“Gentleman Farmers” of the 19th Century

Brewer BarnThe “gentleman farmers” of the 19th century were men who typically had made their fortunes in that century’s industrial and commercial expansion and, only afterwards and as an avocation, applied the scientific and economic values and principles that had fueled their successes in those arenas to agricultural pursuits.  For instance, in 1856, wealthy Boston businessman John Brewer built a mansion along Martin’s Lane in Hingham, which later grew to encompass the twin drumlins of World’s End and the Hingham Harbor islands, and his son, Francis W. Brewer, built “Great Hill,” an estate off Hobart Street, now More-Brewer Park. (Shown here: a print from a glass plate negative of the barn at Great Hill, the foundations of which can still be seen in the park.)

Portrait of Samuel Downer

One prominent father-son duo of “gentleman farmers” with a strong connection to Hingham were both named Samuel Downer. The father, Samuel Downer, Sr. (1773-1854), was a Dorchester merchant with ties to shipping and the Massachusetts maritime economy.  He was a founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and devoted horticultural experimentalist, known for having developed several new varieties of pears.  We have in our collection a portrait of the elder Mr. Downer, painted by Henry Cheever Pratt in 1840.  Mr. Downer chose to pose with fruit and flowers and a popular naturalistic work of the era called The Romance of Nature—all reflecting his desire to be remembered for his agricultural interests and not the trade and commerce that had led to his wealth and position.

Portrait of Samuel Downer, Jr.His son, Samuel Downer, Jr. (1807-1881), was a pioneer in the development of kerosene and a participant in early petroleum exploration in Pennsylvania.  (Locally, he is known for having bought up most of Crow Point in Hingham and developed the mid-19th century resort Melville Garden.)  This Samuel Downer (photo at right) also cultivated fruit for a hobby.  One of his inventions was “Downer’s Late Cherry,” a useful application of scientific principles to farming: it bore fruit later than other varieties of cherry, effectively extending the local cherry season.

PH503The Hingham Agricultural and Horticultural Society, founded in 1869, was also comprised of local men and women, many of whom were involved in industry, trade, and commerce.  (Here, they pose for a formal portrait in front of Hingham’s Agricultural Hall in the late 1880s or early 1890s.) As a society, they were earnestly dedicated to scientific farming, that is, using the progressive values of the 19th century and the power of new knowledge and industrial technology to “improve” agriculture along “modern” lines. At the agricultural fair each fall, prizes offered in different categories attracted many entrants. One could win a medal or ribbon—and an accompanying cash prize–for anything from crops and livestock to flowers and preserves.

The prizes offered for “Agricultural Experiments” demonstrate this interest in scientific farming.  A poster advertising the 1863 Agricultural Fair (detail reproduced below) offered prizes for the “best conducted experiment” in several areas, including for instance, “ascertaining the most economical manner of apply Manures for a crop of Indian corn, not less than ½ acre . . . .”

Africultural Fair Poster 1863 #2

Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Carl Burr’s Hingham, Part 2

As discussed in Part 1, the diaries of Carl Burr (1884-1861) provide a glimpse of how Hingham was changing from a largely rural community to the suburb of today during the first half of the twentieth century. As with transportation, the entries chronicle changes seen in how the town valued and used its open spaces.

Carl Burr was an avid outdoorsman. His year was measured by the fishing and hunting seasons. His entries through the 1910s and 1920s spend much time describing many places in Hingham available for hunting and fishing. He mentions hunting pheasant and quail on Turkey Hill, rabbits near Popes Lane and Pleasant Street, foxes in the High Street area and spending early mornings in Septembers in blinds awaiting the chance to shoot ducks in the Home Meadows.

Home Meadows as seen in 1888

Home Meadows near Winter Street

In the Spring he spent time fishing for trout and mackerel at Triphammer and Accord Ponds or casting a line off of the Leavitt Street bridge over the Weir River near his home.

A view of a hunting cabin at Triphammer Pond in 1911

Triphammer Pond
He helped found the Hingham Sportsmen’s Club (HSC) in April 1932, which held monthly meetings at the G.A.R. Hall along with shooting contests and field days in many farms in town.

GAR Hall on Main Street in the early 20th Century

GAR Hall with Trolley Tracks
But even before the Club was founded, his journal entries reflect a change in both the rural nature of the community and the types of wildlife available and allowed to hunt. Many of his entries refer to the lack of luck in finding anything during local hunting trips, particularly birds on trips up Turkey Hill. He stops referring to duck hunting in the Home Meadows after 1923 and instead goes on hunting trips to places on Cape Cod or in New Hampshire instead. With the town evolving into suburbia, regulations were put in place banning hunting in most areas. An entry on April 7, 1949 says he marked the 50th anniversary of his first bird hunt by taking the gun given to him by his father down to the Weir River though he notes shooting anything has been illegal there for the past 10 years.

