Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Early View of Christmas in Brookline

Mary W. Poor, who was born in Brookline in 1820, was the daughter of the Rev. John Pierce, minister of the First Parish Church.  Her "Recollections of Brookline," read before the Historical Society in 1903, included this passage about Christmas at the time of her childhood.

As Brookline has changed outwardly, so have its manners and customs. In those old days there was no attention paid to Christmas beyond saying, "I wish you a merry Christmas!" to the members of the family when we first met them in the morning. We never dreamed of its being made merrier than any other day. The schools went on as usual and no one expected a Christmas gift. We had New Year's presents instead. I never heard of Santa Claus till I was sixteen and then he was mentioned by a lady from New York. We knew that Catholic and Episcopal churches were dressed with evergreens at Christmas, and sometimes went to Boston to see them on that day.

 For more on the celebration of Christmas in early Massachusetts—it was outlawed from 1659 to 1681 and was not recognized as an official holiday until 1856—see this "Mass Moment" from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Remembering Brookline's Civil War Dead

NOTE: This is an expanded version, with illustrations, of an article that first appeared in the Brookline TAB and its Wicked Local Web site.

Brookline’s 1884 memorial to its Civil War dead was restored, reinstalled, and rededicated in the lobby of Town Hall on Memorial Day. If you haven’t gone to see it, you should.

Civil War Memorial
Photo courtesy of Jesse Mermell
Unlike the town’s more visible statue of an anonymous bugler on his horse, these seven tablets of pink Tennessee marble pay tribute to individual men, their names chiseled into stone along with their units and the dates and places of their deaths.

There are 72 in all, soldiers and sailors who died at such places as Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

A century and a half ago, news of these storied places arrived in Brookline not just as part of the broad saga of the war but also as terrible news for families living in streets (and maybe a few houses) that are familiar to us today. That gives more meaning to the names of these places and takes us back to Brookline at the time of the Civil War.

Inspired by the rededication, I’ve been digging deeper, piecing together fragments that tell who these men were and what happened to them. A few—officers and members of prominent families—were easy; their stories were documented at the time and have been preserved in books, letters, and other sources.

Sketch of Wilder Dwight, 1862
Wilder Dwight, 18622
(Click for larger view)
Wilder Dwight, for example, was a Harvard-educated lawyer and a lieutenant colonel in the infantry. Mortally wounded at Antietam but in too much pain to be moved, he lay on the ground as battle raged around him and added these words to a letter, stained with his blood, that he had begun writing that morning:

DEAREST MOTHER,--I am wounded so as to be helpless. Good by, if so it must be. I think I die in victory. God defend our country. I trust in God, and love you all to the last. Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay.1

On the opposite page he added “All is well with those that have faith.” Dwight was carried to the rear that evening and died the following day at age 29. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, along with his brother, Howard, who was killed in Louisiana eight months later.

Charles L. Chandler3
Charles L. Chandler, a civil engineer, was a lieutenant colonel of Massachusetts troops. Wounded in Virginia in May 1864, he fell into Confederate hands. Two weeks later, his mother Eliza received a letter from a fellow officer that told how, under a flag of truce, a Confederate colonel came to him with news of Chandler’s death.

He lived for some hours [the officer wrote], and was kindly cared for by Colonel Harris, who has his watch, money, diary, and photograph of young lady. . . Colonel Harris said, Lieutenant-Colonel Chandler died happy, and desired him to give his love, etc., to all his family and friends.3

Chandler’s belongings were returned to his family after the war, but his body was never recovered. He was 24 years old when he died.

Painting showing Charles Chandler in the action in which he gave his life
This painting, "Even To Hell Itself" by Donna J. Neary, shows Lt. Col. Charles L. Chandler, center, in the action at the North Anna River in Virginia where he was mortally wounded.  It was made for the North Anna Battlefield Park. Used by permission of the artist.
Credit: Donna J. Neary, Heritage Studio

Unlike Dwight and Chandler, most of the men whose names are on the memorial were working men—carpenters, blacksmiths, laborers, shoemakers, and clerks—including several Irish immigrants and sons of immigrants.

