Thursday, December 23, 2010

Canton's Christmastide Traditions

James Dunbar's Poem "Santa Claus" in the collection 
of the Canton Historical Society (photo by George T. Comeau)

Samuel B. Noyes sat down to write his weekly column for the Norfolk County Gazette. It was Christmas week in 1887, and he thought back at how quickly the year had slipped by. This had been a pretty industrious year for the town of Canton. Our small community was a boomtown; the factories had been going full tilt and Elijah Morse had broken ground on his new factory on Washington Street. Kinsley Iron Works was enlarging their shop, new safety tracks were placed on the Viaduct, a new almshouse was built for the poor, and a new Episcopal Church was being built. All in all, it was a very busy year in a bustling town.

Samuel B. Noyes, prominent Canton attorney
and local historian. (Courtesy of the Canton
Historical Society)
Noyes, a prominent lawyer, saw himself as a historian. In fact, Noyes was descended from the Noyes’ that had settled Newbury, Massachusetts, and he reveled in knowing that the family home in the small town of Newbury was one of the oldest in the state, having been built in 1646. The family connections meant that Noyes knew everyone and in fact was part of a prominent Canton delegation that attended Daniel Webster’s funeral in October 1852.
Noyes enjoyed all things Canton and was a friend of Daniel Huntoon, the town’s preeminent historian. Huntoon had died just over a year ago (almost to the day), and now Noyes felt as though it was his duty to adopt local history and stories that his dear friend was so well known for. Noyes’ intensive research, recollections and accounts would be accurate for history’s sake.

Christmas was the topic at hand, and he decided he would dedicate his column to the various celebrations across the community. The holiday began on Friday afternoon as the children opened their schoolrooms to public exhibitions fitting the holiday. The children would sing songs, have small plays, and generally celebrate the season with music and poetry. Santa Claus exchanged his reindeer and sleigh for horse and carriage. Each school was a stop on Santa’s rounds where he distributed confections and fruit to all the children.

The children also had gifts to present, and in the Eliot school, Miss Capen and Miss Sumner were given thoughtful little gifts — perhaps a silk handkerchief or a small, ivory-handled fan purchased in one of the many shops along Washington Street. Teachers, in turn, exchanged smiles knowing that the holiday would bring a welcomed break from the routine of the winter lessons.

It was that handwritten poem by James Dunbar that reminded Noyes of the joy and spirit of Christmas: “I have come, little friends, I have come at your call, A right Merry Christmas, man woman and child. I have just left the top of Blue Hill you must know, where I spied you all out, peering over the snow. I spied out the roof with my double lens glass. I could see through the windows each laddie and lass. I have popguns and whistles and tops for the boys, I have knickknacks and notions and holiday toys. I go my rounds over mountain and hill; no stockings I find which I do not well fill. Three cheers, Mr. Draper, three cheers for this day! Distribute these presents, begin right away!”

At each church there were festivities and celebration. At the “old church” at Canton Corner the organist began services with Mozart’s Gloria, and the choir rose to meet the drone of the pipes with “Exulting Angels.” The heavy fragrance of evergreen and mountain laurel filled the air, and Noyes was enchanted by a large basket of scarlet geraniums that he described as blazing like “the star” itself before the altar.

The large Roman Catholic Church on Washington Street was overfilled to capacity. This was the sixth mass of the day, and Noyes felt the spirit of the season overwhelm the wooden building. This denomination had grown steadily from five men working for Joseph Warren Revere in the 1830s to now the largest part of the community. These were the Irish: the workers, immigrants, and the poor. Yet their church steeple dominated the skyline as if reaching for heaven itself. As poor as these working families were, they were extremely devout and attentive to their spiritual needs. Noyes peeked inside the double doors and was met with the heavy smell of wet wool mixed with pine boughs. The inside of this church was magnificent and ablaze with light.

Interior view of St. John the Evangelist Church in 1912.
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Catholics had been in Canton since 1814, regular masses had been said here since 1831 at least once a month and sometimes even more often. In short, this was a significant foothold in a largely Protestant town. Noyes wondered if it would continue to grow and how it might change to accommodate this growing movement in Canton.

Father Flatley was the head of the Catholics in Canton, and he had been in Canton before there was even a parish here. Flatley’s early ministrations were in a small church, almost a barn, on what would become known as Chapel Hill. In 1850 the small building served as the Church of St. Mary. Noyes marveled at how far the ministry had developed in 26 years. There were hundreds of Catholic families in Canton, and they had their own cemetery at Canton Corner, one of the earliest in the state. In fact, by 1861, they were an independent parish with a second mission in Stoughton.