Looking across the Leavitt Street Bridge over the Weir River in 1941

Standing on Leavitt’s Bridge
By the late 1930s fish are becoming so scarce in Hingham’s streams that he helps raise funds for the HSC to purchase trout and other fish from local fish farms to stock Hingham’s rivers. This only solved the problem in the short-term and the practice was discontinued by 1950. In November 1960, Carl Burr was one of several owners of land in the Home Meadows who sold their acreage to the new town Conservation Commission to help preserve the land as open space.

View of the Home Meadows near Water Street in 1958

Home Meadows Estuary

Open space changes in Hingham can also be summed up by the use of the Hingham Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s properties across from his house.

Agricultural Hall and Fairgrounds around 1900

Agricultural Hall
Agricultural Hall was built in 1867. Early in his life he attended the many events that took place there including agricultural exhibitions and sporting events on the fairgrounds by local amateur and school teams, including games of the Breezy Hill baseball club, the ‘home’ team from Hingham Center:

Breezy Hill Baseball Club, 1915
As the years passed, however, fewer agricultural activities took place on the grounds, amateur town teams disbanded and school teams moved to the fields used today. To follow baseball, he becomes a fan of the Boston Braves, attending many their games in Boston, or listens to them on the radio (and later television). By the time he became custodian of the Hall in the 1950s, the grounds were largely abandoned and only town elections and a few other civic events occurred in the building. The Hall was torn down a few years after his death in May 1961, replaced by the Hingham Public Library.

Glimpses of Huit’s Cove

Courtesy of George and Linda Luther Watt, the Society recently acquired a pair of watercolor drawings of Huit’s (or Hewitt’s) Cove—the site of the Hingham Shipyard—in early 1942.

Huit's Cove, in watercolor and pencil, by Beatrice Ruyl, January 23, 1942.  Hingham Historical Society

Huit’s Cove, in watercolor and pencil, by Beatrice Ruyl, January 23, 1942. (Hingham Historical Society)

The earlier drawing, dating from January 1942, shows part of the area prior to construction of the Bethlehem Shipyard. Hingham artist Beatrice Ruyl slipped into the area only weeks before construction began and captured a weedy winter landscape where only a few months later would stand an enormous industrial complex on almost all of the site’s 150 acres.

“Slipways” Watercolor and pencil picture by Beatrice Ruyl of the start of construction of the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard. May 2, 1942.

The second picture dates from May 1942, when construction of the shipyard was well underway. The artist titled it “Slipways.” There are cranes, tugboats, and, In the distance across the Cove, the Bradley Fertilizer Works.  Within a very short period, the shipyard was up and running.

Launch of a destroyer Escort, Bethlehem-Hingham Shiphard, 1944 or 1945.  (Hingham Historical Society)

Launch of a destroyer escort from Bethlehem Hingham Shipyard, 1944 or 1945. (Hingham Historical Society)

Fewer than 10 years earlier, Huit’s Cove had been the site of an enormous costume pageant to celebrate Hingham’s 300th anniversary. Nearly 1,000 residents participated.

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The cast of one scene in the Tercentenary Pageant–the “Ordination Ball”-in colonial costumes. June 1935. (Hingham Historical Society)

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Spectators in bleachers built at Huit’s Cove for the Hingham Tercentenary Pageant, June 27-29, 1935 (Hingham Historical Society)

Prior to to that, a short-lived airfield called Bayside Airport occupied the site.

Biplane in a hangar at Bayside Airport, Huit's Cove, Hingham.  (John Richardson Collection, Hingham Historical Society)

Biplane in a hangar at Bayside Airport, Huit’s Cove, Hingham. (John Richardson Collection, Hingham Historical Society)

Going further back, into the 18th century, Patience Pomatuck was said to have gathered native and naturalized plants from Huit’s Cove, which she used for medicinal, herbs, dyes and other household uses. Patience made a living selling these plants to her English neighbors in Hingham. We have no record of which plants grew in the Cove’s many acres, but among them would probably have been rushes, which could be formed into baskets and rush lamps; wild gentian, for use as an emetic; and mullein, used as cough medicine.

Common_Mullein

Common Mullein

Fringed Gentian

Wild Gentian

A Resolution Reached At Town Meeting

ayrshireThe great thing about poking around in an archive as rich as ours at the Hingham Historical Society is that connections are there to be made.  Half the story might be in one document—and then the other half pops up.  A prior post on this blog (“An Appeal to Town Meeting”) was about the address of an unnamed 18th century farmer to Hingham’s Town Meeting.  The farmer had complained that he was unable to drive his livestock to pasture at the Great Lots, or bring off any produce, because  another Hingham farmer, Thomas Hersey, had built a stone wall across a public way.  The farmer had came to Town Meeting armed with evidence that, he claimed, proved that one hundred years previously the Town had authorized the laying out of a road to ensure the access to the very same Great Lots now blocked by Mr. Hersey.  And there the story ended.  The documents we were looking at were from the Hersey Family papers, and they left the identity of the petitioner and the outcome of the dispute unknown.

