Sunday, December 21, 2008

Neponset Woolen Mills

Neponset Woolen Mills

The new complex known as River Village on Walpole Street at Neponset is one of our towns newest architectural landmarks. The focus is an impressive tower and stone lobby that serves as a grand entrance. Few people may know that this is the site of an original tower that served to call the beginning and end of the day to thousands of industrial workers for over 150 years. This is also the site of many failed ventures and a handful of businesses that thrived on the western shore of the Neponset.

Long before condominiums were the rage, a small group of businessmen recognized the importance of the attraction of the Neponset River. In 1802 James Beaumont, Able Fisher, and Lemuel Bailey formed James Beaumont & Co. to spin cotton into candlewicks and fibers for cloth. By 1824 (before the Viaduct was built) another group of investors contracted for the water privileges  to the Neponset River from none other than Joseph Warren Revere. The men built a large stone factory along what is now known as Walpole Street and the name of the company became the Boston Manufacturing Company. The area quickly built up around the massive stone factory and included boarding houses, a school and even medical facilities. In three years the area prospered and great growth led to the construction of a dirt raod across the Fowl Meadows to support shipments to Boston. Unfortunately the business failed in 1827. 

Soon after the failure the Neponset Woolen Company set up shop under the directorship of Harrison Gray Otis the prominent Boston businessman, lawyer, and politician and arguably the most important member of the Federalist Party. This venture also failed and by 1837 the site was abandoned. Over the next 170 years many factories operated on this site including a bleachery, another cotton factory, wool and cotton for caskets, and a plastic and adhesives factory. 

In 2005 a local developer purchased the site and gained demolition approval from the Town's local Historical Commission. In homage to the thousands of men and women who worked on this site for over 200 years, the Commission asked the developer to salvage some of the stone and to build a replica of the tower. The original tower and bell was likely built during the 1800's and around the turn of the 20th Century it had been rebuilt. By 1930 the tower became unsafe and was removed. As we watch the economy, we watch to see if this will be a successful venture for the New River Village, LLC - and not a repeat of failed ventures.

The tower we pass today is a connection to our past through a new use for dozens of new families. Kudos to the Canton Historical Commission for suggesting the tower to Shesky Architects who have made this the centerpiece of this project.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Plunkett House

The way history works is through detective work. And here is the latest example of a fresh case. A few weeks ago I was working the afternoon shift at the Canton Historical Society, the "Histy" as it is affectionately known. It was a busy afternoon and the building was full of volunteers getting prepared for the historical house tour. Over at the corner was a couple from somewhere far away - poking through Canton while doing some family research. Jane, a descendant of the Plunkett Family was working through some family photographs and she shared this magnificent view of a grand old house believed to be in Canton. It was explained that this was a family house that belonged to her Grandfather by the name of Emerson Plunkett.

The search began in old street directories, and we dutifully checked our internal
database for any family references. All we could find was a few Plunkett's living on Rockland Street in the early 1920's. We sent them searching, and yet, the photo featured above turned out not to be on Rockland Street - where many modest homes abound. Instead, the photo to the right is most likely that small Plunkett home in a neighborhood more likely to allow for the survival of the perfect neighborly abode. Jane sent me this photo in an email and she believes this is Annie & John Plunkett's house. The search continues for the larger house featured above.

What more do we know? Well, Jane did find the final resting place of her Great Great Grandparents, Annie (Allen) and John Plunkett in the Canton Cemetery. They were there along with Jane's Great Grandparents, Alice (Smith) and John Plunkett. Yet, now she is searching for the next generation - Emerson, Ruth, Morris and Bill.

The photo at the top of the page is believed to be Emerson's home and such a grand old home would surely be recognized today. Look closely through the trees you can see a conical tower and on the side is a grand entrance portico. So many chimneys and wonderful field stone accents to the shingle style home. The eyebrow window in the roof and the crenelated tower accenting the bumped out round bay. Simply magnificent!!! The house would seem to date to the early 1890's and will certainly have been altered over time. (see the update at end of this article)
Yes, detectives are a big part of family genealogy, simply ask David Lambert at the Massachusetts Genealogical Society. David has been sniffing out history for his whole life. The intersection of family photos, letters, grave sites, and old fashioned footwork is what makes history real for families. History is not relegated to national events, instead, we all have a mystery in our family and we can all "track down" our ancestors.

Today, as you read this, you can assist in the search. Have you ever seen a house that looks like the one at the top of this page? Simply reply in the thread here and I will be sure to send out a detective to the location in the hopes of solving the mystery of the Emerson Plunkett House. Jane has scanned her photos, been to the graves, visited the same streets her grandparents walked and is hot on the trail. Let's see if we can find out what happened to the Emerson Plunkett Home. This is the power of history and detectives.

