Saturday, April 5, 2014

Round and Round the Mulberry Bush


The Seavey, Foster & Bowman
Eureka Silk Mill circa 1878.

A blog on the Internet extolls the virtues of hidden fishing spots around Massachusetts. One entry in particular cites the Silk Mill Pond as a covert spot in Canton that might be of interest to anglers. The source writes of the secluded pond, “It gets pretty deep in the middle so if you want to use a deep running crank bait or let a swim bait sink a little deeper, you should be able to pull out a few. Most of my success has come from working the lily pads against the eastern shore along Old Shepard St.  The weeds are pretty thick tho so you'll have a tough time getting ur bait down to the fish.  Instead, fishing the edges of the lily pads will allow you to get the bait to their level and within their range.”

It would seem that bass masters are seeking out the same spot that Virgil and Vernon Messinger sought out, but for very different reasons. The Messinger Brothers built an empire along Silk Mill Pond. Take a drive down Old Shepard Street to see the pond - the mills have long since disappeared. For almost a century the Silk Mill complex was a driving force in our industrial history.

Textile manufacturing in Canton began with James Beaumont’s mill on Walpole Street, built in 1801. It was Beaumont’s belief that he produced the first piece of cotton cloth in America. The claim, however, was not quite true, as it seems cotton cloth was being produced in a small factory in New York as early as 1794. Yet, Beaumont’s empire was likely the first large-scale production of the cloth and made a fortune for the enterprising youth.

So, it is no surprise that when you look at Canton’s industrial history you will observe amazing progress in both manufacturing and invention of machines that support the cotton, wool, netting and silk industries.  Imagine Canton in the early 1800’s –Paul Revere is making copper, Leonard and Kinsley are manufacturing iron, the very parts of the machines needed to support textile mills. And, while Canton did not have quite the waterpower of other more famous manufactories, it certainly had enough to support the invention needed for amazing growth.

One of the oldest glass ambrotypes
taken in Canton is this circa.
1863 view of the first Silk Mill.
A map of 1831 lists the industries within the town’s boundaries, “2 furnaces for casting canons, bells, and etc., 2 rolling mills & 1 turning mill, 1 large wool factory, capable of manufacturing 600,000 yards per year, 3 cotton factories, 1 thread factory, one satinett factory, 1 wick yarn factory, 1 cutlery factory, 1 candlestick factory & one for farmer’s utensils; 2 steel furnaces, 4 forges, 3 grist mills, 1 saw mill, and 4 machine shops.” The size of the town, coupled with access to the railroad and proximity to Boston allowed Canton to become the hub of innovation in the early 19th century.

When you consider all that is needed to support a successful venture, both today and two hundred years ago, it would seem that we were at the forefront of so many things. To our credit we boasted strong public schools, great thinkers and doers, and inspiration everywhere. It is against this backdrop that in April 1836 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts offered a bounty for the purpose of encouraging the manufacture of silk.

The period between 1825-1844 found so many individuals seeking discovery. In Congress, committee after committee was raised to support the silk industry in America. Locally, Governor Levi Lincoln’s focus was on economic development and was intimately aware of how to promote the textile industry as he himself was connected to the cotton enterprises in Worcester at the time. It was Governor Lincoln who helped fuel the silk industry by offering a bounty of “ten cents a pound for cocoons and a dollar a pound for raw silk.” The first year that the bounty was offered, merely $85 was paid out, signaling warning signs for the silk industry in Massachusetts.

Not heeding the fact that both the trees and the caterpillars could not thrive here, a great business emerged selling mulberry trees.  Subsequently, an enormous frenzy called “Morus Multicaulis Mania” swept New England. “Grave doctors of medicine and doctors of divinity, men learned in the law, agriculturalists, mechanics, and merchants, and women as well as men, seemed to be infected with a strange frenzy in regard to this mulberry tree.”

Jonathan Cobb was born in Sharon, and was raised in his father’s tavern on the town line between Canton. Attending Milton Academy and later Harvard, Cobb became associated with the law office of James Dunbar and came to know many Canton businessmen. By 1831, Cobb had moved to Dedham and became engaged in the manufacture of silk thread. An early pioneer and advocate for the fledgling silk industry, Governor Levi tapped Cobb to prepare the everyday manual on the subject.

