Turn of the Century

Depending upon when you were born, not all of us are fortunate enough to have lived through a turn of the century. Moreover, for all of us that remember the change of millennium, it was a special treat.

We seem to measure progress in 100 year increments. Even numbers I guess, or maybe for the longest time things really didn’t change all that much. It took us nearly 1900 years to get off the horse-drawn wagon and into an automobile. Now life is changing at an incredible rate. When was the last time you saw a Royal typewriter or a rotary phone?

Today’s visit brings us back to the turn of 19th century. Ashland was a mere 54 years old, and it is safe to say what we see to day is considerably different from what are ancestors saw. Most of the surviving buildings downtown were made of brick with the exception of a few homes that managed to avoid the inevitable flame.

Ashland historian Kay Powers researched this era, and made note of the changes in population and demographics. One thing I found interesting was how much the size of the population varied over a relatively short amount of time. In 1885, the population of Ashland was 2633. By 1895 it dropped to 2090, and by the turn of the century it leveled out at 1525. We lost over a thousand residents in 15 years. What changed? We can probably look to see what Ashland had to offer in terms of employment. The town census listed the occupation of most of the citizens as shoe or boot makers. There were farmers of course, but mostly on the outskirts of town. Unless you worked the soil, or made boots, many people probably needed to move closer to other employment options. It wasn’t until larger employers like Lombard Governor, or the Telechron Company emerged that other opportunities presented themselves.

The look and feel of downtown Ashland was considerably different from what we see today. From other visits we know that where the Post Office is today, the GAR building once stood. The Odd Fellows building is now Ashland Wine and Spirits. The pillared white building that once housed a doctor’s home and office, later to become the police station, was replaced by a brick police station. Where Sunnyside and Talvy Florist call home is where the Central House Hotel stood.

The picture accompanying today’s story shows a two-story firehouse that once occupied Murphy Square. It was home for the town steamer and the Jackson Hook and Ladder Co. From Kay’s research, if a fire was north of the railroad tracks, the fire whistle blew twice, six times. If it was south of the tracks, it blew three times, repeating five times. It was noted that the whistle could not be heard on the outskirts of town. The Fire Dept. was busy too. Working on a $900.00 budget, they spent $895.31 fighting fires in twelve buildings, six houses, five barns, and one tenement.

From the 1900 census and other town reports there were 473 registered male voters, 38 registered female voters (women could vote for School Committee), 417 houses, 140 dogs, 240 horses, 362 cows, and 44 pigs.

There was no town water, indoor plumbing or automobiles, and electricity was in its infancy. The police department was a Constable and six special police officers. The pokey was a lock-up in the basement of the Town Hall. The three man Board of Selectmen consisted of John Woods, John Balcom, and Albert Eames. Many may remember the Eames family as settlers in the area dating back to the 1600’s.

On the social scene, the Abstinence societies were beginning to form. By late 1901, the Abstinence Union was growing in membership. It invited the Reverend Alfred Noon of the Mass. Total Abstinence Society to speak before them, but the attendance was sparse, “owing to the inclement weather” that evening. I wonder what the real reason was.

Life certainly has changed since then. The railroad and trolley system was the main source of transportation. Then the trains stopped, and the trolleys disappeared as automobiles replaced them. But it looks like we went full circle. Now the MBTA stops in town, and the ridership is considerable. We no longer manufacture shoes or boots, and I can count on one hand how many farms still exist in the area. The rail system that put Ashland on the map is considered an obstacle to some of the redevelopment committees, but without it we probably would still be equal parts of Framingham and Hopkinton, and a smaller slice of Holliston.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
July 2013