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Reminiscences of an earlier Medford.

A familiar talk before the Medford Historical Society.

James A. Hervey.
IT is with much hesitation, not to say reluctance, that I consented to appear before you to-night. Most of the topics of primary interest connected with the history and evolution of Medford have been fully and ably treated by other members of the Association in the papers they have read before it, and I have been much at loss for a subject. But the chairman of your committee urged that a gap was to be filled, and has wedged me into it. To meet his wishes in a very informal manner I bring together some of my earliest recollections of Medford and its people, going back to the year 1836, when my parents took up their residence in this town. Some of these reminiscences have already appeared in print, but they are essential to my purpose, and will probably be new to most of you. [p. 62]

I was about eight years old when Medford became my home, and I have a very distinct recollection of the impression the town made upon me on my first introduction to it. It had then a population of little more than two thousand two hundred, pretty widely scattered. You must remember that since then we have lost some territory, taken from us to help form the towns of Somerville and Winchester. The older part of the town showed all the marks of its antiquity, and its general aspect was one of old-time respectability. I do not suppose, however, there were a dozen houses in Medford at that time that cost more than six thousand dollars. They were plain but substantial structures that accorded well with the homely ways and thrifty habits of the earlier New England generations. There was plenty of timber in the frames of these buildings, not held together with ten-penny nails, but well mortised and well braced, calculated to set at defiance a September gale or a winter blizzard. These houses were all hand-made. The mechanics of those days could frame their own sashes and doors, and could turn out, often with self-made tools, the most elaborate mouldings. We have one of them in our own body in the person of our respected fellow-citizen, Mr. Cleophas Johnson— long may he live! but his works will live after him.

To resume my description of Medford: the public square and high street as far as Meeting House brook, looked very much as they do now, making allowance for some changes in buildings—not very many. Between Meeting House brook and the Lowell railroad there were very few houses—not more than half a dozen, as I remember. West Medford had then practically no existence as a settlement. There was but a house or two on Purchase street (now North Winthrop street) as far as the present Winchester line; and the same might be said of Forest street up to the Stoneham line, —as well as of Salem street below Fulton street to the Maiden line. On Main street, from the present Stearns' [p. 63] avenue to the Somerville line, there were only two or three houses.

To sum the matter up, the bulk of the population of the town lived within half a mile of the square, including Ship and Park streets, Union street,—then called Back street,—and a portion of South street as far as the Winthrop-street bridge. There were but three houses on the Medford turnpike, now called Mystic avenue.

I think I have given you a pretty accurate account of the distribution of the population of Medford in 1836. With boyish enterprise I soon made myself acquainted with the topography of the town. Let me tell you of a little incident which happened to me the first time I crossed over to the south side of Cradock bridge— then a wooden drawbridge. I had just got over when a great hulking boy stepped up to me, looked me in the face, lifted his fist and straightway knocked me down—all this without saying a word. He was probably influenced by the feeling illustrated in a story of ‘Punch.’ Two cads are standing on the street. One says to the other, ‘Bill, who is that fellow over there?’ ‘Don't know,—a stranger, I guess.’ ‘Heave half a brick at him, Bill!’

The fighting spirit was rife among Medford boys in that day—fostered, I think, by the immemorial feud which had existed between the boys of Medford and Charlestown, and which had found its field of action on the canal in skating time every winter. They fought some pretty stiff battles at those times, not without bloodshed. Our town boys used, in Homeric fashion, to taunt their opponents with this doggerel:

White cockade and peacock feather,
     Medford boys will fight forever;
Charlestown pigs stay in their sties,
     Afraid of getting bunged — up eyes!

Just the same, the Charlestown ‘pigs’ did not acquit themselves ingloriously. It is dangerous to call your adversaries pigs, as the Spanish have found out. [p. 64]

Before passing on, let me say that the boy who knocked me down so summarily, a few months later sat next to me in school. We became very good friends and he used to bring me nice apples from his father's orchard—the ‘high-top sweetings’ of those days, which, like many other good things, have passed away. I asked him one day why he had struck me. ‘Oh,’ said he, reassuringly, ‘only for fun.’ It was all very well, but I couldn't help thinking the ‘fun’ was very unevenly divided. The poor fellow a few years later went to sea with Captain Redmond of this town, and while the ship was lying at New Orleans fell from the yard-arm and was killed. His life was short, and perhaps I ought not to be sorry to remember that during its brief term it fell to my lot to contribute something to his amusement. But he struck very hard.

