Workmens Circle

For all the folk who live on Captain Eames Circle or Algonquin Trail, you are living in an area with a complex past. It was called Workmen’s Circle. While growing up in Ashland we always knew the area as an abandoned camp that once was full of activity, abandoned after a fire in 1957, and finally the scene of the loss of one of Ashland’s finest: Ptlm. Charles Cadorette in 1967.

I say the Workmen’s Circle’s past is complex because until 1979, there was not a lot of documentation available from a single source until Gordon E. Hopper who wrote “Hopper on History” from the Milford Daily News researched the area extensively and published a series of articles for the News in 1979. Working with people with first hand knowledge of the area, the Ashland Historical Society, and others, Hopper compiled a 41 page summary of the events of the area from 1720 to 1979. It is not my intention to go into every detail of Hopper’s research due to the vastness of space required, so I will attempt the Reader’s Digest version.

The area known as Workmen’s Circle lies between Cedar St. and Pond St. (Rt. 126). It is now the home of condominiums, and interestingly enough still shows up on maps by Microsoft Virtual Earth and Yahoo!

According to records, John Dearth from Sherborn first built a house on the property in 1720. On or about 1866, Dearth’s descendant, Lucinda Howe, built a $150,000.00 mansion on the same parcel. According to Hopper’s research, the rooms in the mansion “were finished in rosewood, ebony, mahogany, and oak. Heavy thick mirrors hung on the walls inside the house.”

The property passed hands several times over the years and eventually returned to the possession of Crawford Dearth, a descendant of Lucinda Howe. It was known as the Valley Farm while owned by the Dearths.

About 1918, the land was sold to the Jamesville Woolen Mills Company. It was managed by a Mr. Louis Kaplan, who was also president of the Holliston Woolen Mill, and often referred to as the Kaplan estate. While operating as a mill, a 40 by 45 ft. barn was destroyed by fire in 1920, rebuilt, and destroyed again by fire along with several other buildings on Feb. 25, 1922.

The Kaplan estate lasted about another four or five years until it was sold to the Workmen’s Circle, an association founded in 1900 consisting of working Jewish people. The camp would be called the Golden Ring Camp, and its purpose was to provide a camp for the members children where they could “get fresh air, see what nature really was like, hear the songs of birds, bathe in a flowing stream and sit in the warmth of the summer sun.” For the needy children, the Council of Jewish Women raised funds to pay for camp activities.

The official opening of the camp was May 27, 1928 with several thousand people in attendance. Hopper’s research cited that 8000 people were fed in the large dining hall that held in excess of 1000 people at one sitting. Ever mindful of the children, the camp’s staff consisted of several councilors, a doctor, and a nurse. There were a considerable amount of buildings on the property. Along with the enormous dining hall, there was an administration building, a recreational hall, an auditorium, many smaller structures of various purposes, and several cottages “built from bark-covered slabs having been hewed from trees on the property.”

While the camp was focused on children during the week, the weekends were the scene of mostly adult activities. Sunday afternoons were dedicated to speeches by members of the Jewish Trade Unions of Greater Boston, the Jewish Socialist Movement, and the Women’s Trade Union. Entertainment was provided by well known Jewish singers, dancers, stage acts, and comedians. The group also had an annual field day for its members known as “Workmen’s Circle Day.” On one such event in 1933, 12,000 members attended the festivities. For a small town like Ashland, handling thousands of automobiles and buses would effectively shut the town down. Fortunately, at the time, the late Senator Olson was police chief and handled the traffic “ably.”

Other than a fire which destroyed the pump house in 1933, the camp operated as usual until August 2nd, 1957 when the building housing the dining room and kitchen, the Monosson Memorial building, and the staff dormitory building went up in flames. There were over 2000 people at the camp when the fire was discovered. Fortunately no one was injured, and the staff and campers were temporarily evacuated. Food was supplied by Romeo’s Market, and dishes and silverware were provided by the Ashland High School cafeteria. One of the lunchrooms in the Monosson Memorial building at the camp survived and lunch was served there. The next day’s dinner was cooked at Ashland High School. No official cause of the fire was determined although there are references to a lighting strike.

The fire marked the end of the Golden Ring Camp. The damage was too great and the camp was closed. Future years would not improve the situation. After repeated acts of vandalism, on June 10th, 1961 the mansion was destroyed by a fire of “undetermined origin.” Six months later fire claimed one of the remaining camp buildings. Later, while checking out a suspicious motor vehicle on the property in the early hours of September 11, 1967, Ashland Ptlm. Charles Cadorette was gunned down by the occupant of what would turn out to be a stolen vehicle. His partner, Ptlm. Bob Gonfrade, was shot twice, and while lying seriously wounded managed to shoot and kill the assailant. Bob recovered from his wounds and went on to become Chief of Police in 1973 serving until his retirement in 1994. Officer Cadorette’s badge number 9 is imprinted on the memorial stone in front of the Ashland Police station. The station was dedicated in memory of Officer Cadorette in 1978.

Little, if anything remains of the camp. Hopper’s report was compiled long before the Fafard Corporation built the condominiums there so there is no reference to them. Many thanks for his extensive research, and for Kay Powers’ article “The Golden Ring.”

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions