After over two centuries of ownership by the Davis family, Acton’s Ebenezer Davis, Jr. farm was sold in 1968. In an outbuilding locally known as “the Bellows Shop,” an astounding collection of documents, photos, and artifacts was discovered. Some of these items have now been donated to the Society, while others have found their way to the Concord Museum. These donations led us to research economic activities and business relationships in the Davis’ corner of East Acton during the first half of the 19th century. A number of Actonians left during that period to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. Some, however, put their imaginations and energies to work on ventures in their hometown. Two such enterprising individuals were Ebenezer Davis Sr. and Jr.
There have been several Davis families who contributed to Acton’s history. The story of the Ebenezers’ Davis family in Acton began with the 1738 purchase by Gershom Davis (also known as Davies) of about 664 acres in the northern part of Acton, including a house, barn, grist mill, and saw mill that had belonged to Thomas Wheeler. Over time, the land was divided among descendants who proceeded to sell, buy, and mortgage various pieces of the property. It can be bewildering to try to trace each person’s holdings. What we do know, however, is that Gershom’s great-grandson Ebenezer Davis Sr. (1777-1851) lived and farmed at approximately today’s 42 Davis Road on a site that was later Griffin’s Bellows Stock Farm and then Dropkick Murphy’s Sanatorium. Though the house no longer stands, part of its large chimney remains on the property, as well as a former barn (probably later than Ebenezer’s day) that has been converted to other uses.
Ebenezer Davis Sr. was apparently a busy man. Deeds refer to him as a wheelwright (from 1800 to 1810, 1815), a yeoman (farmer, 1815, 1819 and later) and a housewright (1807-1808, 1817-1818). The Concord Museum now owns and has digitized ledgers belonging to Ebenezer Davis Sr. and his son Ebenezer Jr. from 1815 through 1853 (unfortunately with certain years missing). Though not complete, the ledgers show the variety of enterprises that Ebenezer Sr. was involved in.
As deed research indicated, an early business of Ebenezer Sr. was blacksmithing and wheelwrighting. His ledger makes for somewhat confusing reading, because his thrifty reuse of pages means that the top of a page may relate to his early business and the bottom may contain notations from a decade or more later. However, the ledger does show over thirty customers in the 1815-1816 period who paid for jobs such as
Neighbor Joel Oliver may have taken over the blacksmithing business after 1816. He was charged for coal, iron, and steel “for jumping axes” as well as leather aprons, the occasional tool, and food stuffs in the 1818-1826 period. (Jumping an axe was a term for replacing the bit/cutting edge.) Joel Oliver agreed to shoe Ebenezer’s pair of oxen and two horses for one year for $11 in January 1824. Ebenezer presumably continued with some work as a wheelwright, however, because he was paid for spokes and other work one would expect of a wheelwright later in the 1820s.
The 1820 census shows that Ebenezer’s household included, in addition to 3 children, 3 males aged 16-26, 3 males 26-45, 1 female 16-26, and 1 female 26-45. Of these people, 5 were classified as being engaged in manufacturing and 1 in farming. The next household was Ammi Faulkner Adams with 3 people engaged in manufacturing. Unfortunately, the ledgers do not tell us what all of these people were creating. Many of Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger transactions in the 1820s and early 1830s seem to be related to his agricultural activities. He sold beef, pork, cheese, potatoes, corn, rye, cider and vinegar. He also sold hoop poles. In addition to his own farming, he pastured others’ cows and oxen, rented his horse and wagon or drove people himself, and took goods back and forth from Boston.
Another set of transactions in the ledgers involved charges for a wide array of items beyond agricultural products. There were charges for cloth and for making articles of clothing such as a coat, pantaloons, shirts, vests and spencers (short-waisted coats). Boots and shoes were purchased or “specked” (a term for which we did not find a definition but guess it might mean repaired or resoled. One charge was for “leather to speck boots and heal”.) Other items were a silk handkerchief, shell combs, a “Parisol,” ribbon, a watch, a hat or bonnet, schoolbooks, a “Rithmatick,” and a great Bible. There were foodstuffs that would not have been produced on Ebenezer’s farm, such as sugar and molasses. On one page of the ledger, Abel Robbins owed Eben Davis for a large quantity of beef on Dec. 16, 1830 and a week later, Uriah Robbins was charged for broad cloth, buttons, skeins of silk, buckram, pasturing a heifer, a fine shirt, making a frock, and specking shoes and boots.
