Recently we came across three small, matted watercolors that belong to the Society. They are all marked “Acton Mass” on the back. A cursory glance made one of us think they were done by Arthur F. Davis, a prolific local artist who painted several works owned by the Society. However, a more careful observer noticed that the initials on one of the paintings were actually AEP, and another was clearly marked “Payson.” Payson was a painter completely unknown to us.
Having previously conducted research projects only to discover that one of our predecessors at Jenks Library had already covered the same ground, we have learned the importance of finding out what others have written about our subject and asking current members what they know. We found a Society newsletter from 1999 that mentioned the donation of the paintings from the estate of Marie (Davis) Hunt. At that time, no one knew who A. E. Payson was, although the writer had found Arthur E., Annie E., and Aurin E. Payson in Acton’s 1910 Census and was asking for help figuring out which of them was the artist.
Fortunately, before we even had time to start our research, we were joined at Jenks by a Society member who had been present when the Memorial Library received a donation of two paintings done by Annie E. Payson, definitively identified as the family's painter. Now we had questions of our own; who was Annie E. Payson and why hadn’t we heard of her before?
We started with the 1910 census from which we learned that Arthur E. (age 51) and Annie E. (53) Payson lived on Concord Road in Acton with their two sons, Aurin E. (18) and Arthur H. (16). Arthur E. was a “Commercial Traveller” (salesman) of Lubricating Oil, and Annie was listed as having no occupation. That was common for women at the time, but we found the following ad in the March 2 Concord Enterprise of that year:
TEACHER IN PAINTING
Pupils wanted in Oil and Drawing to enter class. Studio open from 9 a. m. to 3 p. m. Orders taken in Oil and Pastel.
ANNIE E. PAYSON
We found identical ads in Concord Enterprise issues dating back to December 1908. Because someone in Acton probably took lessons from her or owned her paintings, we thought it would be easy to find more about her and her work. Disappointingly, beyond those newspaper ads and her local paintings, we have found no traces of her art training or her experiences as a painter and teacher. However, we did learn about her family and their years in Acton.
Annie Payson's Family
Annie Edwards Payson was born in Salem, Massachusetts to Augustus and Elizabeth Ann/Annie Elizabeth (Edwards) Hardy. She was, supposedly, a member of the well-known Jonathan Edwards family on her mother’s side, while her father’s New Hampshire ancestor Phine(h)as Hardy’s military service later allowed her to become a member of the DAR. Annie’s birth date (from Salem records) was August 9, 1855, although her age in subsequent records is not always consistent with that date. Her father Augustus Hardy was a painter (of houses) and later had a door, sash and blind business. By the 1865 Massachusetts census, he had moved his family to Boston. Perhaps Annie was able to get training in painting there; we have not yet found records that yield information about what she did as a young woman.
On December 17, 1890 in Malden, Massachusetts, thirty-one-year-old Annie “B” Hardy, resident of Malden, married Arthur E(liot) Payson, a merchant residing in Malden, son of Aurin M. and Hannah G. Payson. Arthur and Annie’s sons Aurin Eliot and Arthur Hardy Payson were both born in Malden, and the family was still there for the 1900 census. Arthur E. was a salesman. In early years, he worked in the sash and blinds business. By 1904, according to the Malden directory of that year, the Paysons had moved to Acton. Their connection to the town seems to have been through Annie’s siblings. Annie’s brother Harry was an Acton resident when he died in 1898. Arthur and Nellie Hardy, two of her other siblings, spent the summer that year in South Acton (Concord Enterprise, June 23, 1898). Arthur Hardy and his wife had moved to South Acton by 1902 according to a directory at Jenks Library and were still residents in the 1910 census.
The Paysons' Acton Years
After moving in, Arthur E. Payson, Annie, and their sons seem quickly to have become part of the fabric of the town. The earliest mentions of the family in the Concord Enterprise were of the boys’ involvement in the Acton Center Boys' Club in the spring of 1905. By April, 1907, Aurin was president of the club and A. Hardy was secretary. The boys participated in musical and other performances, and Aurin was involved in the Grange and sang at the Congregational Church. Their father also was involved in the Grange and was elected as an officer in December 1907 and as Worthy Master in December 1908. He participated in debates that seem to have been popular entertainments of the time, gave vocal performances, and performed in plays. He also was involved in politics to some extent and served on the committee appointed to try to get Acton Centre into the new water district in 1912.
Annie’s name appeared often in the Concord Enterprise in her ads from late 1908 to early 1910. Despite much searching, we were only able to find a few other tidbits about Annie’s Acton life from newspaper accounts. She was responsible for the “handsome decorations” at a Boys’ Club production in April 1907 and appeared as Liberty in a patriotic ladies’ play at the Grange meeting discussed in the March 4, 1908 Enterprise. She fell on the ice in February 1909 and broke bones in her wrist, necessitating a visit to Carney Hospital in the city and several weeks of healing. Mostly she was mentioned when she hosted Payson and Hardy relatives and when she visited elsewhere.