In a few short years, Father Flatley was able to raise enough money, more than $4,000, to buy land and build an impressive wooden church with enough lumber left over for a small chapel in the adjoining town of Sharon. Noyes looked up in wonder at the high tapering tower; inside the church there were magnificent frescoes of archangels on bended knee. Valuable candelabras blazed on the altar, and a second altar was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In the center rear wall of the church were three enormous stained glass windows that flooded the church with light. The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist in superb details watched over the entire congregation as they sang their Christmas hymns.

An early 20th century Christmas Card from
L.L. Billings, Canton, MA. (Courtesy
of the Canton Historical Society)
As Noyes turned to walk back toward Washington Street, he walked down an avenue of pine trees, laden with snow, and he could hear the brogues of the families singing clear and loud in the early evening services. Over $600 was raised that year as a Christmas offering by these worshippers.

Noyes never imagined that St. John’s wooden church would one day be replaced with a modern, steel and brick building after nearly 100 years of service to Canton’s Roman Catholics. The old Unitarian Church at Canton Corner has stood for over 187 years and the echoes of Christmas’ past still resound from the pulpit.

The thoughts and prayers of Christmas were felt throughout the Canton of 1887. The focus on simple gifts, fellowship of neighbors, and Christian charity were well understood. Among Noyes’ final thoughts in that column were dedicated toward “useful and beautiful gifts that love and friendship bestowed upon himself.” Canton is as it was over a hundred years ago — a town of love and friendship.

This story ran in the Canton Citizen on December 23, 2010.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Canton Airport: Part II

Peter "Richie Sarra" in front of his plane
at the Canton Airport
Today, Neponset Street is crowded with large trucks moving fill in and out of the worksite heralding the beginning of the hazardous waste cleanup of the old Canton Airport. What was a dream of national aviation will soon become public parkland, and few will know that this site once sat center stage in hearts and minds of local aviators.

The selection of the site for the Massachusetts Air Terminal and Arena (MATA) was largely based on an engineering study that determined the Neponset River and the Fowl Meadows could be controlled through dikes and runoff channels. In 1930, anything seemed possible, even taming nature. But as work began, flooding was a constant issue. Planes fitted with pontoons would make their landings on the flooded runways, and seasonally the airport would be closed to general air operations. Local resident Jane Roache worked as a secretary at the Helio Corporation and tells of having to board a military cargo truck to ford the waters and get to work on flooding occasions.

The winter of 1935-1936 was especially severe and snowpack remained deep through an extremely cold season. By the spring, Mother Nature had set up a perfect scenario for flooding, and in mid March more than 17 inches of rain fell over the course of back-to-back storms. The situation was dire, and local pilots from Canton played their part in “errands of mercy.”

Most notably, it was the emergency takeoff of Dick Babcock stealing the show that season. Babcock was a 1930 graduate of Canton High School, attended MIT, and was a well-known charter pilot. Through the ingenuity of the airport manager, Joe Rizzo, he loaded Babcock’s plane off the back of a flatbed truck, drove over Neponset Street to Cross Street in Norwood, and created a makeshift runway on Route 1. Police closed the highway for half a mile in either direction, and the young aviator flew his 240-horsepower Stinson four-passenger monoplane to relieve the drought-stricken areas of New England. This was the second time that Babcock had performed his “wings of mercy” flight, as earlier that year he flew through severe fog to deliver food and clothing to stranded families along the coast of Maine. Babcock was 23 years old and well on his way toward becoming a legend of the air.

Every week there were stories of Babcock’s heroics and flying records. The local paper reported his trips up and down the early flight paths. This all came to a tragic end when, on a foggy October evening in 1937, Babcock crashed nose-down in a muddy pasture owned by Albert Merlau near Cowlesville, New York, about 26 miles from Buffalo. The only witness was a mailman who heard the engine of the small red plane splutter and witnessed the crash. It was a terrible end for Babcock and his two passengers. The shock on the town of Canton and his family was deeply felt. Looking back at the 1930 Canton High School yearbook, Babcock, the class president, had been voted the most irresponsible.

While there were plenty of crashes and at least one mid-air collision, not all accidents ended as tragically. Several stories of weekend fliers ditching into local pastures and fields were commonplace. In the summer of 1935, Ralph Beasley of Messinger Street and Johnson Bennett of Washington Street narrowly escaped certain death when their monoplane crashed into Orlow Bright’s field on Chapman Street. Later that same year, in early November, Arthur Wilbart, to his great disappointment, landed on his own automobile parked near the runway. It turns out that taking off is easy, and landings get sticky.

