A fascinating set of handbills in our collection advertised a photographer working in South Acton in early 1856. N. L. Merrill announced on Jan. 7th that for “positively the last week,” his Daguerreotype Saloon would be operating and could save locals from going to the city to “obtain their likeness.” Pictures could be taken regardless of the weather. Merrill could even take pictures of young children “by the aid of a peculiar instrument.” He also would copy one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes and paintings. A second flyer dated Feb. 1, 1856 stated that bad weather and travel conditions had kept his Saloon in South Acton. For an additional ten days, he would provide likenesses discounted by 25 cents, after which he would move on or close down for the winter.
Who Was N. L. Merrill?
Curious, we consulted Steele and Polito’s monumental work A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900. No N. L. Merrill was listed there. Further research yielded no one of that name operating as a photographer locally, so we had to search farther afield. The only likely candidate for the South Acton Saloon’s owner was a photographer who later operated mostly in Vermont, Nathaniel L. Merrill, usually known by his initials.
Oddly, we were not able to determine exactly where he came from, how he came to be in South Acton, or where he went when the weather allowed him to move on. Though historians have written about daguerreotype studios in major cities, it is very hard to learn about pre-Civil War itinerant photographers. They would have been on the move constantly, and their advertising, by handbills passed around and probably posted somewhere in town, did not generally leave traces for researchers to follow. The fact that N. L. Merrill’s South Acton flyers were preserved long enough to end up in our archives is quite remarkable.
Assuming we are correct about N. L. Merrill’s identity, we were able to learn about his later career. The search took us miles from Acton but revealed the challenges of an early photographer who repeatedly adapted to changing technology and kept moving to find new markets. Digitized records, newspapers, and photographs allowed us to discover at least some of N. L. Merrill’s travels; we suspect that there were more.
The early life of N. L. Merrill was difficult to uncover. The earliest information we found was a newspaper mention that “he was an excellent artist when we knew him at Irasburgh (VT), in 1850.” (Orleans Independent Standard, April 10, 1868, p.2) It seems that he traveled with a portable studio, sometimes referred to as a “daguerreotype saloon car” or a “moveable saloon.” He would presumably stay until the customers dwindled and then move on. Apparently in the course of his travels, he met Prudentia D. Waters whom he married on Jan. 25, 1853 in Johnson, Vermont. Prudentia was born and raised in Johnson, and the couple may have considered that place their home base for at least some of their time together. Unfortunately, the marriage record gives us no information that would help either to pinpoint Nathaniel Merrill’s origins or to distinguish him from many others of the same name. The record said that he was living in Portland, Maine at the time, but a Portland directory for that year yielded no photographer N. L. Merrill. Further research in the area turned up nothing useful. The next evidence of him is the pair of 1856 handbills in our archives. The 1860 census recorded him in Nashua working as an "artist," though that is the only evidence we found of him in New Hampshire.
After 1860, N. L. Merrill is much easier to find because he turned to newspaper advertising and produced paper photographs with his name and location on the mats. In March 1860, the Bellows Falls Times announced that N. L. Merrill was in town with a saloon where he was taking pictures “in a very superior manner.” The enterprising Mr. Merrill had furnished the newspaper with a copied photograph that elicited a great deal of enthusiasm from the reporter. Merrill ran ads at times in the Bellows Falls Times between the summer of 1860 and at least Feb. 1862. By now he had changed technologies and was apparently settling down for a while. He announced:
"MERRILL’S PHOTOGRAPH & AMBROTYPE SALOON, SPRINGFIELD, VT.
The public are invited to call and examine his specimens, the only place in this vicinity where COLORED PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TAKEN. By this process life-like pictures may be obtained from old and inferior Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes, and warranted to give satisfaction. The negative is always preserved, and persons wishing duplicates can have them at any time by ordering. LOCATED IN THE SQUARE.” (among other ads, this ran in the Bellows Falls Times, July 20, 1860, p. 4)
During the Civil War years, Nathaniel L. Merrill seems to have spent a good deal of his time in Springfield. He was there working as a “Photographist” when he registered for the draft and was taxed for a photographer’s license in the 1862-1865 period.
Some of his portraits from this period have been made available online including this photograph of seven young men taken in December 1864, courtesy of Brad Purinton’s Tokens of Companionship blog:
The Lamoille Newsdealer of July 12, 1865 wrote that
“N. L. Merrill, from Sprin[g]field, Vt., is now stopping at Johnson for the purpose of accommodating the public with any kind of a picture known to the photographic art. He has had a large experience in the business, and will be remembered by some in this vicinity as the man who first introduced a daguerreotype car into this part of the country. – He has erected a temporary saloon, which he terms a “Camp,” on the Common near Denio’s hotel, and commenced business in it on Monday last.” (p. 3)
The camp was apparently well-attended and patrons’ “urgent solicitations” led him to stay in Johnson during August as well. Around this time, N. L. Merrill seems to have bought property in Johnson. He must have sold his Springfield business, because the back of a portrait taken by J. D. Powers of Springfield, Vt., says “We have also N. L. Merrill’s Negatives in preservation, and will furnish copies when ordered.” (eBay offering, August 2022)
Merrill was on the move again. He ran an ad in 1866:
“Mr. N. L. Merrill, the veteran artist, has pitched his ‘camp’ near the American House in this village (Hyde Park) and will remain four weeks for the purpose of supplying the people with Photographs, Ambrotypes, and Melanotypes, of the highest perfection. Copies from old and inferior pictures can be obtained and enlarged and finished in India Ink or colors, also card Photographs for the same. A good assortment of Phot[o]graphic Frames and Albums always on hand. His reputation as an artist is well established in this vicinity. Pictures can be made in cloudy as well as fair weather.” (Lamoille Newsdealer, June 6, 1866, p. 4)
N. L. Merrill moved on to Cambridge Borough, VT a few weeks later. At times, he rented rooms rather than establishing a “camp.” A woman’s portrait recently offered on eBay was marked on the back “N. L. Merrill, Photographer, Rooms over Kinsley & Bush’s Drug Store, Cambridge, VT.” In April 1868, N. L. Merrill leased a photographer’s “saloon” in Barton Landing in northeastern Vermont. He was listed in the Vermont State Directory of 1870 in Johnson, though the 1870 census shows him in Montgomery, Vermont. (The entry listed Nathan Merrill, photographer, married to “Patience.” Presumably he was passing through town and the census taker did not work too hard on the details.) N.L. Merrill also had a studio in Dunham, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where he was listed in Lovell’s Canadian Dominion Directory in 1871. The Brome County Historical Society holds a portrait taken by him there. In 1872, N. L. Merrill seems to have had a studio in Enosburgh Falls, Vermont, from which he moved on and a different photographer set up shop. A portrait posted online showed that at some point, N. L. Merrill also took pictures in Richford, Vermont.
In the early 1870s, N. L. Merrill seems to have returned to Stowe, Vermont fairly often. According to the back of a portrait available online, he set up shop in Stowe with a company name of “Mt. Mansfield Picture Gallery.” (Another photo for sale on ebay showed the same gallery with a different photographer, so he may have bought out or sold to a photographer named O. C. Barnes.) In December 1872, N. L. Merrill closed his Stowe gallery for a few weeks and went to Rouses Point, across Lake Champlain in New York. The back of a photograph recently listed on ebay confirmed that N. L. Merrill indeed took pictures in Rouses Point. Merrill was in Stowe again in October 1873 but planned to pack up soon “and go where there are more faces.” (Lamoille Newsdealer, Oct. 15, 1873, p.4) In 1874, he reappeared in Stowe In May and September when the Argus and Patriot reported that N. L. Merrill was “again prepared to make those new style photographs.” (Sept. 3, 1874, p. 3) In addition to portraits, he took a series of Stereoscopic Views of Stowe Village, Mount Mansfield, Smugglers’ Notch and a number of nearby waterfalls. An advertisement for his gallery in Churchill’s Building in Stowe mentioned that he stocked frames, albums, brackets, knobs, and cords, along with a collection of stereoscopes and stereoscopic views. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of competition in the “view” business, so it may not have been profitable for him. We have not found that he did any other series. The New York Public Library has a stereoscope view taken by N. L. Merrill available online, and the reverse side shows his other subjects.
N. L. Merrill returned to Johnson repeatedly; by the 1870s, it was clearly his home base. In Dec. 1876, N. L. Merrill of Johnson was “taking all kinds of pictures at the photographic gallery of Mrs. B. W. Fletcher” in Waterville, VT. (Burlington Weekly Free Press, Dec. 15, 1876, p. 3) An ad in the April 25, 1877 Lamoille Newsdealer announced that N. L. Merrill would keep his Johnson photographic gallery and saloon open a few weeks longer. In July 1879, Merrill did a short stint in South Troy, Vermont, but then returned to Johnson. Nathaniel, “Photographist,” Prudentia, and daughter Mary were living there at the time of the 1880 census. The two photographs below have been made available online by Special Collections at the University of Vermont's Baily/Howe Library. Both have “Merrill, Johnson” printed on the mats. They were identified on the backs with a name, hometown, and “Classmate J. S. N. S.,” referring to Johnson State Normal School; its students would have been a good source of business for a portrait photographer.
We found less frequent evidence of N. L. Merrill’s activities in the 1880s, but he was still at work. He set up a studio in Enosburgh Falls, Vermont in September 1883, but he was listed in the Lamoille County Directory of 1883 and the 1887 Vermont Business Directory as a Johnson photographer. In November 1885, daughter Mary was married to Hannibal Best at the Merrill residence in Johnson. A quit-claim deed dated Nov. 14, 1888 shows that Nathaniel, his wife Prudentia, her nephew Samuel H. Waters, and his wife Juliette sold lands and tenements in Johnson. (Three mortgages had been executed on the property/properties in 1865, 1869, and 1872.) N. L. Merrill was apparently still living in Johnson, however, while taking photographs in Waterville in Sept. 1889. In Feb. 1890, the St. Albans Daily Messenger reported that N. L. Merrill, who had had a photographic business in Johnson for many years, was moving to live with his daughter and her husband Hannibal H. Best in Enosburgh Falls. The News and Citizen reported that he was dangerously ill in mid-February 1891 and that he died in Enosburgh Falls on Feb. 26, 1891. Unfortunately, we have not found a death record or full obituary for him. A burial notice in the St. Albans Messenger on March 5 said that he had been an invalid for years, but according to an advertisement in the News and Citizen, he had been working as a photographer in Johnson as late as January 1890.
Back in Acton
When we first found the flyers for N. L. Merrill’s daguerreotype saloon, we thought that he would be local and that we could easily track down his life story. What we discovered was Nathaniel L. Merrill, a Vermont photographer who had to be on the move constantly in the decades that followed 1856's saloon. We pieced together many of his movements after 1860 from digitized newspapers, records, and photographs, but we were not able to trace his origins. Different records gave his birthplace as Maine, New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and we found no source that mentioned his parents or siblings. Most of his early travels with his daguerreotype saloon in the 1850s are also unknown, including why he came to Acton (assuming our identification is correct). Any additional information would be appreciated.
Clearly by 1856, the people of Acton, and South Acton in particular, could easily have had their pictures taken if they could afford it. One has to wonder what happened to the likenesses taken that winter; we would love to have scans of local pictures taken by N. L. Merrill. The Society and Iron Work Farm have rare pictures taken of local buildings lost to fire in the 1860s. They could have been Merrill’s work, or perhaps there were done by other itinerant photographers who offered their services in mid-nineteenth century Acton.
It is even possible that we could have early N. L. Merrill pictures in our collection. Unlike paper photographs with mats that showed the photographer, location, and sometimes the subject of the picture, early photographs in their metal or leather cases were much harder to label. We have a collection of beautiful early portraits of unknown people done by unknown photographers; it is frustrating that no one labelled them while there was a chance of identifying them. (A selection is here.) Photography was new at the time; perhaps people simply did not imagine that eventually likenesses would survive but people’s memories would not.
If your Acton ancestors’ likenesses or their photographs of local scenes are in your possession, we would be very grateful to add scans (or originals) to our collection. Please contact us.
Sources Used (in addition to standard genealogical resources):
Ann F. Heywood, subject of our last blog post on Acton’s first female voters, was married to Charles L. Heywood, owner of a South Acton mill. We had very little information about them to start, but our research revealed that they were celebrities by the standards of South Acton in the 1870s. Charles, as it turns out, was unusual by any standard. Ann evidently was herself worthy of note, but, as is frustratingly typical, she was much less documented in written records.
