What is the horse pulling? Our guess is that it was a street-sweeping apparatus. It is hard to see, but there may be brushes underneath, behind the wheel. Can anyone confirm that? Has anyone seen a rig like this? Please contact us if you have any information that would help to identify the machine or the time and/or place in which the picture was taken.
We recently came across this picture in our archives. It was definitely not taken in Acton. We have no idea who took the picture, where or when it was taken, or why it is in our collection. The picture is unlabeled.
What is the horse pulling? Our guess is that it was a street-sweeping apparatus. It is hard to see, but there may be brushes underneath, behind the wheel. Can anyone confirm that? Has anyone seen a rig like this? Please contact us if you have any information that would help to identify the machine or the time and/or place in which the picture was taken.
The answer came from the 1855 Massachusetts State Census. It showed that Robert Prier Boss (age 50, born in Rhode Island) was a sea captain living in Acton with Hannah, William Henry, and George Washington Boss, (ages 40, 12, and 3 respectively), and others, including members of his wife's family. Acton was not a likely home for a mariner, but Robert’s occupation in the census solved the mystery (temporarily) – the title of captain on the stone had nothing to do with the Civil War.
Additional research showed that Robert Prior Boss was born in Newport, Rhode Island on February 21, 1804. He was the son of William Boss and Edith Dickinson Prior, one of 14 children. Captain Robert lived in Boston in 1839 when he married Hannah Sampson, born in Charlestown to Daniel and Hannah (Dingley) Sampson. The couple first lived in Charlestown and had at least two children there; Robert P. Boss Jr. and William Henry Boss. Information about Captain Robert’s early career is not easily obtainable, but in 1849, Captain Robert seems to have become involved in the California Gold Rush. In May, 1849, Captain Robert P. Boss of Charlestown sailed out of Boston on the ship New Jersey, carrying over 175 passengers (reports vary about the exact number). The ship was owned by the Suffolk and California Mutual Trading and Mining Association; transcriptions of the passenger list show that Captain Robert was a member. They arrived on October 12, 1849, and, as described in the Boston Evening Transcript [Feb 24, 1890 reminiscence], "as soon as the port of San Francisco was reached, little heed was paid to contracts or agreements, and all made a rush for the gold diggings." Discovering whether or not their venture was a financial success would require more research, but soon afterwards, Captain Robert changed careers. An 1851 birth record of George W. Boss, born to Robert and Hannah, shows that the family was living in Acton by then. (Charlestown was written as their residence and crossed out.) Robert was listed as a farmer. As far as we can tell, Captain Robert spent the rest of his life in Acton. The 1860 census listed him there with Hannah and their two youngest sons. His Acton death record listed him as a retired sea captain.
The Perils and Benefits of Online Genealogical Indexing
Online indexing can yield wonderful discoveries about the lives of individuals. It can also lead researchers astray. Following up on Acton’s Robert P. Boss led to a link from his genealogical information to a listing of Massachusetts officers in the United States Navy. A Robert P. Boss, born in Rhode Island and living in Massachusetts, was listed as having been appointed to an officer’s position on January 4, 1862. With no further investigation, we might have assumed that Acton’s Robert P. Boss, born in Rhode Island and a sailor, was a Civil War naval officer. However, we were saved from that assumption by two other internet resources.
A listing of “Enlisted Men in the United States Navy,” also linked to Acton’s Robert P. Boss, showed that the Robert P. Boss in question was age 21 and a printer when he enlisted in the Navy on September 24, 1861. He became an officer in 1862. Clearly that person was not Acton’s Robert. Fortunately, the 1902 book An inquiry concerning the Boss family and the name Boss has been made available online. From that source, we found that Acton’s Captain Robert had a nephew Robert P. Boss, born in Rhode Island in 1840. Research indicates that he was a likely match for the printer who signed up for the Navy in 1861.
What happened to the Boss children?
