Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

The Celebrated Jumping Frog
by Mark Twain

I recently met a former California native who is now living in the Boston area and is an avid Red Sox fan. During our conversation the discussion turned back to California and Calaveras County was mentioned - had I ever heard of it? I remembered the title of the famous Mark Twain story, so I said I did. This led to talk of the Calaveras County Fair, which continues to this day and present day life in California. I try to avoid mentioning today's politics in this blog, so I won't go down that road. But a look at Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors, is certainly called for.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He is of course most famous for his years growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, years that he immortalized in his own writings. Living on the banks of the Mississippi, before the outbreak of the Civil War, was paradise for such an imaginative youth. Growing up on the river, playing at being Pirates with his friends or dreaming of becoming that god-like creature, a riverboat pilot, gave Samuel Clemens all of the inspiration he needed to complete his most important works. (Ray Bradbury is another great author that comes to mind who received so much of his inspiration from his childhood).

After first working as a typesetter/printer and a sometime newspaper reporter, Sam Clemens did achieve his dream of becoming a riverboat pilot. Serving his apprenticeship under Horace Bixby, he memorized some 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River, along with all of its twists, turns, snags and sandbars - both upstream and downstream. This amazing feat of memory was required of all riverboat pilots, for which they were well-paid. Unfortunately for Clemens the coming of war in 1861 disrupted river traffic and put him out of a job. It did, however, provide the inspiration for his pen name Mark Twain. (Mark Twain was the term used to denote two fathoms (12 feet) of water under the keel of a riverboat).

Samuel Clemens missed serving in the Civil War by going west with his brother Orion. Orion had been appointed Secretary of the territory of Nevada and Sam took the opportunity to join him. Clemens again picked up his writing career in the boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada by writing for local newspapers. (He also tried his hand at mining, at which he failed).

For a time he wrote for a newspaper in San Francisco and it was while he was in California that he experienced life in the gold mining camps. A story he heard in the camp of Angel, California led to his writing the short story that launched his literary career - The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. (The frog jumping tradition continues at the annual Calaveras County fair).

Some of Clemens happiest and most prolific years (1874-1891) were spent in the house he and his wife Olivia had built in Hartford, Connecticut. His two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were completed while living here. The novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered his greatest work.

Samuel Clemens later years were unhappy years due to the premature deaths of two of his three daughters and by the death of his beloved wife Livy in 1904. Samuel Clemens died in 1910, while Halley's Comet was visible in the night sky - just as it was upon his birth in 1835.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Vincent Kehoe of the 10th dies

On Thursday August 28, the Boston Globe published an obituary/article for Vincent Kehoe, formerly of the 10th Regiment of Foot (recreated). Mr. Kehoe died on August 17 in Somis, California at the age of 86. Mr. Kehoe was a make-up artist in the film industry, but during the 1970's he was responsible for remaking the image of British Revolutionary War reenactors.

At that time Vincent was a Revolutionary War historian living in the area. In preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in 1969 Mr. Kehoe founded the 10th Regiment of Foot. He soon set the standard for historically accurate uniforms, accoutrement's and conducting proper drill and tactics. Mr. Kehoe's efforts are directly responsible for the spit and polish of the 10th Regiment and the professional appearance of the British Revolutionary War reenactors in New England today.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Great Battlefield Tour

Virginia Monument
Gettysburg Battlefield
Gettysburg, Penn.

An article on yesterday titled Great Battlefield Tours by Joe Yogerst of Forbes Traveler was almost certainly written with an eye towards students of military history as well as travelers looking for new destinations. In a short but well-written piece Joe Yogerst gives a brief overview of some of the worlds great battles. A slide show accompanying the article lists several more famous battles. This has always been an interest of mine - traveling to view important battlefields, as well as visiting old forts and castles.

The article begins with a description of the Battles of Saratoga from the American Revolution. From there the list goes on to the Battle of Hastings, Waterloo, the battle to conquer the capital of the Aztec Empire by Cortes, two battles at Poitiers, France and the greatest battle ever fought on U.S. soil - Gettysburg. All good choices for such a short list.

