Friday, October 21, 2011

Autumnal Advertising

Among the most creative business owners when it came to advertising in late 19th century Middleborough was Solomon H. Sylvester who operated a jewelry and "fancy goods" store on Center Street.  Though Sylvester most frequently relied upon colorful trade cards with beautiful or humorous scenes on the front and advertising text on the reverse, on occasion he employed novel means to promote his business, including the unique autumn-colored leaves pictured here.  Printed on small pieces of serrated paper, the leaves advertised Sylvester's range of gold and silver goods, as well as pictures and frames. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pratt Farm Barn

Standing to the left of the entrance of the Pratt Farm on East Main Street are the ruins of a seemingly once formidable structure. A broken concrete pad, a circular foundation and the remains of a large dry-laid stone ramp are the remnants of the former barn built in 1905 which stood upon the site
of the original Pratt Farm barn.

The original Pratt barn was built about the same time as the Pratt House in the late eighteenth century, and it was standing prior to October, 1798, at which time it was described as measuring 30 by 28 feet. This barn was a substantial structure and included a full basement that was utilized as a piggery. In the fall of each year pigs were taken to market, slaughtered and the meat cured for the Pratt family. The basement also likely served as a storage space for manure collected on the farm.

The original Pratt Farm barn stood until 1898 when it was levelled by fire, leaving only the cellar hole. Ernest S. Pratt was thirteen at the time of the barn’s destruction and later in life he recorded his recollection of the event.

…On the 28th of December, 1898, came another disaster. During my vacation week from school, I went with two other teams (I was driving a single horse hitch), carting logs from the area back of the then Shurtleff Place, adjacent to Woods Pond, to Atwood’s Mill at Rock….We had made two trips to the Mill and were returning home by the Chester Weston Homestead on Sachem Street, when the thought came to me, what would I do if fire had destroyed buildings on the Homestead, while I was away. As I came to the gap in the hill, lo and behold, there was an unusual bright light, and fire, in the shed, adjoining the barn, which was used for a slaughter house.

I saw a figure leave the barn and immediately return. The teamsters and I all came to that this was a fire out of control. The others realized the situation and proceeded as fast as possible to help Father save as much as could be taken from the buildings. I conceived the idea that I could be the most service by going at once to the hose house on Star Mill Hill, ringing the fire alarm, and assisting with the horse and wagon to pull the hose reel to the fire hydrant, near the homestead. In my strenuous application of the cart stake to the old horse’s rump, to accelerate speed, I overdid the matter. About where Mr. Judge’s Paint Store now stands, the horse let his heels fly into the air, and came down breaking the shafts and some portions of the harness.

This brought to a conclusion all hopes of me becoming an assistant fireman. I did, however, extricate the horse from the wagon, jumped on his back and rode to ring Box 27, situated then as now, on Mill Hill, in front of the Walker Co. Office. The firemen laboriously pulled by hand the 500 feet of hose, to the hydrant, and laid the line to the fire. Another line was laid by another fire company and the two streams played on the flames. The water main was four inches and the two streams amounted to a good garden hose. It was a bitterly cold and windy night. Firemen suffered frost-bitten hands and fingers. The fire gained such headway that nothing of the building was saved. The water froze into ice all around. The hay smouldered several days and firemen had to wet it down. There was a fire district at this time. Firemen came from all the districts and worked heroically. The flames were visible for many miles. The night was outstanding, and well remembered as “the time that Pratt’s barn burned.” Father had a cranberry house which he used to stable his ten horses. He put the cows in a small shed. The teamsters and my father were able to save the wagons. The cows were turned loose. Two cows suffered frozen udders, and had to be slaughtered. Five pigs were suffocated under the barn.

A much larger barn was erected upon the foundation of the original barn in 1905, and existed until the demolition of the Pratt House sometime in the early 1970s when it, too, was razed. Photographs of the barn reveal a large two-story structure with a pitched roof. During the 1940s, the 1905 barn was enlarged. “[The barn was] done over while I was there,” recalled the late Bob Hopkins who had worked on the farm, “and the roof was cut open and another tier put up in it to haul all your hay up in.”

On the first or ground level floor of the 1905 barn were a harness room, grain room, several box stalls for the horses which were used in connection with the sand and gravel business and for the teaming horses, stalls for oxen, a calving pen and an area for the farm’s cows. The second floor was primarily for the storage of hay that had been harvested on the farm and was accessed from the high ground to the rear of the barn by way of the stone drive ramp. Light-weight wagons could be driven in and also stored during bad winter weather. During the summer months when the wagons were in use, the space was employed to house sleds and pungs which were used to draw wood over snow-covered ground.

There was a horse-fork installed near the peak of the barn roof which was designed for unloading materials, primarily hay, and was operated by horse power. This was typical equipment on larger farms where tons of hay were handled annually. The fork apparatus consisted of a number of tines suspended from an overhead track that ran the entire length of the barn. Wagons laden with hay would draw up below the open doors of the hay loft and the fork brought forward and released by a hand-line to a man on the load who would grasp the tines and sink them into the hay as far as possible. On command, the horse then pulled a large portion of the load up to the overhead track and along into the barn where it was released by means of a trip-rope, thereby depositing winter feed for the cattle in the hay mow.

The barn also included a silo for green silage. Jim Maddigan recalled local corn harvests during the late 1920s and early 1930s in the neighborhood of the Pratt Farm:

When the field corn was ready for harvest …the young men cut the corn and tied it into bundles ready for transport to the cow barns for green feed. Some of the farmers had corn silos where the fresh corn was fed through a machine that cut it into small pieces and blew it into the silo. Again [the job of the boys and younger men] was to spread it evenly around inside the silo and pack it down.