Many notable men and women learned to fly here in Canton. The flight school was extremely popular and well attended. Students from MIT and Harvard would spend their weekends (and trust funds) at the field and became successful pilots. Thomas Piper, the son of the president of Taylor-Piper Aircraft, spent his time away from his studies at Harvard in pursuit of flying his dad’s Taylor Cub. By 1940, 60 percent of all private planes were Piper Cubs, and Thomas went on to help run his father’s business.

The airport was a busy place on weekends; lifelong residents still recall the flying shows and air demonstrations that were commonplace in the late 1930s through the late 1940s. John Carroll on Pleasant Street recently told me of spending afternoons watching Bobby Draper flying acrobatic loops over the airfield. Peter “Richie” Sarra would spend time flying with his brother in their 1947 Mcclish Funk B85C. The “Bee” could be seen zipping over the Blue Hills with Richie smiling behind the console of the two-seater. With a top speed of 117 miles per hour, this was a terrific plane. Sarra’s plane still takes to the air with an owner in Revere, Pennsylvania. NC77700 is one of 40 remaining “Bees” registered and still flying. And Canton’s own Dottie Shaw learned to fly at age 22, and by age 26 became a member of the famous Ninety-Nines.

Perhaps the greatest sight that Canton residents witnessed was the first daytime visit of the German airship Hindenburg. Crowds gathered at the airport on August 19 for the first daytime flight of the famous dirigible. “Her silvery hulk gleaming in the noonday sun,” thousands gathered at Glider Hill and along the airport property. 

Accompanied by an escort of three National Guard airplanes, there was noise and spectacle. The Hindenburg slowed as it passed over Canton and afforded the stunned audience an amazing show. Less than a year later on May 6, 1937, she returned and flew over Canton at 300 feet. Citizens reportedly said that it was so low due to cloud cover that “passengers in the giant zeppelin could be plainly seen.” By 7:25 p.m. that evening, the Hindenburg burst into flames, and 13 passengers, along with 22 crew-members, perished.

The Helio-1 hanging in storage at the National Air
and Space Museum in Suitland, MD.
One of the last chapters in Canton Airport history was the development of the Helioplane, which was a highly specialized plane that was renowned for its ability to utilize short takeoffs and landings. The plan was to create a plane that could be in anyone’s garage and land in your own backyard. The creation was the engineering accomplishment of Otto Koppen of MIT and Dr. Lynn Bollinger of Harvard. With an investment of $150,000, the first Helioplane was developed in Canton and flew in April 1949. This diminutive plane combined the advantages of helicopters with simplicity, speed, and the range of a fixed-wing aircraft. At the height of construction, the Helio Corporation employed 45 skilled craftsmen at the Canton Airport.

By the late 1950s the Canton Airport was closed and became the site of a junkyard where PCB-laced transformers were scrapped. The hangars were demolished and soon disappeared into the landscape. The runways, disused and overgrown, returned to wetland. There is, however, a final reminder of the heyday of the great airport. In a state-of-the-art hangar in Suitland, Maryland, hangs the Helio 1 — flown with about 100 hours of time on its engine, developed and flown in Canton, and now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The small red plane dreams about once again soaring over the fields and marshes of Canton.

Read more about the Helio-1 by clicking here.

This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on December 9, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Canton Airport: Part I

The Massachusetts Air Terminal and Arena
There are long-lost plans of men and women that, if implemented, would have changed Canton forever. The most notable of these plans was the development of the Massachusetts Air Terminal and Arena. The ambition of the men who devised the plan was to construct a major air terminal along the border of Canton and Norwood — in essence an airport that would become one of the nation’s hubs for the fledgling passenger and commercial air industry.

The public’s interest in aviation was intense; Charles Lindbergh had completed his historic solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Instantly famous, Lindbergh stoked the imagination of the American spirit, and people across the country would forever cast their eyes and hearts to the sky. Add to the equation Amelia Earhart, who by 1927 had already counted more than 500 hours of solo flying, and instantly both men and women could picture themselves soaring through the sky.

A small group of men gathered together to discuss the ambition for building landing fields, hangars, and assorted recreational facilities for the Massachusetts Air Terminal and Arena (MATA). In the spring of 1930 the engineering firm of Merick Widlish & Co. of Chicago began the engineering plans and study for the new airport. Merick Wildish began engineering for cities and private corporations in 1907 and specialized in community-based airfield development — they knew their stuff, and the plans showed a prescience as to how great air traffic would become in the United States. On June 16 the engineers unveiled a masterful plan that would begin the transformation of 1,298 acres from a shallow wetland of thick peat to the proposed “world-class airport.”