In the spring of 1864, William’s unit was shipped to Washington, DC, causing an outcry about broken recruiting promises. Perhaps as a consequence, William transferred to the Navy on June 29, 1864 and served on the U.S.S. Tunxis and Glaucus. He was discharged on March 6, 1865. William married Mary E. “Lizzie” Welts in 1869 in Chelsea, MA where they both resided. He was listed as a clerk at the time. He later lived in Lynn, Mass. and worked as a freight agent and station master. His wife died sometime in the 1880s. William married Ida Emma Morrisey in Lynn on May 28, 1889. According to his pension record filed by Ida after his death, he was quite well off until late in life when he lost all of his money on a mining venture. William died on March 22, 1907 in Swampscott, MA where he had been living and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn.
George Washington Boss was born in Acton on November 17, 1851. He was still a minor when Captain Robert died in 1863, and his mother became his guardian. Captain Robert’s will was very clear about his confidence in his wife Hannah’s abilities and the fact that she would look after her son’s interests. Hannah and George moved to Malden by 1865. Unfortunately, Hannah died in 1867, necessitating another guardian for young George, Charles W. Irving. (Their exact relationship is unclear, but Charles and George lived in the same household in 1865.) George Boss was living in Boston and working as a laborer when he married Clara A. Skillings (daughter of Cyrus and Margaret) on February 6, 1872. On April 21, 1879, he married Melissa Edgars (daughter of Robert and Mary). George was working as a brakeman and residing in Boston at the time. In between George’s marriages, he apparently joined the Cavalry, though his time in that role was abbreviated at best. He appeared in court records in October 1877, seeking an accounting of his parents’ funds from his guardian. Eventually, the accounting was made; there is no indication that the funds were misused. After a possible listing in an 1880 Lowell, Mass. directory, no other information has been found about George W. Boss or either of his wives.
The family's time in Acton seems to have been fairly short. However, researching Captain Robert reminded us that with all genealogical projects, it is important to question assumptions, to watch out for people of the same name, and to keep searching even after finding “the answer.” For those who want to learn more in non-digitized sources, Captain Robert's logbook from his 1849 voyage to California is in the archives of the Peabody Essex Museum, and passenger Charles Stumcke's recollections of the voyage around the Horn are held at the University of California, Berkeley.
Acton's 1915 report from Superintendent of Schools Frank Hill provides a fascinating glimpse into the concerns and the home-school relationship of that time period. He proposed (page 20) that awards be given for home work that would contribute to "the teaching of thrift, efficiency, art, hygiene, music" and "a more positive vocational guidance," giving credit for different aptitudes. His suggested plan included the following home work possibilities (Credits for each item given in parentheses):
Building fire in the morning (1)
Milking cow (1)
Currying a horse (2)
Mending a chair (4)
Making biscuits (2)
Getting an entire meal (6)
Wiping the dishes (3)
Washing, ironing and starching own school-clothes (20)
Clean hands, face and nails (3)
Retiring before 9 o’clock (1)
Sleeping with window open (1)
Later reports do not mention whether Superintendent Hill's plan was ever put into action. However, his 1917 report (page 13) showed that the home-school relationship seems to have been more of a divide than a collaboration:
'Good behavior’ is well and thoroughly taught in the schools of the town, but too often its practice begins and ends in the schoolroom.... The influence of the school day will never extend through the twenty-four-hour day until the public meets the teacher at the school door in the afternoon and says, ‘I will be as careful of the behavior of these children until they return to you in the morning as you have been today.’ This would be real cooperation and would be much appreciated by the schools.
It is hard to imagine a superintendent in Acton today writing a similar report.
As mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, it took much effort in the nineteenth century to convince the voters of Acton that providing a high school education for local students was a necessary expense. In its early days, high school was held where room could be found. In the early 1900s, the high school and younger students were sharing space in the South Acton schoolhouse. Circumstances were not ideal. As just one example, the February 1907 school report mentioned that a laboratory had been set up in the basement, but it had no heat. Extremely cold temperatures had made it impossible to do laboratory work for physics that term.
