Recently, two very large and brittle architectural drawings arrived at Jenks Library. They had been given to our donor decades ago by a West Acton home owner who had found the drawings in the eaves of an outbuilding. Her property had formerly belonged to West Acton builder John S. Hoar, so it was reasonable to assume that the drawings were remnants of one of his projects, hidden away and forgotten for years. When the owner unrolled the paper, it cracked, but what emerged did not look like any Acton property. She taped the torn plans and gave them to a person well-known for his interest in Acton history. He has now shared them with the Society.
The plans were undated, unsigned, and gave no indication of whom they were created for. One, a drawing of the exterior of the house, matched none in Acton, and the other’s first-floor details indicated that the owner’s wealth far exceeded that of any of Acton’s early residents. The plan included a hall measuring 54’x 30’, a drawing room (34’ x 19’), morning room (almost 28’ x 12’), library (27’ x ~19’), dining room (31’ x 19’), billiard room (24’ x 19’), kitchen (~25’ x 18’), servants’ hall (20’ x 16’), butler’s pantry, cook’s pantry, housekeeper’s parlor, scullery, “Man’s Room,” and a gun & fishing rod room. Perhaps John S. Hoar had a very wealthy client somewhere, but there was no clue where the house was.
Sometime later, our donor was visiting the Breakers in Newport, RI and was inside the Children’s Playhouse on the property. Framed on the wall, he saw a reproduction of a first-floor plan that looked astoundingly like the plan found in West Acton. It came from the first Breakers, built for Pierre Lorillard in 1878 and purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885. The building had been designed by prominent Boston architects Peabody & Stearns. The first Breakers burned in November 1892 and the enormous villa designed by Richard Morris Hunt replaced it. All that is left of Peabody & Stearns’ work on the property is the 1886 “Toy house” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt “for the pleasure of his children” soon after they moved in. (Newport Mercury, July 3, 1886, p. 1)
Looking at the drawings at Jenks Library, we had a mystery on our hands. Was it truly the first Breakers? If so, what were the plans doing in West Acton? Were these perhaps an architect’s rejects or extra copies for the builder? Was there a connection between the Hoar family and the builder/architects of the original mansion? Had someone given the plans to John S. Hoar simply because he was a builder who would be interested in them? Did he use them as inspiration for his own work?
Not confident that we would be able to answer all of those questions, we started with identifying the house. Photos of the first Breakers are available online; despite slight differences, the house pictured looks to be the same as in the drawing. We wanted to compare our first-floor plan to the one used to build the Lorillard Breakers. The book Peabody and Stearns: Country Houses and Seaside Cottages by Annie Robinson has photographs of the house and a reproduction of the first-floor plan which was also featured in The American Architect and Building News, Volume 4, No. 132, July 6, 1878, in an illustrative spread between pages 4 and 5.
Our first-floor plan has more details about doors, windows, fireplaces, built-ins, materials, and patterns than the first-floor plan shown on the left, but there is little doubt that the architectural drawings brought into Jenks Library were for the same house. The plans must have been for the original building, because immediately after Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the property, he started renovations. McNeil Brothers, builders from Boston, pulled out mantels and paneling, moved the kitchen away from the main house, and created a new 40’ x 70’ dining room in between, quite different from the original plan. (Newport Mercury, Dec. 4, 1886, p. 1)
Our Plan's First-Floor Details. Clockwise from Top Left:
An Unknown Route to the Attic
Our next challenge was to try to discover why plans for the long-gone Breakers were found on Windsor Avenue in West Acton in the 1970s. The West Acton building in which the plans were found had belonged to John S. Hoar, son of John Sherman Hoar, Civil War veteran, carpenter, and founder of the New England Vise Company mentioned in previous blog posts. (See original blog post and follow-up.) He came from the Littleton branch of the enormous Hoar family descended from a settler of Concord, MA around 1660. If there was a connection with Newport, it was not because they were a Rhode Island family.
Obviously, John S. Hoar did not design the Breakers. Our next hypothesis about the plans was that perhaps he or a relative was involved in building the structure, but our route to proving or disproving that theory was not simple. Though John S. Hoar and his father were involved in building, the father died in 1872 and John S. was only turning 18 in 1878 when the house was being constructed. If he worked in Newport at that time, we have no record of it. Our follow-up theory was that perhaps after the original Breakers was renovated or burned, our drawings, having been superseded, were discarded. After Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the property, the “old” was not of much interest; the Newport Mercury reported that two of the “elegantly carved mantels” were auctioned off for about $100, even then considered much less than they were worth. (Dec. 4, 1886, p. 1) Perhaps someone found the plans, saved them for their historical value, and gave them to John S. Hoar. But who?
The West Acton Hoar Family and the Whitney Relatives
Our donor believed that other members of John S. Hoar’s family were involved in construction, so we researched uncles and brothers for a connection in Newport. A great deal of searching later, we had only found one promising clue. On Jan. 1, 1892, the Concord Enterprise reported, “Crosby Hoar spent Christmas with his mother. Crosby is superintending the building of some Newport, R. I. residences.” (p. 8)
This Crosby Hoar was John S. Hoar’s brother. We thought that we might be able to learn about what Newport residences Crosby worked on and whether he had a connection to the architects Peabody & Stearns, the builder(s) who worked for the Lorillards or Vanderbilts, or anyone else who might logically have had the plans. Following up on Crosby did not easily yield that information, but it was clear that we needed to know more about the extended Hoar family.
What follows is a bit of what we learned about the family of John S. Hoar. As mentioned previously, their family roots go way back in the area. It was surprising, therefore, how complicated it was at first to learn about John’s brothers. We will start with their father, the carpenter, farmer, and vise inventor John Sherman Hoar.
J. Sherman Hoar, as he preferred to be called, was born in Boxborough on June 19, 1829. J. Sherman’s father John grew up in Littleton, and his mother Betsey Barker grew up in Acton. J. Sherman married Lydia Parker Whitney in 1851 and lived for a few additional years in Boxborough. Around that time, his brother Forestus D. K. Hoar moved to Acton. By the 1860 census, J. Sherman Hoar was living in West Acton with his growing family.
Tracking down the family proved challenging until we realized that a number of Sherman and Lydia’s children eventually changed their surnames to Whitney, and one son went by his middle name. As Whitneys appeared in various places, we had to make sure that they were actually originally from the Hoar family and not people of similar names. Trying to answer our questions turned into quite a project.
J. Sherman Hoar’s children with Lydia P. Whitney included:
The year 1872 must have been a traumatic time for the family. In June, Sherman’s father John passed away. On October 13, 1872, Sherman died from typhoid fever, and a week later, eldest daughter Kate died from the same disease. The next few years must have brought about a great deal of upheaval. We do not have many details about that time period but have tried to fill in what we could.
All of J. Sherman’s sons seem to have worked in construction. According to Lucie Hager’s 1891 Boxborough: A New England Town and Its People, “Three of the sons went West and engaged in business as builders and contractors, and another, John Hoar of West Acton, is an architect.” (p. 158) Following up on that clue, we discovered that the brothers actually headed for the Midwest. Our first round of research, complicated by name changes, showed that the youngest, Edwin Barker [Hoar] Whitney moved to St. Louis, Missouri and stayed there. Census records alternate between showing Edwin as a superintendent employed by a school system and a superintendent working in buildings/construction. He occasionally appears as “Edward.” We will leave that possible confusion for another researcher. Aside from his building connections, we found nothing to indicate that he might have obtained plans to the original Breakers.
John S. Hoar’s younger brother Abner Crosby obviously had been involved in construction in Newport. The Newport Directory of 1882 shows a carpenter Crosby Hoar living in a boarding house. Once we realized that he later went by Crosby A. Whitney, we found him in Newport directories in the years 1890-1895, listed explicitly as a builder in the later years. Disappointingly, none of our searches enabled us to find out any more about his time in Newport, including the houses he worked on. By 1896, he had moved to Boston where in April of that year, he married Annie C. Daning. The record lists him as a carpenter. The Boston directory of 1897 shows Crosby A. Whitney as a “building supt. 166 Devonshire, rm. 42.” (More on this later.) Though building superintendent can have different meanings, based on what we have discovered, he would have been a construction supervisor. He apparently spent his career in construction. He was listed as some variation of building superintendent in the 1900-1930 censuses and in Boston directories. His wife Annie died in 1929, and the 1930 census incorrectly listed him as “Crosby A. Fletcher,” living with his sister Alice (Hoar) Fletcher and her husband in Belmont. We did not find online details of his death or burial, although an indexed death record lists a Crosby A. Hoar as having died in Westborough in 1934. Aside from the fact that he was in Newport and in construction, our original research into Crosby did not convince us of a definite connection to the first Newport Breakers.
John S. Hoar’s older brother Arthur Cephas became a master builder. Like two of his brothers, he took Whitney as his last name; we found a record of his name change in Massachusetts on Feb. 7, 1881. We knew from Hager’s Boxborough history that he had headed to the Midwest by 1891. A Masonic membership record showed that Arthur C. Hoar Whitney had been associated with the Masons in St. Louis from 1891-1895 (and in Massachusetts before and after). He lived to the age of 97, and his Boston Globe obituary mentioned that he “had designed numerous buildings in Chicago, St. Louis and other Midwest cities” as well as the Groton School chapel. The obituary gave no indication of a Newport connection and was quite vague about his activities before he moved to Lexington (MA) in 1907. (Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 16, 1951, p. 8) Fortunately, we kept looking.
Online searching showed that Arthur C. Whitney was in construction in Boston. A digitized 1897 catalogue for a Special Exhibition held by the Boston Architectural Club contained an ad for “C. Everett Clark & Co. Contractors and Builders, 166 Devonshire Street, Room 42, Boston., Mass.” The names at the bottom of the ad were C. Everett Clark and Arthur C. Whitney. We also found an ad in the 1908 Year Book of the Boston Architectural Club showing Arthur C. Whitney, Contractor and Builder, working at 18 Post Office Square in Boston, Room 4. From those two pieces of information, we assumed that Arthur worked with another builder for a short time and then went off on his own. We would have saved time if we had paid more attention to the identity of the partner. However, our research into Arthur C. Whitney’s later life showed that he had a successful career as a builder. By 1899, he was in Milwaukee representing the Boston Master Builders’ Association. (Concord Enterprise, Feb. 2, 1899, p. 8) A 1906 writeup of Arthur C. Whitney in Commercial and Financial New England Illustrated showed that he had worked on numerous big projects in Boston, employed a large number of workers, and “aided materially in carrying out the ideas of some of the most prominent architects in the country.” (p. 264) We did discover that he worked with Peabody & Stearns. Our hypothesis was that someone who worked at Peabody & Stearns or perhaps a Newport builder had discarded our plans and somehow they found their way to Arthur or Crosby Whitney, who then gave them to brother John S. Hoar. The connections still seemed quite tenuous, however.
We investigated John S. Hoar last, because we were under the impression that he had stayed in or near West Acton his entire life. When we searched for him in the 1880 census, however, we were surprised to discover that Arthur C. Hoar (age 25) and John S. Hoar (age 20), both carpenters from Massachusetts, were living in a St. Louis, Missouri boarding house. Listed after the brothers was another boarder, a 42-year-old builder from Massachusetts named Charles E. Clark. Following a guess that the Hoar brothers were in St. Louis working for this builder, we belatedly looked into the career of Charles Everett Clark.
Finally, a Connection Appears
It did not take us long to discover that C. Everett Clark was a well-known Boston builder. An 1895 retrospective of the works of architect Richard Morris Hunt talked at some length about the fact that Hunt had trusted C. Everett Clark to act as general contractor on some of his best-known work, including Newport mansions such as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Breakers (the second one), Marble House, Belcourt, and the homes of Ogden Goelet (Ochre Court), Professor Shield, and “Mr. Busk” (Joseph R.). Clark also was general contractor for John Jacob Astor’s Fifth Avenue house in New York. The article continued, “We do not speak here of the less notable work which Mr. Clark has done, or even of the many important commissions which he has obtained from other leading architects.” (Architectural Record, Volume V., No. 2, Oct.-Dec. 1895, p. 216) We learned from the Newport Mercury (Sept. 26, 1885, p. 1) that one of those important commissions was the Lorillard (first) Breakers; the contract for the “erection of the elegant villa” was awarded to C. E. Clark of Boston in October, 1877.
The connection between the Hoar/Whitney family and the builder of the Lorillard Breakers kept getting stronger. An obituary for Charles Everett Clark was shared on Ancestry.com. (Unfortunately, the only identification was a hand-written “Mar 1899,” but the obituary mentioned that Clark was a “prominent resident of this city,” indicating that the paper must have been published in Somerville, MA.) The article spoke about Clark’s construction company and said that “The Boston office was established about twenty-five years ago, and was placed in charge of Arthur C. Whitney, of Somerville, who acted as superintendent up to five years ago, when he became Mr. Clark’s partner.” C. E. Clark had built hundreds of houses, warehouses, and office buildings, especially in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and St. Paul. He also built “many elegant houses in the Back Bay district of Boston,” the previously mentioned Newport houses, and notable houses in other locations such as Lenox, MA and Canandaigua, NY.
