Carl Burr’s Hingham, Part 1

Thanks to the generosity of Hingham resident Gerry Bennett, the Historical Society has recently been loaned the diaries of Carl Burr (1884-1961), a seventh generation Hingham resident who lived his entire life at the family homestead at 61 Leavitt Street, across from today’s Hingham Public Library. I have just completed cataloging these diaries to make them accessible to researchers and others interested in this local history resource. Click on the link to read the full Carl Burr Diaries Finding Aid.

Photo of the Burr Homestead on Leavitt Street in 1885 and beyond. Taken by Charles Marble from the roof of Agricultural Hall:

Burr Homestead in 1885

Carl Burr was the eleventh child of Elisha Burr (1839-1909) and Mary Pratt Burr (1842-1940). He married Esther (Essie) M. Snyder (1889-1975) of Cohasset on June 15, 1910 and they raised two children, Alston P. Burr (1910-1979), who after 1940 lived next door at 67 Leavitt Street, and Constance (Connie) Burr Talbot (1915-1989) who spent her married life in Darien, Connecticut. He kept a daily diary for most of his adult life. The entries provide a window on a Hingham that was changing rapidly from a rural farm town in the early 1900s to the suburban community it is today. Changes that are evident through his diary’s descriptions of modes of transportation and use of open space.

Transportation
Carl Burr never owned a car. He didn’t have to travel far to visit family. Carl’s younger brother, noted decoy maker Russ Burr (1887-1955), lived next door at 55 Leavitt Street until his death in 1955, older sister Mary (May) Burr Ripley (b. 1878) and her husband William (Bill) Ripley (b. 1876) lived two doors up at the corner of Leavitt and Spring Streets.

Burr Homestead houses along 57, 61 and 67 Leavitt Street, 5/2/15

Burr Homestead houses along 57, 61 and 67 Leavitt Street. Photo taken May 2, 2015 by Robert H. Malme.

He was within walking distance of stores in both Hingham Center and Hingham Square. In his early years he was a plumbing and heating contractor and his entries list his extensive use of the local street railway system to visit clients throughout Hingham and neighboring communities.

Hingham Street Railway Car on Main Street near Pear Tree Hill:
Hingham Street Railway Company Car, Pear Tree Hill

He used the Nantasket and Old Colony railroad lines to take off-hour excursions to Nantasket Beach and Paragon Park or to travel to Cohasset to visit his future wife.

Nantasket Beach Railroad Train c. 1900 Nantasket Railway train heading towards Hingham near the Weir River around 1900, courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society.

Through connecting rail lines in other towns, he could travel far from home. He writes on August 15, 1909 traveling to Providence, RI via ‘the electrics’ for a dinner. In the 1920’s he became maintenance supervisor to buildings in Boston and started daily commutes via the Old Colony Railroad into South Station often returning home in the early afternoon. And like this past winter season, he noted several times when severe snowstorms prevented the trains from running.

Passengers board Old Colony Railroad train at Hingham Square Depot around 1930:

Hingham Square Train Station

As the years went on, particularly after World War II, however, the railroad started to give way to the popularity of the automobile. His entries refer to rail service starting to get cut back. On April 3, 1948 he notes he can no longer take a 12:30PM trip back to Hingham from Boston, but must now take a train to Quincy and then a bus. By the late 1940s, any late evening work would require his son Allston picking him up in his car from Quincy or the ‘rapid transit’ station at Columbia, today’s JFK-UMass station. After he stopped working in Boston in 1951, he started to rely totally on family, or friends, to transport him around town or elsewhere. Toward the end of his life, on September 8, 1959 he noted traveling on the new Southeast Expressway, its opening causing the end of railroad service in Hingham for nearly 50 years.

Hingham Square Train Depot being demolished in 1949:
Demolition of Hingham Square Train Station

Part two will discuss the changes the diaries chronicle in Hingham’s open spaces.

