A scene that no doubt caused more pleasure for the children in the picture than the adults was captured by Maynard photographer Robert C. Swaney. The photograph came from South Acton and was clearly taken on the Boston & Maine Railroad. The photo is of a “switcher” (also known as a switching engine) that was used to move rail cars around railyards such as South Acton with its busy and complicated tracks. Whether or not the derailment happened at South Acton, we can only guess.
We tried to find out more about this photograph. Researching the Boston & Maine railroad’s engine #1327 did not yield any helpful results. (Someone more knowledgeable might be able to date both the large lights on the front and the back and the painting style of the name and numbers on the engine and tender.) The next step was to find out more about the train’s mishap. Though we found many train accidents in the local newspaper as well as various mentions of a switching engine and crew, we did not find an article about a switcher derailment at South Acton. We did find one reported in Concord Junction news on the first page of the Jan. 4, 1911 Enterprise.
We then researched the life of the photographer embossed on the mat of the photo. We found two pictures in the Maynard Historical Society’s digital archives that were by Robert Swaney, one of Maynard businessmen around 1910 and the other of the local Smoke Shop in 1911. Further research established the time period in which Robert Swaney would have been in Maynard taking pictures. Robert Clayton Swaney was born in West Lubec, Maine. His father George brought his family to Stow, MA about 1893. Apparently, they lived in the section known as Rock Bottom or Gleasondale that straddled the Stow/Hudson line. Robert’s mother, who lived to be 100, lived in Gleasondale for 60 years. Robert was a machinist living in Hudson when he married Hepsey Senior of Stow in June, 1899 in Gleasondale. In the 1900 census, he was living with his wife and his newborn son in Marlboro, MA. Marlboro’s 1905 directory reported that he moved to Stow, but a 1907 directory placed him in Ayer, MA, working as a motorman. (Apparently, he worked on a line from Ayer Junction to Lowell at one point.) In 1910, he was living in Hudson with wife Hepzibeth and two sons. Robert Swaney was listed as a Maynard voter on March 2, 1912, a “motorman” living and working in Maynard. A 1913 Maynard directory also placed motorman Robert C. Swaney in the town at 55 Acton St. We discovered from the Enterprise newspaper that he worked for the Concord, Maynard and Hudson Street Railway in 1915 (March 24, p. 9). An obituary in the Beacon mentioned that at some time, he worked on the line from Maynard to West Acton that passed through South Acton (Nov. 23, 1972, p. 14). We also found that a monograph in our collection about the Street Railway features a picture “from the collection of Robert C. Swaney.” When Robert registered for the draft in Sept. 1918, he was living on Haynes St. in Maynard, working as a machinist at La Point Machine & Tool Company in Hudson. A note on the 1912 Maynard voter list reported that Robert C. Swaney moved away from town in Jan. 1920.
Research did not turn up any more connections to Maynard. In the 1920 census, Robert Swaney was living with his wife at 1 Bennet St., Hudson, working as a foreman at a machine shop. They were still there in 1930. In 1940, they had moved to Stow, and Robert was working as a foreman at a brake lining factory. Wife Hepzibeth died in 1948. In Oct. 1949, Robert married Mildred A. Gallant who was born in Littleton and had lived in Acton for many years. The 1950 census seems to have Robert and Mildred Swaney living with Robert’s widowed mother Laura both in Stow (High Street) and Hudson (64 Wilkins Street). (In both cases, his age was significantly understated.) A Hudson 1951 directory showed Robert living there with wife Mildred and his widowed mother Laura. He was superintendent at Standco Brake Lining Company. Robert Swaney lived for many years in both Hudson and Stow, but he died at a nursing home in Sudbury on Nov. 18, 1972. His wife Mildred had died that June.
Having learned much more than we had expected about the photographer of our picture, including the fact that he had Acton connections, we found no evidence that he worked regularly as a photographer, or for very long. Robert C. Swaney would only have had a mat made with a Maynard address from, at the earliest, late 1910 to 1920. We are not sure where our picture was taken. It would be logical to think that if the accident happened in South Acton, Swaney might have taken the picture during his time working for the street railway that made its way regularly through South Acton (about the 1910-1918 period). One of the boys has a “C” on his sweater, which could imply a Concord location. On the other hand, Acton at the time was sending its high school students to Concord for their education; they, too, could have been sporting a “C.”
If anyone has any further information that can help us to identify this picture, please contact us.
As mentioned in a recent blog post on the history of the East Acton school district, during the first decades of the nineteenth century, a one-room schoolhouse at the corner of today’s Great and Davis Roads served students from both North and East Acton. The result, especially in the winter months when farm work was not expected of older students, would have been crowding and a teacher with very little time for individual grades, much less individual students’ needs. Residents of East Acton campaigned for years to split the school. We recently came across a March 6, 1828 listing of all the students in what was then called the “East” School District. On it were the names and ages of 87 students, 48 “Masters” and 39 “Misses.” At a time when censuses listed only heads of household, this is a particularly useful document. In some cases, this is the only record we have found that shows a student’s presence in Acton.
Given the age provided in the March 1828 list, some of the students were easy to find in the town’s published birth records. Some, because of a common name or an age that does not quite match dates in the records, were not so clear and needed to be followed up in other records. Baptisms were sometimes done well after birth, so the provided age was less helpful in identifying individuals in those records. In some cases, we could not find the students in any other Acton records, so we had to search farther afield and try to work back to an Acton connection.
Below is an annotated list of the 87 scholars in the March 1828 East Acton School with the results of our research into their identity. Overall, we found 42 whose name and age seem to match a person in Acton’s birth records and another seven whose age was somewhat off but who probably matched an Acton birth record. For 14 students, we found no birth record in Acton or elsewhere, but we did find a church/baptismal record in Acton that is probably the right person. (Some were baptisms were done several years after birth, and some of those were born elsewhere). Research revealed five students whose later records reported an Acton birth, but there is no record of it at the time. We were able to find parents and a likely out-of-town birthplace for eight of the other students. The remaining eleven remain elusive.
After over two centuries of ownership by the Davis family, Acton’s Ebenezer Davis, Jr. farm was sold in 1968. In an outbuilding locally known as “the Bellows Shop,” an astounding collection of documents, photos, and artifacts was discovered. Some of these items have now been donated to the Society, while others have found their way to the Concord Museum. These donations led us to research economic activities and business relationships in the Davis’ corner of East Acton during the first half of the 19th century. A number of Actonians left during that period to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. Some, however, put their imaginations and energies to work on ventures in their hometown. Two such enterprising individuals were Ebenezer Davis Sr. and Jr.
There have been several Davis families who contributed to Acton’s history. The story of the Ebenezers’ Davis family in Acton began with the 1738 purchase by Gershom Davis (also known as Davies) of about 664 acres in the northern part of Acton, including a house, barn, grist mill, and saw mill that had belonged to Thomas Wheeler. Over time, the land was divided among descendants who proceeded to sell, buy, and mortgage various pieces of the property. It can be bewildering to try to trace each person’s holdings. What we do know, however, is that Gershom’s great-grandson Ebenezer Davis Sr. (1777-1851) lived and farmed at approximately today’s 42 Davis Road on a site that was later Griffin’s Bellows Stock Farm and then Dropkick Murphy’s Sanatorium. Though the house no longer stands, part of its large chimney remains on the property, as well as a former barn (probably later than Ebenezer’s day) that has been converted to other uses.
Ebenezer Davis Sr. was apparently a busy man. Deeds refer to him as a wheelwright (from 1800 to 1810, 1815), a yeoman (farmer, 1815, 1819 and later) and a housewright (1807-1808, 1817-1818). The Concord Museum now owns and has digitized ledgers belonging to Ebenezer Davis Sr. and his son Ebenezer Jr. from 1815 through 1853 (unfortunately with certain years missing). Though not complete, the ledgers show the variety of enterprises that Ebenezer Sr. was involved in.
As deed research indicated, an early business of Ebenezer Sr. was blacksmithing and wheelwrighting. His ledger makes for somewhat confusing reading, because his thrifty reuse of pages means that the top of a page may relate to his early business and the bottom may contain notations from a decade or more later. However, the ledger does show over thirty customers in the 1815-1816 period who paid for jobs such as
Neighbor Joel Oliver may have taken over the blacksmithing business after 1816. He was charged for coal, iron, and steel “for jumping axes” as well as leather aprons, the occasional tool, and food stuffs in the 1818-1826 period. (Jumping an axe was a term for replacing the bit/cutting edge.) Joel Oliver agreed to shoe Ebenezer’s pair of oxen and two horses for one year for $11 in January 1824. Ebenezer presumably continued with some work as a wheelwright, however, because he was paid for spokes and other work one would expect of a wheelwright later in the 1820s.