Photos Courtesy of Library of Congress
At this point, we had discovered that Hoar brother Arthur C. Whitney had worked for C. Everett Clark, builder of both Breakers, since the 1870s. Arthur was a building superintendent and managed the Boston office until he became a partner. His change in status must have happened before November 24, 1893, because letterhead from that date (shared online by Salve Regina University) included his name.
Brother Crosby A. Whitney must also have worked for the firm because his work address in the 1897 and 1899 Boston Directories was the same as the Boston office of C. Everett Clark & Co.; Room 42, 166 Devonshire Street. We had previously found evidence that Crosby was living in Newport in 1882 and 1890-1895 and that he was overseeing the building of “some Newport, R. I. residences” in January 1892. Was he involved in building the Vanderbilts’ Breakers, Marble House, or Goelet’s Ochre Court? We do not have proof of that, but we did learn from an 1892 writeup of C. Everett Clark that “He has several superintendents who have been in his employ for nearly twenty years, and who personally superintend his buildings.... he controls his vast business by correspondence with his superintendents and by making regular trips West once a month.” (Boston of Today, A Glance at Its History and Characteristics, ed. Richard Herndon, p. 183) Clearly, one of those superintendents was Arthur C. Whitney. Crosby may have been another. Circling back to youngest [Hoar] brother Edwin Whitney, a building superintendent living in St. Louis, we realized that he also could have been working for C. Everett Clark supervising projects in that city and elsewhere in the Midwest (a theory we did not pursue).
Unfortunately, as time passes, histories of buildings often focus on their architects and do not tend to mention the people involved in the actual construction. The result is that the identities of those who brought the architects’ ideas to fruition can be lost to memory. It was the digitization of contemporaneous reports in newspapers, trade journals, and “Boston of To-day” that allowed us to piece together the connection between the Acton Hoar family and the Lorillard Breakers.
Unlikely as it seemed at first, we now know that at least one of the Hoar brothers was working for the builder of the first Breakers at the time it was erected. As partner to that builder in later years, Arthur C. Whitney could easily have had access to the original plans. Questions, of course, remain. Did any of the Hoar brothers actually participate in the building of the Lorillard Breakers in 1877-1878? Were all three “Whitney” brothers building superintendents for C. Everett Clark? Did John S. Hoar work for C. Everett Clark, and if so, for how long? And finally, how exactly did those plans get into John S. Hoar’s workshop attic? If you have any information that will add to this story, we would be delighted to hear from you.
Samuel’s family connections made it highly likely that Samuel also served in the Revolution. Samuel’s brothers Asa and Nathan and many of their relatives served. Samuel also had many soldiers in his family on his wife’s side; she was Lucy Davis, first cousin to Captain Isaac Davis who led the Acton minutemen and fell at Concord’s North Bridge.
We checked our standard town histories by Fletcher and Phalen, both of which reprinted Rev. James T. Woodbury’s listing of Actonians who were known (at the time the list was created, sometime in the mid-1800s) to have served in the Revolution. The list is not perfect, and Rev. Woodbury acknowledged at the time that it was incomplete. However, Samuel Parlin did appear in that listing. Some of his children and other relatives living in Acton were the likely sources.
Our next challenge was to try to determine when Samuel actually served. Fortunately, our quest was made much easier when we were able to turn to the Robbins papers in our own archives. Not every man who served is listed there either, but for lucky people researching certain individuals, the papers can be a goldmine. It happens that Samuel Parlin was listed as one of the Actonians who signed up on September 29, 1774, “thinking our Selves Ignorant in the Military Art and Willing to be Instructed” by Captain Joseph Robbins in a militia company. Later, Captain Robbins documented the fact that Samuel Parlin had served under him in 1776 (as did his brothers Nathan and Asa). We also discovered that much later, Concord’s Gazette and Yeoman listed those who were living in Acton in April 1824 who had fought at Concord on April 19, 1775. Samuel Parlin was included. (April 24, 1824, p. 2)
Having confirmed that Samuel Parlin did indeed serve in the Revolutionary War, we set out to learn about the rest of his life. Samuel was born in Acton on May 18, 1747 to Jonathan Parlin and Sarah Warner. His family were among of the original residents of Acton when it became a town in 1735. They lived in the northern part of Acton (previously Concord) that eventually became Carlisle. A map of historic home sites done by Donald Lapham in 1969 shows that the Jonathan Parlin house was located at 322 West Street (at the corner of Acton Street) in present-day Carlisle.
According to The Descendants of Nicholas Parlin, Samuel had numerous siblings, the oldest of whom (Jonathan) died as a soldier in the French and Indian War in 1758. The book lists two brothers (Nathan and Asa) serving in the Revolution and, with some question, an additional soldier brother Nathaniel. Aside from a muster and payroll record indicating that “Nathaniel” Parlin marched from Acton to Roxbury on March 4, 1776 and served six days, we could find no vital or other records for a man of that name. It is very likely that the record was actually Nathan’s. Samuel had a sister Elizabeth who never married, and as the Parlin genealogy added, unhelpfully, “There were four other children, all girls.” (p. 22). We were able to find in Acton’s vital records that Samuel had three additional sisters, Sarah, Lucy, and Mary. Sarah died in 1759. Acton death records do not mention Lucy and Mary, but they must have died before their father, as his probate record does not list them as survivors. (It also does not list a son Nathaniel.)
Samuel’s father Jonathan died in 1767. His estate included an 87-acre farm, partly in Acton and partly in Westford, bordering on the land of John Heald Jr. The farm was left 1/3 to Samuel’s mother, as was customary, and 2/3 to the eldest surviving brother Nathan who lived out his life in Carlisle. Asa eventually farmed nearby and served the town of Carlisle for many years as town clerk and selectman.
Samuel Parlin, however, moved to a part of town that remained Acton. On March 26, 1772, he married Lucy Davis (1749-1829), daughter of John and Sarah (Flint) Davis of Acton. Samuel and Lucy had eight children:
We know that Samuel Parlin lived at what would now be 48 Hammond Street. The house, which stood until a tragic fire in 1985, was believed to have been built approximately 1772 -1776, presumably based on the date of Samuel’s marriage to Lucy Davis. Supporting that estimate, we found that in the tax valuation of 1771, Samuel was listed without taxable property, but in Lucy’s father’s 1778 probate record, Samuel Parlin was already a landowner. Lucy inherited eight acres of pasture and woodland, known as part of the “Proctor Place” that bordered land of “Samuel Parling.” The probate record also noted that Lucy’s father had previously given her 86 pounds, 19 shillings and 9 pence, probably the value of land John gave to Lucy and Samuel as they started their life together. Lucy inherited an additional thirty-acre lot on the “westerly side of Nagog Hill” when her eldest brother John died in an accident on March 2, 1791. The lot was bounded by land that had been set off to her sister Abigail Conant and by land of Simon Tuttle and Samuel Jones Jr.
Samuel first appears in Acton’s town meeting records as a fence viewer in 1776. He was clearly back from military service in 1780 because he was chosen selectman and assessor in that year. Starting in 1783, he was chosen regularly for roles such as constable, tithing man, assessor, surveyor of timbers or highways, and school committee. He was also selected as a member of special committees, for example to deal with abatements to individuals’ taxes and to deal with the selectmen about town expenditures. He was made a member of the committee to instruct the Convention at Concord in Oct. 1786 (probably the Middlesex County convention dealing with issues that led to Shay’s Rebellion). In May 1798, town meeting records show that he was selected for a special committee “In a Constitutional mannar to take under Consideration the alarming Situation of our publick affairs and express there minds thereon the Town Expressed there minds agreeable to this article and Chose Jonas Brooks John Edwards Jonas Heald Samuel Parling and Thomas Noys a Committee to publish the Same.” (This was probably related to tricky diplomatic issues with France.) It is clear that Samuel Parlin was a trusted figure in town, someone who could handle both money and negotiations amid controversy.
According to church records, on Nov. 24, 1791, Samuel Parlin was chosen for the office of Deacon of the First Parish church of Acton. On April 19, 1792, the record continued that Samuel Parlin having declined, the church chose Simon Hunt who accepted and “took the seat” in August. While the Parlin genealogy refers to him as “Deacon Samuel,” there is no record that Samuel Parlin actually ever “took the seat” himself. The story of why he declined the honor never made it to the history books.
Samuel Parlin died on March 7, 1827, leaving his widow Lucy and four surviving children. At the time of his death, his real estate included the home farm containing 38 acres of land, a 5-acre “Sargent Meadow”, a 6-acre “Chaffin Meadow”, and an 11-acre “Littleton Pasture.” He also had the title to pew number 42 on the lower floor of the Acton Meeting house. Among his personal belongings were agricultural products and tools, cows, swine, sheep, and, oddly, ½ of a horse. Samuel’s widow Lucy survived him by two years, and eldest son Jonathan only by three. The home farm passed to son Davis in 1831. The house eventually went out of the family to Thomas Hammond whose name was given to the road on which they lived. When some of the land was developed in the late 1960s, the new road was given the name of Samuel Parlin Drive.
Our research into Samuel Parlin reminded us of a few lessons that are worth repeating. Despite having found what looked like a very complete genealogy of the Parlin family, if we had not checked each item, we would have believed that Samuel had an additional brother named Nathaniel and that Samuel’s son Samuel Jr. lived to adulthood and married a woman named Phoebe. If we had only paid attention to the flag holder in Woodlawn Cemetery, we would have thought that Samuel’s military service was in the War of 1812, not the Revolution. And if we had stopped our searching at Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, we would have missed Samuel’s service, the best documentation of which, ironically, is in our own archives.
Some Sources Consulted:
In the years before Acton had a high school of its own, students wanting to further their education needed to take opportunities where they could be found. In Acton’s early days, young men were usually the ones to seek education beyond the schoolhouse; they might be given advanced training or prepared for college by a learned individual, often the town’s minister. In the 1800s, more opportunities arose for young men and young women; some might board at private academies or, as time went on, commute to a nearby high school.
In the early 1850s, Acton’s advanced students had the option of studying for short periods at a privately-run advanced school. Our Society’s collection includes a program for an exhibition of F. W. Pelton’s High School in the center district of Acton, starting at 6 p.m. on November 19, 1852. It must have been a long evening; there were twenty-seven items on the agenda, including two dramatic pieces.
As evidence of what was going on in the minds of young Actonians in 1852, the “programme” is a revealing document. Even in a small town, there was obvious interest in the issues affecting the country as a whole. Abolition was the foremost theme of the evening. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though now criticized because of its racial stereotypes, was hugely influential in raising awareness of the evils of slavery. It had been serialized starting in June 1851 but had only been out in book form since March 1852. An early performance in Acton, featuring over 30 performers, would have been a notable event. The song “Little Eva” that followed the performance was based on the book and had recently been published in Boston. Other items on the program that involved the issue of slavery were “declamations” on Anson Burlingame’s opposition to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Grimke’s “Bible”, presumably Angelina Grimke’s “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836), and Henry Clay’s attempts to save “The Union” without war.
Other declamations had as their subjects Daniel Webster’s writings on Washington and on “The Present Age,” Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian leader whose words had managed to catch the popular imagination in the United States, Napoleon, and the Whig Party (written by the schoolmaster himself). We were not able to identify all of the items performed. Ames’ “Character” may have referred to one of Fisher Ames’ writings, but there is not enough information to be sure. Stuart’s “Birthplace of Liberty” and Snowball’s philosophy were similarly hard to pin down. In online searching, some of the titles are now overshadowed by later writings and events. A search for Snowball’s “Philosophy” led to many references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Searching for “A Nation Mourns” brought up references to Lincoln’s assassination, and “Modern Humbugs” yielded P. T. Barnum’s book The Humbugs of the World, both dating from the 1860s. (“Modern Humbugs” by Florentinus may have been a tongue-in-cheek piece written by the schoolmaster; see the section on him below.)
Drama, songs, and poetry were easier to find. “The Tongue Bridle” was a dramatic piece for “four older girls” published in Boston in 1851. Thanks to the Library of Congress’ Music Division, we were able to find the 1849 Ossian’s Serenade, the 1851 Oh, Must We Part to Meet No More?, and The Green Mt. Yankee, a Temperance Medley, published in Boston in 1852. Once we had navigated past references to Led Zepplin songs, we were able to find an 1848 song by I. B. Woodbury that set Tennyson’s poem "The May Queen" to music. Henry Theodore Tuckerman’s “Love and Fame,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 “Excelsior,” and Henry Ware, Jr.’s “To the Ursa Major” can all be found in online poetry collections.
