A local newspaper article about South Acton a hundred years ago made us start thinking about what life was like for Acton residents that summer. The article mentioned that a new staircase and walk were being added to the west side of the old Post Office building, giving access to the newly-formed Young Men’s Athletic club rooms. “The walk in the rear will be six feet in width thereby [a]ffording the comforts of a piazza, where the members can sit, enjoy the beauties of nature in Theron park, watch the passing aeroplanes which of late has been of frequent occurrence, and wonder when the road sign is to be placed on the fountain.” (Concord Enterprise, August 31, 1921, p. 1) Curious about long how young athletes would be content to sit contemplating a road sign, we started investigating what people did for recreation in the summer of 1921.
Reading the local newspaper, it would be easy to assume that summer vacations in 1921 were not so different from our own. The Enterprise reported on residents’ comings and goings as they had guests and visited friends and relatives. People vacationed at destinations similar to many visited by Acton residents today. They often headed to the beaches and mountains of New England, but some set out for places farther afield. Though not noted in the newspaper, much travel would have been done by train.
Automobiles were by now a more common part of life than they had been at the turn of the century, but residents’ car purchases were still reported in the paper. On August 31, for example, it was reported on the front page that Dr. Mayell was driving a Buick touring car, selectman Kingsley had a Ford, and Wesley Flagg and John Mekkelson had sport cars. Residents’ road trips by auto were highlighted in the paper all summer. It is easy to forget how different those trips would have been from our own experiences of the road, but occasionally an item in the newspaper reminds us of how driving has changed.
The June 29 Enterprise reported on John Pederson’s trip to St. Albans in northern Vermont. (p.2, “Some Trip”) He drove continuously except to stop for meals, water, gas and oil. That sounds unexceptional, but it took him 23.5 hours to get there. The article did mention that Vermont’s roads were rough and mountainous in places. (The return trip in his truck loaded with furniture took even longer; hopefully he stopped somewhere for sleep.) John Pederson’s experience puts light on the ambition of Joseph Oliver who was reported in the August 10 paper to be leaving for California in his auto with his camping gear. (p. 1) It was probably helpful that he had previously been working in West Acton as an auto mechanic.
By the early 1920s, autos were evolving. In 1915, Massachusetts had become the first state to mandate lights on automobiles, and federal standards for headlights were introduced in 1921. That summer, the local paper reported on the need for car owners to get their headlamps adjusted by authorized mechanics. (July 27, p. 7) Garages had sprung up in Acton and elsewhere to meet growing demand for service. John McNiff had closed up his blacksmith shop after 30 years of labor; he was reported to be contemplating opening a garage. (May 26, 1920, p. 7) There would have been competition. In the summer of 1921, ads ran in the Enterprise for the South Acton Garage, Fitzgerald’s Garage in West Acton, and the recently opened East Acton repair garage of Benjamin A. Kimball and Orville J. Fuller, the latter having already worked in automobile construction and repair for fifteen years. (June 29, p. 8) John Coughlin advertised that he would provide service “at your own garage”. (July 13, p. 4)
Having a number of repair shops in town was quite useful. Despite improvements in automobiles, the downside of increased driving was dangerous interactions. The August 17 Enterprise reported on two serious accidents at Kelley’s corner the previous Saturday. (p. 1) In the late afternoon, a seven passenger touring car from Missouri struck broadside a Ford coming from Acton “with such force as to hurl it up against the building which stands at the northeast corner.” Fortunately, the occupants survived. Later Saturday evening as Mary McCarthy, Clara Binks, Bertha Gould and Frank Hayward were driving home from Lowell, they were struck by a “big car from Maryland.” Luckily, the damage was more serious to the cars than to the people. The paper called for improvement to the approaches to the busy intersection and for caution on the part of drivers. As one sits in traffic at that intersection of Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue, it is worth remembering to be grateful for stoplights.
Finding Things to Do
Despite the fact that roads had not yet caught up with the needs of automobiles, people in the summer of 1921 were on the go. Lawn parties were very popular, particularly as fundraisers. On the evening of July 21, the Acton Grange held its annual lawn party and dance. As announced on July 13, “The Maynard brass band will furnish a concert in the evening and the Highland Ladies’ orchestra of Somerville will play for the dance. There will be the usual attractions which make these lawn parties popular events of the summer.” (p. 5) The party was indeed a success. With convenient means of traveling, visitors came from Acton’s villages and elsewhere, including quite a few from Maynard. “It is said, that over two hundred automobiles were parked on the sides of Monument square.” (July 27, p. 4)
Another popular diversion was “moving pictures,” regularly advertised in the Enterprise. There were often movies in the Concord State Armory to benefit the Red Cross and at a theater in Maynard, admission 25 cents for adults. Occasionally, a moving picture was shown in West Acton at Odd Fellows Hall.
Acton residents also attended special out-of-town events. In June, several townspeople ventured to Lowell to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that offered “the greatest congress of attractions in history” with hundreds of performers and a huge “wild beast” display. “Not only will you see the artists who occupy the three rings, five stages, the great hippodrome track and the aerial rigging in the tent top, but four spacious steel arenas filled with wild beasts as well.” (June 8, p. 7 and June 29, p. 2) In mid-August, various people from Acton attended the Pilgrim Pageant at Plymouth. The paper proclaimed that “Although pageants have been greatly in vogue for the last 10 years or more, this one entitled 'The Pilgrim Spirit’ and written by Prof. George P. Baker of Harvard university in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth has been pronounced by an eminent professor of pageantry as the greatest performance since the pageants of the ancients.” (Aug. 24, p. 1)
Despite the reporting of some residents’ comings and goings in the newspaper, there were undoubtedly many Acton residents who found their amusement in town. The first challenge for them would have been to beat the heat. Shade was appreciated; Acton benefited from earlier residents’ foresight in lining streets with trees. Ads for electric fans at MacRae’s in Concord appeared in the Enterprise for those whose homes and businesses had been wired for electricity. (Getting electricity was also newsworthy in 1921.) Piazzas seem to have been quite popular. Presumably they offered the chance of catching whatever breeze there may have been and, for those on the more traveled thoroughfares, a chance to see the world go by. With summer came insects, of course, and the newspaper reported that Edward Conant, Harry Tuttle, George Dusseault and the West Acton Baptist parsonage were all adding screening to their piazzas. (July 13, 1921, p. 5; July 20, p. 4)
Some of those out on their piazzas would have been able to watch the President’s cavalry escort from the Plymouth Pageant as they traveled to an overnight campsite in Maynard. Fifty-seven men came through with sixty-seven horses and eighteen mules. (Aug. 10, 1921 p. 1 and 5) While references to the military in the Enterprise were fewer than they had been in previous years, war’s aftermath occasionally was mentioned. In August, Charlotte Conant and Gertrude Daniels organized a clambake and corn roast at the Conant place for twenty ex-servicemen from the Groton hospital. It was followed by an informal dance in the afternoon at the town hall. (Aug. 24, p. 4)
For those actively inclined, summer meant sports. The Acton villages had baseball teams, as in the past. The West Acton team was briefly dubbed the Pirates, but the name does not seem to have stuck. (Aug. 24, p. 8) The newly organized (or perhaps re-organized) Campfire Girls and the Young Men’s Club had a track meet reported June 15. Reverend R. J. May coached the young men, and Mrs. May led the Camp-Fire girls. The paper noted, “It will be unique in having both boys and girls as participants although not competing against each other.” (p. 5) In July, the groups were putting on plays at the Congregational Church. The young men were trying to pay for baseball equipment. The “Nashoba” Camp Fire Girls, meanwhile, “were completing their beaded head-bands and hope to earn their costumes by their entertainment.” (July 13, p. 6)
Golf was taking off as an activity. During the summer of 1921, the Calvin Whitney farm in Maynard was being turned into the Maynard Country Club. By August, its charter members included a number of Acton residents, although applications from some who already had been on the waiting lists of the Framingham and Concord clubs were being held back to give Maynard residents priority. (Aug. 24, p. 1 and Aug. 31, 1921, p. 1)
When it was time to cool off, a popular spot was a swimming hole on Martin Street (near present-day Jones Field) where there were often twenty people swimming at a time. (July 27, p. 4) Apparently, however, there were a few problems with the place as a recreation spot. On August 3, the paper reported:
“CITIZENS IMPROVING BEACH – In response to the call for workers issued last week, a number of citizens met at the swimming pool at the Martin street bridge and proceeded to do what they could to improve the general appearance of the place, both in and out of the water. This spot has long been utilized as a dumping place for all kinds of rubbish, such as tin cans, bottles, lamp shades, bicycle frames in quantity and variety sufficient to stock an old curiosity shop and a generous amount was dragged out of the water and put where it can no longer be a menace to the bathers. ... This bathing place has been a source of much pleasure to many people this season, even though those who lived at some distance from the pool were obliged to return home wearing their wet bathing suits, under raincoats. With the place once put in good condition and a suitable bath house built there, it would be a great public benefit.” (p. 8)
Summertime Wasn’t Always Drowsy
There are always those who push the boundaries to create a little excitement. On July 6, the Acton Center reporter mentioned that “The Fourth was very quietly celebrated except for the ringing of the town hall and church bells from midnight to daybreak, which act of over-celebration should never be permitted in the future. Someone who stopped at the drinking fountain on the common as an act of rowdyism, broke the two water pipes.” (p. 7)
Another item of interest for many would have been hearing amplification for the first time. The August 17 paper reported that the meeting of the Acton Agricultural association (attended by 150 members) was followed by a social hour, “one feature of which was the exhibition of a ‘magno box’ attachment to a victrola, by Robert W. Carter, a member of the association, the effect of which caused the music to be heard with wonderful distinctness in homes over a quarter of a mile away.” (p. 1) The paper did not mention what music Mr. Carter shared with Acton Center, but records advertised for 85 cents in the Enterprise that August were variations of the Fox Trot and songs with catchy titles such as “Anna in Indiana” and “Molly on a Trolley By Golly With You.” (Aug. 24, p. 8)
A different kind of noisy excitement was reported from South Acton on Aug. 17. The milk train was coming toward Martin Street on the Boston and Maine tracks at about 8:40 on a Sunday morning. The engineer, as usual, blew the whistle in warning. However, the valve that controlled the whistle could not turn off the steam, so the train stopped at South Acton with the whistle “shrieking at a terrific rate.” The engine with the disabled valve was backed into a rear yard, still shrieking, and another engine took the milk train to Boston. “During the time of making the shift and for fifty minutes after the fire had been dumped from the engine, the whistle kept up a continuous shriek causing consternation throughout the town. Many persons rushed to the station supposing it to be an alarm of fire or that some serious accident had taken place.” (p. 7)
The most exciting event of the summer, however, seems to have happened in Maynard. On the first page of the August 10 issue of the Enterprise was an article entitled “Knickers Invade Maynard – What Will the Women Spring on Us Next?” Apparently, a woman had the audacity to walk down Main Street dressed in “knickers, just plain pants they looked like, golf stockings, high brown tennis shoes, shirt waist, topped with a bit of rouge on the cheek and hair bobbed.” The result was commotion, men “pop eyed with astonishment,” and all of Main Street agog at the woman who was (supposedly) “as indifferent to the stare of the world as the sunburned one pieced bathing suit extremist. Business was suspended as clerks and staid proprietors made for a glimpse ... At first stunned, curiosity soon let loose a chatter and exchange of opinion as to the new styles.”
In 1921, it was apparently a sight worth sitting on one’s piazza waiting for.
In our collection are two maps of Acton and Boxborough with a red outline around part of Acton, dating back to 1868-1869. At that time, residents of the western part of Acton were proposing to secede and join with Boxborough in creating a new town. Shown with the maps are the two towns’ relative populations, areas, and tax valuations, and how those would change if the proposal passed. The new town would take 26% of Acton’s population, 18% of its area, and 25% of its tax valuation. Previous local historians have puzzled over this village uprising (see references), but recently the Society was fortunate to be given access to a memoir from George C. Wright that discussed the West Acton secession proposal from the perspective of someone involved. Having access to digitized newspapers from the time added other details to the story.