The Early Years
We do not know much about Charles and Ann's early lives. Records of that time are sparse, and neither Charles nor Ann grew up in Acton. We do know that Charles Lincoln Heywood was born to Lincoln Heywood and Rebecca Priest in Lunenburg, MA on April 17, 1828. The eighth child in the family, he grew up in Lunenburg and was educated in its local schools. His father was Deacon of the Unitarian Church. About the time that the Fitchburg Railroad came through Lunenburg (approximately 1845), Charles went to work for the line as a crossing tender. Charles was obviously a young man of ability; he moved up steadily in the railroad's ranks. By 1850, 22-year-old Charles was living in Fitchburg with the Israel Goodrich family and working as a Wood Agent for the railroad. In the 1855 Massachusetts census, he still had that title and was living in a "hotel" in Fitchburg. Within the next year or two, Charles was promoted to Roadmaster, a managerial position responsible for track conditions and safe operations. He continued to serve as Wood Agent as well, at least at first. Charles soon moved to Concord, MA, where he joined the Corinthian Lodge of Masons. He was a resident of Concord when he married Ann Tyler. 
Ann Frances Tyler was born June 18, 1825 in Attleboro, MA, the fourth child of Samuel Tyler and Betsey Samson. Ann was only three when her mother died. According to a Tyler genealogy, her father was "an enterprising, influential man in Attleboro, and a pious church-member. His will mentions him as 'a depraved worm of the dust.'" It appears that Ann and Charles both grew up in homes in which religion was important, but beyond that, we do not know any more about their upbringing or how they managed to meet. They were married on November 25, 1857 either in Attleboro or in Providence, RI where Ann was living at the time. 
A Busy Life
The couple moved at some point to Belmont, MA where Charles was living when he registered for the draft in 1863 and where he became a charter member of the local Masonic lodge. In September 1864, after many years of service, Charles was promoted to the position of Superintendent of the Fitchburg Railroad. He would serve in that role for about fourteen years. 
Charles seems to have possessed an unusually active mind and the energy to turn his thoughts into reality. Apparently, it was his idea to create the amusement park at Walden Pond in Concord that opened in 1866. Though Charles grew up in Lunenburg, his family roots went way back in Concord. His relatives seem to have owned a significant portion of the shoreline of Walden Pond, and the Fitchburg Railroad conveniently went right by. The railroad bought up land bordering the pond and cleared some of the woods to create an entertainment area with a large hall for use as a dancing pavilion or a gathering place for large meetings. Tables and seats were provided for picnicking, and for the more actively inclined, there were trails, swings, “teeters,” bathhouses for swimmers, and rowboats. People were delivered by train right to the park that was usually called some variant of “Lake Walden” or “Walden Pond Grove.” 
Though to many today, Walden Pond should be kept as pristine as Thoreau saw it, at the time, many would have considered the park a societal benefit that allowed city dwellers a respite in fresh air and a beautiful spot. It was enormously successful. A Waltham Sentinel reporter, having recently enjoyed “a fine boat ride with several of the Fitchburg railroad officials, accompanied by their ladies; among the party Mr. Heywood, the Superintendent,” wrote that the park was “rapidly becoming quite popular.” J. C. Moulton, “a well known Artist from Fitchburg” was there that day with his “machine” for making stereopticon views for sale, which would have been good to promote the park. The first season of the venture was summed up in the Nov. 30, 1866 Waltham Sentinel; the Fitchburg Railroad had brought out thirty different groups to the grounds, about 10,000 persons, without mishap. 
The venture grew from there. By June 1869, large boats with side wheels and docks to accommodate them were added. During its first five years, newspapers reported that Walden hosted gatherings of veterans, temperance advocates, Masons, Good Templars, Sunday Schools, Spiritualists, and students and alumni of the New England Conservatory. In July 1869, the "Grand Temperance Celebration" featured speakers, music, dancing, boating, swinging, ball playing and a Velocipede rink. The special excursion admission and train fare from Acton was 50 cents. The third annual Musicians’ Picnic in 1870 drew more than 3,000 people to hear at least seven bands including Acton’s 19-piece band led by G. Wild. On July 4, 1870, the estimated crowds were 8,000-10000; the railroad used every serviceable car to accommodate them. In the early years of the 1870s, trains started bringing “the children of the poor” out from Boston to enjoy a day at the amusement park. 
Walden was only one of Charles L. Heywood’s brainstorms. As Superintendent of the Fitchburg Railroad, he conceived numerous special excursions to provide people with recreation, edification, or simply a change. In addition to promoting events at Walden and closer to the city, the railroad carried people to West Townsend and environs to gather greenery, trailing arbutus, checkerberries and mosses with which to celebrate May Day. Excursions were arranged for people to see the engineering wonder of the Hoosac Tunnel. Superintendent Heywood invited the famous Rev. Henry Ward Beecher to preach at Lake Pleasant, a Spiritualist campground in Sept. 1875. Montague depot was nearby. 
Charles’ mind was also busy thinking of ways to make the railroads safer. In 1866-67, he was granted patents for a railroad snow plow and a “bridge guard” to keep brakemen from being knocked off the top of railroad cars as they worked. Charles’ plow, apparently “ingenious,” efficiently and thoroughly cleared the tracks. Adjustable “wings” could clear five feet on either side of the tracks and would retract if they hit an obstacle. His plow was used, at the least, by railroads in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Charles’ “bridge guard” was “a light movable crane” that would give brakemen working on top of railroad cars warning before they were hit by the bridge. It apparently was widely adopted, as it “proved a great protection against accidents.” Charles may have traveled to promote his inventions. In addition to exhibiting at the 1865 Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston, he was also one of the exhibitors at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Charles became known as a strong advocate for railway safety: “Even the ordinary signs at crossings he did not consider sufficient, and the reading on many of them he had so amended as to direct travelers to ‘look both ways’ before attempting to cross the tracks. There was no device brought to his attention that promised to reduce the chances of accidents which he did not forthwith adopt.” 
Charles and Ann seem to have moved around. They may have stayed in residential hotels at times and may have had multiple properties at others, but they were always near the railroad. In May 1866, Charles bought a house on Main Street, near the corner of Auburn Street, in Charlestown, MA. He and Ann joined Harvard Church there in early 1868, and in May 1869, an ad appeared in the Boston Traveler “For Sale or To Be Let on a Long Lease – A good House, Stable, and 17,000 feet of land, well stocked with fruit and shade trees, near Waverly Station, Belmont, Mass. Inquire of C. L. Heywood, at Fitchburg Railroad, Superintendent’s Office.” Charles transferred his Masonic membership to Charlestown in November, 1871. For some reason, we were not able to find Charles and Ann listed in the 1870 census; perhaps they were traveling at that time or staying at a summer location, possibly in South Acton.
As far as we can tell, Ann and Charles had no children of their own. Around 1870, Ann’s niece, Eunice Tyler (Read) Crawford, daughter of Ann’s sister Eunice and wife of George Crawford, passed away. She left a child, Herbert Lincoln Crawford, who had been born in Pawtucket, RI in September 1868. Charles and Ann took him in. Whether or not the arrangement was meant to be temporary, it became permanent, and in 1878, while living in Belmont, the couple adopted the boy. His name was changed to Lincoln Crawford Heywood.
While still working for the railroad, Charles gave of his prodigious energy and his money to charities. He took special interest in the welfare of the inmates of the Charlestown state prison and taught Sunday school there. The Boston Daily Advertiser noted in January 1870 that he had given his students a book of their choice as a Christmas gift. He was also involved in the Massachusetts Society for Aiding Discharged Convicts. His belief in rehabilitation was obviously deeply held, because his kindness to prison inmates extended to the man who had killed Charles’ brother George. According to Cunningham’s History of Lunenburg, Charles met the prisoner responsible for his brother’s death, forgave him, and actually helped to get him pardoned. We were able to confirm the pardon but not Charles’ role in it. Cunningham was well acquainted with Charles’ father and apparently knew Charles, so presumably he heard the story from someone who knew what happened. 
Prisoners were not the only beneficiaries of Charles’ generosity. Charles served on the Executive Committee and as director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for years and took an active part in the Massachusetts Total Abstinence Society from its beginning. He was involved in creating excursions for poor city children, including to Walden. In 1874, to kickstart a fundraising campaign for the debt-ridden Appleton Temporary Home for Inebriates, he offered to pay down one-tenth of its debt and to donate $10 yearly for the rest of his life. In 1875, he supplied every school district in his native town of Lunenburg with a cabinet organ and a full set of songbooks and donated money to the Lunenburg farmers’ club to encourage them to plant forest trees. Later, he donated globes and microscopes to the Lunenburg schools. Charles was also one of the founders of the Boston Union Industrial Association whose purpose was to find employment for and give assistance to the poor. 
Ann (Tyler) Heywood showed up in newspapers in the 1870s, sometimes attending an event with her husband, but sometimes on her own. Ann was a donor to the North End Mission nursery. She served food (as did men) during at least one of the Poor Children’s Excursions to Walden, and in 1875 she and Charles were both appointed to the Committee in charge of Poor Children’s Excursions from the city. Ann served on the committee on her own for several years. In 1876, Mrs. & Mrs. C. L. Heywood were given a seven-piece silver tea service “as a token of appreciation of their generous gift of the reading room to the village of Waverley.” 
In the 1870s, the Heywoods came to South Acton. As far as we can tell, their involvement started with a business opportunity. In 1869, William Schouler, owner of a South Acton mill, decided to sell out. An ad said “WATER POWER FOR SALE – Consisting of two privileges, within 30 rods of each other, one of 16 and the other of 9 feet tall, on an excellent stream, with a reserve of two ponds of 400 acres, altogether independent of the stream, with good factory buildings and dwelling houses, several acres of land with orchard and large grapery, situated on the Fitchburg Railroad, near the depot at South Acton, about 1 hour’s ride from Boston.”  Charles Heywood purchased the property on April 27, 1870 with a mortgage. In November, the old Schouler Mill burned, with damage estimated at $3,000. Fortunately, Charles had it insured. 
Charles started a soapstone mill at the South Acton site. We were unable to find any details about the soapstone mill, unfortunately. There were soapstone quarries elsewhere in Massachusetts and in Vermont; Charles presumably was able to ship raw materials to Acton easily by rail. We were able to discover some details about Charles’ property from Acton’s 1872 tax valuation:
Heywood, C. L., Belmont --
Charles owned water rights and the mill at approximately today’s 115-141 River Street and a house at approximately 140 River Street (no longer standing). The house, probably vacant for much of the year, received the wrong kind of attention in October 1875: “Some malicious person or persons have been throwing rocks through the windows of the house and barn near the soapstone mill, belonging to Supt. Heywood. A reward of $25 is offered for the arrest and conviction of the depredators.” 
After Charles had paid off his mortgage, he started a new venture that was advertised in the Acton Patriot on September 26, 1878: 
Grain & Grist Mill
Has been fitted up with Corn Cracker and two sets of Stones at the Soap Stone Mill, on the Wm Schouler place about
A half mile east of the South Acton Station,
where Corn, Meal, Oats and Shorts will be offered at wholesale and retail at the lowest market price.
Corn, Oats and Rye
will be purchased in small lots of the farmer if offered.
Mr. JOHN D. MOULTON, the well known miller of South Acton, has been employed to take charge.
Orders left in order box at T. J. & W.’s Grocery Store will receive prompt attention.
C. L. HEYWOOD.
South Acton, Sept. 25, 1878
1878 seems to have been a time of change for the Heywoods, and it is likely not a coincidence that they started showing up more and more in Acton during that time. Charles “contributed liberally” to the building of the South Acton Universalist Church that was dedicated on Feb. 21, 1878, and he taught in its Sunday School. In June, he invited the children of the Sunday School there to make small floral bouquets with an accompanying letter that he would take to prisoners in Concord.  On August 27 of that year, there was a farewell celebration on the South Acton “grounds of Superintendent C. L. Heywood” for the fifty city children that he had hosted “at his summer home ever since July 1. The people of the vicinity turned out generally to the evening entertainment, which consisted of speaking, illuminations, bonfire, music by the Acton band, fireworks, and a general jollification.”  Ann’s role as hostess of fifty children was not mentioned.
