For those who are missing Thanksgiving high school football games in this strange 2020 holiday season, we offer some glimpses of football in Acton’s past.
A favorite item in our collection is an 1890s leather football helmet. We are grateful to relatives of Ernest R. Teele who donated it. There are ventilation holes around the top, and it offered a bit of padding, but it was a long way from today’s headgear.
Previously, we had written a blog post about the West Acton football team after seeing a team picture that only identified Ernest Teele (front row, second from left). In the time since, we have discovered other copies of that and a similar photograph of the team, both taken by Eugene Hall. (A number of his glass plate images were donated to our Society). However, we have not made any more progress on identifying the players.
Some of our best discoveries at Jenks Library happen when we are searching for something completely different. We recently came across a reference to a 1960s slide copy of an old Acton football team photograph. Expecting that it would be a duplicate of the Eugene Hall pictures that we had already seen, we scanned the slide and discovered a different image. It had some familiar faces from our other pictures, but most importantly, names had been listed on the back.
Trying to interpret the name list, we believe that the pictured men are as follows (corrections welcome!):
Among the players was William Rodway. This was a familiar name; as discussed in a blog post, he served in the Spanish American War a few months after this picture was taken. He made it back to a hospital in New York but died of disease there on October 18, 1898. He was known as “a young man of fine personal appearance and splendid physique” (Concord Enterprise, Oct. 27, 1898, page 8), so his succumbing to disease must have been a shock to his teammates and the community. For reasons that are unclear, when Acton’s monument to its Spanish American War veterans was put up, his name was left off of it. Now, at least, we have an identified picture of him. (As it turns out, he was front and center in the Hall pictures, as well, which jibes with our knowledge that he was team captain in 1896-7.)
Another discovery that we have made since our original blog post on early football in Acton was that the West Acton team existed longer than we had thought. The 1900 team played Maynard High School on its baseball grounds on Thanksgiving. (Concord Enterprise, Nov. 29, 1900, p. 4) The following year, there was a Thanksgiving game between South Acton and West Acton football players. The rosters:
The Concord Enterprise’s South Acton correspondent described the game as “one-sided,” leaving the “West Acton linesman nothing to be thankful for,” while the “half-frozen spectators” looked on. The final score was 21-0. (Dec. 4, 1901, page 8)
Here’s hoping that by next year, we will have the privilege, if we so choose, of braving Thanksgiving weather to attend our own favorite events. Cheering on friends and family in person sounds pretty good this year, cold or not.
The Society’s collection includes a copy of a picture of two men and a woman looking up at an ancient tree that is believed to have been located on the Hapgood property in East Acton. All traces of the tree are long-gone. In former days, however, the tree was quite well-known. James Fletcher’s Acton in History (pages 279-280) described it as “one of the original settlers of the town,” thriving when Captain Isaac Davis and Acton’s company of minutemen passed by on their way to Concord’s North Bridge in April, 1775.
Thoreau, who had a great appreciation for old trees, apparently was well-acquainted with the Hapgood chestnut. We have yet to find a mention of it in Thoreau’s writings, but Emerson wrote in his journal on 6 August 1849 that he and Thoreau had walked to Acton the day before and had visited a big chestnut tree on Strawberry Hill. That jaunt was apparently not Thoreau’s only visit. According to local historians, townspeople referred to the tree as “Thoreau’s Chestnut” because of his habit of stopping there. Thoreau was definitely back on the Hapgood land to do surveying in 1853; his woodlot survey is held at Concord Public Library. Fletcher’s History tells us that Thoreau visited the old chestnut tree with his sister and measured the trunk at twenty-two feet in circumference.
The Thoreau siblings’ visit must have been before May, 1862 when Thoreau died. The tree continued to grow and, no doubt, attracted more visitors. In his 1890 History, Fletcher wrote:
“The interior of the tree is hollow. The cavity is circular, sixty inches in diameter and twenty-five feet in height, through which one may look and see the sky beyond. An opening has recently been cut at the bottom and entrance can be easily made. There are worse places for a night’s lodging. A good crop of chestnuts is yearly produced by its living branches. The town should get possession of this luscious tablet of the bygones and see that no ruthless axe take it too soon from the eyes of the present generation.”
Our photograph matches Fletcher’s description of a large tree, hollow inside, with an opening at the bottom and a hole up high, through which one could presumably see the sky. The fact that Fletcher wrote that an opening had been cut at the bottom “recently” might indicate that the picture was taken in the late 1880s-1890, but it is possible that a gap had existed previously and simply had been enlarged. Our picture shows three people observing the tree; we have not been able to prove their identities.
Despite the tree’s local fame, its end seems to have been unrecorded in town reports and the local newspaper. The chestnut may have succumbed to a “ruthless axe” or to the devasting effect of the chestnut blight in the early twentieth century.
The chestnut blight, a fungus that destroys the trees above ground and makes it impossible for young trees to mature, was discovered in New York in 1904. Believed to have been imported on nursery stock, it started spreading, reaching Massachusetts some years later. We searched the Concord Enterprise for news of local chestnuts. At first, the few mentions of chestnuts involved “normal” activity and concerns. For example, in 1907, West Acton lumber dealer Arthur Blanchard sent his portable sawmill operation to South Sudbury to harvest two lots of chestnut that he had purchased. (Jan. 2, 1907, p. 1) That fall, Arthur M. Whitcomb was making barrels with chestnut staves in the old overall shop in West Acton. (Sept. 18, 1907, p.5) In October 1911, Maynard landowners were complaining that young trespassers, senselessly shooting at small birds, were damaging chestnut trees; “the terrible abuse which the trees are subjected to are simply ruining them and very soon there will be few decent chestnut trees about here if a stop is not put to this practice.” (Oct. 25, 1911, p. 3) The landowners were, possibly accidentally, quite prescient; spores of the blight-causing fungus found entry through wounds in chestnut trees’ bark.