The slide show covers these battles and goes on to list the Battle for Normandy (France), the attack on Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), Culloden (Scotland) and out of the ancient world, the city of Troy in Turkey. This particular list appears to be more for the tourist and world traveler than just exclusively for the history buff. But given the natural beauty of those locations, I have no objection at all to visiting any of them. In future posts I will discuss many of these battles and provide my own list for a great battlefield tour.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mass. Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission signs

Massachusetts Bay Colony
Tercentenary Commission

In 1930 during the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World a special commission was established to mark the occasion. As part of its work the commission located historic sites in the Commonwealth and marked them with large black and white cast iron signs. Dozens of the signs were cast and then mounted or supported with poles and placed throughout the state. Some 78 years have passed and many of the signs are gone, but there are still some of them out there to be found. Here are just a few I have run across.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Middlesex Fells Reservation, Mass.

Spot Pond
South and Main Sts.
Stoneham, Mass. 02180

The Middlesex Fells Reservation covers some 2,575 acres of publicly owned land, mostly forested, filled with hiking trails, ponds and open fields. Spot Pond, which is a 340 acre secondary water reservoir in the MWRA system and the Stone Zoo, both in Stoneham, make-up part of the Reservation. In addition to Stoneham, the Fells Reservation encompasses parts of Medford, Melrose, Malden and Winchester. Route 93 and Route 28, the Fellsway, split up the Reservation.

Originally this whole area was part Charlestown, but over time this rocky forested land (from which it derives its Anglo-Saxon name Fells) was subdivided. Mills were built in the area and farmers staked out their holdings. Mining operations were conducted and diabase, which is used for gravel, was removed . In 1725 the Town of Stoneham was incorporated and in 1850 Winchester and Melrose were also incorporated. Medford established its own claims in the Fells area and a small section lies in Malden.

Farming continued in some areas of the Fells through the 1700's until well into the late 19th century. Farming ended in 1894 when the Metropolitan Parks Commission (MPC) took over the land and created the Fells Reservation. The MPC was created through the efforts of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Trustees of Reservations and private citizens.

In 1919 the MPC was taken over by the Metropolitan District Commision. In addition to its park holdings the MDC was responsible for water and sewage, managed zoos, beaches, skating rinks and had its own police force. Over time the MDC was broken up. In 1970 a separate Parks and Recreation Division was created.The MDC police was merged with the State Police and the MWRA in 1984 became the new water and sewer authority.

The Middlesex Fells Reservation is now operated by the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). It is assisted in its efforts by The Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, a private non-profit group dedicated to preserving the Middlesex Fells area in its natural state.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

China wins the Gold - 2008 Summer Olympics

2008 Summer Olympics
Beijing, China

With the 2008 Summer Olympic Games ending today, maybe it is premature to say so, but I think people will realize that this Summer Olympics was a harbinger of the world to come. China spent years preparing to host this event and not just in the time, money and effort it took to build the needed facilities, to plan and choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies, provide the necessary security and make all of the other arrangements. China also put the power of its central government behind finding and training the athletes, some of them as young as six, needed to perform well at these games.

All of the effort paid off in gold. China won 51 gold medals versus its nearest competitor, the U.S., which won a total of 36. The next closest competitors were Russia with 23 gold medals and Great Britain with 19. In total China won 100 medals, the U.S. won more with 110. But it is naturally the gold medals that everyone focuses on.

I also find the listing of these top four winning nations to be significant. I do not think it is coincidental that these particular nations are among the most powerful countries in the world. The CIA World Factbook lists the U.S. has having the 2nd largest GDP (behind the E.U.), China has the third, Great Britain the seventh and Russia the eight largest GDP. All four nations have a strong national identity and large military assets.

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games attracted a huge worldwide audience and provided China with a great opportunity to showcase itself has a emerging world power. The U.S. may be the worlds sole superpower, but I think in this century China will challenge that role and seek co-equal status.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wadsworth House

Wadsworth House
1341 Mass. Ave.
Cambridge, Mass. 02138

Wadsworth House was built in 1726-1727 to house the Presidents of Harvard College. Its first occupant was Benjamin Wadsworth, Harvard's eighth President. A total of nine Harvard Presidents have lived in the home. Edward Everett, the last President to reside here, was President of Harvard from 1846 - 1849.

In July of 1775 General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to accept his new appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Gen. Washington stayed briefly in Wadsworth House while more spacious accommodations were cleaned and prepared for him. Washington and his "family" moved into the Vassal-Craigie-Longfellow house that same month.