Of the old inhabitants of Medford I might say a good deal if time permitted. I have seen among them people of pre-Revolutionary birth, and of course they had the ways and manners of the olden time. Some of them were men of marked character and wide experience, and there were traits of eccentricity in others, the display of which was always interesting. We boys used to like to sit in a corner of the old reading-room in the square and listen to their talk. There was old Mr. Andrew Blanchard, the most irascible of men, who could never endure any allusion to the new church which the First Parish had built, because he had lost his pew in the old one. He never set his foot in the new edifice. His intimates liked to goad him by introducing the objectionable topic, for these old gentlemen were much addicted to guying each other. On such provocation Mr. Blanchard would leap from his chair and emphasize words of passionate protest with thumps of his cane upon the floor. Then there was old William Bradbury, who would never stay in church after twelve o'clock. As soon as the clock sounded its first note he jumped from his seat, seized his hat, opened the pew [p. 65] door, slammed it, and wrathfully stumped his way out of the church.

All this reminds me of the fact that very many of the families of the town, formerly quite prominent in its business and social life, are no longer represented here. The Blanchards in the earlier day were very numerous. There were several families of them, all of them probably nearly or remotely connected. In looking over the register of baptisms kept by Mr. Thomas Seccomb, parish clerk, and covering the years from 1737 to 1776, I was surprised to see how many of the recipients of the sacred ordinance bore the name of Blanchard; they made up a good percentage of the whole number. I know of but one or two of the stock now living here. By the by, the register I have referred to records the fact that one infant was baptized who was born on the morning of the Sunday on which the rite was administered! Thus they snatched a brand from the burning!

The Bishops were also a prominent family in Medford for more than a century. Mr. Nathaniel Bishop died in 1850, and after his death his children took up their residence in other parts of the country. I also have a kindly remembrance of the fine family of the Clisbys, with which I was very intimate in my boyhood. They are all dispersed. Aaron Warner Clisby, my especial friend and playmate, is, or was a few years ago, a clergyman in Alabama.

The name of Swan was also well known and honored sixty years ago. No one bears that name here now. Mr. Samuel Swan had a family of seven children, and of them I have heard this story: Some one asked which of two of his sons, Lincoln or Timothy, was the elder. ‘Let's see,’ was the answer; ‘there are Sam, Dan, Jo, Han, Lin, Tim, and Ca—Oh, Lin is the elder!’ The names, properly extended, were Samuel, Daniel, Joseph, Hannah, Lincoln, Timothy, and Caleb. Daniel Swan was the beloved physician of this town, and most [p. 66] pleasantly remembered by our citizens who have passed middle age.

One of the most interesting memorials of the past standing in Medford was the Tufts house in the public square, on the western corner of Forest street. It was torn down in 1867. It was a large unpainted wooden building, three stories high in the front, and sloping down to one low story in the rear. Such was the picturesque style of building our fathers affected a century and a half ago. During the later years of its existence the house was in a dilapidated, not to say ruinous, condition, its bulging walls and sunken floors threatening immediate collapse. I think it was only upheld by its immense chimney—the largest I ever saw—which stood in the centre of the house. Portions of the building were utilized to the last. In the front apartment, on the east side, I can remember that a small bookstore was kept by a Mr. Randall, who had also the charge of the social library which found a place in the room. The same room was afterwards occupied as a barber's shop, and in a room behind it Mr. Gillard kept his fish market. The front room on the western corner was for many years used for the reading-room to which I have already referred, and concerning which I shall have something more to say. A very faithful likeness of the Tufts building will be found in Usher's edition of ‘Brooks' History.’