UPDATE: Jim Roach, Curator, Canton Historical Society writes:
Frank & Alice Plunkett lived at 447 Chapman St. the house known locally to some as the Spaulding house. The picture you have is a great photo that shows the house in all its glory. The house today is vastly different. The entire front of the house and carport are gone. Note in the attached photos that the small dormer near the front, turret at the center and the small hip at the rear are all the same. Some of the stone walls still seem the same but the property is very much over grown.

Here is how the house looks today...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Blue Hill Street Railway

Blue Hill Street Railway
This is a very early and previously unpublished snapshot of a trolley car in Canton. A really superb glimpse at local travel at the turn of the Century. It all started in 1899 with the construction of a new power plant near the Bolivar Street Bridge. The Blue Hill Street Railway Company (BHSRC) which provided so many people with access to jobs and diversions would last less than 20 years and ultimately would fail as a result of the harsh New England winters and the advance of the automobile.

Vestiges of the Railway are all around us. The small pizza place at Canton Junction was once the waiting room and if memory serves me it was moved to the present location and was small gas station for many years. I remember the building as an antique shop and over the years it has been saved for many uses.

The original power plant is still standing and if you drive down the road just before Bolivar Tire you will see the power plant. This is the very same building that would later become the "chicken factory". More than 4000 chickens a day were handled at this location and sold locally before large conglomerates moved in to destroy this local industry. The firm of Furman-Meyers was well known for fresh slaughtered chickens and employed many Canton residents. Many local folks still remember the chicken factory and even to this day the power plant is a well known landmark.

Right down at the Viaduct is the Kessler Machine Shop, and if you look behind the front of the building you will see the original power plant that also supplied power to the BHSRC. This small brick building in the shadow of the Viaduct will deserve additional discussion in a later posting.

The designer of the BHSRC was Webster - of Stone & Webster, one of the nation's first electrical consulting companies. The ten year old company was one of the finest electrical design consultants, but overhead power for trolley service had distinct limitations in New Engalnd, and snowstorms would bring winds that would frequently damage the service that so many would rely upon. The Winter storm of 1920 was particularly unkind and dealt the death knell for the trolley system. Three cars were disabled by the storm and a shortage of coal and a cracked generator crippled the system. By April, 1920 the stock in the BHSRC was liquidated and the company ceased to exist.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Washington Street 1901

Washington Street - 1901
North or South? I have little idea as to which direction we are looking in this image of Washington Street. Over 100 years have passed since this photograph was taken and so much has changed along our main thoroughfare. On the left hand side of the picture are the tracks of the Blue Hill Street Railway. And, on the right hand side you can see an ancient fence set behind the youthful elm trees that would be gone fifty years later. 

Washington Street is our most ancient way, originally the King's Highway it stretched from Boston to Rhode Island. It ran through its present location as early as the middle of the 17th century, starting as a bridle path through the woods and then a cart path. It was first laid out in 1700 by the Selectmen of Dorchester as a road "three rods wide" approximately 49.5 feet wide. In 1703 it is called "the road leading to Billings' in Sharon" which then becomes the "road to Rehobeth" by 1707. At various times it was called he "Country Road" or "Road leading to Rhode Island".  It later becomes known as "the great road from Boston to Taunton" and by the early 1800's it was the "Great road" or the "Taunton road". All of this indecision ends in 1840 with a commemoration in the name of our first President and great Patriot the General George Washington. From Milton to the Sharon line our main thoroughfare becomes Washington Street. 

Along the way were the famous taverns that provided rest for horses and men who would travel this road.  Doty, Cherry Hill, and Cobb's to name just a few.  This is a great image where the streets are not paved and "rapid transit" was genteel. Long lazy afternoons on the porch in the shade of the broad leafy trees. We look back upon a street that is over 350 years old and still our "Main Street".

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hook and Ladder No. 1

Hook and Ladder No. 1 Parade

For me this is one of those images that help give a small glimpse into the past such that I can just about see this event in my mind's eye. The photo seems to have been taken from Neponset Street loking towards Washington Street - towards where the small convenience store is located (7-11). If you look closely the horses are pulling a hook & ladder and the fireman are marching in the rear in sparkling white uniforms. Note how closely the small buildings are next to Neponset Street and in the background you can see the building (17 Neponset Street) that now houses Harold Drake's Law Offices; with the lovely mansard roof. The first house is where Jack Spierdowis has his home and locksmith enterprise.

This is the kind of photo that makes fire buffs so very happy. To see the well ordered parade marching on a beautiful day, and the small children at the curb. What a sight in Canton's History. It turns out that the Hook & Ladder was purchased from L. M. Rumsey & Co. in 1885 and cost about $500 - at least this information comes to us from the February 27th 1886 Town of Canton Annual Report. L. M. Rumsey manufacturing specialized in fire apparatus, brass bells and hardware. They were located in St. Louis, Missouri and Seneca Falls, New York.

