Medford fifty-four years ago.

by Charles E. Hurd, Boston.
[Read before the Medford Historical Society, May 4, 1907.]

WHEN, a few months ago, in a conversation with one of your members, I expressed a willingness to give your Society, not a lecture, but a heart-to-heart talk on ‘Medford, as I Knew It Fifty Years Ago,’ I did not realize what I was taking upon myself. The limitations of my subject as implied in my promise did not once occur to me. The whole history of the town seemed back of me, and I had vague visions at the moment of the references I should be able to make to eminent citizens of the past; to the great captains of industry in the way of ship-building, who had laid the foundations of the town's prosperity; to the leaders of public thought, and, in the purely intellectual line, to those two famous daughters of the town, Maria Gowen Brooks and Lydia Maria Child, who years before had shed a permanent literary flavor over the place. Surely there was an embarrassment of riches in the way of material for such a talk. It was not until after many weeks, and when the date assigned me was growing near, that I sat myself seriously to the task of preparation. Then the truth first dawned upon me. I realized, to my consternation, that up to that time I had been living in a state of delusion, and that instead of the free and unlimited scope I had expected, I was bound by the letter of my promise and agreement to confine myself to speak only of the town as I knew it when, a boy of nineteen, I wandered into its precincts, and that my area of treatment lay wholly between the autumn of 1853 and the summer of [p. 2] 1854. All the rich material of the past was thus barred out, and all the still richer material of the years which followed I could make no use of.

At first I felt strongly tempted to write and withdraw my promise, but after due consideration I concluded that I might, in the way of anecdote and comment, manage to shed some sidelights on Medford life and society, even in that brief space of time, that might be of passing interest.

I doubt if in all the years of Medford's history there was ever a more stagnant period than during those nine months. I am not finding fault. It suited me well enough, for I needed quiet surroundings for my work; but it was unfortunate for your sakes here tonight that it didn't provide me with more stirring material than I shall be able to give you. I was young when I first came to the town. I knew no one, and my life was spent much to myself. I made few acquaintances, but I was naturally of an inquiring mind, and while most of the people I met with were apparently oblivious of my existence, I kept my eyes and ears open.

My first coming to Medford was the result of a painful episode in my family history. When I was a child I used to hear my mother, who died nearly twenty years ago at the age of ninety, tell the story of her brother who died in Medford, away from his home, at the age of sixteen, and who was buried in the old ground across the street from here. His father, my grandfather, had, with several of his neighbors, obtained the charter for a new town in New Hampshire, and had emigrated there with his family. The conditions were unfavorable, however, and the little community suffered from lack of money. It was finally decided that half a dozen of the younger men should return to Massachusetts and seek employment, sending home regularly a portion of their wages, thus relieving the stress upon the little community. My uncle was then young in years, but a man in size and intelligence. He begged to be one of those [p. 3] chosen, and his prayer was granted. With his companions, carrying his little bundle, he walked a hundred miles to Boston. That was in the year 1802. In that year Thatcher Magoun was building his first vessel on the Mystic, and thither the young lad hurried in pursuit of work, which he at once obtained. On the second day after his arrival he fell from the deck to the ship's bottom and was instantly killed.

All the rest of the remaining years of her life his mother was filled with a longing to visit and look upon his last resting place. But that comfort was denied her. The hard days of the pioneers were not yet past, and a few years later she, too, was taken. At the time my mother was three years old—too young, one would suppose, for even so sad an event to make a permanent impression, yet so heavy and sudden was the blow, and so keen was the sorrow in the household, that it remained until the day of her death, nearly ninety years later, one of the most vivid and painful of her memories.

And so the first, vessel built on the Mystic after colonial times was baptized in the blood of this New Hampshire boy, and as one of the results of his tragic and untimely fate I am sitting here and talking to you tonight.