And the Tufts family played an important part in the earlier and later history of the town. The founder of the family, Mr. Peter Tufts, was born in England in 1617, and came to New England somewhere about 1638 and was one of the earliest settlers of Malden, where he was a large land-owner. He also bought of Cradock's heirs 350 acres of land in what is now one of the most thickly settled parts of Medford. His son, Capt. Peter Tufts, resided in Medford and was the father of Dr. Simon Tufts, the first physician of the town. It seems likely that he was the builder of the house in the square [p. 67] which Brooks, I know not by what authority, says was built in 1725. Dr. Simon Tufts was succeeded by his son, Dr. Simon Tufts, Jr., a man of high character and excellent professional standing. In my earliest recollection of the Tufts house it was occupied by Mr. Turell Tufts, son of Dr. Simon Tufts, Jr., who died in 1842.

I well remember Mr. Turell Tufts, a stout gentleman of florid countenance and somewhat imperious ways. He had at one time been consul at Surinam, and had accumulated a handsome fortune for those days. In later years he became one of the town's magnates, filling at different periods the offices of town treasurer, chairman of the board of selectmen, representative, etc., but at the time of which I write he had retired from affairs and was enjoying with dignity a gentlemanly leisure. I think he never married, but he kept house in the old mansion and diffused a generous hospitality. I take it he was fond of books, for he left $500 to the Social Library, the income of which still inures to the benefit of our Public Library. I may be fanciful, but as I call up the picture of him in my memory he reminds me of one of the East Indian nabobs who figure so largely in old English novels and comedies— choleric and gouty old gentlemen, much given to port, curry, and mullagatawny, and always sure to portion off their nephews and nieces in the handsomest manner in the closing scenes. Mr. Tufts seems to have held to heroic practices in matters dietetic; he is reported to have said that the reason why mince-pies hurt people was because they did not ‘make them rich enough.’

The sidewalk in front of Mr. Turell Tufts' house used to be our favorite resort for a game of marbles. We found a pleasant shade under the two mighty buttonwoods, and the ground was smooth and hard. Here on a pleasant day might have been seen Parson Stetson's sons, the Halls, Lawrences, Clisbys, Sam Gregg, Charley Ballou, John Burrage, and others who shall be nameless. Charles Ballou was a dead shot at marbles, and when [p. 68] he aimed at your ‘alley,’ six feet off, it was a good plan to say good-by to it. When the play became noisy, Mr. Tufts would sally out from his front door, wildly flourish his cane, and order us off. So David Copperfield's Aunt Betsey Trotwood used to rush out to drive the intrusive donkey from her green. We obeyed, but the retreat was only temporary; we went back as soon as the old gentleman resumed his nap, but were very careful not to disturb him again. I think half his fierceness was assumed.

It was after the death of Mr. Tufts that the readingroom was established in his house. It was a very important institution in town at that date, for few people subscribed to a daily paper, and news-stands were unknown. The room was a sort of club-room, where people met to learn the latest intelligence, but more particularly to chat over local matters. When some event of public importance had happened the boys used to drop in to look at the papers, and their presence was always tolerated. Only Boston papers were taken— the ‘Advertiser,’ ‘Post,’ ‘Atlas,’ the Evening Journal (the ‘Journal’ was then published as an evening paper), and the ‘Transcript.’

Here one got a glance at the older Medford, which had even then almost passed away. As I have already stated, many of those who made the reading-room their resort were men of advanced age, and might be considered as links connecting the centuries. Beside those I have already mentioned were Ebenezer Hall, Joseph Manning, 1st., Dr. Daniel Swan, Dudley Hall, and Joseph Swan. Their conversation, reverting to incidents which occurred in their youth, opened vistas into a past which now seems very remote to us. Other patrons of the reading-room, belonging to a later generation, were Samuel Lapham, Joseph Manning, 2d., Daniel Lawrence, George L. Stearns, John Sparrell, Jonas Coburn, George Hervey, Dudley C. Hall, Peter C. Hall, George W. Porter, John Clough, Albert H. [p. 69] Butters, and Col. Francis R. Bigelow, and there were doubtless others whose names escape me. Let it be remembered that I am speaking of the reading-room in the early period of its history. I was not so well acquainted with it afterwards. When the Tufts House was taken down the quarters of the club were removed to a building on the east side of Pasture Hill Lane (recently taken down), and there they remained until death had so thinned the ranks of its members that it could no longer be maintained. I have spoken at this length of the old reading-room, because it made quite a feature in the social life of the town, and exercised a considerable local influence.

