Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mile by Mile

You probably drive by them all the time without noticing. They sit by the side of the road, silent necessities of our Colonial era that are no longer needed in a modern age. The small stone mile markers, milestones, have been marking the distance from Boston since the early 1700s.
Today, with our satellite-guided navigation systems and global positioning devices, we are hard-pressed to get lost in our modern age. Our milestones are wonderful reminders of a distant age; they require no winding or batteries, and their warranties have long run out, but they still tell the distance to Boston and can be counted on in all types of weather.
The milestones in Canton are part of a network of stones that all lead the way to Boston. Five roads connected Boston with neighboring towns and were collectively called the Bay Roads, since they ultimately led to the Massachusetts Bay at Boston Harbor. Likely these began as Native American paths to the shore, and over time became developed cart paths and ultimately roads and highways. Our “bay road,” the Old Bay Road from Boston Bay to Taunton, extended from the earliest of settlements at Providence, Rhode Island, and the Narragansett Bay. This path was used for more than a century prior to the American Revolution and for more than 50 years thereafter. It would be the “turnpike” systems that would replace this road in the mid 1800s, but until then Bay Road was the route most preferred.
What began as a bridle path and then a cart path would become our main thoroughfare. Laid out by the selectmen of Dorchester in 1700 and again in 1712, it has had many names. In 1703 it was called the road leading to Billings’ in Sharon. In 1707 this was called the road leading to Rehoboth. Other names over the years included “Road to Rhode Island,” “The King’s Highway,” and “the great road from Boston to Taunton.” In 1840, that portion that travels through Canton between Milton and Sharon became known as Washington Street.
As the early colonists began building and improving roads, they erected mile markers to measure the distances between taverns, churches, meetinghouses, schoolhouses and blacksmiths. It was Paul Dudley, a Roxbury native educated at Harvard (class of 1690), who left an enduring legacy of milestones throughout greater Boston. From 1729 onward, Dudley erected stones measuring the distance to the then Boston Town House, now the Old State House. All of the distances on the stones, including Canton, assume a route along Washington Street in Roxbury to Eliot Square. In reality, the distances between each stone are wonderfully accurate.
At Roxbury, the town center was located at John Eliot Square, where a meetinghouse had been built in 1632. And at the fork of Roxbury and Centre streets can be found the “Parting Stone,” the terminus between the roads that lead to Boston.
For our purposes, let’s start our journey at the Milton line as we cross in front of the Blue Hills. It is here, just slightly over the Canton and Milton boundary line, that milestone 12 sits. Actually, as I began writing this story, it occurred to me that I had never actually seen this milestone. A quick detour away from the computer and out across Canton was in order.

The missing 12th milestone that was
removed from Route 138 sometime
 in the early 1970s
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Milestone 12 was last recorded in 1950 when 22 milestone markers were carefully located and mapped after 200 years with the hope that “these milestones may still so repose after 200 more.” Locating these markers was a passion of Channing Howard, a founder of the Boston engineering firm of Whitman & Howard and an avid historian. Mr. Howard lived in Winthrop and meticulously plotted the routes and locations of the stones leading to Boston. Several letters on the topic of milestones can be found in the Canton Historical Society between Charlotte Endicott Wilde, an avid local historian, and Mr. Howard. Included in the society file are several maps showing the locations as they were found in the 1950s.
Driving over Route 128, and to your left, heading towards Blue Hill, is Milestone 13. In the cloverleaf between the exits there is a “Welcome to Canton” sign, and just next to it is the 13th mile marker placed by John Spare in 1786. Exactly one mile to the north on Route 138 should be the 12th milestone. I pulled off the road at a safe spot and walked in both directions north and south. No stone to be found. The 12th marker should be on the westerly side of the road, just at the line. Plenty of poison ivy can be found, and two private driveways. The marker is lost. Even a “trespass” behind a high stockade fence failed to yield the whereabouts of the marker. Placed here by Lemuel Davenport, this granite monument read “12 miles to Boston, 1774, L.D.” Stoughton historian Howard Hansen recalls seeing the milestone in the early 1960s; by the early 1970s the road was leveled, a hill removed and the stone disappeared. Likely this relic adorns a garden or has become a backyard conversation piece.
Turning south and continuing back into Canton, just over the bridge that crosses Route 128 (now I-93), you will again pass the John Spare milestone. Spare was the son of Samuel Spare, an early settler, who came to Stoughton in 1738. The marker was placed quite near the family home on what was known as Cherry Hill. John Spare was a member of the Stoughton Minutemen and served in the Revolutionary War.