Located right in the middle of bustling Harvard Square, Wadsworth House is a throwback to the past, a reminder of what the village of Old Cambridge looked like in the 18th century. A quiet village where on nearby Brattle Street you might find the blacksmith (or smithy) of Longfellow's famous poem The Village Blacksmith.

Wadsworth House is currently used by Harvard University for faculty and administrative offices.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

National Heritage Museum - Lexington, Mass.

National Heritage Museum
33 Marrett Rd.
Lexington, Ma. 02421

Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution is one of the long-term exhibits at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington (formerly the Museum of our National Heritage). This exhibit portrays everyday life in the town of Lexington in the years leading up to the fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the events of that day and the aftermath.

Included in the exhibit are original muskets and fowling pieces carried by participants in the battle. Several of the short land pattern (Brown Bess) muskets on display still bear the original numbers that denote which British Regiments and individuals the muskets were issued to. The exhibit is well laid out and very informative.

The museum has a small cafe and a well-stocked gift shop. Parking and admission is free, but donations in lieu of admission are accepted. The museum is open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Sundays noon to 5:00 p.m.

Monday, August 18, 2008

American Presidents and the military

President Washington

It is a conflict as old as mankind: humanities desire for peace versus a recognition of what also appears to be a part of man's make-up - an urge and a genius for making war on his fellow man. Democratic nations feel this conflict most keenly as recognizing the rights of the individual is the cornerstone principle of their governments. Autocratic and authoritarian governments will usually put the perceived needs of the state before the needs of individuals.

A reluctance to create a permanent standing Army and Navy was very much a part of the make-up of this country's Founding Generation. They felt that creating such a force would be a threat to their newly won freedoms. But being pragmatists, the Constitution that they created does layout the framework for our national defense. The American President is the Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces, giving a civilian the ultimate authority. Congress is granted the powers of the purse and the power to declare wars.

A slim majority of U.S. Presidents have served in the military, either on active duty or with the militia or National Guard. A surprising number of them held very high rank in the military. Beginning with our first President, General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, three U.S. Presidents held the rank of General of the Armies. The other two were U.S. Grant in the Civil War and Dwight Eisenhower in World War Two.

Andrew Jackson the "Hero of New Orleans" and William Henry Harrison both reached the rank of General in the War of 1812. Zachary Taylor fought in the War of 1812 and served as a Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War. Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield all held the rank of General in the U.S. Army in the Civil War.

Several other U.S Presidents were also decorated soldiers and war heroes. William Mckinley was wounded in the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt served as a Colonel with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War and was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Harry Truman was a artillery Captain in the First World War. John F. Kennedy was captain of a P.T. Boat and George H. W. Bush was a navy pilot, both in World War II.

At many points in our history having served in the military was a prerequisite for seeking political office. This was especially true after the two major all-inclusive wars of U.S. history - the Civil War and World War Two. Beginning with Harry Truman becoming President in 1945, every U.S. President, except William Clinton, has worn the uniform of the U.S. military. With the ending of conscription (the Draft) in 1973, that run of veterans (1945-1993) in the White House will most likely never be matched again.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Great Britain dominates Olympics - Summer of 1908

1908 Summer Olympics
White City Stadium
London, England

This week, with the XXIX Summer Olympics taking place in Beijing, China I thought I might take a look back to a hundred years ago to the 1908 Summer Olympics. Held at the newly built White City Stadium in London the IV Olympiad was originally scheduled to take place in Rome. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 1906, it became necessary to find a new location and London, England was chosen.

The 1908 Summer Olympics are considered the most controversial of the modern era but from today's perspective much of the controversy seems, to me at least, to be "tempests in a teapot".

What I find to be most interesting, however, about those games are a couple of things. First of all is the absolute dominance of Great Britain in these Olympics. Great Britain won an amazing total of 146 gold (56), silver (51) and bronze (39) medals. Its nearest competitor, the U.S., won a total of 47 (23 gold). Fielding athletes from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Great Britain decisively won more medals than the rest of the competition, much of which was drawn from more populated nations. Being the host nation is perhaps an advantage to winning in the Olympics, but certainly not to this degree of success.

Looking at the list of participants in the games is also interesting. This Olympics could have been called the "Games of Empires". Starting with the host nation, England, the center of the British Empire, there were 21 other nations participating. Included among those nations are France (French Empire), Germany (German Empire), Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Austria (Austrian-Hungarian Empire) and Russia (Russian Empire). The only Empires of the time that are missing from this list, that I know of, are the Chinese and Japanese Empires.