When I left my New Hampshire home fifty years later to seek, as my uncle did, my fortune, my mother exacted a promise from me that I sometime would visit Medford, find the grave, and mark it with a stone, no matter how humble. It was a year or two before the opportunity came. One beautiful day in early October, in 1853, I started out from my Boston boarding-house on my long delayed mission. It was a day to be remembered. The sky was clear, the air bracing, and my lightheartedness was altogether unbefitting the solemnity of my errand. After leaving Charlestown Neck it was a plunge into the real country. Winter Hill was bare of buildings, save here and there a farmhouse, and on either side were fields of corn and spacious gardens, pastures, [p. 4] and green trees where are now paved streets and rows upon rows of handsome houses. Down in the marshes to the right were the busy brickyards, and near by, a standing rebuke to the civilization of the time, were the ruins of the Ursuline Convent, destroyed by a mob a few years before.

Passing down Main street on this side the hill, I stopped to study the Royall mansion. I knew nothing of its name or history, but the place carried with it an unmistakable flavor of the past, and that was an element which always attracted me. So on past the Medford House, over the bridge, past the little branch railroad station and City Hall, into the square. As I entered the square, things had a strangely familiar look. There are so many things in old-fashioned New England villages that look alike. It reminded me of certain New Hampshire villages with which I was familiar, the type, I have since found, of nine out of ten of those anciently planted in New England, the main feature consisting of two broad streets crossing each other at right angles, the intersection forming what is always and everywhere known as ‘the square,’ round which are clustered the various stores of the town, the postoffice, and the oldest church, the town pump always in the center. This last was my first objective point, for my long walk had made me thirsty. I was not so thoroughly permeated with my errand as to be oblivious of everything else, and I spent a comfortable and instructive hour in ‘sizing up’ the town before I turned my steps toward the old burying-ground, directed by a little girl, who was curious to know if I ‘was going to have a funeral,’ and who seemed to be genuinely disappointed when I assured her I was not. The wall which skirted the yard was in a dilapidated condition at that date, the town, or the church society having it in charge, evidently feeling sure that none of those in the enclosure would ever try to get out, and equally sure that nobody outside would be anxious to get in, and so regarded its mending as unnecessary. A [p. 5] diligent investigation availed nothing in the way of locating the spot of which I was in search. I should have been sure of that in the beginning. The world is too busy with its own affairs to take note of the friendless and penniless who leave it, and the only consolation I had in my disappointment was that the nameless dust I had vainly sought nourished the grass above it equally with that of those of more lofty name and lineage which had mingled with it.

While I was resting on the broken wall, from my investigations among the dilapidated stones and unmarked mounds, I was accosted by a pleasant faced young fellow who had been watching me, and who thought I might be searching for some rare botanical specimen. He assured me there was nothing but the commonest weeds and plants in the yard. When I explained that I was simply trying to locate a grave his curiosity suddenly cooled. Later I formed a closer acquaintance with him. You of a later generation know him as Nat Bishop, who later, as a man, brought honor upon himself and his native town as an explorer and naturalist. His home at that time was on Salem street, and very near this spot. I recall his taking me there once or twice, and of meeting his mother, who impressed me as a superior woman. A vague and altogether uncertain memory connects the Bishops with T. P. Smith. Both were property holders on the street, and I think their estates joined.

It was now one o'clock. I had eaten nothing since seven that morning, and became suddenly conscious of an appetite. As a result I began to look about for the means of satisfying it. Walking back to the square I began hunting for a restaurant. I soon found that my search was labor lost. There was no restaurant, but a man whom I asked furnished the information that I could get a good dinner at ‘Betsy Baker's’ for fifty cents, and appeared surprised that I didn't know that Betsy Baker's was the Medford House. Now, half dollars were not as plenty then as they are today, and besides, [p. 6] if the truth must be told, I had n't half a dollar in my pocket. Hungrier than ever, I wandered down Salem street, when Withington's bakery caught my eye. ‘They make things to eat, here,’ I said to myself, ‘and of course they sell them.’ A course of reasoning I subsequently found correct. I shall never forget that dinner, which I ate off the counter, while the girl in attendance watched me as if she expected I was going through the whole stock. Three doughnuts, half a dozen cookies, quarter of an apple pie, with a glass of milk. I have eaten dinners at Parker's, Young's, the Touraine, and the Waldorf-Astoria since then, but never one with a better appetite, or which went so directly to the spot. I remember it, too, for another reason. There was a third person present, who watched my gastronomic performances with evident astonishment and admiration. His floury appearance and white jacket showed him to be a baker, probably one of Mr. Withington's employees, and as soon as he opened his mouth I knew that he was an Irishman. As I wiped my mouth with my handkerchief after finishing my meal, he opened upon me. Our conversation ran something like this:—

