I've written before about how to find clues in old letters and how they can be really powerful for telling a family story. Sadly, my own family stopped being packrats sometime between the 1970s recession and the invention of email so there is very little paper floating around in my siblings' attics to get excited about. But somewhere along the line, postage stamp collecting became popular again and old "covers" (stamped envelopes) began popping up on online auction sites. For a genealogist, online auctions can be like unexpected gifts sent by a favorite uncle if a letter is still inside the envelope!
I have been conducting a community study to compile a census of who lived in my colonial town in the early 1700s, well before the first national census was taken. In the process, I've "met" some wildly interesting families who were the foundation of the modern town's celebrated character. For example, any real estate agent will tell you about how the town's school system is rated in the top 10 in the state. What they don't know is how the priority for topnotch education was set when the first private school was established in 1780. (see my previous post "Private Schools of Northborough, Mass. (1700-1900)"). Following the earliest town families into the 1800s has also been an excellent rabbit hole to fall into and I marvel to see how their strong principles and beliefs endured through time.
One well-known family was that of Reverend Joseph Allen. The town minister ran a boys' school from 1818–1852 and his family's story won my heart. I even have a long-standing automatic search on eBay that has sent me everything from a book authored by his granddaughter to a photo album bought in a dusty old shop on the Gloucester (MA) waterfront. This week, an 1843 letter "cover" popped up on eBay and not only was the original letter included, but (bless the seller's soul) he uploaded clear images of all of the pages.
Happy dance ensued (my apologies to anyone peering through my office window at the time). Why? Because there aren't many 175-year-old letters kicking around to give a front row view of local history. And because this one tells the story a girl spending time at a boys' school, so it will prove to be an even more unique slice of life… one that will now not get lost to time.
In 1966, the town of Northborough, Mass. celebrated its 200th anniversary of becoming a town. The first inhabitants on the physical land were there decades before the 1766 separation from the parent town of Westborough. This map, created by the Anniversary Committee in 1966, identifies many of the historical homesites going back to 1660.
While the general layout of the town hasn't changed much over the last 50 years, one major event changed the character: the building of Rt. 290. In the sections where the highway overpasses could not be built, roads were either rerouted or cut in 1/2 and turned into cul-de-sacs. So if you are headed for an address on Howard Street, you'd best check a map first to see which end you have to get to first!
A full size version of the map is here.
Map of original Marlborough Plantation with modern town overlay
(from The History of Westborough)
The way New England towns were settled by the English was actually very common across Massachusetts. Religious dissenters (primarily Puritan) established communities where there was plenty of land and other natural resources and followed traditional English laws. Towns were built around the Meeting House, the central location of all things religious and political.
Residents were primarily farming families. Couples bore many children to work the family farms and faced the odds of losing some to diseases like smallpox or the flu. After a few generations in those early communities, there was not enough open land for the increasing number of growing families. Surveyors headed westward to find new areas for establishing new towns. For example, the early colonial town (or “Plantation”) of Sudbury, Massachusetts became crowded and a handful of young men set off to find a new home in the adjacent combined lands of what is now Marlborough, Hudson, Northborough, Westborough, and Southborough. In that manner, "Marlborough Plantation” was settled in 1656 and the first settlers lived near the center of modern Marlborough, farming land in the outer areas of the town.
Over subsequent generations, families continued to grow in number and needed to find more living space outside of the center of Marlborough Plantation. A village a few miles west at Lake Chauncy sprung up (the "west borough"), where farmers of the western stretch of the Plantation (Northborough and Westborough combined) could live closer to where they worked during the day. However, the new village was inconveniently far from the Plantation Meeting House; it was a slow and hilly trip back to the meeting house every Sunday. It followed that once there was enough people living in Chauncy to warrant building their own meeting house, hiring their own minister, and “managing their own affairs,” the villagers petitioned for separation from Marlborough. In 1717, the new independent town of Westborough was officially established and comprised the lands of modern Northborough and Westborough.
When the Westborough meeting house moved from Lake Chauncy to three miles south to the center of modern day Westborough, there were well over 30 families living in the “north part” of the town who again found themselves facing a very long and difficult trip back and forth on required meeting days. Can you just imagine the families, on an early wintery Sunday morning, trying to be up, dressed, and ready to march down the hazardous road [what is now Rt. 135] to church in Westborough Center? The devoted northern Puritan families were outraged even more by the inequity of their situation when finding themselves at funerals without a minister; he himself did not like to make the long trek up north to Brigham Street Old Burial Ground. To address these religious concerns, the northern family heads met and petitioned in 1744 to become a precinct of Westborough. Note that a “precinct” was distinctly different from a “town”: the newly formed Northern Precinct would have its own meeting house and preacher but would remain politically and fiscally a part of the town of Westborough.
Over the two decades following the 1744 petition, there were lingering serious challenges because the Northern Precinct was not fully independent from Westborough. For example, elected northern officials found it difficult to travel south to important town meetings and represent the interests of the northern families. Another problem was that the Northern Precinct was viewed as only one of the town's three school districts and the teacher was not available full-time in any single district. Adding fuel to the flame, no funding was made for Northern Precinct schools, highways, or other types of community improvements.
To finally achieve the independence they had sought and desired for so long, town founders successfully presented a petition to the General Court in Boston. The District of Northborough was officially formed on the 15 January 1766 and the district became a fully-fledged town on 23 August 1775.
Clifford, John Henry et al. The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay: to Which are Prefixed the Charters of the Province with Historical and Explanatory Notes, and an Appendix, Volume IV. Boston, Massachusetts: Wright & Potter, 1890.