This was the last days of Empire for Germany, Turkey, Austria and Russia. The defeat of the Central Powers in World War One in 1918 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 spelled the end of their Empires. The last Chinese Emperor was deposed in 1912 and Japan lost its Empire at the end of World War II in 1945. France and Great Britain gave up their dreams of Empire in the aftermath of World War II when their former colonies gained their own independence.

In 1908, during those Summer Olympics, the British Empire was at its peak. The nightmare of the world war that was to break out in August of 1914 was still in the unseen future. What a different world that must have been. How different a world it would be if that "War to end all Wars" had never taken place.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bennington Battle Day

Bennington Battle Monument
15 Monument Cir
Bennington, Vt. 05201

Also this weekend (August 15-17) Bennington, Vermont celebrates its annual Battle Day Celebrations. This commemorates the Battle of Bennington which took place on August 16, 1777. The battle actually took place in the village of Walloomsac, New York which is several miles from here, but the military stores the British and Hessian soldiers were seeking were being held in Bennington. The only Revolutionary War battle to actually take place in what is now the State of Vermont took place in Hubbardton, Vermont.

The Battle of Bennington was part of a greater campaign by British Major General John Burgoyne to divide New England from the rest of the colonies by force of arms. Burgoyne's mixed force of British, Hessian (German), Canadian and Loyalists, along with some Native American allies, had proceeded down from Canada and were now making their way down the Hudson River valley. After some initial victories at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point the British forces were now facing shortages of food and munitions. A expeditionary force of some 650 soldiers led by Hessian Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum set off for Bennington to secure more supplies.

Col. Baum's men were soundly defeated in battle by Colonial militia under the command of Brigadier General John Stark of New Hampshire. A British relief force was also repulsed by Gen. Stark and his men, who were aided by Col. Seth Warner and his Green Mountain Boys. These two losses, along with the lack of supplies, helped doom Gen. Burgoyne's campaign which ended with the surrender of him and his men at Saratoga, New York.

The Town of Bennington is marking its Battle Day Celebrations with the Bennington Fire Departments 40th annual Parade on Saturday August 17. Battle reenactments are being sponsored by Vermonts Living History Association. Museums and other organizations in the area are also hosting special events.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The British Army returns to Boston

British Officers in war council

This weekend (August 15-17) the British Army returns to Boston. The last time the British were here, back in March of 1776, relations between Britain and America were somewhat strained. Things have improved since then and today the relationship between the United States and Great Britain has never been better.

The City of Boston and the Freedom Trail Foundation working together with the Parks Department, are allowing Revolutionary War reenactors to recreate something that hasn't been seen since 1776: a British military encampment on Boston Common. The recreated British units participating include: the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, the 5th Regiment of Foot, His Majesty's 10th Regiment, the 9th Regiment, the 21st Foot RNBF and the 24th. Members of the 4th Regiment of Foot, the King's Own, will also be on hand this weekend.

A full schedule has been planned to include musket firing and drill, a mock skirmish with Colonial Militia and a evening march through the city to the Union Oyster House restaurant. An 11:00 a.m. color ceremony, that will involve both local and British dignitaries, will take place on Saturday to mark this event.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fort Ticonderoga faces financial challenge

Fort Ticonderoga
Ticonderoga, New York 12883

The trustees of Fort Ticonderoga have a problem that many other historical foundations and organizations have faced over the years - a debt crisis. Funding a operation like Fort Ticonderoga (which is a privately owned not-for-profit organization) from year to year is very expensive and it is just like operating a business. You have to pay your employees (volunteers can only do so much) and for your utilities, insurance, maintenance and upkeep.

Unfortunately, all of these expenses cannot be met simply by the cost of admission or the sales in your gift shop or restaurant. Fort Ticonderoga has also had to deal with declining numbers of visitors over the past few years. In order to attract new visitors and to meet the needs of today's visitor, Fort Ticonderoga has been making changes. A new facility has been built with the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center, the footprint of the Fort has been expanded and concrete has replaced the old mortar and stone that formerly supported the walls of the Fort. This is important because of the frost heaves that winter in the Northeast brings every year.

