where two adjoining properties provide almost 90 acres of mixed hardwood and coniferous forest.
There’s a parking area in the north on 5 Wheeler Rd, off Worcester St, with a large information kiosk.
From here you can hike south along the lakeshore, and you have the choice of cutting west, into the woods, along the Aquene trail. Points of interest include an historic stone chimney, and one of the largest and oldest black oak trees in Massachusetts, dating back to the turn of the 19th century.
12. Grafton Farmers’ Market
The Grafton Municipal Center at 30 Providence Rd is the setting for a summer farmers’ market that usually takes place on Wednesday afternoons, mid-June through mid-October.
Depending on the weather, the market can occasionally be moved inside the gymnasium at the Grafton Municipal Building.
Even on a quiet week there are more than a dozen vendors here, for local fresh produce, flowers, fresh seafood, honey, gourmet coffee, breads, preserves, pastries, CBD products and more.
Most weeks you can expect live music, as well as a variety of craft vendors, specializing in anything from artisanal candles to organic skincare.
13. Off the Common Antiques
In a place like Grafton Common, where you’re confronted by history on all sides, it makes sense that you should find a cute antiques store.
This is within a short walk of the green on Worcester St, and has a noteworthy home, in an old gas station dating back more than a century.
Far bigger than it looks from the outside, Off the Common Antiques is a dog-friendly and easy to navigate emporium for furniture, decorative arts, vintage clothing and tons more.
As well as antique treasure, the shop stocks contemporary crafts, from pottery to quilts, stained glass, candles, soaps and leather goods.
14. Hassanamisco Native American Museum
Part of a larger tribe known as the Nipmuc Nation, the Hassanamisco Nipmuc owns 4.5 acres of state-recognized reservation land in Grafton, by the southwestern shore of Lake Ripple.
Naturally Nipmuc history goes back well before written records, but in the mid-17th century what is now Grafton became a “praying town” when the puritan missionary John Eliot (1604-1690) converted the Hassanamiscos to Christianity.
Their reservation meanwhile can be traced back to 1727 when it was first acquired by the Nipmuc woman, Sarah Robins, and then passed down through generations of women.
The homestead here is the oldest known frame dwelling continuously occupied by Native Americans in the region, while the reservation was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
When we went to press, the museum at this important site was temporarily closed for renovations.
15. Airport Park
The municipal public park with the best amenities can be found in the northwest of Grafton. The playground at Airport Park has a host of equipment for all abilities, along with separate climbing structures and swings for smaller children and kids aged 5-12.
There’s also a soccer field, two baseball fields with spectator seating and a basketball court, and this entire complex is skirted by a fully paved perimeter path.
A couple of minutes north there’s another option for parents at Perry Hill Park (3 Perry St), with another well-maintained playground complemented by a picnic area.