The nature of my task compels me to be discursive. Let me say a few things about the Medford House, which has occupied its present site for nearly a century. It was built by Andrew Blanchard in 1804, although I have been told that the piazza which runs along three sides of the main building is of a later date. The Medford House, with its ample yard, large stable, and convenient outbuildings,—always within my remembrance neatly kept,—meets one's idea of the proper country inn of the earlier day, and its reputation for hospitable entertainment has been maintained through a long course of years. Within the walls of the ancient dining-room many a good dinner has been served to legislative committees, county officers, and local boards, and matters of weighty interest and concern have been discussed, let us hope to better issues, under the influence of mine host's good cheer. Formerly the upper story of the rear of the building was occupied by a hall, which served as the village ball-room, and was sometimes used for concerts and for the exhibitions of professors of legerdemain and itinerant showmen. I regretfully miss the fine buttonwood which used to stand in the centre of the yard, under the shade of which stood the pump and watering-trough; and, alas, never again shall we see [p. 70] the grand old stage-coach, with its four smoking horses, roll up to the steps of the Medford House!

The proprietorship of the Medford House has passed through many hands, but of no one of the landlords will people who are old enough retain a more vivid recollection than of Augustus Baker. He was an Italian by birth, and a barber by profession. I could never understand where he got his English name, but he had probably adopted it. Entirely without education, he was gifted with native shrewdness, and at one time became possessed of considerable means. He had the peculiar physiognomy of natives of the Mediterranean shores— brown-eyed, crisp-haired, olive-tinted. He had a peculiar way of cutting off the last syllables of words, and used to say he kept a hotel for ‘prof’ (profit) and not for ‘accommodaish’ (accommodation). When twitted of watering his liquor, he answered, ‘Why, yes, the more water, the more consh’ (conscience). He possessed a grim kind of humor, as this story told of him will show: He owned a piece of land in the rear of the hotel premises, and one of his apple trees overhung the fence of a neighboring proprietor who, being a very ‘close’ man, was jealous of the encroachment, and availing himself of what he believed to be his legal rights, cut off the limbs of the tree close to the fence. Baker said nothing, but one day going into his orchard he saw that his neighbor, working in his own field, had thrown his coat upon the fence. The vengeful Italian, creeping up stealthily, took out his knife and cut off that portion of the garment which hung over his own land. He was not addicted to poetry; if he had been, he might have applied to himself the words of Byron:

Time at last makes all things even,
And if we do but wait the hour,
There never yet was human power
Which could evade, if unforgiven,
The patient search and vigil long
Of him who treasures up a wrong.

[p. 71] It was lynch law, but it came pretty near to being justice, at least to his uninstructed mind.

Let me say a few words about the square and its buildings as they stood about 1840.

As I have said before, I am inclined to think that the general aspect of no other precinct of the city has changed less during the last sixty years than that of the Public Square and its immediate environment. To be sure, some of the old buildings have disappeared and new ones have been put up in their places. The old Cotton bakery and the Tufts house, on either corner of Forest street, have given place to new structures, and the Opera house and Savings Bank, in their architectural bravery, put the plainer buildings in their neighborhood somewhat out of countenance. But in spite of these changes the square has been able to maintain its identity, and I am sure that one familiar with its aspect sixty years ago, though a stranger to it in the interval, would be easily able to recognize it now. Its essential features are unaltered and it has never lost its local flavor.

There is one thing, however, which he would miss if he were standing in the square on a winter's morning—and that would be the long line of ox-teams, wagons or sleds, loaded with cord-wood, stretching from what is now Governor's avenue to Pasture Hill Lane. He would miss Capt. John Sparrell with his measuring rod, vigilant to see that purchasers lost nothing of their proper dues. And he would miss the noble oxen, waving their heads and ruminating their liberal allowance of corn fodder which was spread before them, their warm, fragrant breath floating away on the frosty air, the scene affording a motif to inspire the best efforts of a Paul Potter or a Troyon. The picturesque age has passed and the mechanical has succeeded; the beautiful sky is cobwebbed with trolley wires, and day and night are made hideous with the infernal whiz of the electric car. [p. 72]

Excuse me for this burst of pessimism. I sometimes find the electric car mighty convenient.