In order to meet budgetary shortfalls and to fund this expansion Fort Ticonderoga was fortunate enough to have wealthy benefactors: the Mars family. Forest Mars, former CEO of Mars Inc. and heir to the family fortune and his wife Deborah, have donated millions to to the Fort. Deborah Mars was born in Ticonderoga, New York and is president of the board of trustees.

Unfortunately, there was a "falling out" between Forest and Deborah Mars and Fort Ticonderoga's executive director, Nicholas Westbrook. The Mars' apparently felt slighted in the treatment they received from Westbrook and in February of this year severed their relationship with the Fort - by email. Fort Ticonderoga was suddenly left with a $2.5 million debt with no apparent means of paying the bills.

The trustees now face a Hobsons choice: sell some of its assets or possibly be forced to close the Fort. Fort Ticonderoga and its museum has in its possession millions of dollars worth of artwork and historic artifacts. One painting by Thomas Cole, "Gelyna, view near Ticonderoga", could by itself fetch over a million dollars.

Fort Ticonderoga is important both for the important historical role it played in two wars, the American Revolution and the French and Indian War and for its part in educating the public about our history. One of the first popular tourist attractions in this country, for almost two hundred years people have been visiting this destination. Permanently closing such a unique place as Fort Ticonderoga would be a great shame.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Logan International Airport - East Boston, Mass.

Logan Airport
East Boston, Mass.

Boston's Logan International Airport was officially opened on September 8, 1923. Built by the U.S. Army Air Corp, the air field was originally called the Boston Airport. In its first few years it was mostly used by the Massachusetts Air Guard and the Army Air Corp. It remained in Army hands until 1928 when the Massachusetts legislature and then the City of Boston took possession. In 1941, just before the outbreak of World War II, the State of Massachusetts took final ownership. In 1959 MassPort, a quasi-independent state agency, took over operations of the airport.

In 1943 the Mass. legislature passed a bill renaming the airport the General Edward Lawrence Logan airport. Born in Boston, Gen. Logan had served with the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia in the Spanish-American War. Called to active duty again he served with the newly created 26th Infantry division and fought in the first world war. After the war Logan remained with the Mass. National Guard and rose through the ranks until reaching the rank of Major General commanding the 26th (Yankee) Division. Gen. Logan also served on Beacon Hill in the Mass. legislature, as head of the Mass. District Commission (the M.D.C.) and as a Judge of the South Boston District Court. He was a graduate of Boston Latin, Harvard College (class of 1898) and Harvard Law School.

The airport has grown exponentially over the years, both in its overall size, the number of flights and passengers and in the number of airlines. Massport is in the final stages of a multi-year improvement and building program which has led to the completion of new passenger terminals, parking areas, walkways, hotels and roadways. Logan airport is accessible by mass transit and by auto through the Sumner/Callahan and the new Ted Williams tunnels. Those wanting to avoid the tunnels and the tolls may drive in from Revere and East Boston.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Col. Glover's Regiment returns to Cambridge

Longfellow House
National Historic Site
105 Brattle St.
Cambridge, Mass. 02138

Saturday afternoon, after a 233 year hiatus, Col. John Glover's Marblehead Regiment returned to Longfellow's House in Cambridge and set up camp. The last time the Glover's were encamped here was in 1775 when General George Washington was living here and the Glover's were serving as the Headquarters Guard.

Col. Glovers Regiment of colonial militia made up part of the 16,000 man force that had answered the call after the fighting of April 19, 1775 and were holding Boston and its occupying British forces in a stage of siege. Besides serving as the Headquarters Guard, the Glover's were a "rapid response" unit ready to reinforce any part of the siege lines that fell under attack.

Deciding he needed a naval force to raid British supply vessels, Gen. Washington again made use of the Glover's. The regiment was a mixed group, largely made up of sailors and fisherman, which made it the perfect choice for this mission. Detached from duty in Cambridge, they established a naval raiding force in Beverly, Mass., which included Col. Glover's own schooner, the Hannah.

In December of 1775 Glovers Regiment was disbanded and Col. Glover was ordered to begin recruiting troops for his new Regiment, the 14th Continental Regiment. Col. Glover and the 14th Regiment went on to serve throughout the war and provided much needed amphibious and marine capabilities to the Continental Army.

