George C. Wright, Coffee Pioneer
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.
Comments are closed.
Acton Historical Society
Discoveries, stories, and a few mysteries from our society's archives.
All Acton Town History Arts Business & Industry Family History Items In Collection Military & Veteran Photographs Recreation & Clubs Schools
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