The 1820 census shows that Ebenezer’s household included, in addition to 3 children, 3 males aged 16-26, 3 males 26-45, 1 female 16-26, and 1 female 26-45. Of these people, 5 were classified as being engaged in manufacturing and 1 in farming. The next household was Ammi Faulkner Adams with 3 people engaged in manufacturing. Unfortunately, the ledgers do not tell us what all of these people were creating. Many of Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger transactions in the 1820s and early 1830s seem to be related to his agricultural activities. He sold beef, pork, cheese, potatoes, corn, rye, cider and vinegar. He also sold hoop poles. In addition to his own farming, he pastured others’ cows and oxen, rented his horse and wagon or drove people himself, and took goods back and forth from Boston.
Another set of transactions in the ledgers involved charges for a wide array of items beyond agricultural products. There were charges for cloth and for making articles of clothing such as a coat, pantaloons, shirts, vests and spencers (short-waisted coats). Boots and shoes were purchased or “specked” (a term for which we did not find a definition but guess it might mean repaired or resoled. One charge was for “leather to speck boots and heal”.) Other items were a silk handkerchief, shell combs, a “Parisol,” ribbon, a watch, a hat or bonnet, schoolbooks, a “Rithmatick,” and a great Bible. There were foodstuffs that would not have been produced on Ebenezer’s farm, such as sugar and molasses. On one page of the ledger, Abel Robbins owed Eben Davis for a large quantity of beef on Dec. 16, 1830 and a week later, Uriah Robbins was charged for broad cloth, buttons, skeins of silk, buckram, pasturing a heifer, a fine shirt, making a frock, and specking shoes and boots.
These transactions raised a number of questions. Was Ebenezer Davis Sr. running some sort of store in his corner of East/North Acton? Was he personally creating clothing? Was he managing a clothing manufacturing business? None of these possibilities has been mentioned in town histories. Many of the accounts in the ledger were for people who were working for him, mostly close neighbors. In some instances, Ebenezer stated at the top of a page when an individual started working for him, and then listed charges. In other cases, he wrote a name and list of charges that were followed by an indication of the person’s employment, such as a list of sick days. In addition to charges for items such as clothing, the ledger shows that Ebenezer covered employees’ various needs for cash, such as at an election, at muster, at training, at Town meeting, for a mother or wife, “to pay the pedlar,” or “when you and Olive went to Concord,” and to settle bills, such as for Dr. Cowdry, "Luther Robbins for fish," or “your Taxes for 1827,” among many examples. At least two of the listed employees were noted to have lived in the Davis home for a period of time. Viewed in the light of an employment relationship, many of the ledger entries can be seen as Ebenezer Sr. making payments on behalf of employees and charging the payments against employees’ earnings. Unfortunately, the ledger is mostly silent about what Ebenezer’s employees actually did for him. It is possible that the making of shirts, spencers, vests and pantaloons was a Davis business, but it is also possible that Ebenezer was paying someone else on his employees’ behalf.
Information about the Bellows Business, and More Questions
The one business that later historians mentioned in connection with Ebenezer Davis Sr. and his son Ebenezer Jr. was the manufacturing of bellows. Unfortunately, information given in different sources about where and when the business operated is somewhat vague and not well-documented. The Davis ledgers and recent research paint a fuller picture than we had in the past and, inevitably, raise even more questions.
Bellows would have been a common item in households and businesses in Ebenezer Sr.’s lifetime. They were used to direct a stream of air into a fire to increase the heat it produced. Bellows were manufactured by combining a wooden top and bottom with folding leather side pieces and attaching a nozzle through which air was forced as the handles were pushed together.
When we started investigating the bellows business in Acton, information we had from previous historians was quite sparse. Online newspapers from the time make no mention of the Davis bellows business. Fletcher’s 1890 Acton in History said merely that “The manufacture of bellows was carried on extensively by Ebenezer Davis, senior and junior, for many years in the east part of the town.” (p. 266) Phalen’s History of the Town of Acton said that “At one time the aforementioned Ebenezer Davis manufactured bellows in a shop located on the William Davis place, later called the Bellows Stock Farm and later owned by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Griffin. The present occupant of the property is Mr. John Murphy. Eventually the shop was moved to the Eben Davis place where Dr. Wendell F. Davis now lives and where his father continued to make bellows.” (p. 156)
There has been much confusion about this shop and the bellows business. The building in which the ledgers were found had come to be known as the “Bellows Shop,” but its exact history is not entirely clear. Given the fact that Ebenezer Jr.’s youngest son lived on the property and was probably the source of Phalen’s information about the building, it seems reasonable to assume that oral tradition in the family identified it as the bellows shop. In 1968, before the building was sold out of the Davis family and demolished, another discovery on the first floor was a crate, nailed shut, that contained hundreds of wooden bellows pieces, some already decorated, that were never assembled into finished products. Those pieces are now in the possession of the Concord Museum.
By its architectural form, the “bellows shop” was clearly built as a dwelling house rather than a work shop. It is highly likely that this building was one of a surprisingly dense row of six houses shown on a c. 1831 map on what is now Davis Road. Deeds tell us that Ebenezer Sr. was involved in a number of real estate transactions, including purchasing a half share and then the remainder of the nearby “Ammi Wetherbee house” in 1808 and 1819. Though its exact location is hard to pinpoint from the deeds, Ebenezer’s ownership of that building raises the possibility that it was the one that eventually became associated with bellows production. By 1856, when Henry Walling mapped Acton, there were only four houses left on Davis Road, two owned by Ebenezer Sr.’s widow. An 1875 Beers Atlas map showed only one house was left on the former Ebenezer Sr. farm owned by William B. Davis, and Ebenezer Jr. had two houses, one behind the other. This seems to confirm Phalen’s assertion that Ebenezer Jr. moved the building from his father’s farm to his own. Tax valuations in 1872, 1875 and 1890 specify that Ebenezer Jr. owned a house and shop in addition to farm buildings.
While many questions remain about the Ebenezers’ bellows business, the recent donation of Davis items to our Society, the information in the Ebenezer Davis ledgers, and research into deeds and other documents have given us some insights into their manufacturing activities.
The first mention that we found of Davis bellows was in Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger. It involved Abraham B. Handley who had bought a new house on a small piece of Ebenezer Davis's land in 1826. On May 15, 1827, Abraham B. Handley was charged by Ebenezer $0.75 for three thousand Bellows Nails. On August 16, 1827, he was charged $0.50 to pay Ebenezer for carrying bellows to Boston. These entries imply that Handley may have been in the bellows manufacturing business first. However, another undated entry shows that Abraham Handley paid Ebenezer for 2 dozen 9-inch bellows and 3 dozen 5-inch pipes. (Given Ebenezer’s reuse of pages in his ledger, it is impossible be certain of the date, but another entry on the page is for Dec. 1831.) Could Handley and Ebenezer Davis Sr. both have been producing bellows? Was Abraham (eighteen years younger than Ebenezer Sr.) actually working for Ebenezer, or did they have a cooperative enterprise? The ledger also tells us that in Feb. 1827, Abraham’s 22-year-old sister Charlotte Handley began work for Ebenezer Sr. We do not know whether Charlotte was working in manufacturing or helping in the household. (We do know that she became Ebenezer’s second wife in 1839.)
The only other early ledger entry mentioning bellows was in 1831 when Jonas Wood (another employee) purchased two pairs of swell-top bellows. Unfortunately, it seems as if pages from Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger either were removed or fell out. Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger has a decade-long gap starting about 1834 that ends with a partial transaction involving bellows, and then there are many other bellows transactions starting in 1844.
Though a number of Ebenezer Sr.’s activities during the 1834-1844 period are missing, Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger, starting at the end of 1839, fills in some of the gaps. In early 1840, Ebenezer Jr. recorded buying Sheepskins, Morocco skins, scrap leather, 2 ounces of “bronze”, varnish, a varnish brush, and dozens of brass pipes. All of these were likely for bellows production. In March 1840, Ebenezer Jr. paid neighbor Ephraim Oliver for “swelling” 30 dozen boards, presumably part of the process of creating swell-top bellows. Starting in April, Ebenezer Jr. recorded sales of dozens of bellows of various sizes (flat, flat fancy, common, swell top, brass-nailed, and, later, oval and “custom”). He noted traveling to Boston, Salem, Lexington and Woburn, apparently to sell his products. Research in newspapers showed that his customers were mostly hardware merchants.
The two Ebenezers seem to have made bellows separately but cooperatively. Starting In Feb. 1841, Ebenezer Jr. noted that he was delivering and selling his father’s bellows as well as his own. In March 1841, he noted that “George” had worked for “father” for seven days. Ebenezer Jr. also noted others who worked for him at times (without noting what they did) including Amos Handley, E Oliver, Kinsley, and A. Robbins.
Ebenezer Jr.’s bellows sales were listed in his ledger consecutively until early 1844, after which there are only a few, sporadic entries in his ledger. Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger picks up again in 1844 with a partial entry (undated), followed by a Sept. 12, 1844 sale of 13 dozen bellows to Proctor and Butter. Ebenezer Sr.’s bellows sales continued, including some sales to his son. The last entry was on Nov. 8, 1849. Perhaps Ebenezer Sr. had run out of pages in the ledger, but there are no more entries after 1849.