These transactions raised a number of questions. Was Ebenezer Davis Sr. running some sort of store in his corner of East/North Acton? Was he personally creating clothing? Was he managing a clothing manufacturing business? None of these possibilities has been mentioned in town histories. Many of the accounts in the ledger were for people who were working for him, mostly close neighbors. In some instances, Ebenezer stated at the top of a page when an individual started working for him, and then listed charges. In other cases, he wrote a name and list of charges that were followed by an indication of the person’s employment, such as a list of sick days. In addition to charges for items such as clothing, the ledger shows that Ebenezer covered employees’ various needs for cash, such as at an election, at muster, at training, at Town meeting, for a mother or wife, “to pay the pedlar,” or “when you and Olive went to Concord,” and to settle bills, such as for Dr. Cowdry, "Luther Robbins for fish," or “your Taxes for 1827,” among many examples. At least two of the listed employees were noted to have lived in the Davis home for a period of time. Viewed in the light of an employment relationship, many of the ledger entries can be seen as Ebenezer Sr. making payments on behalf of employees and charging the payments against employees’ earnings. Unfortunately, the ledger is mostly silent about what Ebenezer’s employees actually did for him. It is possible that the making of shirts, spencers, vests and pantaloons was a Davis business, but it is also possible that Ebenezer was paying someone else on his employees’ behalf.
Information about the Bellows Business, and More Questions
The one business that later historians mentioned in connection with Ebenezer Davis Sr. and his son Ebenezer Jr. was the manufacturing of bellows. Unfortunately, information given in different sources about where and when the business operated is somewhat vague and not well-documented. The Davis ledgers and recent research paint a fuller picture than we had in the past and, inevitably, raise even more questions.
Bellows would have been a common item in households and businesses in Ebenezer Sr.’s lifetime. They were used to direct a stream of air into a fire to increase the heat it produced. Bellows were manufactured by combining a wooden top and bottom with folding leather side pieces and attaching a nozzle through which air was forced as the handles were pushed together.
When we started investigating the bellows business in Acton, information we had from previous historians was quite sparse. Online newspapers from the time make no mention of the Davis bellows business. Fletcher’s 1890 Acton in History said merely that “The manufacture of bellows was carried on extensively by Ebenezer Davis, senior and junior, for many years in the east part of the town.” (p. 266) Phalen’s History of the Town of Acton said that “At one time the aforementioned Ebenezer Davis manufactured bellows in a shop located on the William Davis place, later called the Bellows Stock Farm and later owned by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Griffin. The present occupant of the property is Mr. John Murphy. Eventually the shop was moved to the Eben Davis place where Dr. Wendell F. Davis now lives and where his father continued to make bellows.” (p. 156)
There has been much confusion about this shop and the bellows business. The building in which the ledgers were found had come to be known as the “Bellows Shop,” but its exact history is not entirely clear. Given the fact that Ebenezer Jr.’s youngest son lived on the property and was probably the source of Phalen’s information about the building, it seems reasonable to assume that oral tradition in the family identified it as the bellows shop. In 1968, before the building was sold out of the Davis family and demolished, another discovery on the first floor was a crate, nailed shut, that contained hundreds of wooden bellows pieces, some already decorated, that were never assembled into finished products. Those pieces are now in the possession of the Concord Museum.
By its architectural form, the “bellows shop” was clearly built as a dwelling house rather than a work shop. It is highly likely that this building was one of a surprisingly dense row of six houses shown on a c. 1831 map on what is now Davis Road. Deeds tell us that Ebenezer Sr. was involved in a number of real estate transactions, including purchasing a half share and then the remainder of the nearby “Ammi Wetherbee house” in 1808 and 1819. Though its exact location is hard to pinpoint from the deeds, Ebenezer’s ownership of that building raises the possibility that it was the one that eventually became associated with bellows production. By 1856, when Henry Walling mapped Acton, there were only four houses left on Davis Road, two owned by Ebenezer Sr.’s widow. An 1875 Beers Atlas map showed only one house was left on the former Ebenezer Sr. farm owned by William B. Davis, and Ebenezer Jr. had two houses, one behind the other. This seems to confirm Phalen’s assertion that Ebenezer Jr. moved the building from his father’s farm to his own. Tax valuations in 1872, 1875 and 1890 specify that Ebenezer Jr. owned a house and shop in addition to farm buildings.
While many questions remain about the Ebenezers’ bellows business, the recent donation of Davis items to our Society, the information in the Ebenezer Davis ledgers, and research into deeds and other documents have given us some insights into their manufacturing activities.