Janice Fronko, a textile historian explains that “the people who had money to invest, lost a fortune, and Cobb lost over $50,000. These investors came to learn that the silk worms and trees had to come from other places.” The bombyx mori – the domesticated silkworm, was bred successfully in China and Japan. “As soon as the experiment in New England died out, the wealthy left standing turned to a new business plan to import the raw silk. Once here, the silk was turned into thread, dyed and turned out onto spools,” says Fronko.  

Things spiraled out of hand, when prices for the mulberry trees that once cost $3.00 per hundred rose to cost as much as $500.00 per hundred. Times were rife with speculation and a great panic ensued leading, of course to financial disaster by 1837. The raising and producing of silk in America soon fell to the true entrepreneurs, and in walked the Virgil J. Messinger of Canton.

A Collection of Embroidery Silks
Messinger opened his first silk factory in 1839. Shortly after opening the enterprise, he moved to Needham and made “sewings, gimps and fringes” with Lemuel Cobb (Jonathan’s brother.) By 1844 he returned and along with his brother, Vernon, erected a newer factory at what was called the Lower Silk Mill Pond. An exhibit in 1847 at Faneuil Hall extolled the amazing new sewing silk “nearly equal to the best imported.” The new modern factory was opened under the name “Messinger & Brother” and would become an empire known throughout the country.

In 1842 the quantity of silk manufactured in Massachusetts was 5,264 pounds, by 1845 Canton sent out 5,200 pounds – by far some of the largest output in the state. To solve the supply problems, the Messingers imported the silk skeins from China and pulled them into thread and dyed the resulting product.

Over the succeeding years the company grew and the mill grew from a modest wooden structure to a fine granite building designed on a grand scale. The business was sold in 1863 to Charles Foster and J.W.C. Seavey, who himself had been with the Messingers since 1853. By 1881, the firm became known as the Eureka Silk Manufacturing Company. Within a year the factory was aglow with the new invention of electricity. 

The evolution of Eureka was phenomenal, owing in large part to the patent of the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine. This lockstitcher was far better than any of the previous machines and millions of the machines, perhaps the world's first really practical sewing machine for domestic use, were produced well into the early 1900s.
As sales of the machine rose, so too did the fortunes of Eureka Silk. Yet, at the same time competition began to overtake the region and the rise of the business was offset with a precipitous decline.

In 1894, over 475 workers, mostly women were employed by Eureka in three large mills. On March 13, 1894 “practically the entire number of girls and young men left their work abruptly at about 7:30 Tuesday morning.” The spoolers and winders of the lower mill marched en masse to the upper mill and gathered more supporters. The two groups marched and eventually more than 375 workers went out on strike. Wages had been cut by ten cents a day and hours had been reduced as “hard times” led to insufficient paychecks.

The papers wrote that “the streets were crowded with a lively and brilliant throng” as a mass meeting was held at Oddfellow’s Hall. Newspaper reporters tried to report of the union meetings, but the “smiling and insistent reporter was as smiling and insistently excluded.” To all in town the front-page story was bolstered by the fact that things were quite “orderly and quiet except for the unusual number of bright dresses on the street and the silent spindles of two out of the three mills. The mill owners threatened to shutter the mills down, and the girls threatened to go to Brockton for better wages.  The state Board of Arbitration intervened and advised the workers to return. The wages had been as high as $6.08 for 58 hours of work, yet the economy of the silk business could no longer meet such generous terms.


In the end, the workers returned to their shuttles without any raise in wages and the mills resumed operation. Mill Number 1 ended production in 1903 and was destroyed by fire the following year. In 1906 Eureka Silk relocated to Connecticut and ceased all operations in Canton.

Burr Lane: Skull & Bones - Part I

An Ancient Map Showing the Burying Ground

Running through the woods on Sunday afternoon in September 1969 were two boys from Sawyer Avenue here in Canton. The crisp early fall day was a welcomed break from the rains that had preceded the week. As the sun cut through the tree-lined paper road known as Burr Lane, the boys took a detour through the old abandoned gravel pit. That was the day that history was unearthed and souls that had been at rest for over 200 years would be disturbed to this very day.