Crowding in the South Acton schoolhouse was an ongoing problem. Something had to be done, but the townspeople could not seem to agree on a plan. In what must have been a trying meeting for all attending, at the June 4, 1907 town meeting, votes were taken on the following motions:
Clearly, Acton was experiencing voting gridlock. By 1908, the School Committee decided to send the oldest students to Concord High School to finish their higher education. Many discussions, meetings and votes both preceded and followed this decision. Town meeting would vote on a motion about building a high school, only to reverse the vote at a subsequent meeting. Even among those who wanted to build a high school, there were disagreements as to where it should be located. Meanwhile, difficulties continued for both students and teachers. By 1913, the School Committee had decided to send all of Acton’s high school students to Concord.
Not surprisingly, these actions had ramifications for Concord as well. Concord raised tuition on its out-of-towners but still had more students than it could handle. In 1914, the situation reached a critical point. The Concord Enterprise (May 6, 1914 page 12) printed a letter from Rev. M. J. Flaherty, chairman of the Concord School Board, to Acton’s F. R. Knowlton explaining the situation:
During the past two years the attendance in our high school has increased from less than 300 to more than 400…. We have ample accommodations for our own pupils and for most of the out of town pupils, but not for all. The line had to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn on the towns that would suffer the least – Bedford because of convenience to Lexington, and Lincoln because of convenience to Waltham. Accordingly at the regular meeting in January, the following motion was passed unanimously:
‘That Bedford and Lincoln be notified by the superintendent that on account of crowded conditions, no first year pupils will be received from them in the future, but that all of their pupils now in the school will be permitted to finish their course if they so desire.’
This action of ours was not at all pleasing to Bedford or Lincoln; nor was it pleasing to Acton as we soon learned from various sources. Our intended kindness to Acton caused displeasure to the three towns.
To try to fix the situation, the Concord School Committee met with members of the school committees from Acton, Bedford and Lincoln. The letter continues:
For almost two hours we talked over the situation. It was soon evident that Bedford and Lincoln wished to continue as formerly and that Acton wished to discontinue. The only course that seemed open to us was to allow Bedford and Lincoln to send their pupils and not to receive any more from Acton. Nothing else could we do when the three members of your school committee were unanimous for a high school of your own and a great majority of your citizens who were present at town meeting had voted for a high school, had selected the site and had voted for the necessary appropriation. It is true that the majority in favor of the appropriation did not have the necessary two thirds, but we were informed that another town meeting was to be called at which the necessary two thirds would in all probability vote for the appropriation…. All Acton pupils at present in our schools will be welcome to continue as heretofore, but because of crowded conditions no more first year pupils will be received unless by vote of the school committee.
This was a brave stance by the Acton School Committee given years of controversy over the building of a new high school. On May 7th, 1914, a Special Town Meeting was held in Acton. It was moved that $31,000 be appropriated for buying land and building and equipping a high school. Contrary to the confident assertions of the school committee, the vote was 160 Yes and 162 No.
One can only imagine the conversations that followed between the towns’ school committees. Acton's high school students continued to go to Concord. Acton did not actually build a high school until the mid 1920s.
James Fletcher’s 1890 Acton in History (page 57) lists James Shurland as one of the “Men of Acton in the War of the Revolution.” Taken alone, that would seem to imply that he fought on the side of the colonists. It is possible that he did at some point. However, researching the collections of the Society to find out more about him unearthed a document showing that in 1776, James Sherland and William Haywood were actually taken as prisoners of war. The document, a copy of an order from the Council Chamber, State of Massachusetts Bay, states that from their capture until Feb. 10, 1780, the two men had been residing in Acton. Joseph Robbins, other selectmen, and the Committee of Correspondence for Acton vouched for their "Orderly Behavior,” so they were given permission to live in the town and to practice their occupations until further notice.