1885 was the year that newly professional fire department also purchased a new pumper as well. In fact, the department was so proud that they spent $125.00 for "Commemoration Day" to celebrate the organization and the pride of Canton. Local historian, Jim Roach has deduced that it may have been the August 7, 1885 "Observance Day". According to the Canton Journal the parade was to Assembe at Church Street.

The early years of the Canton Fire Department were full of frustration as the vote to "profesionalize" the department underwent considerable scrutiny. Allegations of deliberate arson on the Sherman Firehouse and unruly behavior were part of this shaky start. By 1884 the newly formed department was making plans for brick firehouse which would be built in Canton Center (where Walgreens now stands) and the purchase of several new pieces of equipment, including Hook & Ladder No. 1.

Hook & Ladder No. 1 was motorized around 1915 with the addition of a Kissel Car Roadster as an engine. Look closely and you will see the fire helmets in a basket atop the rig. The gear baskets on the truck were a fixture on fire trucks as late as 1943 and 1944 which allowed the fireman to quickly get to a fire with their safety gear already on the truck.

Folks like our former Chief Fitzpatrick and so many others will have more information on this photo, so watch for updates. In the meantime, when you drive up Neponset Street towards Washington Street take a moment to consider this photograph and see if indeed your minds eye can place this event.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Canton Center Railroad Depot

Canton Center Railroad Depot

For the past twenty-five years or so, I have been commuting into Boston on the MBTA. With so many days that start and end with a commute, it is hard not to be fascinated by trains. For many years my stop in-bound and out has been Canton Center. I like the rural charm of the stop and it is very close to our house which makes it very convenient. And, while it looks like a simple parking lot and a single platform, the photo above attests to it's one-time importance.

The connection to the railroad in Canton has been especially strong and ever since 1834 we have had a close relationship to trains. In fact, but for Joseph Warren Revere (Paul Revere's Son) we might never have had the rail line through Canton, and this is especially true for the Stoughton Branch. Revere was on the Board of Directors of the fledgling Boston & Providence Railroad, and it is likely his pledge of Stock and money to support the enterprise led to the decision for the line to run through his father's factory - The Revere & Sons Copper Rolling Mill. The Stoughton Branch line runs right past the first railroad spur in America, built specifically for the Revere Company.

The image above is a postcard, one that recently sold on eBay. Take a look at the small shelter on the right hand side, and also note that in fact this is a time when the rail-line was "double tracked" to Stoughton. If you look closely at the details in the photo you will see the flag man who has stopped traffic (traffic???), the man on the strange bicycle contraptions mounted to the tracks, and the lady under the shelter dressed in her finest early 20th century duds. The depot h as a spur for freight that runs just behind the building and you can see the freight cars awaiting their shipments. To the left is the large depot station, and the photo hints at the bucolic nature of the period - way in the background in the far left is a small bard with a cart loaded for the day.

At some point the buildings were removed. The small waiting room structure (which had a beautiful architectural roofline,) and the larger depot building were no longer needed and fell victim to neglect. Eventually the second rail line through the center was also removed. There are few vestiges (if any) from the scene left today. The retaining wall for the small historic house is still there, but all else seems like a dream from another time and place. Next time you drive through the center and cross the tracks, take a moment to reflect at what stood at this crossing in another age.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Canton Center

Canton Center

Another true "postcard" of Canton Center. While work in Canton's downtown is in full swing again this Summer, reflect back to a gentler time when parking was angled into the downtown business district. The best way to look at this image is to click on the photograph with your mouse and take a detailed look at the streetscape (you can do this with all my photos).

A few electrical poles dot the street and overall we see a more bucolic center, A drugstore and the "Five cent to a $1.00 Store" seems to say McLellan's in plain view on the right hand side, where Richard Lewis Formal Wear now operates. A few Coca-Cola signs dot the street. All of the trees that graced Canton Center at the turn of the 1900's are gone, fallen to Dutch Elm Disease. And hardly a turning lane at Bolivar Street in sight.

As you sit in the construction traffic, imagine the gentler time where folks would have had to actually wait for you to back out of the angled parking and into the travel lane. Take a look at how much advertising graces the street today as opposed to fifty years ago. Imagine the delight of getting an ice-cream cone or a malt at the neighborhood drugstore. And, assume that there was some sort of civility and a slower pace to the day.

This image most closely resembles my earliest remembrance of "downtown". My grandmother had a small hair salon just below the fall's near the Canton Cinema. And while I do not know the exact location, I do remember the wide sidewalks and the awning on the storefronts. I can still remember the A&P (where Walgreen's is now) and the large coffee grinder at the front of the store.

If you have a particularly strong memory of our downtown, please share it in the comments section of the blog.