Investors in MATA had purchased land in the Fowl Meadows along Neponset Street and bordered by a new state superhighway off of present day Route 1. For newcomers to Canton, the airport is about to become parkland and is on the right-hand side as you leave Canton for Norwood on Neponset Street. One important feature was that the land bordered almost a mile and a half of railroad lines and proposed industrial land. The purchase, when recorded in the Dedham Registry of Deeds, was said to be the largest single parcel of land ever to be assembled by a private company in the commonwealth.  

These were heady dreams — the plans included eight runways, hangars, dirigible docking bays and a mast, a separate area exclusively for aviation club members, hotels, and a fire department base. In addition, the arena areas included a nine-hole golf course with country club buildings, a tennis club, athletic fields, and a small stadium. To see the detailed plans today makes one think of the mega-developments we now find so common dotting our highways across every major city. Yet this was Canton in 1930, and the plans were unique from any other development in the country at this time.

The men who conceived of this airport were aware of the fact that the highway and the railroad made a perfect juncture for their plans. The developers predicted the future in an early newspaper press release: “Boston is the nearest big city to Europe, and some day there will be regular transatlantic service by air.” To gain support and generate public interest, the citizens of Norfolk County were invited to open houses on site where engineers pointed out the ambitious plans. The general premise was “to get acquainted with the site of one of America’s great airport projects and to enjoy a view of surprising beauty and a vision of Norfolk County’s future.”

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, 2,500 people attended the tour of the property and viewed flagged lines where the runways would be laid out. Their imaginations were set loose on that October day. Gathering at Glider Hill — Inspiration Point — were the managers, engineers, and leaders of the project, as each one took a hand at explaining the vision. More than 200 cars visited the site and caused a general ruckus that probably had never been seen in this small town previously.

A political Cartoon from 1936 featuring the Canton
Airport. (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Within weeks of the open house the excitement reached a fevered pitch. A general committee was formed in several towns, and Canton named over 170 members — all leading individuals in the community. The general sentiment was in favor of the new airport, and what was once pasture and grazing land would be transformed into an economic engine for the region.

Work began in January 1931 and a steam shovel began bringing up gravel on the site to compact the new runways. J.P. White Contracting was awarded the bid to build the project, and it would take four months to get the land ready for the construction of the hangars and administration building. Most of the laborers on the project were Canton men who were badly in need of work while in the throes of the Great Depression. Despite the weak economy, more than $130,000 was raised through private investors in the fledgling company.

The first planes to land in Canton touched down in the spring, and the town was abuzz with excitement. It is hard to overstate the interest. Every week the front page of the local paper blazed headlines about the airport, and advertisements regularly invited locals to climb aboard and see the town from the air.

Officially, the first air service to use the hangars and field were operated by Lt. Robert S. Fogg, reputedly the “safest flyer in New England.” Fogg had a considerable record, carrying over 27,000 passengers on his charter service without a mishap. On a Wednesday afternoon in early June, a brilliant black and orange, open cockpit biplane, powered with a Wright motor and capable of a top speed of 135 miles per hour, taxied to a stop in front of the newly completed hangar that would soon hold 15 planes. When Fogg touched down purely by chance, he was met by Selectman Joseph Wattles and Paul Draper — two of our most prominent citizens.

January 2, 1942 - The Canton Airport. Neponset Street
is at the bottom of the picture. (courtesy of the National
Archives, and the Collection of Marc J. Frattasio)
On June 26, 1931, the Canton Airport was opened for business. When it opened it was the third largest in the state. Traffic around the airport snarled as curiosity reigned supreme. “Chief Flood detailed motorcycle officer Whitty to the place to handle it and members of the Canton Boy Scouts ably helped keep the crowd in order.”

Every weekend hundreds of people would come to see the “aeroplanes” land and take off from the Canton Airport. In fact, while there was an airport in East Boston (now Logan International), at times passenger flights hampered by fog in Boston would be forced to land in Canton, where passengers would be transferred to Canton Junction to complete the trip into Boston.

With our new airport came increased interest in aviation and a new frontier to explore. Canton would be at the center of New England aviation history, and along for the ride would be several notable residents. In the next installment of this story, we will highlight details of Canton fliers, the Hindenburg visit, and a first in aviation engineering produced right here and now in our nation’s attic.

Click here to see more photos and read more information about the Canton Airport. 
This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on December 2, 2010.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

James A. Bazin

James Bazin's Spectacles - in the collection of the Canton Historical Society
James A. Bazin: A glimpse of history through thin, gold frames  

On a recent historical tour of Canton for residents at Orchard Cove, I was extolling all of the amazing oddities that made Canton, well, uniquely Canton. And after rattling off a list of firsts in America that are connected to Canton, one of the passengers gave me a look that suggested she did not quite believe my facts. It was when our bus passed the home in Ponkapoag owned by James A. Bazin, and I recited the fact that Bazin invented the first reed instrument in America. The Bazin house still stands to the left of the driveway at the entrance to the Ponkapoag Golf Course. 