One point of confusion among local historians is how long the Davis bellows business actually lasted. Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger had some blank pages and some that were used for mounting newspaper clippings, so there was room to record more bellows transactions if there had been any. He did record several pages of charges to the account of Silas Conant from July 5, 1849 to Dec. 1853, none involving bellows. Those entries were mostly for agricultural products and loans of money. Toward the end of Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger is a listing of notes (loans) from 1845 (including some involving his brothers-in-law) and a few other transactions. There is one random mention of bellows without a date or a customer at the back of the book, but there is no evidence from either Ebenezer’s ledger that the business continued beyond 1850.
Ebenezer Sr. died in 1851. His probate inventory listed bellows and bellows stock worth $150, the highest-value item in the listing aside from real estate and bank stock. Ebenezer Sr. also had many items and products related to his farm, including animals and swarms of bees. There were “shop tools,” “wood in shop,” “lumber in shop,” and “old lumber in old house,” but we have no other information about what those buildings were used for. It could reasonably be conjectured that since the “old house” contained “old lumber,” perhaps it could have functioned as a workshop for fabricating the bellows. Bedrooms on the second floor may have been used to house workers on the farm. Phalen indicated that Ebenezer Jr. moved the “bellows shop” building onto his own farm and used it to continue bellows production. We have found no actual evidence that he continued making bellows after his father’s death, and maps indicate that the building was moved after 1856. Given that bellows entries in the ledgers stop before 1850, Ebenezer Sr. died with valuable bellows stock in his possession, and over a century later, a large quantity of unassembled bellows parts were found on Ebenezer Jr.’s property, a possible scenario is that the business stopped right before Ebenezer Sr.’s death, and Ebenezer Jr. moved on to other ventures.
Ebenezer Jr.'s Other Businesses
Ebenezer Jr. certainly did not stop moving. Searches in online newspapers for mentions of Davis bellows yielded instead the insight that Ebenezer Jr. was a proud promoter of his agricultural products.
The Boston Cultivator reported on Oct. 7, 1843 that Ebenezer Davis of Acton was in the nursery businesses, “bringing forward a good number of trees, though none are yet fit for sale.” In November 1845, Ebenezer Jr. advertised in the Cultivator that he had about 25, 000 New England-adapted apple trees, from one to two years growth from the bud that had been “budded by my own hands on seedling stocks, and grown on dry light sandy soil.” He offered a number of varieties including Baldwin, Greenings, Russetts, Hubbardston, Nonsuch, Lyscom, Porter, Fall Pippin, Danvers Winter, a number of “Sweet” varieties (Orange, Russett, Newbury, Andover), and more. Potential customers were invited to his Acton nursery to inspect his stock. An ad that ran in Spring 1847 was similar except that he was offering 30,000 trees with one to three years growth from bud. He also mentioned that growing them in dry, light, sandy soil ensured “a good supply of excellent roots.” (Massachusetts Ploughman, April 17, 1847). Apparently, farmers sometimes sent produce to newspapers for review. Ebenezer Davis sent the Cultivator several varieties of apples along with detailed comments on the different varieties written by his brother-in-law Harris Cowdry that were published on Nov. 13, 1847.
On January 27, 1849, the Massachusetts Ploughman reported that the Middlesex Society of Husbandmen and Manufacturers had appointed a committee “to examine Farms, Reclaimed Meadows, Compost Manure and Fruit and Forest Trees.“ Twenty-eight farmers, including Ebenezer Davis, Jr., had applied for prizes for the best farm.
The committee visited the farms and awarded second place to Ebenezer Davis, Jr. Helpfully, the newspaper used Ebenezer’s application to describe his 140-acre farm. Sixty acres were woodland, thirty were pasture, and fifty were under cultivation. His soil was light and sandy. In 1847, he raised corn (producing over 400 bushels) on ten acres, among which he also grew beans and pumpkins. He had recently broken ten acres on which he raised 154 bushels of rye, and he raised 200 bushels of oats on six acres. He raised 500 bushels of potatoes, but half of the crop was diseased. He cut thirty tons of hay, kept cows that produced milk and butter in excess of the needs of his family, and raised hogs in the winter. He also had at least a horse and a pair of oxen and wintered others. He had devoted two and a half acres to his Nursery business. Ebenezer stated that he had hired help equal to three men for eight months (at $15 per month) and one man at $10 per month for the rest of the year. In the months after his application, Ebenezer Jr. had raised his barn 18 inches and put a cellar under it (half for manure storage and half for root crop and fruit storage), set out 200 apple trees, and built 30 rods of stone wall. When the Committee visited his farm in September 1848, he had sixteen acres of corn, two of potatoes, and two of rutabaga, having also raised four acres of oats and cut forty tons of “English Hay” and four of “Meadow Hay.” “About fifty acres of his farm, being chiefly worn out and stony pasture, Mr. Davis purchased in 1845. Of this portion, he had ploughed and brought into a tolerably productive condition, sixteen acres.”
Ebenezer Davis Jr. farm pictures taken by Robert I. Davis c. 1890
As if Ebenezer Jr. did not have enough going on in the 1840s, he had bought the home farm of the late William Stearns down Great Road in 1845. The land had once belonged to Mark White Jr. Ebenezer Jr.’s description indicated that the land was worn out, but it included a section of Nashoba Brook (downstream from the Davis farms and the original mill site purchased by Gershom Davis). According to an 1848 deed obtaining water-flowing rights from Luther Conant who owned the land immediately upstream, Ebenezer Jr. built a dam across the brook in 1845. Ebenezer built a large mill that would utilize the water power in 1847. According to a 1969 article by Brewster Conant, Ebenezer kept another ledger or journal that documented the purchasing of materials for the mill, the digging of the cellar hole in July 1847 and construction into September of that year. Apparently, on October 1, 1847 William Schouler moved in to operate a print (flannel) works, and Benjamin Davis later operated a sash and blind business at the site. The Conant article is the only source we have found about this additional ledger.
Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger (owned by the Concord Museum) has a list of his debts in Spring 1845, presumably because of the purchase of the Stearns property. Building the mill was probably expensive. Ebenezer Jr. mortgaged 100 acres of his farm to his brother-in-law Harris Cowdry for $1,000 in 1849 (with an outstanding mortgage to Keziah Stearns dated June 16, 1845.) In 1850, Ebenezer Jr. sold most of the Stearns land on Great Road to Robert Boss of Charlestown. (See blog post about Captain Robert Boss). Ebenezer Jr. kept two acres for the mill and at least part of the mill pond. Ebenezer reserved the right to cross Boss’s land to the Davis mill and factory and the right “to flow his pond over the said land to the height and in the manner said Davis and his lessees have hitherto flowed the same.” (Managing the flow of water would be critical to the successful operation of the mill.)
In the 1850 valuation, Ebenezer Davis Jr. was one of the larger taxpayers in town, owning valuable buildings and tied for having the second-most acres of improved land. Despite the fact that he clearly had water rights for his mill, he was not taxed for a “water privilege,” which, along with the deed to Robert Boss, suggests that he had leased the mill usage to someone else (probably William Schouler, a non-resident whose assessment included a water privilege). Though some have suggested that Ebenezer Jr. built his mill for his bellows business, we have found no evidence that that is true, and town histories do not raise that possibility.
In 1852, Ebenezer started petitioning the town to lay out a road past his mill so that he would not have to cross Robert Boss’s land. It took several attempts to get the town to fund it, but in 1854 today’s Brook Street was laid out between Great Road and Main Street, passing right by Ebenezer Jr.’s mill site. The 1860 tax valuation assessed Ebenezer’s “Mills, water power, &c.” at $2,000. Ebenezer Jr. held onto the mill until 1865 when he sold the site to Martha Ball. The deed of sale did not specifically mention a residence, only “buildings thereon,” and a mill in particular. However, two of the town’s warrant items dealing with Ebenezer’s petitions specified that the road would pass by Ebenezer’s “house and mill” or “house and Factory,” so it seems that the house on the site dates from 1852 at the latest. Presumably he rented it out, as there is no evidence that he ever lived in it.
Back on the Farm
Whatever Ebenezer Davis Jr.’s other activities were, he kept innovating on his farm. The Worcester Palladium of Sept. 23, 1857 reported that sugar cane was being grown in Acton by Eben Davis who had two acres’ worth and planned to extract the juice for sugar.
Ebenezer Jr. continued displaying his farm produce at agricultural fairs. His tempting clusters of Sweet Water grapes at the Middlesex Agricultural Society’s exhibition were mentioned in the New England Farmer on Sept. 28, 1861. The Lowell Daily Courier of June 22, 1869 mentioned Ebenezer Davis had sent luscious strawberries from Acton. “Mr. Davis is well known as a successful horticulturist, and he has for many years been a large contributor to our agricultural exhibitions.” On Sept. 6, 1871, Eben Davis of Acton was noted in the Daily Evening Traveller for displaying a fine basket of fruit at the New England Agricultural Society’s annual fair.
