Saturday, September 29, 2007

Oddfellow's Hall

Canton Center Circa 1914
I always thought of the blog name as "A Postcard from Canton" as a place that was more in the spirit of the history of the town as opposed to a blog about actual "postcards". Finally, this week I share a bona fide postcard, and from the large collection that I have, this is among my most favorite images. In celebration of the annual Block Party and with a nod to the Downtown Streetscape Project, here is a look back at a small slice of the downtown at the turn of the century.

The scene is quite beautiful, looking South from just below the intersection of Washington & Bolivar Streets - be sure to click on the image to enlarge as there are just so many wonderful details. For instance, in the front passenger seat of the car is a large dog peering over the dash, and the driver is on the left hand side of this gracious motor car.

The large building on the corner with the tower is Oddfellow's Hall - a grand fraternal meeting place where, in fact, my grandmother was married in the early 1930's. Built around 1856, for many years this Gothic building was the center of political and civic life in Canton. This stunning building was destroyed by and enormous fire on September 18, 1942. But for the heavy rains that morning, many more building would have been consumed. Known by many as Brooks' Block, it housed Moulton's Drug Store, the Post Office, and also was the Police Department offices. The upper floors held the telephone company office and large meeting spaces where the Ladies Auxiliary and the Ancient Order of Hibernians would meet regularly.

Directly across the street with the hip roof is Flood's Block, which is still standing. Richard Lewis Formal Wear is the current occupant, but in 1900 the Post Office was relocated from across the street to more spacious accommodations here. And in the immediate left of the frame, is a great old building that once held Whitty's Haberdashery and an amazing clockmaker, today it houses several businesses and the upper floors are apartments.

At most only two or three building still remain in the center as they appear in this photograph. Such was the nature of the time, the photographer set his tripod in the center of the street and froze a moment in time where children and dogs stand still, a woman is caught mid stroll, and the magic of the moment is almost the dreamlike sepia of the shot. Is this mere idyllic wanderlust on my part, but the trees and the quite sleepy center hints at a bustling future where the motor car would forever alter the landscape of downtown Canton.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Snuff Box

The Snuff Box
I remember the day I held it in my hand. In my boyhood, I had already begun to develop an affinity for local history and the strong connection that the Revere Family had to the Town of Canton. Paul Revere came to Canton in 1801 at the age of 65 and began a close connection with the town. There are small and large reminders all around town - Revere Street, The Revere School, the Viaduct, his Rolling Mill, his son's House is still standing, and in the Canton Historical Society many artifacts serve as further reminders.

My earliest education was under the influence of none other than Paul Revere. Well, actually it was in a small four room schoolhouse named for the famous patriot and over the mantle of the fireplace in the common room hung a portrait of the man himself. And so, at a very early age I was intensely curious about all things "Revere" and the connection of that family to our community.

Not to soon thereafter, Danny, one of my schoolmates offered to trade me a genuine "artifact" from the Revere Family. I can not remember the terms of the trade, but I do remember that the provenance of the origin was a bit shaky. On the appointed day my buddy brought me a small round metal box which was well worn and quite beaten by time. "It is a snuff box" he proclaimed, and he traded it to me for what may have been a handful of Dutch beads for all that I can recall. The only additional elements of the transactional history was that the box was dug up from behind Danny's house and at one time Paul Revere owned the land where Danny lived.

So, that was good enough for me. An eight year old with an antique snuffbox that was carried in the pocket of the great Patriot Paul Revere. Thinking back to being eight years old there was a new vein of active curiosity and intellectual growth that would be part of my life forever.

I hold onto the legend of the Revere Snuffbox for almost 35 years (please do not do the math). It turns out that in fact if the "digging up in the backyard" part of the story is true, then yes it was land owned by the Revere's. Most likely it was from the property of Joseph Warren Revere who had a house that abutted the property of my young friend. And, the road that ran behind Danny's house was the road that led to the Revere Copper and Rolling Mill.

The small box of tin or brass has always been a simple symbol of another time and place. The cover seems to have a Spanish Soldier in bas relief. Not a marking to indicate the date or the origin, very small and quite well worn. This has always had a gentle feel in my hand and as I turn it in my palm I imagine the waistcoat that once pocketed the box. It is my earliest curiosity and always has a special place on the shelf of my bookcase surrounded by volumes and pamphlets on the local history of the town.