The Boston Herald (Jan. 21, 1912, Sunday Magazine, p. 1) reported on the spread of the chestnut fungus and the experience of other states. At that point, the blight had started to show up in Massachusetts, particularly on the Connecticut border. Historically, the chestnut had been admired by and useful to the people in its range, providing wood products, abundant nuts in the fall, and shade. By the time the blight was discovered, chestnut trees, naturally rot-resistant, were the primary local source of telephone poles and railroad ties. They were also used by furniture makers, carpenters, and tanneries (an important Massachusetts industry). Ecologically, the loss of the chestnut was even worse, as it was also a major source of food for wildlife. (For more information about the blight, see a Report by the Forest Service.)
Despite the ecological and economic damage caused by the fungus, there was little mention of it in Acton sources as the blight spread. The town’s annual Tree Warden reports made no mention of the loss of chestnuts or of the blight during the whole 1904-1940 period. This could be because farmers, fruit growers, and landowners were coping with the arrival of brown-tailed and gypsy moths, San Jose Scale, and the elm leaf beetle. It could also be that most of Acton’s American chestnuts had already been cut down.
Turning back to the Concord Enterprise for news of local chestnuts, we learned that they did not all go at once. In November, 1916, children headed out from the West Acton Baptist church “chestnutting” in the towns of Boxboro, Harvard and Stow. The report was that they were not very successful in their hunt, but they had a good time playing hide and seek. (Nov. 1, 1916, p. 10) In December of that year, the Enterprise started mentioning the blight in general terms. (Dec. 20, 1916, p.2) Two months later, it was noted that people were “cutting down the forests at a fearful rate” and that disease and insect pests, including the chestnut blight, were causing great harm. (Feb. 21, 1917, p. 2) In April, 1917, the paper discussed the white pine blister rust that appeared set to destroy the pine forests, an extremely alarming prospect for Massachusetts, though it was believed that the rust could be stopped much more easily than chestnut blight. (April 18, 1917, p. 7)
In 1919, the local paper reported that farther west in Massachusetts, a town was so hard-hit that townspeople believed that all the “old spread” chestnuts would be gone within three years. (March 19, 1919, p. 4) On Oct. 22, 1919, the Enterprise finally commented directly on the fate of local chestnuts, saying that the blight seemed to be destroying them and that there was no known way to combat it. (p. 2)
As the destruction of chestnut trees began to seem inevitable, experts urged landowners to cut down the trees before they were too far deteriorated to be of economic use. We do not know if that was the fate of Thoreau’s Chestnut or not. We do know that its owner Benjamin Hapgood died in 1920, and his farm was auctioned off in 1923. An ad for the auction advertised, among many other items, a “lot of Chestnut 2x4 and 2x6.” Where the lumber came from, we have no way of knowing. (Enterprise, Nov. 14, 1923, p. 1)
Whatever happened to Thoreau’s Chestnut, it is clear that only a few recorded memories are left. If you have pictures or stories about it, or if you can help us to confirm the identity of the people and the tree in our picture, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.
We were alerted recently to a wonderful collection of photos on the website of Brookline, New Hampshire's Historical Society. One of the pictures was of a truck, fully-loaded with barrels. The truck’s door identifies it as belonging to Davis King Co., West Acton.
One of our members recognized the house in the background as the James W. Hayward house in West Acton. The photographer would have been standing in front of the Davis King Garage that stood at approximately today’s #576 Massachusetts Avenue, looking across the street. At the extreme right of the picture, one can see the West Acton depot. Neither the Hayward house nor the depot is standing today.
Looking through the Brookline photo database, we discovered several other West Acton pictures. Some of them are duplicates of photographs in our collection of the devastating West Acton fire of 1913. Other pictures were completely new to us and are used in this article with the kind permission of Brookline’s Historical Society. In the process of trying to match places and dates of the Brookline pictures with our own photos and information, we learned a good amount about West Acton village in the years immediately before and after the fire.
Starting from the beginning...
Why had pictures of West Acton buildings, barrels, and firefighting ended up in Brookline, NH? Thanks to a helpful index to the pictures in the Brookline collection, we quickly discovered the connection. Orville D. Fessenden of Brookline, New Hampshire invested in a barrel-making enterprise in West Acton. The pictures of buildings, the loaded truck, and the West Acton fire related to his business.
In the Brookline collection are two pictures taken from current-day Spruce Street (then called School Street):
At first, we thought that both of the pictures were taken at approximately at the same time, because the close-up of the barrel shop seemed to be exactly the same building as the one in the background of the wider Spruce Street picture. Local sources tell us that the July 1913 fire destroyed the barrel shop. However, the index from Brookline indicates that the pictures were actually taken before and after the fire. Obviously, the barrel shop was rebuilt; we investigated newspaper and other sources to learn more. (Unless otherwise noted, all of the articles referenced were in the Concord Enterprise.)
The earliest mention that we can find of Orville D. Fessenden’s business connections to Acton was a May 25, 1910 news item in the Concord Enterprise announcing that O. D. Fessenden had unloaded a carload of barrel hoops for his barrel shop and would have two men making barrels there soon. (p. 10) Work started at the shop on June 6. (Jun. 8, p. 6) We had found mentions of a cooper shop in West Acton in the vicinity of the site that was built in 1904, burned, and rebuilt in 1905, but we do not know whose it was and whether O. D. Fessenden took it over or started his business from scratch.