The barn was also used to stable the numerous horses that the Pratts owned over the years which were employed in the agricultural, contracting and ice businesses operated by the family. L. Brad Pratt owned many horses - the Pratt Farm barn was described in 1898 as being “full of horses” – and he “used to race with the other sleighs and fast horses” when snow was well packed on North and South Main Streets. Pratt taught his three children – Ernest, Louise and Isabel – each to drive a horse at an early age. Many of the Pratt family horses were buried by Brad Pratt atop the flat hilltop field near the junction of the Farm and Stony Brook Roads.

During the 1930s, the Ernest S. Pratt owned as many as five saddle horses, but as time gave way to automobiles the number declined and by the 1940s just three horses remained, draft horses Jerry and Ned, and a riding horse named Teddy. Bob Hopkins who was employed on the farm during the early 1940s remembered Teddy, acquired by Ernest Pratt during the 1940s gasoline shortage from the Taylor Farm on Vernon Street in North Middleborough.

"We had two draft horses and then the riding horse [Teddy]…. That riding horse broke more … wagons than you can shake a stick at. The first day we hooked him to the wagon he broke the shaft. You’d get him in there and he’d get excited.” Both Hopkins and his brother-in-law Paul Carter who was engaged as Pratt’s herdsman would ride Teddy despite the horse's temperamental disposition. “That horse had a mind of its own…. Some days you’d go out with him and he’d give you a beautiful ride, just smooth, he’d go along beautiful and another day you don’t know whether you’re going to come back or not because he’d lead you off somewheres…."

Hopkins recalled being able to drive horses along the Farm Road straight through to Chestnut Street, including the strong-willed Teddy. “You could drive horses right through there. [One day though], I went straight but he didn’t. I didn’t get through and I didn’t get hurt or anything, I just got my feelings hurt because I had to walk back.” Teddy’s headstrong ways, however, sometimes had amusing consequences including for one of Pratt’s employees who felt that he would be able to handle the horse better than either Hopkins or Carter. Hopkins recalled the employee as one who “will show you how to do everything. He knows everything. He knows how to ride. He knows all of this. He’d talk to my brother-in-law and I about it and we’d look at each other, winking our eyes. He’d get on that horse and show us how to ride him. Paul says to him, “You want me to harness him up for you?” “I’ll show you how to ride him, you harness him up.” So we harness him up and we knew what was going to happen…. As I say, like with me the horse goes curve and I go straight.” The rider resulted with a hurt leg and a bruised ego. “He had to walk all the way back…. Here comes the horse sauntering down there like he owns the … place, up to the barn. A little while later … comes [the rider]. He didn’t say anything when he came back. We weren’t that dumb. I don’t care how smart you were, [Teddy] was a very smart horse.”

Rose Standish Pratt in 1967 recalled another of the Pratt Company’s horses also named “Teddy” who had the misfortune of falling through the ice pond four times during one particularly brutal ice harvest earlier in the century. “Each time he was pulled ashore, dried off, and harnessed again…. After four efforts the iceman decided the ice would have to be thicker before it could be worked on.” Also remembered by Louise Pratt was “Little Dandy”, one of the family horses which drew the democrat wagon or the trap, on family outings on Sunday afternoons. “We drove to nearby towns or countrysides, sometimes to visit, once to Pope’s Point to see a harness maker. I remember a day’s trip to see relatives in Sagamore over dirt roads in a carryall and with a pair of horses.”

The selection of heavy harness horses to draw the Ernest S. Pratt Company's ice wagons in summer was careful. “They must be patient, although ready to move at the sound of the driver’s voice to save time,” explained Pratt’s wife Rose. 

Besides horses, the Pratts over the years also owned oxen. Simeon M. Pratt owned a team of oxen which he undoubtedly used for heavy hauling and probably plowing. Later, Brad Pratt seems not to have owned any of the powerful beasts but occasionally engaged George Robbins or his son, Carroll, who lived on a farm on Wood Street which backed up to the Pratt Farm , for carting sand or gravel with their ox team.

Behind the barn are two poured concrete walls - an outdoor bull pen located just southeast of the barn near the base of the bridge to the second floor. The bull was an important feature of the farm, particularly when Ernest Pratt pursued the breeding of Guernsey cattle. The barn also included an earlier bull pen.

At one time there was a also shed located adjacent to the barn and utilized as a slaughterhouse in the late nineteenth century. This was undoubtedly connected to the meat business operated by L. Bradford Pratt for twelve years. It was in this building that the 1898 fire which destroyed the original Pratt barn started. This building was lost at the time, as well. Following the incident, L. Brad Pratt sold his meat business at the start of 1899 to the meat market which operated on Wareham Street at Middleborough center.

Behind the barn was a strawberry field where the children of L. Bradford Pratt picked the berries, selling the extras “for fifteen cents a box or two for a quarter.”

Ernest S. Pratt Company Ice Wagon, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph, early 20th century.
The matched pair of horses and ice wagon stands in front of the 1905 barn on the Pratt Farm, a portion of which can be glimpsed behind the team.  The barn was used to stable the numerous horses used by Pratt in his ice business and whose work involved both harvesting the ice and winter and delivering it in summer.

Pratt Farm Barn, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, plan byMike Maddigan.
The plan shows the general layout of the barn constructed in 1905 on the Pratt farm as described by Paul Carter, the Pratt Farm herdsman, to James F. Maddigan.

Bob Hopkins and Teddy, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph, early 1940s.
Hopkins who worked as an employee of Ernest S. Pratt for a period of time in the 1940s is pictured with Teddy, one of the last saddle horses owned by Pratt.  In the distance are the original ice houses which stood on the Pratt until blown down during the hurricane of September, 1944.

