Thursday, September 2, 2021

113-Year-Old Brookline Electric Car Wins Award

Brookline's history with electric cars goes back to --- well, pretty much back to the beginnings of electric vehicles in the United States. The first non-experimental electric car made in the U.S. was built in Brookline in 1891, with a body by local carriage maker Michael Quinlan and an engine by the Holtzer-Cabot Electric Company on Station Street.

 

Twenty years later, in December 1911, when the Boston Globe listed all of the electric automobile charging stations in Massachusetts, Brookline had eight of them, more than any community except Boston. By that time, Larz and Isabel Anderson had two electrics among their growing collection of automobiles: a 1905 British-made Electromobile; and a 1908 Bailey Electric Phaeton Victoria made by the S.R. Bailey Company in Amesbury, Massachusetts. 

 

1905 Electromobile and 1908 Bailey. Photos courtesy of Larz Anderson Automobile Museum

Both cars are still in Brookline, part of the collection kept in the former Anderson Carriage House and maintained by the Larz Anderson Auto Museum. Last month, the Bailey was honored at a California auto show -- the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance --  as the "Most Well-Preserved Pre-War Vehicle" at the show.

The 1908 Bailey at Palm Springs, left, and Larz Anderson Auto Museum Executive Director Sheldon Steele with the auto and its award at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, August 15, 2021.

The Bailey was Isabel Anderson's favorite car, according to the Museum. It was advertised as being self-driven, fitting for Anderson who was the first woman to get a driver's license in Massachusetts. It did have a place in the back for a footman to accompany her on drives.


The Larz Anderson Auto Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and SUnday form 9 am to 3 pm.


Saturday, June 12, 2021

Juneteenth, Brookline, & Black Civil War Soldiers

Brookline Juneteenth Celebration

Brookline's First Annual Juneteenth Celebration will take place on Saturday, June 19th. The celebration will kick off at 10 am with a Freedom March from the Florida Ruffin Ridley School to the Brookline Avenue Playground, where there will be music, dancing, children's games, and food throughout the day. 

But did you know that there is a Brookline connection, if only a tenuous one, to the original Juneteenth?

The Background
Juneteenth -- also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day -- marks the date in 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, far from the battlefields of the Civil War, and issued a proclamation freeing all enslaved African Americans in the state.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had been issued almost two-and-a-half years before June 19, 1865, but slavery remained in place in areas still held by the South (and in some states that had remained in the Union but had not abolished slavery). In some places, slaveholders continued to hold African Americans in bondage even after the end of the war in April  (and in a few places even after June 19th).

On June 19th, Gen. Granger issued General Order No. 3, which stated


The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

The first anniversary of Granger's proclamation, on June 19, 1866, was celebrated in Texas with community-centered events. It became an annual tradition, called Juneteenth, though it did not become an official Texas holiday until 1980.  All but three states later recognized Juneteenth in one form or another, and it became a national holiday this month. (Massachusetts had recognized the day via a proclamation from Governor Deval Patrick in 2007; it became an official state holiday with a law passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor Charlie Baker last July.)

A Brookline Connection

On their way to Texas at the time of Granger's proclamation were at least five black soldiers listed as being from Brookline. They were members of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, an all-black regiment (led by white officers).

The Federal government, concerned about renegade Confederate forces escaping to Mexico, sent troops (including the 5th) to Texas to help prevent such border crossings. (They were also concerned about the role of French forces, sent to Mexico by Napoleon III, that had occupied the country and installed Austrian archduke Maximillian as emperor.)

The 5th Massachusetts didn't arrive in Texas until after June 19th and was gone well before the first spontaneous Juneteenth celebration erupted on the anniversary of Granger's proclamation one year later. It's also likely that the five men were not actually Brookline residents, but were listed that way because that is where they enlisted.

But even this small connection between Juneteenth, black soldiers, and Brookline is worthy of note and an opportunity to share a story of black history that is not widely known.

The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry
The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was the third African American unit raised in Massachusetts. (The first two were the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry and its sister regiment the 55th.) The cavalry regiment is sometimes confused with the 5th United States Colored Calvary, a different regiment raised several months later in Kentucky.