The only item with a strictly Acton theme was Pierpont’s poem “Acton Monument.” One wonders if the entire poem describing the events of April 18-19, 1775 was recited; even at its debut, the audience became impatient with its length. Rev. John Pierpont of Medford presented the poem at the celebration of the completion of Acton’s Monument in 1851. The reverend had the misfortune that day of being slated to recite after an hour-long address by Governor George S. Boutwell and just before the meal was served. Hungry attendees started eating during his recital of the poem, and the clatter of utensils clashed with the sound of the reverend’s voice. Apparently, he got quite upset. Acton’s Rev. Woodbury, who could have tried to quiet the crowd, instead said a quick grace and let the dinner officially begin. Boutwell’s Reminiscences quote Woodbury as telling the poet, “They listened very well, ‘till you got to Greece. They didn’t care anything about Greece.” (page 130) By that point in the day’s speeches, the audience might have been losing enthusiasm for Acton as well. Later, obviously having calmed down, Rev. Pierpont commented on the situation that
“Poets at dinners must learn to be brief, Or their tongues will be beaten by cold tongue of beef.” [Boston Evening Transcript, Oct. 30, 1851, p.1)
The audience at Pelton’s High School Exhibition had to have been tired by the end of the evening. After speeches, songs, poetry, and drama, Arthur Cowdrey capped off the event with a declamation in Latin from Virgil. Presumably this was to wow the audience. (Clearly, Mr. Pelton was able to teach his students a range of subjects.) Miss A. B. Fletcher performed her fourth musical number, and the evening was finished.
Acton’s Private High Schools
We had thought that perhaps F. W. Pelton’s high school was unique to him. However, a speech by one of his former students explained that Acton’s private high school, at least for a time, was an annual occurrence taken on by a college student during a break from his studies. It allowed a college student to earn funds and benefited the townspeople by supplementing their publicly-funded education. Eben H. Davis told Acton’s high school graduates in 1895 that:
“When I was a boy, the only high school in the town was a private enterprise, held but a few weeks in the fall, in the centre of the town, and kept by some college student to eke out his college expenses. There was no orderly course of studies, but each student selected such branches as his fancy dictated or friends advised, for which he paid his own tuition. In this way it was possible to obtain a smattering of Latin or Greek, an introduction to the elements of science, and some knowledge of mathematics. But, in order to fit for college, I had to attend an academy, one hundred and fifty miles from home. ... I would by no means speak lightly of the schools of my boyhood days... Nor were those brief terms of high school studies without influence. They opened up to us new lines of thought, and the personality of the teachers, fresh from college and imbued with zeal for a higher education, made a strong impress. It was through contact with such influences that I was inspired with an ambition to go to college.” (Town Report 1896, p. 83-84)
Contrary to what we had expected, this high school was not simply for older students who had progressed beyond the curriculum of Acton’s schoolhouses. Some of the students were fairly young. From reading school committee reports of the time, we discovered that the public schools in the early 1850s had a summer term and a winter term; the private school in autumn obviously filled a gap, not just of higher learning, but in a time of the year when scholars would not have been able to continue their studies.
We have not yet found all of the college students who led a private autumn high school in Acton, but we did find mention of a Mr. Cutler who seems to have run a popular private school in the fall of 1848. The school committee report of 1848-1849 alludes to the difficulties of a Winter Term teacher, Dartmouth College graduate Mr. Whittier, who had come with great recommendations. “Mr. Whittier, in assuming the duties of his school, was somewhat in the position of the poor king who followed the people’s favorite, when nature’s poet said, ‘As when a well graced actor leaves the stage, All eyes are idly bent on him that enters next.’ Mr. Cutler in his select school had won all hearts, both of parents and children, and they thought his like would never appear again. This feeling among the leading scholars was a great injury to the school, which ought to have been one of the best.” We will set aside research into Mr. Cutler’s identity for another day. If anyone knows more about him or other Acton private school teachers, please let us know.
The 1852 Schoolmaster, F. W. Pelton
We know very little about F. W. Pelton’s brief time in Acton. We were able to identify him because the 1853 school committee report mentioned hiring F. W. Pelton “of Union College” to teach the Centre School in the winter term 1853 after he had run a private school in Acton Center in the fall of 1852. The mention of Union College allowed us to confirm that he was Florentine Whitfield Pelton, born in Somers, CT on April 23,1828 to Asa and Lois Pelton. According to Jeremiah M. Pelton’s Genealogy of the Pelton Family in America (page 477-478), Florentine Pelton left home at a young age, supposedly taught in New Jersey, and furthered his studies at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, MA and Union College.
The year in which F. W. Pelton taught in Acton was an unusual one. At town meeting the previous April, Acton had elected a School Committee of three clergymen. All three had left town by the end of the year. (One was Rev. J. T. Woodbury, discussed in a previous blog post.) Ebenezer Davis and Herman H. Bowers wrote the subsequent School Committee report. Two of Ebenezer Davis’ children had attended Pelton’s fall High School.
F. W. Pelton’s winter term at the public school seems to have been much less successful than his private school experience. (School committees in the nineteenth century could be merciless in their reports, and teachers had no ability to present their viewpoint.) It is likely that having 52 students of varying ages, with an average attendance of 44, was a contributing factor, as well as the fact that the curriculum would not have been driven by students’ interests as it was in the private school.
Pelton may already have been in career transition during his Acton period. He soon made the law his career, studying with C. R. Train and at Harvard Law. He was admitted to the Middlesex County bar in 1855, and practiced first in Marlborough and then in Boston. He married twice, first to Laura M. Buck, a graduate of the State Normal School at Framingham, MA, on Dec. 18, 1855. The couple had two children before Laura died from complications of childbirth in 1860 in Newton where they were living at the time. Pelton married Mary Reed Whitney in Waltham, MA on Nov. 20, 1862, and the couple had eight more children. In addition to practicing law, Pelton dealt in real estate and was responsible for the construction of a number of houses in Dorchester, MA. Toward the end of his life, he retired from the law, focusing on various business ventures. He settled in Dedham, MA where he died of “chronic peritonitis,” probably a complication of his diabetes, on June 25, 1885 in Dedham.
We found no reference to Florentine W. Pelton’s time in Acton in newspapers, family histories, or obituaries. However, his experience there may have led to this thought from the report of the Newton Grammar School Sub-Committee, of which F. W. Pelton was a member in the 1860s: ”If the varied, difficult and exhausting work of the school-room could be understood at home, there would be more sympathy and less fault-finding with the teacher.” (Annual Report, Mass. Board of Education, Vol. 27, 1864, p. 92) Indeed.
The Exhibition Participants
There are many names on Pelton’s 1852 Programme, but there were only a few that we could not track down. Perhaps those students were not residents of Acton; the school committee report of 1853 mentioned that some private school scholars in the past had come from out of town. (p. 5) In the rest of the cases, we found individuals who would have been between twelve and eighteen in the fall of 1852. Among the sources we used were school committee reports; it is not surprising to find that young scholars who were enrolled in an extra school in the fall of 1852 were also commended for excellent attendance at the public schools.
As best we can reconstruct it, the following is our list of Pelton’s high school exhibition participants:
Note: A family member, having read our original blog post of Dec. 2020, shared with us a remarkable set of documents - “Reminiscences of West Acton and of Personal Life,” “Travels,” “West Acton in the War for the Union 1861-1865,” and “Conditions of Success,” all written by George C. Wright. Historians’ dream sources, they necessitated a revision to our original blog post. It is a good reminder that there is no substitute for people’s first-hand accounts! With gratitude to the family for preserving and then sharing such rare material, we have updated our biography.
George C. Wright does not often come up today when discussing Acton history. Well-known in his own time, his name seems to have faded from our collective memory. However, his life story conformed to the late nineteenth century ideal of a man who started with nothing and became a success. He lived long enough that he was featured in town histories and newspapers, giving us access to information about him. Biographies emphasized that he was a self-made man. As we investigated other sources, we found that though he was self-reliant from a young age, his life was filled with connections to family, friends, and community. He was no loner.
George Cleavland Wright was born in Bedford, Mass. on Jan. 7, 1823 to Joel and Dolly H. (Reed) Wright. His mother had been a school teacher in Boxborough, a fact of which George C. seems to have been quite proud. According to an 84th birthday biography, he “shared the vicissitudes of a large family in humble circumstances.” (Concord Enterprise, Jan 9, 1907, p. 8) At least seven children were born to Joel and Dolly; birth records are not comprehensive, but later records mention the children’s birthplaces as Acton, Bedford, Boxborough, Concord, Littleton (in MA) and Jaffrey, NH. In his Reminiscences, George C. says that the family moved to Jaffrey, NH, for a few years, then Littleton, MA, and then to live on the Acton Center farm that later belonged to Rev. James T. Woodbury and Daniel Tuttle. From there, the family moved into the brick house in Boxborough opposite the Congregational Church. It seems that George C.’s early vicissitudes included moving frequently.
George C. Wright went to district schools but was already working outside the home by the age of ten. He was self-supporting by fifteen. He went to work for Christopher Page of Boxborough, intending to learn the carpenter’s trade. A serious accident to one of his knees ended that potential career, and while recovering he looked for a way to make money with his arms and hands. He had the chance to learn the shoemaking trade from a Mr. Wyman in Bedford. After his three months of training, the business was apparently in a slump, and the payment for a pair of child’s shoes was only ten cents a pair. He made $3.80 a week, of which $2 had to go to his room and board, but he managed to save up $40 in a little more than a year. About this time, George C. went to a temperance convention in Lexington where he met John Fletcher of Acton whose shoe business had transformed Acton Center. Mr. Fletcher offered George C. a better deal, fifteen cents for children’s shoes and, eventually, even more for women’s shoes. After he had worked for Fletcher for a little more than a year, George C. sensed an opportunity. The extension of the Fitchburg Railroad through West Acton in 1844 would give the village easy access to the city, both for goods and people. Around that time, George C. Wright moved to West Acton, first working in a shop belonging to John Woodbury and then going into the shoemaking business for himself. His shop was on the second floor of the general store on the corner in West Acton. He was successful, in a good year making $400. John Fletcher eventually prevailed upon George C. to come back to work for him, so George C. sold his stock to Fletcher and worked another year for him.
On Dec. 31, 1846, he married a West Acton native, Susan Haskell Davis. Susan was the daughter of Jonathan Billings Davis and Sally Hosmer, both with deep roots in Acton and relatives of men killed in the Revolutionary War.
In 1844, George C.’s sister Mary had married Martin Hayward in Boxborough, a family connection that soon became a business one. Martin and Mary moved to Charlestown. In their daughter Annette Hayward's birth certificate in 1848, Martin was described as a milk dealer.
In West Acton, Captain James Hayward had begun a business of buying local farmers’ milk, taking it to the city on the train in milk cans to sell to dealers. Capt. Hayward apparently convinced George C. Wright to take up the milk business as a “milk peddler in Boston”. Though less dull than shoemaking, it was hard work. He described in his Reminiscences that he had to get up at 3 am and be making rounds by 4 am in the summer and only an hour later in the winter. He did his milk route twice per day and had to spend time washing cans, putting in twelve-fourteen hours per day. George C. did a two-year stint in the milk business. He worked up to dealing with more than 120 cans per day. Selling milk for five cents per quart, making sure to keep consistent quality, he made good money, clearing $200 in his final month in the business.
When George C. Wright began in the milk business, he and Susan moved to Charlestown. Their first-born child, Estella, was born there on Dec. 20, 1849. The father’s residence was given as B[unker] Hill Street, and his occupation was shown as “Milk Man.” They must have spent some time in Acton, however, because the 1850 census showed shoemaker George C. Wright living in Acton with wife Susan and daughter “Esther M.” (Estella) in a two-family household with George’s sister Sarah and her husband Edwin Sawyer, a wheelwright.
Growing family, Growing Business
According to biographies, George C. Wright entered the coffee business at the age of 31, around 1853-1854. In the 1855 Massachusetts census, George C. Wright, wife Susan and daughter Estella were living in Charlestown in a two-family dwelling with trader Martin and May “Heywood” and their daughter Annette. George’s occupation was “coffee dealer.” George and Susan had moved to 84 Green Street in Charlestown by August 1856. A number of other family members were already in Charlestown as well.
George C. and Susan Wright had seven children. Sadly, three of their children died young.
The coffee firm for which George worked was Hayward & Co. It was clearly a family affair. Biographies, advertisements, directories, and census records indicate that Martin Hayward was already in the coffee business by 1850, but he was soon joined by George C. Wright, who according to later biographies was an equal partner. According to George’s Reminiscences, after George C.’s two years in milk, Martin Hayward invited George to join him in the business of turning green coffee berries into a state ready for consumer use. At first, they worked for wholesale grocers, taking their raw coffee and returning it ready-for-sale. Eventually, they were encouraged to buy raw coffee themselves, and the pair became coffee dealers. At some point, George’s brother-in-law Silas Davis became a partner in the business as well. By 1856, George’s brother Emery (who had been a shoemaker and then in the milk business) was working in coffee. He seems to have spent the rest of his career in the business and much of the time in George’s company, according to Boston directories.