Ernest S. Pratt, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph, early 20th century.
Pratt was photographed by his wife, Rose Standish Pratt, with two of his ice horses.  The sturdiness of the animals which drew Pratt's ice wagons and performed numerous other tasks about the farm is obvious.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Pratt Farm as Botanical Garden

Despite its rich animal life, the Pratt Farm offers even greater diversity in the variety of flora it contains, and the conservation area is a veritable botanical garden for those who wish to explore its plant life which speaks to both the natural and cultural history of the farm.

Ironically the profusion of wildflowers which attract butterflies and other insects to the meadows of the Pratt Farm today was considered a matter of grave concern a century earlier when the land was being used to raise fodder such as hay and other grasses. The invasion of what were commonly considered weeds at the expense of commercially-valuable feed grains severely compromised the quality of the crops produced. “The loss from weeds, though not one that can be computed nor even guessed at, is undoubtedly very large, and their growth is a great hindrance to farming, a fact which must impress itself upon every man of observation", wrote one Massachusetts commentator in 1884.

In 1896, botanist G. E. Stone of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, listed a number of common weeds that should be eradicated from Massachusetts fields, and encouraged farmers to root them out, including a number which today are commonly found in the abandoned hay fields of the Pratt Farm such as ramsted, Queen Anne’s lace and daisy fleabane.  Interestingly, Stone believed that the black-eyed Susan would not find a hold in Massachusetts, yet its presence in all the fields at the Pratt Farm belies Stone’s supposition. 

Ramsted, Butter-and-Eggs, Toadflax
Linaria vulgaris

The bright and pale yellow flowers of this plant give it its common name, "butter-and-eggs".  Also known as toadflax, ramsted was unintentionally introduced to New England farms in grain seed, and quickly became a much despised weed.  A century ago it was considered a nuisance to be rooted from the commonwealth's pastures.  The 1884 Massachusetts Agricultural report criticized ramsted as plants "that nothing will eat, that will allow nothing else to grow to crowd them out, that never die, that spread both by root and seed, that cannot be killed by any ordinary means.  Ploughing only multiplies and cultivates them, harrowing enables them to colonize, and digging up and chopping to pieces stem and root makes new plants ready to grow in any opportunity."  Ramsted is prolific in sandy, gravelly soil, a preference which explains its prevalence in the fields of the Pratt Farm where such soils predominate.  As indicated by the report from 1884, ramsted was poor forage as "nothing will eat it", cattle finding it unappealing due to a bitter, acrid and slightly salty taste.

Eastern Daisy Fleabane
Erigeron annuus

A member of the aster family, daisy fleabane was considered another invasive weed to be eradicated from the fields of the Pratt Farm.  Clearly, any effort undertaken to eliminate the plant was unsuccessful as it appears in most fields throughout the farm.  Historically, the plant had found a use in folk medicine, however.  Dried fleabane was believed to repel fleas.

Yellow Foxtail
Seteria glauca

While grasses such as timothy constituted an important crop for the Pratt Farm, invasive grasses like yellow foxtail could compromise the quality of the hay harvested as they had a lower nutritive value than other grains and forage crops.  Additionally, yellow foxtail had the potential for crowding out other grasses and its barb-like bristles could become lodged in the mouths, eyes and noses of browsing cattle, with the potential for infection.  Given these drawbacks, it is not surprising that it was historically regarded as having little value on the farm.       

Alfalfa, Lucerne
Medicago sativa

In contrast to plants like ramsted and black-eyed Susan which were introduced to farms like the Pratt Farm accidentally when their seeds became mixed with grain seed, were more desirable plants such as alfalfa, vetch and clover which were cultivated as forage crops.  Louise Pratt recollected that “alfalfa was planted on the flat top of the hill by the old pine tree, where a road goes over to a field surrounded by woods.”  At the time Brad Pratt first cultivated alfalfa, little was thought of the plant as a fodder by Massachusetts agricultural officials, despite its success in the western portion of the country. At the turn of the century, the Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station at Amherst conducted experiments with the plant, the State Agriculturalists reporting in 1901: “There is at the present time so much interest in alfalfa as a forage crop that attention is called to the fact that the results obtained at this station have been distinctly unfavorable. Alfalfa has been under trial in a small way for a considerable number of years, and we have never succeeded in obtaining results encouraging to its general introduction.” Only the heavy application of lime, it was thought, might procure results favorable to alfalfa’s introduction.  Since having been planted on the Pratt Farm, the alfalfa has escaped and grown wild, mainly along the Farm Road not far from its original plot at the top of the hill.

Blue Vetch, Tufted Vetch, Cow Vetch
Vicia cracca

A spray of the unglamorously-named cow vetch.The plant blooms in midsummer and can be found growing in meadows throughout the Pratt Farm including the Big Meadow at the rear of the farm,the small meadow near the new ice pond and the hill above the former sheep yard.  Vetch was an important fodder for cattle, and its presence on the Pratt Farm is no doubt deliberate.  Dairy cattle such as those raised by Ernest S. Pratt following 1932 were likely fed vetch as a legume hay.

Yellow or Hop Clover
Trifolium agrarium

The yellow flowers of hop clover ultimately wither and turn brown, bending their heads, at which time they resemble hops.  Hop clover is suitable as a pasture crop but is difficult to hay as the leaves fall off easily.  It is well adapted to worn, acidic soils, and may have been deliberately sown with other legumes such as vetch to improve the nutritive quality of the large back meadow of the Pratt Farm where it appears. 

