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.