I will never know the true owner of the box, and quite frankly it does not matter to me. The thing is, these artifacts are around all of us and they always tell a story. That is the power of saving such items, such is the amazing connection we have to the past. We work to document and save historic houses, we mark historic sites, we snoop out old cellar holes, we research documents and fight the battles that will at times feel quixotic. But in the end, we are actually working to preserve ourselves, we are staking out lines to support preserving places so that in the future we have a backdrop to the history of who we are and who came before us. This is what makes us vital and what creates legends and stories.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Neponset Woolen Mills

Neponset Woolen Mills
Driving down Walpole Street at the intersection of Neponset Street and near the Canton Viaduct you will see a large construction site, soon to be the home of fancy new upscale condominiums. Here is a great example of the changes that we are undergoing as we move from a center of manufacturing - the classic New England factory town - to a bedroom community.

The image this week is of an advertisement in a national magazine probably from the early 1950's. Sportsman's delight at the warmth and comfort of pure wool woven at one of the country's premiere woolen mills Neponset Woolen Mills, Canton, Mass. The ad reads "100% Virgin Wool loomed by famous Neponset Craftsmen in comfortable, long wearing rugged Teddy-bear Finish." Fine fabrics since 1824. In the background of the logo is the Canton Viaduct and in the foreground is the Bell Tower that was the signature of the factory since it was built in the early 19th Century. In 1822 on this same site stood a blacksmith's shop which undoubtedly used the water nearby as a great power source. Only a few years later, in 1824 three entrepreneurs entered the scene and began the erection of the great stone mill which would stand for 183 years. The young owners of the company were certainly industrious and erected a small chapel, comfortable boarding houses, a schoolhouse, and a very large barn. As the company flourished, the Town of Canton opened a road across the Fowl meadows to shorten the route for teams of horses to reach Boston. The company spent more than seven thousand dollars monthly on the payroll. The enterprise must have been enormous, and unfortunately it failed within three years.

Successive owners attempted to run the mill, including Harrison Gray Otis, but all failed in rapid succession. I do wonder if this is the same famed Boston lawyer and leader of the Federalist Party... In fact, many failed enterprises used the mill well into the 1880's all with little success. In 1883 the factory was purchased from the Revere Copper Company for $35,000 along with Hartwell Farm and Hartwell Brook and several tenements. The new owners brought water to the mill and ran a bleachery. By the middle of the 20th century the mill again began making woolen products and dying the product to meet the spending needs of post-war baby-boomers.

My grandfather worked at this mill as did many of the immigrants who came to Canton to find a home for their families. The same factories that employed hundreds, also played a role in exposing these men and women to unknown toxins and poisons that shortened many lives, my grandfather included.

Successive generations had a much improved life and over the course of the past 40 years the ancient mill became a relic no longer adaptable to modern needs. In July, the wrecking ball loomed large and the "Stone Factory" as it was historically known was reduced to a pile of rubble within days. The new developer of the site promises architecture that will give a nod to the bell tower and the stone facade of the ancient mill.

It is vital to take a moment to reflect on the massive growth of this town, so close to Boston and tied by rail to the rest of the country. The early days showed tremendous promise, industrially speaking. An early Gazetteer reported: "The manufactures of Canton the year ending 1st of April, 1837, amounted to $695,180. They consisted of cotton and woolen goods, shoes, palm-leaf hats, copper, wicking, thread, candle-sticks, hoes, iron castings, trying squares, and "shapes.""

As for the advertisement, old-time residents will attest to the strength of Draper Woolen Mills & the Neponset Woolen Mills as powerful employers whose goods were known the world over.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

New Haven Locomotive

New Haven Locomotive

Shown here is a snapshot that I purchased some time ago from eBay. Many times I would find myself simply buying up images that had even a tangential connection to Canton. Here is a great example. Of course, the New Haven Railroad has more than just a casual relationship to the history of the town. The railroad practically "built" the town. From approximately 1834 to the present day - close to 175 years, we have had a close connection to the steel rails.