Sweet Joe-Pye Weed
Eupatorium purpureum

Other plants on the farm are native species which historically had neither value as forage crops nor interfered with the cultivation of such crops.  Occurring throughout the farm, however, these plants added beauty and diversity to the landscape.  Among them is sweet Joe-Pye weed.  While the origin of the plant's name is uncertain, some claim that it is named for Joe Pye, a Native American herbalist who cured typhus with the plant.  Be that as it may, the tale does underscore the importance of such plants to native peoples.

New England Aster
Aster novae-angliae

Louise Pratt recollected the beauty of the "late asters", no doubt having the late-blooming New England aster in mind.  What a delightful place the farm was for us to grow up. We roamed the fields and woods…. We knew where the wildflowers grew, from the early Jack-in-the-Pulpit to the late wild asters.  New England asters are noted in several locations about the farm and are attractive in that they are one of the last plants to bloom in the year.

Cardinal Flower
Lobelia cardinalis

The presence of cardinal flower is betrayed by its conspicuously brilliant color.  Thoreau once queried of the flower, "'Thy sins shall be as scarlet.'  Is it my sins that I see?"  The plant appears in limited areas of the Pratt Farm, blooming in August.  Cardinal flower is an endangered species in Massachusetts and should not be picked.  It is protected under the same 1935 law which protects lady slippers.

Chapter 266 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after Section 116, as appearing in the Tercentenary Edition, the following new section:--Section 116A. No person shall pull up or dig up the plant of a wild azalea, wild orchid or cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), or any part thereof, or injure any such plant or any part thereof except in so far as is reasonably necessary in procuring the flower therefrom, within the limits of any state highway or any other public way or place, or upon the land of another person without the written authority from him, and no person shall buy or sell, or offer or expose for sale, any such flower, or the whole of any part of the plant thereof, knowing or having reasonable cause to believe, that in procuring such flower or plant the foregoing provisions have been violated. Violation of any provision of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than five dollars."

Common Chicory
Cichorium intybus

Chicory is perhaps best known as a coffee substitute.  Its use was widespread among Confederate soldiers during the Civil War as well as during the Great Depression.  Though probably not used as livestock forage on the Pratt Farm, this use for the plant is increasingly gaining acceptance. 

Butterflies Pollinating Milkweed, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, July 3, 2005

Ramsted, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, September 26, 2011

Daisy Fleabane, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, July 7, 2005

Yellow Foxtail, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, September 6, 2004

Alfalfa, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, August 24, 2004

Cow Vetch, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, August 5, 2004

Hop Clover, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, summer 2004

Sweet Joe-Pye Weed, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, August 30, 2004

New England Aster, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 17, 2011

Cardinal Flower, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, August 9, 2004

Chicory, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, September 10, 2004

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Coke for Heating and the Ernest S. Pratt Company

Beginning in 1912, Ernest S. Pratt began retailing coke through the agency of the Ernest S. Pratt Company.  Coke used as a heating fuel in place of coal (from which it was produced) was purchased from the New England Coke Company and received by the railroad carload at the Middleborough depot.  To facilitate the receipt and offloading of his coke, Pratt in November, 1920, purchased the former home of Christopher C. Smith on the northeast corner of Arlington Street and Sumner Avenue, adjoining the west side of the Old Colony Railroad tracks in Middleborough, just north of the Center Street bridge. Two years later, he acquired the adjoining lot from Bryant & Soule. Here coke was received by Pratt’s workers before being transported for storage in a large cement bin located adjacent to the wagon shed on the farm.

One of the tasks for which my grandfather Jim Maddigan was employed by Pratt was the receipt and bagging of coke shipments (a task which another Pratt worker, Bob Hopkins, described as “miserable”).  My grandfather recalled:

[I] can vividly recall working after school, and sometimes on Saturdays, in the coke sheds that were located on Sumner Avenue, bordering the railroad siding, across the street from Shurtleff’s lumber yard. Here there were open-front sheds where the coke and coal was unloaded from the coal cars. Our part of the job was to fill and weigh heavy paper bags. As I recall, the bags held 25 pounds and after they had been weighed and tied, were stacked in piles. Usually, late in the day, the delivery wagons would arrive to pick up their loads for next day deliveries, or for transportation to the sheds at Pratt’s farm where they were stored for future delivery. The open sheds at the railroad yard were not a safe place to leave the bagged fuel for any extended period of time. There were also a number of customers that purchased their coke and coal in bulk and had their deliveries deposited from the wagons or trucks directly into their cellars, via chutes from the rear of the vehicle, through the cellar windows and into small bins.

Eventually, as other fuels and heating options became more readily available, demand for coke declined and this sideline of the Pratt Company's business was discontinued.

Ernest S. Pratt Company Ice Truck, photograph, July 4, 1919.
Decorated for the combined Armistice, Fourth of July and Middleborough 250th anniversary parade, Ernest S. Pratt's ice truck is captured outside his home on North Street in Middleborough.  Noticeable are the stacks of cordwood, and the bags of charcoal and coke, advertising Pratt's other ventures which operated in conjunction with his better known ice business. 

Map of Ernest S. Pratt Company Property, Sumner Avenue, Middleborough, MA.
The red ovelay on this 1903 map indicates the two lots which Pratt ultimately purchased at Sumner Avenue and Arlington Street on Middleborough's West Side to facilitate his receipts of coke from the New England Coke Company.  Coke was received directly from railroad cars, bagged and stored in sheds until it could be sold.

Ernest S. Pratt Company New Egland Coke Advertisement, Middleboro Gazette, November 20, 1931, page 9.
At the start of the winter season for a numer of years, Pratt advertised the sale of coke produced by the New England Coke Company.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Charcoal-Making on the Pratt Farm, 1920

During the 1880s and early 1890s, one profitable business venture associated with the wood business undertaken on the Pratt Farm on East Main Street in Middleborough in conjunction with the sale of cordwood for heating was the manufacture and distribution of charcoal. Charcoal is believed to have been first produced by L. Brad Pratt in charcoal pits on Cedar Street, opposite the brick Jonathan Soule House, and retailed along with fuel wood during the last decades of the nineteenth century. 

