1886 New England Magazine

The New England magazine and Bay State monthly.

Volume 4, Issue 1, January 1886

 ATTLEBORO, MASS. BY C. N. BARROWS.

When the Puritans removed from Charlestown to Trimountain in search of wholesome water springs they found the ground pre-occupied by Motleys Hermit of Shawmut; and when the godly people who discarded the musical Wannamoisett and gave their plantation a homely Bible name, joined to their borders the tract of wilderness lying between them and the Bay line, they found the same whimsical anchoret snugly domiciled in his Study Hall beside a stream that bounded their new possessions. Thus it happened that the first English inhabitant of Boston and the pioneer settler in the wilds of Rehoboth North Purchase were one and the same person.

For years this piece of unimproved real estate waited for a name, until, at length, for some unaccountable reason, it was christened after the English town where George Eliot attended Miss Lathom’s school when a child, and caught a chronic cold, from the effects of which she seemed never to have quite recovered, and it was called Attleborough. The original purchase included a much larger area than that comprised in the present township; and, like the then adjacent domain of Dorchester, Attleboro parted with one section of land and then another, until its acreage today is but a fraction of that perambulated by the colonial surveyors. On the west side a triangle, locally known as the Gore, was set off in 1746 to form the town of Cumberland, R. I., while from the south and east sides were taken generous slices to piece out the towns of old Rehoboth, Mansfield, and Norton.

The history of Attleboro, like that of so many other New England towns, naturally divides itself into two widely different epochs, each interesting to the modern reader. From the year 1661, when Wamsutta, chief sachem of Pokanokett, made the original conveyance of the territory to Capt. Thomas Willett, representing the town of Rehoboth, until the close of the last war between this country and Great Britain, is a period rich in annals of men and deeds, whose records live on musty parchments and crumbling gravestones. It is crowded with tales of hardship, struggle, and heroism out of which some local Scott or Cooper with wizard hand might fashion many books of poetry or fiction

And so, by some strange spell, the years,
The half-forgotten years of glory,
That slumber on their dusty biers,
In the dim crypts of ancient story,
Awake with all their shadowy files,
Shape, spirit, name in death immortal,
The phantoms glide along the aisles,
And ghosts steal in at every portal.

Then, after the primeval wilderness had been subdued under the patient tillage of more than one generation of sturdy farmers, there opens a second period extending to the present date, busy years of modern industry, when the nervous spirit of enterprise and the restless fever for gain have stimulated brain and brawn to ceaseless endeavor.

It would be difficult for the present dwellers in the thriving villages of Attleboro to imagine a time when but a single white inhabitant had a fixed abode within the limits of Capt. Willett’s extensive purchase, when Ten Mile River had never reflected a pale face or turned a mill wheel, and when the site of humming Robinsonville was occupied by a clump of Indian wigwams in a beaver clearing. The historic elm on the Carpenter estate, under which Whitefield preached so eloquently, had not yet sprouted from the seed; the falling leaves had scarcely obliterated the footprints of persecuted Roger Williams, making his toilsome retreat from the new settlement on the Bay to the headwaters of the Narragansett; and the Bay road was only an uncertain path blazed through a dense forest, along which not a hundred pairs of Anglo Saxon feet had ever trudged.

In this vast solitude the intrepid William Blaxton had spent thirty lonely years before the original purchase was made. He built his rude house on the extreme western frontier of Attleboro Gore, beside the river which now bears his name with altered spelling, made friends with his Indian neighbors, planted the first apple orchard in North America, and trained an imported bull to serve him as a saddle horse. There, like Thoreau in his Walden hut, the old divine encountered nature in her rougher aspects and studied her wonderful book untrammeled by even the slight social conventionalities that obtained in colonial Boston.

The first settlement within the limits of the present town was made beside a stream which crossed the Bay road, on the site of the Hatch tavern, opposite Barden’s building in North Attleboro; and because this stream marked a journey of ten miles from Seekonk, the early travelers named it Ten Mile River. Here the famous John Woodcock took up his abode in 1663 or 1664, and established a garrison which afterwards formed one of a chain of strongholds extending from Boston to Rhode Island. An avowed foe of the red race who surrounded him, he found them hostile and treacherous, and had no recourse but to fortify himself behind his stockades, and keep the stealthy warriors at bay with his musket. At this dangerous outpost Woodcock bravely defended his little family for many years, until quite a community of white people had placed themselves under his protection, and he became a sort of feudal lord, into whose rude castle they might retreat in time of danger. He was a restless spirit, fond of hazardous adventure, to whom civilized life was unendurably tame, and many are the current traditions of his prowess and bloody encounters with the savage aborigines. In 1670 he opened a licensed ordinary on his premises, the first public house in the country; and from that time a hostelry was kept on that spot for nearly two centuries.