Decisions over the exact route of railroads and the location of depots led to changes in the relative fortunes of many towns and villages in the 1800s. Some boomed while others were passed by. To Boxborough residents in the 1860s, this was an issue of great importance. After failing to get a depot of their own, Boxborough residents generally went to West Acton to send their produce to market or to get to the city themselves. For most of Boxborough’s inhabitants, the nearest store was in West Acton. The central issue from Boxborough’s perspective was that the railroad had changed West Acton’s fortunes for the better. Boxborough residents were helping it to thrive, and they wanted some of the tax benefits. Underlying some of the agitation was probably the fact that businessmen with Boxborough roots had moved to West Acton, prospered, and contributed to the growth of their adopted village.
George C. Wright wrote that about the time that the railroad came through in the 1840s, there was a small “boom” in West Acton, a place that had previously barely had enough economic activity to be called a village. (p.2) Though South Acton eclipsed it as a center of industry and mercantile activity, West Acton certainly grew as a result of the railroad. While presumably Boxborough’s farmers profited personally from having a railroad nearby to take their goods to wider markets, one can understand that they wanted the benefits for their town that they saw accruing to their neighbors each time they headed east on the turnpike.
The actors in the secession drama seem to vary depending upon who was telling the story. The petition to the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of Massachusetts, published by the town of Littleton, stated that the 57 signers were a mix of Boxborough and Acton citizens. However, after tracing each signer, we were able to find a Boxborough listing in the 1870 census or other evidence of Boxborough residence for 50 of them (plus another whose name was probably misspelled). Two signers had lived in both Boxborough and Acton, and four signers’ residence eluded us. Absent from the petition are the names of the quite well-known businessmen of West Acton with roots in Boxborough, among them West Acton Meads and Blanchards, and George C. Wright (who spent his teenage years in Boxborough). According to Phalen’s History of the Town of Acton, the petition’s supporters were the majority of the people of Boxborough and “the disgruntled minority” of Acton citizens who were trying to create a town “cut to their own pattern” that, by weight of numbers, they would be able to dominate. Phalen said, “The coterie in West Acton that started the scheme was motivated by no altruistic notions with respect to the established families of old Boxborough.... Very shortly the rural community would have found itself perpetually out-voted and more or less ignored except as an expansion area for its vigorous and ambitious new bedfellow.” (p. 203-204)
Based on the published list of petitioners and Phalen’s history, we might have thought that the proposed new town was really a “Boxborough issue” with the support of a few West Acton outsiders. However, George C. Wright’s version of events contradicts that conclusion.
George C. Wright and West Acton’s Boxborough natives were extremely generous to West Acton and did much for its development. (See our blog post on George C. Wright.) Over the long haul, they did not come across as the disgruntled “coterie” that Phalen described. Nonetheless, apparently George C. Wright not only approved, but was a leader of the secession effort. He wrote that the proposal was backed by “a large majority of the citizens of West Acton,” including native Boxborough businessmen, and that “I was heartily in favor of the project and was chairman of the committee to secure the necessary action by the legislature. I did everything I could to carry the measure through, sparing neither time or money...” (p. 6)
Town meeting records from Acton show that the proposed secession of West Acton had been discussed at the November 3, 1868 town meeting. The citizens of Acton as a whole disapproved. The vote was 204 to 45 in favor of a resolution that included the following statements:
The town then chose a Committee of seven “to save the town from prospective trouble and ruin.” They were authorized to hire counsel at the expense of the town of Acton. The chosen committee members were Luther Conant, William W. Davis, John Fletcher Jr., George Gardner, Aaron C. Handley, William D. Tuttle, and Daniel Wetherbee.
Apparently undeterred by opposition from the rest of the town of Acton, the proponents of the proposal moved forward. Both sides hired lawyers. On January 18, 1869, the petition to create a new town (officially known as the petition from “H. E. Felch and others” ) was referred from the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate to the (joint) Committee on Towns. (The Committee was surprisingly busy with other proposals as well; disagreements over territory were not unique to Boxborough and Acton. In fact, Boxborough and Littleton had their own disagreement before the Committee in 1868 and 1869, illustrated by the green-shaded properties on our maps.)
The Acton committee against the proposal apparently got busy gathering signatures. Between January 27 and Feb. 2, “remonstrances” were presented by lawyers and referred to the Committee on Towns. The remonstrances were labelled with the name of the first signer “and others”, so we know that five anti-secession remonstrances were filed from Acton with the first signers being W. E. Faulkner, Daniel Wetherbee, Luther Conant, Lewis F. Ball, and George Gardner. (The latter was ”George Gardner and 18 others of West Acton” according to the Boston Herald, Feb. 3, p. 1.) On Feb. 2, there was also a remonstrance from Simeon Wetherbee and 22 others of Boxborough. According to the final report of the Committee on Towns (in our archives), the total number of remonstrants was 313.
Those in favor of the petition also obtained more signatures. On Feb. 8, the Journal of the House shows that “Mr. Fay of Concord presented the petition of Wm. Reed and others of Acton and Boxborough, in aid of the petition of H. E. Felch and others.” (p. 103) Non-resident owners of real estate in Boxborough signed a petition in favor of the new town that was presented on Feb. 10 (“Henry Fowler and Others”). The total number in favor mentioned in the final report of the Committee on Towns was “about one hundred and forty or fifty petitioners.” (p. 2) The number is surprisingly vague, given the fact that the opposition signatures were counted exactly. Signing was obviously not considered enough; many supporters and opponents attended the hearings. The Springfield Republican reported that at some point during the proceedings, the Blue Room “was crowded almost to suffocation by Acton and Boxboro people.” (Feb.20, 1869, p. 2)
In this midst of the petitioning and remonstrating, a call apparently went out for funding and naming the new town. A correspondent signing as “Maxwell” wrote to the Lowell Courier (Jan. 13, 1869, p. 2):
When the petition is granted and the new town is born, it is reported, should some gentleman wish to have the town named for him, his wish can and will be granted should his name be acceptable to the people and his bequest or donation, to the town, be a million or some considerably less. We learn that a gentleman residing not far from Shirley and Groton Junction stands ready to give his hundreds, if not thousands, to have the town take his name.
Clearly there were rumors about the possible naming of the new town. Local historians have tried to determine what the name might have been. Phalen stated that no records mentioned a new name, although he had heard a “legend” the name would have been Bromfield. (p. 203-4) Local historians in the 1990s-2010 era accessed the memory of a couple of descendants of long-time local families who thought that the name was to have been Blanchardville. Given later Blanchards’ generosity to both towns, this was a plausible name. However, with the advantage of access to digitized newspapers of the 1860s, we investigated what was said in the 1868-69 period. We did not find contemporary mentions of Blanchardville (except for a village of that name in Hampden County, MA), but we did find in the Boston Traveler of Feb. 13, 1869 (p. 4) a report on the Boxboro’ and West Acton case that mentioned “the proposed new town of Bromfield.” The Springfield Republican (Feb. 20, p. 2) confirmed that the name was “Bromfield.” The Lowell Courier of Feb. 26 (p. 3) reported on the “very lively and interesting” set of hearings held on the new town of “Bramfield.” It also stated that the petitioners from Boxborough suggested that “such annexation would increase the value of their real estate by giving them a local habitation and a name, particularly the latter.” The implication seems to be that there was money to be gained from the new name, but whether there was actually a Mr. Bromfield (or Bramfield) “ready to give his hundreds, if not thousands,” we have not discovered.
Newspapers were also helpful in describing the progress of the proposal. The Boston Journal reported that the Committee on Towns took up the petition on Monday Feb. 1, 1869 and planned to visit the towns in question the following Friday. Boxborough was nearly unanimously in support of the proposal while 4/5 of West Acton supported it. (Feb. 2, p. 2) The Lowell Courier, seemingly with an opinion on the matter, reported that “Nearly all the people of both places are in favor of the union. Some opposition will be made by the town of Acton, which, however, will have left in case of division a territory larger than that of the new town, and nearly double the number of inhabitants.” (Feb. 3, 1869, p. 2)
On Tuesday Feb. 9, the Committee on Towns held an early hearing on the matter. “Nearly all the legal voters of Boxboro were present, quite depopulating the town.” (Boston Herald, Feb. 9, p. 4) The arguments centered on the growth of West Acton since the building of the Fitchburg railroad and that “many of the people of Boxboro had removed thence to get the advantages of the railroad, and all of their business and other interests centered about that locality. The opposition to the project comes from the town of Acton, the people of West Acton and of Boxboro being united in favor of it.” (Boston Herald, Feb. 9, p. 4)
On Feb. 10, the Boston Post (p. 3) reported that the hearing continued, but the Post’s only other comment was that “Several witnesses were called. Their testimony is not of general interest.” Fortunately, The Lowell Courier (Feb. 26, p. 3) filled in more of the arguments. In addition to Boxborough’s assertions, West Acton petitioners claimed that the new town would benefit them economically. (Their plan seems to have been that the town hall and business of the new town would be located in West Acton.) Notably, there was no claim that the town of Acton had treated them badly in the past. On the other side, the anti-petitioners from Boxborough wanted to leave their town as it was, quiet and peaceable. They feared that any benefits of the arrangement would go to West Acton, which would dominate them numerically. Acton’s opposition included “all but three of the legal voters outside of the territory proposed to be set off, with nineteen living on the territory”. Among their objections, the Courier noted that the section to be taken from Acton included some of the town’s best farming land. The result would be an awkwardly-shaped, narrow town with, they feared, decreased property values, increased taxes, and impairment to their schools. “Why, they ask, should they be impoverished that others may be enriched?” Other arguments listed in the final report of the Committee on Towns were the fact that Acton had just recently built “a large and commodious town hall,” that they had paid to build and repair roads that would now be part of another town, that having a smaller population would defer for even longer the hope of a high school in the town, and that this could set a precedent for South Acton that might seek its own alliance with the thriving village of Assabet. (p. 3)
George C. Wright’s memoir added:
[A] strong opposer was the late Dea. Silas Hosmer, one of our own citizens. Dea. Hosmer went before the Committee on towns with a carefully prepared paper opposing the proposed dismemberment of the town of Acton, and the point which seemed to carry the most weight with the committee was his statement that every patriot, whose bones are in the Davis monument, was born in the part of Acton which it was proposed to set off for a new town, and two of the three men went from homes in West Acton to die for their country on April 19, 1775, so that, if the proposed measure should be carried through, there would appear an anomalous state of things, namely, the situation of an imposing monument in one town in honor of men belonging to another town. (p.6)
The legislators no doubt would have been reminded that much of the monument’s cost had been funded by the Commonwealth.
George C. Wright also mentioned that “Among the influences which worked against us, one was found in George Parker, Esq., a member of the legislature, who was a native of Acton and a son-in-law of Rev. J. T. Woodbury. Mr. Parker’s opposition was very earnest and effective.” (p. 6) Rev. Woodbury had been the driving force behind getting the grant for the monument. (Research indicates that George Gedney Parker, born in Acton to Asa and Ann M. Parker, married Augusta Woodbury. In 1869, he was a lawyer in Milford, MA. He had not yet been elected to the legislature, but another of Rev. Woodbury’s Milford lawyer sons-in-law, Thomas G. Kent, was actually part of the Committee on Towns.)
The closing arguments to the petition debate were made to the Committee on Towns on the morning of February 13. Lawyers for the opposition, Hon. David H. Mason of Newton and Samuel W. Butler, Esq. made the arguments, including an apparently eloquent recap of Silas Hosmer’s objections. Also mentioned was the “fact that the village of West Acton, by its numerical superiority, would control the proposed new town of Bromfield, and that not the slightest necessity was shown for the change, or for breaking across old town lines.” (Boston Traveler, Feb. 13, p. 4) Lawyers for the petitioners, George M. Brooks and George Heywood of Concord, spent 1-2 hours making their case that Boxborough needed help to stop its decline, that Boxborough and West Acton would benefit from the plan, and that the evidence for making a change “came from the best men in West Acton and in Boxboro’.” (Boston Traveler, Feb. 13, p. 4)
The next week, the Committee on Towns held a private meeting. The result was its report of February 18, 1869 in which “with all but entire unanimity” the Committee found that though the town of Boxborough was indeed too small, if the petition were granted, both the new town and Acton would be too small. The committee was unconvinced that the new town would grow, having “no water power and no manufacturing interest well established.” (p. 4) They foresaw future political problems with a town “center” situated so far from the western boundary of the new town. Overall, the petitioners had not proved that the formation of a new town was best for the “public good.” In fact, they added:
...rather than cripple Acton in her enterprise or encroach upon her historic limits for the benefit of [Boxborough], as her inhabitants have no desire to retain their name and distinct organization, it will be an easy task to so apportion her territory to other towns as to benefit all and injure none; but with this matter the Committee are not asked and do not desire to interfere. (p. 4-5)
Boxborough’s willingness to give up its identity ended up working against the proposal. It is very likely that many residents of Boxborough over the years have looked back on the decision as a fortuitous one for their town in the long run. Boxborough has maintained its identity and grown its own way. Proponent George C. Wright, looking back in his later years, had this to say from the perspective of his decades in West Acton:
The result was we were defeated, and as time has passed, I have come to feel that it is just as well our measure failed to be a success. In these last years, the town of Acton has done everything for us as a village that we could reasonably ask to have done.