Never one to miss an opportunity, after the railroad came through East Acton, Eben Davis advertised in Boston’s July 13, 1872 Daily Evening Transcript “Summer Board in Acton,” offering accommodations for up to four people at a pleasant location near a depot.
We did not find much mention of Ebenezer Davis Jr. in later newspapers. One might have assumed that the busy Ebenezer had finally slowed down. However, perhaps he had more to think about close to home. On Oct. 11, 1873, 62-year-old Ebenezer Davis Jr. married 23-year-old Mattie/Minnie Snow. She was born either in Germany or Massachusetts, apparently to W. and Sophie Snow. So far, genealogical research has turned up no clues about Minnie’s ancestry and where exactly she came from (and when). The couple settled on Ebenezer Jr.’s farm and had son Wendell F. Davis on Dec. 25, 1876. Wendell F. Davis was the last of the family to live at the Ebenezer Davis Jr. farm. Ebenezer Davis Jr. died July 20, 1890 in Acton. Fortunately, his grandson Robert I. Davis visited Acton and took pictures of the farm that have been donated to our Society. He also took pictures of people, presumably family members, whom we are trying to identify.
More Davis Information Needed
We know that as late as the 1960s, other documents existed that might shed more light on the lives and businesses of Ebenezer Davis Sr. and Jr. In addition to the Ebenezer Jr. ledger/journal that mentioned the building of the factory in 1847, there was also a journal kept by Eben H. Davis, son of Ebenezer Jr. We have only a partial transcription of that journal. It would be very helpful to have access to those documents to learn more. In addition, we have a number of photos from Eben H. Davis’s son Robert for which we do not have identification. Family photos probably exist elsewhere that could help us to identify people in the pictures. If you know more about this family or have items that could be shared, we would be grateful to hear from you. Please contact us.
Some Sources Consulted
Preparing for the Society’s latest exhibit on the history of Acton’s schools has led to a flurry of research into some of the lesser-documented schoolhouses in town. East Acton’s schools have been surprisingly challenging to pin down. East Acton was not consistently treated as a distinct school district. Its schoolhouses were used for a relatively short time and then sold off for other purposes, sometimes to be moved down the street or even out of town. In addition, some of our most helpful sources on school history were written by people from other parts of the town; East Acton school information has proved harder to verify.
In Acton’s earliest years as a town, individuals were paid to keep a school, presumably in their own house or sometimes in a privately-built schoolhouse. During the 1740s-1760s, the town was divided into a varying number of school districts - first three, then six, then five, then six again. In 1771, the town decided to build (or buy) schoolhouses. One of the existing schoolhouses was on today’s Strawberry Hill Road, perhaps at about today’s #13. (Though that location has been suggested on a historical map from about 1890, so far, no early deed or map has been found to pinpoint the exact location. We only know that it was “near Solomon Burgess” who lived on the north side of Strawberry Hill Road past its intersection with today’s Esterbrook Road.) A vote in May 1795 affirmed (briefly) that this school was going to stay in service, although town meetings’ frequent reconsidering of school locations complicates the job of understanding school history. In the late 1790s, there was also a schoolhouse standing somewhere near the corner of Main Street and Harris St. that would have served North Acton.
In November 1800, the town voted to pay Daniel Davis for building a new school at the corner of Great Road and what is now Davis Road. Unlike many reconsidered decisions, this vote apparently led to actual building, because in December 1800 the town debated how they would use the newly built schoolhouse. The issue was whether they would send students from the East and North districts to the new school on Great Road or keep the students in separate districts. They voted to combine the North and East school districts into the new schoolhouse and sell off the old schoolhouse on Strawberry Hill Road and the one around today’s Harris St. The schoolhouses were both sold to David Barnard in Dec. 1800; their eventual fate is unknown. According to an 1849 school report, the 1800 combined schoolhouse was square, four-roofed and one-storied, similar to one that had been built in the town center, also by Captain Daniel Davis. The schoolhouses were painted red with white window trim and Spanish brown roofs in about 1803 (but not before a reconsidering vote on the roof color).
The combined school district was not universally favored. The idea of splitting it up again was debated and dismissed in 1803 and 1818. In 1820, John White Jr. and others offered to raise the money independently to pay for a schoolhouse in their part of the district. Evidently that did not pan out, because in 1824, the town again was asked to split the district and elected a committee to look into the matter. In May 1826, the town voted to to purchase land and build two new brick school houses in the “east part of Acton.” Shortly thereafter, they reconsidered their decision. Bricks had been bought already and were given to the Selectmen to dispose of. (This required discussion at two additional town meetings and a second vote in 1827.) The debates continued. In 1832, John White and others tried to opt out of the combined district; that option was also dismissed. So many reconsiderations happened that it is tricky to understand exactly when the issue was finally resolved.
In May 1839, the town agreed to make North and East Acton separate districts and to furnish them with brick schoolhouses. The old schoolhouse was to be sold. The North School seems to have been built promptly. Perhaps with too much optimism, it was decided that the East school would be built after agreement was reached on where to site it. There has been quite a bit of confusion among local historians about this school, certainly understandable given the town’s voting record. Some seem to have decided that the brick schoolhouse was never built in East Acton (including Phalen, author of a town history), but that idea is refuted by later records. In April 1841, the task of finding land for the East Schoolhouse was delegated to the selectmen. Although the warrant for the May 1841 meeting asked the town to reconsider that vote, the “decision” at that meeting was to postpone the reconsidering discussion indefinitely. The selectmen seem to have gotten on with the job, because on Sept 20, 1841, William Billings sold the town a piece of land for the new schoolhouse, about 3.5 square rods of land on the north side of the “town road from Acton meeting house to Nathan Brooks” (Strawberry Hill Road) for twenty-five dollars. The site of the brick schoolhouse was shown on four different maps that were drawn up during the school’s period of service. All the maps place the brick schoolhouse on the north side of Strawberry Hill Road, roughly opposite today’s #13.
The April 1849 school report describes the new school:
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.
Sadly, so far, no photograph has been uncovered of the brick East School building. The wooden 1800 schoolhouse eventually migrated up today’s Davis Road and became the second story of an outbuilding on the Ebenezer Davis Jr. farm. A photograph taken by a Davis descendant in the 1890s shows the square schoolhouse installed above a structure with wide doors apparently used for storage. A 1968 picture shows the old schoolhouse above what by then was Wendell Davis’s garage. It is still there today.
Acton School Committee reports are available back to the late 1840s. One can learn about the progress and failures of each school and its teachers. They can make enlightening reading. It was customary to hire a female teacher for the spring and summer terms but to hire a male teacher, often a college student trying to supplement his income, during the winter term. The 1860-1861 report informs us that as an experiment, Susan Augusta Davis, who had been a student in the East Acton brick school herself a few years earlier, taught there the entire year. The result:
The Winter School was an experiment. It proved a very successful one. The committee believed this school sufficiently civilized and humanized to be well managed by an intelligent female teacher.... We think the work of this teacher day by day, equal to any other in this grade of school ... If we can find such female teachers as Miss D. – and there are many of them – we can have at least one-third more school for the same money heretofore expended for male teachers, some of whom, doubtless, came here mainly to recruit their worn bodies, or fill their empty purses. (School Committee Report 1860-1861, page 21.)
It was nice of Miss Davis to teach more hours in the East Acton schoolroom and save the town money.
New Becomes Old
Unfortunately, one generation’s “substantial and convenient” building can turn into a later generation’s “smaller” and “inconvenient.” The brick schoolhouse got hard use. As early as 1862, some were advocating for new school buildings in town, but resources were extremely strained by “this grievous war.” No building was done at that time, but the school committee mentioned that “if a change of house is really needed in any district, it is in the East. Their house is more worn, smaller and more inconvenient in proportion to the number of scholars than any other in town.” (1861-1862 School report, page 20) It was not until the 1870-1871 report that a “nice and commodious" schoolhouse had been built. It was a wooden building at about today’s 209 Great Road (around the corner from the Strawberry Hill Road location). The next few years saw wooden schoolhouses also built in the South, West, Center and North districts.
The c. 1841 brick schoolhouse was sold in 1870 to Henry Brooks who owned the abutting land. From 1875 and 1889 maps, it appears that he used the building as a paint shop. Ida (Hapgood) Harris, a teacher in the East Acton school in the 1890s, wrote a brief history of the Acton schools. She stated that the East Acton brick schoolhouse had stood on the left side of the road as one was heading away from Great Road, but by the time she was writing in 1937, it was no longer standing.
The 1870 wooden schoolhouse was used through Spring 1897. By that time, views of education were changing. Classrooms in which one teacher taught up to eight grades were no longer in favor with educational experts. Apparently, not everyone agreed. It took several years of persuasion by the School Committee and others to make a change. Part of the problem was transportation. Residents from East Acton in June 1896 petitioned to use the funds being spent on the East School to pay for transportation of its students to the Center School. The town refused. This may explain why, in advance of the April 5, 1897 town meeting, a number of East Acton residents signed a protest petition against closing the East Acton school. Whether or not the petition had its intended effect, the Town finally voted to pay to transport the East Acton scholars.
