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.