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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hard Labor in New England

A few photos in anticipation of the upcoming Labor Day holiday.  Once upon a time, it meant more than the last backyard barbecue of summer.

The Fisk, Chicopee, Massachusetts, likely in the late 1930s.  Image Museum website.
Isaac Prouty Boot & Shoe Co, Spencer, Massachusetts, Spencer Historical Museum Collections. Richard Sugden Library, Spencer, Massachusetts.
Skinner Mfg. Co., Holyoke, Mass. Image Museum website.  See here for my previous posts on the Skinner silk mills:
War worker in 1942.  Gilbert Company, New Haven, Connecticut.  Photo Howard Hollem, Office of War Information.  See here for my previous post on women war workers:
Boys who worked at a cotton mill in North Pownal, Vermont, 1910. 
Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, Library of Congress
Eastport, Maine, East Coast Canning Co., 1911,
Lewis Wickes Hine photographer, Library of Congress
Fiskeville, Rhode Island, Jackson Mill, 1909,
Lewis Wickes Hine photographer, Library of Congress
There but for the union go I.  Or you.  Happy Labor Day.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dutch Island Lighthouse - Rhode Island

Dutch Island sits in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.  It was originally used as a trading outpost by the Dutch from New Amsterdam (you know it as New York), but the  young United States thought it a good spot to fortify with cannon in case of sea invasion, and these fortifications remained from the Civil War through World War I.
This Dutch Island Lighthouse was built in 1857, to replace an earlier light dating from 1826.

A sturdy little 40-plus feet tower nesting on its rock, the light was automated in the 1940s.  Vandalism came in the 1960s and ‘70s, but the locally formed Dutch Island Lighthouse Society came to the rescue and stored the structure.  It resumed operation in 2007.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

George M. Stearns - The Parson's Devil

In this era of well-rehearsed sound bites and video imagery, it is rare to see the true and natural personalities of our public figures.  The picture we get is intentionally artificial, but there was a time when common folk rose in politics and society and became large in the public eye though the force of their own natural personalities.  One such man was George M. Stearns, a lawyer-orator of the nineteenth century.
In his white linen suit, Mr. Stearns dispensed his observations with Twain-like sarcasm. “If a man fell on the sidewalk, he brushed himself off, and went about his business.  If a man falls now he doesn’t get up until he thinks whether he can sue someone for damages.”
George Stearns lamented the overuse of our judicial system over one hundred years ago.  In Clifton Johnson’s The Parsons Devil (1927, Thomas Y. Crowell Company), Stearns is painted as a clever lawyer, a practical-joking character whose sense of humor was his calling card.  From this biography we also get a unique view of the western Massachusetts down of Chicopee in the nineteenth century.
It was in August 1848, only a few months after Chicopee became an incorporated town, that Stearns came here from his boyhood home farther north in the small town of Rowe, where his father was a Unitarian minister -- whereby Johnson titled his book The Parson's Devil.  He was seventeen and began his apprenticeship in the law office of John Wells, who had also been born in Rowe.  Wells later served in the state legislature, and was a future Massachusetts State Supreme Court Judge.
Young George Stearns swept his office, did chores, “read law” and mostly learned what it was like to be suddenly a part of a growing industrial community.  Stearns latched on to Chicopee, in the early years of its industrial might, and he savored it.
“The small brick dwellings along Exchange Street were occupied by the solid residents of the village,” Stearns recalled.  On the hill above the main village of Cabotville, there were woods, a few farmhouses, and dirt paths for roads where “an occasional board was laid down in the early spring to prevent your going knee deep in mud.”
Illustration, Chicopee 1856, original in Edward Bellamy Memorial Association
collection, Chicopee, Mass.
Chicopee was a staunch Whig town, where politics was discussed at Joe Bagg’s drugstore.  Abner Abbey read the newspapers aloud, and according to Stearns, much of the Civil War was fought right there over the cracker barrels.
Stearns married, had two daughters, and settled in the Springfield Street house which still stands across the street from the mansion that once belonged to his old colleague, George Robinson.  (George Robinson, former Chicopee High School principal and future Governor of Massachusetts, was also a noted attorney who successfully defended Lizzie Borden.  See this previous post.)
George Robinson
Though both Georges were cordial with each other, and both members of the Unitarian church, they did not always see eye to eye.  Much later in their careers when Stearns became a figure of the Democratic Party and Robinson in the Republican Party, Robinson supported James Blaine over Grover Cleveland for president.  Stearns remarked, “It reminded me of a pettifogger defending a chicken thief.”
In these days when political accusations are nastier and behavior vile, it seems amazing that “pettifogger” and “chicken thief” were once considered strong language.
Stearns was a master of language.  When he was arguing a case in court, the gallery would fill just to see him.  He was a rascal, and a joker, and a bit of an actor.  He could bring himself to tears in a defense argument, or squash his legal opponent with sarcasm.  At times his reputation for fun haunted him, as biographer Johnson noted, “He used to get angry clean through because the moment he got up to speak, the jurors would settle back expecting him to be funny, and one or more of the asses among them were likely to laugh in the middle of some of his most beautiful and eloquent passages.”
His reputation for silliness was not undeserved.  Stearns once bought the pants right off of Chicopee Savings Bank treasurer and future Chicopee mayor Henry H. Harris, who always kidded about him about his frugality.  Another time he won a bet with Harris, who had to pull Stearns home in a sleigh.
Stearns served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and in the State Senate.  His advice was sought by political leaders in Boston, but Stearns preferred to make his permanent home in Chicopee until 1894, when frail health compelled him to move closer to his Boston physician, and he died in December.  His obituary in The New York Times (January 1, 1895) noted, “He was considered one of the ablest and most eloquent advocates, and one of the readiest and wittiest debaters in the State.  He was widely known as a jury pleader, and had a very extensive criminal practice.”
At that time he left western Massachusetts he lamented, “I’d rather see a piece of Chicopee sky than anything else.”
Stearns Terrace and Henry Harris Street intersect in the area that was still wooded when Stearns came to Chicopee.  The city’s growth might amaze him.  As for our propensity to sue for damages, some things never change.

An earlier version of this article appeared in In Chicopee, a publication of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Massachusetts, May 1992.  Photos are in the public domain, from the Image Museum website.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Stage and Screen - Summer 1965

One is first struck by how much there was to do, how vibrant the local entertainment scene in western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut.  This is a section of one page in the Springfield Daily News, from August 1965.  Major Hollywood and stage stars at the local summer theaters:  the Mt. Tom Playhouse in Holyoke, and the Storrowton Music Fair in West Springfield.

Drive-in theaters that no longer exist here.  Several neighborhood movie theaters offering air conditioning and the latest films, including The Elms in Hartford, which the exclusive rights to that year's blockbuster The Sound of Music until October, seats reserved, $2.75 for an evening performance, $1.50 for a matinee.

The Everly Brothers appearing at Mountain Park in Holyoke, along with Jerry Lee Lewis at the "Over 18 Discotheque", and a kids' show featuring that superstar Bozo, and our local Swabby in the days when local TV stations produced their own programming.

These were the days before the boxy cinemas, when people still wore dresses, coats and ties to even a neighborhood theater.

The Springfield Giants were playing minor league ball at Pynchon Park in Springfield against the visiting Pittsfield team.  Or you could see Lee Remick in Annie Get Your Gun or Dana Andrews or Mary Poppins at the drive-in, or "the over 21 dance in the Go-Go Room at Mountain Park.  Why would anyone stay home?

Old newspapers are time machines.  It's all gone now.

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