In 1878, Charles Heywood resigned from the Fitchburg Railroad after a career that lasted about 35 years, including fourteen as Superintendent. He acted in an advisory capacity for the railroad for three more months, but he had many things to do. He was working on new inventions. At the end of the year, he filed five more applications that were primarily aimed at making railroads safer for employees and passengers, including improvements in signal lights, steps for rail cars, and cabooses for brakemen. 
Charles’ gristmill continued. He added a horse shed at the grist mill for his customers’ convenience and ran ads in the Acton Patriot.  The Patriot reported on June 26, 1879 that: “Mr. C. L. Heywood and wife are to start Friday evening on an European journey, returning home in September.”  That fall, Ann F. Heywood was one of the first six women in Acton to register to vote in local school committee elections. That same fall, Charles was chosen by Acton as one of its delegates to the Republican Convention. During that period, the couple evidently considered South Acton “home”. 
The 1880 Boston Directory, probably from information given in 1879, shows Charles L. Heywood as president of the Mercantile and Collection Agency of 8 Exchange Place, with a house at South Acton.  We have no other information about Charles’ involvement in what seems to have been a precursor to credit rating agencies. Because our collection of newspapers before 1888 is sporadic, we were not able to find any other mention of the Heywoods in Acton. However, the Heywoods showed up elsewhere.
The 1880 census listed Charles and Ann living on Revere Street in Revere with Lincoln (age 11) and a few boarders. Ann continued to help with Poor Children’s Excursions and was elected to the executive committee in 1880.  Charles moved on to several new ventures that included contracting to fill what today we could call “wetlands,” but at the time were considered public health “nuisances.” Charles served as a director and then president of the Maverick Land Company that was filling the flats in East Boston that were expected in early 1881 to “be much required for railroad purposes during the coming year, and can be sold to advantage.”  Charles was involved with filling land at Fresh Pond in Cambridge and also apparently got involved in the project to fill Prison Point in Charlestown for the Eastern Railroad that seems to have been a quagmire for all parties. That scheme supposedly brought financial reverses to Charles, although we were not able to confirm that story. In addition to filling projects, he was involved with the Hoosac Tunnel Dock and Elevator Company and the Union Electric Signal Company. 
Charles received a patent for an improved Track Clearing Car on April 11, 1882. Presumably, he continued to promote his inventions and in early 1883 took an extended trip to the West and Southwest and went to the National Exposition of Railway Appliances in Chicago where he was exhibiting his inventions. 
Charles continued to support causes that he believed in. He served for eight years as treasurer of the Massachusetts Total Abstinence Society and lent his public support to the cause when needed. He continued working to help poor children and discharged convicts. Somehow, Charles found the time in November 1882 to present a travelogue to the Farmers’ Club in his native town. 
In 1883, Charles went to work managing the construction of quarantine grounds in Waltham along the Fitchburg railroad. The quarantine grounds were to keep cattle, imported for breeding purposes, safely away from native stock. According to the Globe, the project was part of an effort by the federal government to systematically create an efficient quarantine system. 
On June 23, 1883, Charles had been in Waltham, attending to his duties at the quarantine station. At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, apparently trying to get to the station that would take him home to Waverly (Belmont), he was walking on one of the tracks. Reports vary; he may have been distracted by trying to warn another man that a passenger train was coming, or he may have been unaware that a freight train was running in a different direction from usual. Whatever the details, Charles, whose career and inventions had been aimed at improving railroad safety, was struck by a freight train. He was rushed to the main Waltham depot, attended by local doctors, and then taken by special train to Massachusetts General Hospital. Unfortunately, he died almost immediately after arriving at the hospital. 
Charles’ death was a shock to many and was widely reported in the news. He was something of a celebrity and was widely admired for his success and generosity. Most reports, typically, either did not mention Ann at all or simply stated that he had left “a widow.” However, a couple of reports mentioned Ann as a person: “His wife was an estimable lady, and by her kindly encouragement has done much to make him what he was,”  and, probably from the same source, “Accompanying all the talk about the sad affair and the inquiries for particulars relating thereto were a general expression of regret and sympathy for his widow, who is a lady held in the highest estimation, and to whose efforts, it is said, has been due the greater part of her husband’s success.” 
Ann Heywood’s life obviously would have been severely upended by her husband’s death. She had a teenaged son to care for and, most likely, a complicated set of financial entanglements left by her husband’s unexpected demise. Charles left an unusually long will dated June 20, 1878. In addition to providing for Ann, he created a trust for the benefit of his newly adopted son Lincoln and any wife, widow, or children Lincoln might have in the future. Given Charles’ ability to plan ahead, it is not surprising that there were many contingencies and potential recipients of money, including relatives and charities. Charles, who only had the benefit of education in the local schoolhouse, added, “I wish my said son to have the opportunity of obtaining, if he desires it, a liberal education, and, while I do not restrict his selection of a college or university, yet I would request that he should, before deciding, carefully consider the advantages afforded by the Massachusetts Agricultural College at Amherst.” He also left an additional special $2,000 trust, the income of which would be paid to Lincoln until the age of 25, at which time he would get the principal. The will directed that the income and the principal of that trust should be given by Lincoln “to Charitable objects, suggesting to him as worthy of special attention that class of the poor who bear in silence the burden of poverty, sometimes styled the silent poor.” Charles clearly hoped to train Lincoln in charitable giving. 
In 1884, Ann and son Lincoln moved to Pawtucket, RI where Lincoln attended high school. Lincoln graduated with the class of 1886 and then attended Brown University for two years as a member of the class of 1890. In 1889, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated in 1891 as a civil engineer. His senior thesis, completed with another student, was “A Plan for Widening a Stone Highway Bridge at Pawtucket, R. I.” After graduation, Lincoln again lived with his mother and worked for the Interstate Street Railway Company as an engineer. He married Edith Clapp on December 15, 1892. In July 1893, he became engineer of the town of Lincoln, RI and started working on designing and constructing a sewer system for part of the town and on creating a complete and coordinated system for the whole town. He and Edith had a baby daughter Hortense.
Tragically, Lincoln died on Jan. 12, 1895. After what happened to his adoptive father, safety-minded railroad executive Charles, it was striking to read that Lincoln died of a disease that he was working to protect others from. “Mr. Heywood was taken ill the last of December with that dread disease, typhoid fever, which he, in common with many other engineers, through the agency of pure water supplies and proper sewerage systems, had been striving to render less dangerous to the community and less likely to become epidemic in thickly settled districts.”  He was 26 years old. One can only imagine the blow to his mother Ann, as well as to his wife. Joint owners of their home at Brook and Grove streets, Ann and Edith Heywood sold the property in early 1896. The 1896 Pawtucket Directory listed Mrs. Ann F. Heywood as having “removed to Providence.” 
The 1900 census showed Ann F. Haywood (a widow born in Massachusetts in June 1825) as a boarder in the household of Anna Burrill in Concord, MA. She may have simply been staying for the summer, because the 1901 Providence, RI Directory shows Ann living at 733 Cranston Street.  We are not sure where she lived for the next few years, but Ann was in Pawtucket, RI when she died on November 14, 1904 of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was buried with Charles at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. We found a death notice for Ann, but no full obituary.  On the other hand, we found that Charles was still notable enough in 1904 that a newspaper profile of a former Lunenburg teacher mentioned that he had taught “Charles L. Heywood, afterwards superintendent of the Fitchburg railroad.”  Sadly, that fame is long gone. In South Acton, though the railroad tracks remain and water still runs through the site, passersby would probably have no idea that mills were once there and that across the street, a generous couple once hosted dozens of city children in the summertime.
 Boston Sunday Herald, June 24, 1883, p. 2; Fitchburg Railroad. Report of Committee of Investigation. Boston: Henry W. Dutton & Son, 1857, p. 6
 Brigham, Willard. The Tyler Genealogy; The Descendants of Job Tyler, of Andover, Massachusetts, 1619-1700. Privately published by Cornelius and Rollin Tyler, 1912, page 223
 Boston Evening Transcript, Sept. 17, 1864, p. 5
 For an overview of the Walden park, see Thorson, Robert M. The Guide to Walden Pond. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, p. 167-168 and Springfield Republican, July 14, 1866, p. 1. For names, see among others: Boston Globe, July 3, 1874, p. 2; Lowell Daily Citizen & News, June 15, 1867, p. 2; Boston Journal, Aug. 24, 1866, p. 2.
 Waltham Sentinel, Sept. 14, 1866, p. 2
 Waltham Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1866, p. 2
 Among many other reports of the park: Waltham Sentinel, June 4, 1869, p. 2; Boston Traveler, July 3, 1869, p. 2; Boston Journal, Sept. 1, 1870, p.4; Lowell Daily Citizen and News, July 14, 1870, p.1; Boston Daily Advertiser, Aug. 19, 1873, p. 1
 Boston Globe, May 8, 1875, p. 5; Boston Post, July 10, 1874, p. 4; National Aegis, Sept. 4, 1875, p. 3
 Patents #51,829 and 62,197; Railroad Gazette, Chicago, Vol. 2, No. 1, Oct. 1, 1870, p. 8 and Vol. 9, Jan. 26, 1877, p. xii; Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association. Exhibition Catalogue, September, 1865. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1865, p. 12
 Report of the Railroad Commissioners of the State of Maine, for the Year 1871. Augusta, Maine: Sprague, Owen & Nash, 1872, p. 46
 Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association. Exhibition Catalogue, September, 1865. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1865, p. 12; United States Centennial Commission. International Exhibition 1876 Official Catalogue. John R. Nagle and Company, 1876. In the Machinery Department, Charles’ Bridge Guard was #939c, but he seems to have had at least one other invention exhibited, #778c.
 Boston Herald, June 25, 1883, p. 2
 Boston Traveler, May 11, 1869, p. 4
 Waltham Sentinel, Nov. 4, 1870, p.2; Boston Daily Advertiser, Jan. 7, 1870, p. 1; Boston Globe, May 25, 1875, p. 1; Boston Herald, May 30, 1883, p. 4; Cunningham, George A. History of the Town of Lunenburg. Vol. II, no publisher, p. 393; Waltham Sentinel, Dec. 22, 1865, p. 2
 Among others: Boston Journal, Nov. 14, 1871, p. 2; Boston Globe, March 26, 1873, p. 8, Boston Journal, March 25, 1879, p. 3; Boston Globe, Feb. 6, 1873, p. 8; Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Feb. 5, 1874, p. 2; Boston Journal, Sept. 12, 1883, p. 1; Boston Globe, July 3, 1874, p.5; Boston Daily Advertiser, Sept. 2, 1874, p. 4; Boston Globe, Feb. 10, 1875, p. 7; Boston Daily Advertiser, Sept. 14, 1875, p. 4; Fitchburg Sentinel, June 28, 1883, p.2; Boston Post, March 18, 1875, p.3;
 Boston Traveler, Feb. 23, 1876, p. 4; Boston Journal, March 2, 1877, p. 2; Boston Daily Advertiser, Aug. 19, 1873, p. 1; Boston Globe, May 5, 1875, p. 4; Boston Daily Advertiser, March 15, 1878, p. 4
 Boston Journal, Dec. 17, 1869, p. 3
 Middlesex County Deeds, Vol. 1119, page 230-235 shows the purchase and the mortgage in April 1870. Vol. 1421, p. 280 records the discharge of the mortgage in January, 1877.; Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Nov. 19, 1870, p. 2
 Acton Patriot, Oct. 9, 1875, unpaginated
 Acton Patriot, Sept. 26, 1878, unpaginated
 Undated clipping in scrapbook at Jenks Library; Boston Sunday Herald, June 24, 1883, p. 2; Acton Patriot, June 13, 1878, p. 1
 Boston Daily Advertiser, August 28, 1878, p. 4
 Patents #216,403 - 216,307, all filed Dec. 24, 1878
 Acton Patriot, Dec. 5, 1878, p. 1; April 17, 1879, p.8; Feb. 19. 1880, unpaginated
 Acton Patriot, June 26, 1879, p. 1
 Acton Patriot, October 2, 1879, p. 8; Boston Journal, Sept. 15, 1879, p.2
 The Boston Directory. No. LXXVI. Boston: Sampson, Davenport and Company, 1880, p. 471
 Boston Post, June 5, 1880, p. 3
 Boston Journal, Feb. 28, 1881, p. 1; The Boston Directory. No. LXXIX. Boston: Sampson, Davenport, and Company, 1883, p. 522
 Boston Sunday Herald, June 24, 1883, p. 2; Boston Sunday Herold, June 24, 1883, p. 2
 Patent #256,140; National exposition of railway appliances, Chicago, 1883. Guide to the National Exposition of Railway Appliances, Chicago (May 24-June 23, 1883). Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1883, p. 93; Boston Sunday Herold, June 24, 1883, p. 2
 Boston Journal, Sept. 12, 1883, p. 1 and Dec. 12, 1881, p. 2; Boston Globe, Aug. 31, 1883, p. 2; Boston Herald, May 30, 1883, p. 4; Fitchburg Sentinel, Nov. 16, 1882, p. 2
 Boston Globe, April 18, 1883, p. 2
 Boston Globe, June 24, 1883, p. 1; Boston Sunday Herold, June 24, 1883, p. 2; Fitchburg Sentinel, June 26, 1883, p. 3
 Boston Globe, June 24, 1883, p. 1
 Boston Sunday Herold, June 24, 1883, p. 2
 Middlesex County Probate, #15,946
 George A. Carpenter and Morris Knowles. Lincoln C. Heywood A Memoir. Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, Volume 14, p.56-57. Read to the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, March 20, 1895. See also The Tech, Vol. XIV, No. 17, Feb. 17, 1895, p. 170 and 172; Evening Times, (Pawtucket, RI), Jan. 12, 1895, p. 1
 Evening Times, (Pawtucket, RI), Jan. 25, 1896, p. 6; The Pawtucket City and Central Falls City Directory. No. XXVIII. Providence: Sampson, Murdock & Co, 1896, p. 236
 The Providence Directory. No. LXI. Providence, RI: Sampson, Murdock, & Co., p. 440.