The first mention that we found of Davis bellows was in Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger. It involved Abraham B. Handley who had bought a new house on a small piece of Ebenezer Davis's land in 1826. On May 15, 1827, Abraham B. Handley was charged by Ebenezer $0.75 for three thousand Bellows Nails. On August 16, 1827, he was charged $0.50 to pay Ebenezer for carrying bellows to Boston. These entries imply that Handley may have been in the bellows manufacturing business first. However, another undated entry shows that Abraham Handley paid Ebenezer for 2 dozen 9-inch bellows and 3 dozen 5-inch pipes. (Given Ebenezer’s reuse of pages in his ledger, it is impossible be certain of the date, but another entry on the page is for Dec. 1831.) Could Handley and Ebenezer Davis Sr. both have been producing bellows? Was Abraham (eighteen years younger than Ebenezer Sr.) actually working for Ebenezer, or did they have a cooperative enterprise? The ledger also tells us that in Feb. 1827, Abraham’s 22-year-old sister Charlotte Handley began work for Ebenezer Sr. We do not know whether Charlotte was working in manufacturing or helping in the household. (We do know that she became Ebenezer’s second wife in 1839.)
The only other early ledger entry mentioning bellows was in 1831 when Jonas Wood (another employee) purchased two pairs of swell-top bellows. Unfortunately, it seems as if pages from Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger either were removed or fell out. Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger has a decade-long gap starting about 1834 that ends with a partial transaction involving bellows, and then there are many other bellows transactions starting in 1844.
Though a number of Ebenezer Sr.’s activities during the 1834-1844 period are missing, Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger, starting at the end of 1839, fills in some of the gaps. In early 1840, Ebenezer Jr. recorded buying Sheepskins, Morocco skins, scrap leather, 2 ounces of “bronze”, varnish, a varnish brush, and dozens of brass pipes. All of these were likely for bellows production. In March 1840, Ebenezer Jr. paid neighbor Ephraim Oliver for “swelling” 30 dozen boards, presumably part of the process of creating swell-top bellows. Starting in April, Ebenezer Jr. recorded sales of dozens of bellows of various sizes (flat, flat fancy, common, swell top, brass-nailed, and, later, oval and “custom”). He noted traveling to Boston, Salem, Lexington and Woburn, apparently to sell his products. Research in newspapers showed that his customers were mostly hardware merchants.
The two Ebenezers seem to have made bellows separately but cooperatively. Starting In Feb. 1841, Ebenezer Jr. noted that he was delivering and selling his father’s bellows as well as his own. In March 1841, he noted that “George” had worked for “father” for seven days. Ebenezer Jr. also noted others who worked for him at times (without noting what they did) including Amos Handley, E Oliver, Kinsley, and A. Robbins.
Ebenezer Jr.’s bellows sales were listed in his ledger consecutively until early 1844, after which there are only a few, sporadic entries in his ledger. Ebenezer Sr.’s ledger picks up again in 1844 with a partial entry (undated), followed by a Sept. 12, 1844 sale of 13 dozen bellows to Proctor and Butter. Ebenezer Sr.’s bellows sales continued, including some sales to his son. The last entry was on Nov. 8, 1849. Perhaps Ebenezer Sr. had run out of pages in the ledger, but there are no more entries after 1849.
One point of confusion among local historians is how long the Davis bellows business actually lasted. Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger had some blank pages and some that were used for mounting newspaper clippings, so there was room to record more bellows transactions if there had been any. He did record several pages of charges to the account of Silas Conant from July 5, 1849 to Dec. 1853, none involving bellows. Those entries were mostly for agricultural products and loans of money. Toward the end of Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger is a listing of notes (loans) from 1845 (including some involving his brothers-in-law) and a few other transactions. There is one random mention of bellows without a date or a customer at the back of the book, but there is no evidence from either Ebenezer’s ledger that the business continued beyond 1850.
Ebenezer Sr. died in 1851. His probate inventory listed bellows and bellows stock worth $150, the highest-value item in the listing aside from real estate and bank stock. Ebenezer Sr. also had many items and products related to his farm, including animals and swarms of bees. There were “shop tools,” “wood in shop,” “lumber in shop,” and “old lumber in old house,” but we have no other information about what those buildings were used for. It could reasonably be conjectured that since the “old house” contained “old lumber,” perhaps it could have functioned as a workshop for fabricating the bellows. Bedrooms on the second floor may have been used to house workers on the farm. Phalen indicated that Ebenezer Jr. moved the “bellows shop” building onto his own farm and used it to continue bellows production. We have found no actual evidence that he continued making bellows after his father’s death, and maps indicate that the building was moved after 1856. Given that bellows entries in the ledgers stop before 1850, Ebenezer Sr. died with valuable bellows stock in his possession, and over a century later, a large quantity of unassembled bellows parts were found on Ebenezer Jr.’s property, a possible scenario is that the business stopped right before Ebenezer Sr.’s death, and Ebenezer Jr. moved on to other ventures.