References (in addition to newspaper articles cited in the text):
In the years before Acton had a high school of its own, students wanting to further their education needed to take opportunities where they could be found. In Acton’s early days, young men were usually the ones to seek education beyond the schoolhouse; they might be given advanced training or prepared for college by a learned individual, often the town’s minister. In the 1800s, more opportunities arose for young men and young women; some might board at private academies or, as time went on, commute to a nearby high school.
In the early 1850s, Acton’s advanced students had the option of studying for short periods at a privately-run advanced school. Our Society’s collection includes a program for an exhibition of F. W. Pelton’s High School in the center district of Acton, starting at 6 p.m. on November 19, 1852. It must have been a long evening; there were twenty-seven items on the agenda, including two dramatic pieces.
As evidence of what was going on in the minds of young Actonians in 1852, the “programme” is a revealing document. Even in a small town, there was obvious interest in the issues affecting the country as a whole. Abolition was the foremost theme of the evening. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though now criticized because of its racial stereotypes, was hugely influential in raising awareness of the evils of slavery. It had been serialized starting in June 1851 but had only been out in book form since March 1852. An early performance in Acton, featuring over 30 performers, would have been a notable event. The song “Little Eva” that followed the performance was based on the book and had recently been published in Boston. Other items on the program that involved the issue of slavery were “declamations” on Anson Burlingame’s opposition to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Grimke’s “Bible”, presumably Angelina Grimke’s “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836), and Henry Clay’s attempts to save “The Union” without war.
Other declamations had as their subjects Daniel Webster’s writings on Washington and on “The Present Age,” Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian leader whose words had managed to catch the popular imagination in the United States, Napoleon, and the Whig Party (written by the schoolmaster himself). We were not able to identify all of the items performed. Ames’ “Character” may have referred to one of Fisher Ames’ writings, but there is not enough information to be sure. Stuart’s “Birthplace of Liberty” and Snowball’s philosophy were similarly hard to pin down. In online searching, some of the titles are now overshadowed by later writings and events. A search for Snowball’s “Philosophy” led to many references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Searching for “A Nation Mourns” brought up references to Lincoln’s assassination, and “Modern Humbugs” yielded P. T. Barnum’s book The Humbugs of the World, both dating from the 1860s. (“Modern Humbugs” by Florentinus may have been a tongue-in-cheek piece written by the schoolmaster; see the section on him below.)
Drama, songs, and poetry were easier to find. “The Tongue Bridle” was a dramatic piece for “four older girls” published in Boston in 1851. Thanks to the Library of Congress’ Music Division, we were able to find the 1849 Ossian’s Serenade, the 1851 Oh, Must We Part to Meet No More?, and The Green Mt. Yankee, a Temperance Medley, published in Boston in 1852. Once we had navigated past references to Led Zepplin songs, we were able to find an 1848 song by I. B. Woodbury that set Tennyson’s poem "The May Queen" to music. Henry Theodore Tuckerman’s “Love and Fame,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 “Excelsior,” and Henry Ware, Jr.’s “To the Ursa Major” can all be found in online poetry collections.
The only item with a strictly Acton theme was Pierpont’s poem “Acton Monument.” One wonders if the entire poem describing the events of April 18-19, 1775 was recited; even at its debut, the audience became impatient with its length. Rev. John Pierpont of Medford presented the poem at the celebration of the completion of Acton’s Monument in 1851. The reverend had the misfortune that day of being slated to recite after an hour-long address by Governor George S. Boutwell and just before the meal was served. Hungry attendees started eating during his recital of the poem, and the clatter of utensils clashed with the sound of the reverend’s voice. Apparently, he got quite upset. Acton’s Rev. Woodbury, who could have tried to quiet the crowd, instead said a quick grace and let the dinner officially begin. Boutwell’s Reminiscences quote Woodbury as telling the poet, “They listened very well, ‘till you got to Greece. They didn’t care anything about Greece.” (page 130) By that point in the day’s speeches, the audience might have been losing enthusiasm for Acton as well. Later, obviously having calmed down, Rev. Pierpont commented on the situation that
“Poets at dinners must learn to be brief, Or their tongues will be beaten by cold tongue of beef.” [Boston Evening Transcript, Oct. 30, 1851, p.1)
The audience at Pelton’s High School Exhibition had to have been tired by the end of the evening. After speeches, songs, poetry, and drama, Arthur Cowdrey capped off the event with a declamation in Latin from Virgil. Presumably this was to wow the audience. (Clearly, Mr. Pelton was able to teach his students a range of subjects.) Miss A. B. Fletcher performed her fourth musical number, and the evening was finished.
Acton’s Private High Schools
We had thought that perhaps F. W. Pelton’s high school was unique to him. However, a speech by one of his former students explained that Acton’s private high school, at least for a time, was an annual occurrence taken on by a college student during a break from his studies. It allowed a college student to earn funds and benefited the townspeople by supplementing their publicly-funded education. Eben H. Davis told Acton’s high school graduates in 1895 that:
“When I was a boy, the only high school in the town was a private enterprise, held but a few weeks in the fall, in the centre of the town, and kept by some college student to eke out his college expenses. There was no orderly course of studies, but each student selected such branches as his fancy dictated or friends advised, for which he paid his own tuition. In this way it was possible to obtain a smattering of Latin or Greek, an introduction to the elements of science, and some knowledge of mathematics. But, in order to fit for college, I had to attend an academy, one hundred and fifty miles from home. ... I would by no means speak lightly of the schools of my boyhood days... Nor were those brief terms of high school studies without influence. They opened up to us new lines of thought, and the personality of the teachers, fresh from college and imbued with zeal for a higher education, made a strong impress. It was through contact with such influences that I was inspired with an ambition to go to college.” (Town Report 1896, p. 83-84)
Contrary to what we had expected, this high school was not simply for older students who had progressed beyond the curriculum of Acton’s schoolhouses. Some of the students were fairly young. From reading school committee reports of the time, we discovered that the public schools in the early 1850s had a summer term and a winter term; the private school in autumn obviously filled a gap, not just of higher learning, but in a time of the year when scholars would not have been able to continue their studies.
We have not yet found all of the college students who led a private autumn high school in Acton, but we did find mention of a Mr. Cutler who seems to have run a popular private school in the fall of 1848. The school committee report of 1848-1849 alludes to the difficulties of a Winter Term teacher, Dartmouth College graduate Mr. Whittier, who had come with great recommendations. “Mr. Whittier, in assuming the duties of his school, was somewhat in the position of the poor king who followed the people’s favorite, when nature’s poet said, ‘As when a well graced actor leaves the stage, All eyes are idly bent on him that enters next.’ Mr. Cutler in his select school had won all hearts, both of parents and children, and they thought his like would never appear again. This feeling among the leading scholars was a great injury to the school, which ought to have been one of the best.” We will set aside research into Mr. Cutler’s identity for another day. If anyone knows more about him or other Acton private school teachers, please let us know.
The 1852 Schoolmaster, F. W. Pelton
We know very little about F. W. Pelton’s brief time in Acton. We were able to identify him because the 1853 school committee report mentioned hiring F. W. Pelton “of Union College” to teach the Centre School in the winter term 1853 after he had run a private school in Acton Center in the fall of 1852. The mention of Union College allowed us to confirm that he was Florentine Whitfield Pelton, born in Somers, CT on April 23,1828 to Asa and Lois Pelton. According to Jeremiah M. Pelton’s Genealogy of the Pelton Family in America (page 477-478), Florentine Pelton left home at a young age, supposedly taught in New Jersey, and furthered his studies at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, MA and Union College.
The year in which F. W. Pelton taught in Acton was an unusual one. At town meeting the previous April, Acton had elected a School Committee of three clergymen. All three had left town by the end of the year. (One was Rev. J. T. Woodbury, discussed in a previous blog post.) Ebenezer Davis and Herman H. Bowers wrote the subsequent School Committee report. Two of Ebenezer Davis’ children had attended Pelton’s fall High School.
F. W. Pelton’s winter term at the public school seems to have been much less successful than his private school experience. (School committees in the nineteenth century could be merciless in their reports, and teachers had no ability to present their viewpoint.) It is likely that having 52 students of varying ages, with an average attendance of 44, was a contributing factor, as well as the fact that the curriculum would not have been driven by students’ interests as it was in the private school.
Pelton may already have been in career transition during his Acton period. He soon made the law his career, studying with C. R. Train and at Harvard Law. He was admitted to the Middlesex County bar in 1855, and practiced first in Marlborough and then in Boston. He married twice, first to Laura M. Buck, a graduate of the State Normal School at Framingham, MA, on Dec. 18, 1855. The couple had two children before Laura died from complications of childbirth in 1860 in Newton where they were living at the time. Pelton married Mary Reed Whitney in Waltham, MA on Nov. 20, 1862, and the couple had eight more children. In addition to practicing law, Pelton dealt in real estate and was responsible for the construction of a number of houses in Dorchester, MA. Toward the end of his life, he retired from the law, focusing on various business ventures. He settled in Dedham, MA where he died of “chronic peritonitis,” probably a complication of his diabetes, on June 25, 1885 in Dedham.
We found no reference to Florentine W. Pelton’s time in Acton in newspapers, family histories, or obituaries. However, his experience there may have led to this thought from the report of the Newton Grammar School Sub-Committee, of which F. W. Pelton was a member in the 1860s: ”If the varied, difficult and exhausting work of the school-room could be understood at home, there would be more sympathy and less fault-finding with the teacher.” (Annual Report, Mass. Board of Education, Vol. 27, 1864, p. 92) Indeed.
The Exhibition Participants
There are many names on Pelton’s 1852 Programme, but there were only a few that we could not track down. Perhaps those students were not residents of Acton; the school committee report of 1853 mentioned that some private school scholars in the past had come from out of town. (p. 5) In the rest of the cases, we found individuals who would have been between twelve and eighteen in the fall of 1852. Among the sources we used were school committee reports; it is not surprising to find that young scholars who were enrolled in an extra school in the fall of 1852 were also commended for excellent attendance at the public schools.
As best we can reconstruct it, the following is our list of Pelton’s high school exhibition participants:
In August 1920, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in the United States. Looking back from today’s perspective, one would expect the event to have been celebrated in the local paper, the Concord Enterprise, with a front page announcement and large headlines.* In fact, the reporting was subtle enough that it was not clear from the paper when the key event actually took place. The September 1 Enterprise did present a table on page six that broke down the states’ votes, classifying them by political party. Among the twenty-eight “Republican” states that had ratified the amendment were Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The “Democratic” ratifying states were Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and finally Tennessee. Connecticut, Vermont, Florida and North Carolina had not yet made a decision, and seven states had rejected the amendment. (The Enterprise missed Oregon in its listing, so the totals did not actually add up to the necessary 36 states for ratification.)
It had been a long, difficult slog to get the vote. Women had to overcome a widespread belief that they were incapable of understanding important issues and of thinking for themselves. They also had to deal with opposition to the idea of women venturing out of their allotted “sphere.” Two examples from previous years’ Enterprise columns illustrate what women were up against.