 Evening Times, (Pawtucket, RI), Nov. 15, 1904, p. 4
 Boston Sunday Post, Dec. 4, 1904, p. 6
 A correspondent granted us permission to use this photograph, which we gratefully acknowledge.
Some time ago, we came across a reference in an old newspaper to polo in Acton. Envisioning polo ponies charging through a local field, we filed that information away for another day. As it turns out, the team was actually playing a different game at a long-vanished West Acton business, a roller skating rink.
In our archives, we found a description of the rink by Percy Wood. According to him, the West Acton rink was situated approximately at the southeast corner of today’s Spruce and Arlington Streets, a large rectangular building resting on posts several feet above the ground. Mr. Wood did not know the exact dates of or people involved with the rink, but he heard stories about it from Carrie (Gilmore) Durkee who lived diagonally across from it, at the site of the present-day West Acton Post Office. Because the rink was a short walk from the West Acton Depot, it was a popular spot for both out-of-town and local patrons. Conveniently, Carrie’s mother ran a boarding house and was able to provide meals and assistance to skaters, including helping female skaters into their heavy skating costumes.
Wanting to verify and expand on Mr. Wood’s stories, we consulted standard Acton records. Neither the rink nor the Gilmore boarding house showed up in them. No nineteenth-century map in our collection shows a building at the rink’s location, and we did not find a mention of the rink in town reports, available directories, or tax valuations. Our access to the Concord Enterprise starts in 1888, but an online search of that paper yielded nothing. It happens, however, that our Society owns scattered issues of earlier newspapers, and luckily, the rink was mentioned in some of them, including an ad in the April 18, 1885 Middlesex Recorder [1, newspaper references at end]:
Clearly, the rink was operating in the mid-1880s, but we had to broaden our search to learn more. Acton’s rink was part of a much larger roller-skating phenomenon that swept the United States. Massachusetts native James L. Plimpton is credited with innovations that made roller skating a popular pastime. In 1863, he patented the quad-style roller skate (with two sets of wooden wheels that could be controlled by a skater’s shifting foot angle while all four wheels were still square on the ground, enabling easier turns and “fancy” moves than previous skates had). Plimpton then promoted the art of skating and started a franchise operation, leasing his skates to others. He also took his promotion, very successfully, to England and other countries. Over time, he improved on his own skate design, as did others; according to the Boston Globe, during the next two decades, over 300 roller skate improvement patents were filed, mostly in England and America. . In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe announced in early 1876 that roller skating was gaining in popularity locally, emphasizing that participants included the “best elements of Boston society.”  Plimpton’s original patent ran out in 1880 and other innovations followed. Roller skating popularity exploded.
Boston and Worcester had rinks, and as the craze spread, more and more local rinks were opened. The Fitchburg Sentinel reported that Clinton had a rink by 1880 and that Fitchburg’s rink would open in January 1882.  The Globe mentioned new rinks at South Framingham, Hudson, Leominster (two at the same time), and Ayer.  Unfortunately, we found nothing reported about building (or converting) a rink in West Acton or the exact date it opened for business.
Photographs and illustrations of roller skating during its first phases of popularity are rare; the best we could find was this 1880 drawing of skating at a rink in Washington, DC, no doubt more fashionable than Acton’s. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Keeping a rink going meant getting patrons. Managers tried various strategies to attract crowds. They hired musicians to play during open skating hours, recruiting orchestras, bands, piano players, and even fife and drum corps. The big, open spaces could also host rallies and other large gatherings. The most commonly advertised special events at rinks were exhibitions by novelty acts, usually featuring talented, daring, unique, or very young skaters. In fact, the profit from performing apparently led some youngsters away from education, prompting New York state to pass regulations in 1885. 
It was not long before competition was used to draw in skaters and spectators. Roller skating races were held, and large rinks could even hold bicycle races.  Games on roller skates were promoted, from “rink ball,” a game introduced in Brooklyn, New York and played with hands , to “polo on roller skates” played with a hard ball and sticks similar to those used in field hockey, but thinner. This polo played between stick-wielding skaters was new, and the game’s structure, equipment, and rules were still being worked out during the West Acton rink’s existence. Early play seems to have favored “rushing” with the ball toward the other team’s side. When a player rushed with the ball, the opposing team had time to line up in front of their “cage” and wait for the rusher to arrive. Passing, an innovation mentioned in a November 1885 Globe article, might catch the defense off guard. An attempt to make face-offs fairer had the referee throwing the ball against the side of the rink.  Other attempted innovations involved painting a stripe on the ball, using alternate materials for skate rollers such as cork, and installing netting to protect spectators. 
Rival leagues had varying requirements. A Herald article described some of the rules set down by the New England Polo Association for its teams in October 1885. The game was to be played with six players on a side, competing for three goals out of five. There were referees who could impose fines for actions such as wearing extra padding, rough play, spitting on the floor, interfering in a dispute, tampering with skates or using profane language. (Fines went to the rink manager.) The referees could also expel players if necessary.  Rules seem to have been needed. The Globe reported that New Hampshire rink managers were disbanding their clubs for doing too much brawling.  Spectators occasionally were “disgraceful” as well. At one Waltham game, the crowd was calling out for bodily harm to be perpetrated not only on the opposing team but also on the referee. In addition, local fans were apparently helping out by punching an opposing player when he got to the corners of the rink. 
Fortunately for our research, intense interest in roller skating and polo in the mid-1880s led Boston newspapers to report on action in outlying areas. From them we were able to learn something of what went on at the West Acton rink. The first mention that we found was the Boston Globe report on June 22, 1884 that Jessie Lafone (a teenager well-known for graceful and skillful skating) had performed an exhibition there the previous evening.  The first game of “polo on skates” played at the West Acton Rink was between the West Actons and the South Actons on August 16, 1884. West Acton’s “home team,” in their new uniforms, won the game with three straight goals in three minutes. (The object of the game was to reach three goals out of five.) Such a short show being bad for business, the proprietor asked the captains for a rematch. The second game was better contested, taking 15 minutes to end with a score of West Acton’s three goals to South Acton’s two. Player George E. Holton was singled out as an excellent rusher with “astonishing” accuracy in hitting the ball into the goal. 
During the fall of 1884, the West Actons’ matches appeared in the news. The West Actons and South Actons met again on September 27.  Other matches reported in various papers were against the Websters of Boston, the Hudsons, the Leominsters, the Wekepekes (Clinton), the Alphas (South Framingham), and the Fairmounts (Marlborough).  The team joined the newly formed Union Polo League in November with Marlborough, Leominster, Clinton, South Framingham and Hudson.  The Globe mentioned the West Acton team having a game in the week of Dec. 21 1884.  Then without explanation, on Dec. 28, 1884, the Globe announced, “Owing to the disbanding of the West Actons and their withdrawal, the Hudsons lose two games, and the Wekepekes and Naticks lose one each.”  We have not found out the story of what happened to the West Acton team. Perhaps they were not performing well at that point, as the Globe had reported on the 16th that “The game at West Acton last Saturday evening, between the Wekepekes and West Actons, was won by the former in the remarkably short time of 2 minutes 5 seconds.”  The team also lost to the Naticks by allowing three straight goals on December 18th.  Perhaps West Acton had lost some players to other teams or to other pursuits. Competition between rinks was increasing; the Herald announced on December 14 that “Rinks are being opened at the rate of almost two a day.”  Close to home, Maynard’s new rink was about open. 
Author Percy Wood did not know who owned or managed the rink, but our newspaper searches revealed that the manager was Thomas O’Brien.  He seems to have been quite enterprising. For example, West Acton’s innovative thinking was singled out in the Globe on Oct. 26, 1884 when the rink held a “Campaign race” in which all the presidential candidates were impersonated. To win, the impersonator had to reach the rink’s “presidential chair” first. The People’s Party was the winner. The Globe mentioned that “The Belva of the occasion was gorgeously gotten up,” a reference to suffragette Belva Ann Lockwood of the newly-formed Equal Rights Party. 
Our own newspaper collection showed that Thomas O’Brien was busy finding ways to keep the rink excitement going in West Acton, even without a “home team” to cheer for. On February 27,1885, the Littleton Courant reported on a party on Feb. 14 at which all patrons received a valentine, an exhibition of the Milo Brothers’ “fancy skating and other feats,” and a “popular orange race,” (in which contestants would alternate grabbing an orange from a crate at the center of the rink and doing laps without dropping the oranges retrieved already).  A stained and torn Acton Patriot (April 24) in our collection tells us that J. F. Kaufman and Maud Boyd’s waltzing and fancy skating were “a marvel of grace and beauty, showing long and careful practice.” They called themselves “The King and Queen of the Rollers,” a title apparently claimed by many. The same Patriot reported that “Next Saturday at the rink there will be a gold medal race between E. E. Handley and George E. Holton. An interesting contest expected.”  Twice during 1885, the West Acton rink hosted games involving the Niagara female polo team, who seem to have been a good draw. 
Thomas O’Brien had not given up on local polo teams at that point, because the April 24, 1885 Patriot also announced that “Rink Manager O’Brien has some gold medals he proposes to put up for competition between clubs formed in Acton, West Acton and South Acton and possibly Maynard. This is an interesting, exciting and scientific game. The medals will be of substantial style and worth playing for. Boys, get your sticks and uniforms ready.”  Sadly, we have no more local papers of the period to tell us what happened. When the Union Polo League planned their organizational meeting for the fall season on October 19, the West Acton rink manager was included. The Herald reported that the South Actons would be one of the teams, but when the League’s membership was announced the next week, it only included clubs from Arlington, South Framingham, Clinton, Hudson, Marlboro and Maynard.  We were not able to find any mention of a South Acton team’s games.
The rink had other problems besides lack of local polo teams. Harmless as roller skating seems to us today, the pastime encountered strong objections from some members of the clergy including the minister of West Acton’s Baptist church Rev. C. L. Rhodes. According to Percy Wood, Rev. Rhodes “strongly warned the young people of [his] church to stay away from what he evidently regarded as a den of iniquity.” Presumably, some of his flock listened to his warnings and did indeed stay away. Others seem to have ignored him. One young man who later became a pillar of the community obeyed his preacher by avoiding the West Acton rink and skating elsewhere instead.
Rev. Rhodes was not alone in his condemnation. The Lowell Sun reported that “The game of polo originated in the modern den of depravity known as the skating rink, and it has proved itself worthy of its low and demoralizing source.”  Morality was not the only concern. The Globe quoted a doctor, who, in trying to understand the cause of a large increase in pneumonia deaths, blamed roller skating. Acknowledging that he was just speculating and that people died of pneumonia without roller skating, he went on to say, “But I can say with certainty that such exposure as the roller skating mania produces is likely to produce pneumonia. Here are, say 20,000 young people going every night to skating rinks or balls. They indulge in violent exercise in heated rooms and then go out into the chill air, possibly thinly clad, and the result is fatal inflammation of the lungs.” A young woman who danced vigorously and then went outside in her ballgown would be considered “very indiscreet,” yet skaters, finding the cool air pleasant, apparently made a habit of walking “through the chilly streets while yet perspiring from their violent exercise.” 