DeForest, Heman Packard and Edward Craig Bates. The History of Westborough, Massachusetts. Westborough Massachusetts: Town of Westborough, 1891.
Kent, Josiah Coleman. Northborough History. Newton, Massachusetts: Garden City Press, 1921.
Parkman, Ebenezer. The Diary of Ebenezer Parkman (1703-1782): First Part, Three Volumes in One (1719-1755). Francis G. Walett, editor. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1974.
Happy 250th Birthday, Northborough!
Susan (Grout) Holbrook Gale
....was born in Westborough, MA in 1797. She was the eldest of the two daughters of Esquire Seth Grout and wife Susannah Haskell. When Susan was 23 years old, she married Daniel Holbrook Jr. of Northborough and they settled into a home on the Turnpike Road in Westborough.
Her father owned and operated “Grout’s Store” in downtown Westborough, where husband Daniel was also a merchant. Barely five months after Susan married Daniel, their son Charles was born, which at that time could have proven scandalous. However, possibly due to the good standing of the respectable family in town, no one publically noted the short pregnancy. The couple also had the resources to send son Charles to attend the Worcester County Manual Labor High School, the private boys school that eventually become the renowned Worcester Academy of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Susan was only 25 when her father died and she inherited both his business and real estate. Notably uncommon for women of that time, she retained sole ownership of the store, along with several other Westborough properties that belonged to her late father. Given that her father was confident that she was able to manage real estate and that her husband freely worked side-by-side with her at her store, she can certainly be characterized as a capable, independent, and intelligent woman of her time.
A few years after Susan married, her sister Eliza also married into the Holbrook family. At 19, Eliza married Daniel’s 1st cousin, Levi Holbrook, who was then 41 years old and ran a boys' high school in Danville, Virginia. Virginia was a slave state at the time, which was extremely difficult for Susan and Eliza’s widowed mother, who was decidedly anti-slavery and refused to ever travel to the South. The Grout women did eventually reunite, when Eliza became pregnant and made the long and uncomfortable journey back north to Westborough to be cared for by family. Her son Levi (Jr.) was born healthy, but Eliza suffered medical complications and she remained in Westborough long after his birth. Susan cared for her newborn nephew until Eliza was well enough to travel back to Virginia. The strong maternal bond between “Auntie Susan” and her nephew Levi was undoubtedly forged during that time and did not diminish in the years that followed.
Eliza may never have recovered fully from her poor health after giving birth as she died just a few years later. As a testament to the closeness of the Grout family, she was buried in Westborough alongside her parents. When her young son Levi reached school age, her widowed husband sent him back North to be educated and cared for by Susan and her husband. Susan took over raising her nephew and their very close relationship continued to grow.
Susan was 37 years old when her husband Daniel suddenly died. In keeping with her reputation as an intelligent businesswoman, she was appointed co-executor of his estate. It also isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that as a respected local merchant, Susan had a wide social circle that included Northborough storeowner Captain Cyrus Gale. They very well may have known each other for many years before she married him when she was age 54. Cyrus, also known as a kind and quietly generous member of his community, shared the traits of keen business acumen and strong family devotion with his third wife. As a testament to his character, he signed a pre-nuptial contract that ensured she continued to be sole owner of her inherited real estate. He also accepted her nephew Levi as a member of his own family. A year after Cyrus and Susan married, they encouraged 16 year-old Levi to attend Yale University (and afterwards, Harvard University) to pursue a quality higher education. This mutual respect and faith that Cyrus had for his step-nephew was never more evident than when Cyrus died and Levi was appointed as the executor of his estate.
Around town, Susan and Cyrus were social and engaging, frequently hosting guests in their home. This was actually quite common for many homeowners along Main Street as the train had come to Northborough in 1853 and guesthouses were popular with travelers. Susan’s nephew Levi visited annually with his own growing family, and letters written by Levi’s wife about their cherished trips up from New York City were nothing short of heart-warming.
Susan (Grout) Holbrook Gale was born at a time when our new country was just getting started. Her father was part of the movement where commercial town centers were forming in sprawling farming communities. She herself walked the fine line between traditional woman’s role of wife and mother with independent businesswoman and property owner. As for personal convictions, she had to wrestle with how to keep anti-slavery beliefs from tearing her family apart as she and her sister navigated the murky waters leading up to the Civil War. Her unwavering devotion to her mother, sister, and nephew was also an integral part of who she was, as was her choosing spouses who encouraged her to stay true to her character. When she died in 1887, she was 89 years old and had indeed experienced a very full and rewarding life.
Ancestry.com. “U.S. High School Student Lists, 1821-1923.” Online database and digital images. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com : 2012.
Ancestry.com. “U.S. School Catalogs, 1765-1935.” Online database and digital images. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com : 2012.
Kent, Josiah Coleman. Northborough History. Newton, Massachusetts: Garden City Press, Incorporated, 1921.
McCarthy, Beth Finch. "Holbrook Letters." Collection of family correspondence from 1833-1875. BFM Research, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parker, Glenn R. “Daniel Holbrook Jr. on the Turnpike.” Westborough Patch. http://patch.com/ massachusetts/westborough/daniel-holbrook-jr-on-the-turnpike. 19 August 2013.
Pine Grove Cemetery (Westborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts; 106 South Street). Cemetery Marker.
Town and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records. Provo, UT: Holbrook Research Institute (Jay and Delene Holbrook).
Beth Finch McCarthy