Burr Lane is a small road, more of a dirt driveway off Pleasant Street. You might miss it if you did not know it was there. The name is one of those “place names,” meaning it was named for a person who once lived in that place. In this case, it is named for Seymour Burr. It is an ancient part of Canton and has always been associated with the Ponkapoag Indians.
To tell the full story, let’s step back even further. The Praying Indians at Ponkapoag originally owned the land that the boys were playing on that day. The name most closely associated with that part of the village was Simon George. And on that very spot where the boys stood was once a beautiful apple orchard owned by George. In the early colonial days, the Indians were largely forbidden from owning apple trees, and George was the first native to plant an orchard. More particularly, he was the first that was allowed to keep and maintain his apple trees.
The issue in the earliest days of Canton’s history was one of control over the native population. The boundaries of the Ponkapoag Plantation were purposefully cut off from the Neponset River to deprive the Indians of the transportation resource. And since the Indians were very fond of cider, they planted orchards all throughout their land. When the tribe began leasing their land to the English settlers they specifically excepted the orchards from the leases. In 1786 Robert Redman fenced in his orchard of 16 acres and “threatened the Indians with death if they dared to take an apple” from the very trees they had planted. To make matters worse for the natives, Redman also forbade them from gathering cranberries for their own support. It was, however, the cider that was the hardest to bear.
Huntoon’s History of Canton records the great hardship over the loss: “The apples are now coming on, and we set great store by our apples, and hope to have some, not only to eat, but to make cyder.” While many orchards were off limits, Simon George’s orchard was allowed to stay. The seven to 10 acres on Pleasant Street was not only his land, but also his livelihood. In 1732 the Indian commissioners allowed “him and his squaw the liberty to improve, for their own personal benefit, as much of the land that was that year devoted to John Wentworth and William Sherman. On this land lived George and his four children along with his “squaw,” Abigail.
There is an ancient death record that dates to 1739 that tells us that Simon George died in full belief that he was “admitted to that equal sky, His faithful dog should bear him company.” He was buried behind his house in a small graveyard, and his wife and children soon followed him in the afterlife. The land then passed to Jacob Wilbor, who was also buried in the cemetery, and his wife remarried after his death and married Seymour Burr — hence Burr Lane.
Seymour Burr was either born in Africa or here in the colonies. There is conflicting information regarding his birth. Some citations list him as born in Connecticut, possibly of mixed-race parentage; others claim he was born in Guinea, Africa, captured at age 7, and was possibly of royal birth. His enlistment documents list his age as both 20 and 28, which places his birth in either 1754 or 1762. Owned by the brother of Colonel Aaron Burr, who was also named Seymour, he was known only as Seymour until he escaped and used the surname Burr to enlist in the British Army in the early days of the American Revolution. The British had made promises guaranteeing the personal freedom of any black slave who enlisted or escaped to fight against the Continental Army. Burr was quickly captured and forcibly returned to his owner.
Burr, fearing that Seymour would escape again, offered him a different deal: If Seymour would pay his owner the enlistment bounty given to him by the British and serve instead in the Continental Army, he would be given his freedom at the end of his military service. On April 5, 1781, Seymour enlisted in the Connecticut Seventh Regiment, led by Colonel John Brooks. He fought at Bunker Hill and Fort Catskill and suffered through the long winter at Valley Forge.
After his service, Burr was given his promised freedom. In 1805 he married the widow Mary Wilbor, who was one of the Ponkapoag tribe. In marrying her, Burr inherited all of the land that was once Simon George’s, including the burying ground. Burr died February 17, 1837, and was either buried in that small plot behind the house or in an unmarked grave at Canton Corner. Mary Burr died at the age of 101 in 1852 after receiving a yearly pension of $50 since 1838. On her gravestone at Canton Corner reads, “Like the leaves in November, so sure to decay, Have the Indian tribes all passed away.”
Over the course of time the land changed hands many times, and by the early 1900s the property was owned by Eli Withington. It was a wood lot and a gravel pit and Withington was by all accounts a curmudgeon in the classic sense. Carol Shaw Munson recalls her grandfather in a recent conversation: “He was a crabby old guy and very gruff and had a temper … he ended up divorcing his first wife and married Winifred Stone after she lost her first husband. Winifred’s daughter married into the Stockus family and the land changed hands.”
Munson was wistful as she remembers what her grandfather was like. “I met him when I was 11 years old,” she said, “and after the buildup by my mother about his character, I was scared to death.” In time, Munson came to find Withington as a gentle soul and would see him every week after church on Sunday.
And so, over 130 years later, 12-year-old Stephen Turley and Mark Nannery find themselves playing
A Press Clipping
from 1969
on the land of Simon George and Seymour Burr and Eli Withington. And it was in Withington’s gravel pit that they began sliding down the steep sandy walls. As boys are prone to do, they examined every root and rock as they happily played. At some point Turley picked up a small clay pipe, a relic from history, and then the chase was on. What else was coming out of the ground that day?
The pipe was only the first part of the story, the key that unlocked the secrets of the burying ground. Taking the pipe home, Stephen told his father, Francis Turley — then principal of the Dean S. Luce School — about a jawbone and leg bones sticking out from the exposed gravel bank. Turley now lives in North Carolina and only vaguely recalls the day he found the pipe. “I saw this little pipe, carved out of bone or ivory … and then I noticed bones,” explained Turley. “My dad knew it was older … he called the experts at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.” To this day, Turley remembers holding the pipe and bones. At some point, while passing it among his friends, the pipe broke and eventually he gave it to the folks at the Peabody.
In 1969 Canton was a tight knit community, and word among the children in the neighborhood spread quickly. Within 24 hours dozens of kids descended upon their very own backyard archeological site. While the archeologists in Cambridge were mobilizing, the children were digging, and what they were unearthing was amazing and macabre.
By September 17, likely four days after the original discovery, Dina Dincauze arrived on the site. Dincauze led the expedition to Burr Lane and was the lead archeologist. “The children had removed parts of two skeletons,” she recalled, “and members of the Massachusetts Archeological Society had already examined one part of a body in place.” That was where the Peabody archeologists began their investigation.
As dozens of neighborhood children and their parents looked on, the dig began, and piece by piece the remains of Simon George and his family began a long journey into science and history.
And for those who were surprised to find these graves, it was not a secret to our ancestors. Huntoon had written about the cemetery and it even appears on an early map. All the signs were there and this archeological site should have been protected, but what happened next will really shock you.