It is hard to say what effect such opinions had on the West Acton rink. Though it survived 1885, we have found no mention of it after that. The roller skating craze had probably peaked by then, and increased competition undoubtedly caused a shakeout in the market. Ads started appearing for rink sales. In July, 1885, an ad for a rink mentioned “good reasons for selling.”  In November 1885, a “first-class skating rink” an hour from Boston was looking for an infusion of capital, and in December the Globe advertised a skating rink with fixtures “in large town for 1/3 value; good chance to make money; no competition.”  Even more dramatically, the Globe reported that a skating rink built for $17,000 the previous year with a white marble “underpinning,” and $4,000 of skates had been offered for sale at $800. 
After the West Acton rink closed, it evidently stood empty. Percy Wood reported that the rink building “had one narrow escape from destruction from fire on a Fourth of July during which many of the citizens were out of town. A fire broke out in the storage shed located between the railroad tracks and the present Spruce Street. Fortunately, the fire was confined to the area in which it started, despite the lack of manpower and only the most primitive fighting equipment. The rink was, however, seriously threatened and was saved largely by the efforts of a man who was nearly exhausted by his exertions but was revived by a bowl of ginger tea supplied by a kindly neighbor.” Newspaper searches, unfortunately, did not turn up information about that fire, so we were unable to confirm the date. Percy Wood continued, “Instead of being left to stand as an eyesore, the building was taken down by Mr. John Hoar, the well known contractor and builder, and was used to construct a house on Central Street in West Concord. But on the original site Arlington St. in West Acton, there is not a trace of what was once a popular amusement center.”
Whenever the West Acton rink disappeared, we know that sport and exercise in Acton continued. The Concord Enterprise reported that the Acton Cycle Club polo team went to Concord and defeated the home team’s “gentlemanly fellows” in February 1895.  That game may have been played on ice, as “ice polo” teams were forming in the 1890s. Toward the end of that decade, West Acton had another chance at indoor roller skating. The ever-enterprising Hanson A. Littlefield announced in the January 6, 1898 Concord Enterprise that Littlefield’s Hall had been fitted for roller skating. Open skating would cost ten cents, and the facility could be rented by private parties.  We do not know how long that lasted, but the Hall itself burned down in 1904.
The West Acton roller skating rink might have completely escaped our notice if it had not been for Percy Wood’s documenting Acton memories. Thanks are also due to organizations that are digitizing and sharing old newspapers. If anyone has pictures or mementos of West Acton’s roller skating rink or Acton’s polo teams that they would be willing to share, donate or scan, we would be very grateful to add them to our archives.
 Middlesex Recorder, Apr. 18, 1885, page 3 (Jenks Library)
 Boston Globe, March 23, 1885, p.4
 Boston Globe, Jan. 27, 1876, p. 5
 Fitchburg Sentinel, April 7, 1880, p. 3; Dec. 16, 1881, p. 3
 Boston Globe, Nov. 18, 1883, p. 6; Jan. 20, 1884, p. 2; March 23, 1884, p. 6
 Boston Globe, Apr. 16, 1885, p. 8
 Boston Globe, Nov. 27, 1885, p3; Mar. 24, 1887, p. 5
 Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 1878, p. 2
 Boston Globe, Nov. 19, 1885, p. 3
 Boston Globe, Jan. 20, 1884, p. 2; Mar. 23, 1884, p. 6
 Boston Herald, October 14, 1885, p. 2
 Boston Globe, Jan. 31, 1885, p. 4
 Boston Herald, Nov. 25, 1885, p. 3
 Boston Globe, June 22, 1884, p. 6
 Boston Herald, Aug. 17, 1884, p. 2; Boston Journal, August 19, 1884, p. 3
 Boston Journal, Sept. 30, 1884, p. 4
 Boston Herald, Aug. 31, 1884, p. 2; Boston Globe, Oct. 24, 1884, p. 2; Boston Herald, Dec. 7, 1884, p. 7; Worcester Daily Spy, Dec. 8, 1884, p. 3; Boston Herald, Dec. 14, 1884, p.4; Boston Globe, Dec. 19, 1884, p. 2 Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 1884, p. 10
 Boston Journal, Nov. 24, 1884, p. 3; Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 1884, p. 15
 Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 1884, p. 10
 Boston Globe, Dec. 28, 1884, p. 10
 Boston Globe, Dec. 16, 1884, p. 6
 Boston Globe, Dec. 19, 1884, p. 2
 Boston Herald, Dec. 14, 1884, p. 4
 Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 1884, p. 10
 Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 1884, p. 15; Nov. 30, 1884, p. 10
 Boston Globe Oct. 26, 1884, p. 14
 Littleton Courant, Feb. 27, 1885, p. 1 (Jenks Library)
 Acton Patriot, April 24, 1885, p. 4 (Jenks Library)
 Boston Globe May 24, 1885, p. 6; Boston Herald, Oct. 11, 1885, p. 15
 Acton Patriot, April 24, 1885, p. 4 (Jenks Library)
 Boston Herald, Oct. 18, 1885, p. 7; Boston Globe, Oct. 24, 1885, p. 2
 Lowell Sun, March 28, 1885, p. 4
 Boston Globe, Mar. 19, 1885, p. 6
 Boston Globe Jul. 20, 1885, p. 3
 Boston Globe, Nov. 17, 1885, p. 7; Dec. 30, 1885, p. 7
 Boston Globe Sept. 25, 1885, p. 6
 Concord Enterprise, Feb. 7, 1895, p. 4
 Concord Enterprise, Jan. 6, 1898, p. 8
Though these references do not mention Acton, they give great detail about the history and state of roller skating and roller polo at the height of the 1880s boom:
We were alerted recently to a wonderful collection of photos on the website of Brookline, New Hampshire's Historical Society. One of the pictures was of a truck, fully-loaded with barrels. The truck’s door identifies it as belonging to Davis King Co., West Acton.
One of our members recognized the house in the background as the James W. Hayward house in West Acton. The photographer would have been standing in front of the Davis King Garage that stood at approximately today’s #576 Massachusetts Avenue, looking across the street. At the extreme right of the picture, one can see the West Acton depot. Neither the Hayward house nor the depot is standing today.
Looking through the Brookline photo database, we discovered several other West Acton pictures. Some of them are duplicates of photographs in our collection of the devastating West Acton fire of 1913. Other pictures were completely new to us and are used in this article with the kind permission of Brookline’s Historical Society. In the process of trying to match places and dates of the Brookline pictures with our own photos and information, we learned a good amount about West Acton village in the years immediately before and after the fire.
Starting from the beginning...
Why had pictures of West Acton buildings, barrels, and firefighting ended up in Brookline, NH? Thanks to a helpful index to the pictures in the Brookline collection, we quickly discovered the connection. Orville D. Fessenden of Brookline, New Hampshire invested in a barrel-making enterprise in West Acton. The pictures of buildings, the loaded truck, and the West Acton fire related to his business.
In the Brookline collection are two pictures taken from current-day Spruce Street (then called School Street):
At first, we thought that both of the pictures were taken at approximately at the same time, because the close-up of the barrel shop seemed to be exactly the same building as the one in the background of the wider Spruce Street picture. Local sources tell us that the July 1913 fire destroyed the barrel shop. However, the index from Brookline indicates that the pictures were actually taken before and after the fire. Obviously, the barrel shop was rebuilt; we investigated newspaper and other sources to learn more. (Unless otherwise noted, all of the articles referenced were in the Concord Enterprise.)
The earliest mention that we can find of Orville D. Fessenden’s business connections to Acton was a May 25, 1910 news item in the Concord Enterprise announcing that O. D. Fessenden had unloaded a carload of barrel hoops for his barrel shop and would have two men making barrels there soon. (p. 10) Work started at the shop on June 6. (Jun. 8, p. 6) We had found mentions of a cooper shop in West Acton in the vicinity of the site that was built in 1904, burned, and rebuilt in 1905, but we do not know whose it was and whether O. D. Fessenden took it over or started his business from scratch.
The Fessenden business succeeded. By August 1910, the Enterprise announced that “barrels at the barrel shop are fast disappearing." (Aug. 24, p. 8) In the first week of September, George Rockwood and Frank Williams made 800 barrels in six days. (Acton-Concord Enterprise, Sept. 14, 1910, p.8) By October, it became apparent that Fessenden’s shop could not keep up with the demand. “There is a great demand for apple barrels and it is hard for the farmers to get enough barrels to use. The barrel shop does not begin to supply the trade. During the week several cars of carrels [sic] were shipped from other places.” (Oct. 10, 1910, p.8)
Experience showed that more barrels needed to be produced and stored ahead of time to meet peak demand. In 1912, work started in April when Louis Popple and George Rockwood came down from Brookline, NH to start production. (April 4, 1912, p. 10) In August of that year, the Enterprise announced that O. D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs (of Boxborough) had bought from the estate of O. W. Mead the cold storage property near the barrel shop and two tenement houses. (Aug. 14, 1912, p. 8) By that time, the operation was able to accommodate large orders such as the purchase by Charles W. Barnes of 1,000 barrels for his Stow fruit farm (September 18, 1912, p. 10)
The April 30, 1913 Concord Enterprise announced that ”Work at the barrel shop will soon commence, to be ready for the large demands for barrels the coming season.” (p. 8) It was an optimistic time. In that same month, the pastor of Maynard's Catholic Church thanked non-Catholics who had donated funds for building a Catholic Church in West Acton, close to the storage facility that Fessenden and Burroughs had purchased the year before. One of the larger donors mentioned was O. D. Fessenden. (Apr. 23, p. 10) Everything was going well. Then came the fire.
The West Acton Fire of 1913
On July 22, 1913, a fire was first noticed at Luke Blanchard’s barn near the corner of today’s Massachusetts Avenue and Windsor Avenue, just west of the railroad tracks. Soon, it had “jumped the tracks” and spread to the Hutchins house at 556 Massachusetts Avenue. From there, the fire spread across Massachusetts Avenue to destroy commercial buildings including an ice house, a grain storage shed, and a milk depot. The next stage was across today’s Spruce Street where the Fessenden barrel shop and cold storage facilities were. (What at first seemed to be generic pictures of the West Acton fire in the Brookline, NH collection turn out to have featured destroyed remnants of the Fessenden business.) The final stage of the fire seems to have been east on Massachusetts Avenue where the barn of Walter Gardner was destroyed and his house damaged.
Fighting the fire was a challenge. The West Acton company went right to work, but they were hampered by equipment problems. New hose had recently been purchased but was incompatible with the available nozzles, necessitating that the firefighters work with old hose that lost water pressure through leakage. According to the July 23 Enterprise, “It was early seen that the local department could not possibly cope with the blaze and calls for help were sent to Maynard, Concord, Fitchburg and Ayer, while the companies from South Acton and Acton Center also responded.” The Maynard company was given most of the credit for saving the depot and St. Elizabeth’s church, and the Concord Junction department saved the school house and some of the nearby homes. (p. 8) Later, Maynard’s fire department refused to accept payment for their efforts, suggesting that someday Acton might need to return the favor. (Aug. 31, p. 2)
One of the fascinating features of researching this particular fire is that amateur photographers were on the scene almost immediately. Fortunately, many of these pictures were saved, giving us visual evidence of the fire’s progression and its aftermath. What at first might seem to be blurry or overexposed pictures are in fact photographs of people and structures amidst smoke.
In the following photograph of the fire (from our own collection), the Fessenden barrel shop is still standing, while the cold storage facility (on the right) had clearly already been reduced to its brick foundation. The fire was still being worked on at the time. Note the railroad crossing sign where a siding went next to the cold storage building and the stone work at the extreme right by the front steps of St. Elizabeth Church:
We might have thought, based upon that picture, that the barrel shop survived the fire. Written accounts said it was lost, however, and a photo in our collection confirmed it:
Another view of the same scene taken only a few feet away confirms the identification of this building; the wall of what was obviously the barrel shop was still standing, while the rest had been destroyed:
The damage to Fessenden & Burroughs was obviously large. They not only lost the shop and storage buildings but also the barrel inventory that had been created in anticipation of the 1913 apple season.