The Payson boys were teenagers at the beginning of the era when Acton students were sent to Concord for their secondary education. Aurin may have done sports and was definitely in the debating club. He was awarded a prize as the best individual debater at Concord High School in May 1909, a point of local pride. He graduated cum laude in 1911, after which he headed off to Boston University. Arthur (also known as Hardy) seems to have participated during high school in sports, music and theater. He graduated from Concord High School with the class of 1912; his portrait is in a collection for that class at the Concord Library. He did a post-graduate year at Concord High School. In May 1913, he starred in a Concord production of The Mikado; the Enterprise reported rave reviews of his talents in both comedy and singing. A number of people went from Acton Centre to see him perform.
Judging from news items about the Payson family in the Concord Enterprise, they moved from Acton to Wollaston (MA) between May 28, 1913 and June 24, 1914. In later years, they would show up periodically in the newspaper either as visitors to Acton or when a significant event occurred such as an engagement or receiving a commission in the army.
Arthur and Annie stayed in Quincy/Wollaston except for 1925 when they were listed in the Cambridge directory. Arthur was an oil dealer/salesman in Boston. Annie died in Reading (MA) in 1929 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Arthur, a widower, lived in Reading in 1930 and died there in 1936.
Aurin Payson graduated from Boston University in 1915 and from Harvard Business School the next year. After military service during World War I and a stint in banking in New York, Aurin quickly worked up to being president of the American Thermos Company in Norwich, Connecticut, a position he held for many years. He also became involved in Norwich civic affairs, served as trustee and director for other institutions, and served as president and Chairman of the Board of Chelsea Savings Bank. His brother Arthur Hardy apparently attended Boston University’s College of Business Administration and also worked in Boston after high school. He returned to Concord in February 1915 to perform with the Graduate Glee Club in H. M. S. Pinafore. His amusing antics were noted in an opening night review in the Boston Daily Globe (February 14, page 96). He served in the Quartermaster Corps during World War I. In the 1920s, he worked in Boston as an assistant treasurer and then moved to Springfield, Ohio to work as a salesman. By 1929, he had moved to Norwich and was also working for the American Thermos Company. Both brothers were granted patents in conjunction with their Thermos work, for example a 1936 patent for a "double walled vacuum receptacle" that listed both of them as inventors. Arthur co-designed at least one museum-worthy piece for the company; his Thermosphere Carafe is in the Cooper Hewitt Museum. (Annie obviously was not the only family member with an artist’s eye.) Arthur also worked up the ranks of the Thermos company, eventually becoming president and Chairman of the Board.
Over the years, the Payson brothers stopped appearing in the Acton newspapers, though they may have visited. They were certainly remembered; when Harold Phalen, their Acton Center Boys’ Club compatriot, wrote his 1954 history of the town, he included Aurin Payson’s Debate Cup win as a notable event.
The Paysons’ stay in Acton was not long. We are fortunate that Annie left tangible reminders of their time here and that the Society received a donation of some of her paintings. Those interested in her work can also see one of her oil paintings on display at the Faulkner Homestead in South Acton. We would like to learn more about Annie and her art; if you have information or could show us other examples of her work, please contact us.
Many professional photographers are represented in the collections of the Society, but Acton photographers were a rarity. The Society was lucky to receive a 2015 donation of a photograph whose mat was imprinted with “F. J. TAYLOR, PHOTOGRAPHER, SOUTH ACTON, MASS.” The picture is unlabeled; so far no one has identified the picture’s subjects, place, or date.
One of the techniques used to date a photograph is to research the years in which its photographer was in business. That sounds easy, but in practice, information about photographers can be scarce, particularly if they did not become well-established in an area or leave behind a substantial body of work. An excellent place to start is Chris Steele & Ronald Polito’s book A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900 (Picton Press, 1993). Using as their source the New England Business Directory, they list an F.J. Taylor working in Acton in 1896. They also list Forester J. Taylor in Cambridge in the 1882-1888 period doing business early as Rand & Taylor and then as Forester J. Taylor & Company. Researching Cambridge directories confirmed that Forester J. Taylor showed up by 1882 (living in Somerville and working in Cambridge) and then lived and worked in Cambridge for the rest of the 1880s. Research in vital and census records established that the Acton and Cambridge F. J. Taylors were the same person.