In August of 1776, in a heavy fog, the 14th Regiment ferried the brunt of the Continental Army from Brooklyn to New York, saving them from certain defeat and capture. Again on Christmas Day in 1776 they rowed Gen. Washington and his troops across the Delaware, in poor weather conditions, to attack a Hessian force at Trenton, New Jersey. Taking part in the fighting, they then ferried the victorious Americans back across the Delaware, along with the prisoners they had taken.

The recreated Col. Glover's Regiment is based in Marblehead, Massachusetts. In addition to attending various Revolutionary War reenactments, they are well known for their boisterous annual (every July) weekend encampment held at Fort Sewall, Marblehead.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Col. Joshua Herndon Tavern

Col. Joshua Harnden Tavern
430 Salem St.
Wilmington, Ma.

This Tavern was built by Col. Joshua Harnden (1732-1807) ca. 1770 and operated as a Public Tavern from 1794-1807. Col. Harnden was a Revolutionary War veteran who had answered the alarm of April 19, 1775 and fought at Lexington. In 1818 Silas Brown bought the property and operated it as a farm. The farm at one time had several large outbuildings and much more land than the present day property. The Browns kept the family farm for some 125 years. During the 19th century it is believed that the farm served as way-station on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves heading north to Canada.

In 1973 the main building was in disrepair and slated for demolition. Recognising its historical importance the Town of Wilmington took the property by eminent domain. The Joshua Harnden Tavern is registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Wilmington Historical Society now runs the Tavern as a museum and has tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. There is also agricultural machinery and reproductions of Colonial Militia flags on display in the carriage house adjacent to the Tavern.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Middlesex Canal

Middlesex Canal @
Baldwin Mansion
2 Alfred St.
Woburn, Mass.

On June 22, 1793 Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, signed a document authorizing the construction of the Middlesex Canal. Built with private funding, the canal was to run from the Merrimack River at Middlesex Village (Lowell) to Medford. A later addition to the canal extended its length to Charlestown. This was a very ambitious civil engineering project for its time and a precursor to the more famous Erie Canal in New York.

Built under the direction of Loammi Baldwin, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, the canal was to be some 27 miles long, 3o feet in width, 3 feet in depth and have 20 locks and several aqueducts. The colorful wooden barges that floated down the canal carried both passengers and freight. Farmers and proprietors in New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts no longer had to depend upon the tides of the Merrimack River or the poor roads to get their products to Boston markets. The return trip supplied manufactured goods from Boston, Medford etc. to the interior

The Middlesex Canal began its operations in 1803 and continued to operate successfully until the 1840's. Having put regular freight and stage companies at a competitive disadvantage, the canal was unable to compete against the newest transportation technology - the railroad. The directors of the Middlesex Canal were forced to shut down operations and declare bankruptcy in 1851.

Falling into disuse the canal has mostly been filled in or paved over. Portions of the old canal are still visible in Woburn and in Billerica, where the Middlesex Canal Association makes its home. This association is dedicated to preserving the memory of this late 18th - early 19th century "engineering marvel".

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Vandals raid Plimoth Plantation

According to news reports, sometime during the night of Friday August 1, vandals broke into several of the houses on the property of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. and stole a number of pelts, some tools and some replica armor. They also broke china, tore up plantings and burned a book. Employees arriving for work Saturday morning discovered the vandalism. No estimate for the cost of replacing/repairing the damage was given in the news reports.

Every news report I read and the one report that I heard on the radio referred to the perpetrators of these crimes as "vandals". A term not much used anymore, except perhaps by the media, it has a couple definitions. The first definition is that of someone who "willfully or maliciously defaces or destroys public or private property". That certainly applies here.

The second definition applies to an east German tribe of the 5th century A.D. They are best known to history for the sacking of Rome in the year 455. Rome was no longer the great center of empire that it had been before, but this was still viewed as a tragic event because of the culture and civilization that had once thrived there.

Vandalism of public and private property is a common problem all over the country. It has perhaps become even more of a problem over the last three decades. The destruction caused by vandals, who serve to gain little or no monetary profit from their efforts, is usually thought to be the work of teenagers.

Perhaps this is due to boredom or excessive drinking or maybe peer pressure. It may very well be that those responsible for the trespass, theft and destruction at Plimoth Plantation will never be caught. If caught, they may receive little or no punishment. One can only hope that they don't do it again.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Brooks Estate - Medford, Mass.

Brooks Estate
275 Grove St.
Medford, Mass.