Thomas Dillon's signature
Thomas Dillon's signature4

Thomas Dillon came to Brookline from Armagh, Ireland. A teamster like his father, he enlisted in Wilder Dwight’s regiment in 1862 at age 31 and, like Dwight, was killed at Antietam. Dillon’s company commander remembered:

One of the men of my company killed at Sharpsburgh, the other day, lived in Brookline, and had been out here only about six weeks; his name was Thomas Dillon, and he was a good, faithful fellow...A letter came for him two days after his death, which I think, under the circumstances, was one of the most affecting things I ever read... I do not know of anything that has brought the horrors of the war more plainly before me than this letter. I have written to the father of Dillon, telling him of his son's death.5

Daniel Webster Atkinson, a 25-year old journeyman carpenter, fell during the siege of Petersburg in October 1864. Atkinson was a tall man with blue eyes, light hair, and fair skin, according to an August 1862 list of enrollees in the 10th Battery of Massachusetts Light Artillery.  (At six-feet one-and-a-quarter inches, Atkinson was the tallest of the 26 men listed and one of only two over six feet.)

John Billings, a comrade who wrote a history of the regiment, called Atkinson

.... a brave soldier, a professed Christian and true man...As the troops halted from time to time, he was several times seen, apart from the column, reading the Scriptures, or on his knees in prayer.6

Atkinson, wrote Billings, escaped serious injury in July 1864 when he fell asleep and walked off a pontoon bridge while crossing the Appomattox River "providentially alighting in one of the boats" supporting the bridge.

His luck ran out three months later at Hatcher's Run, Virginia, where he was shot and killed and "thus sealed with his blood the cause he had upheld from the beginning with peculiar earnestness."  Atkinson, noted Billings, had told fellow soldiers he did not expect to survive the war and, on the morning of the day he died "had given directions to some of his more intimate comrades in regard to the disposal of his effects in case he should fall."

Site where the 10th Battery stood, as seen in 1896
Site of the action in which Daniel Atkinson was killed, as it looked in 1896.  From  Billings' History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery of Light Artillery in the War of the Rebellion, p. 366.

Five months after the battle, Billings and his fellow artillerymen passed by the place where Atkinson had fallen and found a grave on the spot.

Satisfied that it was his, there being no others near, we hastily inscribed his name, battery, and date of death on a rough board, with satisfaction at being thus able to mark his remains for future removal, before passing on with the column.

John W. Clark was one of the older Brookline men to die in the war. A mason, he was 39 when he enlisted in September 1861. After the battle of Antietam Clark’s unit was recuperating with others in Bakersville, Maryland, when President Lincoln came to review the troops and receive their cheers. It’s unlikely that Clark saw him. Diarrhea caused by water from a stream that ran through the camp had put many of the troops on sick call, and Clark was probably among them. He died of disease two days after Lincoln’s visit.

The only son of the pastor of Brookline’s Baptist Church, Samuel Lamson was a 23-year-old paymaster’s clerk on board the paddlewheel steamboat Ruth as it came down the Mississippi River in August 1863 carrying soldiers, civilians, and two and a half million dollars in cash — the payroll for General Grant’s army besieging Vicksburg. Near Cairo, Illinois, the steamer caught fire and sank. (Sabotage was suspected.) Twenty-six people died. Two eyewitnesses recalled seeing Lamson, who couldn’t swim, jumping reluctantly into the water clutching a window shutter. His body was recovered two weeks later.

Burning of the Steamer Ruth
The burning of the steamer Ruth as shown in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
These are just six of the Brookline men who died in the Civil War. (Stories of some of the others will be forthcoming.) I wish I could learn more about how they lived, not just how they died. But the restored memorial keeps their names alive, and telling their stories reminds us how deeply Brookline was affected by the war and what the town lost 150 years ago.

1Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, Lieut.-Col, Second Mass. Inf. Vols. (1868)
2Sketch of Wilder Dwight drawn by Private Francis D'Avignon, a French-born artist serving with the First Massachusetts Infantry.  Image source: Heritage Auctions
3Lt.-Col. Charles Lyon Chandler (1864)
4On April 22, 1861 -- 10 days after the attack on Fort Sumter and three days after a mob of Confederate sympathizers attacked a Massachusetts regiment as it passed through Baltimore -- more than 200 Brookline men enrolled "for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of military drill and discipline" offered by the town.  Dillon was one of the first to sign up.  A little over a year later he enlisted in the Second Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
5Letter from Charles Fessenden Morse, September 26, 1862, in Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1898)
6The History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery of Light Artillery in the War of the Rebellion. Formerly of the Third Corps, and afterwards of Hancock's Second Corps, Army of the Potomac. 1862-1865 (1881) [Photo is from 1909 edition]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brookline Bikes: Sights to See on Beacon Street

The annual Brookline Bikes bicycle parade takes place this Sunday, May 15th.  It's a great event and an opportunity to ride the entire length of the historic Beacon Street boulevard in Brookline unimpeded by automobiles.

The Brookline Historical Society will have a table set up in Amory Park, the starting and ending point for the parade, with information about the development of Beacon Street.  Stop by before or after the ride and check it out.