‘Ye come out here from Boston?’


‘Wid a team?’


‘By the cars?’

‘No, on foot.’

‘Are ye lookina fur a job?’


‘Are ye a baker?’

‘No, I was never inside a bakeshop before.’

‘Well, then, if ye footed it out from Boston this hot day, and ye are n't a baker, and ye don't want a job, what the divil are ye here for, anyway?’

Whereupon I explained with considerable particularity my errand. He looked disgusted. [p. 7]

‘It's the women are the fules!’ he commented. ‘Here ye've come thrampina out to a place where ye've no business, to find the bones of a man that's been rotten for fifty years, and that nobody remembers? Well, and what would ye do if ye found 'em? Tell me that!’

I could not tell him, and our conversation ended. I returned to Boston that afternoon, but I was n't satisfied. There was something about the atmosphere of Medford that appealed to me, and the following week I packed my carpet bag and went back, this time by train. I found a boarding place in the square, in the house on the corner of Forest and Salem streets, where Timothy Cotting afterward erected his brick block. A baker named Richardson occupied one half, while the other was lived in by Mr. Gibbs, the worthy watchmaker, whose store was just opposite. On the opposite corner of the same streets stood an ancient building, the Tufts house, I think it was called, with one or two immense trees in front. At that time it was occupied—the lower half, at least—by a Mr. Peak, whose family later toured New England as the ‘Bell Ringers.’

Mr. Peak was a skilful barber, as well as a hustling periodical dealer. He was a slender, active man, with a face that showed the traces of smallpox. He was a good talker, as well as a good walker, and seemed to do a thriving business.

Just below, and only separated from the Cotting bakery by an alley, was a big wooden tenement building, far gone in decay, which was fortunately swept out of existence some years ago. Its site is now covered by the brick block already referred to. On the opposite side of High street and near the City Hall was the residence of James M. Usher, the latest historian of Medford, and the first, I believe, to establish a newspaper in town.

Just above Mr. Usher's, in a modest little store, kept by a Mr. Winneck, was the postoffice. It may be that I was a trifle impatient at times, but it used to seem to me that Mr. Winneck took his duties too seriously. [p. 8] There were no letter-carriers in those days, and everybody had to come to the office to get or send letters. I recall, even now, with a feeling of irritation, the deliberation of the postmaster in handling the mails, and how he rebuked the impatience of the waiting people with a gleam of his glittering eye.

The low brick block which curved from Main street round into Ship street is much the same as it was then, though I think not one of the old-time tenants remains. Most of them are probably dead. The old railroad station has changed little. The City Hall maintains the same respectable and dignified air that it did when I first knew it. At that time it was too large for the legitimate uses of the town, and the end toward the square was occupied as a clothing store. I went there once to purchase a pair of pantaloons, and I shall never forget the interested air of the proprietor, or it may have been a clerk, who inquired of what tint I would like them.

One thing which has materially changed the aspect of the square is the disappearance of the old town pump. Added to its picturesqueness, it was in those days an absolute necessity. Here came the tired horses to drink, and in dry seasons the inexhaustible supply furnished the neighbors with water on washing days. A tin dipper without a chain testified at once to the thirst as well as to the honesty of the inhabitants. With the introduction of the city water it, of course, lost much of its practical value, and the coming of the electrical railway system made its removal a necessity.