F. J. Taylor - The Early Years
Forester J. Taylor, living at School Street in South Acton, was naturalized in Boston on March 27, 1899. (The Naturalization Index lists his birthplace as Montreal and his birth date as May 20, 1854.) In the 1900 Census, Forester Taylor, photographer, age 45, was living in Acton with his wife Margaret, sons Frederick M. and F. Forrester, daughter Eliza A., and mother-in-law Mary Dorsey. Tracing Forester’s ancestry back to Quebec yielded a Church of England baptismal record for Forester Joseph Taylor, son of Stephen Matthew Taylor of Melbourne township and Ann Morgan. (The birth date given was May 21, 1853.) Melbourne is now part of Richmond, Quebec in the area formerly known as the Eastern Townships. The family, including Forester, was in Melbourne in the 1861 Census of Canada. The father Stephen died that year. Widow Ann Taylor married William Crook in November 1862. Forester was listed in the 1871 Melbourne census with William and Ann Crook.
Cambridge (Mass.) vital records show that on November 28, 1885, Forester J. Taylor (photographer, age 31, living in Cambridge, born in Montreal to Stephen M. and Ann) was married to Margaret F. Dorsey (age 19, living in Barre, born in Ireland to Thomas and Mary). On May 25, 1887, their son Frederick M(atthew) was born in Cambridge. Their son Friend Forester Taylor stated in World War I military documents that he was born on June 10, 1891 in either Cambridge or Somerville, Mass. (His parents were specified as Forester Joseph Taylor and Margaret T. Dorsey.) For some reason, searching individual birth records for June 1891 in both Somerville and Cambridge and the state-wide index for 1891-1895 yielded no record of his birth. Acton Vital Records include daughter Eliza Ann Taylor, born on June 23, 1894 to Acton residents Forester J. (photographer, born Montreal) and Margaret “Darcey” (born Ireland).
Extensive searching of local newspapers yielded no advertisements for Forester J. Taylor’s photography business in Cambridge in the 1880s or around Acton in the 1890s. However, South Acton news items in the Concord Enterprise shared the fact that “Mr. Taylor, the photographer” had bought a house from Mrs. Bulette on Stow Street [March 23, 1893] and then moved in [April 20, 1893]. After Eliza Ann’s 1894 birth, Acton town documents yielded no information about Forester J. Taylor and his family. He was not listed in the Assessor’s List for Acton in 1900; according to the census, the family was renting at that point, and Forester had been out of work four months of the year. (Acton records do show that Forester’s wife Margaret’s mother Mary Dorsey passed away in Acton in February 1901, and Margaret’s sister Bridget (Dorsey) Callan lived in Acton with her husband Patrick Callan until her death in 1926.)
Another Acton Photographer
A surprise came from searching newspaper articles for Forester - the discovery of a new Acton photographer. Between December 1895 and February 1896, ads appeared in the Concord Enterprise for Mrs. F. J. Taylor, South Acton Photographer, offering pictures of ladies’ boudoirs, parlors, babies (in environments they were accustomed to), pets, anniversary gifts, costumes, and evening parties, with “flash lights” a specialty. A November 21, 1895 South Acton news item mentioned that Mrs. F. J. Taylor had photographed the guests of Mrs. M.E. Lothrop’s 75th birthday party. On December 5, 1895 the Enterprise reported that "Mrs. Taylor" had photographed the Abram Jones family at their Thanksgiving gathering. So far, no other mention of or picture from Mrs. F. J. Taylor’s photography business has been found, but we will be on the lookout.
Life After Acton
Forester’s and Margaret’s time in Acton was short. A 1902 Acton directory shows no Forester or F.J. Taylor listed as a resident or as a photographer in the business section. It appears that anyone wanting to date a photograph imprinted with “F.J Taylor, South Acton, Mass.” can assign it a date of approximately 1893-1901. (As a caveat, if cardboard mats were left over after F.J. moved away from the area, 1901 may be too early a cutoff.)
Research into the later life of the family shows that after leaving Acton, Forester moved frequently. He appears as a photographer in the Norwalk, Connecticut directory of 1903 and the Northampton, Mass. directory of 1906. The 1907 Northampton directory simply states that he moved to Hartford. In the Hartford, Connecticut directories of 1908 and 1910, he is no longer listed as a photographer but is listed as residing at 100 Ann. In 1908 and 1910, sons Frederick M. and Friend F. are both listed as salesmen living in the same residence as their father. In 1910, Mrs. Margaret is also listed in the directory at 100 Ann, with rooms to rent.