Evidently, in the early part of the war, it was not unusual for British prisoners of war to be sent to outlying areas. A letter from George Washington to Lieutenant-General Howe on September 23, 1776 states that British privates were “greatly dispersed through New England Governments, in order to their better accommodation.” (See Jared Sparks’s The Writings of George Washington, Volume IV, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1847, p 106.) So far, efforts to discover the stories of James Sherland and William Haywood during the Revolutionary War period have been not turned up anything. We do not know where they were captured, whether they were colonial Loyalists or from a British regiment, and why, where and under what circumstances they were held in Acton. (We would welcome new information; please contact us if you can help.)
Attempting to trace the later lives of the two prisoners presented opposite research problems. In Acton and its environs, Haywood/Hayward was a common name. Despite that, no trace of William could be found. Aside from the copy of the order held by the Historical Society, he seems to have left no mark on the town of Acton. There are some William Haywoods who appear in records outside of Acton in the post-Revolutionary period, but without further information, it is impossible to know whether it is the same person.
Sherland, however, is an unusual name, with many variations. Acton vital records revealed that James Sharland and wife Anna had ten sons in Acton: George (1779), Stephen Randal (1781), James Jr (1784), William (1786), Henery (1786, apparently William’s twin), Edmond (1790), Joseph (1792), Winthrop (1795), Benjamin Hill (1797), and Joseph (1799). All of the births were recorded together, probably well after the fact.
In 1790, James “Shareline” was listed in the Acton Census with a household of 1 male aged 16 and above, 6 males under age 16, and 1 female. The family must have been in Cambridge at some point. Probate records and Acton town reports indicate that James had legal involvement with the town of Cambridge in the first decade of the 1800s, but no details of his time actually living in Cambridge have yet emerged. The 1810 Acton Census shows James Sharland as head of a household consisting of 1 male aged 45 or more, 1 male between 10 and 15, and 1 female aged 45 or more. That probably was James and Anna and one of their youngest sons. (Acton records show that James Jr. “of Watertown” married Maria Moore “of Cambridge” and had a son William Henry in 1806. They would have been too young for the 1810 Census listing.) James Senior’s death was recorded in Acton on April 27, 1818. Benjamin Sherland is listed in the 1820 Census in Acton with a female over 45 (possibly his mother Anna). We could find no further mention of Anna in any record. There is no cemetery record or gravestone in Acton for any member of the family.
A fascinating research project would be to trace the descendants of the sons of James and Anna Sharland who all seem to have left Acton by 1830. Stephen Randal became a cooper in New Hampshire and died young and unmarried. Winthrop went to Maine. James Jr. went to western New York and later to Indiana. It appears that George and Benjamin also headed west. There were many descendants, although sorting them all out would be a challenge. By the mid-1800s, Sharlands, Sherlands, Shirlands and Shorlands appear in numerous records, including many records of military service. Without documents such as the Council Chamber order in the Society’s collections, there would be no way to know that one's immigrant ancestor was once a P.O.W. in a small Massachusetts town.
Many professional photographers are represented in the collections of the Society, but Acton photographers were a rarity. The Society was lucky to receive a 2015 donation of a photograph whose mat was imprinted with “F. J. TAYLOR, PHOTOGRAPHER, SOUTH ACTON, MASS.” The picture is unlabeled; so far no one has identified the picture’s subjects, place, or date.
One of the techniques used to date a photograph is to research the years in which its photographer was in business. That sounds easy, but in practice, information about photographers can be scarce, particularly if they did not become well-established in an area or leave behind a substantial body of work. An excellent place to start is Chris Steele & Ronald Polito’s book A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900 (Picton Press, 1993). Using as their source the New England Business Directory, they list an F.J. Taylor working in Acton in 1896. They also list Forester J. Taylor in Cambridge in the 1882-1888 period doing business early as Rand & Taylor and then as Forester J. Taylor & Company. Researching Cambridge directories confirmed that Forester J. Taylor showed up by 1882 (living in Somerville and working in Cambridge) and then lived and worked in Cambridge for the rest of the 1880s. Research in vital and census records established that the Acton and Cambridge F. J. Taylors were the same person.