The Fessenden business succeeded. By August 1910, the Enterprise announced that “barrels at the barrel shop are fast disappearing." (Aug. 24, p. 8) In the first week of September, George Rockwood and Frank Williams made 800 barrels in six days. (Acton-Concord Enterprise, Sept. 14, 1910, p.8) By October, it became apparent that Fessenden’s shop could not keep up with the demand. “There is a great demand for apple barrels and it is hard for the farmers to get enough barrels to use. The barrel shop does not begin to supply the trade. During the week several cars of carrels [sic] were shipped from other places.” (Oct. 10, 1910, p.8)
Experience showed that more barrels needed to be produced and stored ahead of time to meet peak demand. In 1912, work started in April when Louis Popple and George Rockwood came down from Brookline, NH to start production. (April 4, 1912, p. 10) In August of that year, the Enterprise announced that O. D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs (of Boxborough) had bought from the estate of O. W. Mead the cold storage property near the barrel shop and two tenement houses. (Aug. 14, 1912, p. 8) By that time, the operation was able to accommodate large orders such as the purchase by Charles W. Barnes of 1,000 barrels for his Stow fruit farm (September 18, 1912, p. 10)
The April 30, 1913 Concord Enterprise announced that ”Work at the barrel shop will soon commence, to be ready for the large demands for barrels the coming season.” (p. 8) It was an optimistic time. In that same month, the pastor of Maynard's Catholic Church thanked non-Catholics who had donated funds for building a Catholic Church in West Acton, close to the storage facility that Fessenden and Burroughs had purchased the year before. One of the larger donors mentioned was O. D. Fessenden. (Apr. 23, p. 10) Everything was going well. Then came the fire.
The West Acton Fire of 1913
On July 22, 1913, a fire was first noticed at Luke Blanchard’s barn near the corner of today’s Massachusetts Avenue and Windsor Avenue, just west of the railroad tracks. Soon, it had “jumped the tracks” and spread to the Hutchins house at 556 Massachusetts Avenue. From there, the fire spread across Massachusetts Avenue to destroy commercial buildings including an ice house, a grain storage shed, and a milk depot. The next stage was across today’s Spruce Street where the Fessenden barrel shop and cold storage facilities were. (What at first seemed to be generic pictures of the West Acton fire in the Brookline, NH collection turn out to have featured destroyed remnants of the Fessenden business.) The final stage of the fire seems to have been east on Massachusetts Avenue where the barn of Walter Gardner was destroyed and his house damaged.
Fighting the fire was a challenge. The West Acton company went right to work, but they were hampered by equipment problems. New hose had recently been purchased but was incompatible with the available nozzles, necessitating that the firefighters work with old hose that lost water pressure through leakage. According to the July 23 Enterprise, “It was early seen that the local department could not possibly cope with the blaze and calls for help were sent to Maynard, Concord, Fitchburg and Ayer, while the companies from South Acton and Acton Center also responded.” The Maynard company was given most of the credit for saving the depot and St. Elizabeth’s church, and the Concord Junction department saved the school house and some of the nearby homes. (p. 8) Later, Maynard’s fire department refused to accept payment for their efforts, suggesting that someday Acton might need to return the favor. (Aug. 31, p. 2)
One of the fascinating features of researching this particular fire is that amateur photographers were on the scene almost immediately. Fortunately, many of these pictures were saved, giving us visual evidence of the fire’s progression and its aftermath. What at first might seem to be blurry or overexposed pictures are in fact photographs of people and structures amidst smoke.
In the following photograph of the fire (from our own collection), the Fessenden barrel shop is still standing, while the cold storage facility (on the right) had clearly already been reduced to its brick foundation. The fire was still being worked on at the time. Note the railroad crossing sign where a siding went next to the cold storage building and the stone work at the extreme right by the front steps of St. Elizabeth Church:
We might have thought, based upon that picture, that the barrel shop survived the fire. Written accounts said it was lost, however, and a photo in our collection confirmed it:
Another view of the same scene taken only a few feet away confirms the identification of this building; the wall of what was obviously the barrel shop was still standing, while the rest had been destroyed:
The damage to Fessenden & Burroughs was obviously large. They not only lost the shop and storage buildings but also the barrel inventory that had been created in anticipation of the 1913 apple season.
After the Fire
Rebuilding West Acton started right away. In the words of the Concord Enterprise, “Already plans are being made by the several losers to rebuild at once.” (July 30, 1913, p. 8) Fessenden and Burroughs had sustained a huge loss that apparently was not insured. They probably had to raise cash quickly, because the same Enterprise reported that “C. H. Mead has bought a piece of land of Fessenden Burroughs in front of the big cold storage building just burned, where he will build a large storehouse for grain, hay and flour.” This news item confirms that the C.H. Mead building in the Brookline, NH picture was newly built after the fire, not a replacement of a building previously on that spot.
By August 11, George Rockwood was back in town, presumably to get the barrel business restarted, although the paper was silent about how and when the barrel shop was rebuilt. (Aug. 13, p. 8) Work clearly proceeded, because the November 5 Enterprise reported that barrel shop workers Popple and Rockwood were returning to their homes in Brookline, N. H. and that barrel shop had done “a rushing business all season.” (p. 10)
In the spring of 1914, the cold storage building was rebuilt. On June 10, the Enterprise reported that O. D. Fessenden “of Townsend” had several carpenters working on a new structure over the “cold storage brick wal[l], where the fire was last summer. The building will be used to store barrels which are made here.” (June 10, 1914 p. 7). It seems to have been a good investment. In October, the paper reported that George Rockwood, foreman, said that he had already sold 10,000 barrels, with more to come. Several men were working to fill waiting wagons with barrels. (Oct. 14, 1914, p. 10) The 1915 and 1916 seasons were also described as “rushing,” “prosperous,” and “booming.” (Oct. 20, 1915, p1, Oct. 18, 1916, p. 4)
The aftermath of the fire continued, however. In January, 1914, Orville D. Fessenden and George W. Burroughs both sued the Boston & Maine Railroad for allegedly setting the fire with sparks from a passing train. The causes of the fire probably had been debated endlessly in town. However, despite early rumors of arson, over the following months, the Enterprise was silent about investigative conclusions. The related lawsuits were for damages from the burning of buildings, (presumably the cold storage building and the barrel shop), barrels, coopers’ supplies and tools. (Boston Herald, Jan. 8, 1914, p. 12) The triple-action tort case took three years to come to trial. Finally, the case was heard at the Superior Court in Lowell. The Concord Enterprise reported in October 1917 that the jurors had come from Lowell in four autos to view the site where the fire had been and that witnesses from West Acton had been called to testify for both sides of the dispute. (Oct. 17, p. 8) On October 23, the Lowell Sun reported that jury found in favor of the railroad; Fessenden and Burroughs must not have been able to provide adequate evidence that a train caused the fire. (p. 3)
Despite the legal setback, the barrel business continued in West Acton for a few more years. The barrel shop was still in business in the summer of 1919, but the cold storage building was being used for apple storage that year. (July 23, p. 8; Feb. 5, p. 9) Apparently the business was wound down in or around 1920. The cold storage building was sold to A. W. Davis, owner of the truck stacked with barrels pictured above, and C. D. Fletcher in April 1920. (Apr. 14, p. 8) After the sale by O. D. Fessenden, the cold storage building was renovated in order actually to be used for “cold storage.” An “elevator” and electric lights were installed. In the fall of that year, train carloads of apples were arriving for that purpose. (Acton Enterprise, Oct. 13, 1920, p. 6)
Two years later, barrel shop land was also sold to A. W. Davis who built a cement block garage there. (Sept. 27, 1922, p. 7) The Davis King Garage on Massachusetts Avenue had recently burned down in another West Acton fire. Though the barrel shop building was not mentioned in the news report, it seems to have been "history" already. On May 16, 1923, H. S. MacGregor and J. J. Chesbrough ran an ad in the Enterprise for Acton Motor Co.'s “new garage now open on School Street, West Acton Repairing of all kinds at reasonable prices.” (p. 2)
Businesses have come and gone in West Acton. The O. D. Fessenden barrel shop was only in West Acton for a few years, but it was there during a momentous time in the history of the village. We are very grateful to the Brookline NH Historical Society for sharing photographs that shed light on that time and place.