In 1920, Pratt's son Ernest S. Pratt produced a large amount of charcoal in multiple pits on the Pratt Farm.  The indications of at least one of these pits remain discernible today, though the site is largely inaccessible being located in a pine grove situated in the midst of the big meadow at the rear of the present Pratt Farm Conservation Area.

The Pratt Farm charcoal pits were situated in the corner of the woodland acquired by Pratt in April, 1920, which had once been part of the neighboring Weston Farm. Pratt’s first step in producing charcoal in 1920 was the clearing of the former Weston woodlot, covered with a mixed white pine and oak forest. Photographs of these pits taken at the time they were fired show that Pratt cleared an extensive swath of
pineland for the purpose of burning several pits simultaneously, either immediately upon acquiring the land, or later that same year, about October.

Once the area was cleared, the felled timber was cut into four foot lengths while a site for multiple pits was identified. All brush, roots and stumps were removed from the hearth site which was subsequently leveled. Soil was raked to the perimeter of several 30 to 40 foot diameter circles, forming mounds known as dust rings. The areas encompassed within these circles were the charcoal pits, a somewhat misleading term as the “pits’ were in fact on level ground. Pits as large as the ones built by Pratt in 1920 accommodated a few dozen cords of wood.

In the center of each pit, a pole about 18 feet long known as a fagan was driven into the ground. About this a chimney was constructed, following which wood was placed laterally around the fagan and a stack built upwards. Wood was then placed in a standing position from the center of the pit outwards towards the dust ring in increasingly wider concentric circles. By the time the dust ring was reached, the pits resembled semi-spherical mounds of wood.
Gaps in between pieces of wood were filled with remaining smaller pieces to make the pile as tight as possible. The chimney was then filled nearly to the top with wood chips. The pit was then leafed and dusted whereby leaves were gathered and spread covering the pit to a depth of several inches on top of which soil was spread on top. Once covered, the pits were fired by igniting the wood chips in the chimney. The purpose was to maintain a slow burn during which the gases and moisture would be removed from the wood.

The 1920 pits were tended nearly constantly to prevent a fire from igniting on the inside and consuming the wood, transforming the wood to useless ash rather than the desired charcoal.

Charcoal Pit, Pratt Farm, photograph, 1920.

Charcoal Making, Pratt Farm, photographs, 1920.
Images 2 through 5 illustrate the process of charcoal-making as conducted on the Pratt Farm in 1920.  Wood is carefully stacked in several mounds or "pits" before being being "dusted" with leaves and soil.  The fired pits begin to smoke, and are carefully tended to maintain a slow, even burn.  Once completed, the soil is removed to uncover the charcoal beneath.

Bagging Charcoal, Pratt Farm, photograph, 1920.
Once completed, charcoal was weighed and bagged for sale in heavy brown paper bags.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Pratt Farm as Aboretum

Two hundred and more years ago the Pratt Farm was largely devoid of trees, save for an area centered about the confluence of Stony and Morey Brooks which is now under the waters of the new ice pond.  As late as the 1940s, large portions of the Pratt Farm remained bare of tree cover. Since the abandonment of the property to farming purposes in 1964, the land has been rapidly reclaimed by white pine, various species of oak and American beech, creating what are known as successional woodlands, woodlands created naturally following a man-made disturbance, in this case the clearing of the land for agricultural use during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. William Ellery Channing (1818-1901) evocatively alluded to forest succession as “the beautiful accidents that attend on man’s works”, and his friend Henry David Thoreau would later pen a seminal essay on the subject “The Succession of Forest Trees” (1860)

During the past fifty years, reforestation of the Pratt Farm has brought with it a diversity of trees and the forests now beginning to occupy much of the farm tell an interesting tale of succession, how the land came to be reforested following the man-made disturbance of wholesale clearance for agriculture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

At one time or another, the old growth forests which covered the landscape were harvested. The earliest deeds for the immediate area speak of trees such as red, white and black oak, walnut and white pine, as well as hazel growing in thickets, throughout the 1700s. These were enormous trees in some instances as witnessed by the incredible width of boards in first period houses. By 1831, according to the map of Middleborough published in that year, the entire swath of land encompassed by East Main, Sachem and Wood Streets had been clear-cut for pasturage or tillage, save for the wet areas surrounding Stony and Morey Brooks on the northern edge of the Pratt Farm, and it remained in virtually the same state until at least 1855, if not later.

Physical evidence of this clearance are the stone walls marking former tilled fields and pastures, which now run through forest. “All around are pine and [scrub] oak woods. In many places and at diverse times the woods have been cut down and have again grown up, occupying fields where stone walls now testify that within their leafy enclosures corn and grass formerly grew …” Similar forest-secluded walls are noted on the Pratt Farm Conservation Area.

During the nineteenth century, Middleborough, like much on New England, became increasingly reforested for a number of reasons. Some natural reforestation of lands previously used agriculturally occurred with the introduction of coal as a replacement for wood as a heating fuel and the rapid decline in sheep rearing, both of which had previously dictated widespread clearance. Additionally (and ironically), the use of treeless areas for pasturage also encouraged reforestation as cattle refused to eat the unpalatable white pine seedlings, allowing them to ultimately grow to maturity if farmers failed to mow grazing lands. Often hard-pressed for labor, Middleborough farmers could not always keep pastures mown, and white pine forests soon crowded out livestock.

