Ayer is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States. Originally part of Groton, it was incorporated February 14, 1871 and became a major commercial railroad junction. The town was home to Camp Stevens, a training camp for Massachusetts volunteers during the American Civil War. Later, Fort Devens was established by the federal government to train New England soldiers for World War I. Fort Devens was a major influence in the area until its closure in 1994. The town's population was 7,427 at the 2010 census.
Ayer's history dates back to 1667, when the first mill in the agricultural community was built. The settlement sits on what the Nipmuc Indians called Nainacocius. A brook remains with that name. Originally part of Groton, the community was initially called Groton Junction or South Groton. The town of Ayer was incorporated in 1871, and was named in honor of Dr. James Cook Ayer, a prominent resident of Lowell who provided the funding for the construction of the Town Hall.
Regional rail hub
The town's growth was influenced by a period of rapid development of railroad transportation. Though only in area, the town became a major junction for both east-west and north-south rail lines, and developed into an important commercial center oriented towards the rail industry. Known as Groton Junction and later Ayer Junction, the intersecting railroads included:
The split between the Stony Brook and Fitchburg main line was moved east from the central junction to reduce parallel trackage.
During the Civil War an army training camp, Camp Stevens, was located near the Nashua River. Camp Devens, which eventually became Fort Devens, was established in 1917, during World War I. The presence of thousands of military and civilian personnel on the base shifted Ayer's commercial development towards meeting their needs until Fort Devens was closed in 1994.
In 1935, the largest Nordic ski jump in North America was constructed at Pingry Hill near the Willows. A 700-foot-high wooden trestle build, the ski jump operated for a single winter season amid the hardships of Great Depression-era Ayer. Part of the structure was blown down by the wind in the summer of 1936 and it was never rebuilt. Some of the lumber was salvaged by local residents over the next few years. As of 2013, no trace of the massive structure remains.
Within its relatively small area Ayer boasts numerous industries, including plants belonging to Cains, Vitasoy and Pepsi, a historical downtown unique to the region, and modern commuter rail service to Boston.
The Hollywood film Conviction (2010 film) depicted the legal drama surrounding the investigation, conviction and eventual exoneration of Kenneth "Kenny" Waters, for the 1980 murder of Katharina Brow. Waters' sister Betty Anne worked with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to overturn the wrongful convictions using DNA test results as evidence. In 2009 the town and its insurers eventually paid a $3.4 million settlement in response to a civil rights lawsuit by the estate of Kenneth Waters.