On Forest street, leading to Pine Hill, there were but two or three houses on the left. On the right were half a dozen, with the Universalist church. And speaking of churches reminds me.

I was never particularly attracted toward any one church, but I was always fond of good preaching, and so used to distribute my Sunday visits among the places where I was pretty sure to hear it. Medford, in those [p. 9] days, was well supplied with preachers of ability. The Rev. Jacob M. Manning, of the Mystic Congregational Church, was one of these. Later he was called to the pulpit of the Old South, in Boston, where he remained until his death. The Rev. E. P. Marvin, of the Second Congregational Church, was another of local reputation. The pastor of the Universalist Church, G. V. Maxham, was a man of fine presence, a gentleman, and beloved of his congregation. He had the poetic instinct, and was the author of some fine poems, which found place in the magazines. But of all the clergy I loved best to listen to the Unitarian minister, John Pierpont, whose fervency and honesty endeared him to many who were not of his faith. He was a sturdy abolitionist, a warm advocate of temperance, and an ardent worker in every movement which led to the uplifting of the human race. He wrote beautiful verse, and compiled the best school reader ever published in the United States. As a matter of course he found enemies in every parish where he served. It could not well be otherwise. No man can well please God and the people at the same time. Pierpont knew that and he did not try.

During my stay in town Tufts College was in process of building. One of the painters and decorators of the structure was a Frenchman named Louis Randel. I had known him as a teacher of his native language in Boston, and used to go often to the college and watch him at work. A drearier place than the college grounds were at this time can hardly be imagined. It was simply a bare, barren hill, without a shrub or bush to break the monotony of the surroundings. The building itself was far from attractive. It stood square and alone, and was repellent to any one of artistic tastes. But see to what it has grown, and what a place of charm its surroundings have become. Its second president, Dr. Alonzo A. Miner, I knew from my earliest boyhood. He was born on the farm next that of my father, and though much older than I, that fellowtownsman sort of feeling made him seem near. [p. 10]

I have referred to the Medford House. In the wintertime it used to be the objective point of sleighing parties from Boston. Occasionally these were of a hilarious character, and gave the place a rather unpleasant reputation. Like all country hotels, it had its regular hangers — on who were always ready to drink at a visitor's expense. I can remember two or three who were chronic ornaments of the benches on the front piazza of this hostelry, and whose presence notably reduced the attendance of local patronage.

One day was very much like another in old Medford. It was seldom that anything sensational occurred. The most exciting thing that happened during the nine months of my residence was the advent of the insane street preacher, who was known as the Angel Gabriel, so called from the fact that he carried a long tin horn, which he blew in the street to attract audiences. It was the so-called Know-Nothing period, when the silly and credulous people of the community professed to believe that the Roman Catholics were going to make an armed attempt to overthrow the government, and formed a political organization, which for a time, shame be it said, obtained a strong hold here in Massachusetts. The Angel Gabriel was an apostle of this movement, and wandered from town to town, blowing his horn and stirring up the people with his crazy utterances. It was a July Saturday when he entered Medford. It was just after supper when he first sounded his horn, and it did not take long for him to gather a crowd. Later the doors of the Town Hall were opened, and the room was soon packed with people, out of curiosity. I have never heard a more insane farrago from the lips of any living man. It was a call for the people to rise and drive the Roman Catholics from the country. He declared that every servant girl was provided with a package of poison, ready to drop it into the food of the family the moment the word was given by the Pope, and that every Catholic church was an arsenal where the members drilled at night, ready for [p. 11] a bloody onslaught upon the Protestants. There was a contingent of rough characters in the ship-yard who were eager for any chance for trouble, and they were quick to seize upon any excuse. There was to be a special Catholic service in one of the churches in Chelsea the following day, Sunday, and forty or fifty of them preceded by the Angel Gabriel, started in wagons for Chelsea. Here they attacked the people taking part in the service, smashed the church windows, tore down the cross from the tower and committed other deeds of vandalism, which, but for the excited state of public opinion at the time, would have sent the perpetrators straight to jail. There are probably some within this room who will remember the circumstance better, perhaps, than I.