When one is trying to understand Acton's history, a large challenge is envisioning what the town looked like in different eras. Often, one is imagining a mill complex in a spot that has now reverted to nature. The challenge is different in Acton center. Today, it is almost entirely residential, but in the nineteenth century, it had a shoe factory, a hotel, a blacksmith, and a number of other businesses. It is tempting to picture the center “village” at that time as a commercial/residential center with businesses and houses close together. However, reading through land transactions for our blog post on John Fletcher, we discovered that until relatively recently, even in the "Centre village," there were farms, orchards, and pastures. We found a picture in our collection that, though not very sharp, shows how rural Acton Center was.
This "Bird's Eye View" of Acton Center was taken from behind Main Street. Fortunately, some landmarks are obvious: the town hall, the monument, and the Congregational Church after its steeple was rebuilt in 1898. Where today we would expect to see houses, the picture shows trees, fields, and numerous stone walls.
We have many photos and postcards of Acton Center landmarks, but pictures taken from the back, away from the usual sights, are few and far between. We're lucky that someone thought to record a different view.
One of our members recently brought to the Society a huge portrait that had no identification. It had been used as a backing for a framed map. At first, it seemed to be a normal photograph, but looking more carefully revealed that someone had enhanced its details by adding black and white highlights. The size of the portrait and the artist’s additions make us think that the man had some wealth and social standing.
We thought that there was hope of identifying this man; his clothes might make the picture easy to date and Acton's wealthy people were relatively few. Prominent businessmen were more likely than others to have their photographs published, so we searched local histories and our own photograph collection. So far, we have not succeeded. It has been suggested to us that the era of the portrait was the 1880s, but research in guides to men’s fashion has not given us definitive confirmation of the time period.
Our only clue is that the picture was found in a barn at what is now 184 Main Street. The Society has been the recipient of other items from that barn, most related to the South Acton cider vinegar business and family of Henry Barker (1835-1917). The barn was across the street from the house of cider mill manager Frederick Burke and his wife (Henry’s daughter) Addie Barker. We know that the Burkes gave memorabilia to Harriet Cobleigh, owner of the barn. It is possible that this picture, perhaps behind a map, was part of the Barker/Burke gifts.
Could this portrait have been of Henry Barker? He was the owner of a successful cider mill and old enough to have gray in his beard by the 1880s. He would best fit our guess that it was someone of local prominence. (See blog post about Henry Barker.) Unfortunately, and surprisingly, we have not been able to find an identified picture of Henry Barker for comparison. At this point, he is only one possibility for the subject of the portrait.
Identifying unlabeled photographs is almost always a struggle. Can you help us to identify this man or to confirm the time period in which the portrait would have been done? Please contact us.
Recently, we came across a collection of pictures that were found in the attic of a house on Kinsley Road, evidently once the home of members of the Beach family. Thumbtack holes in the mats show that they had been displayed on a wall, indicating that they were all of family members or close friends.
Among the pictures were several of men in a work setting. Two were labelled “Hall Bros,” a West Acton manufacturer of wooden ware that was an important employer in the village for many years. Two were duplicates of photos already in our collection for which some Hall Brothers employees had been identified:
Our duplicate copy of this picture says on the back: "Back Row / 4th from Right Ernie Banks / First man Ben Coolige / fifth from right Archie Beach".
This duplicate of a Hall Brothers photo had no identification, but our other copy did:
Our duplicate gave the following identifications:
Back Row, standing:
Given this identification, Ben Coolidge must the man standing in the back right of the previous picture, where he would be the "first man" from the right.
The next photo featured tubs, pails, churns and other wooden products, so we easily accepted the Hall Brothers identification written on its back. However, after we scanned and enlarged the photo, we were surprised to see that a large churn was painted with the slogan “Get the Best The Blanchard Churn”, and a box said “The Blanchard Print Butter Carrier.” Now we were confused. Was our picture labelled incorrectly? Did someone assume that wooden ware must have been Hall Brothers’? Was this perhaps another company associated with West Acton’s Blanchard family?
Fortunately, knowledgeable members of the Society often can save us a lot of research time. One told us that Hall Brothers bought the Blanchard churn patent. Blanchard churns were actually a well-known New Hampshire product. A Biennial Report from New Hampshire’s Bureau of Labor (dated 1902) reported that “In December, 1900, Nashua lost the Blanchard Churn company, whose entire plant was purchased by parties from West Acton, Mass., and removed to that town.” The Boston Herald (Dec. 28, 1900, p. 10) reported that Blanchard’s stock and machinery had been purchased by Hall Brothers to enlarge their business. Searching our collection of items related to Hall Brothers’ operation, we found a piece of Hall Brothers letterhead; their logo by that time featured a list of products sold by the company including “Improved Cylinder, Blanchard and Lightning Churns,” butter molds, carriers, tubs and pails. Our picture seems to have been a good representation of the company’s business. One mystery solved. But who are the men in the picture? Given the identifications above, we believe that Ben Coolidge is on the left and Archie Beach is on the right. Can anyone help us with our identification?
