In the nineteenth century, people from larger places seem to have regarded Acton as a “quiet farming town,” or even “semi-lethargic.” (Boston Globe, July 21, 1885, p. 2 and Sept. 16, 1885, p. 8) It therefore came as a newsworthy surprise that 1880s Acton kept erupting into conflict and then apparently retreating into festering resentment. Our foray into 1880s Acton started with an article entitled “OUSTING AT ACTON” that reported that two Republican postmasters had been replaced by two Democrats. (Globe, Sept. 5, 1885, p. 5). That might have been an interesting story, except that South Acton’s incumbent postmaster J. K. W. Wetherbee was in fact a Democrat, as was his replacement. Trying again, the Globe added to the excitement on Sept. 11 with an article entitled “SCHEMING POSTMASTERS – Charged with Fraud by the Government.” (p. 2.) This was a story of both politics and potential fraud; to understand what was going on, we had to learn about the role of a small village (fourth class) postmaster in the nineteenth century.
Acton’s Early Postal Service
Today, we are accustomed to having mail delivered to us. People living in Acton before the twentieth century did not have that luxury and had to pick up their own mail. Sometimes people had no idea that letters were waiting in a post office; a postmaster would advertise a list of letter recipients in the local paper. Digitized newspapers show that practice existed even after 1900. (Concord Enterprise, Feb. 26, 1902, p. 8). Before Acton had a post office of its own, the Concord postmaster periodically advertised that Acton residents had letters awaiting them there. (See Middlesex Gazette, Oct. 11, 1817, p. 4, for example.) According to Shattuck’s 1835 History of the Town of Concord, at some early date, a post office was briefly established in Acton in the care of “Mr. Perham” and then reestablished in 1828 in the Acton Center law office of Silas Jones. Acton has had its own postal service since that time.
In the very early years, mail was not common, and people picking up letters were expected to pay the delivery cost. The advent of pre-paid postage stamps made picking up letters less expensive to the recipient, but it still entailed a trip; obviously, it was advantageous to have a post office closer to one’s home or place of business. A village needed a certain size to attain its own post office. The 1844 arrival of the Fitchburg Railroad led to growth in both West and South Acton. In 1848, West Acton’s first post office was established in the office of Dr. Reuben Green. In December 1851, South Acton got its first post office with postmaster Ezra C. Radiman (name spelled variously, exact location as yet unknown). East Acton, known then by the name of Ellsworth, got its own post office in March, 1873. The postmaster, l. W. Flagg, had a store there. North Acton did not have a post office until March, 1886 when Charles Miller was appointed postmaster.
The postmaster would have been responsible for people’s mail and also for money. One would hope that people were appointed on the basis of their competence, honesty, and incorruptibility, and that may well have been the case in Acton. In general, being able to appoint the postmaster was considered a privilege of elected officials who apparently often used that power to distribute patronage jobs. Postmasters were expected not to use their position to promote their political party’s candidates, but the postmaster’s role at the center of village life was certainly a useful connection for politicians.
Until late in the nineteenth century, the location of the post office would depend upon the postmaster. As the 1800s progressed, Acton’s village post offices were often located in a postmaster’s store. Having people’s mail would have increased foot traffic to one’s business. The postmaster’s tenure was not guaranteed; after an election, the position might go to a competitor from the winning party. Though changes in postmasters are traceable through records, the actual politics behind some of the appointments are not always clear. For example, in 1855, newspapers including the Boston Atlas (July 19, 1855 p. 2) alleged that the Acton “Centre” post office was being kept in the barroom of the Know Nothing House (a reference to a political party of xenophobic tendencies), but the July 25 Boston Herald clarified that the hotel, apparently run in the past by a Know Nothing supporter, was now run by a Democrat. The post office had been moved from the shoe shop of John Fletcher to the “public room” of a small county hotel that served no liquor. (p. 2)
Phalen’s History of the Town of Acton describes old-timers’ memories of the Center post office in the hotel. It had a “unique contrivance for mail delivery” that operated like a Lazy Susan. “There were pigeonholes marked with the letters of the alphabet. A person seeking mail would turn the wheel until his initial appeared at the opening whereupon he separated his mail from the rest and departed, unless of course the office happened to be vacant and he were of a curious turn of mind. In later years the device was abandoned and standard boxes installed with a pull bell that would summon the postmaster.” (p. 192) Changing the post office location would obviously necessitate moving or installing people’s mail boxes.