Significantly, however, some of Middleborough’s pinelands were created deliberately on worn out or agriculturally useless lands whose soils were too poor for other crops, and incidences of local farmers setting out pines on such unproductive land in Middleborough are recorded throughout the period.

In April, 1850, Augustus Pratt of North Middleborough sowed seventeen acres with white pine seed. Forty years later, Pratt cut these same pines, and sold them for boxboards to the local mill at $6 a cord. Pratt estimated, at the time, that the land averaged “over forty cords of box board logs to the acre, besides a large quantity of wood.” In 1853, Richard Sampson of Purchade “set pines on land to poor to cultivate” which was valued at $150 an acre thirty-one years later, thanks to its prodigious growth of standing timber. Ten years after Sampson, Zebulon Pratt of Bridgewater in the spring of 1863, set out twenty-five acres of white pine at North Middleborough on worn out land, “having a desire … to improve the view, and to learn the result of the outlay.”

Clearly, the reforesting of Middleborough’s “waste lands” by local farmers, though uncoordinated, occasionally motivated by curiosity rather than profit (as in the case of Zebulon Pratt), and frequently stemming from a failure or inability to keep pastures mowed, was altering the physical landscape locally during these years, resulting in an increasingly forested community. One commentator, speaking in 1884, remarked that he had “ascertained by an examination that I made several years ago, that there were at that time about five thousand acres of woodland in the town of Middleborough more than there were fifty years previously.”

The reforestation of Middleborough, coupled with the establishment of Middleborough’s railroads during the late 1840s and 1850s laid the foundation for the community’s development as a lumbering center in the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1855, Middleborough was the largest lumber producer in Plymouth County.

The national post-war expansion demanded enormous quantities of lumber and white pine harvested locally became a valuable commodity much in demand. The ability of Middleborough farmers to substantially meet this demand bore formidable results.

By 1870, Middleborough’s largest farms like the Pratt Farm incorporated a high percentage of “unimproved” land (primarily forested land) and many were to derive the bulk of their income from this source rather than from traditional non-forest products such as hay, potatoes and dairy products. Fifteen years later, in 1885, Middleborough had achieved the top rank in the Commonwealth, producing more than twice as much lumber as its nearest competitor, a large proportion of which was harvested from Middleborough’s farms.

Helping sate the demand for timber by these hungry mills was the Pratt Farm which by 1870 was producing wood, possibly cordwood for heating.

Middleborough’s startling success as a lumbering town attracted the attention of those interested in agriculture, including the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture whose annual meeting in 1884 revealed a considerable preoccupation with forestry and the specific example of Middleborough.

Much of Middleborough’s success in the field of forestry was based upon the realization of the value of white pine and the reforestation of the town’s wastelands with that rapidly maturing tree. The white pine grew well in poor soil conditions, for which large portions of the town were eminently suited, being located in the geological Wareham outwash plain noted for its sandy soils.

In December, 1884, Elbridge Cushman of Lakeville, soon to be President of the Plymouth County Agricultural Society and later agricultural correspondent for the Middleboro News, made his case for the white pine before the State Board of Agriculture, citing the specific example of Middleborough’s success:

[In Middleborough] last year the sales from white-pine lumber for box boards, mostly, amounted to one hundred thousand dollars. It has been more in more prosperous years. So, gentlemen, you can see that in one town in the Commonwealth the white-pine forests must have netted an income – which has mostly gone into the pockets of farmers – of one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and that year after year. Does it not pay to encourage an industry that will bring one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year into the pockets of the farmers of a single town in this Commonwealth? I know, sir, that it pays to transplant white-pine trees … I believe the white pine is the very best tree for us to grow … The white pine has a cash value any day in the year. There is no trouble in turning a white-pine forest into cash at our pleasure.

It was the rapid increase in the town’s acreage of pine lands which most responsible for the community’s successful economic growth in this arena. This rapid reforestation “may account for all the prosperity they have been having the last few years in this revenue from box-board logs,” emphasized one commentator of the situation at Middleborough. F. H. Appleton restated the point, arguing that “the plantations of Middleborough and vicinity are proof of the profit that can come from planting trees judiciously upon the poorer quality of land. It was my pleasure to view those plantations of white pine which have succeeded so well, and they are in themselves sufficient evidence of success.”

While concerns about rapid depletion of forests elsewhere impacted the manner in which timber might be harvested, such concerns had little impact upon Middleborough where the number of trees harvested each year by farmers and timber owners fell far short of the numbers reaching maturity.

Despite the abundance of white pine lumber in the region, the key to its profitable exploitation remained the railroad which became an important carrier of freight for Middleborough’s farmers. The relationship of the railroad to Middleborough’s economic vitality was readily deductible and though not often vocalized, was clearly understood by commentators on the State Board of Agriculture.

In time, however, there arose a disparity in opinion concerning local forestry. In 1885, Harvard botanist Charles S. Sargent cited the southeastern Massachusetts forests as models for the commonwealth: “The real progress in Massachusetts has been made by the farmers of Barnstable and Plymouth counties, who have taught us how to plant and raise forests successfully and profitably, under the most unfavorable conditions.” By 1914, however, State Forester Frank Rane disagreed, citing the region’s sluggishness in adopting modern forestry principles in the years subsequent to 1885, one of the factors which ultimately contributed to the industry’s local decline.

Reforestation was also hastened at the end of this period through the abandonment of farms, a widespread phenomenon in the final decades of the nineteenth century. In 1885, it was stated that there were some 100 abandoned farms in Middleborough. While the figure five years later was much lower (only 18), it was more an indication that there were fewer farms left to abandon, rather than any slackening in the pace of abandonment. In fact, it was reported in 1891 that “Middleboro and Westport are retrograding as farming towns faster than any others in this section of the state.”

