Thursday, July 1, 2010

Westward Ho!

This post marks my first in a number of weeks, and I apologize for the length of time between posts. What I intended as a brief hiatus ended up being longer than expected with part of the time being spent in Arizona, an appealing distraction.

The West has always held an allure for Middleborough folk for different reasons. Following the Revolutionary War, numerous Middleborough residents headed "west" to Vermont because of economic hardship at home and the promise of greater financial security. The early and mid-1800s saw Middleborough residents emigrate further afield to places such as Minnesota and Missouri, then considered the western frontier. Among them were members of the Barrows family.

The discovery of gold in 1848 in California unleashed an unprecedented flood of westward emigration, and Middleborough residents for years to come would be attracted not only by the prospect of riches, but by the continuing allure of productive land which was inexpensive (if not free) and an invigorating and healthy climate. Dura T. Weston of Thomastown emigrated temporarily to California during the period of the Gold Rush, though he later returned, none the richer to Middleborough. In 1856, S. W. Marston gave up his private boarding school on East Grove Street (later better known as the Eaton Family School) in order to pursue his future "out west". Accompanying him were Middleborough furniture dealer Solomon Snow (who was succeeded by George Soule) and clothing retailer George Wilbur, also of Middleborough. Another prominent Middleborough resident who moved west during the mid-19th century was George Leonard. Born at Middleborough in 1816, Leonard was a prominent shoe and boot manufacturer at Middleborough until 1868 when he relocated to Rochester, Minnesota, for the health of his wife and son. At Rochester, Leonard continued in the shoe business and also engaged as a gentleman farmer, owning two farms, 30 cows and over 80 other head of livestock. He was recognized as "an upright, honorable and much beloved citizen" and was described as one of Rochester's "oldest and most respected citizens" upon his death in 1893.

The Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s similarly caught the attention of Middleborough residents. A number of Middleborough residents proposed making the journey to western Canada, including Charles P. Drake of North Middleborough in 1897, and it was reported that Middleborough men's clothiers Sparrow Brothers had outfitted at least one Middleborough resident with heavy weight apparel suitable for the Yukon.

Nonetheless, some of these western dreams proved illusory, including that of Charles W. Wadhams (1850-85). Wadhams married Phebe Ann Gerrish of North Rochester, Massachusetts, in 1879, and though troubled by heart problems, he failed to reveal the condition to his wife, no doubt for fear of alarming her unnecessarily. The condition, however, was severe enough to prompt Wadhams to emigrate to Redlands, California, where he proposed making a home for himself and his wife who he left behind in Massachusetts. At the time, Redlands was gaining notice for its healthful dry climate which would soon make it a citrus-growing center in southern California, and it is likely this factor which encouraged Wadhams' emigration. However, he was not to realize his dream. He died at the age of 35 a short time after coming to Redlands. "It seems that Mr. Wadhams had been informed some time since that he had heart trouble and might die at any time and might possibly live two years. He was frequently troubled with irregular circulation and palpitation, but had carefully kept all these troubles from the knowledge of his wife and mother at home. He was laboring to make a home for his wife, and his forgetfulness of self, as it appears in a detailed account of his life, shows the true and noble spirit with which he was possessed." Wadhams' remains were brought back to Middleborough and interred in Hope's Rest Cemetery at Rock.

"American Progress", oil on canvas, John Gast, 1872
Gast's 1872 painting has since become an iconic image of American Manifest Destiny, depicting various aspects of the nation's westward expansion.


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