An obituary in the Concord Enterprise (June 15, 1910, page 6) says that “Forester Taylor, the travelling photographer, who at one time resided in Cole’s block, died at his late home in Hartford, Conn., last month." The Hartford Courant published an obituary (May 23, 1910, page 11) that focused on his early years; his apprenticeship in Vermont, a few years in the photography business in his hometown of Melbourne, Quebec, a brief sojourn to the Midwest, two years working for Sprague & Hathaway in Somerville, Mass, and then his development of “the traveling commercial view business.” The obituary implied that he had a large-scale enterprise and had trained many photographers. Unfortunately, despite much searching, it was hard to find much documentation of Forrest J. Taylor’s business life or his “prominent place” in American photographic history. Fortunately, some of his photographs survive. In addition to the 2015 donation, the Society also has two pictures taken in Acton by F.J. Taylor of Cambridge (who we now know definitely is the South Acton photographer) and a copy of a third photo bearing his South Acton imprint.
If you have any other information about Mr. and Mrs. F. J. Taylor and their photography or more information about the F.J. Taylor pictures in our collection, please contact us.
The beginning: Agatha Freeman Royall – What is she doing here?
The Turners - Georgia to Acton with a Few Detours
One of the projects that Society members have been working on is photographing gravestones in Acton’s cemeteries. Usually, the process of identifying people on the gravestones is straightforward, but sometimes information is scarce. In the case of a cube-shaped marker that said on different sides “Davis,” “Baby,” and “Harriet Turner “ and “John Turner,” more information was needed. Researching Estelle (Turner) Davis’s family for connections to Agatha (Freeman) Royall turned up Harriet Turner and an unexpected story.
Harriet M. Turner, like her sister Estelle (Turner) Davis, was born in Columbus, Georgia. Her death record in Acton showed that she had been a singer and had died in 1939 at age 72. Based on a hypothesis that she might have met Agatha Royall through her singing, online newspapers were searched for any mention of her career. A brief notice of Harriet's death in the Acton Concord Enterprise (March 8, 1939, page 5) said that she had entertained at the White House and for royalty in England and Italy. That surprise opened up many research possibilities. Finally, an article in the Washington Times (June 9, 1922, page 6) gave her life story under the headline “Once Famous Singer is Now Jobless Cook.” According to the article, Harriet and her sister Alice came north to New York with little other than their banjos and their voices. Somehow, sending a letter to complete stranger William Randolph Hearst opened doors for them, and before long, they were performing their “Southern” repertoire for wealthy and well-connected people in the United States and abroad. They performed in London at a party of the Queen that led to more Society appearances in England, and they performed at the White House twice. They toured the continent, making four trips to Europe in all. They sang for dukes, at least one ambassador, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt. In Harriet’s words, “People most socially prominent begged us to sing and play for them. American millionaires sought to buy our entertainment, but we insisted upon being the most exclusive, for that, you see, paid best. We went only to the homes of royalty, nobility, or distinction…we sang and played our merry way along, and we saved never a penny.”
Then Harriet evidently became ill, and bills piled up. Her hair turned white, and she was no longer an in-demand, young, Southern woman with a sweet voice and a banjo. Life went downhill. A 1919 Boston Post article (August 8, page 11) revealed that “Miss Harriet Turner... an accomplished musician and vocalist – having entertained Presidents of the United States and Kings and Queens of several European countries – was found sitting in a dazed condition, her clothing drenched with rain, under a tree on the grounds of Boston College…” She was apparently incoherent, suffering from “aphasia.” By the time of the 1922 Washington Times article, she had recovered enough to be working as a cook, though no job seems to have lasted long; the latest mentioned was at the Fort Pond Inn in Ayer (research indicates it may actually have been in Lancaster), working for a woman who had once been her servant.
Meanwhile, according to the 1922 article whose source seems to have been Harriet, her sister “Alice” married, “but the man she loved had little money.” Researching Alice Turner yielded no results until an article in the October 15, 1916 Boston Sunday Globe (page 48) revealed that Harriet’s elusive singing partner Alice was actually her sister Estelle Bushnell Turner. The two sisters had evidently been in the North for 12 years, mostly based in Boston, entertaining notable people with songs taken from the South. Estelle was about to marry; the relatively money-less husband that Harriet described was Acton’s own Charles Edmund Davis whom Estelle met in 1915 while trying to buy a summer cottage.
Estelle’s listings in the 1930 and 1940 censuses with her husband and mother-in-law show no occupation and no children. Evidently, her sister Harriet came to live with them during her final years, although she died in a Rest Home in Concord. Estelle T. Davis appeared occasionally in local newspaper articles in connection with land ownership and because of an automobile accident in 1943. Her 1961 obituary makes no mention of her singing career; she was described as the widow of well-known realtor Charles Davis. She had been sick for a long period of time.
None of this story would have come to light if a portrait of a woman with no apparent connection to Acton had not appeared at the Historical Society. We still don’t know how the picture got here, but the chances are that the singing Turners somehow met Agatha (Freeman) Royall in their performing period. Perhaps their songs reminded Mr. Royall of his Georgia roots.
Please contact us for an appointment or to ask your research questions.
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