News item in the Springfield Republican, January 13, 1864, p4

There are two important distinctions between the two units. The first is that the 5th Massachusetts retained its state designation, one of only a few African American units to do so.

The second is that, unlike the 5th United States Colored Cavalry, the 5th Massachusetts -- like the 54th and 55 Massachusetts Infantry -- did not have the word "Colored" in its name (although it was sometimes appended in newspaper reports like the one above). That's because, as Governor John Andrew wrote to Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, "They are known on our books and rolls and orders only by their numbers and their arm of service, and not by their color."

All five men -- plus a sixth who had deserted before the regiment was sent to Texas -- enlisted in Brookline between March 14th and April 10th, 1864. The recruiting officer in all but one of their cases was George C. Burrill, a 21-year-old newly-commissioned lieutenant who had apparently not yet left to join his own regiment. (Burrill would be killed in battle in Virginia in May 1864.)
 

The six men who enlisted in the regiment in Brookline, with their ages and occupations (as listed in military records at the time they joined in the spring of 1864), were

  • Jose de Barros, 21, sailor
  • William Green, 25, seaman
  • James Guy, 29, mariner
  • John Lee, 27, laborer
  • Joseph Lee, 24, laborer
  • William Smith, 29, sailor (deserted)

 

John Lee died of disease on board the steamer Ashland on the way to Texas. He is the only African American among the 72 men listed on the 1884 Civil War memorial that is now displayed in the lobby of Town Hall. (His inclusion there is what clued me in to possible black Brookline soldiers in the war.)

John Lee of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry on the Brookline Civil War Memorial of 1884, now in the lobby of Town Hall

Death of John Lee, as reported in the Boston Herald, June 29, 1865, p4


Only one the six men had their place of residence listed on their record, and that one lived in Boston, not Brookline. All listed their birthplace; only one was born in Massachusetts (in Boston). John and Joseph Lee, who were most likely brothers or cousins, were both born in Port Tobacco, Maryland, a town in a Union state known for its Confederate sympathies. They may have been enslaved before the war, but there is no evidence one way or the other.

While enlistments in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry took place in many cities and towns in the Commonwealth, there may have been a particular reason that Brookline was one of these sites. Two of the white officers of the regiment were brothers William P. and Charles P. Bowditch. Their uncle William Ingersoll Bowditch was a prominent Brookline abolitionist whose house, still standing at 9 Toxteth Street, was a station on the Underground Railroad.

So, while celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday, remember John Lee, whose name is on the memorial in the lobby of Town Hall, and the other black men who got their start as soldiers in Brookline and were sent to Texas to help assure that freedom gained for enslaved people in Texas by the war was protected and preserved.
 


NOTE: A new book on the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry by John Warner, Massachusetts State Archivist, is scheduled to be published later this year or early next year. His doctoral dissertation at Boston College about the regiment has been very helpful in this research. I met with him earlier this month.



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Sealey's: New Images of an Old Business

Back in 2013, there was considerable attention in local media about the closing of a small Brookline restaurant named Sealey's Lunch on Cypress Street just south of Boylston Street. (It is now the location of Rifrullo Cafe.)

Stories in newspapers and on TV reported that the restaurant -- supposedly founded in 1914 as Sealey's Ice Cream by a man named Sealey -- was shutting down after 99 years in the same location.


I dug into the story and found that the business opened in 1936, not 1914, and that there was no Mr. Sealey. I found an ad and an article about the opening in the Brookline Citizen. I found the daughter of the original owner, who provided fascinating details and photos of her parents. I got additional information from the families of two later owners.

You can read all about it in my original 2014 blog post: The Real Scoop on Sealey's Ice Cream / Sealey's Lunch.

The Citizen article described the store this way: "The black and white motif of the booths and tables is followed throughout the shop and gives an air of cleanliness to the whole store".

But I had no images to share of what the original Sealey's Ice Cream looked like. Until now.


Photos by Don Booth, Courtesy of Steve Booth

In December, I was contacted by Steve Booth who found negatives of some photos taken by his late father, Don, and had digital images made from them. Among the photos were several labeled "Sealey's" and dated August 10, 1936 when Don Booth was 19. (That's just a few weeks after the opening of the ice cream shop.) Steve found my article, contacted me, and shared the photos shown here.

