Monday, September 10, 2012

The Disappearance of Benson's Pond

Antiquated maps of Middleborough show at the far lower right-hand edge, in the southwestern most corner of the town, a bean-shaped spot of blue.  That spot, which was bounded by East, Pine and Beach Streets, and which was marked on these maps as"Benson's Pond", no longer appears on maps of Middleborough.

Benson’s Pond was named for John Benson, Jr., who first acquired the pond in 1702. When the South Purchase was divided in the late 17th century, the then unnamed pond fell into the 138th and 139th lots and it was noted in the documents of division that “the two lots last mentioned have allowance for a pond that is in them.” The lots fell to William Ellis and James Soule, neither of whom owned them long. On January 1, 1702, John Benson, Jr., of Rochester acquired the twin lots and the shallow pond.

The story of the "disappearance" of Benson's Pond begins about 1850 at which time the 30-plus acre pond is believed to have been drained, though for what purpose is not known. In time, the pond refilled. It was notorious for its shallowness (plans of the pond drafted in 1931 reveal a maximum depth of just over a foot and a half), and was surrounded by sedge grass. Because of its surficial expanse, however, the pond was considered to be one of some 830 "great ponds" in Massachusetts, control of which was vested solely with the Commonwealth.

Though for most people in 1909 the emptying of Benson's Pond nearly sixty years earlier was but a dim memory, the idea of deliberately draining the pond, in fact, piqued the interests and actions of one local man. In the first months of 1909, Samuel B. Gibbs of South Carver acquired the properties surrounding the pond which he proposed to drain in order to construct a cranberry bog upon its bed. Before going further, however, Gibbs had to convince the Commonwealth to surrender its rights in the pond, an action which would be unprecedented by the state. Not surprisingly, Gibbs' ensuing petition touched off considerable debate and "the livliest hearings."

Despite the claim that the drainage and reclamation of Benson's Pond "would be worth $30,000 for the production of the crop," several groups were opposed to the project. The Massachusetts Fish and Game Protective Association regarded the pond as "a true game sanctuary and [it] ought to be preserved," noting it as a nesting place for black duck. Similarly, George W. Field, Chairman of the Massachusetts Fish and Game Commission, not only emphasized the importance of the nesting and breeding grounds situated at the pond, but also questioned "whether the legislature had the constitutional right to turn the pond over to private owners."

Further hearings upon the issue by the Harbor and Land Commission only served to demonstrate how entrenched opposition was becoming to Gibbs' plan. At a hearing in September, 1910, at the East Street home of plan supporter Gamaliel Cushing, Horace P. Tobey of the Tremont Iron Works of Wareham, H. W. Hollis of the Standard Horse Shoe Company of Wareham, John S. Atwood of Middleborough, D. C. Keyes of South Wareham and G. G. Atwood of Carver, all of whom operated businesses on streams fed by Benson's Pond, spoke in opposition, as did James J. Ryan of the Carver Commercial Club. Austin & Nye, owner of a cranberry bog located across East Street from Benson's Pond which was partially dependent upon pond water for its operation, also was opposed.

Though he did not speak, John A. Lowell of Boston was present as a witness for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, his presence providing mute testimony to the environmental sensitivity of Benson's Pond.

Given these concerns - political, environmental and economic - it was only with great difficulty that the Harbor Commission pondered the enormity of the issue before it: " ... Should the rights of the commonwealth in great ponds, held for the public since colonial days, be relinquished and the lands under the same sold to private persons for commercial purposes?" Never before had the state forfeited such rights.

The Commission was also obviously cognizant of the fact that should it approve the Benson's Pond scheme, a decided precedent for future like proposals would be set, a step the Commission was somewhat loath to take. It concluded: "In view of the embarrassments which may accompany a sale of this pond, it is perhaps as well for the commonwealth to retain its right in this public reservation for whom it may concern, whether for bird and fish preserves, cranberry culture or mill wheels or such unknown public uses as may in the future develop."

Clearly Gibbs could comprehend the direction in which proceedings were headed, and early in 1911 he forestalled a decision by the state by withdrawing his petition, stating publicly that he "did not wish to press the matter further." Shortly afterwards, he disposed of the property abutting the pond to Charles R. Rogers, James Miller and Colburn C. Wood, all of Plymouth, and Dr. Edward H. Ellis of Marlborough.