The 1854 Boston directory shows Hayward & Co. at City Coffee Mills, 75 Charlestown, Boston. Principals were Martin Hayward, Joseph Maynard and George C. Wright. Later, the company’s address was 5-7 Haverhill Street in Boston. George C. Wright was the coffee buyer for the firm, making frequent trips to the New York coffee markets. He was apparently very good at his job, and showed particular wisdom (or luck) in the 1886-1887 year when Brazilian coffee prices went up 250% in one year. A booklet published by George C.’s company (c. 1907) mentioned that in the early days, most coffee buyers relied on the look of the green coffee berries for their purchasing decisions, but George C. Wright took samples and roasted them in an old-fashioned corn popper. This method apparently worked well for 35 years. Outgrowing the corn popper, eventually six small roasters were added. By the time of that publication, sampling and tasting were common practices in the coffee industry. He was well-known to the “coffee men” of the country; he was the driving force behind an effort to reduce an apparently unintentionally severe tax on coffee during the Civil War. His efforts were successful, no doubt gaining him many friends in the industry.
Around 1855, George became so seriously ill for a period of about two years that he did not know if he would be able to continue working. Except for noting that it was not the fault of the coffee business, he did not explain his illness in his Reminiscences. During this period, hoping for his health to improve, he traveled to Saratoga and Philadelphia for several months and took a five-week trip on a fishing schooner that gave him an appreciation for the difficulties of fishing for a living. Eventually, he and Susan decided that it would be better for his health to return to West Acton to live. In his words, they “carried out that decision in the spring of 1861. Having secured the land, I built the residence which has been our home since the autumn of 1861. I felt that good air and a plenty of sunshine would do more for my health than anything else. For this reason, we built upon a hill and arranged the rooms of the house so as to get the sun to its fullest degree.” (Reminiscences, p. 5) George C. recovered his health and was able to devote another fifty years to his business.
The Historical Society owns the Fitchburg Railroad log book used at the West Acton station during the 1850s-1860s. We found the following 1861 shipments for George C. Wright, most from Charlestown:
After settling into his new home in West Acton, George C. served on the school committee in the 1862-1865 school years, with a particular focus on the West Acton school. He is mentioned in letters (held by the Society) written by Clara Hapgood, a local teacher during the Civil War. Her letters refer to Mr. Wright examining her school and delivering her pay. George C.’s assessments were printed in the annual town reports. His largest contribution to the schools was to have served as the chairman of the committee overseeing the building of a new “beautiful and commodious” school house in West Acton in 1872. It was he who suggested the site, now Gardner playground. Though the site was a successful one, there was a bitter fight over it, litigation, and a taking of the land by eminent domain.
George C. also had a lasting effect on West Acton village as one of the three largest contributors toward the building of the Universalist Society Church on Central Street in 1868. According to George’s Reminiscences, the West Acton Universalists had been meeting in Charles Robinson’s Hall (that he believed the Universalists had contributed to) and were sharing cost of the minister with the Universalists in South Acton. There had not been much motivation to build a separate building until the Baptists refused to allow their church building to be used for a funeral led by a Universalist minister. His memoir says nothing about his contribution to the building, but he does mention that “The Universalist meeting house has been used for Congregationalist preaching some of the time, and it is at the service of the public for funerals, or for any other suitable purpose at any time. I am glad to note the fact that the strong sectarian feeling which was so apparent, even a quarter of a century ago, is no longer evident. It is now generally admitted that men may differ in their religious views and be sincere.” (p. 6) George C. continued to be a substantial supporter of the Universalist church and faithfully attended for decades.
After moving to West Acton, in addition to working in the coffee business, George C. Wright farmed 60 acres. As he described it, “For a number of years... I kept a diary, looked after my cows, delivered the milk to families in the village and then took the first train for Boston, attending to my farm work upon my return at night. I used to think the change of pursuits did me good, but I confess it was hard work.” (Conditions of Success, p. 2) The New England Farmer, a Boston newspaper, reported that at an 1869 agricultural exhibition, George C. had the best Jersey bull and award-winning poultry. (Oct. 16, 1869 p. 2) Presumably, George C. hired help eventually. The 1870 agricultural census shows that he had 23 “improved” acres in Acton worth $5,700 and that he had paid $395 in agricultural wages. His livestock included two horses, two milch cows, another cow/bull and two swine. Crops were “Indian” corn, “Irish” potatoes, butter, and hay. The West Acton Farmers Club chose George C. Wright as their Vice-President and later their President. He also became a Life Member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
George C. was busy with real estate deals as well. He bought some land on his own account (including land from Susan’s father). He also lent money, holding mortgages on properties around Acton. He lent money to his sister’s husband Edwin Sawyer in 1859. The 1872-1873 Acton annual report shows George C. Wright had lent the town $3,000, evidently a short-term loan, perhaps related to the construction of the West Acton schoolhouse. In the 1872 valuation, he was holding $5,000 of mortgages. In that valuation, we also discovered that the house, barn, and home place were listed under Susan’s name, rather than George’s. Presumably this was a legal protection of Susan, although we have not found any details.
By the 1870s, life in the Wright family was already changing. In December 1870, eldest daughter Estella married George W. Crampton, a native of Vermont. Son George S. went to Charlestown around 1872 to go to high school. Daughter Effie attended grammar school in West Acton, but she eventually graduated from Charlestown High School as well.
In November 1873, George C. Wright was nominated as a Republican to represent Acton, Wayland, and Sudbury in the Nineteenth Middlesex District. He did not seek the nomination. The contest was between three candidates including a Democrat and a Prohibition candidate. George C. won by a plurality of 30 votes. The newly elected Representative hosted a celebration, attended by nearly a hundred people, at his “attractive residence.” (Boston Journal, Nov. 14, 1873, p. 2) According to his obituary (Concord Enterprise, July 20, 1910, p. 8), “Though a Republican in politics, Mr. Wright has never hesitated to work and vote for principles, not party.”
In 1877, for reasons that were never discussed in histories, Hayward & Co. merged with a well-known competitor to become Dwinell, Hayward & Co. The principals of the new business were James F. Dwinell, Martin Hayward and George C. Wright, all later pictured in Ukers’ 1922 All About Coffee as pioneer coffee roasters. (p. 500) The new company operated at 1 and 3 Hamilton St. in Boston (at the corner of Wendell). In addition to coffee, they also sold “absolutely pure spices.” George C.’s son George S. Wright, after a post-graduate year of education, went to work for the new firm that became the largest coffee and spice house in New England. Susan’s brother Silas Davis left and joined with two other former employees of Hayward & Co. to form a new coffee and spice partnership that operated at the old Hayward & Co. site.
The 1880s brought more changes. When it came time to choose spouses, the three unmarried Wright children all chose Meads, children of George’s longtime friends. The Mead brothers, who like George C. had spent their early years in Boxborough, were the driving force behind much commercial activity in West Acton and beyond through the extremely successful firm A. & O.W. Mead & Co. George and Susan’s son George Sumner married Emma A. Mead, daughter of Oliver W. and Mary E. (Hartwell) Mead in 1881. Two years later, daughter Effie Rosella married George Varnum Mead, first cousin of Emma and son of Varnum B. and Direxa E. (Stearns) Mead. Daughter Theodosia Bertha chose George Varnum Mead’s brother Adelbert F. Mead. Theodosia and Adelbert were both born in West Acton six days apart. They married in 1889.
The 1890 Acton valuation shows that family ties again were mixed with business. George C. Wright and his friends Adelbert and Oliver W. Mead were involved (with Luke Blanchard) in the Middlesex Live Stock Company. We were not able to find anything else about the company.
In 1893, Martin Hayward retired from Dwinell, Hayward & Co. The company was to go on with that name even after his retirement; biographies emphasized that despite having been an equal partner for years, George C. Wright never insisted on having his name on the firm. However, apparently it became a practical necessity, and finally the partnership was renamed Dwinell, Wright & Co. in 1894. An ad in the April 19, 1895 Middlesex Recorder showed that they had branches in Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Their Boston Office and Factory were at 1 & 3 Hamilton St., 35 and 37 Batterymarch St. (p. 3) After James F. Dwinell’s death in 1898, George C. Wright incorporated the company as Dwinell-Wright Co.
As they got older, probably because the younger generation was able to take on more of the management of the coffee & spice company, George and Susan were able to take some time to travel. They took a trip to California in 1882. They traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida in 1892. In 1893, they took an excursion trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and then on to Texas and a month-long tour of Mexico. George took two trips to London, primarily for the benefits of ocean travel. In 1894, however, George, Susan, their daughter Estella Crampton, and her daughter did an ambitious European tour for three months, returning at the end of August. (Estella kept a diary of the trip which, combined with George’s observations, became part of his “Travels” reminiscences.) They visited Ireland, Scotland, England (mostly London), Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France. They travelled by ship, train, “steam and electric cars,” cog-railway, funicular railway, open and closed carriage, boat, gondola, wagon, and even donkey. The evening after their return, George and Susan were given a “very agreeable reception” at their home with a large number of friends and neighbors welcoming them home. “Mr. and Mrs. Wright have enjoyed their trip very much and their appearance indicates they may have found ‘the fountain of perpetual youth’ somewhere in their journeyings.” (Concord Enterprise, Aug. 30, 1894, p. 8)
George and Susan seem to have been quite hospitable people. The location of their home lent itself to sharing with the community, especially on the fourth of July. The Concord Enterprise mentioned that “Fireworks on Wrights’ hill in the evening were enjoyed by all.” (July 12, 1889, p. 2) In 1892, the paper mentioned that the ascent and descent of a balloon in Marlboro on July 4 could seen from Wrights’ hill, as well as fireworks in the evening. In 1895, several citizens contributed to “quite a display of pyrotechnics the evening of the fifth from Wright’s hill.” (Concord Enterprise, July 11, p. 8)
On December 31, 1896, George and Susan’s Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration “far eclipsed anything of its kind ever held in this town. Seven hundred invitations had been sent and the great number present gave evidence that there were not many regrets received.” (Concord Enterprise, Jan. 7, 1897, p. 8) Employees of Dwinell, Wright from far and near, “the Boston coffee and grocery trade”, politicians, church members, West Acton residents, family, and friends all attended. A special train took the Wrights’ guests back to the city after the event. President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland apparently were two of the few who sent regrets. (Boston Globe, Jan. 1, 1897, p. 4)
Looking Back and Looking Forward
George and Susan were both directly descended from Revolutionary War soldiers. Susan, as mentioned earlier, was related to both Capt. Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer, two of the three Acton men killed on April 19, 1775 and honored by Acton’s monument on the town common. The Wrights probably attended the dedication of the monument in 1851. George C. Wright and Oliver W. Mead seem to have been involved in planning the 1875 Centennial celebration in Concord. As part of Acton's ambitious Patriots’ Day celebration in 1895, a large ball was held in Littlefield Hall in West Acton (just down the hill from the Wrights’). George C. Wright was given the honor of leading the “grand march.”
In 1900, George funded the installation of a hewn granite monument from the Acton quarries in front of the birthplace of Captain Isaac Davis, the property where Susan had grown up. The monument was dedicated by the Sons of the American Revolution at a “field day” they held in Acton in September. “The society voted that the name of Mr. Wright and the date of unveiling be added to the inscription on the tablet.” (Concord Enterprise, Oct. 4, 1900, p. 2) As is typical of the time, newspapers and histories devoted much more space to men’s activities, so it has been hard to learn much about George C.’s wife Susan. However, George C. clearly felt that she belonged on the monument, so the final product said that it was “Erected by Mrs. Geo. C. Wright a grand-niece of Capt. Davis.” George and Susan provided a lunch of sandwiches and (of course) coffee, served on a neighbor’s lawn by “young ladies, representatives of Acton’s leading families.” (Concord Enterprise, Oct. 4, 1900, p. 2, 8) One cannot help wondering how families achieved the “leading” distinction.