F. J. Taylor - The Early Years
Forester J. Taylor, living at School Street in South Acton, was naturalized in Boston on March 27, 1899. (The Naturalization Index lists his birthplace as Montreal and his birth date as May 20, 1854.) In the 1900 Census, Forester Taylor, photographer, age 45, was living in Acton with his wife Margaret, sons Frederick M. and F. Forrester, daughter Eliza A., and mother-in-law Mary Dorsey. Tracing Forester’s ancestry back to Quebec yielded a Church of England baptismal record for Forester Joseph Taylor, son of Stephen Matthew Taylor of Melbourne township and Ann Morgan. (The birth date given was May 21, 1853.) Melbourne is now part of Richmond, Quebec in the area formerly known as the Eastern Townships. The family, including Forester, was in Melbourne in the 1861 Census of Canada. The father Stephen died that year. Widow Ann Taylor married William Crook in November 1862. Forester was listed in the 1871 Melbourne census with William and Ann Crook.
Cambridge (Mass.) vital records show that on November 28, 1885, Forester J. Taylor (photographer, age 31, living in Cambridge, born in Montreal to Stephen M. and Ann) was married to Margaret F. Dorsey (age 19, living in Barre, born in Ireland to Thomas and Mary). On May 25, 1887, their son Frederick M(atthew) was born in Cambridge. Their son Friend Forester Taylor stated in World War I military documents that he was born on June 10, 1891 in either Cambridge or Somerville, Mass. (His parents were specified as Forester Joseph Taylor and Margaret T. Dorsey.) For some reason, searching individual birth records for June 1891 in both Somerville and Cambridge and the state-wide index for 1891-1895 yielded no record of his birth. Acton Vital Records include daughter Eliza Ann Taylor, born on June 23, 1894 to Acton residents Forester J. (photographer, born Montreal) and Margaret “Darcey” (born Ireland).
Extensive searching of local newspapers yielded no advertisements for Forester J. Taylor’s photography business in Cambridge in the 1880s or around Acton in the 1890s. However, South Acton news items in the Concord Enterprise shared the fact that “Mr. Taylor, the photographer” had bought a house from Mrs. Bulette on Stow Street [March 23, 1893] and then moved in [April 20, 1893]. After Eliza Ann’s 1894 birth, Acton town documents yielded no information about Forester J. Taylor and his family. He was not listed in the Assessor’s List for Acton in 1900; according to the census, the family was renting at that point, and Forester had been out of work four months of the year. (Acton records do show that Forester’s wife Margaret’s mother Mary Dorsey passed away in Acton in February 1901, and Margaret’s sister Bridget (Dorsey) Callan lived in Acton with her husband Patrick Callan until her death in 1926.)
Another Acton Photographer
A surprise came from searching newspaper articles for Forester - the discovery of a new Acton photographer. Between December 1895 and February 1896, ads appeared in the Concord Enterprise for Mrs. F. J. Taylor, South Acton Photographer, offering pictures of ladies’ boudoirs, parlors, babies (in environments they were accustomed to), pets, anniversary gifts, costumes, and evening parties, with “flash lights” a specialty. A November 21, 1895 South Acton news item mentioned that Mrs. F. J. Taylor had photographed the guests of Mrs. M.E. Lothrop’s 75th birthday party. So far, no other mention of or picture from Mrs. F. J. Taylor’s photography business has been found, but we will be on the lookout.
Life After Acton
Forester’s and Margaret’s time in Acton was short. A 1902 Acton directory shows no Forester or F.J. Taylor listed as a resident or as a photographer in the business section. It appears that anyone wanting to date a photograph imprinted with “F.J Taylor, South Acton, Mass.” can assign it a date of approximately 1893-1901. (As a caveat, if cardboard mats were left over after F.J. moved away from the area, 1901 may be too early a cutoff.)
