Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 1)

Chapter One

A Quiet Country Town

In 1889, the South Sudbury Railroad Station was considered to be somewhat of a showpiece. It was only a year or so old, replacing an older depot that had
burned to the ground two years before during a rash of unsolved railroad station fires. It stood at a junction of the new Massachusetts Central Line, which ran four round-trip commuter trains from Hudson to Boston daily, and the Lowell-Taunton Branch of the Old Colony Railway, which maintained a timetable of six passenger trains a day.

The depot had become a much busier place since the Massachusetts Central established passenger and freight service to Boston in 1881. Freight cars brought dry goods and flour from the city to George Hunt’s general store and coal to fuel the boilers of the 15 greenhouse layouts scattered throughout the town. They returned with fruit, produce and flowers grown year-round under glass, unfinished furniture, casks and boxes and machine tools and parts.

The new station was shaped like an arrowhead, with a waiting room for each of the two lines on the sides, each heated by a pot-bellied stove capable of devouring huge chunks of firewood at a gulp. The station master’s office overlooked the point where the two sets of tracks met.

Down past the waiting area, covered platforms protected the faded green-and-yellow, iron-wheeled carts loaded with sacks of mail and railway express packages. Across the tracks were sheds where heavy equipment could be loaded and unloaded efficiently and stored out of the weather.

The depot had once stood at the end of a lonely lane that ran up from the Post Road and skirted the upper end of the Parmenter Mill Pond, but now it was the southern terminus of Union Avenue, a modern thoroughfare built in 1879 to provide the shortest and straightest route to the junction of Meeting House (now Concord) and Old Lancaster Roads, and on to the town center.

On the morning of September 4, 1889, the new station was anything but a lonely place. It was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, as were many houses in town, and Station Road and Union Avenue were crowded with buggies, barges, horsemen and barking dogs as Chairman of the Day Jonas Hunt of Sudbury and his Wayland counterpart, R.T. Lombard, aided by Atherton W. Rogers and E.H. Atwood, tried desperately to organize the hodge-podge of horse-drawn conveyances into something resembling a line of march.

Musicians of the Fitchburg Military Band discreetly tuned up at one end of the station platform, hoping to avoid soiling their snappy dress uniforms with dust and horse manure before it was absolutely necessary. Small boys in straw hats and knee pants marched around in time to the music. It wasn’t every day that a town celebrated a 250th birthday, or, as the Sudbury
Enterprise called it, the “Quarter Millennial.”

A whistle from the direction of Parmenter’s Mill signalled the return of a special Massachusetts Central train bearing the school children from Sudbury
and Wayland who had gathered for ceremonies and a collation on the Wayland Town Common in the morning. Now the festivities in Sudbury could begin.

Hunt, the South Sudbury Postmaster and Town Clerk for many years, joined his committee in an open carriage to lead the way. His great shock of white whiskers reached to the first button on his greatcoat, nearly obscuring his dapper bow tie.

Hunt’s carriage was followed by the band, playing patriotic airs under the direction of J.A. Platz and Drum Major Cyrus Roak, and a detachment from the Burnside Post No. 142 of the Grand Army of the Republic. Some of the old Civil War veterans chose to march under the command of E.A. Carter; others, too frail to walk the entire way, rode in one of two barges. Following two fire companies from Cochituate, came Captain D. W. Ricker at the head of 45 mounted cavalrymen in full uniform and a mounted Pequoit Indian unit under the command of Chief Spotted Thunder.

More decorated carriages carried Massachusetts State Treasurer G. A. Marden, President of the Day Homer Rogers, former Governor George S. Boutwell and Reverend Alfred Salerno Hudson, who had recently completed, at a cost of $3,000, a history of the town from 1638 “to the present day.” A line of 30 more flower-decked carriages, containing citizens and guests, brought up the rear.

South Sudbury, according to Hudson, was the industrial and manufacturing section of the town and considered quite progressive. It consisted of: “a store, post office, machine shop, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, chapel, grist mill, a junction depot, the Goodnow Library and 50 dwelling houses.” Hunt’s chosen line of march would pass almost all of them.

As the first units crossed the bridge above the millpond and headed east on the Boston Post Road, Hunt could plainly see the buildings of Mill Village, dominated by the machine shop of Rufus Hurlbut and Samuel Rogers. Hurlbut and Rogers turned out cutting-off lathes, engine governors and lathe chucks, and shipped them all over the country. Charles O. Parmenter’s grist and saw mill, originally built by Peter Noyes in 1660, lay just below in the shadow of the dam. John Garfield’s wheelwright and blacksmith’s shop occupied a separate frame building across the mill yard.