During the 1895 Massachusetts campaign to allow women to vote in local elections, a letter appeared in opposition that stated that “... women, by the very nature of their being, their social and domestic duties, do not and cannot have a practical knowledge of the wants or needs of a large town or city. ... their political action will be governed by their prejudices...” (Oct. 24, 1895, p. 4) This opinion elicited a rebuttal that said in part “It is surprising that in this age of advancement and higher education of women, a man of average intelligence can be found bold enough to affix his signature to an article so foreign to reason and justice.” (Oct. 31, 1895, p. 4) The South Acton writer of the rebuttal clearly overestimated the open-mindedness of the time. Twenty years later, the Enterprise said in a supposedly fair-minded editorial: “There are a great many deep thinking, intelligent men who honestly oppose suffrage for they believe the success of the movement in this state would project women into a sphere for the activities of which they are totally unfitted. They believe that the ideal balance maintained in the home would be destroyed and that no great good could be obtained through doubling the voting strength of the state.” (Oct. 27, 1915, p. 2)
World War 1 changed some attitudes. Among the many ways in which women contributed during the war, women (including Acton’s Lillian Frost) went overseas to work as nurses, ambulance drivers, telephone operators, and in other support roles. The June 18, 1919 Enterprise mentioned that at least 184 nurses had died as a result. (p. 6) One week later, Massachusetts became the eighth state to ratify the nineteenth amendment. No large headlines celebrated that event. However, on July 2, 1919, the Enterprise editorialized that “with the advent of equal suffrage there will be a betterment of living conditions, greater equality, and protection of the rising generations. There will be a cleaning-up of many filthy places, and a wiping out of the sore-spots that have disgraced the nation.” (p. 2) Clearly, when the women were finally able to vote in 1920, they had many expectations to deal with, some negative and others dauntingly optimistic.
Once women’s suffrage looked poised to win, the Enterprise reported on efforts to ensure the success of women’s voting. A critical piece was getting women to register to vote. Because women could already vote for their school committee in Massachusetts, they could be enrolled as voters in advance of ratification. (For more information about female school committee voting, see our blog post.) When aspiring voters met with the board of registrars in their voting district, they had to show that they were citizens, at least 21, and able to read and write English and that they had lived at least one year in Massachusetts and six months in their voting district. They were also expected to answer questions about parentage and nationality and to prove naturalization if necessary. (Aug. 18, p. 4) The first election in which they could fully participate was a primary in September 1920. As pointed out in the Maynard column of the August 11 Enterprise, “With no district contests among the Democrats there is very little interest shown.” The Maynard Republican Women’s committee, on the other hand, announced a number of reasons for registering, including participating in a great historical event, honoring the 70 years in which “some of the ablest women of America gave their lives to the winning of this right for women”, and helping to “elect men who will look out for the children’s welfare” and “secure good working conditions for you.” (Electing women was obviously an issue for another day.) If those weren’t good enough reasons, women should register because they didn’t “want it said that the women of Massachusetts were behind the women of other States in meeting the responsibilities of citizenship.” (Aug. 11, p. 1)
In Acton, registration was a success. On Sept. 8, the Enterprise reported that in South Acton, forty-nine women (and nine men) registered (p. 1), while in West Acton, “At the meeting of the board of registrars Thursday night, the number broke all records, when 80 women were recorded and 14 men were added to the list.” (p. 5) Acton Centre reported “quite a number” had registered for the primary and more were expected for the November election. (Sept. 22, p. 5)
Though fanfare about the first election was fairly minimal in the paper, the West Acton reporter noted on September 15, “The women of Precinct 3 are to be congratulated on their good work at the primaries last week, when they cast their first votes. Mrs. Albert R. Beach cast the first ladies’ vote here.” (p. 6)
Getting women onto the voter rolls was not enough. Women had to overcome people’s lack of faith in their abilities, judgment, and knowledge. One way to combat low expectations was through education. In Maynard, the Women’s Club sponsored a series of ten classes on government and the duties of citizenship. (Sept.8, p. 4) In Acton, there was so much concern about women’s ability to handle the physical act of voting that lectures were held to help: “A citizens’ meeting will be held in the vestry of the Universalist church on Thursday evening, Oct. 21, at 7:30 o’clock under the auspices of the Republican town committee. Miss Grace Carruth of Boston has been engaged speaker and will address the meeting upon the subject ‘How to Mark the Ballot’ and will be prepared to answer any other questions of present political interest. Similar meetings will be held during the afternoon of the same day at Acton and West Acton. All persons interested are invited to attend.” (Oct. 20, 1920, p. 1) The Acton Woman’s Club, a little behind, scheduled a speaker on Nov. 22 to help its members “in the study of simple non-partisan citizenship.” (Nov. 10, p. 8)
Election day came on November 2. The first women voters in South Acton that day were Grace and Lyde Fletcher who had come back from Watertown the previous evening to be able to cast their ballots. (Nov. 11, p. 8) Another female voter in South Acton was Mary H. Lothrop who, with her husband Frank on the way to Florida, “took advantage of the privilege of absent voters and sent their depositions by mail.” (Nov. 10, p. 1) The vote was especially memorable for South Acton’s Carrie Franklin. Of obvious importance, she was able to participate in a historic moment, voting with her husband William in a national election. The surprise was that during the 45 minutes it took to cast their ballots and return, their home was burgled. Money and Mrs. Franklin’s jewelry were stolen. The perpetrators had apparently watched them leave the house. It turned out to be three boys from Maynard, later found by the railroad tracks with Mrs. Franklin’s watch.
Overall, when the Enterprise reported on the election of 1920, it had to note that the women of Acton had managed to vote without disaster. In South Acton, “Out of a total of 313 registered votes, 278 votes were cast, or about 89 per cent, which is probably the largest proportionate votes ever cast here. The counting was completed and returns complete at 6:30 p. m. The women manifested great interest and marked their ballots with ease and rapidity.” (Nov. 3, p. 4) In West Acton, the report was, “No Ballots Thrown Out – With 347 voters in Precinct 3 there were 322 votes cast on election day. Not one ballot was marked wrong which is a fine showing with so many new voters and a great credit to the ladies.” (Nov. 10, 1920, p. 2)
The landslide victory of Harding and Coolidge over Democrats Cox and Roosevelt rated huge front-page headlines from the Enterprise on November 3, 1920. In the following weeks, the paper mentioned more civics lectures sponsored by women’s clubs and organizational details about the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Auxiliary of the Foreign Legion. In Maynard, there was talk of running a woman for the school board and forming a Parent-Teachers’ association. There was obviously plenty of work needed to achieve the goals of improving living conditions, fostering equality, and protecting children; they would not happen magically because women could vote.
When the Nineteenth Amendment officially became law on August 26, 1920, it was a milestone that was achieved after decades of struggle. Its importance should not be underestimated. At the same time, it has to be recognized that suffrage was not universal, given restrictions on who was considered a citizen and who was allowed to be registered to vote. The work did not end that day.
*All newspaper references here are to issues of the Concord Enterprise that at the time covered Concord, Concord Junction, the four Acton villages, Maynard, Sudbury and sometimes Bedford and Marlborough. Sometimes a seemingly identical paper was published as the Acton Enterprise.
Gaining an understanding of a town’s history is complicated by the fact that some residents’ stories are much less accessible than others. Standard town histories from the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to focus on a small group of socially prominent citizens. People of color were seldom mentioned. Anyone trying to learn about the early black residents of Acton has had very little material to work with. Records are sparse, and there are sometimes conflicts among the pieces of information that we do have. To better understand early Acton’s racial diversity, we set out to find all mentions of black and mixed-race residents (slave or free) in Acton’s early records. To do that, we used eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents that sometimes refer to racial diversity with terms that we would not use today. When quoted here, it is only to give accurate historical evidence about a person’s racial background. There is much work left to do, but in collaboration with the Robbins House in Concord, we offer what we have learned so far.
We will start in 1735 when Acton was set off as a town from Concord. We are hampered by lack of census records in the early days but will continue to look for more information. We do have a definitive record that slavery existed in Acton after it became a town. The 1754 Massachusetts slave census completed by the Selectmen stated that there was “but one male Negro slave Sixteen years old in Acton and No females.” (The inventory asked for the number of slaves over the age of sixteen; the wording presumably meant that the male mentioned was in that category, rather than being exactly sixteen years old.) We have no way of knowing if there were any younger slaves. Unfortunately, the inventory did not list either the name of the slave or the slave owner. As a result, we have no idea whether he was eventually freed and whether he stayed in town or moved on to another location.
Acton apparently also had free black and/or mixed-race residents during its earliest years. We are still trying to document their stories. In South Acton by 1731, there was a William Cutting who, according to a story in a published journal of Rev. William Bentley, (volume 2, page 148) was himself or descended from a “Mulatto” slave who “upon the death of his master, accepted some wild land, which he cultivated & upon which his descendants live in independence.” (This story is still being researched; our various efforts to confirm those details have not yet been successful. A 1731 deed from Elnathan Jones to William Cutting is extremely hard to read, but it mentions a purchase price paid to a living person, rather than a gift or inheritance. Another 1732 deed from Elnathan Jones also seems to be a straight sale. Probate records have not yielded clues, either. A possibility is that the story was about an earlier ancestor in a location other than Acton.)
An Acton’s Selectmen’s report dated Feb. 2, 1753 mentions a road being laid out, with one of the boundaries being “a Grey oke on Ceser Freemans Land.” Both Cesar and Freeman were names associated with free African Americans of the period. Cesar Freeman’s story is unknown at this point, so we do not know if other Freemans in town records are his relatives.
Harvard University has put online a transcribed and indexed version of the Massachusetts Tax Inventory of 1771. This inventory reported the number of each taxpayer’s “servants for life.” According to that database, there were two “servants for life” in Acton, assessed to Amos Prescott and Simon Tuttle. (For relevant entries click here.) We know nothing about the person assessed to Prescott. However, it appears that Simon Tuttle’s “man” fought in the Revolution. At town meeting on March 4, 1783, the town voted to reimburse Mr. Simon Tuttle for “the Bounty for his negro man which was Twenty four Pounds in March 1777 to be Paid by the Scale of Depreciation.” Simon Tuttle was one of the Acton leaders who was charged with recruiting men to enlist from Acton, and it was common practice for the recruiters to pay bounties for enlistment out of their own pockets on the understanding that they would be reimbursed. (Acton took such a long time about actually paying the men back that the value of currency completely changed and adjustments needed to be made “by the Scale of Depreciation.”) The unique thing about this 1783 entry in town records is that the recruit was described at all, in particular his race and the fact that he was considered Simon Tuttle’s man. We have a clue as to his name; Rev. Woodbury's list of known Revolutionary War soldiers from Acton (compiled in the mid-1800s) included the entry "Titus Hayward, colored man, hired by Simon Tuttle." For more information about this soldier, see our blog post about our research into his identity.
Acton did have a free black population in the years of and following the Revolution. John Oliver, listed in later census records (inconsistently) as a free person of color, enlisted for Revolutionary war service from Acton as early as April 1775. John Oliver lived in North Acton in an area near the town’s borders with Westford and Littleton. We are investigating whether there was a community of black and mixed-race residents in that area. What we know about John’s life in particular was discussed in a previous blog post, and the location of his farm was discussed in another.
Another black Revolutionary War soldier with Acton ties was Caesar Thomson who appeared in Acton’s records after the war. According to an article published by the Historical, Natural History and Library Society of South Natick in 1884 (page 100), Cesar Thompson was a slave of Samuel Welles, Jr., a Boston merchant and the largest landowner in Natick by the time of the Revolution. When Natick needed men to fill its quota of soldiers, Mr. Welles sent Cesar, whose Revolutionary War service was extensive. (See Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Volume 15, pages 631 and 668). After serving for several years, he was “disabled by a rupture” and was actually granted a pension in January 1783. (Pensions were granted to disabled soldiers, though full pension coverage for veterans was far in the future. Unfortunately, the earliest Revolutionary War pension records were lost in a fire.) As stated in the 1884 article, Natick town records contain the following notation:
“Boston, Feb. 18, 1783. This may certify, to all whom it may concern, that I this day, fully and freely give to Caesar Thompson his freedom. Witness my hand, Samuel Welles. A true copy. Attest, Abijah Stratton, Town Clerk.”
After the war, free man Cesar Thompson lived in Acton.