Research into the later life of the family shows that after leaving Acton, Forester moved frequently. He appears as a photographer in the Norwalk, Connecticut directory of 1903 and the Northampton, Mass. directory of 1906. The 1907 Northampton directory simply states that he moved to Hartford. In the Hartford, Connecticut directories of 1908 and 1910, he is no longer listed as a photographer but is listed as residing at 100 Ann. In 1908 and 1910, sons Frederick M. and Friend F. are both listed as salesmen living in the same residence as their father. In 1910, Mrs. Margaret is also listed in the directory at 100 Ann, with rooms to rent.
An obituary in the Concord Enterprise (June 15, 1910, page 6) says that “Forester Taylor, the travelling photographer, who at one time resided in Cole’s block, died at his late home in Hartford, Conn., last month." The Hartford Courant published an obituary (May 23, 1910, page 11) that focused on his early years; his apprenticeship in Vermont, a few years in the photography business in his hometown of Melbourne, Quebec, a brief sojourn to the Midwest, two years working for Sprague & Hathaway in Somerville, Mass, and then his development of “the traveling commercial view business.” The obituary implied that he had a large-scale enterprise and had trained many photographers. Unfortunately, despite much searching, it was hard to find much documentation of Forrest J. Taylor’s business life or his “prominent place” in American photographic history. Fortunately, some of his photographs survive. In addition to the 2015 donation, the Society also has two pictures taken in Acton by F.J. Taylor of Cambridge (who we now know definitely is the South Acton photographer) and a copy of a third photo bearing his South Acton imprint.
If you have any other information about Mr. and Mrs. F. J. Taylor and their photography or more information about the F.J. Taylor pictures in our collection, please contact us.
One of our mysteries is the origin of a set of two miniature photo albums in the Society’s collection. Bound in red leather with a gold design stamped on the outside, they measure approximately 1.5”x1.5”. Inside are pages with oval cut-outs for “gem-size” portraits. Some of the pages have detached from the binding, and it appears that some of the photographs may have fallen out. One album’s flyleaf has the initials “MS.” The other has “25” written on it. The title page of the “25” album says “Simmons and Co. New Bedford.” Online searching, so far, has been unsuccessful in dating Simmons and Co.
The photographs themselves are tintypes. (The back of one is exposed and is magnetic.) Online research revealed that these gem-sized photographs were easily obtainable after about 1863. The pictures were printed in multiples and then cut apart. They were affordable for people who were not well-to-do.
Our albums have at least one duplicate picture. Perhaps they belonged to siblings. Aside from the style of dress, the initials “MS”, and the fact that the albums seem to have been manufactured in New Bedford, the only identification clues are that two of the children’s first names were labeled – one is (perhaps, the writing is difficult) “Lucie” and the other is Sarah. We will be showcasing the portraits in these albums in our Unidentified Pictures pages, hoping to learn more over time. If you can help us with dating or identifying the pictures, please contact us.
The Cannon Controversy
It started with a fascinating scrapbook article from the Society’s collection: “Ex-Army Officer Raps Women Who Object to Placing War Cannon on Common.” In August, 1936, the townspeople of Acton had voted to obtain a United States army field piece as a World War memorial. A veterans group proceeded as instructed by the town. Soon, however, a furor arose over locating the gun on the Common. The selectmen granted a hearing about the issue, and fifteen people spoke in opposition. They said that Acton had too many war memorials, the gun was too war-like for the Common, and the gun would ruin the view and “would serve to depreciate property in the neighborhood.” Those claims seem a little outrageous today, but the “pro” speakers made the proceedings interesting as well. One accused the opposition of being Tories and threatened to go to court. Another stated that “Acton soldiers are the only ones who have brought glory to this town.” Meanwhile, granite blocks had already been placed on the Common to be ready when the gun arrived from the arsenal in Illinois from which it had been ordered.