Burr Lane: A Dog With A Bone - Part II

The Tippet Pipe Found in 1969.
(Copyright 2014 President & Fellows of Harvard College
969-37-50122 and 975-34-10/52976)
The dog was covered in spring mud, after the rains he was always coming home filthy with sticks and old roots. This day was different, as he bounded into the house he had a large ball of some sort, as his owner bent over to retrieve the mess from the dog’s mouth he was shocked to discover that it was a human skull. 

This was 1968, and when Police Chief Daniel Keleher arrived, he knew it would be impossible to locate the rest of the body given the provenance of the dog’s mouth. Placing the skull on the seat of his cruiser, Keleher took it to the old Police Station on Revere Street and put in on the top shelve of the closet in his office. There it sat next to another skull that had been discovered behind the Canton Corner Cemetery. It seems that Keleher had more than a few skeletons in his closet. A year later, Keleher put two and two together and realized the archeologists at the Peabody Museum who had arrived at Burr Lane might want to see the skull that the dog had unearthed a year earlier.

It took a few days to get the necessary permissions from Mrs. Eli Withington, but after some brief negotiations the Peabody archeologist, Dena Dincauze, began her work. What the neighborhood children had uncovered was the Burr Lane Burying Ground. Children had begun the work, but the scientists needed to figure out the boundaries and secure the remains from exposure and deterioration.
Skulls, mandibles, rib cages, hands and feet… all were eroding out of the side of the sandpit. All of the graves were oriented in an east-west fashion with the head laying to the east. The hands were in the pelvic cavity with the right hand above the left except the right thumb below the left hand. On the left ankle was a copper or brass straight pin, which preserved a small portion of a shroud of course linen. In the soil, careful excavation revealed coffin nails in the dirt closely fitting the body. Portions of thick pine planking preserved sections of the coffins.

A woman’s grave was excavated and one of the neighborhood boys found a dotted slipware cup that dated to the 18th century. More graves were excavated through the course of the weeks ahead. The site became a classroom for the Harvard students who ultimately excavated the complete remains of two individuals and parts of six others. At the same time, the kids were also digging, and the scene must have been surreal.

Key to dating the site was the small pipe that Stephen Turley had found along with the slipware cup. Likely the graves of Jonathan George and Simon George were the earliest, placing the site’s date of first use at 1738. The Harvard archeological team uncovered a rough footstone in place above one grave, but all other stones seemed to have been lost over time.