Bazin (pronounced Bay-Zahn) is perhaps one of Canton’s most interesting citizens. The photo is of his spectacles, and it made me think of all the amazing things that Bazin saw through his eyes and what he produced while a citizen of Canton. History is made up of touch points, and holding his glasses (which are in the collection of the Canton Historical Society), you can feel the pulse of history through the thin gold frames.

James Amireaux Bazin was born in Boston in 1798. He was the fifth of ten children born to Jean Bazin and Jeanne (Amireaux) Bazin. Jean, a watchmaker, was a French Huguenot who came to Boston in 1788 from Helier, on the Isle of Jersey — a small town off the coast of France. In 1812, when Bazin was 14, the family moved to Canton and settled in Ponkapoag. The family “hired a small house known as the Sherman House, built by John Wentworth in 1805.” This house was still standing in 1922 on Sassamon Street. It appears that the education that Bazin received was extremely supportive of his early interests, which included astronomy, mathematics, as well as the fine arts. 

We know much of Bazin’s life because he was one of the most highly esteemed citizens in Canton. Also, more than 100 personal items are in the collection of the local historical society and each one is a connection to his time and place in our town. The items are both plain and complicated: a small serving dish, a china platter, a teapot and pewter serving pieces — all connected to the fantastic — an astronomical model of the universe, magnifying eyeglasses, a walnut rotary pump. And then there are the instruments, perhaps Bazin’s finest contributions to the creation of early reed instruments in America. The range again is wonderfully collected: a small harp, two organ pianofortes (from 1853), and several reed-based lap organs alongside two reed trumpets of fantastic invention.

Bazin came to examine a simple free-reed instrument when he was 23 years old. A group of men brought him a broken pitch pipe and asked him to repair it. Bazin made the repair but also created a new invention, which became a sliding brass pitch pipe that could be adjusted along a series of pitches from c” to d’”. From this small invention he began making several variations on the theme and eventually moved to reed trumpets, which he invented in 1824. For many years his trumpet accompanied the choir at the Unitarian Church in Canton Corner and reputedly it could be heard “a mile away.” In 1831 Bazin invented a harmonica. In fact, Bazin had only read about the harmonica invented in Germany, so it is likely that indeed this was the first reed harmonica in America.

Bazin's Inventions
Bazin also created lap organs, table organs, a seraphine, and several larger instruments. What is amazing is that his earliest instruments were patented, sold reasonably well (although at a loss), and today are in private collections as well as the Museum of Fine Art, the National Museum of American History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Darcy Kuronen, a noted expert on early musical instruments, writes of Bazin: “Each of his surviving examples of his instruments shows a restless desire to improve their operation and versatility, with no one model bearing much resemblance to another.” To all of Bazin’s credit, his work was very complex, and as such, forms the foundation for later adaptations that would become commercially viable.

James Amireaux Bazin by R. C. Steadman
Bazin never married, and lived in the large house in Ponkapoag with his sister Delicia. The Bazin family was quite distinguished, and while not wealthy, they were held in extremely high regard by the townspeople. Along with all of the items that have survived from the family collection is an enormous French Bible and 17th century charters from France where the family had emigrated. Many residents of Ponkapoag in the mid 1800s were quite familiar with Bazin’s house as it was described as a museum “filled with antique furniture, rare old books, old prints, models and plans.” One of the oddities on the second floor of his house was a camera obscura — basically an optical device that projected a 360-degree view of Ponkapoag onto an interior wall as entertainment. He delighted in bringing his neighbors into the darkened room and showing the village as a painted picture. 

A true renaissance man, Bazin maintained an impressive garden, sang in the church choir, and was a supporter of the fledgling Canton Public Library, donating several ancient French and English books to the early collection. In 1840 he became town clerk, a position he held for nine years. Bazin’s portrait, drawn by R. C. Steadman, hangs in the office along the left-hand wall as you stand at the counter. When he died in 1883 at age 85, his obituary read, “His long life had been a comfort to himself and a credit to his adopted town and fellow citizens.”

The family headstone is a massive granite ashlar in Canton Corner Cemetery. But the best reminders of Bazin’s life are the musical instruments that were born from his invention and let us see through his eyes the genius of Bazin.

This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on November 18, 2010.