Another hearing followed, described in a second scrapbook newspaper clipping, this time with about 300 in attendance. “A more lively meeting has not been held in the town hall since the days when the site for the present high school was being discussed.” A special town meeting was held on October 21, 1936. Attempts to stop the gun from arriving were unsuccessful. Through a vote, the townspeople expressed their wish that the gun be placed to the side of the World War Monument (near the Town Hall), rather than on the Common itself.
One would have thought from the opposition statements reported in the newspaper clippings that the town Common was a pastoral place suddenly being invaded by military armament. However, pictures in the Historical Society’s collection confirm that there were already cannons on the Common at that point, as well the large Monument to Isaac Davis and others who fell in the Revolution. Evidently the underlying issue, not clear from the articles, was that some of the townsfolk (men included) wanted to change the "atmosphere" of the Town Common. One of the Articles on the agenda at the special town meeting in October was that “the town will remove all objects, monuments, and other impediments, from the Town Common…” (The Davis monument was excluded from the Article.) Nothing happened; the cannons already on the Common stayed.
Don't believe everything you read, online or elsewhere - No one is perfect.
At this point, it seemed a good idea to research exactly when the Town Common's cannons arrived and where they came from. Searching old local newspapers online for articles about the installation of the cannons produced nothing. One internet site said that "The Town Green area includes: cannons (installed 1812)..." That unfortunate wording led to a fruitless research project. In an effort to learn about the installation of the cannons, Acton Memorial Library’s online transcriptions of Early Town Records were consulted. Searching the early 1800s through 1829 revealed that the townspeople of Acton were mainly concerned during that period with whether or not they could let their cows, cattle, horse kind and swine roam the Common in any given year. It is very safe to say that installing memorials on that land was not a high priority for them.
Eventually, an article was discovered about the Town of Concord’s gift to Acton of the Davis Stone (upon which, supposedly, Isaac Davis fell). It gave an approximate date of 1900 for their installation. Searching town reports confirmed that on August 21, 1900, the town appointed a committee of three to "procure two cannon to place on the Common" (Town Report for the year ending March 12, 1901, page 10). A later report (for the year ending March 12, 1902, page 33) showed that the cannons were shipped by railroad and then "teamed" to the Common where they were installed on bases, most likely granite. There was no description of where or what era the cannons came from. Phalen’s history of Acton (1954, page 284) stated that they were from the War of 1812, but no documentation was given. The Davis Stone article mentioned in passing that the cannons were from the Civil War, not 1812.
When all else fails... get out of the car
Because a good picture of the cannons would be useful when asking for identification help, a visit was made to the Town Common. Today, no one is concerned with pastoral views of the Common; a much bigger concern is safely crossing the street to get there. Doing so, however, yielded much more useful information than extensive online research. The result is shown in the pictures below. Each cannon has foundry markings. Acton’s were marked RPP (evidently the initials of Robert Parker Parrott, 1804-1877, whose gun designs were commonly used during the Civil War). They were 30-pounder guns, one produced in 1863 and the other in 1864. One question answered - they are Civil War guns.
... or ask someone who knows
At this point, all of the online and written sources we could think of had been exhausted. But then a simple question to a Board member confirmed that the cannons on the Common were, in fact, Civil War cannons that are officially on loan to the town from the Department of Defense. Solving the mystery of the cannons would have been made considerably easier simply by asking the right person in the first place!
And what about the World War I field piece that started this research project? After all of the contention, the field piece mentioned in the 1936 articles and Town Report is not on the Common, nor is it next to the WW I Memorial by Town Hall. Possibly it eventually went to the American Legion when the organization had a Hall on Prospect Street. If anyone knows where it is, please contact us! We haven’t yet found a record of it.
The beginning: Agatha Freeman Royall – What is she doing here?