As has been seen, the Medford of fifty-three or four years ago was by no means the Medford of today. It was then like a big country village, with between three and four thousand inhabitants, where you would see the farmers walking about in their shirt-sleeves, where ox-teams were as common as horses, and where you heard a good deal of the old New England dialect spoken. It was a quiet, restful place, withal, excepting in the ship-yards. All the life and energy of the waking day seemed to be concentrated there, and the steady beat of the hammers of the calkers was the beat of the pulse of the great industry which made the prosperity of the town. In all the time I was a resident there was not a murder nor a burglary nor a scandal, business, political, or domestic, aside from what I have mentioned, and I cannot even remember that there was a dog-fight.

The town then was not as much of a bedroom for Boston business men as now. True, there were many who did business in the city and went in daily, but the great majority found work enough to do at home. There was much sociability in the old time and everybody knew everybody else. Doubtless there was a good deal of visiting among the people, else there would not have been that degree of familiarity that was so apparent. [p. 12]

We are apt to judge the past by the present, but do we ever really stop to think of the tremendous differences which exist between two or three generations? Let us consider, for instance, those conditions which existed in the days of which I am speaking and those of today; of the things your fathers lacked and did not know that they lacked, and yet got as much out of life as you do today with the multitude of things then undreamed of. Fifty-four years ago there was no water department system in Medford. Every family depended upon its own well or the town pump, and all so-called modern conveniences were altogether unknown. In the year 1853, I venture to say, there was not such a thing as a bathroom or a bathtub in the town. Hot and cold water on tap was only two years old in Boston, and Medford housekeepers only knew of it by hearsay. Gas, if used at all, was very sparingly used. My memory is not clear on that point, but I am quite sure that the popular light was known by the name of ‘burning fluid.’ Kerosene, which is a product of petroleum, did not come in until after the discovery of the oil fields in Pennsylvania ten years later.

There was, however, a fire department. Not a paid department, but purely volunteer. If I rightly remember, there were three companies, all friendly. I do not recall their names, but one of them had a house on High street near the Unitarian church, and it was a favorite lounging place of the members and their friends in the evenings. I think Captain Teel headed this organization. All these companies did good service, no doubt, when the need came. I remember only a single instance when it was called out. A fire broke out in somebody's shed. It took but a few minutes to subdue it, and then the whole populace adjourned to the engine house to partake of a collation, which consisted of crackers and cheese and a pail of hot coffee, in which everybody shared. There was no red-tape in those days. The collation— they called it co-lation then—was everywhere the custom, [p. 13] and a conflagration was not considered legally extinguished until the crackers and cheese had been properly served and eaten.

There was, in 1853, no military organization of any kind. The Brooks Phalanx, which had enjoyed a nine years existence, had resigned its charter in 1849, and the Lawrence Light Guard was not formed until October, 1854.

In 1853 there was no regular police force in town. If you wanted a thief caught you had to catch him yourself or get your neighbors to help you. And there really didn't seem to be much need of policemen. It was only when the village grew larger and a new element came in that the need became apparent. In the late fifties, I think it was, three constables were appointed to keep the peace, and they used to carry their badges in their pockets, to be pulled out only in a case of dire emergency. So you see that ancient Medford was a law-abiding place and its inhabitants a quiet and God-fearing people. At that time I do not think there were a dozen families of foreign parentage in town. The inhabitants were of pure New England stock, whose blood ran from old English sources. Go through the records of the names of the first settlers and you will see what I mean. There are the Lawrences, the Halls, the Tuftses, the Ushers, the Bishops, the Adamses, the Stearnses, and a score of others equally familiar to your ears, all of whom lived in the good old Anglo-Saxon way, and left a permanent impress on the social and business life of the town.