Shown below are some of the architectural and historical sights you'll see as you ride down Beacon Street. (Photos of Beacon Street landmarks in the past can be viewed on the Brookline Historical Society Web site.)

Pelham Hall (Outbound, at Pleasant Street) Pelham Hall was built as a residential hotel in 1926 as part of a burst of new construction in and around Coolidge Corner.

S.S. Pierce Building (Outbound, at Harvard Street). The S.S. Pierce building, the symbol of Coolidge Corner if not of Brookline itself, was built from 1898-99 on the site of the original Coolidge Brothers store.

The second story of the Pierce Building, now offices, was originally Whitney Hall. Named for Beacon Street developer Henry Whitney, it was used for concerts, lectures, dances, meetings, and other events.  The original tower was taller.  Damaged in a 1944 hurricane, it was remodeled afterward to its current design.  The S.S. Pierce Company continued to occupy the lower floor until the 1960s and the building is still generally called the S.S. Pierce Building, even by residents who didn’t arrive in Brookline until much later.

MBTA Shelters (Both sides at Harvard Street) The tile-roofed shelters for the T, at Coolidge Corner, are the original structures built by Henry Whitney’s West End Railway in 1901. Remodeled a few years ago, they are the only original shelters that remain.

The Stoneholm (Outbound, between Short Street and Lancaster Terrace). The Stoneholm is a magnificent French Renaissance chateau style apartment building that opened in 1909 with such amenities as marble fireplaces, parquet floors, and crystal chandeliers. It was designed by Arthur Bowditch, who lived on Pill Hill.

Chinese Christian Church (Inbound, between Strathmore and Dean Roads). This neo-Gothic church was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge in 1910. Built for the Leyden Congregational Church, it was bought by the Chinese Christian Church of New England in 1975.

All Saints Church.  (Inbound, at Dean Road). All Saints Church, designed by the architectural firm of Cram, Wentworth, and Goodhue, replaced a temporary wooden church on the site with the completion of the nave in 1899.

The Beaconsfield Terraces (including Richter Terrace,  Inbound at Dean Road and Frances Terrace, Inbound at Tappan Street).
The Beaconsfield Terraces were one of the more unusual developments to follow the widening of Beacon Street. Built by Eugene Knapp, a wool merchant, in the early 1890s, the terraces were an early condominium arrangement in which people owned their units but shared ownership of 6-acre park, stables, a playhouse (known as the casino), tennis courts, and a playground. A bell system connected the houses to the stables so that people could call for their horse and carriage. A central heating plant heated all of the buildings. Today, only the residence buildings remain.

Athans Building
(Inbound at Washington Street). This commercial block was built in 1898 with stores, offices, and a hall for dances and concerts.

Richmond Court. (Inbound, east of St. Paul Street).
Richmond Court was one of the firstpossibly the firstcourtyard apartment buildings in the country. Built in 1898, it is set back and separated from the noise and bustle of Beacon Street by an iron fence, brick and stone posts, a fountain, and private gardens. Richmond Court was designed by Ralph Adams Cram who went on to design All Saints Church, further out on Beacon Street, as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and many buildings at West Point and Princeton University.

Temple Ohabei Shalom (Inbound at Kent Street). Temple Ohabei Shalom was the first Jewish congregation in Boston, formed in 1842 by immigrant German Jews. The congregation moved to Brookline and this domed temple in 1927.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Invention & Innovation: A Walking Tour of New Ideas Born in Brookline

Did you know that King C. Gillette got the inspiration for the safety razor while shaving in his Brookline home one morning? 

Or that the birth control pill was developed by Dr. John Rock at the Free Hospital for Women overlooking the Muddy River? 

Or that one of the world’s first electric cars was built at the Holtzer-Cabot Electric Company on Station Street? 

Join me this Sunday, May 15th, at 2 pm to learn about these and other advancements made by 19th and 20th century inventors and innovators living or working in Brookline

The tour begins at the Brookline Village MBTA Station and will cover approximately 2 miles in 1-1/2 hours. Free and open to the public. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tree Falls in Brookline: The Aspinwall Elm, 1863

In honor of Arbor Day, April 29th (officially proclaimed in Brookline by the Board of Selectmen last Friday), Muddy River Moments presents the story of the Aspinwall Elm, the most celebrated tree to grow—and fall—in Brookline.

Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863
Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863. (Brookline Historical Society photo)

When 19th century Bostonians talked about great elm trees, there were three that usually came to mind: the Great Elm on Boston Common; the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common; and the Aspinwall Elm, towering over the Aspinwall family home in Brookline Village.