The East School was closed and its students were transported to the Center school starting in Fall 1897. (The North school followed in 1899.) The East schoolhouse was sold off. It went to Isaac R. Beharrell, a carpenter and contractor who moved it to West Concord and apparently used it as an office for his business there. We have not yet found out what eventually happened to that East School house. Does it still exist somewhere in West Concord? Was it later torn down? Does anyone have a picture of it during its time in Concord or while it was in East Acton? Please contact us if you can help.
Vestiges of East Acton's Schools
The Society owns some items related to the East Acton school district in addition to the 1897 petition pictured above. A listing of all students in the "East" district is discussed in a separate blog post. Another document was produced by early-1850s East Acton students, tallying up contributions toward a gift for their teacher Luther Conant, Jr.
The Society also owns two large keys, both of which were said by the donors to have unlocked an East Acton schoolhouse. Both had connections to the Henry M. Smith family of Brook Street.
A large iron key was donated by the wife of Henry M. Smith’s son Charles; she said that it unlocked an East Acton schoolhouse. A brass key engraved with “Wm. B. Davis” had a tag on it (in Henry’s daughter Martha’s handwriting) stating that “This locked the door of the old brick school house in East Acton.” The brass key was found in Martha Smith’s house at 260 Great Road (torn down decades ago to make way for a shopping center).
The tag would seem to be a definitive identification for the brass key, except that consultation with an architect knowledgeable in local history and building practices indicated that the brass key was more consistent with an 1870s door lock, while the larger iron key would be a more logical fit with an 1840s lock. Note that William B. Davis was the school committee member responsible for the East School at the time of transition from the brick to the wooden schoolhouse. He probably had a key to both schools. Both keys seem to have ended up in the Smith family.
As mentioned, we have no photographs of the brick East Acton schoolhouse. The Society does own photos that we believe, for numerous reasons, are of the 1870 East Acton schoolhouse. It is in keeping with all of our adventures in the East District that the identification was not simple. The best-identified photo included schoolchildren.
The back of the photos says (probably written at least in part by a Society volunteer):
East Acton School Harris St.
Danny Wilson age 9
Effie Wilson Age 6
Gift to the Library by Mrs. Bertha Wilson Joslin, 3 Bow St. Concord, Mass.
We are very grateful to Bertha Wilson Joslin for her donation. We believe that it solves our photo identification problems, despite the fact that someone gave the wrong address for the East Acton School. (Harris Street was for some years the site of the North Acton School, never the one in East Acton.) To confirm that the photograph was, in fact, East Acton’s school, we researched the family of Danny, Effie, and Bertha Wilson. They were all children of John Dwight Wilson and Agnes Maria Andrews who came down from Maine (where Danny and Effie were born). John took a job as a prison guard at the Concord Reformatory in 1887. At first, our research made us think that we might never prove where they lived in Acton and where their children would have gone to school. Our late 1880s maps seem to focus on owners, not renters, and we did not find the Wilsons. There is no 1890 census to help. The 1890 town valuation shows that John Wilson was not a property owner; his name was on a list of people who only paid poll tax. Luckily for us, however, another record exists. On August 2, 1889, Agnes Bertha Wilson was born to parents John and Agnes. Unusually, the town clerk that year listed in birth records the section of Acton in which the parents lived, instead of simply writing “Acton.” The Wilsons in August 1889 were indeed living in East Acton, meaning that their children would have attended the East Acton school on Great Road, and we had an identification for the schoolhouse.
Finally identifying East School pictures because of Bertha Joslin's donation is a reminder that our ability to answer questions about Acton’s people and history is often dependent upon whether or not someone happens to have donated an item that gives us the clues we need. If other photos of the East Acton school (and other Acton scenes) still exist, having copies in our archives would be a big help to future researchers.
A donor just brought to Jenks Library a World-War 1 ere photo album that had been in the possession of a member of the Fullonton family of South Acton.
No photos in this album are labelled, unfortunately. It is not yet known whose album this was originally, but we were able to put together some clues to help narrow it down.
There are many pictures of soldiers in uniform as well as of others, undoubtedly family and friends. Some of the pictures may have been taken earlier. There are only a few clues about where the photos were taken or of whom:
To see more pages, see the full scanned album, available in our Unidentified Photos Section:
Our document collection contains a way bill listing passengers who rode a stagecoach from Boston on Saturday, Dec. 2, 1843. Among the passengers was Mr. Noyes who caught the coach at “Earl House” and headed to Acton. The document is a souvenir of travel just before Acton’s transportation choices changed dramatically.
Prior to the arrival of the Fitchburg Railroad in 1844, as Fletcher’s Acton in History tells us, travel to and from Boston “was slow and difficult. The country trader’s merchandise had to be hauled by means of ox or horse-teams from the city. Lines of stage-coaches indeed radiated in all directions from the city for the conveyance of passengers, but so much time was consumed in going and returning by this conveyance that a stop over night was absolutely necessary if any business was to be done. ... a visit to Boston before the era of the railroad was something to be planned as a matter of serious concern. All the internal commerce between city and country necessitated stage-coaches and teams of every description, and on all the main lines of road might be seen long lines of four and eight-horse teams conveying merchandise to and from the city. As a matter of necessity, taverns and hostelries were numerous and generally well patronized.” (p. 268)
Coaches required fresh teams of horses at intervals, so stops were usually made every 8-12 miles. Acton had taverns before the stage routes (for example Mark White’s at 274 Great Road and Jones Tavern in South Acton), but as stage travel became more prevalent, taverns and inns multiplied as well.
Shattuck’s History of Concord says that the first public stagecoaches came from Boston “into the country through Concord, in 1791, by Messrs. John Vose & Co.” (p. 205) Ads for stages between Boston “and the country north-west thereof” were being advertised in the Columbian Centinel in 1793, leaving from Charlestown and passing through Concord and Groton. Acton was not mentioned specifically, but presumably stages traveled via today’s Great Road, coming from Concord, through East Acton, by Nagog Pond, and on into Littleton. That route was noted as “Littleton Road” on a map drawn by Jabez Brown in 1794 and was also in early days referred to as the Groton Road. Like later decisions about railroad routes, decisions made elsewhere about stage and mail routes would have significant effects on businesses in outlying towns. The Columbian Centinel ran a series of proposals in 1794 that indicated that the mail route from Boston to Keene and other points in New Hampshire had not yet been settled. It would either go through Concord and Lancaster or Concord and Groton. Later, there seem to have been disputes among “interested persons” such as innkeepers about whether there was a significant difference in distance between the Groton-to-Lexington routes via Carlisle or Concord. (Green’s Historical Sketch, p. 193)
By June 1810, the Boston Patriot was running ads for competing stage lines that explicitly mentioned Acton. Luther Carlton advertised the Concord, Harvard & Winchendon Stage that left Boston on Wednesdays & Saturdays at 7 a.m., passing through West Cambridge, Lexington, Concord, Acton, Boxborough, Harvard, Shirley, Lunenburg, and Fitchburg. (On Saturdays, it continued on to Ashburnham and Winchendon.) Return trips were on Mondays and Fridays. (June 23, p. 4) Meanwhile, a “new Arrangement of the old Concord and Leominster MAIL STAGE” was leaving Boston on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 5 a.m. going through Cambridge, West Cambridge, Lexington, North Lincoln, Concord, South Acton, Stow, Bolton, Lancaster, Leominster, South Fitchburg, Westminster, Gardner, Templeton, Gerry and Athol. The return stage left Athol at 4 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, arriving in Boston in the evening. The latter ad noted that the meal stop was at the Hotel in Concord. (June 2, p. 4)
On March 16, 1827, the Boston Traveler advertised that the Boston and Keene Union Stage Company ran a daily stage line leaving Boston at 5 a. m., passing through Lexington, Concord, Acton, Groton, Townsend, Ashby, Rindge (NH), Fitzwilliam (NH), Troy (NH), and Keene (NH), arriving at 5 p.m. in Charlestown (NH). Connections from Keene and Charlestown allowed travelers to continue on to points in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Saratoga Springs. “The Company have been to great expense in purchasing the best of horses and carriages and employing the most careful and obliging drivers, and have spared no pains in establishing the line that it shall not be exceeded by any other from Boston for dispatch and convenience of passengers. They have fourteen changes of teams between Boston and Charlestown, giving only about eight miles for each set of horses.” (p. 3)
Stage coach stops such as those advertised by the Union Stage Company encouraged the growth of taverns and inns. Fletcher tells us that “in the east part of Acton, on the road leading from Boston to Keene, there were no less than four or five houses of public entertainment.” (p. 268) An 1831 map shows “Weatherbee’s” (65 Great Road), “Hatgood’s” (really Hapgood’s at 162 Great Road) and White’s (514 Great Road) taverns along Groton Road. The earlier White’s Tavern had been opened in 1755 and operated for a number of years, but it was not in operation in 1831. Fletcher’s History also notes that additional demand for taverns was from drovers who would accompany livestock to their summering pastures in New Hampshire. Wetherbee’s Tavern was well-known to drovers and drivers of baggage-wagons all the way to Canada. (Fletcher, p. 294)
Another stage route through Acton followed the Union Turnpike, although as originally surveyed, it had some steep grades farther west that were not popular with stage coach drivers. During the cash-strapped post-Revolutionary War years, the expansion of long-distance roads was often accomplished by for-profit ventures that would involve building a road and then collecting tolls, often at bridges. The Union Turnpike was approved by the Massachusetts Legislature in March 1804 and started operating in 1809. Joel Hosmer of Acton, seeing a business opportunity, enlarged his father’s house at 471 Massachusetts Avenue along the Union Turnpike route to serve as a tavern. (Joel Hosmer appears as one of the names attached to the Union Turnpike Corporation in the legislative act that established it.) The History of Harvard tells us that once Harvard got its own post office around 1811, the Harvard, Lunenburg and Winchendon stage would come with mail and passengers from Concord over the Union Turnpike. Those coaches would stop at a tavern in Harvard (the half-way point) for meals. Hosmer’s Tavern, like the Turnpike itself, was not a profitable venture. The Union Turnpike’s competitor route, the Lancaster and Bolton Turnpike, had easier grades. After the Union Turnpike’s bridge in Harvard was swept away by flooding in 1818, it was not rebuilt. The overly-steep grades were eventually abandoned and what was left of the turnpike in Middlesex County became a public road in 1830. Today, Acton’s Massachusetts Avenue (Route 111) follows the route of the old turnpike.