As mentioned, the postmaster job was considered a patronage position, often jealously guarded by the Representative in power at any given time. Surprisingly, in Acton, a more evenhanded approach had been taken under the Republican administration leading up to the 1885 brouhaha. The practice had been to select two Republicans and two Democrats for the four village post offices in town. (Globe, Sept. 16, 1885, p. 8) Part of this magnanimity may have been due to the confidence of Acton Republicans that the town was “sure to go Republican.” (Boston Journal, Aug. 18, 1884, p. 2)
The pay of the postmasters was dependent on the volume of business. According to the Globe (Sept. 11, 1885, p. 2), postmasters of the smallest, “fourth class” post offices did not receive a salary per se but earned percentages of the stamps cancelled at the office each quarter: 100% of the first $50 with declining percentages (60, 50, 40) on amounts above that. There was an incentive to increase the amount of mail sent through one’s office, but there would be a natural ceiling on the number of letters leaving a small village. Another source of business would be companies’ “circulars,” essentially advertising flyers that would be sent out in bulk. The Globe claimed that certain postmasters had concocted “an ingenious little scheme” for the mailing of large quantities of circulars at their offices that, arguably, should have been deposited at the large offices. Someone in Washington decided that small post offices sending out circulars was a sign of irregularities and sent the postmasters a bill for past commissions earned on the circulars. The ingenious, accused plotters were the postmasters of Littleton Depot, Littleton Common, South Acton, Townsend, West Townsend, and a few other places.
Caught in this situation was Jonathan K. W. Wetherbee, a pillar of the South Acton community, partner in the highly successful firm of Tuttles, Jones & Wetherbee, long-time town treasurer, selectman, and, on occasion, lender of money to the town. He had served as South Acton postmaster since the fall of 1870. When J. K. W. Wetherbee was replaced by another Democrat amidst accusations of fraud, the degree of excitement in Acton was, according to the Globe, more than one might expect from the occurrence of a cyclone or a raging epidemic. (Sept. 16, 1885, p. 8)
Fraud or Politics?
The author of the Sept. 16 Globe article actually talked to J. K. W. Wetherbee to get the postmaster’s story. Apparently, C. M. Lawrence, Littleton resident and representative of a Boston business, had approached outlying postmasters saying that he wanted to send circulars from their offices. The Forge Village postmaster had checked with his Washington boss whether he could refuse to accept them, as the sorting was going to add to his work load. The official response was that the postmaster was required to accept all mail presented to him and that most postmasters would welcome the extra business. When J. K. W. Wetherbee was offered the same business opportunity, he contacted Washington and was told to send a copy of the circular. He did and received no reply. Having fulfilled his obligation, and in light of the response to the Forge Village query, Wetherbee felt confident that the circular business was acceptable. Several years later, however, he received a bill from the government for over $1,000 in past commissions. In his interview with the Globe Reporter, J. K. W. Wetherbee stated:
“My office cost me $100 the first year I had it on account of help I had to hire, as my business would not allow of my giving it much of my personal attention, and the office has been broken into and robbed three times. Thus I think I have been robbed enough already. It seems rather singular to me that after communicating with the department relative to this circular business, and having my quarterly accounts audited and allowed, that this demand should now be made upon me.”
After this point, the story seems to have disappeared from the newspaper. In typical fashion, the exoneration of the postmasters seems not to have been reported. J. K. W. Wetherbee served as the town’s treasurer and in other positions of trust into the 1900s and continued to lend the town money; clearly the townspeople did not question Mr. Wetherbee’s character. No one seems to have given credence to the charge of fraud. Nonetheless, Wetherbee was replaced as postmaster. There must have been more to the story.