After the Fire
Rebuilding West Acton started right away. In the words of the Concord Enterprise, “Already plans are being made by the several losers to rebuild at once.” (July 30, 1913, p. 8) Fessenden and Burroughs had sustained a huge loss that apparently was not insured. They probably had to raise cash quickly, because the same Enterprise reported that “C. H. Mead has bought a piece of land of Fessenden Burroughs in front of the big cold storage building just burned, where he will build a large storehouse for grain, hay and flour.” This news item confirms that the C.H. Mead building in the Brookline, NH picture was newly built after the fire, not a replacement of a building previously on that spot.
By August 11, George Rockwood was back in town, presumably to get the barrel business restarted, although the paper was silent about how and when the barrel shop was rebuilt. (Aug. 13, p. 8) Work clearly proceeded, because the November 5 Enterprise reported that barrel shop workers Popple and Rockwood were returning to their homes in Brookline, N. H. and that barrel shop had done “a rushing business all season.” (p. 10)
In the spring of 1914, the cold storage building was rebuilt. On June 10, the Enterprise reported that O. D. Fessenden “of Townsend” had several carpenters working on a new structure over the “cold storage brick wal[l], where the fire was last summer. The building will be used to store barrels which are made here.” (June 10, 1914 p. 7). It seems to have been a good investment. In October, the paper reported that George Rockwood, foreman, said that he had already sold 10,000 barrels, with more to come. Several men were working to fill waiting wagons with barrels. (Oct. 14, 1914, p. 10) The 1915 and 1916 seasons were also described as “rushing,” “prosperous,” and “booming.” (Oct. 20, 1915, p1, Oct. 18, 1916, p. 4)
The aftermath of the fire continued, however. In January, 1914, Orville D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs both sued the Boston & Maine Railroad for allegedly setting the fire with sparks from a passing train. The causes of the fire probably had been debated endlessly in town. However, despite early rumors of arson, over the following months, the Enterprise was silent about investigative conclusions. The related lawsuits were for damages from the burning of buildings, (presumably the cold storage building and the barrel shop), barrels, coopers’ supplies and tools. (Boston Herald, Jan. 8, 1914, p. 12) The triple-action tort case took three years to come to trial. Finally, the case was heard at the Superior Court in Lowell. The Concord Enterprise reported in October 1917 that the jurors had come from Lowell in four autos to view the site where the fire had been and that witnesses from West Acton had been called to testify for both sides of the dispute. (Oct. 17, p. 8) On October 23, the Lowell Sun reported that jury found in favor of the railroad; Fessenden and Burroughs must not have been able to provide adequate evidence that a train caused the fire. (p. 3)
Despite the legal setback, the barrel business continued in West Acton for a few more years. The barrel shop was still in business in the summer of 1919, but the cold storage building was being used for apple storage that year. (July 23, p. 8; Feb. 5, p. 9) Apparently the business was wound down in or around 1920. The cold storage building was sold to A. W. Davis, owner of the truck stacked with barrels pictured above, and C. D. Fletcher in April 1920. (Apr. 14, p. 8) After the sale by O. D. Fessenden, the cold storage building was renovated in order actually to be used for “cold storage.” An “elevator” and electric lights were installed. In the fall of that year, train carloads of apples were arriving for that purpose. (Acton Enterprise, Oct. 13, 1920, p. 6)
Two years later, barrel shop land was also sold to A. W. Davis who built a cement block garage there. (Sept. 27, 1922, p. 7) The Davis King Garage on Massachusetts Avenue had recently burned down in another West Acton fire. Though the barrel shop building was not mentioned in the news report, it seems to have been "history" already. On May 16, 1923, H. S. MacGregor and J. J. Chesbrough ran an ad in the Enterprise for Acton Motor Co.'s “new garage now open on School Street, West Acton Repairing of all kinds at reasonable prices.” (p. 2)
Businesses have come and gone in West Acton. The O. D. Fessenden barrel shop was only in West Acton for a few years, but it was there during a momentous time in the history of the village. We are very grateful to the Brookline NH Historical Society for sharing photographs that shed light on that time and place.
Recently, the Society received the generous donation of a remarkably well-preserved pair of boots from the factory of John Fletcher and Sons. John Fletcher’s name was very well-known in Acton in the 1800s, and his “Boot and Shoe Manufactory” was a town-center landmark that employed a significant number of townspeople. He left many traces in the written records of the era, some of which gave contradictory impressions of who he was as a person. We set out to learn more about him.
John Fletcher was born in Acton to James (a young Revolutionary War soldier) and Lydia (White) Fletcher on July 21, 1790. In Acton’s vital records, we found siblings Betsy (b.1786), James (b. 1788), Daniel (1797-1799), Lydia (b. 1800), and several who died young and whose names were not recorded. James (the father) was involved in the business of Acton and donated a piece of his land in 1806 to be part of the Town Common. The family first lived on what is now Hammond Street but then moved to a farm near the first meeting house (off of Nagog Hill Road near what was then the Brooks Tavern). John’s son, (Rev. James), later wrote about their home site, “Here stood for many years, from 1794 on, the Fletcher homestead, where James Fletcher, the father of Deacon John Fletcher, and his brother James and Betsey, the sister, lived during childhood up to the years of maturity. A few feet from this ancient cellar hole to the west is the site of the first Fletcher russet apple-tree. Childhood’s memories easily recall the ancient unpainted cottage, the quaint old chimney with the brick-oven on the side, and the fire-place large enough for the burning of logs of size and length, and in front to the southeast a vegetable garden unmatched at the time for its culture and richness, and a large chestnut-tree to the south, planted by Deacon John, in early life.” (Acton in History, p. 247)
Though records of John Fletcher’s youth are hard to come by, we do have a physical description (from much later military pension records) that he had fair skin, black hair, and brown eyes. He no doubt attended the school nearby and would have helped on his father’s farm. As he got older, records show that he and his brother James Jr. served in the local militia. In April, 1808, John was already serving as a corporal in Capt. Simon Hosmer’s Company that became known as the Davis Blues. In 1810, John was chosen to be sergeant, and in 1813, he became the company clerk. By that time the country was at war. When the governor of Massachusetts called for troops to defend Boston in the fall of 1814, John Fletcher served as sergeant and clerk of what was by then Capt. Silas Jones’ Company. Brother James Fletcher was a corporal. According to Fletcher’s History, (p. 277-278) the company was first to report to headquarters and met with an enthusiastic reception as it marched through the streets of Boston. The British never attacked, however, and the company saw no action. The War of 1812 concluded soon thereafter. John continued to serve in the militia and eventually was made captain. Town meeting records refer to him as Captain John Fletcher in the years 1821 and 1822.
In June 1812, John’s brother James was initiated into the Masonic Lodge in Concord, and John followed in June 1813. Both men were proposed for membership by Simon Hosmer. In 1814, father James and James Jr. bought a farm from neighbor Paul Brooks, including a house, barn and cooper shop. Presumably, the intention was to expand the father’s farming operation and/or to establish James on a farm of his own. Unfortunately, James Sr. died on Dec. 9, 1815 by the falling of a tree (according to his tombstone and Fletcher’s History, p. 246), an event that must have shocked and greatly changed life for the family.
By 1814, we know that John Fletcher was already in the shoe business, as he listed his occupation as shoemaker when called up to serve in the War. In 1815, the town of Acton paid him $4.67 for providing shoes for the poor. We have not yet discovered details of the early years of his shoe enterprise, such as how he learned the trade, his sources of materials, and when he started hiring outside labor.
In March 1819, James Fletcher Jr. sold to his brother John for $250 a half of his share of the land he held, including his father’s two farms, a woodlot, and “all other lots of every kind which I am now in posion [possession] of”. The records of the brothers’ buying, borrowing, and selling of property are voluminous and hard to pin down completely, but the impression one gets is that John managed to pay off his debts but James may have had more trouble and needed cash infusions at times.
John and his brother James established a store together. Its exact beginnings are a little unclear from the records, but it was definitely operating before 1822 and probably by 1820 when James Fletcher’s census listing included two household members engaged in commerce. According to John’s son Rev. James Fletcher’s History (p. 272), the brothers’ first store was on the site of the present-day Memorial Library. We found from a deed dated Sept. 28, 1820 that James and John Fletcher, traders, bought a store near the meetinghouse from Francis Tuttle for $325. It was apparently quitclaimed by Widow Dorothy Jones on Dec. 7, 1821. (Land Records, Vol. 308, p. 232 & 233)
In January 1822, Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy ran an ad offering a reward to be paid by James and John Fletcher to help track down the criminal(s) who, on the morning of January 22, burned their store “after having been robbed (as is supposed) of its contents.” The brothers would pay $100 for “the detection of the Incendiary or Incendiaries, and the recovery of the Property -- or $50 for either.” (Jan. 30, 1822, p. 4) Surette’s History of Corinthian Lodge noted that on Feb. 4, 1822, “Bros. John & James Fletcher, of Acton, having met with a severe loss by fire, requested assistance from the Lodge, and a subscription paper was opened and signed by the members present.” (p. 128) Fletcher’s History says specifically that the store was on the library site when it “was burnt.”(p. 267)
Trying to identify a large portrait found in a South Acton barn (see blog post), we thought it might be Henry Barker, a self-made businessman whose his cider mill was well-known and a local employer for many years. We were surprised that little had been written about Henry himself and that we could not find a photograph of him. If anyone has any pictures of Henry, his family, and/or the business that could be scanned or otherwise shared, we would be grateful to add them to our collection.
Our first step was to search out Henry Barker’s obituary for the story of his life. We found a notice of his death in the Concord Enterprise (Aug. 29, 1917, p. 8), but we were disappointed to read that “He was one of the best known business men in this section for nearly 60 years and needs no obituary.” That was an unusual statement in the local paper; perhaps the editor did not have a lot of column room that day. We set out to learn what we could from other records.
The Barker name is well-known in Acton. In fact, there are so many Barkers, it is a challenge to disentangle them. However, we do know that Henry Barker was an Acton native, born about 1835 to Isaac Barker and Olive Handley. (The birth was not recorded in Acton, but his death notice in the Enterprise mentioned that he had been born in “the old Gould house on the crossroad to West Acton.”) Henry had three brothers that we know of, Joseph Edwin b. c. 1831, Herman b. c. 1845, and Charles b. c. 1848. Henry’s mother Olive and sister Clara Sophia both died in September 1848. His father married again to Eliza A. G. Bragg on Nov. 8, 1854 in Roxbury.
Henry Barker married Louisa M. Atwood in Cornish, New Hampshire on Dec. 14, 1854. Children followed; Clara Louisa (probably born March 29, 1855; there was name confusion in the early records), Edson Henry (June 2, 1860- June 4, 1861), Addie Henrietta (b. Feb.4, 1863), Delmon Gustavus (Oct. 18, 1865-Oct. 18, 1869), Idella Josephine (b. May 10, 1869), Medora Carlotta (b. June 11, 1872), and Olive Genevra (b. Sept. 23, 1874). We do not know exactly where Henry lived in the first years of his marriage, but land records show that in 1860, Henry bought the house at 196 Main Street (on the outskirts of growing South Acton) from James and Susanna Graham.
Henry’s father Isaac was listed in the 1855 census as a Mast Hoop and Truss Hoop manufacturer. Henry, married and in a separate household, was listed as a Mast Hoop Maker. In his son’s 1860 birth record, Henry was listed as a “Hoop Shaver.” By June 1863, Henry was listed in a military service register as a “Market-man.” (He did not go off to fight in the Civil War; he was apparently deaf in his right ear.) The Society has H. Barker’s Internal Revenue Service 3rd Class Peddler’s License dated Sept. 1, 1863 that had been saved by Henry’s daughter Addie. Henry was still listed in the 1865 Massachusetts census as a Marketman.
Thanks to a note in an old scrapbook held in our library, we checked the probate record of farmer John Tenney (a neighbor of Henry’s father Isaac). We discovered in the November 1864 probate accounting that Henry Barker paid $25 to rent Tenney’s mill. As the only indications of mill products in Tenney’s estate were cider vinegar and barrels, it seems likely that Henry was already gaining experience operating a rented cider mill at that time.