Clearly, in Middleborough at least, industrial development often supported and financially facilitated by local “boosters” attracted increasingly greater numbers of people to manufacturing jobs centered about Middleborough Center, a trend which brought with it a corresponding decline in the number of families earning a living from the land.  As farms were abandoned, many were left to return to a “less civilized” form of nature, and the process would continue throughout the twentieth centuries as farms like the Pratt Farm were abandoned to farming purposes and allowed to be reclaimed by nature, with new "succession" species appearing.

Near the junction of Stony Brook Road and the Farm Road near the Pratt Farm entrance is a small field surrounded by woods atop a level hill. During the 1940s, Ernest S. Pratt used this field to produce hay and other forage or cattle. Today, the hay is gone and the process of succession is probably nowhere on the Pratt Farm more apparent than here.    Devoid o tree cover through much of the 20th century, the field is rapidly filling with white pines and succession species such as aspens, which exploit the temporary opening in the tree canopy and which will grow rapidly but be short-lived.  The aspens will provide cover for hardier species, including the white pine seedlings which in time will replace them.  For the moment, however, the brightly colored goldenrod beneath these delicate trees inhibits the growth of any saplings which might immediately displace the aspens.

Another succession species is sumac. Located at the rear of the back meadow is a large, cavernous staghorn sumac grove, a tree named for the downy branch tips which resemble the antlers of a deer “in velvet”. The grove resembles a great tent from the distance. Its leaves dip down to touch the ground and an entrance into the grove is sometimes difficult to find. Inside, a canopy of leaves is supported by numerous spindly trunks and the grove provides a quite respite from mid-summer heat.  Relatively fast-growing sumac abounds at the Pratt Farm, and less conspicuous groves are found elsewhere about the farm, including adjacent to the small west meadow near Sachem Street. The smaller rear meadow is difficult to navigate during the summer given the profligacy of the sumac growing there where it is rapidly taking hold.  Someday, it will overtake the meadow completely, the first step in reforestation and the ultimate transition of habitat from meadow to forest. 

The presence of sumac on the Pratt Farm is a reminder of Ebenezer Pratt’s occupation as a tanner. Sumac was of great value to the tanner, its bark providing the necessary tannins with which to tan animal hides. Undoubtedly, groves like this were present when Pratt acquired the property in 1777. Today, the trees’ fruit provides nourishment to songbirds, while cotton tail rabbits and deer gnaw on the trees’ bark and feed on its leaves when in reach.

Sugar Maple Leaf (Acer saccharum), Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, Autumn, 2004.

Pratt Farm Tree Cover, 1831.
The map shows the area of the present-day Pratt Farm Conservation Area circled in red, as well as the limit of tree cover in 1831.  Cleared for both agriculture and commercial forestry, the land has gradually reforested itself following the abandonment of farming in 1964.

White Pine, American Beech and Red Oak Forest, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004.
Pines, beeches and oaks each drop rot-resistant leaf litter, inhibiting the growth of herbaceous plants beneath them, and resulting in a relatively open forest environment.  Here, the pine-beech-oak forest is captured at Stony Brook. 

Eastern white Pine (Pinus strobus) botanical plate, early 20th century.
The ubiquitous white pine may be found throughout the Pratt Farm.  Leaf litter from the tree and neighboring oaks help inhibit the growth of other species, ensuring the predominance of the white pine forest. 

Autumn Colors, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, Autumn, 2004.
The view depicts the area of the Farm Road as seen from Sachem Street.  The diversity of deciduous trees including the dominant species oak, maple, and beech provide a rich array of autumn colors.

White Pine, American Beech and Oak Forest, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004. 
Such pine-beech-oak woods are the predominant forest type at the Pratt Farm.

Box Elder (Acer negundo), Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, September 11, 2004.
Frequently confused with maples, box elders also disseminate their seeds in easily identified "keys".  The keys remain a favorite of children who open them up to stick on their noses.

Aspens, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004. 

Numerous other species of trees are present at the Pratt Farm, and an afternoon accompanied with a camera and a good tree identification  book is a worthwhile educational experience for children and adults, alike.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pratt Farm House

At the entrance to the Pratt Farm Conservation Area are located a number of building foundations marking the location of the former farmstead which was the heart the economic and social lives of the Pratt family for nearly two hundred years. Remaining foundations tell the tale of the Pratt family’s numerous operations and include the foundation of the former Pratt homestead. 

The Pratt House (1777-1971) which stood immediately to the left [east] of the present entrance roadway to the Pratt Farm was raised in 1777 by Nehemiah Allen just prior to his sale of the farm property to Ebenezer Pratt in July of that year. Its original form was that of a saltbox with a large central chimney having six fireplaces, in addition to a large brick oven in the kitchen.

Some sources place the house’s date of construction as early as 1768. However, the raising of the house was vividly recalled in 1815 by Wilkes Wood (1770-1843) of Middleborough who was reared in the house that once stood on the opposite side of Main Street and who wrote, “Mr. Pratt’s house was built by Nehemiah Allen and the first I recollect of this house was after the frame was raised and before it was boarded in when the mason was underpinning it.”

The house as built by Allen was a fairly substantial structure for its time. It is described in the Massachusetts tax census of October, 1798, as being a two story wood-frame house covering some 1,008 square feet, and including some 14 windows incorporating 100 square feet of glass. The assessed value at the time was $250.

Following the death of Ebenezer Pratt, the house was divided between his widow and two daughters, eventually returning to the single ownership of Pratt’s son, Thomas Pratt, who began acquiring his siblings’ shares in their father’s farm, undoubtedly in preparation for his 1798 marriage to Lydia Macomber of Middleborough.