On Feb. 2, 1904, the Boston Globe (p. 12) reported a fire at the five-story building of Dwinell-Wright on Batterymarch Street in Boston. More than thirty women who worked in the building were alarmed but had managed to exit safely. (The Globe neglected to mention any fear on the part of male employees.) The damage, fortunately, was minimal. Later that year, Dwinell-Wright Co. moved to a new building constructed for it at 311-319 Summer St., at the corner of A Street. It was built into a slope that created convenient street and shipping entrances. The street level (actually floor 3) had offices, a sample room, and a printing plant for labels. Spice packing and grinding were on the 4th and 5th floors, and coffee packing and roasting were on the top two floors of the building. Below the level of Summer Street, the 2nd floor had direct shipping access to a railroad spur built by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The Globe reported that “All labor-saving devices known to the trade, and some never seen before, are being installed... Automatic weighing machines, watchman’s clocks, telephones and elevators, automatic regulators of the heat, light and power plant... On the top floor are the coffee roasters (Jabez Burns’ latest pattern) located under an immense glass-covered monitor roof which floods the apartment with the direct light so essential to success in the delicate operation of roasting coffee. This ‘Burns’ machinery will easily handle 60,000 pounds of roasted coffee per day.” (Aug. 22, 1904, p. 3) Clearly, the firm was thriving. George C. Wright had the satisfaction of seeing his company survive and be passed down to the next generations. His son, George S. was treasurer of the company and later became its president. In his Conditions of Success, George C. stated that “In these last years my success has come to me largely by the loyal cooperation and able management of my son.”
Dwinnell-Wright Building photos courtesy of Boston Public Library via DigitalCommonwealth.org
In 1905, George C. Wright served on Acton’s “old home week” committee. It was estimated that over a thousand people were fed in the collation. “Mr. George C. Wright added to the many obligations for which the town is indebted to him by giving an unlimited supply of his best coffee.” (Acton Town Report, March 10, 1906, p. 60)
George C. Wright was known for his generosity. He covered the operating expenses for Citizen’s Library when the funds from a bequest were not yet available (Boston Herald, Dec. 30, 1906, p.4). According to Phalen’s History, George C. Wright offered to fund the building of a chapel at Mt. Hope Cemetery. “Due to a lack of understanding or to the extremely modest ideas of the town officials, a small building was erected which although quite different from what he had envisioned, Mr. Wright agreed to accept and present to the town for whatever purpose it might serve.” (p. 308) The town thanked him in the March 1909 town meeting. The building served for some years as a chapel and later was used as an office and storehouse.
George C. Wright continued to commute daily into the city well into his mid-eighties. A story of his life on the occasion of this 84th birthday stated that “he may be seen each day through storm or sunshine satchel in hand en route for the early train for Boston. Aside from somewhat defective eyesight Mr. Wright is a well preserved man with a young heart and takes an interest in whatever cause he may do good.” (Concord Enterprise, Jan 9, 1907, p. 8)
Unfortunately, even Susan and George eventually had to slow down. In June 1908, Susan fell and had to have a nurse’s assistance while she recovered. In June 1909, George C. was trying to board a streetcar at Adams Square in Boston, when “he was knocked down by the hurry and rush of the passengers, his hip being broken by the fall." (Concord Enterprise, June 16, 1909, p. 8) The Herald reported that he had broken his thighbone. (June 20, 1909, p. 17) He spent nine weeks hospitalized in Boston. Later that year, Susan and George C. were both doing well enough to “sit out on their piazza both morning and afternoon and on the coldest days, too.” (Concord Enterprise, Dec. 22, 1909, p. 8)
George C. Wright had been known for his energy, so despite his age, his death of heart trouble came “very suddenly” on Sunday. July 10, 1910. The funeral was held at the Universalist church, “filled to the utmost capacity.” (Concord Enterprise, July 20, 1910, p. 8) He and Susan had been married 63 years. Susan died three months later on October 16, 1910. They were both buried in Mount Hope cemetery.
A few years before his death, the Boston Herald described George C. Wright as “a gentleman of the old school, a business man of unimpeachable integrity.” (Jan. 8, 1903, p. 7) Though he was portrayed in life stories as a completely self-made man, he had many family ties. Whether he was sharing the fruits of his labor and talents with family members or vice versa, there was certainly a web of family relationships involved in his business ventures. His children and grandchildren created many more ties among business, friends, and family. Though many of them eventually settled closer to Boston, the contributions of George C. Wright and his wife Susan still affect West Acton. The Wright Hill Conservation land has preserved some of the family land for the enjoyment of Actonians, although trees now block much of their famous view.
Can you add to our Wright collection?
Though our historical society has gratefully received donations of wonderful items from the Wright/Mead family, especially the recent addition of George’s reminiscences, we are missing photographs of family members. From histories, we have been able to find pictures of George C. and George S. Wright. We know that George C. Wright owned a camera because he was thanked in 1890 for taking a picture of a portrait of Isaac Davis’s wife several years earlier. We also know that pictures of the family were taken at their West Acton home; we would be very grateful for donations of photographs or scans of the Wright/Mead family and of gatherings at the Wright house. Please contact us if you can help.
From the AHS Collections:
Major Sources for George C. Wright:
See also our blog post on the West Acton and Boxborough secession proposal of 1868-1869 for a discussion of George C. Wright's role.
Gaining an understanding of a town’s history is complicated by the fact that some residents’ stories are much less accessible than others. Standard town histories from the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to focus on a small group of socially prominent citizens. People of color were seldom mentioned. Anyone trying to learn about the early Black residents of Acton has had very little material to work with. Records are sparse, and there are sometimes conflicts among the pieces of information that we do have. To better understand early Acton’s racial diversity, we set out to find all mentions of Black and mixed-race residents (slave or free) in Acton’s early records. To do that, we used eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents that sometimes refer to racial diversity with terms that we would not use today. When quoted here, it is only to give accurate historical evidence about a person’s racial background. There is much work left to do, but in collaboration with the Robbins House in Concord, we offer what we have learned so far.
We will start in 1735 when Acton was set off as a town from Concord. We are hampered by lack of census records in the early days but will continue to look for more information. We do have a definitive record that slavery existed in Acton after it became a town. The 1754 Massachusetts slave census completed by the Selectmen stated that there was “but one male Negro slave Sixteen years old in Acton and No females.” (The inventory asked for the number of slaves over the age of sixteen; the wording presumably meant that the male mentioned was in that category, rather than being exactly sixteen years old.) We have no way of knowing if there were any younger slaves. Unfortunately, the inventory did not list either the name of the slave or the slave owner. As a result, we have no idea whether he was eventually freed and whether he stayed in town or moved on to another location.
Acton apparently also had free Black and/or mixed-race residents during its earliest years. We are still trying to document their stories. In South Acton by 1731, there was a William Cutting who, according to a story in a published journal of Rev. William Bentley, (volume 2, page 148) was himself or descended from a “Mulatto” slave who “upon the death of his master, accepted some wild land, which he cultivated & upon which his descendants live in independence.” (This story is still being researched; our various efforts to confirm those details have not yet been successful. A 1731 deed from Elnathan Jones to William Cutting is extremely hard to read, but it mentions a purchase price paid to a living person, rather than a gift or inheritance. Another 1732 deed from Elnathan Jones also seems to be a straight sale. Probate records have not yielded clues, either. A possibility is that the story was about an earlier ancestor in a location other than Acton.)
An Acton’s Selectmen’s report dated Feb. 2, 1753 mentions a road being laid out, with one of the boundaries being “a Grey oke on Ceser Freemans Land.” Both Cesar and Freeman were names associated with free African Americans of the period. Cesar Freeman’s story is unknown at this point, so we do not know if other Freemans in town records are his relatives.
Harvard University has put online a transcribed and indexed version of the Massachusetts Tax Inventory of 1771. This inventory reported the number of each taxpayer’s “servants for life.” According to that database, there were two “servants for life” in Acton, assessed to Amos Prescott and Simon Tuttle. (For relevant entries click here.) We know nothing about the person assessed to Prescott. However, it appears that Simon Tuttle’s “man” fought in the Revolution. At town meeting on March 4, 1783, the town voted to reimburse Mr. Simon Tuttle for “the Bounty for his negro man which was Twenty four Pounds in March 1777 to be Paid by the Scale of Depreciation.” Simon Tuttle was one of the Acton leaders who was charged with recruiting men to enlist from Acton, and it was common practice for the recruiters to pay bounties for enlistment out of their own pockets on the understanding that they would be reimbursed. (Acton took such a long time about actually paying the men back that the value of currency completely changed and adjustments needed to be made “by the Scale of Depreciation.”) The unique thing about this 1783 entry in town records is that the recruit was described at all, in particular his race and the fact that he was considered Simon Tuttle’s man. We have a clue as to his name; Rev. Woodbury's list of known Revolutionary War soldiers from Acton (compiled in the mid-1800s) included the entry "Titus Hayward, colored man, hired by Simon Tuttle." For more information about this soldier, see our blog post about our research into his identity.
Acton did have a free Black population in the years of and following the Revolution. John Oliver, listed in later census records (inconsistently) as a free person of color, enlisted for Revolutionary war service from Acton as early as April 1775. John Oliver lived in North Acton in an area near the town’s borders with Westford and Littleton. We are investigating whether there was a community of Black and mixed-race residents in that area. What we know about John’s life in particular was discussed in a previous blog post, and the location of his farm was discussed in another.
Another Black Revolutionary War soldier with Acton ties was Caesar Thomson who appeared in Acton’s records after the war. According to an article published by the Historical, Natural History and Library Society of South Natick in 1884 (page 100), Cesar Thompson was a slave of Samuel Welles, Jr., a Boston merchant and the largest landowner in Natick by the time of the Revolution. When Natick needed men to fill its quota of soldiers, Mr. Welles sent Cesar, whose Revolutionary War service was extensive. (See Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Volume 15, pages 631 and 668). After serving for several years, he was “disabled by a rupture” and was actually granted a pension in January 1783. (Pensions were granted to disabled soldiers, though full pension coverage for veterans was far in the future. Unfortunately, the earliest Revolutionary War pension records were lost in a fire.) As stated in the 1884 article, Natick town records contain the following notation:
“Boston, Feb. 18, 1783. This may certify, to all whom it may concern, that I this day, fully and freely give to Caesar Thompson his freedom. Witness my hand, Samuel Welles. A true copy. Attest, Abijah Stratton, Town Clerk.”
After the war, free man Cesar Thompson lived in Acton.
At the April 5, 1783 town meeting, a committee was appointed to figure out seating for the meeting house (a regular occurrence). Seating arrangements were to take into consideration age and property, using the prior two years’ tax valuations. It was voted that the committee was to “Seat the negros in the hind Seats in the Side gallery.” Clearly, despite years of fighting for political freedom and equality of “all people,” Acton was not ready to grant equality to all of its own people. (It should be noted that it was an era in which citizens paid for pews in the meetinghouse, which was not only a church, but the place were town meetings took place. Presumably, pew placement denoted social status.) In an 1835 centennial speech, Josiah Adams recounted a childhood memory that reveals how it must have felt to be one of very few people of color in the town at the time. Young Adams would watch as Quartus Hosmer climbed the stairs to the “hind seat” of the gallery, eagerly waiting for him to reappear with his queue of “graceful curls” held back by an eel-skin ribbon. (Adams, Josiah. An address delivered at Acton, July 21, 1835: being the first centennial anniversary of the organization of the town, Boston: Printed by J. T. Buckingham, 1835, page 6)
It cannot have been comfortable to be a curiosity to young Actonians and to deal with attitudes made obvious by the meeting house seating vote. Nevertheless, some residents of African descent stayed in Acton. John Oliver farmed and raised his family with his wife Abigail Richardson. (Their known children were Abijah, Joel, Fatima and Abigail. We suspect, but have not yet been able to confirm, that there were others.) Cesar Tomson/Thompson was mentioned in town records when, on January 27, 1785, he married Azubah Hendrick (both were of Acton), Azubah was admitted to the church, and their children were baptized (Joseph, Moses and Dorcas). There is no record of what happened to Azubah, but Caesar married Peggy Green in Acton on December 1, 1785. He also appeared in town records on Feb. 23, 1789 when his tax rate was abated.
While researching the Thompson family, we discovered that other Massachusetts towns’ vital records might hold clues about Acton’s Black residents. In Natick, we found two birth records (on the page before the 1801 intention of marriage for Dorcas Tomson, then living in that town):
“Moses Hendrick son of Benjamin and Zibiah Hendrick was Born in Acton September 15. 1780
Dorcas Tomson Daughter of Ceasar and Zibiah Tomson was born in Acton April 1. 1784”
In Grafton, we found a marriage intention between Polly Johns and “Moses Hendrick, ‘a native he says of Acton but now resident of Grafton,’ int[ention] Aug. 30, 1817. Colored.” Until we found these two records, we had no idea that a Black man named Moses Hendrick had been born in town.
Another discovery was that at town meeting in August 1786, the town discussed suing Peter Oliver and Philip Boston “for Refusing to maintain Lucy Willard Child agreeable to their obligation.” Though both names were associated with free people of color in nearby towns, we have not figured out exactly who these men were or what their connection was to Lucy Willard. On March 19, 1792, the town paid Simon Tuttle Jr. for assistance given to Peter Oliver.