Living in and surrounded by the crowded urban life of eastern Massachusetts today it is hard to imagine that in times past large tracts of open and sometimes forested, land still existed. Not just small working farms, but often the land was part and parcel of large estates owned by wealthy individuals and families. These personal estates, some of them consisting of hundreds of acres, were in most cases eventually broken up and sold off by the families descendants many years ago.

Occasionally, the estates were preserved long enough so that the open space remained, which we can now enjoy in public parks and conservation land. In some instances, the family mansions along with their grounds survived, giving us a glimpse of how they lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Founded in 1630, Medford was one of the earliest English settlements in the New World. Originally established as a "Plantation" it was owned by an absentee landlord in England. The Mystic River, which was one of its early boundaries, gave access to the sea and provided an abundance of "alewifes", a type of fish. (For which Alewife Brook Parkway, Rte. 16, was later named).

In 1660 Thomas Brooks, a puritan from Boston, purchased about 400 acres in Medford, establishing the Brooks Estate. The Brooks family went on to play an important role in the history of Medford, the Mass. Bay Colony and later in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. To mention just two members of the family: John Brooks, a Captain in the American Revolution and a Major General in the militia, served as Governor of Massachusetts and the Rev. Charles Brooks was an influential minister, educator and an historian.

In the 1880s Peter Chardon Brooks III and Shepherd Brooks decided to build summer homes on their family owned property in Medford. At that time, Medford was still comparatively rural. Peter's home, Point of Rocks, no longer exists, but the manor built by Shepherd Brooks still stands.

Originally called the Acorn, the four bedroom red brick home was designed by Peabody and Sterns. Its granite foundation was built from stone taken from the old Middlesex Canal, a portion of which used to run through the Brooks Estate. A large carriage house was built adjacent to the manor.

In addition to building the two homes a massive construction effort was completed in the creation of Brooks pond. This pond was dug by hand and required the removal by trucks of tons of earth. At the same time vistas were opened up among the forested land to allow the proper viewing of the property.

The Brooks Estate decreased in size over the years as property was either sold - as in the creation of the Oak Grove Cemetery and its additions - or donated for public use. After the deaths of Peter and Shepherd, more of the property was sold by their heirs. In 1942 the City of Medford acquired what remained of the estate, which at that time was about 88 acres. Point of Rock was at this time demolished, leaving only the remains of its foundation. Shepherd Manor was used as both a nursing home and a place for veterans families.

Finally after some discussion, an agreement was reached on how best to preserve the property. Late in 1998 a permanent conservation plan was approved. This plan guarantees for future generations the preservation of some 50 acres of the Brooks Estate, the Shepherd Manor and its carriage house.

The property is managed by the Medford - Brooks Estate Land Trust (M-BLT). Year round caretakers live in Shepherd Manor, looking after the two historic buildings. The Brooks Estate is adjacent to Medford's Oak Grove Cemetery and conservation land (donated by the Brooks family) in Winchester. The estate has numerous hiking trails and is quite heavily forested, giving an illusion of distance from the surrounding city.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Slave Wall - Medford, Mass.

The Slave Wall
Grove St.
Medford, Mass.

This brick wall on Grove St., Medford was purportedly built by a slave named Pomp in 1765. At that time Pomp was owned by Thomas Brooks and the wall that he built was part of the outer entrance to the home and estate of the Brooks family. The original home no longer exists. The public park behind the wall was land donated in 1924 by the Brooks family.

The Brooks were a prominent family in Medford from its early days and at one time owned 400+ acres in the town. A portion of the Brooks estate and a late 19th century Queen Anne style summer home can be found a short distance away at 275 Grove St. The estate is managed by the Medford-Brooks Estate land trust and is open to the public.

The Brooks family wasn't the only wealthy family in the town to own slaves. The Royall family, transplanted from Antigua, owned 27 slaves and had an estate of almost 600 acres. Their colonial mansion with its separate slave quarters still survives.

Many others in Medford were involved in the actual slave trade itself. Medford was a part of the "Triangle Trade" which consisted of bringing Rum to Africa to trade for slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies to be sold. A portion of the proceeds was then used to buy sugar and molasses, which when brought back to Medford was used to produce Rum. (Medford became known throughout the world for its high quality Rum. Rum continued to be produced in Medford until 1905 when the last factory shut its doors).

Slavery was finally abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 making Massachusetts the first state to abolish slavery.