Enjoying the “Cool Sea Breezes” at Hingham’s Old Colony House

The advent of mass transportation in the mid-19th century helped create the summer tourism industry that has been so important to our regional economy.  When New England and the Sea, an historical survey of our maritime heritage, addresses the rise of seaside resorts, it tips its hat to Hingham:  “. . . one had to have a summer house at the shore, or go to the White Mountains, or stay at one of the fashionable hotels—say, the Old Colony House at the head of the harbor in Hingham . . . .”

A gathering in front of the Old Colony House. Photograph from the archives at the Hingham Historical Society.

Built in 1832 by the Boston & Hingham Steamship Company, the Old Colony House was an early example of the symbiotic relationship between the infant transportation and recreation industries.  The steamboat George Lincoln made the trip from Boston to Hingham swift (around 75 minutes) and pleasant, while the Old Colony House, erected on Summer Street near Martin’s Lane, created a destination, increasing passenger traffic on the vessel.  The railroad came through Hingham in 1849, and one of the stops on the new South Shore Railroad, called “Old Colony House,” was close by the hotel, providing easy access from Boston—and soon thereafter, the opportunity to change trains for Nantasket.  (The station’s descendent is today’s Nantasket Junction stop on the MBTA Greenbush Line.)  After the Civil War, the great Nantasket hotels drew business away from the Old Colony House, which was in decline when it burned in 1872.

The Historical Society’s archives include a collection of the business papers of Alfred C. Hersey.  Among Hersey’s many business interests (largely in the shipping and transportation industries) was the Old Colony House, which the steamship company sold in the late 1830’s.  Hersey’s 21-page handwritten inventory of the hotel’s furnishings, made in May 1860, provides important detail about what a New England resort hotel of the 1860’s was really like.

The inventory faithfully describes the furnishings of each room of the hotel, including dining room, parlors, billiard room, bowling alley, and office, specifying quantities, materials, and state of repair.  In the “East Parlor,” for instance, guests could sit on their choice of 6 damask covered sofas (4 “slightly stained”), 1 stuffed arm chair, 13 black walnut stuff bottom chairs, a stuffed rocking chair, and 10 black arm chairs (which had among them, however, only 8 cushions).

A typical guest room was furnished with a bedstead, mattresses, bolster and pillow, bureau, washstand, looking glass, mosquito netting, chamber pot and cover, soap cup, mug, and curtains.  A servant’s room in the attic, by contrast, had a bedstead, mattress, bolster and pillow (“stained”), wooden chair, toilet table (“defaced”), “small” looking glass, basin and ewer, and soap cup.  (Servants’ rooms in the scullery appear to have had significantly fewer furnishings.)

The inventories of the kitchen and laundry provide detailed lists of equipment.  To launder the hotel linens and guests’ clothes required water casks, grease casks, basins, wash boards, starch pans, a mangle, clothes horses, brushes, 11 flat irons, iron racks, and an iron heater.

The contents of the kitchen and “pastry room” tell us about the hotel’s fare.  There were large and small frying pans, copper and iron sauce pans, a meat saw, large and small steamers, tin and copper baking and cake pans, iron cake molds, tin jelly molds, a gridiron, waffle irons, coffee pots, a tea chest, ice cream freezers, an ice cream chest, and an ice cream scoop.  The “pastry room” was furnished with a bed—the pastry cook must have needed to rise early.

In a series of travel letters published as A Trip to Boston in 1838, Enoch Cobb Wines wrote warmly of the

splendid and well-kept Old Colony Hotel, the refined social pleasures it affords, the noble view enjoyed from the observatory on its roof, and the cool sea breezes that almost enable you to put summer at defiance. . . . [It]t presented a gay and happy appearance.  The broad piazza which surrounds three sides of the house was thronged with smiling groups, in which a due intermixture of the gentler sex was not wanting . . . .

. . . There was an excellent band from Boston there, and we had the poetry of music, the poetry of motion, and the poetry of social happiness, all in high perfection; and afterwards the poetry of sound sleep in the cool air, for which the proprietor of the Old Colony seems to have made a perpetual contract.