The first full census of the United States came in 1790. Though only the heads of household were named, it gives us a more complete picture of the composition of the households in Acton. The census asked for the numbers of free white males (16 or older and under 16), free white females, slaves, and “all other free persons.” Acton had no slaves in this or later censuses. The census taker seems to have had some issues with accounting for “other free persons,” and the census scan is in places hard to read, but from what we can see, the following households had free persons of color:
The census shows six total free persons of color out of the 853 people in 1790 Acton. The seven people in John Oliver’s household were classified as white (2 males, 5 females), as were the nine members of William Cutting Jr.’s household (3 males, 6 females).
In the beginning of the 1790s, Acton worked to specify those who were not considered legal residents, a step toward defining its responsibility toward the poor. The Revolutionary War had caused economic distress for many people in the new country. There were no safety nets as we understand them today. Then as now, towns were reluctant to tax people for any expenses that could be avoided. Under the system that had been in place since the early days of the colony, towns could avoid responsibility for supporting poor people if they were not considered legal residents of the town. Formally, this meant giving people notice that they had not been granted permission to live in town and that they should leave (and therefore that they had no right to expect help from the town if they stayed). This process was called “warning out.”
From about 1767 to 1789, warning out seemed to be dying out in Massachusetts. However, a law change in 1789 led to a flurry of warnings out in Acton and elsewhere. In the 1790-1791 period, town records show that 23 households were warned out of Acton. Included were a number of Revolutionary War veterans and long-time inhabitants. John Oliver and Cesar Thomson, their wives, and their children were on the list. Both families stayed in town, as most warned-out people probably did in the 1790s. As a practical matter, if those people become indigent, assistance would still have been given them, but the town, relieved of its legal responsibility, could petition the state for reimbursement.
Available in Harvard’s Anitslavery Petitions Massachusetts Dataverse is a July 1, 1796 petition from Jonas Brooks to the Commonwealth to reimburse the inhabitants of Acton for “considerable expense in supporting Caesar Thompson a negro man, together with his wife, three small children” who were “not legally settled in said Town of Acton or in any other town in said Commonwealth that your petitioner can find - That he served as a soldier in the Continental army during the last war...” The town sent a follow-up petition for state reimbursement in 1797. As a former slave, Cesar apparently had no legal claim on Natick (despite filling its quota in the Revolutionary War) or Boston, where he might have lived before serving in the military. After the petitions, we found no more records for Caesar Thompson; whether he died in Acton or moved, we were not able to determine. We do know that his daughter had moved to Natick by 1801.
The 1800 census asked for more information than its predecessor. Only the heads of Acton households were listed, but the ages of white inhabitants were broken out more carefully. Acton’s census return had a column for the number of slaves and one for “All other persons except Indians not taxed.” With entries in that somewhat perplexingly-named column were the households of:
William Cutting Jr.’s household of seven was again listed as white. Also of note in the 1800 census is that many of the warned-out families were still in town.
Acton’s vital records show that in December 1802, Sally Oliver married Jacob Freeman. Their relationship to people of the same surnames in town is unclear (so far). Sadly, Sally and Jacob had only a short marriage marked by tragedy. Their son died on Sept. 3, 1803. Jacob died on July 9, 1804 at age 45. Acton’s death record specifies his race as negro. (In early 1805, Amos Noyes, Joseph Brabrook, and Edward Weatherbee were paid for goods delivered to Jacob, presumably during his sickness.)
1810’s Acton census had a column for “All free other persons, except Indians, not taxed.” Acton households with someone in that category were:
John Oliver’s sons’ 1810 households were classified as white. The household of Abijah Oliver had 1 male 45+, 3 females <10 and 1 female 16-25. Joel Oliver’s household had 1 male <10, 1 male 26-44, 2 females 10-15, and 1 female 26-44. William Cutting Jr. was also classified as white.
During the 1810s, town records show payments for some Black residents in need. Between 1813 and 1815, John Oliver was providing help to others, including Abijah Oliver and, when sick, “Abigal” Oliver and Sally (Oliver) Freeman. In 1811-15, John Robbins and David Barnard were reimbursed for boarding “Titus Anthony.” Later records give clues that he may have been Black (see below). (Probably relatedly, in March 1810, town meeting records mention a lawsuit by the town of Townsend against Acton “for supporting Hittey Anthony and Child.”) Acton town meeting took up Titus Anthony’s case in September 1811; unfortunately, the discussion was not reported in the extant records. In 1813, David Barnard was paid for providing for the poor and, separately, for “2 payment for the Negro” (name unspecified).
1820’s census yields more information about Black town residents. In that year’s report, “Free colored Persons” had four columns each for males and females of differing ages. Households with entries in those columns were:
1820’s total “free colored” population was listed as 17, which does not match the numbers given in the columns, so the accounting is uncertain. John Oliver’s 2-person household was listed as white. Regardless of the counting issues, there was obviously quite a community of people of color in Acton during the 1820s. Most lived in the North and East parts of town. The households of Jonathan Davis and Uriah Foster would have been near today’s Route 27 in North Acton. John Oliver’s sons Abijah and Joel eventually moved closer to East Acton; land records indicate that their father helped with financing.
In 1830, federal census takers were given forms two page-widths across that specified ages and sex of both slaves and free people of color and had a “total” column for each family that should have encouraged accurate record-taking. The only household in which free persons of color were enumerated was John Oliver’s:
John’s son Joel Oliver was listed as white, living with 5 white females. Simon Hosmer’s family no longer was listed with a free person of color. This jibes with the hypothesis that the “Quartus Hosmer” mentioned by Josiah Adams lived in the Jonathan/Simon Hosmer household. In Acton’s vital records, the handwritten register of Acton deaths for 1827 shows:
“June 30 Quartus a Blackman 61”
The Hosmer name was not given in the death record. (This entry was indexed on Ancestry.com as “Quartus Blackman,” but that is clearly an error.) In Acton’s transcribed and published Vital Records to 1850, the listing appeared under “Negroes, Etc.” That entry adds information from church records (“C. R. I.”):
“Quartus, ‘a Black man,’ June 30, 1827, a. 61 [State pauper, a. 64, C. R. I.]
A state pauper meant that the individual had no “settlement” status. (Acton could not send him or her back to another Massachusetts town for financial support, but he/she was not officially accepted as having a claim on Acton either.) By this time, if a person with no official claim on a town was in need based on age, disability, illness or poverty, he/she became, officially, a state pauper, and expenses incurred by the town would be billed to the state. Apparently, former slaves often found themselves in this position (Cesar Thompson, for example), as well as new immigrants from overseas and anyone not connected to a town by family or marriage. Quartus’ status as a state pauper means either that he was free but didn’t start off in Acton or that he had started out a slave. If we are correct that the free person of color in the Hosmer household was this Quartus, he clearly had a long relationship with the family. The available records do not give us much information about what the relationship was, but we have not found evidence that he had been enslaved by Acton Hosmers. This Quartus was too young to have been the over-16-year-old slave in the 1754 census, though slaves younger than sixteen were not reported. The 1771 tax valuation showed no Acton Hosmers with “servants for life.” He could have been freed by then or could have been enslaved elsewhere in his early years and later entered the Hosmer household as a free working person.
The 1840 census showed “free colored persons” in the households of:
The census shows the household of John Oliver, especially noted for being 92 years of age and a military pensioner, as white (1 male under 5, 1 male 5-9, 1 male 90-99, 1 female 5-9, 1 female 40-49). His son Joel Oliver’s household is also listed as white, (2 males, 30-39 and 60-69, and 2 females, 15-19 and 50-59).
During the 1840s, many in Acton were advocating for an end to slavery in general and for improvements in laws affecting the lives of Massachusetts’ Black residents. A digitized 1842 petition from Acton to allow white people legally to intermarry with other races was signed by 70 women, including Abigail Chaffin who was most likely Abigail Richardson (Oliver) Chaffin, herself of mixed-race ancestry. (Abijah Oliver’s daughter, she had married Nathan Chaffin, born in Acton to Nathan and Mary Chaffin. After that point, records always seem to have classified her as white.) Abigail Chaffin also signed two other anti-slavery petitions in 1842 ( Petition against admission of Florida as Slave State and Petition to abolish slavery in Washington, DC and territories and to end the slave trade).
Abigail Chaffin was remembered in a Chaffin family history (pages 269-270) as “one of the most remarkable women ever born in Acton, on account of the wonderful sagacity, industry and executive ability, which characterized her through the whole of her life and... together with mental and physical vigor, to a very rare age. ... Even after she was four score and ten she was able to do more for others than she needed to have done for herself.” After the death of her husband in 1878, she moved in with her son Nathan who prospered in the restaurant business in Boston. She lived in Arlington for many years, and she died in Bedford in 1911, after having “passed her last years not only in the possession of the comforts, but of the luxuries of life.”
Back in Acton, the 1850 census, for the first time, listed the names of all residents of the town. A column for race showed the following residents of color:
The race column for all other residents was left blank (including the 7-person household of Joel Oliver, Abijah’s brother). The 1850 real estate valuation for the town shows Ephraim Oliver (son of Joel) with buildings valued $375, plus 40 acres of improved land and 20 acres of unimproved land; he was living with Joel at the time. Abijah Oliver had been farming in East Acton, but obviously he was no longer able to care for himself. It was not particularly unusual for the aged, regardless of race, to need assistance.
Massachusetts took its own census in 1855. We have noticed in the past that the Acton census taker that year was particularly careful in recording full names, and the census taker noted more information about race as well:
We have not yet been able to find out where Titus Anthony Williams came from and how he ended up in Acton’s poor house. The middle name reported in the 1855 census raises the question of whether the “Titus Anthony” who was receiving assistance in the 1810s was actually the same Titus Anthony Williams who spent many years in Acton’s poor house (occupation farmer). If so, he would have been a young child when he first appeared in Acton’s records.
By the mid-1800s, Acton was changing. The arrival of the railroad brought new industry and new people to town, and events in Europe brought new immigrants who would have competed for jobs and land. Most descendants of Acton’s early Black residents eventually left Acton to find opportunities elsewhere. Occasionally, they were mentioned in later records. Sickness, disability, loss of a breadwinner, or extreme old age could change economic status. Acton’s town report of 1855-1856 shows payment to the city of Boston for the support of Elizabeth Oliver (probably the recent widow of Abijah Oliver), and to the town of Concord for the burial of two of Peter Robbin’s family, as well as to Daniel Wetherbee of Acton for goods provided to that family. (Peter Robbins had recently died. He was divorced from John Oliver’s daughter Fatima by that time; apparently, his common law wife Almira/Elmira came from Acton, though her parentage is currently unclear. She is referred to in Acton’s records as Elmira Oliver.) The 1857-58 report shows money paid to Lowell for the support of Sarah Jane (Tucker) Oliver. (She apparently married William P. Oliver and then Asa Oliver; their connections to other Acton Olivers are still being worked out). Others receiving help that year who were not living at the poor farm included Sarah Spaulding (John Oliver’s widowed granddaughter) and Elizabeth Oliver.
The 1860 Federal Census showed the following:
The 1860 census also surveyed the town’s agriculture and gave details about Ephraim Oliver’s farming operation, located at approximately 283 Great Road in East Acton. Ephraim Oliver owned 43 improved and 10 unimproved acres worth $3,000, plus $100 in farming implements, a horse, four milking cows, and fifteen other cattle. His farm produced 140 bushels of “Indian corn,” 15 bushels of oats, 40 bushels of “Irish potatoes,” 200 pounds of butter, 10 tons of hay and 5 bushels of grain seed.
Though she was not listed in the poor house in the census, Sarah (Olivers) Spaulding was listed in Acton’s 1860 death records as a pauper. She died, widowed, at age 36 on Oct. 14, 1860 and was listed as a quadroon, daughter of Abijah and Rachel (Barber) Oliver. (Abijah was married to Elizabeth Barber, so that is probably simply an error.)
The final census in this survey is the Massachusetts census of 1865. By that time, Civil War and emancipation had set enormous changes in motion. The census reported the following people of color in Acton:
All other residents were classified as white, including the five-person household of Ephraim Oliver.
We still have many questions that need answers. In the relatively helpful records of the 1860s, we found other mentions of Olivers with connections to Acton that we have not yet been able to untangle:
Researching the lives of Acton’s Black residents is an ongoing project. What has become clear from trying to list all people of African descent who lived in Acton from its earliest years to the end of the Civil War is that available records, though far from complete, do allow us to find at least some of them. The town’s vital records and censuses, the backbone of much genealogical research, are only the beginning. Though searching the columns of early censuses for people of color was helpful, we discovered inconsistency in the reporting of race that certainly understated the number of Black and mixed-race residents. Acton’s vital records only reported some of their life events. By tracing descendants, we were able to uncover new details such as Acton births recorded later in other towns. Another source was town meeting and expenditure reports that proved when people were in town and where they might have gone, especially if they provided financial assistance to others or needed it themselves.
If you are a descendant of any of Acton’s Black and mixed-race residents, have any additional information about them, can correct any information provided here, and/or know of other people who should be on our list, please contact us. We would appreciate help in bringing their stories to life.