Our next picture had no identification, but at least two of the young men are also in the churn and pail picture. Were they all Hall Brothers employees? Were they relatives? Is the one on the left Archie J. Beach or someone else?
The photo collection also included a wonderful interior picture of workers at a mill, many of them barefoot. We think it may be the upstairs level of the South Acton Woolen Mill. We do not know the identities of the men in the photo. We would appreciate any clues.
Finally, there were family photos. The first two appear to be nearly the same group of women:
We have no clues about the women in white blouses below:
For reference, at different times and from different descendants, we have received two copies of the following photo of the Beach family around 1905. The woman in the chair is apparently Georgiana (Munroe) Beach who was born c. 1823, in Granville, Nova Scotia, married George William Beach, lived at the end of her life in West Acton with her daughter Estella (Mrs. Ernest) Morse, and died in Acton in December, 1909. According to an unsourced/undated obituary, she had sixteen children, eighty-seven grandchildren, seventy-two great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren at the time of her death, leaving plenty of room for confusion about identification of family members. Based on the pictures’ donors’ information and suggestions from other family members, we have some identifications for this picture and a number of remaining questions. Can you confirm/correct these identifications or identify others?
Back Row, from Left to Right:
We would be grateful for any help that you can give us in identifying these pictures. Please contact us.
One of the almost-forgotten aspects of warfare in World War I was the dependence of the military on wood supplies. The Allies’ war effort required a tremendous amount of lumber for their operations. It was used for shoring up trenches and mines, lining roads to make them passable after destruction by shelling and overuse, building structures such as hospitals, ordnance depots and bridges, supporting barbed wire barriers, and manufacturing smaller but necessary items such as boxes for shells.
There were still forests in Britain, many on private lands, but the manpower needs of the war had created a shortage of labor to cut them down. In April 1917, a colonel attached to the British War Office sent a cable to an American colonel in Boston mentioning this critical need. Lumbering was something at which Americans had experience to offer. Government and industry leaders in New England decided to recruit and equip ten units of skilled men and send them to the Allies’ aid. Getting approval from both sides of the Atlantic took a month, so the practical work started in mid-May.
Part of the committee that got the process going was Arthur F. Blanchard of West Acton. Each New England state pledged to equip a sawmill unit at an estimated cost of $12,000-$14,000 each, including the cost of food, lodging, medical care, and the issue of “hat, shoes, mackinaw and oilskins” (Boston Daily Globe, May 23, 1917, page 10). Private lumbering companies, including Blanchard’s, pledged money to pay for four additional companies. The British government would provide transportation to and from England and would pay the men’s salaries from the time of sailing, for a term of up to a year’s service.
According to the Boston Daily Globe (June 12, 1917, page 4), some people predicted that the venture would fail because of scarce labor in lumbering in the United States. This concern was unfounded. The committee advertised and within two days had enough men for three units. Many applications were reviewed and eventually whittled down to about 35 men per unit plus support staff. One of the units was composed mostly of men from Acton and surrounding towns under the leadership of Arthur Blanchard’s son Webster. Locally, it was thought of as the Blanchard & Gould company, but its title was New England Sawmill Unit No. 3.
The logistics were daunting. Each unit was to have a portable sawmill and everything it needed to function independently for a year, including an engine and boiler, wagons, axes, saws, blacksmiths’ and carpenters’ tools, harnesses, lamps, cooking utensils, bedding, and other camp equipment. Over two thousand different items were procured, carefully accounted for so that each would go to the proper unit, and delivered to Boston. One-hundred and twenty work-ready horses were bought and kept in Watertown until it was time to ship out. On the personnel side, men had to be found who were experienced, “of good character,” and willing to sail on two days’ notice. Each man needed to be approved for a passport and to sign an individual contract with the British government. Not only were men needed to deal with cutting, transporting and milling the lumber, (in roles such as the interestingly named “head chopper” and “swamper”), but there was also need of cooks, bookkeepers, blacksmiths and veterinary support. In an amazing feat of cooperation and organization, the ten units were created, equipped, and ready to go in a month. America’s military was just gearing up at the time, and New Englanders were proud of getting help to their allies so quickly. A self-congratulatory note appeared in an industry publication: “There was not an amateur or an epaulette connected with the affair. It was worked out practically – hence its success.” (Lumber World Review, Nov. 10, 1917, p. 54)
When organized, the lumbermen convened in Boston where they stayed at the South Armory. The committee had organized a welcome for them, arranging for them to see a baseball game and be eligible for free motion picture and vaudeville performances. At least some of the men also participated in the Elks’ Flag Day parade, accompanied by their mascot, a black bear cub. The Saw Mill Unit’s send-off seems surprisingly generous, but they were in the vanguard. There may also have been a less generous motivation; the organizers seem to have been nervous about lumberjacks running amok. “The Ten Mill Units are a civilian, not a military organization, so it was impossible to impose military discipline on the men, many of them loose in a large city for the first time in their lives. However, it must be said, that the men behaved a lot better than anticipated.” (Lumber World Review, November 10, 1917 p. 54) On the evening of June 14, they were feted at a banquet at the Boston City Club. The Christian Science Monitor noted the next day the unusual nature of the dinner as members of the club and the Public Safety Committee in dress suits mingled with lumberjacks, “some in overalls, moccasins, flannel shirts and bared arms, the type of men who fought in the American Revolution.” (June 15, 1917, p 7) Despite concerns over attire, it was reported to have been a successful event.
