As mentioned in our previous blog post, diaries can be a wonderful source of information about Acton in former days. At the Society’s Jenks Library, we are lucky to have a set of five-year diaries starting in 1908 kept by Ella Lizzie Miller, an Acton native who spent her nearly 39-year career teaching in Acton’s schools. Miller descendants have been very generous over the years, supplying our Society not only with Ella’s diaries, but with pictures, postcards, letters, memoirs, autograph books, and other items from the Miller family’s years in town. Before delving into the diaries, it seemed worthwhile to do some background research on Ella’s early life and her family.
Ella Lizzie Miller was the eldest child of Charles Isaac Miller and Lucy Elizabeth Keyes. Charles was born on Aug. 24, 1850 in Sudbury, Vermont. His father Samuel Cooley Miller died in 1852 of sepsis from a cut on his finger. The 1860 census shows Charles living with his mother, his Miller grandmother, and two siblings in Sudbury, VT. In April 1871, Charles was (supposedly temporarily) working as a brakeman for the Northern Railroad, coupling railroad cars of a freight train at Canaan, NH. His right arm got caught, and his arm had to be amputated above the elbow. Newspapers reported details of the accident but also that employees of the railroad presented him with a gift of $91.50.
Charles came to North Acton in 1873, around the time that the Nashua & Acton Railroad connected to the very sparsely-populated North Acton, branching off from the Framingham and Lowell that had arrived in 1871. Charles became the North Acton depot master, also serving as telegraph operator, switchman, and signal tender. According to Phalen’s history of Acton he “was so adept at handling freight and express with (his) attached hook that he was ever a marvel to the youngsters of the town.” (page 216) In January 1876, Charles bought from Daniel Harris ten acres between the Framingham and Lowell Railroad and the main road. That July, he bought an additional thirteen acres that went from the “Road to Lowell” (approximately #737 on today’s Main Street) to the “Mill Brook” (Nashoba Brook). The Framingham and Lowell Railroad ran through the land. The thirteen acres had once belonged to Aaron Woods and had been sold at auction the year before. (Aaron Woods' unsought fame was the subject of a previous blog post.)
Ella Miller’s mother was Lucy Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Keyes, born March 22, 1856 in Westford, MA. Her father Edward Keyes had died in South Carolina in August 1865, having served in the Union army for four years. For a while, Lizzie and her mother Lucy Ann (Robinson) lived in Groton with Lizzie’s grandmother. On May 23, 1872, Lizzie’s mother married Acton’s Isaac Train Flagg. Lizzie’s half-sister Edith Flagg was born March 11, 1875, and though Edith became Ella’s aunt, she really was her contemporary.
According to family records, Charles Miller married Lucy “Lizzie” Keyes on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 30, 1876 in North Acton. Four children followed: Ella Lizzie born Sept. 26, 1877, Alice Emma born March 10, 1879, Samuel Elmore born Nov. 25, 1881, and Loraine Esther born Nov. 6, 1884. Ella and her siblings grew up on the farm with the railroad running through their land behind the house, the depot just below, and the North Acton schoolhouse around the corner. The road in front led from Acton Center to Lowell.
If Ella kept diaries as a young woman, unfortunately they did not find their way to our Society. We have had to use other sources to put together her early life. She attended the white schoolhouse on what is now Harris Street. A picture from between 1888 and 1890 shows her and Blanche Varney as the oldest of the students taught in the building by Miss Jessie Jones. The Concord Enterprise gives us glimpses of Ella’s later academic career. In 1890, she was one of 22 students (only 2 from North Acton) who were admitted to the relatively new High School program. Ella was one of five students who graduated in June 1894. At the ceremony, she was selected to give an address entitled “Oars and Sails.”
Town reports show that Ella L. Miller, while a member of the high school’s senior class, served as an assistant teacher in the South Primary School in Spring 1894. The School Committee’s annual report noted that “during the spring we were obliged, by the large number of pupils in attendance, to employ an assistant teacher and this assistant was compelled to take her classes into a corner of the schoolroom or to the cloak room, or the hallway, as the weather permitted.” (page 56) The hallways presumably would not have been heated. It was certainly an introduction to teaching with constrained resources.