Thomas Pratt continued to reside in the house even following its 1834 sale to his son Simeon M. Pratt. It was probably at this time that the house was divided into two tenements, one of which was occupied in 1855 by the family of Simeon M. Pratt and the second by Thomas and Lydia Pratt and their spinster daughter, Lydia. Following the deaths of the elder Pratts, one of the two tenements was rented to various occupants over the years. In 1865 it was tenanted by Moses T. Smith, a shovel maker who found employment in one of the shovel shops then located along the Nemasket River in Middleborough, along with his wife Eliza S. and daughter Mary F. Smith.

The Pratt House was enlarged and extensively remodeled in 1869 by Simeon Pratt when the rear portion of the house was raised to two stories, altering its saltbox appearance. Although the interior was redone at the same time, the original paneling was retained in the front room, though it was plastered over. Undoubtedly in an effort to modernize the nearly century old structure, the central chimney was replaced at the time of the 1869 remodelling by a much smaller one which created additional space in the home by its removal. Though the replacement of old over-sized chimneys whose hearths previously heated homes was a not uncommon practice at the time, it was one which was frowned upon by some agricultural commentators of the era:

In the "olden times," the spacious open fireplace, set in a huge chimney, with its roaring wood-fire, served to warm the living-room, and secure excellent ventilation. The sleepingrooms, being unwarmed, were, in severe weather, cold, and uncomfortable to the last degree.  The old fireplace and hearth-stone have been torn out, a small chimney built, and the air-tight stove for wood or coal has taken its place, to heat, not warm, the room; to prevent, not secure, ventilation, especially when aided by double windows. [1881]

In 1888, following his father Simeon’s death, Luther Bradford Pratt had additional exterior remodelling carried out, and changes were made to the interior of the house at this time, as well. A rear ell which housed the home’s well and was then being used as a wood shed was removed and “a jet was added to the main roof of the house, as a trimming.” The exterior was also re-shingled about this time with shingles for the house and many of the farm buildings coming from the Great Cedar Swamp and processed by George A. Cox’s mill at East Middleborough. The house also included a root cellar where vegetables and apples were stored.

Luther Bradford Pratt who was born in the home, lived there throughout his lifetime, and it is with him that an older generation linked the Pratt Farm. His mother, Irene (Bradford) Pratt (1820-1903) continued to live in the tenement in the house until her death of chronic bronchitis at the age of 82. As she was one of twelve children, “many [Bradfords] came to the farm over the years” to visit with her.

Though the Pratt Farm in the twentieth century is associated with Ernest S. Pratt, Pratt resided in the Pratt Homestead only as a youth. Following 1912, Pratt made his residence at 10 North Street in Middleborough, a small bungalow home, which he shared with his wife, Rose Standish Pratt. Later, the couple resided on Plymouth Street. Pratt’s sister, Louise Bradford Pratt, however, spent her life at the Pratt House, occupying the main portion of the house until 1968.

During Ernest Pratt’s ownership of the farm, the rear of the house was utilized as a milk room, where charts were kept recording the productivity of each of Pratt’s cows. Louise Pratt’s kitchen was also used as an adjunct milkroom, the utensils from milking being sanitized there. “We used to clean all our milking materials in the house, in the kitchen,” recalled the late Bob Hopkins, a former worker on the farm. The milk would be stored in large cans overnight in the small adjoining building before being picked up in the morning. Occasionally, when Pratt wasn’t around, workers would skim some of the cream which had risen overnight from the top of the milk.

The Pratts continued to rent the tenement to various families over the years. In 1920, it was occupied by the family of Alfred J. Chartte, a weaver in the Farwell Worsted Mill located at the former Star Mill. In 1925, Earl A. Clough and his mother, Estelle, were the occupants. Later residents would include William B. and Mary A. Sullivan, Alfred R. and Nancy L. DeArruda, Richard F. and Agnes S. Brackett, Gertrude Ballam, and Robert L. and Hilda J. Buck. The final occupant of the Pratt House was Norma M. Sylvia in 1972.

With the acquisition of the Pratt Farm by Tispaquin, Incorporated, the house was slated for demolition. The Middleborough Antiquarian wrote in its July, 1971, issue when demolition of the house was imminent, “It appears likely that another old Middleboro landmark will soon be added to the list of the many already demolished, a farm that has been owned and operated by the same family for almost two hundred years….The great barns still stand, the house, as unoccupied houses are wont to do, is slowly deteriorating and will probably be torn down when the proposed golf course takes the place of the ice and dairy farm. The Pratt farm and Pratt family have occupied a prominent place in the development and the business life of Middleboro. It is sad to see yet another fine old home which represents so many years of family history, disappear from the scene.”

The Pratt House was subsequently demolished and today, only the cellar hole of the house’s rear ell is discernible, a 25 foot long depression marked by stones and broken bricks. Also present is the filled in well, sitting beneath an old maple tree near the driveway.

Pratt Homestead, East Main Street, Middleborough, MA, photograph, 1940s.

Pratt Farm Anniversary

This year, the Pratt Farm Conservation and Recreation Area in Middleborough celebrates its 25th year under municipal ownership.  The Pratt Farm comprises 160 acres of abandoned fields, successional woodlands and wetlands near the southeast corner of East Main and Sachem Streets and is managed by the Middleborough Conservation Commission “for the protection and preservation of the purity of the Town of Middleborough’s water supply”. Since its acquisition in 1986, the property also has served an important recreational and educational purpose for the community.  To celebrate, Recollecting Nemasket will be featuring a number of posts devoted to the cultural and natural history of this special resource.

Pratt Farm Collage, photograph by Michael J. Maddigan, 2011