For the organizers, there was some stress as departure-time approached, because some of the expected men did not show up. According to the Lumber World Review article, as late as the morning of the day of departure, they were missing three cooks and a couple of blacksmiths. Somehow they were able to fill the slots, “although the last cook got over the gang plank just as it was being raised.” (p. 54)
The Sawmill Unit sailed to New York, arriving on June 16th. On the 18th, they sailed on the troopship Justicia to Halifax, staying in port until June 25th, when they were joined by 4,000-5,000 Canadian troops and headed across the Atlantic. A letter written at sea by Whitney Bent described the trip. (Concord Enterprise, July 25, 1917, p. 7) Two ships accompanied them at a distance of about ¾ of a mile, one with the horses and wheat and one that carried nitroglycerine. The Justicia apparently also carried wheat and lumber. The letter did not mention where all the equipment was, perhaps with the horses. It was, fortunately, a relatively smooth sail. The men were required to wear life preservers at all times. They slept in tightly-arranged hammocks, alternating in direction of head and feet. For most of the journey, there was not much to see except the other ships and occasional whales, although the men kept busy with “church, boxing, cards and reading” and received news and baseball scores by wireless. A dog fight between different groups’ pets interrupted the monotony. On July 3, Bent added to his letter that they had been joined by “submarine chasers” and there were possible submarine sightings that day and the night before. The Boston Daily Globe, (Aug. 19, 1917, p. 36), printed a letter from Hugh Connors of Maynard who also described the trip. “We arrived, as you probably know, July 5, [in Scotland], after a long tiresome trip. The last two days we were in the war zone. We had been on the boat so long that some of the boys didn’t care whether we were torpedoed or not.” According to Mr. Connors, at the end of the trip, the boat was fired upon by two German submarines. Two torpedoes were fired, but missed by 12 feet or less. A contrasting letter, written to the head of the organizing committee back in Massachusetts by Downing P. Brown, general manager of the ten mill units, said that “For a time there was considerable conjecture about the possibility of submarines, etc., but as soon as the fleet of destroyers arrived, the tension relaxed and everyone felt safe.” (Lumber World Review, Nov. 10, 1917, p. 56) The different tone may have been because of censors. The Boston Sunday Globe (Aug. 26, 1917, a.m. edition, p. 10) quoted a letter from Hap Reed to his parents that the Atlantic crossing was “a most bitter experience – more than I can write about” and that British censors were keeping the men from revealing details of the trip. Whatever actually happened, it was a dangerous time to cross the Atlantic.
After landing in Liverpool, the “lumberjack unit” took a train to northern Scotland where they were to work in forests on private estates, including that of Andrew Carnegie. Unit No. 3 worked at Ardgay. They had to wait for their equipment to arrive by boat. The Concord Enterprise (Aug. 22, 1917, p. 3) reported that the “Blanchard & Gould mill known officially as Unit No. 3. had the distinction of cutting and sawing the first lumber on foreign soil for the cause of the Allies, by an organized body of men and complete equipment from the United States.” The first work was done by Burpee Steele of Boxboro and G. Howard Reed of Acton. Three officers from the general staff were present and inscribed a piece of wood with “First Lumber Sawed by American Lumbermen in this Country, July 28, 1917 at 3:20 p m.” A portion was inscribed by Reed and Steele and given as a gift to Arthur Blanchard for Christmas, 1917. The Society has a picture of the inscription.
Once the mills were up and running, the men worked hard. Friendly rivalry seems to have boosted their productivity; letters home periodically mentioned units’ records relative to the others. An unsourced newspaper clipping in the Society’s collection (from sometime after March 23, 1918) reported that Unit No. 3 was proud to have been the first to reach the million-foot mark. They were also pleased that they increased their productivity enough in December, 1917 to maintain their weekly average output despite Scotland’s low sunlight at that time of year and a week off at the end of the month.
The men of the whole Sawmill Unit were treated well by the local inhabitants of the region and seem to have caused little trouble, though a retrospective article in the Northern Times mentioned occasional rowdiness, attributed to the locals being a bit too generous in supplying alcohol. (It also mentioned one serious accident that we did not find in our local newspapers.) Published reports of the time generally focused on lumber production, not leisure activities, but we do know Unit 3’s clerk Glenn Gould was considered the unit’s musician and seems somehow to have had access to a phonograph. We also know that about half of the sawmill men took the train to London for their December break to see the sights. There must have been some time for mingling, because according to the Boston Sunday Herald, “more than a dozen Scotch wives” would head to America when the Sawmill Unit returned (June 30, 1918, p. B2)
By all reports, the Sawmill Unit was a success. The men produced more than 20,000,000 feet of lumber for the Allies. Though they were exempt from the draft during the term of their contract with the British government, they worked long hours and completed the job early. According to a Boston Globe article, the New England Sawmill Unit was commended by the British government for doing “twice the work at half the cost of any organization producing lumber for war service.” (Dec. 1, 1918, p. 16) Their efforts were also noticed by soldiers in the trenches. The same article quoted a soldier’s letter that having boards lining the trenches “was particularly appreciated in wet weather, when we were protected from the mud and water which otherwise would have been around on all sides.”
Though the Sawmill Unit fulfilled their contract, the war continued. Most of the men of the unit, as soon as their work was completed, enlisted in the military. Apparently, their status had been subject to much “diplomatic correspondence” between the British and American authorities. “Many of the young men resented the fact that they were published in their districts as delinquents [from registering for the draft], though their records were ultimately cleared.” (Boston Globe, June 16, 1918, page 7) Over a hundred of them joined the U.S. Army’s 20th Engineers who dealt with overseas forestry activities. Six Acton men from Sawmill Unit No. 3 were among them. A large number of the sawmill men, including Webster Blanchard, went into the Navy. That sounds surprising, but there were significant naval operations near northern Scotland.
We did not find any mention in newspapers on this side of the Atlantic of what happened to the animals and equipment after the sawmill unit disbanded. However, we did find a June, 1919 ad in the Aberdeen Press and Journal stating that the Timber Supply Department of Scotland was selling ten portable New England Sawmills, complete with spare parts. That September, the first reunion of the New England Saw Mill Unit was held in Boston. Twelve local men attended, and “Webb” Blanchard presided.