Ella and fellow graduate Blanche Varney passed the entrance examination for Framingham Normal School, a teachers’ training college. This was particularly important because as late as the 1897-1898 school year, the Superintendent’s report noted that Acton’s high school was not approved by the State Board of Education. The 1890s were a time when the state and the towns were struggling with what constituted a legitimate high school, with issues such as the minimum number of teachers, years of study, and curriculum. Ella’s autograph book, in possession of the Society, shows that she was originally a member of the Class of 1893, but in 1893, the high school course was changed to four years, and apparently Ella was one of the few who continued on. Ella graduated from Framingham Normal School in 1896.
Ella was paid for teaching the North Acton school in the fall and winter of the 1896-1897 school year, taking over after the resignation of Lillian Richardson. Ella taught there for the next two years at a salary of $10 per week. In the Fall of 1899, the North Acton school was merged into the Center school, and Ella started teaching in the new “intermediate” division there (grades 4-6). Probably as a result of her change of school, a typo in the 1900 report said that Ella was “appointed,” starting her service in Acton schools, in 1899. The error was repeated in town reports for decades.
On March 17, 1897 (according to Ella’s later diaries), the family moved to Hudson where Charles bought farmland at about 181 Central Street. Charles still owned the North Acton farm, but he was trying to sell it. An ad attached to the back of a photograph owned by the Society reads: “FOR SALE - Thirteen-acre farm: fine vegetable garden: nice lot of sweet corn: asparagus and strawberry beds: good shade trees: excellent drinking water: house six rooms: barn: two henhouses: near railroad station and post office: half mile off State road from Boston to Ayer: two miles to center of town. Desirable for summer home or good location for poultry or small fruit farm. Price $3500. C. I. MILLER, North Acton." Someone wrote on the back of the picture that Charles did not find a buyer. He may have found someone else work the land in the meantime, however. Ella was teaching in North Acton, so we don’t know how she managed logistics. She might have stayed in the house or boarded with a family. Commuting that distance would not have been easy in those days, whether by horse or train. An Acton Center newspaper item in April 1903 mentioned that “Miss Loraine Miller of Hudson spent Monday with her sister, Miss Ella Miller,” giving the impression that Ella was staying in town at least some of the time.
Ella’s brother Sam started working for the Boston & Maine Railroad as a telegraph operator and ticket taker in 1899 and moved to Beverly. Ella’s sister Alice married Hudson neighbor Halden L. Coolidge in May 1904 and settled down at 205 Central Street, Hudson. Neither Sam nor Alice lived in Acton after that.
We do not know what precipitated Charles’ move to Hudson. His mother, who had remarried and spent many years in Wisconsin, came back to Vermont and passed away in 1895. We had hypothesized that she left him some money. However, Charles entered into various mortgage transactions in the 1900-1904 period, so he may have been feeling financially stretched. The mortgages were paid off. In October 1904, Charles transferred the thirteen-acre North Acton farm to Ella for the price of one dollar. In 1905, a buyer for the Hudson farm materialized, so Ella’s family returned to their North Acton farm in late in the year.
Ella taught in Acton for eleven years before our diaries begin. Unfortunately, we only have brief snippets from newspapers to show what she was doing aside from teaching during that time. The Enterprise mentioned that Ella taught a Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor class in early 1896. In January, 1902, she hosted the Shakespeare Club. In August 1907, Ella, Martha Smith, and Sarah and Helen Wood took a vacation at York Beach, Maine (Aug. 14, 1907, p.8)
Ella’s parents became involved in the Grange in Hudson. When they were moving back to Acton in late 1905, about one hundred Grange members and neighbors showed up at a sendoff at Alice’s house. Ella and her parents became involved in the formation of the Acton Grange in March 1906. In 1907, Charles and Ella were both elected to Grange positions and Ella’s mother Lizzie was sent to the state Grange meeting as Acton’s delegate. The Grange would continue to be an important part of their lives in later years.
Ella’s diaries begin on January 1, 1908. Over the next few months, we plan to use them to learn more about her life and also about what Acton was like in the early years of the twentieth century.
The Miller Siblings:
Some references used:
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