But to come back. Fifty years ago there was no Y. M. C. A. I am not sure that you have one now. If not, there is a gap to be filled. There was no Historical Society. No one thought of such a thing. There was no literary club, and you will pardon me if I say it, although there was much genuine literary taste, it was put to little practical use. I was at that time anxious to come in contact with people of literary accomplishment, [p. 14] but though I met with well-bred and apparently well-read people, they never seemed to care to talk about books or authors. I do remember one exception, however. A Miss Louise J. Cutter, the daughter, I think, of a Mr. Cutter who lived near the tide-mill, gave evidence of considerable literary ability, and contributed occasionally to the Boston press. She died quite early of consumption. The impulses to literary production were quite lacking. There was no village newspaper, no public library, no reading-room, no telephones, no fraternal societies. Clubs were unheard of. There was neither boat club, home club, woman's club, whist club, nor bridge club. I do remember one organization, the Mendelssohn Society, I think it was called, which brought together weekly or monthly a number of young people interested in music. But to those without ‘ear’ it counted as nothing. Strange to say, there was no Masonic lodge, although one was established in the autumn of 1854, a month after I left town. There was no lodge of Odd Fellows. There had been one some years before, but owing to internal dissensions its charter had been surrendered.

The popular athletic games of today had not been created nor invented. There was no baseball, no football, no basket ball, no croquet, no lawn tennis, and one might almost say, no anything. If one met the word ‘gymnasium’ in print one would have to look it up in the dictionary to know what it meant. Bicycles were as yet unheard of. It was not until thirty years later that the word found a place in the language. The idea of an automobile had not entered the wildest dreams of inventors, and its motive power, electricity, which now runs everything from a train of cars to a sewing-machine, was an altogether unknown quantity. In those days people slept upon feather and straw beds, and I have many times seen huge loads of straw in Medford streets stopping here and there to supply houses with fresh material for worn-out beds. And the custom was the [p. 15] same in Boston. The modern generation supposes that mattresses are as old as the Christian era. In reality they came into use within the memory of many members of this society. And sewing-machines and carpet sweepers! I doubt if there were either of them known in Medford in 1853. The first sewing-machine I ever saw was at the Mechanic's Fair in Faneuil Hall, in Boston, in the fall of 1854, and that would work only imperfectly. At that time there was no communication with Boston except by the trains on the Medford Branch, which came and went four times a day, or by private teams, or on foot. Nearly all travel was by the first. The cars were small and dirty, and a single one sufficed on most trips. Horse-cars and electrics were yet undreamed of.

West Medford existed in little more than name. I used frequently to walk out there. The houses were few along High street after leaving Thatcher Magoun's. In the summer of 1853 the number of dwellings within the borders of West Medford could not have been over thirty. The streets that had been laid out were mere country roads and were unpaved and unsidewalked, and what is now one of the most attractive of suburban places was then a rough and undeveloped section of country, hardly calculated to favorably impress the seeker for a home.

These reminiscences of a by-gone period in the town's history may seem to your younger members overdrawn, but I have tried hard to keep within exact limits, and to describe things just as I saw and remember them. And it must not be forgotten that the same conditions that prevailed in Medford prevailed also in a greater or lesser degree in every other village in the Commonwealth. They all stood upon the same footing, and Medford was behind none of them. Her progress, like that of all other towns, has been that of gradual evolution. All the lacks that have been considered were not lacks nor necessities at the time. When the demand came for advancement [p. 16] in any direction it was promptly met, and today there is not a public or private necessity or luxury known in any part of the country but is enjoyed to the full by the people of Medford. We today imagine that we have got about as far ahead in the way of invention and civilization as we ever shall, but it is not impossible that twenty-five years hence we shall sit in our homes and ask, with a pitying smile at the remembrance, ‘Do you remember when we used to light our homes with gas, and used to talk over a telephone with a wire attachment?’ I don't know of anything which shows more vividly the swiftness of the world's progress than a comparison of the Medford of fifty years ago and the Medford of today; the quiet, restful suburban village with its old houses and simple ways, and the pushing, rapidly growing young city, which has only now just begun to feel its strength.

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