Noted for our Canton Viaduct - which I am sure to cover in some future installment - the rail line that passes through the Canton Junction is among the oldest in America. And, surprisingly little has changed. originally the Boston & Providence Railroad which was a project begun with the incorporation in June, 1831. From that day forward, the Town of Canton would be forever shaped by the Iron Horse.

In 1888 the Boston & Providence Railroad was leased to the Old Colony Railroad, which in turn was leased to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad in 1893. New Haven Railroad owned the line for the better part of 76 years.

This photo was taken in May 1939 and shows the mighty coal engine of the New Haven as it rumbles through Canton Junction. This particular locomotive is one of the New Haven Class H-1 Atlantic type 4-4-2 built 1907 by Alco Schenectady NY. Sources at the NHRTA tell me that the last one was removed from service 1947. "Atlantics" of this type were built with hauling wood-frame passenger cars in mind. Around the 1910's though, American railroads started buying steel passenger cars, which precipitated the introduction of heavier and stronger engines. Nonetheless, it would appear that this engine was used until the near bitter end of steam locomotive fleets.

A few small buildings show in the background but otherwise this is a fairly non-nondescript picture. Like many such snapshots, the stories are embedded in the minds of the people associated with the place. In this case, as a boy I was always found climbing up the steep embankments if the rail-line and would feel the rush of adrenaline as the locomotives rushed through Canton Junction. You could hear the singing of the rails, the hum in the air and the vibrations were the warning.

It is funny how a small image like this can bring back memories, and the railroad in Canton has strong associations. The stories of the Revere and Kinsley Families, the bridges over the tracks, the stone arches and the waterfall, the stories of crashes and of air raid watches. It seems to me more than merely a literal link to our history, it is also a memorable one as well.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Washington Street Aerial

Washington Street Aerial

One of my favorite aerial views of Canton Center.

Now look closely, you will see at the center of the image, the old St. John's Church. The steeple rises up and you can see where it was set back from the present day church. Behind the church is the St. John's School. Also, the Grover House has yet to be moved and is across the street from the Church entrance.

Suburban growth has certainly changed this view from circa 1965. Missing from this image is the large construction projects of hundreds of condominium developments that had sprung up in the late 1980's through current projects today off of Ames Avenue. The shovel shop is now gone as is the block along Washington Street across from St. John's. You can see the large amount of open-space that once graced the downtown. Missed opportunities for a "town common" perhaps.

There is the familiar curve of Washington Street, and while folks may be concerned about traffic today, at least at the moment this picture was taken, traffic seems downright idyllic. Click on the picture to enlarge and then enjoy the nostalgia and the hunting for past and present landmarks.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Great Blue Hills

Rural Blue Hills

Taken in a quieter time, and long ago, this image shows an amazing view of the Great Blue Hill from what is now the cloverleaf at the intersection of Washington Street (Route 138) and Route 95. You are standing at the point where the access ramp to the north-bound highway is today.

I like the tranquility of the scene, the barn with a slight lean and the rooflines of the buildings. Imagine the soft scent of hay and clover as it wafts across the meadows. Farms were plentiful and the stone wall in the foreground was the boundary of the lane that ran down the present day highway. This was in fact the King's Highway through Dorchester and is our most ancient road.

In 1893, the Metropolitan Parks Commission purchased the lands of Blue Hills Reservation as one of the first areas set aside for public recreation. There are Sixteen historic structures listed on the National Register tell the fascinating tales of Native Americans, explorers, farmers, quarry workers and inventors. Additionally and barely visible in the photograph is the Blue Hills Weather Observatory, a National Historic Landmark, sits atop Great Blue Hill, as a crowning feature.

Near the base of the Great Blue Hills was the famed Doty Tavern. During the American Revolution the Doty Tavern was where the birthplace of tyranny was nurtured. The tavern burned in 1888.

Many of the homes that were in this section of Canton were moved to make way for the highway and the interchange. A few still exist. I often wonder if this home ever made the move. Probably not - it looks quite large and perhaps by the time the Interstate was built it had outlived its usefulness.

These rural images of Canton, Mass. were plentiful at the turn of the 20th Century, but few if any of these locations still exist. There are a few gentleman's farms in and around town, but very few historic barns exist and when this photo was taken, there was a barn behind every homestead.

One other note, the famed WGBH antennas sit atop the summit and in fact the station takes it's call sign from this location Great Blue Hills - GBH.