One of the little-realized facts about Acton’s Revolutionary War soldiers is that we do not have a complete listing of who they were. Captain Isaac Davis’s company of Minute Men who marched to Concord on April 19, 1775 are quite well-documented, thanks to the testimony of long-lived individuals and the pride of Acton residents that their Minute Men were first at the bridge and suffered losses as a result. A monument in the center of town reminds us of their place in history. However, two other companies of Acton men served that day. We can figure out some of them thanks to a wonderful donation to the Society of Captain Joseph Robbins’ papers, but we still do not know all who participated.
The Revolutionary War stretched on for eight years, and while records became somewhat better as the war went on, not all soldiers’ service was perfectly documented. In the years since, because of local focus on those who were killed on the war’s first day, soldiers who served and died later and in places farther away have received much less attention in Acton. One of those casualties was Thomas Darby who was killed at the Battle of White Plains in 1776.
In honor of Memorial Day, we attempted to find out something about Thomas Darby. His surname was not a common name in Acton in later years. He is not mentioned on any monument, marker, or historical map. There are no streets bearing his name in a town full of Revolution-themed roads. Given this lack of attention, we assumed that he was a young, unmarried man who probably did not have family around or whose extended family died out early. That assumption turned out to be incorrect. Though we were not able to find out much about his life, we can at least try to give his story some family context.
We are, for this blog post, indebted to and somewhat at the mercy of published town histories and genealogies of Thomas’ family. Though we have used online vital, town, military, probate, and land records to try to corroborate and supplement their stories, the records of the time are incomplete. Some research avenues were limited after COVID-19 led to the closure of libraries and archives, but the Darby family is hard to untangle even in the records that do exist. The Darbys were numerous, were sometimes called “Derby,” “Daby” or another name variant, and tended to repeat first names within and across generations. (As one example, a Daby family of Harvard, MA seems to have been intermingled with Thomas’ family in some histories, though the actual connection, if there was one, is uncertain.) As best we can tell, Thomas descended from three generations of men named John Darby. John Darby was certainly a common name in Thomas’ family; it was given to Thomas’ eldest brother and two younger brothers, the last of whom reached adulthood.
The first of Thomas’ male ancestors noted in most genealogies was fisherman John Darby of Marblehead. What usually was not mentioned was his notoriety. According to Eric Jay Dolin’s Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates (among other histories), John Darby was on the crew of a boat boarded by pirates in August 1689 and, quite voluntarily, threw in his lot with the pirate Thomas Pound. John’s new career was short-lived as the pirates’ activities over the next two months led the Massachusetts governor to send out a crew after them. When they caught up with the pirates in Tarpaulin Cove (located on an island near Martha’s Vineyard), John Darby was killed in the ensuing battle. His wife back in Marblehead was left with five young children.[i]
The second John Darby (1681-1753), Thomas’ grandfather, married Deborah Conant, presumably before Dec. 27, 1704, and had many children in Essex County, MA. They moved to Concord around 1721. Deborah’s brother Lot Conant also settled in Concord; a deed in 1745 mentioned that a piece of land owned by John Darby was bounded in part by Lot Conant’s land. In that 1745 deed, John Darby sold part of his farm and other lands to his eldest son John (Thomas’ father), carefully giving him the right to cross the barnyard to get to his own barn doors, to cart his hay, and to use the well. Son John was also given one fifth of the apples in the orchard. The elder John’s will, dated 1747, left to his wife “Deborah Darbie” any lands and buildings that he had not yet disposed of in the “southerly part of Concord” and his interest in land in Acton. The will conveniently named his children: John (Thomas’ father), Andrew, Ebenezer, Benjamin, Joseph and Robert Darbie, Deborah Wheeler and Mary Heywood.
Thomas’ father John Darby (1704-1762?) married Rebecca Tarbox in Wenham on March 16, 1728. John and Rebecca had two children, John (1729-1732) and Thomas (born 1731). Thomas’ mother died by 1735. His father was remarried to Susanna (possibly Jones), and they had eight more children: John, Rebecca, Lucy, John, Anne, Elizabeth, Nathaniel and Elnathan. As far as we can tell from land records, Thomas grew up in “the westerly part of Concord” near his grandparents and a large number of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. (The 1745 deed from his grandfather to his father confirms that Thomas’ family was living on his grandfather’s farm at the time.) At least some of the family ended up in Acton after it was set off as a separate town in 1735. Thomas’ uncle Andrew Darby was considered one of the founding settlers of Acton (see Phalen, page 28) and was chosen for various responsible roles in its early years, including selectman and assessor. Four of Andrew’s children’s births were reported in Acton vital records. Andrew moved to Worcester County around 1848 and was again a founding father of Narraganset No. 2 (later Westminster), leaving a large number of descendants in that area. Thomas’ uncle Benjamin bought Acton land abutting Iron Work Farm in South Acton in 1844. Joseph Darby bought land and a cooper shop in Acton in 1776. One thing we can say with certainty is that Thomas was not a lone Darby who happened to sign up with Acton’s minute men. Darbys and their relatives had been in Concord and Acton for decades.
Unfortunately, however, records actually detailing Thomas’ life are very few. According to Concord vital records, Thomas Darby was born January 12, 1731 to John and Rebekah Darby. His baptism was recorded in the records of Ipswich’s “Hamlet Parish Church” on Jan. 17, 1731. As noted, Thomas grew up in Concord and lived on his grandfather’s farm. According to many sources, Thomas married Lucy Brewer. Presumably they married around 1761, but we have not found a marriage record. We found no land records bearing Thomas’ name, but he was living in Acton by 1757 when, during the French and Indian War, he was listed as a private in Captain Samuel Davis’ “Foot Company,” Acton’s Alarm Company #2. His children with wife Lucy were recorded in Acton’s town records (Vital Records, Volume 1, page 63, all together):
Thomas was mentioned in Acton’s town records on March 26, 1769 when he was paid two pounds for keeping a school. Though hard to read, an order dated April 19, 1770 indicates that Thomas “Derby” was paid one pound, ten shillings for keeping a school the next year as well. That is the only mention of Thomas’ work that we have found. He could have been living and working on a relative’s land but we have found nothing to prove that.
The next records we have of Thomas come from Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Darby was listed as part of John Hayward’s company that answered the “Lexington Alarm.” John Hayward was Captain Isaac Davis’ second-in-command and became the leader of Acton’s minute men when Davis was killed. Thomas Darby presumably was drilling with Captain Davis as tensions with the British rose in late 1774 and early 1775. He was one of those who marched to Concord on the first day of the war, was there in the first company facing the British, and must have witnessed the death of Isaac Davis and Abner Hosmer.
Apparently, Thomas had the full support of his wife in turning to soldiering. According to a colorful story in the history of Hudson, New Hampshire, Lucy (Brewer) Darby “sheared her sheep, spun the wool, wove the cloth, colored it with butternut bark, made the uniform and carried it to her husband, then in temporary camp, and told him to go fight for his country.” (page 575)
Thomas’ war service continued. Records for early war service are spotty, but a pay abstract for a travel allowance dated Winter Hill, Jan. 15, 1776 confirms that he was part of Washington’s army participating in the siege of Boston that winter. He was serving as Corporal in Capt. David Wheeler’s company, Col. Nixon’s regiment. Joseph Darby of Acton was also in the company, probably the son of Thomas’ uncle Joseph who still lived in Concord. Thomas and Joseph (“Derby”) were both in Capt. Simon Hunt’s company that was called out to help fortify Dorchester Heights in March 1776. Thomas seems to have been reported as a private for that service.
In Sept. 1776, a company was formed of men from Concord, Acton, Lexington, and Lincoln to serve in the Massachusetts Third Regiment under Eleazer Brooks. Simon Hunt of Acton was captain. A list of Simon Hunt’s company (that did not include a year) showed Thomas Darby as a corporal. Fifteen Acton men were in the company, including Thomas Darby of Acton and Nathan Darby of Acton/Concord, both of whom reported at White Plains. Nathan may have been another son of Thomas’ uncle Joseph, but it also could have been Thomas’ brother Nathaniel whose later service (clearly as “Nathaniel Darby” from Acton) was credited to “Nathan” in the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors compendium. Either way, Thomas had family in the company.[ii]
Though we know that Thomas served and died at White Plains, even the role of his company there is hard to pin down, as later reports on the battle were somewhat conflicting. Fletcher and Shattuck’s histories (of Acton and Concord, respectively) both made sure to assure us that Colonel Eleazer Brooks’ regiment behaved bravely. Whatever happened in the chaos of the battle, the result was tragedy for Thomas’ family; Lucy was left a widow with four daughters to support. Thomas does not show up in probate or land records; presumably he left little money behind. There is no indication in town records that Acton helped Thomas’ family financially. We can only assume that they took refuge with relatives elsewhere, probably in Ashby, MA. A Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution publication stated that she was a pensioner. (page 237) Though it would seem that widow Lucy Darby should have received a pension under a 1780 Act of Congress, we have found no evidence of that seemingly simple fact in online records. (Perhaps the 1800 fire that consumed the earliest pension records destroyed her application, but we found no records of payment, either.)
We finally found additional records of the Thomas’ family when his daughters started to marry. On May 28, 1788, daughter Rebeckah married Revolutionary War veteran John Pratt in Harvard, MA. Both Rebecca and John were recorded as residents of Harvard at the time, but John had apparently moved to Fitchburg, MA where the couple settled and raised their nine children, one of whom was named Thomas Darby Pratt.
On November 27, 1788, Thomas’ eldest daughter Lucy married John Gilson who enlisted from Pepperell, MA at the age of fourteen and was in the Battle of White Plains. A Samuel Gilson of Pepperell was in the same company and was reported killed at White Plains; this may have been his father. (Sources disagree.) The marriage between Lucy and John Gilson was recorded in Townsend and Ashby, MA, both giving Lucy’s residence as Ashby. A profile of the Gilson family in Hayward’s history of Hancock, NH tells us that John Gilson was a blacksmith. He and Lucy settled originally in what is now Hudson, NH and then moved to Hancock, NH. (They may have lived for a time in Bennington as well.) They had eight children, one of whom was named Thomas Derby Gilson. (We checked other sources to confirm his middle name. Aside from the mention in the Hancock history, we only found him listed as Thomas D. Gilson in other records.) Both Thomas Darby’s daughter Lucy Gilson and Thomas’ widow Lucy Darby died on August 10, 1834 and were buried together in the Hancock cemetery. Thomas’ widow had lived with John and Lucy Gilson and their family for nearly fifty years. Widow Lucy Darby had managed to accumulate some money and left a will, written in 1832, that named her daughters and six of her Gilson grandchildren.
Thomas’ daughter Phebe married Jonathan Rolfe on August 30, 1792. Both were of Ashby, MA, but their marriage, like Lucy’s, was recorded both in Townsend and Ashby. Apparently, Jonathan was a carpenter. Two histories gave Jonathan the title of “Captain,” but we were unable to find out why. Jonathan and Phebe stayed in Ashby until after 1810, and their nine children seem to have been born there. Jonathan and Phebe later moved to Dalton, NH. Jonathan died in 1825 and Phebe in 1840, and they were buried in Dalton.
Youngest daughter Mary (also known as Molly or Polly) married Deacon Moses Greeley (1764-1848) who was born in Haverhill, MA. His father also served in the Revolutionary War. Moses first married a cousin Hannah with whom he had two daughters. After she died in in 1793, Moses and Mary married and lived in Nottingham West (later Hudson), New Hampshire. Moses was a blacksmith and apparently a successful farmer. The couple had nine (or possibly ten) children, one of whom, Moses, Jr., legally changed his name in 1829 to Moses Thomas Derby Greeley. Their eldest, Reuben, like his father, served as a selectman, becoming chairman of the Board, town clerk, and representative in the Legislature. One of Mary’s grandchildren was the locally well-known Moses Greeley Parker. Mary Darby’s husband Moses Greeley died in 1848, and Mary died in 1856. They were buried in Hudson, NH. A history of Hudson, NH has personal sketches of Moses (including Mary) and Reuben and includes pictures of all three of them.
Even though Thomas Darby was one of Acton’s celebrated Minute Men, his service has been given surprisingly little attention. Perhaps because he survived April 19, 1775, Acton’s historical attention focused instead on those who were killed that day. Contrary to our expectations, he came from a large family and left many descendants. None of Thomas’ daughters settled in Acton; stories about his life would have been passed down elsewhere. If anyone has more to tell us about Thomas Darby, his family, and or any other Acton Darby connections, we would like to document their history. We would also be grateful for any corrections or additions to this story. Please contact us.