Detail from D.A. Dwiggins' map of Hingham, "The Old Place Names," 1935

Detail from “Historic Map of Hingham, Mass.,” Hingham Public Library Local History & Special Collections

But it turned out that the rest of the story was nearby, in our Thaxter Family papers, because the unhappy petitioner was John Thaxter, Sr., who left a memorandum describing the resolution reached at Town Meeting, together with the “true copy” of the 17th century Town Meeting vote upon which he relied.  John Thaxter presented the dispute to Town Meeting on December 17, 1794.  He presented evidence that in June 1694, almost exactly 100 years previously, Josiah Loring had complained to the Town Meeting that he could not access his own pasture at the Great Lots.  The solution he had proposed, which was accepted by the Town, was the laying out of a public way between Broad Cove Lane and Goles Lane (the “Turnpike”) adjacent to the Great Lots and the Squirrel Hill Lots.  According to Thaxter’s memorandum, written the next day, here is what happened:

At a Legal town meeting in Hingham June ye 19th 1794.  The within votes of the Town [i.e., the 1694 record] were presented to the Town by John Thaxter as a memorial that the high way from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street which has been passed & repassed on time immemorial is now stopped up by Thomas Hearsy erecting a stone wall across the same whereby said Thaxter is deprived from going to his pasture at great Lotts in a great measure.  As the meeting was thin the town thought there was a probability of said Thaxter & Hearsy settling the difficulty subsisting between them and they labored for an accommodation.  Said Thaxter then made said Hearsy a proposal.  As both of them had said they would not remove the wall, that if said Hearsy would send a hand he would another to remove the wall, which said Hearsy agreed to.  Then said Thaxter withdrew the memorial and nothing further was acted by the Town.  The wall was removed the next day.

So, with some encouragement (or pressure) from their neighbors, John Thaxter and Thomas Hersey settled their dispute, agreeing to share the job of removing the stone wall which Thaxter had proved was an obstruction on a public way.

Thaxter and Hersey were contemporaries, born two years apart in the early 1730s.  Hersey lived on Lincoln Street, Thaxter on South Street; both spent their entire lives in Hingham, except for military service and Thaxter’s years at Harvard College.  They must have known each other very well.  We don’t know what their personal relationship was or how this incident fit into it.  They have, however, provided us a glimpse into how local land use disputes were handled in a long-ago era.

An Appeal to Town Meeting

The terminology used in these 18th century manuscripts will be familiar to any contemporary participant in Hingham’s Town Meeting:  “Mr. Moderator,” the first opens, “As I requested the article in the warrant we are now upon to be inserted, [I] suppose it is expected I should shew for what reason it is inserted . . . .”  We do not know who is addressing Town Meeting or who made these notes, but we understand immediately what’s happening.

The speaker explains that he enjoys the use of 27 acres of land at “Great Lotts,” half “tillage and mowing land” and half pasture, “to no part of either of which can I carry any manure or bring off any produce or drive my oxen or cows but upon sufferance.”  The problem, as he describes it, is that when the town laid out the “Great Lotts” and “Squirrel Hill Lott” one hundred years previously, the intention had been to lay out a road running between Goles Lane and Broad Cove Street, to allow access to the lots.  (Broad Cove Street is now called Lincoln Street and Goles Lane, also formerly called the Turnpike, is now Beal Street.  The Great Lots were survivals of the practice, in the earliest days of settlement, of assigning settlers planting lots and pasture at a far remove from the thickly-settled residential center of town.)

A town committee was appointed, the speaker claims, to lay out this road, and ¾ of its roughly one-mile route was fenced.  The task was not completed, however, and recently Thomas Hersey had built a stone wall where the road ran across his property.  For the speaker, the stakes were high:  “if I cannot get to my Land [I] shall be reduced to the hard necessity of keep[ing] two cows & driving my oxen to the worlds end & keep[ing] a horse the greater part of the summer at the barn.”

It demonstrates just how old our town is that this 18th century Hingham farmer was basing his argument on what he claimed were the Town’s mid-17th century actions.  Remarkably, he appears to have had documentary evidence to support his contention.  A second set of notes in the same handwriting, perhaps of a second application to the Town, opens:

Mr. Moderator.  What I propose by Laying before the Town the record that has now been read is to shew the sentiments of the Town respecting a highway from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street 100 years ago, which the Inhabitants have passed  & repassed since time immemorial but is now entirely stopped up by Mr. Thomas Hersey . . . .

Hingham’s town seal pays tribute to the four pillars upon which the town was founded and grew:  Church, School, Train-Band (the militia), and Town-Meeting.  These two manuscripts remind us of the central role played by Town Meeting, which, as the legislative branch of our municipal government, has offered individual citizens a direct voice in municipal government for close to four centuries.