The Turners - Georgia to Acton with a Few Detours
One of the projects that Society members have been working on is photographing gravestones in Acton’s cemeteries. Usually, the process of identifying people on the gravestones is straightforward, but sometimes information is scarce. In the case of a cube-shaped marker that said on different sides “Davis,” “Baby,” and “Harriet Turner “ and “John Turner,” more information was needed. Researching Estelle (Turner) Davis’s family for connections to Agatha (Freeman) Royall turned up Harriet Turner and an unexpected story.
Harriet M. Turner, like her sister Estelle (Turner) Davis, was born in Columbus, Georgia. Her death record in Acton showed that she had been a singer and had died in 1939 at age 72. Based on a hypothesis that she might have met Agatha Royall through her singing, online newspapers were searched for any mention of her career. A brief notice of Harriet's death in the Acton Concord Enterprise (March 8, 1939, page 5) said that she had entertained at the White House and for royalty in England and Italy. That surprise opened up many research possibilities. Finally, an article in the Washington Times (June 9, 1922, page 6) gave her life story under the headline “Once Famous Singer is Now Jobless Cook.” According to the article, Harriet and her sister Alice came north to New York with little other than their banjos and their voices. Somehow, sending a letter to complete stranger William Randolph Hearst opened doors for them, and before long, they were performing their “Southern” repertoire for wealthy and well-connected people in the United States and abroad. They performed in London at a party of the Queen that led to more Society appearances in England, and they performed at the White House twice. They toured the continent, making four trips to Europe in all. They sang for dukes, at least one ambassador, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt. In Harriet’s words, “People most socially prominent begged us to sing and play for them. American millionaires sought to buy our entertainment, but we insisted upon being the most exclusive, for that, you see, paid best. We went only to the homes of royalty, nobility, or distinction…we sang and played our merry way along, and we saved never a penny.”
Then Harriet evidently became ill, and bills piled up. Her hair turned white, and she was no longer an in-demand, young, Southern woman with a sweet voice and a banjo. Life went downhill. A 1919 Boston Post article (August 8, page 11) revealed that “Miss Harriet Turner... an accomplished musician and vocalist – having entertained Presidents of the United States and Kings and Queens of several European countries – was found sitting in a dazed condition, her clothing drenched with rain, under a tree on the grounds of Boston College…” She was apparently incoherent, suffering from “aphasia.” By the time of the 1922 Washington Times article, she had recovered enough to be working as a cook, though no job seems to have lasted long; the latest mentioned was at the Fort Pond Inn in Ayer (research indicates it may actually have been in Lancaster), working for a woman who had once been her servant.
Meanwhile, according to the 1922 article whose source seems to have been Harriet, her sister “Alice” married, “but the man she loved had little money.” Researching Alice Turner yielded no results until an article in the October 15, 1916 Boston Sunday Globe (page 48) revealed that Harriet’s elusive singing partner Alice was actually her sister Estelle Bushnell Turner. The two sisters had evidently been in the North for 12 years, mostly based in Boston, entertaining notable people with songs taken from the South. Estelle was about to marry; the relatively money-less husband that Harriet described was Acton’s own Charles Edmund Davis whom Estelle met in 1915 while trying to buy a summer cottage.
Estelle’s listings in the 1930 and 1940 censuses with her husband and mother-in-law show no occupation and no children. Evidently, her sister Harriet came to live with them during her final years, although she died in a Rest Home in Concord. Estelle T. Davis appeared occasionally in local newspaper articles in connection with land ownership and because of an automobile accident in 1943. Her 1961 obituary makes no mention of her singing career; she was described as the widow of well-known realtor Charles Davis. She had been sick for a long period of time.
None of this story would have come to light if a portrait of a woman with no apparent connection to Acton had not appeared at the Historical Society. We still don’t know how the picture got here, but the chances are that the singing Turners somehow met Agatha (Freeman) Royall in their performing period. Perhaps their songs reminded Mr. Royall of his Georgia roots.