Despite the failure of Gibbs' proposal, the idea of draining Benson's Pond for cranberry cultivation gestated for another twenty years. Eventually, George A. Cowen of Rochester, who had entered into partnership with the Benson's Pond proprietors, petitioned the state, once more, to acquire title to the pond so that it might be drained. As Gibbs had before him, Cowen argued the economic merits of the proposal, citing the amount of taxable property ($20,000) which would be created, a particularly convincing argument which understandably curtailed opposition to the plan given the worsening economic climate of that time.

An engineer for the state Department of Public Works which controlled the pond, submitted a survey favorable to the proposal and the inexplicable evaporation of the earlier advocacy of wildlife protection after 1911 removed what advocates of the proposal could only see as an impediment to draining the pond. By 1930, it was noted that "there is no opposition to this project now." Even the Middleboro Gazette enthused that the resulting bogland "will be a great addition to the cranberry acreage in this town."

Nonetheless, five additional years were required before the state agreed to surrender its rights in Benson's Pond to Cowen and his partners who were given until October 21, 1941 to complete the project. Cowen succeeded within the required timeframe in draining the pond and creating Benson's Pond Cranberry Bog. With the construction of the bog, Benson's Pond "disappeared." No longer would there be a spot of blue in the southeast corner of maps - or the landscape -of Middleborough.

Benson's Pond Cranberry Bog, photograph by Mike Maddigan, June 9, 2005.
Benson's Pond Cranberry Bog dates from the early 1940s when Benson's Pond was drained to create new bog.  The view is from East Street.

Benson's Pond, map, 1855, H. F. Walling

Benson's Pond, map, 1885, United States Geological Survey

Benson's Pond, map, 1903

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Experimental Potatoes & the Preacher Farmer

Though Middleborough might now style itself the "cranberry capital of the world," in the past, the town was noted for other agricultural products as well. One crop for which Middleborough received attention during the early years of this century was potatoes, with North Middleborough being the site of a United States government experimental potato station, known as the Eden Trial Grounds. The origin of the experimental station was the farm of Reverend J. R. Lawrence. Lawrence served as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Middleborough at the corner of Bedford and Plymouth Streets in North Middleborough between 1903 and 1907.

Lawrence, who was born in Fall River in 1868, began his interest in farming at the time he entered the ministry. Ordained in 1890, Lawrence always occupied rural pastorates, the first three being at South Dartmouth, North Egremont, and Lanesboro. The interest in farming became all-consuming for Lawrence who came to consider himself, first and foremost, a farmer. "There is more room in the world for a farmer who can preach than there is for a minister who has a farm to get a living," Lawrence believed.

In 1896, Lawrence began his work in experimental farming, which he continued after his arrival at North Middleborough. Experiments in cross-pollination were rigorously conducted by Lawrence who argued that "every farmer should engage in experimental work and see what he can learn. I do considerable and have found it very beneficial and profitable."

Lawrence claimed to have under cultivation "probably more varieties than any other private place in the United States." This included 90 varieties of garden peas, 75 varieties of lettuce, 45 varieties of sweet corn, and, ultimately 300 varieties of potatoes.

Previously, potato experimentation had been conducted at the Arlington Trial Grounds, but, in 1904, were transferred to the Lawrence farm. Seed potatoes were planted under the direction of representatives of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and conditions were carefully noted. Each of the three hundred varieties was planted separately and marked with tagged stakes. Lawrence made weekly reports upon their progress. When the time came to harvest the potatoes, the work had to be done by hand so that each variety could be bagged and labelled for the following season. State and Federal agricultural experts would be present to oversee the work.

Later, Lawrence devoted greater attention to the growing of fruit. In the first years of his Middleborough farm, Lawrence cultivated seedless varieties of watermelons and apples, but he later turned to berry cultivation. As Mrs. Romaine notes in her history of Middleborough, "Lawrence drew wide attention by his experiments in berry growing." The experiments in question related to the possibility of the commercial cultivation of huckleberries, and these experiments were reported in the Boston Globe at the time. Lawrence transplanted a wild huckleberry bush from a nearby swamp to his farm, where it flourished, despite the lack of any special encouragement. It produced berries "almost as large as small cherries and which grew in clusters of 15 to 30."

Despite the scope of Lawrence's experiments and the number of vegetable and fruit varieties grown on his farm, only about four acres of land were cultivated. Specifically in regard to the experimental potato patch, this acreage contrasts greatly with the nearby State Farm at Bridgewater where some 65 acres were devoted solely to the cultivation of potatoes.

Lawrence was generally employed in farm work four or five days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., and was assisted in this work by his father, James Lawrence (1835-1910). The remaining days would be utilized by Reverend Lawrence to prepare his Sunday work. "He frankly states that he can use this time to good advantage farming, and does not visit his parishioners when they are well, but when they are sick he is always on hand to offer consolation and assistance."