Friday, November 5, 2010

School No. 6

Schoolhouse Number 6 - The Revere School

Just as you are about to leave Canton, heading for Norwood, you will pass Chapman Street on your right. To gain your bearings, today there is a traffic light at the intersection of Neponset and Chapman streets; a slight hill to your right in front of you is a small service station, and the scene in this photograph is the original Revere School, or Schoolhouse Number 6. Built in 1827 at a cost of $600, it would serve Canton children for over 87 years.

This building is lost to time. The photograph is taken from a glass plate that I recently found in a box in the basement of the Canton Historical Society. I have long had a keen interest in the Revere School, and finding this relic of a previous incarnation of the original Revere School proved useful material for this lesson. The photograph is almost 125 years old and looks as crisp as the day it was taken. Behind this photo is a story that perhaps could be told by many of the early schoolhouses in Canton. 

The construction of School No. 6 coincided with the establishment of the Boston Manufacturing Company, a large, sprawling complex that was begun in 1824. Three entrepreneurs erected a stone mill that would stand on the corner of Walpole and Neponset streets for 183 years. This area came to be known as the Stone Factory section of Canton. The young owners knew that in order to be successful, labor and amenities that supported labor had to be close by. 

The town of Canton opened up a road across Fowl Meadows in order to shorten the route for teams of horses to reach Boston. As part of the neighborhood, the industrialists built a small chapel, comfortable boarding houses, large barns, and this one-room schoolhouse. The population exploded around the Stone Factory District, and so successful were the early company days that the monthly payroll exceeded more than $7,000. Unfortunately, many of the workers in the mill were children.

Along with boom came bust, and the attendance at School No. 6 would rise and fall with the fortunes of the company. An early report on the school laments the fact that “a great evil in this school is the irregularity of attendance. Children who are in school to-day, and in the Mill at work to-morrow, cannot, in the nature of the case, make any progress in their studies.” Along with tardiness was an issue with retaining adequate teachers. In one year the school reported “energetic and persevering” teachers, and in the next a new teacher was described as “deficient in energy, decision and firmness.” As the school committee saw it, the old settlers sent their children with regularity, and the “floating population” — those who worked in the mill — would ebb and flow. 

The public descriptions of the teachers who taught in the summer and winter terms at School No. 6 were often quite severe. In 1847, describing the teaching style of Mr. Isaac A. Parsons of Maine, the school board writes, “There was a want of dignity in manner, of correctness of language which should characterize a teacher of youth. Children cannot be expected to have good manners and refinement unless they witness them in example and copy they are taught to imitate in school.” Parsons was also marked down for his lack of keeping the register and “exhibiting a culpable deficiency of neatness and accuracy.”

The payroll for School No. 6 also reveals issues that marked the time. In 1857, for example, the salary for a female teacher was $18 per month and for her male counterpart $34. The school at that time was called backward and difficult to govern, and given that on one week 50 to 60 children would attend, and then the next 20 to 30 would be in their seats, there is no question that challenges abounded. 

In 1854 the small building was enlarged, but problems persisted. Again, parents needed children in the mill to assist with the labor pool. In fact, most children would leave this school by the time they reached age 11 or 12, as a job working in the mill or laboring in a field would be their lot in life. 

By 1865 the stream of immigrants brought new challenges to School No. 6: “The foreign population for the most part are ill educated, or not educated at all. Some pretend to speak the English language; others do not; and some speak vulgar, local dialects.” Joseph Wattles, who wrote the school report that year, ended his missive with a quote by Alexander Pope: “Words are like leaves, and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

By 1870, the schoolhouse became known as Neponset School in recognition that the Neponset Woolen Mills had taken over the old stone factory. Harrison Gray Otis had taken over the mill, and measured success returned to the area. Finally, in 1881 the school was officially named the Revere School in honor of the close connections in the general area to the patriot Paul Revere.

Things gradually improved at the Old Revere School. The general observation in 1886 was that the superintendent of schools met with “cheerful faces, clean hands, clear voices, bright smiles,” all of which went along with “swept floors, well dusted desks and clean windows.” Within 30 years a new modern school on Chapman Street would replace this building. Until that time, however, the two-room schoolhouse would continue to serve Canton until 1914.

This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on November 4, 2010.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Massapoag House

The Massapoag House 

A recent column in the Canton Citizen commented on the fact that a new hotel is being built in Canton and that this was the first new hotel since the Massapoag House was built in 1789. And, while there is a long history of taverns and boarding houses in Canton, indeed the Massapoag House was a true "hotel" by all standards.  

The three-story Massapoag House was an imposing structure located on the land of the present day post office. For over seventy years this landmark was the center of social and Catholic life in our community. It is hard to imagine such a grand building imposing upon the streetscape, but Massapoag House was quite a special place.