In 1867, Henry Barker bought about a quarter of an acre of land at approximately 150 Main Street (bordered on the other side by today’s Central Street) and built his own cider mill. The 1870 census lists him as a cider manufacturer with real estate of $5000 and personal possessions worth $4000. His household included his wife Louise M., daughters Clara L., Addie H. and Idella J., and brothers Herman and Charles, both listed as cider makers. (The brothers later moved closer to Boston. Herman eventually went into other ventures, but Charles remained in the business.) The 1872 town valuation shows that Barker’s operation included a cider mill with presses, an apple house, a bottling house, and $4000 stock in trade.
Bill Klauer wrote about “Cider Production in Acton” in the Society’s Acton Revisited, Fall 2003. He noted that the Barker mill’s scales were located close to Main Street and their foundation can still be seen from the sidewalk. Farmers would have had their loads weighed, then apples were stored until they could be processed. The apples were sent to a grinding machine, and then the resulting pulp was squeezed in a strong press. The cider was collected in a large vat. The left-over pressed pulp was piled outside the mill, ready for farmers to haul away to be used as cattle feed.
In modern times, preservatives allow sweet cider to be bottled and kept for long periods. Without preservatives, cider fermented. Hard cider was a common beverage in Massachusetts’ early days, but by the time Henry Barker was in business, it was a target of the temperance movement and was beginning to lose ground to beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice. Another cider product, vinegar, required additional aging (with exposure to oxygen and bacteria) beyond the first stage of fermentation. The Boston Daily Advertiser, (Saturday June 26, 1875, p. 1) reported that “The cider mills of Mr. Henry Barker at South Acton are in successful operation. About 1000 barrels of rectified vinegar are on hand, and a large amount of cider has been bottled. The mills are run by steam.” In that year, Briggs & Co.’s Middlesex County Directory, ran an ad for Henry Barker, “Manufacturer, and Wholesale Dealer in Crude and Refined Cider and Cider Vinegar, South Acton, Mass.” (p. 92)
The business was clearly a success. Land purchases, a map dated 1889, and the 1890 Acton valuation show that Henry Barker enlarged his cider and vinegar operation over time, purchasing additional property on both sides of Central Street. In November, 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that Henry Barker had put up the largest tank in the vicinity, 18 feet in diameter and 16 feet high. (Nov. 17, 1888, p. 2) Nearby, according to Mill Corner (Nylander and Forbes, p. 9), there was a spring (and a stone spring-house as early as 1875) on the opposite side of today’s Central Street from the mill that provided a water source. Next to the mill, the South Acton Universalist Church was built in 1878.
By 1887, Henry had built an impressive home on the hill at 167 Main Street from which he could overlook the cider mill. The family seems to have owned a camera by that time and documented local scenes and some people, including this photo of “Stella” (probably Stella Heath, whose mother was a Barker) with the newly-constructed Henry Barker house in the background.
In October 1888, daughter Addie married Frederick L. Burke whose occupation was “Traveling Agent.” Henry had a home built for them just down the hill at 177 Main Street (now the home of the Discovery Museum). Fred Burke worked in the cider business and eventually became the manager of the cider mill. The couple named their son Henry Barker Burke.
Unusually for a man of such local success, Henry Barker did not show up much in the local newspaper except in the context of the cider mill. In town reports, we found that Henry Barker was paid during the 1890s for maintaining two street lamps (a private duty in those days).
Henry Barker established a Boston store/office at 88 Commercial Street, a location not far from the waterfront, sometime between 1875 and 1878 when he was listed in Sampson, Davenport, and Company’s Boston Directory in the business of “vinegar, &c.”(p. 81). He was listed in 1883 as an agent for an industry newspaper at the same address (Geo. P. Rowell and Co.'s American Newspaper Directory, 1883, p. 610) and appeared there in Boston directories for the rest of his life. Brother Charles was listed in the 1880 Boston City Directory as a salesman at 88 Commercial St., living in South Acton. (p. 83) By 1882, the Malden directory showed him as a resident, working in “cider vinegar (88 Commercial, B.)” (p. 37) and Boston directories showed him in the business there in later years, including 1900 and 1915.
In the late 1880s, temperance agitation started to lead to legislative bans on the sale of “intoxicating liquors.” There was much uncertainty about whether cider, which was ”sweet” for only a short period before it fermented, would also be banned. The farmers of Acton, Boxborough and Stow were concerned about the effect of bans on their apple business, and confusion could not have been good for the Barker operation, either. Probably as a result, Henry Barker of South Acton was elected as a director of the Fruit Growers, Cider and Cider Vinegar Makers’ Association of Massachusetts. (Boston Journal, Jan. 8, 1890, p. 4)
Apple production and the cider vinegar industry made it through that period. 1896 saw a particularly large crop of apples. The Enterprise reported on October 1 that “Henry Barker received 1800 barrels of cider apples at his mill in three days last week. He is running his mill night and day.” (p. 8). On November 19, the Enterprise reported “Henry Barker is building another large tank for cider; he has already ground over 20,000 barrels and still they come.” (p. 8) During the autumn, the pressure to process all of the apples must have been intense. According to Phelan’s History of the Town of Acton, the Barker mill “ turned out thousands of barrels of cider which was stored in huge tanks and eventually shipped to the vinegar dispensing companies.... In a season when the fruitage was heavy, a combination of wind and rain could mean thousands of bushels arriving at the mill.... Wagons loaded to the limit would now and again form a queue a hundred yards long at the Barker mill.”(p. 263) Apples would also come in by rail from farmers farther afield. The Concord Enterprise of Oct. 21, 1897 mentioned apples being received by train from New Hampshire. (p.8)
The Society has one picture of the Barker Cider Mill, date unknown but probably before 1900; see blog post on photographer F. J. Taylor for an idea of the date.
The business had its share of troubles and tragedies. The Boston Daily Globe reported in 1887 that “an undersized boy of 14” expertly opened the cider mill’s safe (armed with a revolver). He was caught and fortunately no one was hurt. (Sept. 30, p. 13) In October, 1896, however, employee John Jackman was found expired in the large tank after having been at work all day. It was thought that he had been overcome by gasses. (Concord Enterprise, Oct. 15, 1896, p. 8, Acton death record) This may have been the reason the new tank was built in November 1896.
In the early morning hours of October 28, 1900, a fire started near the engine room of the Barker cider mill. A watchman alerted the village, and firemen came from the other Acton villages and Maynard, but their pumping soon overwhelmed the water supply from the spring-fed basin across the street. Barker’s storage tanks started leaking many gallons of cider, and someone had the idea to pump cider to douse the flames. It was an unsuccessful attempt, and two large buildings of the cider plant burned to the ground. The firemen were able to save a large storehouse, the large tank outside the building, and 55,000 gallons of vinegar. The thirty to forty men who had been working there at the time lost their source of employment, at least temporarily. (Concord Enterprise, Nov. 1, 1900, p. 8; Boston Herald, Oct. 29, 1900, p. 3) In the Enterprise, Henry Barker thanked all those who had come to assist in putting out the fire (Nov. 1, 1900, p. 8). After a period of uncertainty, on December 12, the Enterprise reported that Henry Barker would rebuild his mill on the old site. (p. 8) At the March 25, 1901 town meeting, Acton voted to upgrade its fire-fighting capacity immediately, to buy 800 more feet of rubber-lined hose for South Acton, and to purchase “the F. R. R. water supply basin located near the cider mill of Henry Barker [and to] excavate and properly fix said basin for a possible water supply in case of fire.” Also, the town voted to hire “a competent man at each part of the town where fire apparatus is located to properly care for it.”
One might have expected Henry Barker to slow down by the 1900s, but apparently, he did not. In 1908, the Enterprise reported that after a serious illness, “Henry Barker is able to attend to his business again and goes daily to Boston.” (Apr. 29, p8)
On January 22, 1914, Henry’s wife Louisa (Atwood) Barker passed away at the age of 81, after an illness of several months. Sometime in 1917, Henry moved to Dorchester to stay with his daughter. He remarried that summer; Acton’s records show that Henry Barker, merchant, age 82 (born in Acton, son of Isaac Barker and Olive Handley) married Emma C. (Sawyer) Gove of Boston, age 53 on July 28, 1917. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only a few weeks.
On August 15, 1917, the Concord Enterprise reported that Henry Barker, who had been living in Dorchester for a few months, was suffering from gangrene of the foot. He had been operated on at the Forest Hills hospital, and there was at first hope for recovery. (p. 8) Unfortunately, he died in Boston on August 23, 1917. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His heirs were his daughters, listed in the Concord Enterprise as Clara L. Barker, Addie H. Burke, Della J. Tuttle, all of Acton, and Olive G. B. Hunt and Medora C. Robbins, both of Melrose. (Sept 12, p. 4)
The Barker mill in South Acton operated for many years after Henry’s death. Owned at first by Addie (Barker) Burke then her husband Fred, it was later bought by J. P. W. von Laer Company of Boston. Fred Burke became a partner in the enterprise and continued to manage the mill until his death in 1940. On October 27, 1951, the Barker Mill burned down again. It was the end of an era.
Recently, we came across a collection of pictures that were found in the attic of a house on Kinsley Road, evidently once the home of members of the Beach family. Thumbtack holes in the mats show that they had been displayed on a wall, indicating that they were all of family members or close friends.
Among the pictures were several of men in a work setting. Two were labelled “Hall Bros,” a West Acton manufacturer of wooden ware that was an important employer in the village for many years. Two were duplicates of photos already in our collection for which some Hall Brothers employees had been identified:
Our duplicate copy of this picture says on the back: "Back Row / 4th from Right Ernie Banks / First man Ben Coolige / fifth from right Archie Beach".
This duplicate of a Hall Brothers photo had no identification, but our other copy did:
Our duplicate gave the following identifications:
Back Row, standing:
Given this identification, Ben Coolidge must the man standing in the back right of the previous picture, where he would be the "first man" from the right.
The next photo featured tubs, pails, churns and other wooden products, so we easily accepted the Hall Brothers identification written on its back. However, after we scanned and enlarged the photo, we were surprised to see that a large churn was painted with the slogan “Get the Best The Blanchard Churn”, and a box said “The Blanchard Print Butter Carrier.” Now we were confused. Was our picture labelled incorrectly? Did someone assume that wooden ware must have been Hall Brothers’? Was this perhaps another company associated with West Acton’s Blanchard family?
Fortunately, knowledgeable members of the Society often can save us a lot of research time. One told us that Hall Brothers bought the Blanchard churn patent. Blanchard churns were actually a well-known New Hampshire product. A Biennial Report from New Hampshire’s Bureau of Labor (dated 1902) reported that “In December, 1900, Nashua lost the Blanchard Churn company, whose entire plant was purchased by parties from West Acton, Mass., and removed to that town.” The Boston Herald (Dec. 28, 1900, p. 10) reported that Blanchard’s stock and machinery had been purchased by Hall Brothers to enlarge their business. Searching our collection of items related to Hall Brothers’ operation, we found a piece of Hall Brothers letterhead; their logo by that time featured a list of products sold by the company including “Improved Cylinder, Blanchard and Lightning Churns,” butter molds, carriers, tubs and pails. Our picture seems to have been a good representation of the company’s business. One mystery solved. But who are the men in the picture? Given the identifications above, we believe that Ben Coolidge is on the left and Archie Beach is on the right. Can anyone help us with our identification?
Our next picture had no identification, but at least two of the young men are also in the churn and pail picture. Were they all Hall Brothers employees? Were they relatives? Is the one on the left Archie J. Beach or someone else?
The photo collection also included a wonderful interior picture of workers at a mill, many of them barefoot. We think it may be the upstairs level of the South Acton Woolen Mill. We do not know the identities of the men in the photo. We would appreciate any clues.
Finally, there were family photos. The first two appear to be nearly the same group of women:
We have no clues about the women in white blouses below:
For reference, at different times and from different descendants, we have received two copies of the following photo of the Beach family around 1905. The woman in the chair is apparently Georgiana (Munroe) Beach who was born c. 1823, in Granville, Nova Scotia, married George William Beach, lived at the end of her life in West Acton with her daughter Estella (Mrs. Ernest) Morse, and died in Acton in December, 1909. According to an unsourced/undated obituary, she had sixteen children, eighty-seven grandchildren, seventy-two great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren at the time of her death, leaving plenty of room for confusion about identification of family members. Based on the pictures’ donors’ information and suggestions from other family members, we have some identifications for this picture and a number of remaining questions. Can you confirm/correct these identifications or identify others?