A Sketch of the Archeological Work in 1998
With Burr Lane to the north, this area is defined by typical fieldstone walls and a meandering cartpath - part of an ancient Indian trail known as the Quantum Path, the Southerly portion connecting to Burr Lane. Historically there was once an orchard, Indian dwellings, and possibly a small meetinghouse.
The land lay untouched until 1998, when Peter Stockus, the landowner submitted plans to the Canton Planning Board for a small residential subdivision on the site. This author reminded Stockus that his new subdivision was the site of the Burr Lane Burying Ground and as such a new archeological investigation might be in order. Always a gentleman and a good citizen of Canton, Stockus hired Joyce Clements to perform an archeological assessment.

Stockus sat atop a Caterpillar excavator and slowly stripped the soil from the area as Clemenst carefully watched. On the last day of the work, at 4:00 pm on Friday, March 20th a femur was exposed on the western part of the property. The archeologist got to her knees and carefully began brushing away the sand. A second bone appeared and smaller bones were exposed. The following Monday the real work began. This time, history would be preserved in place. By March 30th all was secure and 18th century was tucked back into the ground.

The Peabody Museum is an imposing brick building just outside Harvard Yard. To see the artifacts related to Burr Lane requires permission from the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council. Once inside, the security is fairly strict and you are ushered into a basement viewing room. A staff person rolls a cart on which sits a large wooden tray. Latex gloved hands, and one by one the grave goods are handled. A small plastic bag contains a tiny fragment of a burial shroud cloth. Roughly woven this was once wrapped around the body in a coffin and fastened with a small copper pin. There are not many items that were taken from Burr Lane – a small handled cup, a fragment of pottery, a lead shot, and twenty coffin nails.

The most amazing item, however, is the small pipe broken into two pieces. The pipe is stained inside from the tobacco that once flowed through the stem. There is a small set of maker’s initials and a cartouche on the side of the bowl. This pipe was made by R. Tippet. The Tippet family was probably the most important pipemakers in the late 17th through early 18th centuries. Three generations all hailed from Bristol, England and this pipe was made sometime between the years 1660 - 1722.
Jeanne MacLeod was ten years old, and vividly recalls the small pipe in her hands. “The one thing I remember – the pipe, we were playing with it for days. One kid dropped it and it broke the stem and we all were quite upset since we knew it was an ancient artifact.” Today, Jeanne lives in Hilton Head, SC. “Talking about this today, more than forty-five years ago, the memory of the day comes flooding back.”

All in all, the Peabody has 18 items that were recovered from Burr Lane. There are two full human skeletons and perhaps parts of six to ten others plus six artifacts. The remains are stored respectfully in another location, yet one day they may find their way back to their original resting place.
So while there are human remains of our ancestors safely tucked away on shelves in Cambridge, here in Canton the Burr Lane Burying Ground is largely intact, thanks to Peter Stockus and the advocacy of the local and state historical commissions as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The work done in 1998 yields evidence of fourteen additional “features” or grave shafts. Preliminary reports at the time estimated a total of thirteen individuals interred in graves. In some cases the graves had been disturbed, and in others they were wholly intact. Also, a skull had been found on the topsoil as well as fragments of coffins and nails. Some of the heads were situated with their head to the west and others to the east.

Clements worked carefully to recover the boundaries of the cemetery. One of the conclusions made was that the graves exposed during the work in 1998 suggested two family groups within the burials. This makes sense historically since Huntoon’s History of Canton tells us that four members of Simon George’s family are buried here and four members of Jacob Wilbor’s family are here. Who else is buried here, we may never know. Huntoon tells us that there are Indians, blacks, and children. Forensic evidence suggests that in addition to Native Americans, there are also African American traits found in the early skeletal remains. Jacob Wilbor may be Native or black American: his wife Mary Wills Wilbor was the daughter of Nuff Wills ‘a negro’. Also, we do not know definitively where Seymour Burr is buried. There are several children buried at Burr Lane and the archeology confirms this as well. MacLeod also remembers the skeleton of a dog, and that may tie into the reference of Simon George’s dog following him into the afterlife.

Today, the Burying Ground is part of the Withington Circle Subdivision and is protected under a permanent preservation restriction through the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The graves that have been preserved on-site are contained within a 2,792 square foot easement on Lot 5. Access to the cemetery is preserved through a ten-foot wide path that runs along the property line. There is no sign, and the property is private so there is no trespassing allowed. We do know that no dogs or children will ever disturb this site again. And, there is room reserved for the reburial of the remains in the custody of the Peabody Museum if ever they are released for internment.  Peter Stockus was awarded the Massachusetts Preservation Award in 1999.


Special thanks to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Jeremy Comeau, Canton Planning Board, and Gill Solomon, President of the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council.