To go on with the square and its neighborhood. The present stone bridge is certainly a great improvement on the wooden structure with its teetering draw, which preceded it. It used to be said (our genial fellowciti-zen Mr. Henry Moore is my authority) that our military company, the Brooks Phalanx, after partaking of their annual dinner at the Medford House, found considerable difficulty in dealing with the perturbations of the drawbridge; that they practised a sort of involuntary goosestep, and did a good deal of marching without making much progress. But this was an old-time bit of chaff that never had any substantial foundation. The members of the Phalanx were sober and respectable citizens, and were no more perplexed with the up-and-down motion of the drawbridge than other travellers. I shall always stand by the Phalanx. What pride the old boys of Medford used to take in that company! How we admired the colossal form of Capt. Samuel Blanchard, dressed in a blue uniform with buff facings, his shoulders crowned with an enormous pair of gold epaulets! We followed the Phalanx in the May training in all its marchings and counter-marchings, from Symmes' corner to the Malden line, striving ineffectually to keep step to the music of the band. I remember that the ladies of Medford presented a stand of colors to the company. I wonder if they are in existence now!

But to resume. I have to indulge in episodes; memory runs away with me.

About the time of the building of the railroad station that part of Main street between the bridge and Jonathan Porter's store, now Yerxa and Yerxa's, underwent great changes. A wooden building used to occupy the present site of Bigelow's brick block next the river. This building, or a part of it, was tenanted by Mr. Patrick Conolly, a tall, thin Irishman of severe aspect, a cobbler by profession. General Lawrence tells of Mr. [p. 73] Conolly that on one St. Patrick's day, after making his usual preparations for attendance upon the festival in Boston,—assuming the swallow-tail coat and high hat essential to the occasion,—he concluded to take his money along with him and, the better to ensure its safety, he pinned it up carefully in the pocket of one of his coat tails. Mr. Conolly straightway proceeded to Boston and devoted himself conscientiously to the celebration of the great national holiday, in which he would appear to have been only too much absorbed; for when he returned home at night, but with some difficulty, on taking off his coat he found that that branch of the establishment in which he had deposited his savings had gone into the hands of a receiver; in other words, somebody had cut off one of his coat tails and, to render the offence more aggravated, he had eliminated the one which contained Mr. Conolly's ducats.

Well, next to the house I have just mentioned, but a little further back from the street, if I remember correctly, was a building which had formerly been occupied as a dwelling-house by Mr. Ebenezer Hall. In this house, until it was removed, Mr. Abner Bartlett, the only lawyer in town at that date, had his office. Here he used to hold his little court as trial justice, and he had always a goodly attendance of boys to witness the proceedings. Squire Bartlett was a scholar and a gentleman, and a sound lawyer, but his manner was eccentric, and in making his notes of the evidence of witnesses he had a funny way of repeating their words. For instance, in a case of assault and battery a witness would depose: ‘He came up to him and shook his fist in his face.’ Mr. Bartlett, following the evidence, while writing it down, would say audibly, ‘Shook his fist, shook his fist, shook his fist in his face, shook his fist in his face.’ All of this was vastly entertaining to us youngsters. He married the sister of Tristram Burgess, of Rhode Island, member of Congress, and famous for his powers of sarcasm and invective, which [p. 74] made him the rival of John Randolph, of Virginia, with whom he came into frequent collision. It would be difficult to say which of them won the palm in the interchange of vitriolic personalities.

I had intended to give a more complete description of the buildings in the square and its neighborhood, but the enumeration of them would be prolix and interesting only to a few. I will therefore proceed at once to give some account of the schools of Medford as I passed through them from 1836 to 1842.