Other settlements were naturally made in the open meadows easily accessible from the Bay road; and so we find the next community growing up in what is now the Falls Village, where a corn mill was erected in 1686. Then a few new families, immigrating from Rehoboth, made themselves a home in the south part of the town; and near the close of the century settlers found their way down the winding Ten Mile River, and built houses at Mechanics.

For obvious reasons the east precinct, as Attleboro bred people are wont to call it, is the newest part of the town; the north and the south sections were traversed by the one thoroughfare then open as a highway between the home of the Puritans and the shores of Narragansett Bay, and for years after these began to number a very respectable colonial population, the now thickly settled area in the east village bounded by Peck, Pleasant, Pine, Capron, and Main streets, contained no buildings except the Balcom Tavern with its contiguous barn, a small dwelling house near the present site of the old straw shop, and another house about forty rods further to the south.

Lying in the very heart of the Narragansett country, this town was constantly menaced by King Philip and his braves during the period of the Indian wars, and two of the bloodiest fights occurred within the limits of Attleboro Gore. The settlers found it necessary to go about their daily work armed, lest some red man skulking in the borders of the forest should attack and slay them. John Woodcock, the leading spirit among them, was a special object of savage hatred, and in the summer of 1676 he and his sons were surprised while at work in a field, and, before they could retreat within the garrison, one son was killed outright, and another was severely wounded.

On Sunday morning, March 26, 1676, Captain Pierce, who, with a company of sixty three white men and twenty Cape Indians, was advancing upon the enemy, was surrounded by about nine hundred Indians at a point on the Blackstone not far from William Blaxtons house. With true Spartan courage he and his little band resolved tc$ sell their lives at a high price ; so forming a circle back to back, they made a desperate resistance for two mortal hours, and after they had fallen it was found that about three hundred of their cruel captors had perished with them.

In the same war another brutal butchery entailed upon another spot in the Gore just north of Camp Swamp the name of Nine Men’s Misery. There three triads of white soldiers, finding themselves surrounded by a large force of savages who had been lying in wait for them, placed their backs against a huge rock and fought like heroic knights in the old Arthurian days, until all were slain. Afterwards their nine bodies were buried in one wide grave, which was marked by a heap of stones; and many years later a company of young Boston physicians exhumed the bones, and one skeleton was identified as that of Bucklin of Rehoboth, because the jaws contained a set of double front teeth.

In the Revolutionary struggle Attleboro men bore an active and honorable part, and some of her noblest sons were under fire in the hottest engagements of the eight years war. A respected citizen of the town recently told the writer that immediately after the battle of Bunker Hill, Caleb Parmenter, Thomas French, and Isaac Perry proceeded to Boston on foot, and joined the army then in command of General Ward; and the first of the three, on whom Governor Samuel Adams afterwards conferred a lieutenants commission, was present at Cambridge when General Washington assumed charge of the army. A company of men was also raised in Attleboro for service at the seige of Newport, R. I., and in the engagement at Quaker Hill they pushed bayonets with the British three times in a single day, and two of their number, Israel Dyer and Valentine Wilmarth, were slain.

At an early date in the history of the town two taverns (already referred to) were established, which tinder successive proprietors flourished for many years, and acquired a wide reputation for abundant good cheer and excellent liquors. As model public houses of the time they were not inferior to the Punch Bowl at Brookline, Brides in Dedham, or even the Wayside Inn in ancient Sudbury, made forever famous by Longfellow. Each in its way was
A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall,
with weather stains upon the wall, And stairways worn, and crazy doors,
And creaking and uneven floors,
And chimneys huge and tiled and tall.

Hatch’s Tavern, the older of the two inns, was John Woodcocks ordinary enlarged to meet the demands of the times. It stood on the identical spot where his garrison was planted, and until quite recently some of the logs that formed the ancient stockades might be found built into the older portion of the structure. In i8o6 the original house was removed a few feet to the south to make room for a new tavern, and there it is still standing. The new house in which the original proprietor and landlord made his enviable reputation was needed to accommodate the increased public travel soon after the opening of the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike, as described in an article entitled From the White Horse to Little Rhody, and published in the first volume of this magazine. No house along the entire line of this once important thoroughfare dispensed a more generous hospitality or was presided over by a more genial host. It was twelve miles out from Providence, and a place where all the stages stopped to change horses, and allow passengers to partake of a breakfast, or some favorite beverage at the bar.