At the April 5, 1783 town meeting, a committee was appointed to figure out seating for the meeting house (a regular occurrence). Seating arrangements were to take into consideration age and property, using the prior two years’ tax valuations. It was voted that the committee was to “Seat the negros in the hind Seats in the Side gallery.” Clearly, despite years of fighting for political freedom and equality of “all people,” Acton was not ready to grant equality to all of its own people. (It should be noted that it was an era in which citizens paid for pews in the meetinghouse, which was not only a church, but the place were town meetings took place. Presumably, pew placement denoted social status.) In an 1835 centennial speech, Josiah Adams recounted a childhood memory that reveals how it must have felt to be one of very few people of color in the town at the time. Young Adams would watch as Quartus Hosmer climbed the stairs to the “hind seat” of the gallery, eagerly waiting for him to reappear with his queue of “graceful curls” held back by an eel-skin ribbon. (Adams, Josiah. An address delivered at Acton, July 21, 1835: being the first centennial anniversary of the organization of the town, Boston: Printed by J. T. Buckingham, 1835, page 6)
It cannot have been comfortable to be a curiosity to young Actonians and to deal with attitudes made obvious by the meeting house seating vote. Nevertheless, some residents of African descent stayed in Acton. John Oliver farmed and raised his family with his wife Abigail Richardson. (Their known children were Abijah, Joel, Fatima and Abigail. We suspect, but have not yet been able to confirm, that there were others.) Cesar Tomson/Thompson was mentioned in town records when, on January 27, 1785, he married Azubah Hendrick (both were of Acton), Azubah was admitted to the church, and their children were baptized (Joseph, Moses and Dorcas). There is no record of what happened to Azubah, but Caesar married Peggy Green in Acton on December 1, 1785. He also appeared in town records on Feb. 23, 1789 when his tax rate was abated.
While researching the Thompson family, we discovered that other Massachusetts towns’ vital records might hold clues about Acton’s black residents. In Natick, we found two birth records (on the page before the 1801 intention of marriage for Dorcas Tomson, then living in that town):
“Moses Hendrick son of Benjamin and Zibiah Hendrick was Born in Acton September 15. 1780
Dorcas Tomson Daughter of Ceasar and Zibiah Tomson was born in Acton April 1. 1784”
In Grafton, we found a marriage intention between Polly Johns and “Moses Hendrick, ‘a native he says of Acton but now resident of Grafton,’ int[ention] Aug. 30, 1817. Colored.” Until we found these two records, we had no idea that a black man named Moses Hendrick had been born in town.
Another discovery was that at town meeting in August 1786, the town discussed suing Peter Oliver and Philip Boston “for Refusing to maintain Lucy Willard Child agreeable to their obligation.” Though both names were associated with free people of color in nearby towns, we have not figured out exactly who these men were or what their connection was to Lucy Willard. On March 19, 1792, the town paid Simon Tuttle Jr. for assistance given to Peter Oliver.
The first full census of the United States came in 1790. Though only the heads of household were named, it gives us a more complete picture of the composition of the households in Acton. The census asked for the numbers of free white males (16 or older and under 16), free white females, slaves, and “all other free persons.” Acton had no slaves in this or later censuses. The census taker seems to have had some issues with accounting for “other free persons,” and the census scan is in places hard to read, but from what we can see, the following households had free persons of color:
The census shows six total free persons of color out of the 853 people in 1790 Acton. The seven people in John Oliver’s household were classified as white (2 males, 5 females), as were the nine members of William Cutting Jr.’s household (3 males, 6 females).
In the beginning of the 1790s, Acton worked to specify those who were not considered legal residents, a step toward defining its responsibility toward the poor. The Revolutionary War had caused economic distress for many people in the new country. There were no safety nets as we understand them today. Then as now, towns were reluctant to tax people for any expenses that could be avoided. Under the system that had been in place since the early days of the colony, towns could avoid responsibility for supporting poor people if they were not considered legal residents of the town. Formally, this meant giving people notice that they had not been granted permission to live in town and that they should leave (and therefore that they had no right to expect help from the town if they stayed). This process was called “warning out.”
From about 1767 to 1789, warning out seemed to be dying out in Massachusetts. However, a law change in 1789 led to a flurry of warnings out in Acton and elsewhere. In the 1790-1791 period, town records show that 23 households were warned out of Acton. Included were a number of Revolutionary War veterans and long-time inhabitants. John Oliver and Cesar Thomson, their wives, and their children were on the list. Both families stayed in town, as most warned-out people probably did in the 1790s. As a practical matter, if those people become indigent, assistance would still have been given them, but the town, relieved of its legal responsibility, could petition the state for reimbursement.
Available in Harvard’s Anitslavery Petitions Massachusetts Dataverse is a July 1, 1796 petition from Jonas Brooks to the Commonwealth to reimburse the inhabitants of Acton for “considerable expense in supporting Caesar Thompson a negro man, together with his wife, three small children” who were “not legally settled in said Town of Acton or in any other town in said Commonwealth that your petitioner can find - That he served as a soldier in the Continental army during the last war...” The town sent a follow-up petition for state reimbursement in 1797. As a former slave, Cesar apparently had no legal claim on Natick (despite filling its quota in the Revolutionary War) or Boston, where he might have lived before serving in the military. After the petitions, we found no more records for Caesar Thompson; whether he died in Acton or moved, we were not able to determine. We do know that his daughter had moved to Natick by 1801.
The 1800 census asked for more information than its predecessor. Only the heads of Acton households were listed, but the ages of white inhabitants were broken out more carefully. Acton’s census return had a column for the number of slaves and one for “All other persons except Indians not taxed.” With entries in that somewhat perplexingly-named column were the households of:
William Cutting Jr.’s household of seven was again listed as white. Also of note in the 1800 census is that many of the warned-out families were still in town.
Acton’s vital records show that in December 1802, Sally Oliver married Jacob Freeman. Their relationship to people of the same surnames in town is unclear (so far). Sadly, Sally and Jacob had only a short marriage marked by tragedy. Their son died on Sept. 3, 1803. Jacob died on July 9, 1804 at age 45. Acton’s death record specifies his race as negro. (In early 1805, Amos Noyes, Joseph Brabrook, and Edward Weatherbee were paid for goods delivered to Jacob, presumably during his sickness.)
1810’s Acton census had a column for “All free other persons, except Indians, not taxed.” Acton households with someone in that category were:
John Oliver’s sons’ 1810 households were classified as white. The household of Abijah Oliver had 1 male 45+, 3 females <10 and 1 female 16-25. Joel Oliver’s household had 1 male <10, 1 male 26-44, 2 females 10-15, and 1 female 26-44. William Cutting Jr. was also classified as white.
During the 1810s, town records show payments for some black residents in need. Between 1813 and 1815, John Oliver was providing help to others, including Abijah Oliver and, when sick, “Abigal” Oliver and Sally (Oliver) Freeman. In 1811-15, John Robbins and David Barnard were reimbursed for boarding “Titus Anthony.” Later records give clues that he may have been black (see below). (Probably relatedly, in March 1810, town meeting records mention a lawsuit by the town of Townsend against Acton “for supporting Hittey Anthony and Child.”) Acton town meeting took up Titus Anthony’s case in September 1811; unfortunately, the discussion was not reported in the extant records. In 1813, David Barnard was paid for providing for the poor and, separately, for “2 payment for the Negro” (name unspecified).
1820’s census yields more information about black town residents. In that year’s report, “Free colored Persons” had four columns each for males and females of differing ages. Households with entries in those columns were:
1820’s total “free colored” population was listed as 17, which does not match the numbers given in the columns, so the accounting is uncertain. John Oliver’s 2-person household was listed as white. Regardless of the counting issues, there was obviously quite a community of people of color in Acton during the 1820s. Most lived in the North and East parts of town. The households of Jonathan Davis and Uriah Foster would have been near today’s Route 27 in North Acton. John Oliver’s sons Abijah and Joel eventually moved closer to East Acton; land records indicate that their father helped with financing.
In 1830, federal census takers were given forms two page-widths across that specified ages and sex of both slaves and free people of color and had a “total” column for each family that should have encouraged accurate record-taking. The only household in which free persons of color were enumerated was John Oliver’s:
John’s son Joel Oliver was listed as white, living with 5 white females. Simon Hosmer’s family no longer was listed with a free person of color. This jibes with the hypothesis that the “Quartus Hosmer” mentioned by Josiah Adams lived in the Jonathan/Simon Hosmer household. In Acton’s vital records, the handwritten register of Acton deaths for 1827 shows:
“June 30 Quartus a Blackman 61”
The Hosmer name was not given in the death record. (This entry was indexed on Ancestry.com as “Quartus Blackman,” but that is clearly an error.) In Acton’s transcribed and published Vital Records to 1850, the listing appeared under “Negroes, Etc.” That entry adds information from church records (“C. R. I.”):
“Quartus, ‘a Black man,’ June 30, 1827, a. 61 [State pauper, a. 64, C. R. I.]
A state pauper meant that the individual had no “settlement” status. (Acton could not send him or her back to another Massachusetts town for financial support, but he/she was not officially accepted as having a claim on Acton either.) By this time, if a person with no official claim on a town was in need based on age, disability, illness or poverty, he/she became, officially, a state pauper, and expenses incurred by the town would be billed to the state. Apparently, former slaves often found themselves in this position (Cesar Thompson, for example), as well as new immigrants from overseas and anyone not connected to a town by family or marriage. Quartus’ status as a state pauper means either that he was free but didn’t start off in Acton or that he had started out a slave. If we are correct that the free person of color in the Hosmer household was this Quartus, he clearly had a long relationship with the family. The available records do not give us much information about what the relationship was, but we have not found evidence that he had been enslaved by Acton Hosmers. This Quartus was too young to have been the over-16-year-old slave in the 1754 census, though slaves younger than sixteen were not reported. The 1771 tax valuation showed no Acton Hosmers with “servants for life.” He could have been freed by then or could have been enslaved elsewhere in his early years and later entered the Hosmer household as a free working person.
The 1840 census showed “free colored persons” in the households of:
The census shows the household of John Oliver, especially noted for being 92 years of age and a military pensioner, as white (1 male under 5, 1 male 5-9, 1 male 90-99, 1 female 5-9, 1 female 40-49). His son Joel Oliver’s household is also listed as white, (2 males, 30-39 and 60-69, and 2 females, 15-19 and 50-59).
During the 1840s, many in Acton were advocating for an end to slavery in general and for improvements in laws affecting the lives of Massachusetts’ black residents. A digitized 1842 petition from Acton to allow white people legally to intermarry with other races was signed by 70 women, including Abigail Chaffin who was most likely Abigail Richardson (Oliver) Chaffin, herself of mixed-race ancestry. (Abijah Oliver’s daughter, she had married Nathan Chaffin, born in Acton to Nathan and Mary Chaffin. After that point, records always seem to have classified her as white.) Abigail Chaffin also signed two other anti-slavery petitions in 1842 ( Petition against admission of Florida as Slave State and Petition to abolish slavery in Washington, DC and territories and to end the slave trade).
Abigail Chaffin was remembered in a Chaffin family history (pages 269-270) as “one of the most remarkable women ever born in Acton, on account of the wonderful sagacity, industry and executive ability, which characterized her through the whole of her life and... together with mental and physical vigor, to a very rare age. ... Even after she was four score and ten she was able to do more for others than she needed to have done for herself.” After the death of her husband in 1878, she moved in with her son Nathan who prospered in the restaurant business in Boston. She lived in Arlington for many years, and she died in Bedford in 1911, after having “passed her last years not only in the possession of the comforts, but of the luxuries of life.”
Back in Acton, the 1850 census, for the first time, listed the names of all residents of the town. A column for race showed the following residents of color:
The race column for all other residents was left blank (including the 7-person household of Joel Oliver, Abijah’s brother). The 1850 real estate valuation for the town shows Ephraim Oliver (son of Joel) with buildings valued $375, plus 40 acres of improved land and 20 acres of unimproved land; he was living with Joel at the time. Abijah Oliver had been farming in East Acton, but obviously he was no longer able to care for himself. It was not particularly unusual for the aged, regardless of race, to need assistance.
Massachusetts took its own census in 1855. We have noticed in the past that the Acton census taker that year was particularly careful in recording full names, and the census taker noted more information about race as well:
We have not yet been able to find out where Titus Anthony Williams came from and how he ended up in Acton’s poor house. The middle name reported in the 1855 census raises the question of whether the “Titus Anthony” who was receiving assistance in the 1810s was actually the same Titus Anthony Williams who spent many years in Acton’s poor house (occupation farmer). If so, he would have been a young child when he first appeared in Acton’s records.