I first attended the Cross-street Grammar School, kept of Mr. Aaron Magoun, afterwards a muchre-spected teacher in one of the Cambridgeport schools, of which he was master for a very long term of years. The Cross-street school was a school very much after the antique pattern. Boys and girls attended of all ages, from eight years to twenty. The teacher had twice or thrice as much to do as he could attend to, and the discipline was of a very rough-and-ready sort. The curriculum which I followed up was remarkable for its limitations: a lesson in Colburn's Mental Arithmetic, a reading exercise, and a lesson in spelling, the memorizing of a column of words from the spelling,—book,—all very long words of five or six syllables, which I have never had occasion to use since. When I left the school, after attending it a year, I am sure I should have spelt the word ‘which’ with a ‘t’ in the centre. I never wrote a word while in the school. Having a good deal of leisure on my hands, I spent part of it in swapping marbles with my neighbor and in drawing pictures of ships and horses on my slate. Every boy in Medford could then draw the picture of a ship—it was his duty to pay homage to the local industry. The monotony of the day was varied by an occasional call to the desk, and you retired from a short interview with the teacher with resentment in your heart and a good deal of inflammation in your hand. I never knew a teacher who could strike the end of [p. 75] one's fingers with the masterly precision which characterized Mr. Magoun's handling of the ruler. I don't think I learned much while at Mr. Magoun's school, except to draw a ship and a horse—the latter with both fore-feet off the ground and a monstrous redundancy of tail. But yet these were accomplishments not to be despised.

Afterwards I attended school in the old brick schoolhouse behind the Unitarian Church. It was kept by Mr. Benj. F. Tweed, afterwards professor of rhetoric in Tufts College, and a supervisor of schools in Boston. He was an excellent teacher and did the best that could be done with the incongruous elements of which his school was made up. Here I learned something of geography, arithmetic, and grammar—not much of grammar except to commit the definitions to heart—as ‘A verb is a word which signifies to be, to do, and to suffer.’ Only Kant and Hegel could gain any information from that definition. I attended this school during the last two years of Mr. Tweed's incumbency, when he was succeeded by Mr. Foster,—an excellent teacher and a good man. I attended his school for a year, and was then admitted to the High School, being twelve years old. Of course I was very imperfectly qualified for such an advancement, but the conditions for admission to the school were not so severe as they are now. I was a tolerable reader, but a very bad speller. It was with extreme difficulty that I have learned to spell since; in fact I haven't. Of English grammar, like most graduates from grammar schools of that date, I knew absolutely nothing, for I had studied only in the formal way of which I have already spoken just long enough to gain an ‘acquired ignorance’ of the whole subject. My best hold was on mathematics, for which I had some natural aptitude. A year after entering the school I entered upon the study of Latin, and then the darkness which hung over English grammar was lifted, for Latin is an inflected language, [p. 76] and from the change of terminations one learns what is meant by the agreement and relations of words in the application of the rules of syntax.

My first teacher in the High School was Mr. Daniel H. Forbes, a very earnest and faithful instructor. He was succeeded by Mr. Isaac Ames, a graduate of Dartmouth, afterwards Judge of Probate of Suffolk County. He was a man of broad culture and high aims, and his bright personality at once impressed itself upon the school. To come under the influence of a mind of original power, and of a nature ardent, generous, and manly, is to young people the best part of a liberal education, and such was the good fortune of those who attended the High School during the incumbency of Mr. Ames.

The course of study in the old High School was of a mixed character. It was almost altogether an English course. We took up arithmetic, geography, bookkeeping, algebra, plain geometry, ancient history, moral, intellectual, and natural philosophy, botany, chemistry, and Latin—all of course in a rudimentary way, but intelligently, and to good results. It was, so far as it went, a sound school. No Greek was taught until near the close of Mr. Ames' term of service, and no modern language.

With Mr. Ames' retirement closed my connection with the High School. I left it to attend the private school of Mr. Day, kept in the larger building which used to occupy the site upon which the residence of Mr. Joseph Manning, on Forest street, now stands. Mr. Day was the successor of Mr. John Angier, long and favorably known as the principal of a boarding-school which obtained a high repute under his management, and which was at one time attended by George W. Curtis and by pupils from other States, and from the West Indies.

I might go on interminably, but I spare you. The story is long when one abandons himself to memory. I [p. 77] have tried to give you a glimpse of the Medford of sixty years ago. If we could find somewhere, in some way, the diary or journal of some Puritan Samuel Pepys, dating say back to the year 1650, recording the story of the building up of the town of Medford,—telling of the people, their ways and manners, their thoughts and experiences,—what would we not give for it! The lack of such information leaves us in the dark as regards the earliest history of Medford. We only know that there was a Mr. Davidson who represented Governor Cradock and who was in his interests in this town. Who his coadjutors and companions were, and what they did— of this we know nothing, and never shall. They had no reporter.

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