Not far away to the west was Hubbard Brown’s range of cucumber greenhouses. Since his facility was built in 1879, fourteen other farmers had taken up the trade and now more than 100,000 square feet of land was under glass, requiring nearly 800 tons of coal yearly to fire the boilers. Brown’s competition had expanded to grow lettuce, rhubarb, tomatoes and flowers–primarily carnations–in addition to the popular “cukes.”

Down the road a few more yards, a crowd had gathered in front of George W. Hunt’s new general store and post office at the corner of Concord Road. The old store had burned in 1887 under mysterious circumstances, (a local newspaper correspondent claimed it was torched by “one of the Hanlan boys” whose brother had been wounded in an 1887 burglary attempt and later died). Hunt had rebuilt immediately, noting that his family had been doing business on that corner for more than 75 years.

Up the street, on the left, the octagon-shaped library building, built with funds donated by John Goodnow, stood at the near end of its long, narrow mall lined with young maple trees. Diagonally across the street, the new Congregational Church building was in the final stages of construction. It stood on the old site of the Wadsworth Academy–this had burned down ten years before when young Seneca Hall, who was to go on to become Sudbury’s chief of police for 43 years, tried to smoke a skunk out of the cellar.

Near the top of Green Hill, Mount Wadsworth Cemetery and its monument, which the town had only recently adopted as its official seal, loomed through the trees. On this spot Captain Samuel Wadsworth and 28 of his men had died defending the Massachusetts Bay Colony against attack by King Philip of Pokonoket and his braves on April 21, 1676. Hunt recalled the dedication ceremonies 37 years before, held during a blinding snowstorm.

Across the road from the cemetery entrance stood the home of Israel How Brown, an important stop on the Underground Railroad that smuggled fugitive slaves to Canada. Hunt remembered wheelwright John Garfield showing him Brown’s hay wagon with secret compartments built into the bed. A little discomfort was a small price to pay for freedom, he thought.

The crowds beside the road grew larger as the procession moved past the Music Hall which stood opposite the intersection with Goodman’s Hill Road. The old building had been used for services by the Congregationalists who would soon abandon it as their new chapel in South Sudbury was nearly finished.

Just up the road past the blacksmith shop, the pillared front porch of the general store, run by John W. Garfield and his son-in-law, William M Parmenter, was crowded with excited people. Youngsters waved tiny flags and cheered through the windows of the schoolroom on the third floor where, one day, a distant Garfield cousin named James Abram Garfield would be schoolmaster and, later, President of the United States.

Further on, J.L. Willis’s store (today’s Hosmer House) was also jammed with spectators. The crowds spilled over to the First Parish Church and Methodist Church lawns and around in front of the two-story former Center District Schoolhouse. In two years this building would become the Grange Hall.

Many of the spectators had driven in from farms in North Sudbury and their rigs filled the horse sheds beside the Church. Edwin Conant’s general store and post office was the center of what passed for a village in North Sudbury–no more than a few houses, farms and a district school scattered along the Fitchburg Turnpike.

There were fewer houses in Sudbury Center Village, perhaps 30 or so plus the blacksmith shop, a new school, two stores, the church and the Town Hall.
These residents had come on foot. Those who didn’t have tickets to the catered luncheon brought bulging picnic hampers and blankets. Most of the men wore locally-made, wide-brimmed Panama straw hats while the women showed off their calico dresses and sunbonnets made of straw and lined with cloth. Many of the little girls wore sunbonnets and aprons over their dresses to stave off the filth on the roads.

The $1-a-plate dinner at the Town Hall attracted 600 guests, 100 more than Algernon Jones had bargained for, but the Waltham caterer and his staff were equal to the occasion. After the meal the crowd, now some 2,000 strong, jockeyed for positions in the shade in front of a reviewing stand, “handsomely” decorated by Raymond Kennedy of Hudson, to listen to orations by
Homer Rogers, Historian A.S. Hudson, and many other dignitaries. Mercifully, most of the speeches were short, witty, and interspersed with musical numbers by the band.

As the sun set over Mount Nobscot, the Maynard Brass Band tuned up for an evening of music as multi-colored paper lanterns glowed around the Common. Fireworks and illuminations punctuated the night sky. Sudbury’s Quarter Millennial celebration was over.

Hunt, Hurlbut, Rogers and Edwin A. Powers joined Hudson on the steps of the Town Hall and looked out over the scene. “What would Sudbury be like 50 or 100 years from now?” someone wondered. Would there be drastic changes? Would businessmen still ride the trains to work in Boston, and would agriculture and greenhouses continue to be the major industries? After all, Sudbury had grown very little in the last 100 years.

All agreed that there would be some changes. Life is constant change, everybody knew that–but what would happen to their quiet country town in the next 100 years would be beyond their comprehension.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.