By the mid-1800s, Acton was changing. The arrival of the railroad brought new industry and new people to town, and events in Europe brought new immigrants who would have competed for jobs and land. Most descendants of Acton’s early black residents eventually left Acton to find opportunities elsewhere. Occasionally, they were mentioned in later records. Sickness, disability, loss of a breadwinner, or extreme old age could change economic status. Acton’s town report of 1855-1856 shows payment to the city of Boston for the support of Elizabeth Oliver (probably the recent widow of Abijah Oliver), and to the town of Concord for the burial of two of Peter Robbin’s family, as well as to Daniel Wetherbee of Acton for goods provided to that family. (Peter Robbins had recently died. He was divorced from John Oliver’s daughter Fatima by that time; apparently, his common law wife Almira/Elmira came from Acton, though her parentage is currently unclear. She is referred to in Acton’s records as Elmira Oliver.) The 1857-58 report shows money paid to Lowell for the support of Sarah Jane (Tucker) Oliver. (She apparently married William P. Oliver and then Asa Oliver; their connections to other Acton Olivers are still being worked out). Others receiving help that year who were not living at the poor fam included Sarah Spaulding (John Oliver’s widowed granddaughter) and Elizabeth Oliver.
The 1860 Federal Census showed the following:
The 1860 census also surveyed the town’s agriculture and gave details about Ephraim Oliver’s farming operation, located at approximately 283 Great Road in East Acton. Ephraim Oliver owned 43 improved and 10 unimproved acres worth $3,000, plus $100 in farming implements, a horse, four milking cows, and fifteen other cattle. His farm produced 140 bushels of “Indian corn,” 15 bushels of oats, 40 bushels of “Irish potatoes,” 200 pounds of butter, 10 tons of hay and 5 bushels of grain seed.
Though she was not listed in the poor house in the census, Sarah (Olivers) Spaulding was listed in Acton’s 1860 death records as a pauper. She died, widowed, at age 36 on Oct. 14, 1860 and was listed as a quadroon, daughter of Abijah and Rachel (Barber) Oliver. (Abijah was married to Elizabeth Barber, so that is probably simply an error.)
The final census in this survey is the Massachusetts census of 1865. By that time, Civil War and emancipation had set enormous changes in motion. The census reported the following people of color in Acton:
All other residents were classified as white, including the five-person household of Ephraim Oliver.
We still have many questions that need answers. In the relatively helpful records of the 1860s, we found other mentions of Olivers with connections to Acton that we have not yet been able to untangle:
Researching the lives of Acton’s black residents is an ongoing project. What has become clear from trying to list all people of African descent who lived in Acton from its earliest years to the end of the Civil War is that available records, though far from complete, do allow us to find at least some of them. The town’s vital records and censuses, the backbone of much genealogical research, are only the beginning. Though searching the columns of early censuses for people of color was helpful, we discovered inconsistency in the reporting of race that certainly understated the number of black and mixed-race residents. Acton’s vital records only reported some of their life events. By tracing descendants, we were able to uncover new details such as Acton births recorded later in other towns. Another source was town meeting and expenditure reports that proved when people were in town and where they might have gone, especially if they provided financial assistance to others or needed it themselves.
If you are a descendant of any of Acton’s black and mixed-race residents, have any additional information about them, can correct any information provided here, and/or know of other people who should be on our list, please contact us. We would appreciate help in bringing their stories to life.
The Society’s collection includes a copy of a picture of two men and a woman looking up at an ancient tree that is believed to have been located on the Hapgood property in East Acton. All traces of the tree are long-gone. In former days, however, the tree was quite well-known. James Fletcher’s Acton in History (pages 279-280) described it as “one of the original settlers of the town,” thriving when Captain Isaac Davis and Acton’s company of minutemen passed by on their way to Concord’s North Bridge in April, 1775.
Thoreau, who had a great appreciation for old trees, apparently was well-acquainted with the Hapgood chestnut. We have yet to find a mention of it in Thoreau’s writings, but Emerson wrote in his journal on 6 August 1849 that he and Thoreau had walked to Acton the day before and had visited a big chestnut tree on Strawberry Hill. That jaunt was apparently not Thoreau’s only visit. According to local historians, townspeople referred to the tree as “Thoreau’s Chestnut” because of his habit of stopping there. Thoreau was definitely back on the Hapgood land to do surveying in 1853; his woodlot survey is held at Concord Public Library. Fletcher’s History tells us that Thoreau visited the old chestnut tree with his sister and measured the trunk at twenty-two feet in circumference.
The Thoreau siblings’ visit must have been before May, 1862 when Thoreau died. The tree continued to grow and, no doubt, attracted more visitors. In his 1890 History, Fletcher wrote:
“The interior of the tree is hollow. The cavity is circular, sixty inches in diameter and twenty-five feet in height, through which one may look and see the sky beyond. An opening has recently been cut at the bottom and entrance can be easily made. There are worse places for a night’s lodging. A good crop of chestnuts is yearly produced by its living branches. The town should get possession of this luscious tablet of the bygones and see that no ruthless axe take it too soon from the eyes of the present generation.”
Our photograph matches Fletcher’s description of a large tree, hollow inside, with an opening at the bottom and a hole up high, through which one could presumably see the sky. The fact that Fletcher wrote that an opening had been cut at the bottom “recently” might indicate that the picture was taken in the late 1880s-1890, but it is possible that a gap had existed previously and simply had been enlarged. Our picture shows three people observing the tree; we have not been able to prove their identities.
Despite the tree’s local fame, its end seems to have been unrecorded in town reports and the local newspaper. The chestnut may have succumbed to a “ruthless axe” or to the devasting effect of the chestnut blight in the early twentieth century.
The chestnut blight, a fungus that destroys the trees above ground and makes it impossible for young trees to mature, was discovered in New York in 1904. Believed to have been imported on nursery stock, it started spreading, reaching Massachusetts some years later. We searched the Concord Enterprise for news of local chestnuts. At first, the few mentions of chestnuts involved “normal” activity and concerns. For example, in 1907, West Acton lumber dealer Arthur Blanchard sent his portable sawmill operation to South Sudbury to harvest two lots of chestnut that he had purchased. (Jan. 2, 1907, p. 1) That fall, Arthur M. Whitcomb was making barrels with chestnut staves in the old overall shop in West Acton. (Sept. 18, 1907, p.5) In October 1911, Maynard landowners were complaining that young trespassers, senselessly shooting at small birds, were damaging chestnut trees; “the terrible abuse which the trees are subjected to are simply ruining them and very soon there will be few decent chestnut trees about here if a stop is not put to this practice.” (Oct. 25, 1911, p. 3) The landowners were, possibly accidentally, quite prescient; spores of the blight-causing fungus found entry through wounds in chestnut trees’ bark.
The Boston Herald (Jan. 21, 1912, Sunday Magazine, p. 1) reported on the spread of the chestnut fungus and the experience of other states. At that point, the blight had started to show up in Massachusetts, particularly on the Connecticut border. Historically, the chestnut had been admired by and useful to the people in its range, providing wood products, abundant nuts in the fall, and shade. By the time the blight was discovered, chestnut trees, naturally rot-resistant, were the primary local source of telephone poles and railroad ties. They were also used by furniture makers, carpenters, and tanneries (an important Massachusetts industry). Ecologically, the loss of the chestnut was even worse, as it was also a major source of food for wildlife. (For more information about the blight, see a Report by the Forest Service.)
Despite the ecological and economic damage caused by the fungus, there was little mention of it in Acton sources as the blight spread. The town’s annual Tree Warden reports made no mention of the loss of chestnuts or of the blight during the whole 1904-1940 period. This could be because farmers, fruit growers, and landowners were coping with the arrival of brown-tailed and gypsy moths, San Jose Scale, and the elm leaf beetle. It could also be that most of Acton’s American chestnuts had already been cut down.
Turning back to the Concord Enterprise for news of local chestnuts, we learned that they did not all go at once. In November, 1916, children headed out from the West Acton Baptist church “chestnutting” in the towns of Boxboro, Harvard and Stow. The report was that they were not very successful in their hunt, but they had a good time playing hide and seek. (Nov. 1, 1916, p. 10) In December of that year, the Enterprise started mentioning the blight in general terms. (Dec. 20, 1916, p.2) Two months later, it was noted that people were “cutting down the forests at a fearful rate” and that disease and insect pests, including the chestnut blight, were causing great harm. (Feb. 21, 1917, p. 2) In April, 1917, the paper discussed the white pine blister rust that appeared set to destroy the pine forests, an extremely alarming prospect for Massachusetts, though it was believed that the rust could be stopped much more easily than chestnut blight. (April 18, 1917, p. 7)
In 1919, the local paper reported that farther west in Massachusetts, a town was so hard-hit that townspeople believed that all the “old spread” chestnuts would be gone within three years. (March 19, 1919, p. 4) On Oct. 22, 1919, the Enterprise finally commented directly on the fate of local chestnuts, saying that the blight seemed to be destroying them and that there was no known way to combat it. (p. 2)
As the destruction of chestnut trees began to seem inevitable, experts urged landowners to cut down the trees before they were too far deteriorated to be of economic use. We do not know if that was the fate of Thoreau’s Chestnut or not. We do know that its owner Benjamin Hapgood died in 1920, and his farm was auctioned off in 1923. An ad for the auction advertised, among many other items, a “lot of Chestnut 2x4 and 2x6.” Where the lumber came from, we have no way of knowing. (Enterprise, Nov. 14, 1923, p. 1)
Whatever happened to Thoreau’s Chestnut, it is clear that only a few recorded memories are left. If you have pictures or stories about it, or if you can help us to confirm the identity of the people and the tree in our picture, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.
We were alerted recently to a wonderful collection of photos on the website of Brookline, New Hampshire's Historical Society. One of the pictures was of a truck, fully-loaded with barrels. The truck’s door identifies it as belonging to Davis King Co., West Acton.
One of our members recognized the house in the background as the James W. Hayward house in West Acton. The photographer would have been standing in front of the Davis King Garage that stood at approximately today’s #576 Massachusetts Avenue, looking across the street. At the extreme right of the picture, one can see the West Acton depot. Neither the Hayward house nor the depot is standing today.
Looking through the Brookline photo database, we discovered several other West Acton pictures. Some of them are duplicates of photographs in our collection of the devastating West Acton fire of 1913. Other pictures were completely new to us and are used in this article with the kind permission of Brookline’s Historical Society. In the process of trying to match places and dates of the Brookline pictures with our own photos and information, we learned a good amount about West Acton village in the years immediately before and after the fire.
Starting from the beginning...
Why had pictures of West Acton buildings, barrels, and firefighting ended up in Brookline, NH? Thanks to a helpful index to the pictures in the Brookline collection, we quickly discovered the connection. Orville D. Fessenden of Brookline, New Hampshire invested in a barrel-making enterprise in West Acton. The pictures of buildings, the loaded truck, and the West Acton fire related to his business.
In the Brookline collection are two pictures taken from current-day Spruce Street (then called School Street):
At first, we thought that both of the pictures were taken at approximately at the same time, because the close-up of the barrel shop seemed to be exactly the same building as the one in the background of the wider Spruce Street picture. Local sources tell us that the July 1913 fire destroyed the barrel shop. However, the index from Brookline indicates that the pictures were actually taken before and after the fire. Obviously, the barrel shop was rebuilt; we investigated newspaper and other sources to learn more. (Unless otherwise noted, all of the articles referenced were in the Concord Enterprise.)
The earliest mention that we can find of Orville D. Fessenden’s business connections to Acton was a May 25, 1910 news item in the Concord Enterprise announcing that O. D. Fessenden had unloaded a carload of barrel hoops for his barrel shop and would have two men making barrels there soon. (p. 10) Work started at the shop on June 6. (Jun. 8, p. 6) We had found mentions of a cooper shop in West Acton in the vicinity of the site that was built in 1904, burned, and rebuilt in 1905, but we do not know whose it was and whether O. D. Fessenden took it over or started his business from scratch.