The image above shows two young employees behind the counter, with ice cream flavors listed on the wall behind them. A second photo shows these same two with an older couple, the owners of the shop, Lloyd and Rhoda Seaman.


The Seamans are easy to identify thanks to a photo of them, provided by their daughter, from Lloyd's days as a pilot.

A third photo shows an unidentified young man sitting in a booth in the new ice cream parlor.

.

The Seamans sold the store in 1937 and moved to the Panama Canal Zone where they continued to make and sell ice cream. But the name they gave to their shop remained, through multiple owners and 78 years. Read more about them and the long history of Sealey's -- including how it got its name -- in the original blog post.


Saturday, May 15, 2021

What's in a Name? Coolidge Corner

A few years ago there was a driver on the C branch of the MBTA Green Line who liked to embellish the names of the different stops as the train pulled into them. Kent Street became Clark Kent Street. Coolidge Corner became Calvin Coolidge Corner. And others that I can't remember. 

 

Now I doubt anyone thinks Kent Street was named for Superman's secret identity. But I'm sure many people -- maybe even that driver -- think Coolidge Corner was named for ex-president and one-time Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge. 

 

In fact, that mistaken assumption is most likely behind the not-so-secret identity of one of Brookline's newest buildings. It's an apartment building with retail on the ground floor at 420 Harvard Street, and it's called "The Calvin at Coolidge Corner." The name is prominently displayed on the Fuller Street entrance to the apartments. (Tatte Bakery & Cafe and other businesses are on the Harvard Street side.)

The Calvin at Coolidge Corner
The Calvin at Coolidge Corner, Fuller Street entrance

In fact, as many local people know, Coolidge Corner takes its name from the Coolidge & Brother store that opened at the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets in 1857 and was the only business in North Brookline for more than 30 years. (The Brookline Coolidges were distant cousins of Calvin, but the store -- and the name "Coolidge's corner" -- existed even before the future president was born.)

The Coolidge & Brother store stood at the corner of Beacon and Harvard Streets from 1857 to 1892. It was then moved slightly to the west and was torn town with the construction of the S.S. Pierce Building in 1898.

Coolidge & Brother, run by the brothers William and George Coolidge, was a general store selling farm supplies and groceries. It was a popular gathering place, with a watering trough and the town's hay scale outside.

Coolidge & Brother ads from 1868 (top left), 1875 (bottom left) and 1878 (right)

William Coolidge lived above the store with his wife and two children until his death in 1884. The store was then sold to Merrill Brown, who ran it under his own name until selling the business to the S.S. Pierce Company in 1892.

 

The name "Coolidge's corner" was most likely an informal one at first, a natural way to describe the intersection where there was little else beside the store. That began to change with the late 1880s transformation of Beacon Street from a 50-foot wide country lane to a grand boulevard more than three times the width of that old dirt road. 

 

Residential and commercial development followed, turning Coolidge's corner into a true neighborhood. The word "Corner" was first printed with a capital C in local newspapers in 1887. The name "Coolidge Corner" first appeared in an advertisement in 1891 and by 1893 was more commonly used than the older "Coolidge's Corner". (The old name did stick around for a while, making its last appearance in an ad in 1916.)

 

The advertisement at top from the Brookline Chronicle on September 12, 1891, was the first one in the the local newspaper to use the name "Coolidge Corner." The ad at bottom, from the same paper on September 16, 1916, was the last to use the old name "Coolidge's Corner."

The chances of "The Calvin at Coolidge Corner" changing its name to "The William & George" are about as likely as the name "Coolidge's Corner" -- or Calvin himself -- staging a comeback. But this story should at least set the record straight about the name for those who might otherwise be fooled.


For more on the history of the Coolidge Corner retail district, see my video and website, and watch for news of my Coolidge Corner walking tours, resuming soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Crowdsourcing a 19th Century Brookline Diary

Would you like to help bring the story of a 19th century Brookline woman and her family to life?

About five years ago I photographed the 1851-1865 diary of Mary Johanna Wild at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College. Wild lived with her family in a Brookline house that she and her husband, Dr. Charles Wild, built in 1822. It still stands, on Weybridge Road near  the intersection of Washington and Greenough Streets.