Ebenezer Jr.'s Other Businesses
Ebenezer Jr. certainly did not stop moving. Searches in online newspapers for mentions of Davis bellows yielded instead the insight that Ebenezer Jr. was a proud promoter of his agricultural products.
The Boston Cultivator reported on Oct. 7, 1843 that Ebenezer Davis of Acton was in the nursery businesses, “bringing forward a good number of trees, though none are yet fit for sale.” In November 1845, Ebenezer Jr. advertised in the Cultivator that he had about 25, 000 New England-adapted apple trees, from one to two years growth from the bud that had been “budded by my own hands on seedling stocks, and grown on dry light sandy soil.” He offered a number of varieties including Baldwin, Greenings, Russetts, Hubbardston, Nonsuch, Lyscom, Porter, Fall Pippin, Danvers Winter, a number of “Sweet” varieties (Orange, Russett, Newbury, Andover), and more. Potential customers were invited to his Acton nursery to inspect his stock. An ad that ran in Spring 1847 was similar except that he was offering 30,000 trees with one to three years growth from bud. He also mentioned that growing them in dry, light, sandy soil ensured “a good supply of excellent roots.” (Massachusetts Ploughman, April 17, 1847). Apparently, farmers sometimes sent produce to newspapers for review. Ebenezer Davis sent the Cultivator several varieties of apples along with detailed comments on the different varieties written by his brother-in-law Harris Cowdry that were published on Nov. 13, 1847.
On January 27, 1849, the Massachusetts Ploughman reported that the Middlesex Society of Husbandmen and Manufacturers had appointed a committee “to examine Farms, Reclaimed Meadows, Compost Manure and Fruit and Forest Trees.“ Twenty-eight farmers, including Ebenezer Davis, Jr., had applied for prizes for the best farm.
The committee visited the farms and awarded second place to Ebenezer Davis, Jr. Helpfully, the newspaper used Ebenezer’s application to describe his 140-acre farm. Sixty acres were woodland, thirty were pasture, and fifty were under cultivation. His soil was light and sandy. In 1847, he raised corn (producing over 400 bushels) on ten acres, among which he also grew beans and pumpkins. He had recently broken ten acres on which he raised 154 bushels of rye, and he raised 200 bushels of oats on six acres. He raised 500 bushels of potatoes, but half of the crop was diseased. He cut thirty tons of hay, kept cows that produced milk and butter in excess of the needs of his family, and raised hogs in the winter. He also had at least a horse and a pair of oxen and wintered others. He had devoted two and a half acres to his Nursery business. Ebenezer stated that he had hired help equal to three men for eight months (at $15 per month) and one man at $10 per month for the rest of the year. In the months after his application, Ebenezer Jr. had raised his barn 18 inches and put a cellar under it (half for manure storage and half for root crop and fruit storage), set out 200 apple trees, and built 30 rods of stone wall. When the Committee visited his farm in September 1848, he had sixteen acres of corn, two of potatoes, and two of rutabaga, having also raised four acres of oats and cut forty tons of “English Hay” and four of “Meadow Hay.” “About fifty acres of his farm, being chiefly worn out and stony pasture, Mr. Davis purchased in 1845. Of this portion, he had ploughed and brought into a tolerably productive condition, sixteen acres.”
Ebenezer Davis Jr. farm pictures taken by Robert I. Davis c. 1890
As if Ebenezer Jr. did not have enough going on in the 1840s, he had bought the home farm of the late William Stearns down Great Road in 1845. The land had once belonged to Mark White Jr. Ebenezer Jr.’s description indicated that the land was worn out, but it included a section of Nashoba Brook (downstream from the Davis farms and the original mill site purchased by Gershom Davis). According to an 1848 deed obtaining water-flowing rights from Luther Conant who owned the land immediately upstream, Ebenezer Jr. built a dam across the brook in 1845. Ebenezer built a large mill that would utilize the water power in 1847. According to a 1969 article by Brewster Conant, Ebenezer kept another ledger or journal that documented the purchasing of materials for the mill, the digging of the cellar hole in July 1847 and construction into September of that year. Apparently, on October 1, 1847 William Schouler moved in to operate a print (flannel) works, and Benjamin Davis later operated a sash and blind business at the site. The Conant article is the only source we have found about this additional ledger.