During the 1830s, changes in transportation were happening elsewhere, but coaches kept running through Acton. The Daily Evening Transcript on Sept. 2, 1833 advertised the Lunenburg & Boston Mail Stage, leaving Boston on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 a. m., arriving in Lunenburg at 4 p.m., passing through Cambridge, Concord, Acton, Harvard, Still River Village, Shirley Village, and Shirley. One could buy tickets at Brigham’s, 42 Hanover Street, from proprietor William Shepherd.
The Bay State Democrat ran an ad on June 3, 1840 for a new line of post coaches to Harvard, MA that would go from 9 Court Street, Boston, via Cambridge, West Cambridge, Lexington, Bedford, Concord, Acton and Boxboro on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Worcester Palladium advertised on March 31, 1841 proposed (presumably mail) routes, for two-horse coaches. The first was from Concord to Shirley by way of Acton, Boxboro and Harvard, 18 miles in four hours (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, to leave at 2 p.m.). The return trip was to leave Shirley on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m. The second route was from Worcester to Lowell, going through Boylston, Berlin, Feltonville, Stow, Acton and Chelmsford. We found no further information on the latter route.
In terms of time and place, the ad most relevant to our way bill was found in the March 24, 1843 Boston Traveler. U.S. Mail Coaches would start out from Boston at 10 A. M., leaving from the office at 9 Court Street and 36 Hanover Street on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for Lexington, Concord, Acton, Boxboro, Harvard, Shirley Village and Leominster Village. The return trip was from Harvard at 9 A. M. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Our way bill was a Saturday run with 12 passengers (including some children). Mr. Noyes left for Acton from Earl House, listed in the 1842 Boston Almanac as Earl’s Coffee House, operating at 36 Hanover Street. The driver, P. Harrington, may have been Phineas Harrington who, according to Samuel A. Green’s Groton history, had a long career as a stage coach driver in the area.
By the time Mr. Noyes took his trip to Acton in Dec. 1843, transportation patterns were changing. Railroads were already providing an alternative to stagecoaches elsewhere. The Fitchburg Railroad was completed to West Acton in the autumn of 1844, and Fletcher says, “that village became a distributing point for the delivery of goods destined for more remote points.” (p. 268) An ad from the Boston Courier on Oct. 28, 1844 tells us that “down trains” to Charlestown would leave West Acton at 7:36 and 10:51 am and around 5 p.m. Trains from Charlestown would leave at 8 a.m. and 1 and 4:30 p.m. After the 8 a.m. train arrived in Acton, stages would leave from there every day except Sunday for “Littleton, Groton, Townsend, Lunenburg, Fitchburg, Ashburnham, Winchendon, Westminster, South Gardner, Templeton, Phillipston, Athol, Mass.; Fitzwilliam, Troy, Swansey, Keene, Walpole, Charlestown, N. H.; Chester, Windsor, Woodstock, Rutland, Middlebury, Royalton, Montpelier, and Burlington, Vt.” There were other stages that only traveled three days per week for points in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, as well as Albany, NY. After the first train arrived in Acton just after 11 a.m., stages would leave for “Stow, Boxboro’, Bolton, Harvard, Lancaster, Leominster and Fitchburg” on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and for Littleton and Groton on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
As the railroad was extended and lines proliferated, transportation patterns changed rapidly. Both South and West Acton kept growing thanks to the railroad, but Acton was only a stage hub for so many other destinations for a short time. Eventually, stagecoaches became a thing of the past. We are lucky to have in our archives a tangible reminder of those earlier days.
We are also grateful to the following websites for sharing information and sources on stage routes in other towns (all accessed April 23, 2023):
Ella Miller’s five-year diaries at our Society give us an idea of what life was like for a career Acton schoolteacher at the beginning of the twentieth century. An issue that Ella mentioned often was the complications she faced in getting to and from work.
As mentioned in our previous blog post, Ella’s earliest teaching job would have presented few commuting problems. After graduation from Framingham Normal School in the spring of 1896, she started teaching that fall in the same schoolhouse that she had attended in North Acton around the corner from her home. Ella’s time teaching in North Acton was the end of an era. One-room schoolhouses were being consolidated into larger schools. In the fall of 1899, Ella and the students from North Acton were sent to the “Centre” school on Meetinghouse Hill, following the East Acton school that had been closed in 1897. Southeastern Acton students were sent to the South Acton school the year before that. The idea behind the consolidations was that they would improve students’ educational experience by reducing the number of grades a teacher needed to handle. Ella became teacher of the Center school’s intermediate students, with grades 4-6 in her classroom.
The move to the Center School, while it may have reduced Ella’s in-classroom complications, added complexity to her travels to and from her North Acton home. The distance was a little less than two miles, by today’s standards a miraculously short commute. In Ella’s day, those miles could be a challenge. Though she lived near train tracks, the trains, even if they came through at the right time, did not go to Acton center. Ella, who would at the diaries’ beginning have been dressed in a long skirt and wearing a corset, found various ways to get to her job. There were days in all seasons when she would walk, either because of nice weather or lack of other options. On some days, she bicycled, and on others, her father gave her a ride in a horse-drawn vehicle. Without weather forecasts, there would have been plenty of room for error. On some days, she optimistically took her “wheel” to school, only to be faced with rain in the afternoon.
Even if her father hitched up a horse and took her to work, there were factors to consider. Was there mud, ice, or snow to deal with? Occasionally Ella would mention that the conditions were “so slippery and horse smooth” that the going was extremely difficult; the horse’s shoes had to match road conditions. There was also an important decision to make about whether to take a wheeled vehicle or use “runners” for going over snow. Once choices were made, occasional mishaps were inevitable. In Jan. 1909, she reported that she had gone to school in the sleigh, but the going was rough. On one memorable day in Feb. 1911, a man who sometimes worked on the Miller farm took Ella in the sleigh. En route, “a runner broke & lowered my side to the ground. Came back and went in the wagon.” The following day, the sleigh went to the blacksmith’s shop. The Millers put their “democrat” wagon on runners, and after that it was “fine sleighing.”
As snow receded, road conditions were variable and a real challenge. She walked home on Feb. 26 and 27, 1914 and said “Rather hard walking because snow is getting soft & makes it slumpy.” Then came mud season. On March 8, 1912, Ella wrote “Getting muddy but snow lingers in patches, slippery in shady places on the road.” On March 31, 1918, she wrote “A bad mud spot for autos just north of the house. Pa had to help Mr. Park of Chelmsford out with the horse & warned others.” The following March, Ella noted that there was “an auto stuck in the mud for 2 hours out here toward dusk.” Sometimes, other people made the roads even worse. In December 1914, Ella noted that “The trucks carrying Halls’ logs are making bad work of the roads, especially down beyond Hollowells”.
When, finally, the roads dried up, Ella could ride her bicycle to school. Ella would note in her diary when she took her first spring ride. Not surprisingly, she would occasionally have issues with her bicycle. The second day of school in September 1908, her pedal came off, and there were inevitable problems with wheels and tires. Her neighbor Elmer Cheney often helped her with repairs, putting in a new valve or adding “Neverleak” to a tire. Sometimes if it rained after school, she would ride home anyway. She was a hardy person, but even she mentioned at the end of October 1914 that she’d gotten chilled coming home on her bicycle. (There was a little snow that morning, and it reached 33 degrees at night). She must have been particularly determined (or desperate) on Dec. 2, 1918 when she rode her bicycle at 16 degrees.