Pages from Mary Wild diary
Pages from Mary Joanna Wild diary (click image for larger view)

The Wild house in 1868 and 2016
The Wild House, built in 1822, shown in 1868 (left) and after a 2016 renovation (right)
I started, but never quite completed, transcribing the diary, page-by-page. It was painstaking work, partly because the page images, shot with my iPad camera, were not very good. Some of them were pretty unreadable. Fortunately, the entire diary was digitized by Boston College in 2018 and is available in high resolution, zoomable images online.

Now, I'm asking for your help in bringing this project to fruition. Here is what you can do.
  • I will send each volunteer 1-3 pages of the diary at a time. I'll send you a copy of my transcription and instructions for viewing the handwritten pages online. 
  • Your task will be to read through the original diary pages, confirm or correct errors in my transcription, and fill in parts I was unable to transcribe or was uncertain about.
When it is completed, we will have a crowdsourced transcription of the diary that I will make publicly available online.

But this will be more than just a transcription. I've compiled annotations of the diary noting, among other things, details about the people Mary mentions, the places, events, and objects she describes, books she reads, and more. That will all be included in the final project.

For example, at the bottom of the very first page of the diary, on Saturday,  January 11, 1851, Mary writes: "I went to the musical Fund in the eve with C. Rhodes & Dr. Sen." Here is that entry from her diary and, below it, the program from that concert digitized from the collections of the New York Public Library. (The concert, featuring the Beethoven Pastorale, took place at the Tremont Temple on Tremont Street in Boston.)
Diary entry and program from the Boston Musical Fund Society concert, January 11, 1851

But it all starts with completing a good transcription.

Are you interested in contributing to this project? Let me know— email me at kliss@brooklinehistoricalsociety.org — and I will send you pages and detailed instructions.

- Ken






Thursday, April 2, 2020

Local History in the Time of COVID-19

Like most of us in this time of crisis, I'm working from home and maintaining social distance while worrying about myself, my family and friends, my community, the nation, and the world.

My day job keeps me plenty busy: I'm coordinating the Boston University Libraries support for remote teaching and learning. But as volunteer head of the Brookline Historical Society I haven't stopped engaging—mostly on the weekends—in the local history work I enjoy so much. It's good for my mental health, and I hope it provides some distraction, entertainment, and education for others.

Ken doing research in the kitchen
I've turned two of my neighborhood walking tours—Coolidge Corner and the Beaconsfield Terraces—into video tours you can watch on your computers or other devices. I'm hoping to develop virtual tours you can consult on your phones to learn more about different sites as you go for walks, one of the few external activities we can still enjoy.

I was interviewed last weekend by the Brookline Interactive Group about Brookline in the 1918-19 flu pandemic, which I wrote about back in 2009. (It will air soon on the Web and local cable TV.)

I'll be producing more of these videos and other ways of sharing local history (as time and energy allow). I hope to put together some online guides to doing local history research and other ways of helping others explore the history of our town.

The coronavirus crisis has delayed our usual Brookline Historical Society membership drive, but if you're a current or past member, please renew your membership. And if you're not a member but enjoy local history, please join us. (I confess it feels a little awkward to ask when we are all worried not just about our health but about our financial futures and those of local businesses, government services, and the more vulnerable among us and in society.)

Membership dues and donations provide essential support for our free educational programs, including lectures, open houses, and walking tours, and for the care and maintenance of our collections. As a member you will also receive the Society newsletter, advanced notice of events, and invitations to annual members-only presentations in historic homes and buildings.

Membership information is available on our website (along with historic photos, stories, research sources, and much more.)

In any case, I hope you can enjoy learning about the past even while worrying about the future and, most importantly, taking care of yourselves and others in the present.

Best,

Ken Liss
President, Brookline Historical Society

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Ghosts & Shadows of Automobile Row

If you missed my 9/15 conversation with WBUR’s Sharon Brody about Commonwealth Avenue’s Automobile Row in Boston and Brookline, the talk/slideshow is now available on the station's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYpoghQ1laU&t=1s

Ghosts & Shadows of Boston's (and Brookline's) Automobile Row

WBUR Talk & Fuller Building