Somewhat later in the century Balcom’s Tavern in the east part of the town sprung up, and was maintained for a long period as a popular house of resort. The original structure, enlarged and changed by successive additions, still stands on the corner of South Main and Park streets. Here have been entertained not only celebrities of the earlier days, but famous modern men, among whom might be mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who visited the town as lyceum lecturers. In 1852 this house was purchased by Dr. Edward Sanford, who remodeled and repaired it, and made it his own private residence for thirty years, when it passed into the care of tenants.

The proprietors who gave their, names to these public houses were men quite widely known in their day, though for different reasons. Col. Hatch was emphatically a man of affairs, and full of business both public and private; wiser, perhaps, for this world than the next, he sought to become a political leader and office holder among his townsmen. Col. Balcom on the contrary was a merry sporting man, equally at home among gamblers and horse racers, and in the society of gentlemen. He was politic and adroit, not lacking in good points, though he had conspicuous vices. The former kept a quiet, orderly, and eminently respectable house; the latter liked to entertain a jovial company, and enjoyed the fun too well to frown upon youthful pranks or hilarious conduct. Among many good anecdotes told of Col. Balcom, there is one very characteristic, and good enough to find a record here.

It is related that Parson Holinan and other pious people of the village often sought to induce the colonel to reform his course of life and seek those things which concerned his eternal peace; but the wily landlord, while receiving them with a most gracious suavity, usually managed to evade the force of their appeals and frustrate their most serious efforts for the good of his soul. On one occasion, so runs the story, the deacons of the church made him a special visit, and, being ushered into the parlor, were given a patient audience while they pointed out the moral danger of his way of life, and besought him earnestly to reform. But presently the colonel was called out, and having obtained a short leave of absence ordered a flask of his best brandy carried in to the deacons, with sugar and glasses. Of course it was in entire accord with the custom of those days for the worthy pillars of the church to partake of the proffered beverage; and, on his return Col. Balcom said: Now, gentlemen, lets take a drink, and then I’m ready to talk. So the deacons drank again. Scarcely had they picked up the lost thread of the conversation, however, when the landlord was once more obliged to excuse himself in order to attend to some urgent duty as host; and, in fact, several like interruptions occurred in the course of an hour. But in each case the imperturbable colonel returned with the same hearty words upon his lips: Now, gentlemen, lets take a drink, and then I’m ready to talk. Then as the smooth brandy began to tell on the deacons, they gradually modified their estimate of the landlords sins and their personal duty, until at length one of them rose from his chair and turning to the other said: Well, I guess Col. Balcom aint the worst sort of man in the world come, brother, lets go home.

Although nature and circumstances would seem to have destined Attleboro for an agricultural town, its reputation rests chiefly on its mechanical industries, and during the eighteenth century there were several small cotton mills running in the place. As early as 1825, a traveler following the Ten Mile River from the Wrentham line to where the stream slips into Seekonk on the other side of the town, would have found two cotton mills near where Whitings jewelry factory now stands, a third near the site of the company’s shop, and still a fourth at Falls Village. Farther on he would have come upon the rude beginnings of the button factory which has flourished so long at Robinsonville; a nail factory at Deantown and another at the Farmers, as well as a cotton mill on the spot where the stove foundry now stands in the same village. Robert Saundersons forge would have been blazing at Mechanics beside John Cooper’s corn mill, and Balcoms machine shop in active operation where R. Wolfendens sons now ply the trade of dyers. Hebronville also would then, as now, have greeted the visitor with the music of swift shuttles and whirling spindles, as he passed on to the end of his tour of inspection at Kent’s grist mill, the oldest, probably, in the country.

These rude mills were the original sources of a progressive, ever widening, material prosperity for which Attleboro is justly noted. Its people display great business thrift; its many commodious factories are crowded with skilled mechanics and trained artisans; and its abundant products are sold by men of enterprise in all the markets of the world. The farm and garden products of the town make a very respectable display at the annual local and county fairs; the textile and other manufactures would make no mean showing; but all these industries are eclipsed by the one business that absorbs the majority of labor and capital, namely, the making of jewelry.