Lawrence also gave his parishioners practical demonstrations of farming, and shared agricultural advice with them, "and for this reason, if no other, he has come to be one of the most popular pastors of the Baptist Church in the north precinct of the town."

"For myself, I try to keep ahead of my members in all branches of farming, as many of my members are engaged in that pursuit, and then I can always give them points on farming, and by thus assisting them have a better hold upon them. I can teach the spiritual lessons on a broader scale if I have the outdoor training which is incidental to farm life, and many of my best inspirations for sermon topics have come to me while at work in the field," Lawrence believed.

Lawrence left his pastorate, potato patch and experimental farm in 1907.

"Potatoes", photograph by Eleanor Martin, August 16, 2009.  Used under a Creative Commons license.

Joseph Reynard Lawrence (1868-1925), photograph, c. 1893, Emery, Rutland, Vermont.
Reverend J. R. Lawrence about the time of his wedding in 1893.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Inhospitable Hotelkeeper

Jeremiah (“Jerry”) Cohan (1848-1917), father of George M. Cohan, was a noted vaudevillian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though Cohan would later be best known as one of the “Four Cohans” which also included his wife Helen (“Nellie”) Costigan Cohan, son George and daughter Josie, Cohan toured successfully as a solo performer during the 1870s and 1880s, visiting many cities and small towns, including Middleborough. Though the date and details of Cohan’s visit are not known, it probably occurred during the mid-1870s. What is known is that Cohan enjoyed a less than satisfactory stay at one of the local hostelries, thanks to an inhospitable hotelkeeper, with Cohan later leaving his experience on record. The hotelkeeper in question was in all probability Levi B. Miller, who was proprietor of the Nemasket House on North Main Street during the period that Cohan is likely to have visited and who had previously kept a hotel at Malden, Massachusetts. Miller was born in Maine (thereby fitting Cohan’s characterization as a “’Way Down East’ landlord”). The daughter mentioned would have been Hattie Miller. Though Cohan may have felt poorly treated by the Millers’ lack of hospitality, he also found amusement in their country ways as indicated by the following account which appeared in the New York Times in 1903:

Jerry J. Cohan, of the Four Cohans, commenced his career when he was a boy about sixteen years old. He was a dancer, and in those days considered the champion clog dancer of the country. Mr. Cohan travelled with the Harrigan Hibernica Company, and besides doing his dancing specialty, also lectured on the panorama used in the show. They played many cities and towns from the Atlantic to the Pacific and seldom overlooked a “stand,” whether it was on the map or not and even if obliged to play in the school house. In relating his experience Mr. Cohan tells of many funny incidents that have happened en route; one in particular is concerning the town of Middleboro, Mass., where it is alleged the author of the “Country Circus” got his idea for that once famous play.

“There were about fifteen people in our company,” relates Mr. Cohan, “and we were all obliged to stop at one hotel. At the dinner table all our company had been seated, including Mrs. Cohan, when I appeared in the dining room, and the landlord’s daughter, who was head waitress, assistant, and, in fact, the entire force of waiters, insisted ‘that I set at a separate table.’ I did.

“This caused a great deal of merriment among the folks, and I decided for the fun of the thing to raise Cain with the proprietor, the girl’s father, so when the dinner was over I hurried to the office and confronted the “Way Down East” landlord and started in to the full extent of my ability. For fully ten minutes I roasted, stormed, and swore at the treatment I received and, after being thoroughly exhausted, I quit. To my surprise the old landlord yawned, stretched his arms over his head, and replied:

“'Wa’ll, I don’t know as your talk is goin’ to scare anyone ‘round here.'

“After the laughter died out I asked for writing paper and envelopes and was informed by Mr. Hotelkeeper that he did not run a stationery store. Oh! The place was an exceptional hit to all of us. Harry Steele, one of our company, asked to be called at 7 A. M. and was informed that he would be called when they saw fit, but we were all obliged to wake up at 5:30 A. M. and catch an early train. When we came down stairs to the office the county Sheriff stood at the desk until all our board bills were settled, and then we departed wondering when we would play Middleboro again.”

The Four Cohans, photograph, 1888.
The photograph depicts Jeremiah and Helen Cohan with their son George M. and daughter Josie about 10 years after Mr. and Mrs. Cohan visited Middleborough.  The foursome would later become nationally famous as the "Four Cohans", and Jerry would draw upon his experience in Middleborough when performing the country "rube".

New York Times, “Stageland Gleanings from Here and There”, May 24, 1903