The Fessenden business succeeded. By August 1910, the Enterprise announced that “barrels at the barrel shop are fast disappearing." (Aug. 24, p. 8) In the first week of September, George Rockwood and Frank Williams made 800 barrels in six days. (Acton-Concord Enterprise, Sept. 14, 1910, p.8) By October, it became apparent that Fessenden’s shop could not keep up with the demand. “There is a great demand for apple barrels and it is hard for the farmers to get enough barrels to use. The barrel shop does not begin to supply the trade. During the week several cars of carrels [sic] were shipped from other places.” (Oct. 10, 1910, p.8)
Experience showed that more barrels needed to be produced and stored ahead of time to meet peak demand. In 1912, work started in April when Louis Popple and George Rockwood came down from Brookline, NH to start production. (April 4, 1912, p. 10) In August of that year, the Enterprise announced that O. D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs (of Boxborough) had bought from the estate of O. W. Mead the cold storage property near the barrel shop and two tenement houses. (Aug. 14, 1912, p. 8) By that time, the operation was able to accommodate large orders such as the purchase by Charles W. Barnes of 1,000 barrels for his Stow fruit farm (September 18, 1912, p. 10)
The April 30, 1913 Concord Enterprise announced that ”Work at the barrel shop will soon commence, to be ready for the large demands for barrels the coming season.” (p. 8) It was an optimistic time. In that same month, the pastor of Maynard's Catholic Church thanked non-Catholics who had donated funds for building a Catholic Church in West Acton, close to the storage facility that Fessenden and Burroughs had purchased the year before. One of the larger donors mentioned was O. D. Fessenden. (Apr. 23, p. 10) Everything was going well. Then came the fire.
The West Acton Fire of 1913
On July 22, 1913, a fire was first noticed at Luke Blanchard’s barn near the corner of today’s Massachusetts Avenue and Windsor Avenue, just west of the railroad tracks. Soon, it had “jumped the tracks” and spread to the Hutchins house at 556 Massachusetts Avenue. From there, the fire spread across Massachusetts Avenue to destroy commercial buildings including an ice house, a grain storage shed, and a milk depot. The next stage was across today’s Spruce Street where the Fessenden barrel shop and cold storage facilities were. (What at first seemed to be generic pictures of the West Acton fire in the Brookline, NH collection turn out to have featured destroyed remnants of the Fessenden business.) The final stage of the fire seems to have been east on Massachusetts Avenue where the barn of Walter Gardner was destroyed and his house damaged.
Fighting the fire was a challenge. The West Acton company went right to work, but they were hampered by equipment problems. New hose had recently been purchased but was incompatible with the available nozzles, necessitating that the firefighters work with old hose that lost water pressure through leakage. According to the July 23 Enterprise, “It was early seen that the local department could not possibly cope with the blaze and calls for help were sent to Maynard, Concord, Fitchburg and Ayer, while the companies from South Acton and Acton Center also responded.” The Maynard company was given most of the credit for saving the depot and St. Elizabeth’s church, and the Concord Junction department saved the school house and some of the nearby homes. (p. 8) Later, Maynard’s fire department refused to accept payment for their efforts, suggesting that someday Acton might need to return the favor. (Aug. 31, p. 2)
One of the fascinating features of researching this particular fire is that amateur photographers were on the scene almost immediately. Fortunately, many of these pictures were saved, giving us visual evidence of the fire’s progression and its aftermath. What at first might seem to be blurry or overexposed pictures are in fact photographs of people and structures amidst smoke.
In the following photograph of the fire (from our own collection), the Fessenden barrel shop is still standing, while the cold storage facility (on the right) had clearly already been reduced to its brick foundation. The fire was still being worked on at the time. Note the railroad crossing sign where a siding went next to the cold storage building and the stone work at the extreme right by the front steps of St. Elizabeth Church:
We might have thought, based upon that picture, that the barrel shop survived the fire. Written accounts said it was lost, however, and a photo in our collection confirmed it:
Another view of the same scene taken only a few feet away confirms the identification of this building; the wall of what was obviously the barrel shop was still standing, while the rest had been destroyed:
The damage to Fessenden & Burroughs was obviously large. They not only lost the shop and storage buildings but also the barrel inventory that had been created in anticipation of the 1913 apple season.
After the Fire
Rebuilding West Acton started right away. In the words of the Concord Enterprise, “Already plans are being made by the several losers to rebuild at once.” (July 30, 1913, p. 8) Fessenden and Burroughs had sustained a huge loss that apparently was not insured. They probably had to raise cash quickly, because the same Enterprise reported that “C. H. Mead has bought a piece of land of Fessenden Burroughs in front of the big cold storage building just burned, where he will build a large storehouse for grain, hay and flour.” This news item confirms that the C.H. Mead building in the Brookline, NH picture was newly built after the fire, not a replacement of a building previously on that spot.
By August 11, George Rockwood was back in town, presumably to get the barrel business restarted, although the paper was silent about how and when the barrel shop was rebuilt. (Aug. 13, p. 8) Work clearly proceeded, because the November 5 Enterprise reported that barrel shop workers Popple and Rockwood were returning to their homes in Brookline, N. H. and that barrel shop had done “a rushing business all season.” (p. 10)
In the spring of 1914, the cold storage building was rebuilt. On June 10, the Enterprise reported that O. D. Fessenden “of Townsend” had several carpenters working on a new structure over the “cold storage brick wal[l], where the fire was last summer. The building will be used to store barrels which are made here.” (June 10, 1914 p. 7). It seems to have been a good investment. In October, the paper reported that George Rockwood, foreman, said that he had already sold 10,000 barrels, with more to come. Several men were working to fill waiting wagons with barrels. (Oct. 14, 1914, p. 10) The 1915 and 1916 seasons were also described as “rushing,” “prosperous,” and “booming.” (Oct. 20, 1915, p1, Oct. 18, 1916, p. 4)
The aftermath of the fire continued, however. In January, 1914, Orville D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs both sued the Boston & Maine Railroad for allegedly setting the fire with sparks from a passing train. The causes of the fire probably had been debated endlessly in town. However, despite early rumors of arson, over the following months, the Enterprise was silent about investigative conclusions. The related lawsuits were for damages from the burning of buildings, (presumably the cold storage building and the barrel shop), barrels, coopers’ supplies and tools. (Boston Herald, Jan. 8, 1914, p. 12) The triple-action tort case took three years to come to trial. Finally, the case was heard at the Superior Court in Lowell. The Concord Enterprise reported in October 1917 that the jurors had come from Lowell in four autos to view the site where the fire had been and that witnesses from West Acton had been called to testify for both sides of the dispute. (Oct. 17, p. 8) On October 23, the Lowell Sun reported that jury found in favor of the railroad; Fessenden and Burroughs must not have been able to provide adequate evidence that a train caused the fire. (p. 3)
Despite the legal setback, the barrel business continued in West Acton for a few more years. The barrel shop was still in business in the summer of 1919, but the cold storage building was being used for apple storage that year. (July 23, p. 8; Feb. 5, p. 9) Apparently the business was wound down in or around 1920. The cold storage building was sold to A. W. Davis, owner of the truck stacked with barrels pictured above, and C. D. Fletcher in April 1920. (Apr. 14, p. 8) After the sale by O. D. Fessenden, the cold storage building was renovated in order actually to be used for “cold storage.” An “elevator” and electric lights were installed. In the fall of that year, train carloads of apples were arriving for that purpose. (Acton Enterprise, Oct. 13, 1920, p. 6)
Two years later, barrel shop land was also sold to A. W. Davis who built a cement block garage there. (Sept. 27, 1922, p. 7) The Davis King Garage on Massachusetts Avenue had recently burned down in another West Acton fire. Though the barrel shop building was not mentioned in the news report, it seems to have been "history" already. On May 16, 1923, H. S. MacGregor and J. J. Chesbrough ran an ad in the Enterprise for Acton Motor Co.'s “new garage now open on School Street, West Acton Repairing of all kinds at reasonable prices.” (p. 2)
Businesses have come and gone in West Acton. The O. D. Fessenden barrel shop was only in West Acton for a few years, but it was there during a momentous time in the history of the village. We are very grateful to the Brookline NH Historical Society for sharing photographs that shed light on that time and place.
Recently, the Society received the generous donation of a remarkably well-preserved pair of boots from the factory of John Fletcher and Sons. John Fletcher’s name was very well-known in Acton in the 1800s, and his “Boot and Shoe Manufactory” was a town-center landmark that employed a significant number of townspeople. He left many traces in the written records of the era, some of which gave contradictory impressions of who he was as a person. We set out to learn more about him.
John Fletcher was born in Acton to James (a young Revolutionary War soldier) and Lydia (White) Fletcher on July 21, 1790. In Acton’s vital records, we found siblings Betsy (b.1786), James (b. 1788), Daniel (1797-1799), Lydia (b. 1800), and several who died young and whose names were not recorded. James (the father) was involved in the business of Acton and donated a piece of his land in 1806 to be part of the Town Common. The family first lived on what is now Hammond Street but then moved to a farm near the first meeting house (off of Nagog Hill Road near what was then the Brooks Tavern). John’s son, (Rev. James), later wrote about their home site, “Here stood for many years, from 1794 on, the Fletcher homestead, where James Fletcher, the father of Deacon John Fletcher, and his brother James and Betsey, the sister, lived during childhood up to the years of maturity. A few feet from this ancient cellar hole to the west is the site of the first Fletcher russet apple-tree. Childhood’s memories easily recall the ancient unpainted cottage, the quaint old chimney with the brick-oven on the side, and the fire-place large enough for the burning of logs of size and length, and in front to the southeast a vegetable garden unmatched at the time for its culture and richness, and a large chestnut-tree to the south, planted by Deacon John, in early life.” (Acton in History, p. 247)
Though records of John Fletcher’s youth are hard to come by, we do have a physical description (from much later military pension records) that he had fair skin, black hair, and brown eyes. He no doubt attended the school nearby and would have helped on his father’s farm. As he got older, records show that he and his brother James Jr. served in the local militia. In April, 1808, John was already serving as a corporal in Capt. Simon Hosmer’s Company that became known as the Davis Blues. In 1810, John was chosen to be sergeant, and in 1813, he became the company clerk. By that time the country was at war. When the governor of Massachusetts called for troops to defend Boston in the fall of 1814, John Fletcher served as sergeant and clerk of what was by then Capt. Silas Jones’ Company. Brother James Fletcher was a corporal. According to Fletcher’s History, (p. 277-278) the company was first to report to headquarters and met with an enthusiastic reception as it marched through the streets of Boston. The British never attacked, however, and the company saw no action. The War of 1812 concluded soon thereafter. John continued to serve in the militia and eventually was made captain. Town meeting records refer to him as Captain John Fletcher in the years 1821 and 1822.
In June 1812, John’s brother James was initiated into the Masonic Lodge in Concord, and John followed in June 1813. Both men were proposed for membership by Simon Hosmer. In 1814, father James and James Jr. bought a farm from neighbor Paul Brooks, including a house, barn and cooper shop. Presumably, the intention was to expand the father’s farming operation and/or to establish James on a farm of his own. Unfortunately, James Sr. died on Dec. 9, 1815 by the falling of a tree (according to his tombstone and Fletcher’s History, p. 246), an event that must have shocked and greatly changed life for the family.
By 1814, we know that John Fletcher was already in the shoe business, as he listed his occupation as shoemaker when called up to serve in the War. In 1815, the town of Acton paid him $4.67 for providing shoes for the poor. We have not yet discovered details of the early years of his shoe enterprise, such as how he learned the trade, his sources of materials, and when he started hiring outside labor.
In March 1819, James Fletcher Jr. sold to his brother John for $250 a half of his share of the land he held, including his father’s two farms, a woodlot, and “all other lots of every kind which I am now in posion [possession] of”. The records of the brothers’ buying, borrowing, and selling of property are voluminous and hard to pin down completely, but the impression one gets is that John managed to pay off his debts but James may have had more trouble and needed cash infusions at times.
John and his brother James established a store together. Its exact beginnings are a little unclear from the records, but it was definitely operating before 1822 and probably by 1820 when James Fletcher’s census listing included two household members engaged in commerce. According to John’s son Rev. James Fletcher’s History (p. 272), the brothers’ first store was on the site of the present-day Memorial Library. We found from a deed dated Sept. 28, 1820 that James and John Fletcher, traders, bought a store near the meetinghouse from Francis Tuttle for $325. It was apparently quitclaimed by Widow Dorothy Jones on Dec. 7, 1821. (Land Records, Vol. 308, p. 232 & 233)
In January 1822, Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy ran an ad offering a reward to be paid by James and John Fletcher to help track down the criminal(s) who, on the morning of January 22, burned their store “after having been robbed (as is supposed) of its contents.” The brothers would pay $100 for “the detection of the Incendiary or Incendiaries, and the recovery of the Property -- or $50 for either.” (Jan. 30, 1822, p. 4) Surette’s History of Corinthian Lodge noted that on Feb. 4, 1822, “Bros. John & James Fletcher, of Acton, having met with a severe loss by fire, requested assistance from the Lodge, and a subscription paper was opened and signed by the members present.” (p. 128) Fletcher’s History says specifically that the store was on the library site when it “was burnt.”(p. 267)
Acton has utilized many school buildings throughout its history, most of which are long-gone or unrecognizable. The most recent to disappear was the red brick schoolhouse on Harris Street that was torn down earlier this spring. We thought it an appropriate time to review the history of Acton’s school buildings.