Ebenezer Jr.’s ledger (owned by the Concord Museum) has a list of his debts in Spring 1845, presumably because of the purchase of the Stearns property. Building the mill was probably expensive. Ebenezer Jr. mortgaged 100 acres of his farm to his brother-in-law Harris Cowdry for $1,000 in 1849 (with an outstanding mortgage to Keziah Stearns dated June 16, 1845.) In 1850, Ebenezer Jr. sold most of the Stearns land on Great Road to Robert Boss of Charlestown. (See blog post about Captain Robert Boss). Ebenezer Jr. kept two acres for the mill and at least part of the mill pond. Ebenezer reserved the right to cross Boss’s land to the Davis mill and factory and the right “to flow his pond over the said land to the height and in the manner said Davis and his lessees have hitherto flowed the same.” (Managing the flow of water would be critical to the successful operation of the mill.)
In the 1850 valuation, Ebenezer Davis Jr. was one of the larger taxpayers in town, owning valuable buildings and tied for having the second-most acres of improved land. Despite the fact that he clearly had water rights for his mill, he was not taxed for a “water privilege,” which, along with the deed to Robert Boss, suggests that he had leased the mill usage to someone else (probably William Schouler, a non-resident whose assessment included a water privilege). Though some have suggested that Ebenezer Jr. built his mill for his bellows business, we have found no evidence that that is true, and town histories do not raise that possibility.
In 1852, Ebenezer started petitioning the town to lay out a road past his mill so that he would not have to cross Robert Boss’s land. It took several attempts to get the town to fund it, but in 1854 today’s Brook Street was laid out between Great Road and Main Street, passing right by Ebenezer Jr.’s mill site. The 1860 tax valuation assessed Ebenezer’s “Mills, water power, &c.” at $2,000. Ebenezer Jr. held onto the mill until 1865 when he sold the site to Martha Ball. The deed of sale did not specifically mention a residence, only “buildings thereon,” and a mill in particular. However, two of the town’s warrant items dealing with Ebenezer’s petitions specified that the road would pass by Ebenezer’s “house and mill” or “house and Factory,” so it seems that the house on the site dates from 1852 at the latest. Presumably he rented it out, as there is no evidence that he ever lived in it.
Back on the Farm
Whatever Ebenezer Davis Jr.’s other activities were, he kept innovating on his farm. The Worcester Palladium of Sept. 23, 1857 reported that sugar cane was being grown in Acton by Eben Davis who had two acres’ worth and planned to extract the juice for sugar.
Ebenezer Jr. continued displaying his farm produce at agricultural fairs. His tempting clusters of Sweet Water grapes at the Middlesex Agricultural Society’s exhibition were mentioned in the New England Farmer on Sept. 28, 1861. The Lowell Daily Courier of June 22, 1869 mentioned Ebenezer Davis had sent luscious strawberries from Acton. “Mr. Davis is well known as a successful horticulturist, and he has for many years been a large contributor to our agricultural exhibitions.” On Sept. 6, 1871, Eben Davis of Acton was noted in the Daily Evening Traveller for displaying a fine basket of fruit at the New England Agricultural Society’s annual fair.
Never one to miss an opportunity, after the railroad came through East Acton, Eben Davis advertised in Boston’s July 13, 1872 Daily Evening Transcript “Summer Board in Acton,” offering accommodations for up to four people at a pleasant location near a depot.
We did not find much mention of Ebenezer Davis Jr. in later newspapers. One might have assumed that the busy Ebenezer had finally slowed down. However, perhaps he had more to think about close to home. On Oct. 11, 1873, 62-year-old Ebenezer Davis Jr. married 23-year-old Mattie/Minnie Snow. She was born either in Germany or Massachusetts, apparently to W. and Sophie Snow. So far, genealogical research has turned up no clues about Minnie’s ancestry and where exactly she came from (and when). The couple settled on Ebenezer Jr.’s farm and had son Wendell F. Davis on Dec. 25, 1876. Wendell F. Davis was the last of the family to live at the Ebenezer Davis Jr. farm. Ebenezer Davis Jr. died July 20, 1890 in Acton. Fortunately, his grandson Robert I. Davis visited Acton and took pictures of the farm that have been donated to our Society. He also took pictures of people, presumably family members, whom we are trying to identify.
More Davis Information Needed
We know that as late as the 1960s, other documents existed that might shed more light on the lives and businesses of Ebenezer Davis Sr. and Jr. In addition to the Ebenezer Jr. ledger/journal that mentioned the building of the factory in 1847, there was also a journal kept by Eben H. Davis, son of Ebenezer Jr. We have only a partial transcription of that journal. It would be very helpful to have access to those documents to learn more. In addition, we have a number of photos from Eben H. Davis’s son Robert for which we do not have identification. Family photos probably exist elsewhere that could help us to identify people in the pictures. If you know more about this family or have items that could be shared, we would be grateful to hear from you. Please contact us.
Some Sources Consulted
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