The Society is lucky to have a collection of Webster Blanchard’s photographs showing Unit 3’s and other sawmills in operation, the Unit 3 crew, the horses, and even the pets that they brought over with them. You can view the photographs at Jenks Library during our open hours or in our online World War 1 Exhibit. We would like to add to our collection; if anyone has photographs with members of Unit No. 3 identified, letters written by them from Scotland, or any other Acton-related World War 1 pictures and materials, we would be grateful for donations, copies, or scans.
A reader of our blog post on Acton's early baseball kindly sent us a studio picture of another local baseball team. One of the players is identified; the man seated at the far right is Jim O’Neil, born in Acton in 1878. The picture was estimated to have been taken sometime around 1898.
It is possible that the photograph may have been an East Acton baseball team. We found a July, 1897 article that listed the team at that time:
M. Hayes, catcher
F. O’Neil, pitcher
S. D. Taylor, shortstop
H. Holt, 2nd base
S. Guilford, Left field
C. Smith, 1st base
J. O’Neal, centerfield
F. Davis, right field
T. Hayes, 3rd base
Players moved around, so it is also possible that Jim O'Neil played for another team. Trying to research the 1897 East Acton team's players, we found players M. Hayes and T. Hayes on a Concord Junction team in 1902.
Can anyone help us to identify this team or any of its players? Please contact us.
The Society has in its collection a picture of an Acton baseball team. Unlabeled, its only clues are the team uniforms, most of which say Acton, and a sweater with a date that indicates that the picture was taken in the first decade of the twentieth century. Trying to find out more about the history of Acton baseball in the Society’s archives, we were surprised to find that our collections do not have a lot of detail about the sport or early players in town. Perhaps baseball was so commonplace that most people did not think to record its history or to save souvenirs.
There is disagreement about when “base ball” actually started, but we know that the game goes back to 1840 or before. The earliest mention that we found of the sport in Acton was a comment in the School Committee report of 1861-1862 that in the school yard, the “bat and ball and every other boyish play” had been replaced by military exercises deemed better physical training in the Civil War years. (page 11) We do not know exactly when adult teams were organized in Acton. Newspapers covering Acton news before the late 1880s are hard to locate. The earliest local team that we could find was mentioned in the Boston Journal, August 23, 1875 (page 4), playing the Edens of Charlestown. The Boston Daily Globe (Jan. 15 1917, page 15) reported that a reunion was being planned of the New England players of 1873-1875 who played against the Bartlett Club of Lowell. Among them were the Actons. We also found an entertaining report on West Acton’s 11-inning outing against Fitchburg in 1876. The article detailed the exploits and occasional errors of Acton’s players Campbell, Conant, Driscoll, Gardner, Marshall, Mead, Taylor, A. Tuttle and J. Tuttle. (Fitchburg Sentinel, July 31, 1876, page 3)
Phalen’s 1954 History of the town of Acton mentions “Mr. Hoar’s” recollection of “Acton’s first knights of the diamond,” which probably overlaps with the Fitchburg game list, (though he dated the first team at 1877): James B. Tuttle, Frank Marshall, George Reed, Edward F. Conant, Charles Day, Arthur Tuttle, Simon Taylor, John Hoar, William Puffer, Lyman Taylor, and Dennis Sullivan. (page 225)
One would assume that in the earliest days, local teams were organized with local players. A manager handled arranging games and finances; he would have had to find equipment and (eventually) uniforms for the team, locations at which to play, and a way to travel to games. By the time we find Acton teams in local newspapers, team composition was not necessarily all native. Small towns might not have had adequate “talent” to cover all positions. In May of 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that the Acton team had procured a baseman named Baker who previously had been captain of the Marlboro team; “He is just the man Actons want, and we are glad the managers were able to secure his services for the coming season.” (May 12, page 2) In turn, Acton’s previous second baseman transferred to the Nashua team. Concord apparently managed to field its own team that year. A very pleased reporter from Concord reported on a June 1888 victory over Acton. Piling on insults, he turned around the often-repeated assertion that it was Acton men who had done the fighting at Concord in April 1775 and then made sure to mention that Concord’s baseball team was made up of Concord residents:
“They came, they saw, but alas! They were conquered..... How true it is that history oft repeats itself. It is only a little over one hundred and thirteen years ago that Concord furnished the field for Acton corpses, and Saturday afternoon she repeated the operation... There seems to be some doubt, however, as to the entire remains belonging to the town of Acton, it having been whispered that certain other towns contributed their quota to aid Acton in its endeavor. If this rumor be true, then all the more glory for the boys of old Concord.” (Enterprise, June 30, 1888, page 3)
The author also had opinions on the behavior of some of the 200 people at the game: “A large delegation from Maynard, Acton and Westvale came down to see the fun and cheer the Actons to victory. They were anxious to bet, even as high as 2 to 1 on their favorite nine, but fortunately for them they struck a town where such a use of money is not countenanced.” The author made some suggestions to the public, urging them to support the team and “above all things don’t guy [ridicule], or give advice to the players; it is neither witty or wise, and is very annoying to both the public and the players.”
Despite the Concord reporter’s gloating over the victory of a purely “Concord” team, it was clear from news reports that teams paid to get good players, either for a season or on a temporary basis to fill holes in the roster. On May 31, 1889, the Concord Enterprise explicitly reported that the West Acton club would need to pass the hat around “owing to the large salaries paid to new players.” (page 2) The Boxboro base ball club in 1892 “intent upon defeating their ever victorious rivals... procured, at considerable expense” players from Boston to help them defeat the strong West Acton team. The result was a classic game of neighborly rivalry. Boxboro led 6-0 after eight innings, to the elation of “the large delegation among the spectators of Boxboro farmers who had left the hay field and taken their families to the game...” Unfortunately for the Boxboro crowd, in the ninth inning, West Acton managed to score three runs. With two outs, Conant, a noted member of the “old Actons,” hit a grand slam into the woods, clinching the game for West Acton. (Enterprise, July 29, 1892, page 4) One can only imagine the reaction from fans on both sides of the contest.