According to the Sept. 16, 1885 Globe, Ruel Williams, a member of the town Democratic Committee selected to go to the state convention, went to see James Tuttle, another Democratic pillar of the South Acton community who was a business partner and brother-in-law of J. K. W. Wetherbee. Tuttle was told that Wetherbee probably would have to go. The implication seemed to be that it was due to the fraud charge. The national Democratic party had just elected its first president since 1856 with a platform that included civil service reform. Perhaps the local committee was trying to impress the State Committee by “cleaning house.” James Tuttle was upset that other Democrats in town had not been informed of the potential change, and no one had talked to J. K. W. Wetherbee. Tuttle had planned to start a petition, but the postmaster change was made before he even had a chance. He said, “We are all mad, all classes, sects and political complexions. Yes, indeed, the village of South Acton is stirred up.” Accusations and counter-accusations from supporters followed, but the change was made.
Though the committee prevailed, they had omitted to consider one detail in their planning. Tuttles, Jones & Wetherbee owned much of center of South Acton. The post office had been located in a James Tuttle-owned building, apparently in the news stand of Dana Hayward who worked as postal clerk. The replacement postmaster Lorenzo Reed found that no location was available in the village for him to establish his post office. As James Tuttle said, “I don’t propose to turn out good tenants to please him.” Eventually, the new postmaster, “accompanied by a justice of the peace, visited every property owner in the centre of the village who had land or a building which could be utilized and offered to buy, hire, or lease such, but no opportunity to do so was offered him.” His only recourse was to move the post boxes to his own residence. (Globe Oct. 20, 1885, p. 2) People were quite unhappy that they were going to have to trek to his house to get their mail, but eventually the furor died down as people realized that Reed was in a difficult position. Later, the post office was moved to a small building on the south side of the railroad tracks.
Small town, Big Disagreements
So why did this conflict erupt in the first place? We have not found anything to indicate that J. K. W. Wetherbee deserved to be replaced as postmaster, or even any reason that anger would specifically have been aimed toward him. What we did find was that Acton residents in the 1880s were quite disputatious. For example, as described in a previous blog post, in the spring of 1884, a disputed school committee vote for Superintendent led to two men claiming to be have been appointed, with angry supporters on both sides. Within three years, a bitter conflict over a teacher led to the resignation of a different Superintendent and most of the school committee. Rancor and factionalism seem to have been habitual in Acton at the time.
The biggest conflict, and perhaps the root of much of the distrust and anger in town, was a dispute over paying back bounties to Civil War soldiers that consumed a great deal of energy in the early 1880s. Like the postmaster “muddle,” the bounty fight requires some background to understand and is the subject of another blog post.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Lorenzo Reed only served as postmaster until 1889. Democrat Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election, politics shifted, and many postmasters were replaced in the following year. Time moved on, but complaints from South Acton didn’t completely die down. A petition campaign was initiated to influence the choice of postmaster in 1889, though that did not go far. (Concord Enterprise, Apr. 5, 1889, p. 2) On July 12, 1894, an item appeared in the Enterprise that fireworks were being sold in the post office, with pointed advice to the postmaster to “read what Uncle Sam says about it.” (p. 8) In 1897, there was a petition to appoint Frank W. Hoit as postmaster and to locate the office on the north side of the Fitchburg railroad. Rumors were flying that the signers of the petition were only schoolchildren; in fact, the petition was signed by the businessmen of the community, including many Tuttles, Jones, and J.K.W. Wetherbee. (January 14, 1897 p. 8) One of the signers was James Tuttle’s son H. Waldo, who was at the time serving as postmaster himself. On July 1, 1897, the Concord Enterprise reported that “The old post office is being fitted up for the new postmaster, who is expected to take possession July 1.” (p. 8) After all the controversy, the post office was back in James Tuttle’s building.
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