The one option that Ella had for public transportation was to take the “barge” that the town provided for students from outlying areas to get to school. The barge was horse-drawn and provided (some) protection from the weather. Ella seems to have made a practice of taking the barge only when it was particularly needed. She mentioned conditions that induced her to take the barge; muddy roads, rain, thunder and high wind, sub-zero temperatures, a major snowstorm, and her family horse being lame. On May 11, 1917 she wrote that she “came home in barge every night, partly because of ironing, cooking, weather & Aunt Eliza being here.”
Riding the barge was not a perfect commuting solution. The barge drivers had the same issues with deciding between wheels and runners as did the Millers. Some days were tough going. Children’s absences were often blamed on late barges, but Ella couldn’t afford to be late. On March 6, 1923, Ella reported that the “East Acton school barge tipped over yesterday morning on the way to school and several children had slight bruises.” There were also occasional behavioral incidents during the trips. On Feb. 8, 1912, Superintendent Hill came to school at Ella’s request to talk with a student “about his immoral language in the barge.” On December 15, 1921, Ella reported “Trouble in the North Acton barge going home last night – Boys pounding Kathleen so she didn’t come to school.” That incident led to another superintendent’s visit.
By the 1910s, some people in Ella’s acquaintance had bought automobiles. Superintendents in early days covered multiple towns. In 1910, superintendent Frank Hill supervised Acton, Littleton and Westford. The 1911 reorganization of the district to include Carlisle seems to have become too much, and Mr. Hill started making his trek by auto. In April 1915, Ella’s co-teacher and friend Martha Smith got an automobile. In the later 1910s, Ella would sometimes get rides get rides from Miss Smith and others. Over the years of Ella’s diaries, it is interesting to note that while some, like the Smiths, started traveling by auto, the horse remained the means of transportation for many. As late as January 1926, Ella noted that it was icy for autos that morning, so “Pa got horse sharpened.” Even though cars would have solved many commuting problems, they added their own as well. In 1917, Ella mentioned that “Miss Smith wrenched her back cranking auto last night. Feeling mean but came to school.” (Mean was Ella’s term for sick or sore.) On two other occasions, Ella mentioned men breaking an arm while cranking their automobiles.
Other teachers had their own commuting issues. Those who were living in other towns might rely on trains. Ella noted in Dec. 1917 that Miss Barrett had not gotten to school until 9 o’clock because her train was late and she missed the barge at East Acton. Ella’s father picked her up with horse power. Miss Durkee, an hour late in March 1920, had resorted to snowshoes to get to school.
Whatever the mode of transportation, the condition of the roads mattered. Ella occasionally mentioned men working on the road, macadamizing (putting down gravel) or tarring. Snow clearing was a perpetual problem. In Feb. 1920, a storm dropped so much snow that men including Ella’s father shoveled the road by hand to make it wide enough for an auto. Later that week, Ella mentioned her father shoveling the North Acton driveway where drifts were four feet deep.
A particularly memorable road issue was caused by the Freeman family in 1914. On Sept. 6, Ella reported that Mr. Freeman had bought a little house and was going to move it onto Ruth Robbins’ North Acton land. At various times in October, Ella would mention which part of the road was affected that day. On Oct. 8, Ella mentioned that it was right across the road that evening. A week later, it was half way to the brook. On the 19th, “Freeman’s house is at the brook, so we go by through the brook.” The next day, “Freeman’s house was almost at the corner so we could go around the triangle.” On Sunday the 25th, “The autos have been very thick by here today & yesterday afternoon because Freeman’s house still blocks the state road.” Presumably the house reached its destination soon thereafter, because the traffic reports stopped.
A New Commute, Twice
In 1919, Ella’s mother passed away. It was time for a change. Ella bought a house just outside the center at 32 Concord Road. For a while, the family went “down home” to the farm periodically. There was a time when the property was rented, but eventually a buyer was found. The move to Concord Road would have made Ella’s commuting to the Center School considerably easier.
Snowy days were still a problem, of course. In January 1923, Ella tried skiing and liked it enough to buy skis of her own. She used them occasionally to get to work on days such as Jan. 15, 1923 when it was snowing hard and the barges had difficulty getting through. She learned later that winter that skis might not be so useful for getting home if the snow had softened up. The horse-drawn school barges were replaced by school busses in the fall of 1923. In the winter of 1924 and 1925, Ella mentioned that the busses had trouble getting through snow-filled roads and brought the children over an hour late. In Jan. 1925, a bus got stuck on “Pope’s Road” and didn’t deliver the last children home until 6:30 pm. Ella never mentioned missing the old sleighs in the winter, but it might have occurred to her.
Ironically, after moving closer to her work, Ella’s commute became longer again in 1926. After years of contention (see blog post), Acton finally had managed to agree to build a high school that opened up at Kelley’s corner on January 11, 1926. On March 1, 1926, the 7th grade went to that building with Ella as their teacher. Ella’s father borrowed the Smiths’ horse and took her to school that day. On the 10th and the 15th, Ella mentioned that the roads were slippery for the horse to cope with. On the 18th, a neighbor gave Pa some “never-slip” shoes for the horse that were put on by the blacksmith. Ella’s sister Loraine gave her a ride to and from work on the 16th, and that may have convinced Ella to buy her own car on the 20th, a Ford coupe (known to us as a Model T). Driving lessons followed from friends and her sister. Ella mentioned learning to back up and turn around in the field below the cemetery and practicing turning around “up on edge of Boxboro, at Mr. Tenney’s, Miss Conant’s, Taylor’s store & schoolyard.” Her father continued taking her by horsepower, but as the new school year began, on Sept. 7, 1926, Ella wrote that she began going back and forth in her own car. The freedom must have been welcome, although later entries showed that Ella started having familiar-sounding problems. As cold weather arrived, her car wouldn’t start. She got chains for her tires and needed repeated charges for her battery. Water, alcohol and glycerin were put into the radiator and taken out again. On one ride, she noticed her steering wheel wobbling badly. At other times, her foot pedals needed adjusting, and there were issues with her generator. At the beginning of the next school year she reported, “Had a new experience with the car – couldn’t start it without pushing because something locked.” That was soon followed by “Had the brakes + lights on my car tested by Harold Coughlin. One headlight was not working – a surprise to me.” In October, after a teachers’ meeting, Ella had to ask the superintendent to crank her car, not an ideal work situation.
We are missing Ella’s 1928-1932 diary, so we don’t know many of the details from those years. Driving must not have been a perfect solution for Ella. We learned from the Superintendent’s annual report that Ella moved back to the Center school, “nearer her home” in the fall of 1931. A relative newcomer, the superintendent reported that “at Acton Centre all teachers are new to the building,” which must have amused Ella after her many years there. She became principal of the Center school, and Marion Towne took over the seventh grade in the high school building.
By the time Ella was writing in her final diary, 1933-1935, she made a practice of not registering her car until April. She would find other ways to get to school in the winter months. (She did mention that the weather would have allowed her to take the car to school every day in January 1933 if it had been registered.) By March 1933, signs of her failing health were beginning to show. Ella, who had amazing energy in her younger days, mentioned that she was getting winded walking to and from school. Mr. Fobes started transporting her, for which she was grateful. Ella continued to drive in better weather. Two of Ella’s final diary entries related to her car. On May 16, 1935, she got an oil change and the next day she wrote “All in tonight. Managed to take car to W. Acton by appointment & left to be tested and brakes relined & for them to bring home.” Sadly, that seems to have been her last excursion. By then, her heart was apparently giving out. Her diary entries stopped on May 25, and, as her sister Loraine noted in the diary later, “Ella’s work ended” on June 4. The Centre Grammar School was closed during part of the next day so that her pupils could attend her funeral. At age 57, she had been the oldest and the longest-serving teacher in Acton.
As mentioned in our previous blog post, diaries can be a wonderful source of information about Acton in former days. At the Society’s Jenks Library, we are lucky to have a set of five-year diaries starting in 1908 kept by Ella Lizzie Miller, an Acton native who spent her nearly 39-year career teaching in Acton’s schools. Miller descendants have been very generous over the years, supplying our Society not only with Ella’s diaries, but with pictures, postcards, letters, memoirs, autograph books, and other items from the Miller family’s years in town. Before delving into the diaries, it seemed worthwhile to do some background research on Ella’s early life and her family.
Ella Lizzie Miller was the eldest child of Charles Isaac Miller and Lucy Elizabeth Keyes. Charles was born on Aug. 24, 1850 in Sudbury, Vermont. His father Samuel Cooley Miller died in 1852 of sepsis from a cut on his finger. The 1860 census shows Charles living with his mother, his Miller grandmother, and two siblings in Sudbury, VT. In April 1871, Charles was (supposedly temporarily) working as a brakeman for the Northern Railroad, coupling railroad cars of a freight train at Canaan, NH. His right arm got caught, and his arm had to be amputated above the elbow. Newspapers reported details of the accident but also that employees of the railroad presented him with a gift of $91.50.