The building began life in 1789 as a private residence for Jonathan “Quaker” Leonard. Quaker Leonard was, of course, a Quaker - a member of the Society of Friends, and a businessman and partner of Adam Kinsley. And at age 26, was building considerable wealth. Leonard descended from a family that hailed from Pontypool, England and when they came to America - they brought with them the knowledge of the working of iron ore. Leonard's father, Eliphalet began making guns for the American Revolution in Easton, Mass and it was here that Jonathan Leonard met Adam Kinsley. Leonard, known to be eccentric and bright, obtained even more insight into iron production when upon hearing that steel was being made in Pennsylvania he travelled there to investigate. Under the guise of being a simpleton he engaged in industrial espionage and worked as a menial employee at the furnace thus bringing even more knowledge to the business in Canton and Easton. 

As for the other half of the partnership, for folks who know their history; Kinsley is a name synonymous with iron in Norfolk County, and at the time in America. In 1788 Leonard and Kinsley erected a blacksmith's shop where the present day Centerfield's Restaurant now stands. The business was brisk and between 1790-1800 more than 200 mill-saws and 3600 scythes were manufactured, all implements of a growing post-colonial economy.

At the time the majority of iron ore came from Lake Massapoag in Sharon. This 353 acre spring fed lake was drawn down to expose bog iron that would be refined in Canton and Easton. It is no wonder that Massapoag House would have such a strong connection to the great pond in Sharon as the source of wealth was the raw material that would build a nation.

So, in 1789, Leonard built Massapoag House next to the factory and by all accounts a large and imposing two story building. The firm of Leonard & Kinsley continued until 1821 when they split and Leonard took the land on the easterly side of Washington Street and Kinsley took the land on the westerly side. Eventually the Kinsley Iron Works would come to own all of the land when Leonard's fortunes turned bad. Leonard believed that a rich mine of lead ore would be found in Easton and he pursued this search and in doing so exhausted his considerable fortunes. Massapoag House was lost to his creditors sometime between 1833 and 1835. Leonard left, some say in shame, and according to Huntoon, moved to New Orleans. Recent sources seem to indicate that he died on October 25, 1839 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Massapoag House became a public house managed by David Spaulding.

By the time the Viaduct was being built in 1834, James Bent was running his tavern at the site and he ran a stagecoach line from Canton to Boston. Bent was the son of Captain William Bent the landlord of the Eagle Inn, so in keeping with the family business, Massapoag House continued to be a tavern. A stop in Canton would have been on the route to Providence or Boston and the stage line would have several places to drop passengers. The building was remade as a public house and the Canton Lyceum (a literary society) met regularly at this tavern. In fact, the Canton Lyceum was the "salon" of Canton - where ideas were debated regularly and eventually the literary collection would become the Canton Public Library.The big change for Massapoag House would come in 1848 when Lyman Kinsley, Adam Kinsley's son, expanded, remodeled and added a third-story thus creating the finest county hotel in New England. The drawing (above) was featured on the opening playbill for the Grand Ball held on February 3, 1848. It was Kinsley that gave the house it's name, Massapaog House.

For many years the hotel flourished, but the smoke from the forges in the immediate vicinity would make a stay disagreeable. By 1909 the fortunes of the Kinsley Iron Works were dissolved an once again creditors would step in and sell the property. 

In 1909, the Catholic Church bought the building at auction. As such, in more modern times the association more closely recalled with this building is that of the Canton Catholic Club and Guild.  The basement boasted three bowling alleys, while a movie theatre showed silent films and in the rear of the first floor there was a large billiards parlor. Canton’s Catholic population had swelled during the late part of the 19th century and to help occupy the attention and time, the Catholic Club offered many diversions. This was the home to the Canton Royal Rooters of 1915. 

Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society
The end would come more than 129 years after it was built. Early on January 5, 1918, fire destroyed the 130 year-old structure. "It was an absolutely fascinating thing to watch," recalled Town Clerk Carlton Taber, who as a young boy remembered being at the scene after hearing the fire alarm split the frigid morning air. "The water became ice in nothing flat." Judge Gregory Grover took this photo from his front lawn where the fire was fought.

So, as you climb the stairs to the Post Office, it is hard to imagine that the center of social life in Canton was here on this site. If you pause for a moment you might hear the laughter of children, or catch a whisper of a lover, perhaps the music of dance hall where Nathaniel Bent would cut the "pigeon's wing." As Huntoon writes: "The happy nights passed in the old hall will linger in the memory till time with us shall be no more."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Walpole Street - Circa 1900

Walpole Street looking towards Neponset Street circa 1900

As part of a larger project, I began working with large-format glass plate negatives from the basement of the Canton Historical Society. The boxes that contain several dozen of the plates are made of old cardboard and have become quite musty over the years. The last time someone looked at these plates was the mid 19070's - small handwritten notes are in each box describing the contents and each plate is wrapped in thin tissue with the date and time of the exposed photograph.

