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):
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:
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:
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.