The Aspinwall Elm was, by most accounts, the largest of these.  The circumference of its massive trunk (as reported in The North American Review in 1844) had been measured in 1837 at 26 feet 5 inches at ground level and 16 feet 8 inches five feet up. Its branches (according to the 1846 edition of Dr. George B. Emerson's report on the trees and shrubs of Massachusetts) at one time extended 104 feet from southeast to northwest, and 95 from northeast to southwest.

The tree stood on what is now Aspinwall Avenue alongside the home built by Peter Aspinwall in 1660.  (The site was opposite that of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was built nearly two centuries later, in 1851.) Tradition had it that Peter Aspinwall planted the tree in 1656, though other stories date it somewhat later than that and attribute its planting to Peter's son Samuel or to Samuel Clark, who lived with the Aspinwalls as a boy.

This photo of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm was published in The Aspinwall Genealogy published by Algernon Aikin Aspinwall in 1901

Mary W. Poor, daughter of the Rev. John Pierce, recalled the tree in her 1903 recollection of Brookline in the 1820s.

Every one spoke of it as " Beautiful Brookl1ne." This was partly due to the rolling and well wooded surface and to the splendid elms of uncommon size and picturesque shape that fairly embowered the village and a great part of the town. The queen of these noble trees was the "Aspinwall elm," which stood at the southwest corner of the old "Aspinwall house" very near the site of the Episcopal church.

Half the tree fell in 1844.  Eleven years later, J.C. Warren, president of the Boston Society of Natural History, examined the Aspinwall Elm while writing a book about the Great Elm on Boston Common.

I have examined this tree [wrote Warren], and find that its annual foliage has been almost wholly devoured by the canker-worm, in common with many other trees in the low land of Brookline. It appears at this time like a frightful skeleton ; and there is a question whether it will ever recover from the shock it has received. In its death, we shall have to deplore the loss of one of the finest natural ornaments of this part of the country.

Warren was right to be concerned.  Eight years later, on September 18, 1863, the rest of the tree came down in a gale, crashing on top of the 200-year old house and punching a hole in the roof.  Three generations of the family posed in front of the house with the toppled tree.  (Click here for a larger view of the image above.)

The loss of the Aspinwall Elm was big news, and not just locally. Word of its demise was mentioned in newspapers as far away as Wisconsin.

The stump of the giant elm remained for some time after.  In 1873, in his speech dedicating Brookline's new Town Hall, Robert C. Winthrop paid tribute to the Aspinwall Elm:

Of the venerable elm, which overshadowed [the Aspinwall House] certainly for more than a hundred and fifty years, if indeed it was not coeval with Columbus, nothing remains but the antique roots, and a few feet of massive but mutilated trunk. They are almost the last relics of the old Muddy River Hamlet, and I wish they could be enclosed and inscribed as a monument of the remote past. What an inspiring stump that would be for an open-air speech on some historical anniversary ! If nothing else can be done, I trust that enough of it may be secured as a desk for this very platform. If it were here at this moment, my manuscript would have a most congenial resting place, — more precious than the most skillful carving or veneering of Oak, or Maple, or Satin-Wood.

The Aspinwall House, in poor shape at the time of Winthrop's speech, was itself torn down in 1891.  The land was acquired by the town in 1914 for a park.  Expanded in 1972, it is now the Billy Ward Playground.

BillyWard Playground
The Billy Ward Playground on the site of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Brookline, Allston-Brighton and the Renewal of Boston

Help celebrate the 110th birthday of the Brookline Historical Society with guest speaker Ted Clarke, author of Brookline, Allston-Brighton and the Renewal of Boston.  Sunday, March 13th, at 2 pm at Hunneman Hall, Brookline Public Library
Beacon Street at Coolidge Corner as laid out by Henry Whitney and Frederick Law Olmsted
Beacon Street at Coolidge Corner as laid out by Henry Whitney and Frederick Law Olmsted
(Image from the collection of the Brookline Historical Society)
In October of 1873, voters in the neighboring towns of Brookline and Brighton cast ballots on whether or not to accept annexation into the City of Boston. Brighton voted Yes, while Brookline voted No, and the decision had long-term repercussions for both towns and for Boston itself.

Join Ted Clarke, author of the new book Brookline, Allston-Brighton and the Renewal of Boston for a look at the different paths taken by these two communities following the annexation vote. Clarke, a local historian and former Summit Avenue resident, will talk about the development of Brookline and Brighton after 1873, with a focus on the local work of Henry Whitney and Frederick Law Olmsted.

The program is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

This is the Annual Meeting of the Brookline Historical Society. The presentation will be preceded by a brief business meeting.
The Brookline Public Library is at 361 Washington Street.