It has been facetiously, sometimes sneeringly, remarked that the Attleboro jewelers are as nearly creators as finite beings can be, because they almost make something out of nothing, while the cheap trinkets they turn out by the barrel have to be hurried to market by rapid express, lest they corrode and tarnish before they can be disposed of. Such jests, however, convey a very erroneous and unfair notion of the real character of most of the work done in those large shops, and the amount of money invested in the business. It is true that grades of very poor jewelry are made in Attleboro, and it is equally true that most of the goods manufactured there are both costly and durable; it is not washed brass that goes to the trade with the stamp of those great firms upon it, but heavy rolled plate goods, containing such a thickness of fine gold that they may be deeply cut with the gravers tool, and will never wear down to the baser metal which it conceals. The curious and wonderful processes of this complex manufacture cannot be even hinted at in the space of such an article as this, and only an approximate estimate of the value of these products and the number of employees working upon them can be given in figures.

The census reports for the year 1880 enumerate the different manufactures of the town as artisans tools, boots and shoes, boxes, brushes, buttons, carriages and wagons, coffin trimmings, cooking and heating apparatus, cotton goods, cotton, woolen, and other textiles, electroplating, food preparations, jewelry burnishing, lapidary work, leather, machinery, metallic goods, printing, bleaching, and dyeing. The capital invested in these industries is chiefly devoted to jewelry business, and is placed by the report at a total of $2,924,890; the products are valued at $4,345,809; and the number of employees is set at 3,378. But that census, though substantially correct when made, will not answer now; for, in the five years elapsed since it was taken, new factories have been built, new firms have started in business, and old ones have enlarged their trade.

The spirit of enterprise engendered by the large business interests in which the leading citizens are engaged is manifest also in the management of public affairs, and the town is noted for liberal expenditures of money in the way of substantial improvements. The public buildings, with the exception of two high school houses recently erected, and the new Universalist Church in North Attleboro, a handsome brick structure, demand no special mention; but its system of abundant water supply and the provision made for an efficient fire department are standing advertisements that the town looks carefully after the health and protection of its citizens and their homes. For many years the Farmers and Mechanics Association has held an autumnal town fair, where in its ample grounds and halls are exhibited a display of farm stock, implements and produce, domestic and artistic handiwork, and manufactured goods of the trades. The grounds contain also a fine half mile track, on which is annually made a showing of horses owned in Attleboro that would compare favorably with any other in the country. Another organization which attests the live, progressive spirit of the place is the Board of Trade, to which most of the leading business men belong. It was established in the spring of 1881, with commodious rooms and appointments on Washington Street, North Attleboro.

No town in Bristol County has provided more liberally for the education of youth than Attleboro, and in the larger centers a graded school system has been adopted; nor is it lacking in the appointed means of moral improvement, since there are within its limits no less than fifteen religious societies, holding regular Sunday services. Two weekly newspapers, the Advocate and the Sun are published in the place; there are also two national banks, one savings bank, and a savings and loan association.

Did space permit, it would be possible to single out from the many sons and residents of Attleboro, men who have become distinguished for learning and the public and private services they have rendered their fellow men; but it must suffice here simply to remark that it is the crowning glory of the town to count among its citizens a large number of sagacious, sensible men of affairs, who have built up its manifold interests, and by personal enterprise and energy have secured for the place a large measure of material prosperity. Very early in its history the family names of these substantial men appear on the records of the town Allen, Peck, Carpenter, Daggett, Robinson, Blackinton, May, Thacher, Richards, Capron, Ide, Wheaton, Bliss, and others, names that stand for character, influence, thrift, and wealth. But these have no need of eulogy or praise, since every busy factory and every commodious home testifies to their worth; then let this sketch be concluded with a brief allusion to one whose simple record, though one of the curiosities of the town, and containing an epitome of instructive history, will excite no mans envy and pique no family pride.

In the old burying ground in the north part of the town the first cemetery in the region is a headstone marking the grave of a pious Negro slave, on which is rudely chiseled the following inscription

Here lies the best of slaves,
Now turning into dust
Cesar, the Ethiopian, craves
A place among the just.
His faithful soul has fled
to realms of heavenly light,
and, by the blood of Jesus shed,
Is changed from Black to White.
January 1st, he quitted the stage,
In the 77th year of his age.
1780