Venues varied. In the early days, the town did not provide athletic fields; teams had to find owners of land who would allow them to play. (We did not find any mention of rental fees paid until much later, so we do not know whether it was a business decision or pure generosity on the part of the owners.) The August 18, 1888 Enterprise (page 2) mentioned that “The Actons can boast of one of the finest ball grounds in the state, and all through the kindness of Mr. Barker who gives them the use of the ground and also keeps it in first-class shape. But it must be distinctly understood that his apples are not free, and the acts of last Saturday must not be repeated.” Presumably, the generous field owner whose orchard was raided was Henry Barker; he owned the South Acton cider mill. In South Acton, we also found mentions of games played at the Prospect Street and School Street grounds, Fletcher Corner, and at the back of Warren Jones’ place. West Acton teams played at various times at the cemetery (Mount Hope) grounds as well as fields described as Hapgood’s, Blanchard’s, and “opposite the Aldrich farm.”
The teams played near-by rivals most often, of course, allowing for cheaper travel and easy attendance by friends and family. They also played teams from farther afield, including, among other places, Pepperell, Clinton, East Cambridge, and Boston’s Custom House. In the particularly ambitious season of 1897, the Acton team did a tour that included Hinsdale, NH and Rutland, VT. (Fitchburg Sentinel, September 2, 1897, page 2 and September 7, page 6)
Inevitably, umpires were the source of complaints. (“Mr Hoar’s” recollections in Phalen’s History indicated that originally, there were no called strikes or ground rules and that hits were common. However, players and fans still found things to complain about.) In 1876, the Fitchburg Sentinel reported that despite inadequate umpiring, all of the players kept quiet except for Acton’s second baseman, “who, to say the least, was at times a little ‘emphatic.’” (July 31, 1876, page 3) In August of 1888, the Concord Enterprise reported that in a home game against Chelmsford, the umpiring was so bad that the Acton team forfeited the game in the sixth inning, walking off the field in protest. (August 25, 1888 page 2)
More baseball drama occurred the next year; the Acton team disbanded in July, 1889. As reported in the Concord Enterprise, “The game at Lexington was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Some of the ex-members we are informed will seek consolation in another enterprise where there is less danger from flies and foul tips.” The Maynard reporter helpfully added, “We hear the Actons have disbanded. We reckoned they would after their remarkable record at Lexington.” (July 26, 1889, page 2) Investigation showed that Lexington had won the game 29 to 1, stealing 17 bases in the process. (Enterprise, July 19, 1889, page 2) Tempers cooled eventually, and the team was back in business in the 1890s.
Funding was an issue for all teams. Evidently, admission fees were charged in Boston. Fitchburg tried that, but the local newspaper complained that people were finding holes in the fence and other means to avoid paying the small price of admission. (Fitchburg Sentinel, July 31, 1876, page 3) The alternative, as in Acton, was to pass a hat at games for voluntary donations. Newspapers encouraged townsfolk to attend the games and to be generous when the hat came around. The teams also did fundraising in the off-season. Dances seem to have been a good source of revenue. For example, in December, 1888, the Enterprise noted that the Acton Base Ball Club’s fundraising ball had brought in 100 couples. One reporter called it a grand affair. (January 4, 1889, page 2) Another noted that “All had a good time, barring the dust.” (December 28, 1888, page 2). Branching out, in the winter of 1904, a benefit production of the Lothrop dramatic company was staged to aid the Acton baseball team (Boston Daily Globe, March 26, 1904, different editions pages 2 and 5). The crowd was described as “One of the largest audiences on record,” presumably meaning at South Acton’s Exchange Hall.
Aside from teams that represented “Acton” or its villages, there were games between other groups. There was, for example, the very popular tradition of the Married versus Singles game. (Concord Enterprise, August 2, 1900, page 8) In June, 1911, the Enterprise announced: “This is the time of the year when the old men feel young again and the young men feel their importance. So to give expression to these pent up feelings they are arranging to crush the exuberance of each other and on the morning of July 4th they will meet in a game of baseball, the great event of the season – Married vs. Single Men – on the School st. grounds.” (June 28, 1911 page 8) Sometimes teams were created for workplace rivalries, for example pitting “the morocco shop” against “the piano stool shop players.” (Enterprise, August 2, 1900, page 8) The Acton team played a game against the Boston & Maine/ Boston YMCA team in 1907. (Concord Enterprise, July 10, 1907, page 8) By that era, there was even enough organization to have an inter-grammar school competition between the schools at Acton Centre and South Acton. (Concord Enterprise, May 15, 1906, page 8).
For a while, Acton had a high school that was able to produce a team. In 1892, the Acton High School team, formerly having been known as the West Acton Stars, was looking for opponents. The manager C. B. Clark advertised that the average age of the players was 17. (Concord Enterprise, June 10, 1892, page 5) Presumably, during the period in which Acton exported its high school students to Concord, there was no longer an Acton High School team. A news item from 1911 mentioned the Acton Centre team was mostly made up of Concord High School players. (Enterprise, June 28, page 8) It is likely that the majority of them actually lived in Acton. After the new high school was built, according to Phalen, an athletic field was cleared of ledges and boulders, and a school team was again in operation in 1929. (page 336)
Phalen also mentioned pictures of early teams. One, once in the possession of James B. Tuttle, showed Acton’s team wearing white caps with a blue A and wool shirts with a shield featuring buttons and a navy blue “old English A.” The Society has no photograph of that team or uniform. Another photograph that Phalen mentioned, at the time owned by Mrs. Charles Smith, was of the high school team of 1903 in navy uniforms with striped socks. (It included Harold Norris, George Stillman, Carl Hoar, Edward Bixby, Ralph Piper, William Edward, Richard Kinsley, Clayton Beach and Harold Littlefield who became a professional baseball player.) Though our baseball photograph seems to be of the same era, it must not have been of the same team. (Our picture features people of the mixed ages and different uniforms.) If anyone can help us to identify our picture, give us more information about Acton baseball, or find us copies of pictures of early Acton teams, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.
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