Charles came to North Acton in 1873, around the time that the Nashua & Acton Railroad connected to the very sparsely-populated North Acton, branching off from the Framingham and Lowell that had arrived in 1871. Charles became the North Acton depot master, also serving as telegraph operator, switchman, and signal tender. According to Phalen’s history of Acton he “was so adept at handling freight and express with (his) attached hook that he was ever a marvel to the youngsters of the town.” (page 216) In January 1876, Charles bought from Daniel Harris ten acres between the Framingham and Lowell Railroad and the main road. That July, he bought an additional thirteen acres that went from the “Road to Lowell” (approximately #737 on today’s Main Street) to the “Mill Brook” (Nashoba Brook). The Framingham and Lowell Railroad ran through the land. The thirteen acres had once belonged to Aaron Woods and had been sold at auction the year before. (Aaron Woods' unsought fame was the subject of a previous blog post.)
Ella Miller’s mother was Lucy Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Keyes, born March 22, 1856 in Westford, MA. Her father Edward Keyes had died in South Carolina in August 1865, having served in the Union army for four years. For a while, Lizzie and her mother Lucy Ann (Robinson) lived in Groton with Lizzie’s grandmother. On May 23, 1872, Lizzie’s mother married Acton’s Isaac Train Flagg. Lizzie’s half-sister Edith Flagg was born March 11, 1875, and though Edith became Ella’s aunt, she really was her contemporary.
According to family records, Charles Miller married Lucy “Lizzie” Keyes on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 30, 1876 in North Acton. Four children followed: Ella Lizzie born Sept. 26, 1877, Alice Emma born March 10, 1879, Samuel Elmore born Nov. 25, 1881, and Loraine Esther born Nov. 6, 1884. Ella and her siblings grew up on the farm with the railroad running through their land behind the house, the depot just below, and the North Acton schoolhouse around the corner. The road in front led from Acton Center to Lowell.
If Ella kept diaries as a young woman, unfortunately they did not find their way to our Society. We have had to use other sources to put together her early life. She attended the white schoolhouse on what is now Harris Street. A picture from between 1888 and 1890 shows her and Blanche Varney as the oldest of the students taught in the building by Miss Jessie Jones. The Concord Enterprise gives us glimpses of Ella’s later academic career. In 1890, she was one of 22 students (only 2 from North Acton) who were admitted to the relatively new High School program. She became the managing (and inaugural) editor of the school literary magazine "The Actonian." Ella was one of five students who graduated in June 1894. At the ceremony, she was selected to give an address entitled “Oars and Sails.”
Town reports show that Ella L. Miller, while a member of the high school’s senior class, served as an assistant teacher in the South Primary School in Spring 1894. The School Committee’s annual report noted that “during the spring we were obliged, by the large number of pupils in attendance, to employ an assistant teacher and this assistant was compelled to take her classes into a corner of the schoolroom or to the cloak room, or the hallway, as the weather permitted.” (page 56) The hallways presumably would not have been heated. It was certainly an introduction to teaching with constrained resources.
Ella and fellow graduate Blanche Varney passed the entrance examination for Framingham Normal School, a teachers’ training college. This was particularly important because as late as the 1897-1898 school year, the Superintendent’s report noted that Acton’s high school was not approved by the State Board of Education. The 1890s were a time when the state and the towns were struggling with what constituted a legitimate high school, with issues such as the minimum number of teachers, years of study, and curriculum. Ella’s autograph book, in possession of the Society, shows that she was originally a member of the Class of 1893, but in 1893, the high school course was changed to four years, and apparently Ella was one of the few who continued on. Ella graduated from Framingham Normal School in 1896.
Ella was paid for teaching the North Acton school in the fall and winter of the 1896-1897 school year, taking over after the resignation of Lillian Richardson. Ella taught there for the next two years at a salary of $10 per week. In the Fall of 1899, the North Acton school was merged into the Center school, and Ella started teaching in the new “intermediate” division there (grades 4-6). Probably as a result of her change of school, a typo in the 1900 report said that Ella was “appointed,” starting her service in Acton schools, in 1899. The error was repeated in town reports for decades.
On March 17, 1897 (according to Ella’s later diaries), the family moved to Hudson where Charles bought farmland at about 181 Central Street. Charles still owned the North Acton farm, but he was trying to sell it. An ad attached to the back of a photograph owned by the Society reads: “FOR SALE - Thirteen-acre farm: fine vegetable garden: nice lot of sweet corn: asparagus and strawberry beds: good shade trees: excellent drinking water: house six rooms: barn: two henhouses: near railroad station and post office: half mile off State road from Boston to Ayer: two miles to center of town. Desirable for summer home or good location for poultry or small fruit farm. Price $3500. C. I. MILLER, North Acton." Someone wrote on the back of the picture that Charles did not find a buyer. He may have found someone else work the land in the meantime, however. Ella was teaching in North Acton, so we don’t know how she managed logistics. She might have stayed in the house or boarded with a family. Commuting that distance would not have been easy in those days, whether by horse or train. An Acton Center newspaper item in April 1903 mentioned that “Miss Loraine Miller of Hudson spent Monday with her sister, Miss Ella Miller,” giving the impression that Ella was staying in town at least some of the time.
Ella’s brother Sam started working for the Boston & Maine Railroad as a telegraph operator and ticket taker in 1899 and moved to Beverly. Ella’s sister Alice married Hudson neighbor Halden L. Coolidge in May 1904 and settled down at 205 Central Street, Hudson. Neither Sam nor Alice lived in Acton after that.
We do not know what precipitated Charles’ move to Hudson. His mother, who had remarried and spent many years in Wisconsin, came back to Vermont and passed away in 1895. We had hypothesized that she left him some money. However, Charles entered into various mortgage transactions in the 1900-1904 period, so he may have been feeling financially stretched. The mortgages were paid off. In October 1904, Charles transferred the thirteen-acre North Acton farm to Ella for the price of one dollar. In 1905, a buyer for the Hudson farm materialized, so Ella’s family returned to their North Acton farm late in the year.
Ella taught in Acton for eleven years before our diaries begin. Unfortunately, we only have brief snippets from newspapers to show what she was doing aside from teaching during that time. The Enterprise mentioned that Ella taught a Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor class in early 1896. In January, 1902, she hosted the Shakespeare Club. In August 1907, Ella, Martha Smith, and Sarah and Helen Wood took a vacation at York Beach, Maine (Aug. 14, 1907, p.8)
Ella’s parents became involved in the Grange in Hudson. When they were moving back to Acton in late 1905, about one hundred Grange members and neighbors showed up at a sendoff at Alice’s house. Ella and her parents became involved in the formation of the Acton Grange in March 1906. In 1907, Charles and Ella were both elected to Grange positions and Ella’s mother Lizzie was sent to the state Grange meeting as Acton’s delegate. The Grange would continue to be an important part of their lives in later years.
Ella’s diaries begin on January 1, 1908. Over the next few months, we plan to use them to learn more about her life and also about what Acton was like in the early years of the twentieth century.
The Miller Siblings:
Some references used:
While we have all heard that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” those of us who deal regularly with unlabeled photographs often wish for just a few words to help us. The Society’s collections include some pictures of an ice storm that hit Acton in November a century ago. Our photographs had different years written on the backs (1921 and 1922), and we were unsure which was correct.
Fortunately, diaries can be invaluable for giving first-hand information about events. In this case, Ella Miller’s diary provided the information we needed. She often wrote about the weather and mentioned no ice storm in November 1922. November 1921, however, was a different story.
On November 10, 1921, Ella wrote, “Thurs. – Everything covered with ice this morning. Several wires broken in the Centre and limbs broken from trees.” One might have assumed that the November 10 ice storm was the storm in the pictures until one read more from Ella’s 1921 diary:
Nov. 28: “Mon. – Ice nearly an inch thick on every twig. Lots of broken wires and limbs strew the common tonight. A small attendance at school and dangerous traveling under trees. A sort of sleet, mist, or rain most of day. No electric lights in town.”
Ella's 1921 diary continues:
Nov. 29: “Tues. – Still raining and freezing on & trees breaking down. The worst storm of its kind in years. No school. Mr. Edwards came to tell me he couldn’t get through & Mr. Smith turned around here with only five [students]. Pa took Aunt Emma & me down street to see the ruins.”
Nov. 30: “Wed. – Sun shining and ice beginning to melt & drop off. More children at school than on Monday. Webster’s weighed one leaf covered with ice – 1 ½ lb. Have begun cleaning up the common.”
Dec. 1: “Thurs. - ... Ice nearly off trees. No electric lights since Sun. night – gloomy.”
We are very grateful to have photographs of Acton scenes and events at Jenks Library and, sometimes, words to explain them.
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