What is beautiful about these plates is the wonderful views that have long since vanished from our memory. The view of Walpole Street is another superb example of the major changes that our town has undergone as progress marches us forward. In this photograph is the Neponset Woolen Mills which many folks referred to as the "Stone Factory" owing to the impressive stone walls that stood here for almost 175 years. In the distance is the Canton Viaduct. And, to the right of the frame is an ancient small house that certainly dates to well before the American Revolution.

Walpole Street is one of our most ancient ways. As early as 1733 it was described as the road leading from "ye bridge by ye old forge." The road ran through the land of Timothy Jones and Joseph Hartwell. In fact, Jones and Hartwell petitioned the town (then Stoughton) to erect gates for passengers to open and shut as they passed - it is likely this request was not granted. By 1840, the road was designated "the road leading from the Stone Factory by Thomas Kollick's to the Sharon Line." Perhaps the small house is a remnant of one of the early landowners of record - Jones, Hartwell, Jordan, Comings or Kollick. More research will most certainly yield an answer.

Today, it is the road to Sharon. The factory has been replaced by a condominium complex that gives a nod to the past with a copy of the original tower. The small house has been lost long ago, and today an automobile repair shop is approximately where it once stood. The Viaduct is the lone survivor in the image - built in 1835 - just a few years after the factory was constructed.

So, what is there to fall in love with in this image? The superb tones, the sharpness of the building, and the factory and house balanced along the country road. The current project that I am working on takes advantage of enormous advances in high-resolution scanning to rediscover long lost images and see new pieces of the image that would not be evident if we simply printed the image on photo paper. In 1976, Ed Bolster carefully held each plate up to the light and made the small notes that are tucked in each box. Almost 35 years later, we hold the plates up to a new light and discover all that is wonderful and all that is lost in Canton.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reservoir Pond

The Canton Reservoir from Pleasant Street

much discussion is presently raging surrounding the possible loss of the Canton Reservoir - or the Rez - as it is affectionately known. Many people may not realize that in fact this is a man-made pond, built to serve industry in Canton and part of a rich history tied to the need for water and power.

Daniel Huntoon starts the conversation in his History of Canton. "Reservoir Pond is situated at the geographical center of the town, and is a modern pond, having been raised to its present size, about three-hundred acres, by a dam erected in 1827. In 1832 the land was sold to the Neponset Woolen Company for $314, and subsequently became the property of the Revere Copper Comp
any. A dam was erected before 1720. To build this, several of the inhabitants affirmed that they had been at great trouble and charge to flow their swamp lying on Pequit Brook, and were much provoked when the town, in 1722, used their dam as a roadway. This dam was usually known as Hartwell's dam, from Samuel Hartwell, who resided on the southerly border of Pequit Brook, on the site now occupied by Mr. Pitcher. The meadows, known as "Crossman's" meadows, because Dr. George Crossman at one time lived near them, were flowed by the Neponset Woollen Company in order to form a reservoir in case of scarcity of water, and the water can be retained of allowed to flow at option."

So, in a nutshell we see that there is a 288 year history of holding back the water of Pequit Brook at Pleasant Street. And, while the water was used primarily for power needs further downstream, in fact it is hard to imagine the 200 acres of open space
as anything other. The recreational uses have been plentiful and many residents both old and young recall skating, swimming, boating, fishing, and even ice sailing on the Rez.

So, what is all the controversy today? And could we lose our beloved Reservoir? The answer is complicated. The roadway is owned by the Town of Canton, but the Dam and the body of water (and land underneath) is owned by a private development company which purchased the Reservoir when they purchased the Revere Copper & Rolling Mill. In 2007 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts inspected the Dam at Pleasant Street and classified the condition as poor and posed an extreme hazard for the residents and property to the south of the dam. There is a great issue across Massachusetts whereby more than 60 "high hazard" dams are in danger of failure. In some case the wholesale breaching of the dam - thus allowing the water to return to the natural boundaries is being contemplated. This is the case at the Canton Reservoir, where one option to simply remove the Dam rather than repair the structure. The owners, businessmen from Chicago, will choose the least costly method of solving this problem. The residents who have for years enjoyed the recreational and natural uses of the pond may find declining values and perhaps future development in their backyards. Stay tuned as the history continues.