The Society has documents and maps that have tried to pinpoint the location of Acton’s early schools, the result of much work by local historians including James Fletcher, Horace Tuttle, Ida Hapgood Harris, Harold Phalen, Florence Merriam, Elizabeth Conant and others. In addition, Acton Memorial Library has made early town meeting records easily accessible online. But even with those resources, it is still a very confusing subject. Early schools were temporary and seasonal. Historical documents refer to people, structures, and areas that are unfamiliar today. (Where were “Deacon Brookses Squadron” and “Capt Haywards Corner”?) Seemingly logical labels (“north”, “southwest, “east”) referred to various divisions of town at different times. We have some payment records from early years, but it is not clear whether the payments to individuals “for schools” were for their own teaching and whether a school was actually kept on their own property. As time went on, schoolhouses were built, used for a time and then abandoned, moved or creatively reused. Town meeting records give us clues, but one has to be careful about making assumptions based on a favorable vote at a town meeting. Acton had a habit of voting on an issue and later voting to reconsider the same issue, sometimes multiple times. On school matters, there was a high probability that a vote would be overturned within the next few months or years. Stepping bravely (or foolishly) into the quagmire, we begin our survey of Acton’s schools.
After a vote on March 3, 1739/40 not to “erect” schools, apparently the town voted to have a “reading, riteing and moveing Scool” in March 1740/41 (its funding was not clear). Acton’s public education was more definitely organized by a vote in December 1743 to divide the town into three parts, holding a school in each section. In the earliest years of Acton’s history, classes were held on private property by individuals who were willing to teach. Exactly how the students were accommodated was not specified in town reports. The individuals who kept the schools generally farmed, so presumably classes were held at times of the year when teachers and students were not needed for agricultural labor. As time went on, expenditures for a “schoolmaster” began to appear in town reports. Very early, the issue of equity arose; there had to be enough schools in town that all families had access to education for their children within a reasonable distance. The number of school districts, (sometimes known as societies or squadrons), was a recurring issue at town meetings. After the initial three districts in 1743, the number of divisions varied from four to seven.
The first mention of town-owned school buildings appeared in town meeting records in 1771. On May 27, the town voted that Acton should have seven school houses in the center of each division of the town. Four had already been built privately and were to be purchased and repaired by the town. Three new Schoolhouses were to be built, “Eighteen feet in Length and Sixteen feet wide” but the districts could, at their own expense, upgrade them to twenty by eighteen feet. They apparently were to have four windows, plaster ceilings and at least partial plaster walls.
Locating North Acton's Schools
Starting our survey of Acton’s schools with the schoolhouse(s) in the vicinity of Harris street, we find that the 1771 list of proposed school locations did not include that area. There was already a schoolhouse near the Healds’ residence on present-day Carlisle Road and apparently another near Josiah Piper's on “Procter’s” Road (now Nagog Hill Road) that could have served families in the northern part of Acton. After some deliberation, on March 2, 1772, it was decided to leave the schoolhouse where it stood near Josiah Piper's.
After the schoolhouse vote, complaints started and a series of re-votes followed. In particular, “Samuel Fitch and a Number of His Neighbours” thought themselves injured by being "to[o] Remote from Any School.” (March 1774). The town's response was that Mr. Fitch and his neighbors could have their school tax money to be used for alternative schooling. Existing town maps do not show the location of Samuel Fitch’s house in Acton, but we know from the Tuttle/Scarlett maps that at least some of the neighbors mentioned, (David Lamson and the widow Temple), lived in the Nagog Pond/North Acton area. (It was the same area that included John Oliver’s farm, the subject of another blog post.) On January 4, 1775, the town voted to build a schoolhouse “to accomidate Samuel Fitch and others.” One might think that was the end of the story, but on May 14, 1776, the town again voted that the Selectmen should build a School House in “Samuel Fitchs Society.” Probably based on that vote, Horace Tuttle’s 1890 map dated the first Harris Street North Acton schoolhouse at 1776. That may have been optimistic. On January 31, 1780, the town was again asked to vote on building the same schoolhouse and postponed the vote. In May, 1780, the town “voted that the Committe that was Imployed to Build a School House in mr Samuel Fitchs Society Do hire money in Behalf of the Town to Pay Said mr Samuel Fitch for what he has Don.” Clearly, Mr. Fitch had taken matters into his own hands. Unfortunately, the exact location and whether a schoolhouse was fully built at that point is not clear from the town meeting records. Around that time, the redistricting of families that were set off to the District of Carlisle necessitated another vote on the location of a schoolhouse, combining the families in the Fitch area with those who had been in Lieut. John Heald’s district (the “northest part of this town”, November 20, 1780). Money was voted toward building the schoolhouse at that time.
The next period in which school buildings were discussed was the 1790s. On November 2, 1792, the town voted to reduce its school districts from seven to four. That was a short-lived plan. After proposals and counterproposals, on May 6, 1795, the town settled on five school districts and decided that “every Person Shall have the Liberty to Join the District to which he Chuses to belong and his Scholl [school] Rate Shall be expended in the School”. (Acton’s policy of school choice started early. It was also subject to many later votes.) Five schoolhouses were to be built including one “where the School House Stands near John Harris’.” This is the first direct mention that there had been a school near the location of the (later) brick school house. That was a welcome moment of clarity for us. It was temporary.
In the 1796-1797 period, there were numerous town meetings in which the town was asked to reconsider, repeatedly, previous votes on school districts and schoolhouses. The warrant for the May 1796 meeting asked the town to “Reconsider all the votes that have been passed in the town meetings Respecting the Districting the town for Schools and building School houses for Seven years past” and in January 1797, the town was asked to reconsider all of their former votes on the issue. On May 1, 1797, the town voted not to fund the building of the five schools. Clearly, the decision-making process was not going well. In October 1797, a committee was formed to “fix a place for a School house north District”.
Based on the voting chaos, it seems unlikely that a new school was actually built before the town’s school districts were consolidated around 1800. Town records discussed selling old school house(s) in the “east” part of town, and the Schoolhouse “near John Harris” was sold to David Barnard for $31.25 (Dec. 3, 1800). The neighboring residents were clearly not happy, because the town was asked to vote on building a schoolhouse in the Northwest part of town in December 1801. The town voted it down.
According to town histories, for a period of about thirty years, the north and east districts were combined. There is no mention of a “North” school district in the records of those years and the sale of the schoolhouse indicates that the Harris Street site was not in use at the time. Instead, a schoolhouse was built approximately at the current intersection of Davis and Great Road. An 1830-1831 survey map shows a school at that location (and not at Harris Street). According to Ida Hapgood Harris’s 1937 school history, “Old residents relate that 80 pupils were there at one time. This was probably built around 1796.” (The document is at Jenks Library.)
Leaving out occasional indecision during the early decades of the nineteenth century, on May 13, 1839, the town voted to split the “east” district again and build a brick schoolhouse in its "northern part" by November 1, 1840. Given the uncertainty of any vote being realized, we were dubious about claiming that the schoolhouse actually was built at that time. However, it must have been built then or soon thereafter, because in April 1844, the town voted that the North Acton district could put seats into their schoolhouse, as long as the town did not incur the expense. The residents must have refused to pay for the seating, because in April, 1845, the town provided $12 to “put seats into the North School house in the place of stools which are now broken”. (The students must have had an uncomfortable year.)
By 1847, the town started printing the school committee’s annual reports, so we have a much more complete (and colorful) picture of what was going on with the schools after that time. From the 1849 report, we find that by then, the whole town had new schoolhouses. The school committee took a look back at the schoolhouses they replaced:
“...now entirely vanished from our view – the old, square, four-roofed, one-storied, red school-houses.... with their little porticoes made to store wood and to trample clothes in... the strange and uncouth carvings, etchings and engravings which enriched them within and without. We remember too, the broken floors, the rickety and disfigured seats and benches, the blackened and dilapidated walls, and above all the ventilating apparatus, called windows. Yet they were cheerful places... But they have passed away, and other houses of a very different model stand in their stead.”
Confirming that the brick school house had indeed been built, the committee wrote:
“In the place of the old house on the great road are built two substantial and convenient brick houses, capable of accommodating fifty scholars each. They have good woodrooms and clothes rooms, and are furnished with black boards and Mitchell’s large map of the world; these last were purchased by subscriptions of the friends of progress in the district. These houses were built at a cost of $525 each, exclusive of the land and its preparation.”
Despite the optimistic tone of the 1849 school committee, reading later town reports, one has to think that upkeep of the schoolhouses was a constant struggle. By 1851, the school committee was admonishing all of the school districts to attend to repairs so that “there is nothing to excite the evil propensities of the young destructives.” Vandalism seems to have been a perpetual problem. The 1858-1859 School Committee reported about the winter term:
“Of this term for obvious reasons we shall say but little. (Sadly, that story is lost to history.) If the advancement in this, and preceding winter terms has fallen below the expectations of the parents, they should remember that such a miserable, dilapidated, cold, cheerless, uncomfortable and lonely old school house is not the place to look for anything remarkable. The pupils one day the past winter, found a large supply of shavings, in consequence of one of their number falling through a defective part of the floor. Occasionally the boys, out of school hours, amuse themselves by jumping from the floor and touching the ceiling, a feat that most of them can easily accomplish.... The location of the stove is such that [heat] is very unequally distributed.... Indeed the house may be comprehensively described as almost a perfect model of what a school house ought not to be."
By the 1863-1864 report, we read:
”...we wish to speak of our school-houses; and in no very flattering term either. We know there are a plenty ready to say, they are good enough; what would be the use to build better ones, for the scholars to tear in pieces.... Why, they exclaim, “some of our school-houses have not been built comparatively but a short time, and just look at them.” That is what we say, LOOK at them, and carefully too; and we think you will come to the sage conclusion, that they are ill planned, poorly built, shammy things.... We do not believe the children and youth in this town are so much worse than they are in others; and we know they have large, convenient, and even ornamental school-houses in other towns, and they are kept well too. We believe if this town would build some good school-houses, convenient and well finished, that our scholars would take pride in keeping them so. We do not think it a good way to cultivate feelings of respect for public property, by having constantly before the eyes of our children defaced benches, dingy walls, and plastering hanging from the ceiling here and there, in a manner to tempt even those not inclined to mischief, to hit it a poke and tumble it down.... We think all should be as willing to be taxed to raise money to build good school-houses for their children to attend school in, as they would be to raise money to build a good town house to attend town meeting in, and we think if the town is able to have a town house worth some eight thousand dollars, it is able to have school-houses worth as much.”
Ten years later, the town agreed that the brick building on Harris Street had reached the end of its useful life as a school. Charles I. Miller’s reminiscences of North Acton (at Jenks Library) stated that a wooden replacement was built during the fall and winter of 1873 while school was still being held in the old brick schoolhouse nearby. It was a time of change; the North Acton railroad depot had just been built at the end of Harris Street. At that time, only one house and barn were visible from the station, but the area soon grew.
After the brick schoolhouse was taken out of service, it became a private dwelling. The wooden schoolhouse served for 26 years. The conflict between those who wanted schoolhouses close to home and those who wanted to achieve the efficiency of having larger, “graded” schools went on for decades. By the 1890s, small, ungraded schoolhouses were falling out of favor. It had become inefficient for one teacher to try to teach a broad range of subjects in one classroom that held up to seven grades’ students. The East district was merged into the Center school, but the North Acton district held out longer. Clearly frustrated, the Superintendent wrote in his 1897-1898 report that students in “out-lying districts” had:
a tendency to insubordination, which seemed to have its foundation in the idea that parental influence was paramount in all school matters pertaining to their district.... it prevails in out-lying districts generally, and is quite well developed at North Acton.” [page 59-60]
Eventually, even the North Acton school was closed. In September 1899, its former students were transported to the Center school which then was divided into primary, intermediate and grammar “schools,” each with three grades apiece. The former North Acton teacher, the long-serving Ella Miller, came with them. The wooden school house at 52 Harris Street was sold off and became a dwelling. That piece of Acton school history still stands.
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