Another mile south should yield milestone 14, and the odometer places this spot directly at the Old English Burying Ground. In front of the burying ground are two large stones with historical inscriptions detailing this site. In 1952, Mrs. Wilde, in a letter to Mr. Howard, writes, “I could not help wondering if the opposite side of [these] stones, which is wholly covered by banking and turf, might not have been the old 14 mile stone.” It may be the case that the milestone was reused in this wall, for in 1843, after many years of complaint and controversy, a new wall was erected. Granite posts, which had adorned the mansion of Gardiner Greene in Boston, were reset and iron gates were installed. Alas, the gates and any trace of milestone 14 are lost.

Further south we come to milestone 15, simply marked “B 15 M” and leaning into Washington Street in front of the earliest section of St. Mary’s Cemetery. This grey ghost is easy to find and almost as easy to hit with an ill intentioned driver. Milestone 16 is reported to have been approximately where the old Endicott house stands, just before the high school. It has long been believed that this stone may very well be buried in one of the old walls that grace this section of Washington Street.
The 17th Mile Stone. Relocated from the original
location (shown here) and now at the waterfall on
Pond & Washington Streets. (Courtesy of the
Canton Historical Society.)
Measuring another mile, the final stone along Washington Street should by all accounts be located near the present-day Dockray and Thomas Funeral Home. Many residents, however, know that the 17th milestone is located near the falls at Shepard’s Pond in the “Hardware” section of Canton. This is our oldest stone, set here in 1736 by Nathaniel Leonard. Leonard, born in 1717, was active in the early iron business. This stone originally sat across the street and had been saved after being buried in the roadway, reset in place, and in more modern times moved by the town of Canton across the street in the small park near Pond Street. Interestingly enough, this milestone is more than three-eighths of a mile away from where a measured mile should place it. At 275 years old, it can sit wherever it wants, even if it no longer accurately measures the distance to the Old State House.
A youthful Ed Galvin, member of the
Canton Historical Society, repaints the 17th milestone
on Pleasant Street on Memorial Day 1965.
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
One final note to share on Canton milestones: There are three more stones that are quite curious. There is a stone at Canton Center railroad crossing measuring the distance to Providence, Rhode Island. And on Pleasant Street there are two more Boston milestones marked “B 17 M – 1773” and “B 16 M – 1773.” So, curious reader, you may be thinking, “Ah, these are the missing stones on Washington Street. Not the case, the 17th stone is Nathaniel Leonard’s near Pond Street, and no explanation has surfaced as to why the markers that follow the “Bay Road” depart up through Pleasant Street.
Channing Howard wrote in 1939 that it was his work to “rescue from threatened oblivion and preserve the story of this noble road — great in both history and romance — for those who come after. May its glory not grow dim.” To this end, every few years I go out and repaint the letters and dates on these markers. If you are so inclined to join me, I’ll have a brush and paint ready. We can all preserve our town’s history, mile by mile.
The author plans on visiting each stone on Memorial Day weekend and repainting these relics. If you would like to come along, drop an email to geocomeau@gmail.com.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Remembering the Civil War

Company A, the Canton men who were the first to leave Massachusetts
in the Civil War, shown here at a reunion on September 17, 1898.
(Photo by J. W. Wattles, Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
It may be cliché to say that you can touch history, but in all honesty, our history is made up of the places, artifacts and stories that we preserve for future generations to “touch.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the new exhibit at the Canton Historical Society that lays bare the artifacts brought back by Canton soldiers from the American Civil War.
Affectionately, I have always called the “Histy” Canton’s Attic. The building itself was completed 100 years ago and the Classical Revival building with a modest exterior holds thousands of photographs, artifacts and stories that create a link to our place here in Canton. The Historical Society has been collecting and preserving our history since 1871, when it was founded by a group of men to “obtain and preserve all material that would throw light upon the history of the town.” Many of these men fought in the Civil War, and they carefully placed their artifacts into the building for safekeeping.
It must have been with great pride in Canton and in our military role in the Civil War that prompted Wally Gibbs, the president of the society, to begin work on the current exhibit focusing on the Civil War. As Mr. Gibbs examined the holdings in the vault, and in musty drawers and boxes, he put together the story of war that is poignant and memorable. Each object selected is a direct connection to the intense hardship of battle and the bloody trials endured by our boys as they fought a war on home soil.
The history of Canton is intertwined with the Civil War. More than 600,000 men died in battle and even more would return home with disfiguring wounds on both their bodies and minds. Canton’s resident historian, James Roache, recounted the heavy loss of life from Canton: “In a town of almost 3,500 inhabitants, Canton would suffer the loss of 30 men in battle.”