Back Row, from Left to Right:
We would be grateful for any help that you can give us in identifying these pictures. Please contact us.
Massachusetts has been experiencing a very cold start to winter, making us think about how Acton’s former inhabitants dealt with plunging temperatures. A century ago, the January 1918 Concord Enterprise reported the effects of “Jack Frost” on the people of Acton and surrounding towns. Plumbers were reported to have worked “day and night and through the New Year’s holiday repairing water pipes and frozen meters.” (Jan. 2, page 5) In Maynard, the American Woolen Company, a large employer and landlord, utilized its “electrical thawing machine” to help where possible with the frozen pipes in 100 of its houses. On the 16th, the paper reported that “many calls were sent in to the plumbers who were simply unable to accommodate everyone.“ (page 1) Current Acton residents and harried plumbers might assume that the news item was just written this week.
There were people, however, who welcomed periods of deep cold. In the era before refrigeration, ice cut from local ponds and streams could be stored away to chill perishable goods in the warmer months. Though ice is known to have been used and stored earlier, after Frederick Tudor and Nathaniel Wyeth developed the ice industry in the early- to mid-1800s, cutting ice and using it to chill fresh food became widespread. In the late nineteenth century, ice was no longer viewed as a luxury for the rich but as a necessity. By 1900, most homes were able to store fresh food in an insulated wooden icebox that was lined with zinc or tin. To supply them, the ice man would make his rounds with blocks of ice; consumers would leave a sign in the window if they needed ice that day, specifying the weight of the block they needed. The ice man would use large ice tongs to handle it. Where there was demand, businesses grew up. There was considerable competition in the ice business, and most local ponds became a winter resource, Acton’s included.
For ice harvesting to be practical, the ice had to be at least eight inches thick and preferably more, as harvesting required horses and men to be out on the ice. Hayden Pearson’s The New England Year (1966, pages 18-20) describes the basic process, and the US Department of Agriculture's Harvesting and Storing Ice on the Farm (1928) adds many details. When the ice was deemed to be thick enough, workers would rush to harvest it. Snow needed to be cleared, preferably by horse power, using a board placed between the runners of two-horse sleds, angled as in modern street clearing. After clearing, horse-drawn "plows" would groove the ice two to four inches deep. Making sure the first line was straight was critical; some farmers used a long board lined up with stakes as a straight-edge. For subsequent grooves, a guide attached to the plow was used to keep the lines parallel. The plows would then create grooves at right-angles so that blocks could be produced. (The lines needed to be quite accurate, or there would be waste and problems in stacking and packing the ice in storage.) After the ice was scored, the sawing would begin. Individual harvesters (sometimes including boys released from school) would hold the four-foot ice saw's crossbar and saw up-and-down along the grooves. It was hard work. Hayden Pearson remembered from his youth aching backs and shoulders and being exposed to a miserably cold wind blowing across a pond during harvesting at zero degrees or less.
To transport the sawed ice, a channel was cut to the shore. The blocks were then pushed through the channel with long-handled hooks. Alternatively, sometimes the ice would be floated in long strips, and then the blocks would be separated with a saw or a splitting fork before loading. In Pearson’s case, the ice was loaded on a sled and taken to his father’s farm ice house. In larger enterprises, the ice house might have been located near the pond or at the ice dealer’s business. The blocks were loaded into the ice house layer by layer, covered with sawdust in between layers and surrounded by a foot of insulating hay or sawdust next to the outside walls. A ramp was used to push the ice up higher. Commercial ice harvesters probably used Wyeth’s labor-saving two-bladed ice “plow” and a conveyor belt operated with pulleys or a horse-powered "elevator" to load the blocks of ice and the insulating sawdust into their ice houses. In later years, trucks and tractor engines would be used, but the essence of the process was similar to Pearson’s father’s.
It was a tough business; ice cutters had to wait until the ice was thick enough to work on safely but get the ice harvested before a thaw. Given how hard it is to predict the weather today, one can imagine that timing was tricky in earlier days. In December 1898 (Dec. 29, page 8) the Concord Enterprise reported that local businessmen Tuttles, Jones and Wetherbee had grooved their ice already, but the weather turned against them, necessitating a wait for more cold. A significant thaw or precipitation might mean that the work would be ruined. On Jan. 2, 1896 (page 8), the Concord Junction reporter noted the ice was 9 inches thick the previous week, but now it was probably 2 inches thick and honeycombed. Another reporter gave offense to a Hudson (MA) ice dealer by commenting that Berlin (MA) ice harvesters had managed to get ice before the thaw, but Hudson’s had not. It was a temporary problem; a week later, South Acton news reported “Sixteen below zero on Maple street Monday morning, and the ice scare is now over.” (page 8) Ice had become so important by that time that papers reported on ice shortages as major problems. For example, the April 4, 1890 issue of the Acton Concord Enterprise (page 3) reported on "rising prices for ice and the rush of the speculators to obtain all they can on the lookout for an ice famine.”
The Enterprise often reported on ice cutting and the filling of ice houses at various Acton locations. The longest-remembered operation was at Ice House Pond in East Acton where commercial ice cutting seems to have occurred from the 1880s into the 1950s, though ice demand decreased substantially after home refrigerators became common. A large ice house was located next to the pond. (See Tom Tidman’s history of ice cutting there and Acton Digest's Winter 1989 article about later years' harvesting at the pond, available at Jenks Library.) Other locations for ice cutting mentioned in local newspapers were Grassy Pond, Lake Nagog, the mill pond in South Acton, and W. H. Teele’s property in West Acton (accomplished by damming Fort Pond Brook on his property in part of the wetland area now between Gates and Douglas schools). There were undoubtedly other sources; it is estimated that there were about a dozen ice houses in town. The newspapers mentioned ice houses belonging to Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee in South Acton, Freeman Robbins in East Acton, W. H. Teele, L. W. Perkins, A. F. Blanchard, and A. and O. W. Mead in West Acton, and George Greenough and W. E. Whitcomb, as well as unspecified milk dealers and the railroad (that transported milk to the city). These owners and businesses would hire men on a contract basis to put in long, intense hours while the weather held. For example, the February 2, 1899 Enterprise noted in West Acton that “The ice business of A. and O. W. Mead is rushing with 15 teams and 42 men. They have been cutting about a week and the ice is very thick.” (page 8)
Reporting usually noted the thickness and quality of the ice. The danger to the workers was seldom mentioned. However, in 1917, a report did mention frostbite: “Some of the best ice seen this season was hauled to the ice house of W. E. Whitcomb Saturday from Grassy pond. It was about 14 or 15 inches thick. Although the work was not completed filling the house, the work will be finished later. Otto Geers of Stow, one of the drivers, froze his cheek.” (Feb. 7, page 7) Aside from the cold, working on ice was inherently hazardous. In February 1908, the ice broke, sending one of the ice teams of Webb Robbins into the water. For a while, "it seemed as if the entire outfit would go to the bottom. The wagon was finally gotten out, but the load was a loss." (19th, page 1).
Coming back to the record-setting cold of December 1917-January 1918, not surprisingly, ice was harvested early and was of great quality that year, up to 27 inches thick. The cold snap brought with it a “mysterious quake” felt during the night in South and West Acton. (Concord Enterprise, Jan. 2, page 5) Residents who were awakened from their sleep wondered if a powder mill or their boiler had exploded. Later, based upon fissures found in Maynard, the noises were attributed to a “frost quake.” The same cold froze not only residents’ water pipes but also the apples and vegetables stored in their cellars. A coal shortage that winter compounded people’s misery and delayed January’s school opening.
Some took advantage of the cold to skate, play hockey or go ice fishing. Aaron Tuttle was reported on January 23 (page 1) to have gotten “16 nice pickerel out of the mill pond.” Others had to make concessions to conditions. In Concord, on January 16th, a news item reported that “M. B. L. Bradford has had the lights of the Concord Curling rink cut out of the town’s electric circuit, to help save coal. Though this cold winter has furnished perfect ice for curling, since Dec. 12, the rink has not been used once for the 8 to 10 o’clock evening play.” But even in that winter, the weather was fickle; the same column mentioned recent rain and warmth ruining the ice in the Middlesex School hockey rink (page 1).
Winter, regardless of the era, brings its own challenges.
Ads for ice dealers found in a 1902 Acton directory in the Society's collection.
While researching the Spanish American war, we found a surprising local news item in the Concord Enterprise (July 21, 1898, page 8): “...the buildings of the American Powder Co of Acton have been under constant surveillance night and day by guards... It is said that persons supposed to be spies have been seen the last few weeks in the vicinity of the works in the night hours and it is generally supposed that Spanish spies have been around.” The excitement seems to have abated quickly, but there was plenty of other powder mill news in Acton in that period.
Powder had been made in Acton since the 1830s. In the 1890s, the American Powder Mills ran a large operation at the intersection of the towns of Acton, Maynard, Sudbury and Concord. High demand for smokeless powder led another firm to locate in Acton. In May, 1898, the Enterprise announced that the New York and New England Titanic Smokeless Powder Company was building a plant in South Acton in John Fletcher’s pasture near Rocky Brook and Parker’s crossing on the Fitchburg railroad. The building was to be approximately 100 x 20 feet with one story for manufacturing, and there would be a storehouse (presumably separate). The product would be “Titanic smokeless” powder. The paper noted, “There is but little danger in the making of this powder.” (May 19, page 8) The firm obtained government orders, and the Fitchburg Railroad added a track to the mill site.
Open for business around the beginning of September, the company immediately realized that the installed machinery was not suitable and would have to be replaced. The factory finally started work around the end of October. After only a week of operation, the mill blew up. (Nov. 3, page 8) The cause was uncertain, but one of the men working inside noticed something was wrong with the machinery and was able to alert the others in time for everyone to escape. Employee Dyer had to make his way out through fire, but with the help of the others, removed his burning clothing and was mostly unharmed. The Enterprise assured the public that “The buildings were thoroughly made and everything was in first class order,” probably addressing a common question about the cause. A previous article had mentioned that “work on the new powder mill is rushing.” (May 26, page 8)
The company rebuilt. In fact, the Enterprise noted that the explosion had provided winter employment for a fair number of people in South Acton. (Jan. 19, 1899, page 8] In February, 1899, the powder mill was pronounced to be sound and ready to work. “We wish them better luck than last time,” wrote the Enterprise (Feb. 8, page 7). Sadly, by the end of the year, the New York & New England Titanic Smokeless Powder Company was in involuntary bankruptcy (Enterprise, Dec. 21, 1899, page 11 and Boston Sunday Globe, Dec. 17, 1899 page 21). The machinery was sold off to people from Nashua, NH (Enterprise, Sept. 8, 1900, page 8). We did not find out what happened to the building.
Meanwhile, the well-established American Powder mills nearby were having their own excitement. The Concord Junction news in the January 27, 1898 Enterprise (page 5) mentioned that an explosion at the powder mill had been felt, though we could not find details or confirmation anywhere else. In early September, 1899, the company’s “Wheel Mill No. 5” blew up, followed quickly by No. 4. (Enterprise, Sept. 7, 1899, p. 4) The manufacturing process involved grinding powder between two enormous wheels that were powered, by 1899, by electricity. In this case, about five hundred pounds of powder in the two mills exploded, but fortunately there was no loss of life. A little over a month later, it was discovered that in the very early hours of Saturday morning October 14, someone had created a 125-foot long trail of powder from the woods behind the property, along a plank walk and the railroad tracks, to “the pulverizing mill which was in operation. The air was surcharged with powder and the slightest spark would have caused an explosion which would have blown all the surrounding buildings into atoms” along with the eight men working there. (Enterprise, Oct. 19, 1899, p. 6) Luckily, the powder burned out before reaching the mill. The case was not hard to crack; a disgruntled worker’s face had been severely burned from his attempt. Though at first he only acknowledged being in the woods and drinking, eventually he pleaded guilty. (Lowell Sun, Oct. 16, page 4 and Oct. 21, pm edition page 1; Enterprise, Oct. 19, page 6)
There really was no need for spies around Acton’s powder mills; they were dangerous enough places on their own, with malfunctioning equipment and angry workers making the risks even greater. Though it was neither the first nor the last time Acton’s powder industry would make the news, 1898 and 1899 were interesting years.
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