[i] We would like to find more records to make sure of the connection between John the pirate and Thomas’ great-grandfather. The name Darby was much less numerous than in later generations, so duplicate John Darbys are much less likely, but we did want to confirm the identity. The pirate John was known to the remaining members of his fishing vessel, so his identity was no mystery at the time, and there were witnesses to his activities as part of the pirate crew. For us, genealogies tell us that Thomas’ great-grandfather was a fisherman, and that he came from Marblehead. Many sources say that the pirate was from Marblehead working on a boat out of Salem and that the pirate’s widow was left with four or five children. The timing of pirate John’s death in October 1889 is consistent with (1) Thomas’ ancestor’s probate inventory dated Janr 17, 1690 (given the writing, it might be June 17), and (2) his widow Alice Darby, mother of five, marrying John Woodbery on July 2, 1690.
[ii] To complicate matters further, Thomas also had another first cousin named Nathan who was in Westminster by that point as well as a brother named Elnathan. Various cousins of Thomas served at different times during the Revolution; with name duplication, telling them apart in records becomes complicated and depends heavily on location at enlistment. Checking online scans (via Ancestry.com) of the 1778 roll of the 15th Regiment, listed by town, we found Nathaniel listed as a soldier from Acton in Hunt’s company; at that point, at least, the soldier in Hunt’s company appears to be Thomas’ brother. Elnathan seems to have enlisted for service from the town of Harvard in 1777.
Select References Used (in addition to digitized vital and other records):
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.
Knowing that U.S. women gained the right to vote in 1920, it comes as a surprise to many of us that in 1879, Massachusetts passed a law that allowed women to register to vote for their local school committee. It was a very limited victory, and the journey to full voting rights was long. (See our blog post about Acton women and the 1895 referendum on municipal suffrage.)
Up until now, though we knew that there were some women who voted locally and supported women’s suffrage on a broader scale, we have not known who they were. Recently, in the process of digitizing our wonderful but fragile collection of old newspapers at Jenks Library, we made a discovery. On October 2, 1879, the Acton Patriot announced the names of the first ladies registered to vote in Acton, all of whom were residents of South Acton (p. 8). In honor of Women’s History Month, we salute:
The fact that these women registered to vote made them quite unusual. Only a small percentage of women did. Suggested reasons for most women's non-participation have included the social expectations of the Victorian era, poll taxes, or lack of interest in strictly local affairs. Given Acton's history of "spirited discussion" of school matters, the latter would be surprising.
We wanted to learn about Acton’s first women voters, what motivated them, and what characteristics they might have had in common. Unfortunately, it was frustratingly difficult. Women of that period simply were given much less attention in written records than men. The women’s work and activities were generally unpaid and seldom noted. Aside from vital records, the vast majority of women were not mentioned in annual town reports. (School teachers were an exception; they cost money.) Newspapers can be a rich source of local information, but unfortunately, our access to local newspapers before 1888 is extremely limited. Without documents such as a woman’s letters or diary, there is very little chance of discovering her thoughts or personality.
Though we might have expected Acton’s first registered female voters to be obviously different from their peers, on the surface, they resembled “typical” women of 1879. Each had her own story, but they were all middle-aged and long-married. With one exception they had given birth to multiple children and had raised families. They would have spent most of the 1850s-1870s on the practical necessities of taking care of their families’ needs. Almost all of them had experienced the heartbreaking loss of at least one of their children, a distressingly common occurrence for parents of the time. Some of the women were actively involved in church, community or charitable organizations, but in most cases, specifics were hard to find. The women may have registered to vote because they wanted their voices to be heard in general or because they cared about their community and its educational system in particular. We have no way of knowing.
We are on the lookout for more information about these six women’s lives. If you have letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper clippings, or family stories that can make them more real to us, please contact us. As a start, here is what we know so far:
An unusual note appears in Acton’s 1872 death records, stating that on December 6 of that year, Aaron Wood (also known as Woods) was “murdered for his money.” We have not found any Acton newspapers from that period, but it was such a sensational event that we uncovered plenty of information about it and some misinformation as well.
A recent donation of a box of old diaries showed us that the town’s news traveled fast even in those days. On December 7, Martha Ball of Acton wrote in her diary that “Old Aaron Wood was murdered in his hut last night Horace Hosmer found him Miss Oliver came in to tell us”
The Boston Globe (Dec. 9, 1872, p. 6) reported that Aaron Wood had been killed the previous Friday evening. Tracks had been found leading south from the “house,” turning toward a pair of shanties in which railroad workers were living, then crossing the railroad, going through a field and some woods to the “highway” at Gallagher’s crossing, and then disappearing. The theory was that “some straggler who, being found by Mr. Wood searching for the money which the old man was popularly supposed to keep hidden in his house, knocked him down and stamped upon him.”
The story was picked up by newspapers across the country, with different twists, (mis)interpretations, and some creative embellishments. Several papers reported that Aaron Wood was considered to be a wealthy old miser with money hidden in his home, while others reported that he was actually poor. Iowa’s Quad-City Times reported (incorrectly) that he had been shot by an unknown assassin. (Dec. 10, p. 3) Oregon’s State Rights Democrat placed the event in Acton, Pennsylvania, but mentioned that Aaron Woods was highly esteemed. (Dec. 27, p. 2). In Kansas, the Atchison Daily Patriot reported that he had lived for years in dirt and squalor. (Dec. 11, p1) The Springfield Republican (Dec. 9, p. 3 ) reported that Aaron Wood, a man of excellent qualities of heart, after having been “disappointed in a love affair, early in life” had lived in seclusion ever since, devoting himself to horticulture. A Memphis paper’s telegrapher or its reporter clearly missed some details; its Boston news section stated that “Aaron Wood, an actor, who, five years ago, lived alone in one part of the town, was found dead this morning in his dwelling. He probably had considerable money.” (Commercial Appeal, Dec. 8, p. 2) Researching the event nearly 150 years later, we were helped by finding so much written about an Acton story. However, we clearly have to be careful not to believe everything that we read.
What Do We Know about Aaron Wood/Woods?
Aaron Woods was born in Acton to Revolutionary War veteran Moses Woods and his second wife Hazadiah Spaulding. (His surname was spelled with an “s” in birth, baptism and some land records. It was often spelled without the “s” when townspeople were reporting on him, for example, in his death record, Martha Ball’s diary, and many newspaper reports. Both spellings could be considered correct.) Aaron grew up in his father’s house in what is now known as North Acton, on the west side of Main Street. His father Moses was a blacksmith and farmer who owned a fair amount of acreage in North Acton that included a shop and water rights on at least one brook. Though Aaron was living alone at the end of his life, he actually had fourteen siblings who were mentioned in town records. Aaron’s mother died in 1817. Aaron appears in Acton militia lists, serving under neighbor Uriah Foster during (at least) the 1817-1821 period. His brother Moses Jr. also served during part of that time. Moses Senior died in 1837. Late in his life, he had deeded his shop and water rights to Aaron. He willed his remaining real estate to two of his children, Aaron and Sally.
Aaron never married, and almost all of Aaron’s siblings predeceased him. Presumably, he lived in his father Moses’ house with Sally until her death, but there is no record of Sally after her appearance in Moses’ probate record. At some point, Aaron allowed his shop to be used by Ebenezer Wood (no relation) who ran a “round saw” there as part of a pencil manufacturing business. In 1843, Aaron sold off Moses’ house, barn and 40 acres of land. It seems likely that Sally had died by that point; the deed does not mention her ownership rights. Aaron kept land on the east side of Main Street, including the shop. Aaron grew cash crops such as hay, apples, vegetables, and strawberries. He cut wood from his forested land, both for sale and for his own use. For many years, he lived in what had once been the shop, a structure without clapboards or plaster that must have been quite uncomfortable in the winter. To survive, he would have had his own farm products to eat and whatever animals and fish he hunted or caught on his land. Cold Spring Brook ran right by his abode. An 1873 Fitchburg Sentinel article mentioned that “its famous trout are known far and wide.” (July 14, p. 1) In later years, Aaron did not have a working stove and regularly bought bread and sometimes meat from a neighbor. It was a spartan, quiet existence until about 1870 when his life changed radically.
The Framingham and Lowell Railroad was incorporated in 1870 to connect those two business centers via South Sudbury, Concord, Acton, Carlisle, Westford and Chelmsford. The railroad was built right through Aaron Woods’ land. He became “news” in the summer of 1871 when several papers reported variations of the story that “Aaron Woods who has lived a hermit life for seventy years in the eastern part of Acton, has never seen a train of cars. His cabin is on the line of the Lowell and Framingham Railroad, and he will soon see them if he don’t move.” (Boston Traveler, July 28, 1871, p. 2) The railroad began operation later that year. Aaron Woods’ compensation for the railroad’s “purchase” of a right of way was recorded on March 23, 1872.
One has to wonder how Aaron felt about the “progress” in North Acton. The building of the railroad not only brought trains but also many workmen to the area in the early 1870s. Supposedly, Aaron Woods had issues with theft after they arrived. Theories about the murder quickly turned to these workers.
Immediately after the discovery of the crime, detectives from Boston were summoned to search for clues and interview witnesses. The selectmen of Acton offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for Aaron Woods’ murder. An inquest was held in the town hall. It was highly attended, because the citizens of Acton were “deeply interested in everything connected with this event, which to them is one of a lifetime.” (Boston Herald, Dec. 21, 1872, p. 1) Newspaper reports provided an amazing level of detail about the case. The jury of inquest included W.E. Faulkner (foreman), Henry M. Smith, Moses Taylor, James E. Billings, Charles Hanscom, T. G. F. Jones and E. G. Robbins.
Witnesses were called. Dr. Harris Cowdrey presented his findings as the medical examiner, and Reverend Franklin P. Wood (no relation to Aaron) testified to having been at the shanty with the doctor while he did his work. Horace Hosmer, the neighbor who discovered the crime, testified that when Aaron had not shown up to pick up his bread as expected, Mr. Hosmer went to check on him and found the body. Former neighbor Hugh Cash mentioned that Aaron Woods had said many times that he expected to be murdered and that some years back “that scoundrel” had assaulted him. The “scoundrel” turned out to be a neighbor with whom Aaron had a land dispute. That neighbor was called to testify. He spoke about the land issue, but no one seems to have considered him a real suspect in the murder.
According to news reports, the shanty was on a stretch of track without houses in sight, so there were no eyewitnesses of the crime. A couple of witnesses saw men in the vicinity around the supposed time of the murder. A man who was working on the railroad near sundown testified that he saw a young man, about 5’ 8” tall, coming from the direction of Aaron Woods’ shanty, looking backwards and acting suspiciously. Alice Burnham testified that she saw two men heading from a railroad crossing toward Mr. Woods’ place around 5:15 pm.
The shanty had been ransacked, giving rise to the theory that the intention of the intruder had been robbery of Aaron Woods’ supposed wealth. The only real clue to the identity of the perpetrator was the trail of footprints. Luke Smith testified about finding tracks that had left blood on snow and on the sleepers (railroad ties). Apparently, the tracks had been made by size 8 boot that did not seem to have been worn much, as the prints were well-defined. Because railroad workers had been issued boots the previous week and the prints led past the railroad workers’ shanties, suspicion turned to them. There were 150 men working on the railroad at the time, and despite newspaper reports that two French Canadians were suspects, there was no direct evidence linking any particular worker to the crime.
When reading newspaper reports of the inquest, we were quite surprised that investigators were able to find “bloody tracks for more than a mile.” (Boston Herald, Dec. 9, p. 1) Allowing for possible exaggeration, the story’s plausibility was bolstered by the diary of the weather-watching Mrs. Ball. Her decades of diary entries all start with a notation of the weather. Thanks to her, we know that Thursday, December 5, 1872 started out “pleasant,” but “a snow storm came on,” providing new snow on which tracks and blood evidence would have been obvious. The investigators had a day to measure and follow the footprints before they would have disappeared on Sunday, December 8, when Mrs. Ball tells us that rain arrived. Another complication for investigators was that the shanty immediately became a tourist attraction. On the 8th, Mrs. Ball mentioned that “We all went up to Aaron’s shanty,” presumably before the rain. Even without precipitation, it would have been impossible to preserve footprint evidence for long with the townspeople traipsing up to view the scene.
Despite the intense interest in the case, the work of investigators, the witnesses, and the reward, at the end of the inquest, the jury’s verdict was that Aaron Wood died December 6, 1872, between four and seven o’clock in the evening from blows received from “some person or persons to the jury unknown.”
Two years later, a crime spree by a local man led townspeople to decide that he must have committed the murder as well. Acton made the newspapers again. The perpetrator went to jail for theft and breaking and entry. Apparently, there was no evidence to pin the murder on him, and he was never charged for it. The Aaron Woods case was never solved.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, our usual open hours have been suspended. Please contact us for an appointment or to ask your research questions.
Hosmer House Museum:
Open for special events.
Mailing Address: PO Box 2389, Acton, MA 01720
Copyright © 2022 Acton Historical Society, All Rights Reserved