The names of our lost men are inscribed on the memorial tablets that flank the interior at Memorial Hall. Our town hall is in fact a memorial to those who lost their lives in giving the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. The soldier who once stood outside Memorial Hall, and now is in a corner of the interior, was a tribute to the soldiers of Canton. Today, observe the patina of the statue, weathered and beaten, silently watching the tax collections and dog licenses.
A Union soldier's cartridge case.
In the Canton Historical Society it is in the ordinary that we touch the extraordinary. There is the pewter plate used by Larra E. Wentworth in 1863. The Union canteen carried by Captain John Hall. And most touching is the simple tin plate that was picked up at Wilderness, Virginia, along the rebel lines. Buttons, belt buckles, and dress swords fill a case where time stands still and the battles have ended.
There are Union guns and Confederate rifles. The most interesting of these guns is the Confederate single-shot rifled musket that was taken from the battlefield at Bull Run. The rich, dark wood, smoothed by time, bears a rip from a Union bullet that tore the gun “from the hands of a South Carolinian rebel.” The force of the direct hit on the gun sent the weapon flying and wounded the rebel soldier. Attesting to the force of the shells are two bullets that met midair, united by the impact. The ammunition quieted but still telling tales.
The Civil War bugle owned by Wallace McKendry
from Ponkapoag (Photo by George T. Comeau)
Also long quieted is the bugle that belonged to Wallace McKendry. The son of Captain William McKendry and Harriet Billings, McKendry was born in Ponkapoag and enlisted in Company D 22nd Regiment and served as a sergeant in the Peninsular Campaign. The cloth cord and tassels are intact, and the owner’s name is simply engraved.
Most remarkably, the Histy owns the two dress swords worn by the grandsons of the patriot Paul Revere. These two men, Paul Joseph and Edward Hutchinson Robbins Revere, were heroes in the truest sense. Upon the call of duty, Paul Joseph Revere would leave a wife and two children. A dear friend urged him not to leave home, to which Revere remarked, “I have weighed it all, and there is something higher still. The institutions of the country — indeed free institutions throughout the world — hang on this moment.”
The war stories surrounding the two Revere men from Canton are the stuff of movies, and sadly of life during war. Space precludes sharing the list of heroics as well as the tribulations. Suffice it to say that imprisonment, torture, hostage exchanges, glorious battles and, ultimately, sacrifice and death, paint a vivid portrait of the lives of these Cantonians. Both of these men represent the covenant with the Union and freedom, offering their lives to consummate the ideals of the United States of America.
The Revere men stand elegant in a large framed portrait above the door to the society vault that contains their military dress swords. Ask Wally Gibbs to see the swords, and touch a rare piece of Revere family history. Edward Revere’s sword is simple and tells the story of the surgeon who died heroically on the battlefield of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Colonel Paul Joseph Revere’s sword is engraved with the names of the battles in which he took part. Ball’s Bluff, Yorktown, West Point, Seven Pines, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard, Savages Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, Malvern Hill, Antietam, and his final battle, Gettysburg. The names chill the air, and each battle brought him closer to death and into history for the name of his family and country. Mortally wounded on July 2, Paul Joseph Revere died at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863.
Detail from a captured Confederate Flag on display at
the Canton Historical Society
As if to punctuate the battles, there is the captured battle flag of the Confederate Army. In a hand-painted case the flag lies under glass. The 12 stars are faded, and the leather eagle slightly worn. The story behind this flag is found in a handwritten affidavit that reads: “This flag was captured by First Sergeant Edwin West of Wallace’s Zouaves 11th Indiana Regiment at the 3rd day fight — Battle of Shiloh.” The flag was claimed by West as to have been captured from the First Texas Calvary, taken from the hands of Colonel John O’Neil. In a letter of inquiry dated 1899, the last surviving Civil War veteran from Canton, John D. Billings, wrote to United Confederate Veterans and inquired as to Colonel John O’Neil’s whereabouts. The answer back was that O’Neil was not connected to the First Texas Calvary, but rather was a major, lt. colonel and colonel of the 10th Tennessee Infantry. O’Neil died in St. Louis, and perhaps along with him was the story behind the capturing of this flag. No matter, the flag is preserved and is a beautiful piece of our history.
Colonel John D. Billings
Many of the items at the society, hundreds in fact, were collected by Colonel Billings. The notes that accompany the fragments of war indicate a man who was thorough and direct. Of the multitude of fragments from the war collected by Billings, we find such items as a piece of a scabbard picked up at Appomattox Courthouse, fragments of a shell found at Cold Harbor, and a tin cartridge case from Antietam. Billings lived until 1933, dying at age 91, and his passion for the war is evident by the breadth of his collection.
Sometimes the stories and connections to our nation’s past can be found in our own hometown, and the items on display are superb connecting points.