Our house

Our home in the snows of last year
Our home in the snows of last year

When we were in the house hunt, one of the houses we looked at was a house in Woburn that had been built in 1720 or so. It had a weird layout and a rather disastrous crack in the chimney that ran up the center of the house, and we didn’t end up offering on it… but I thought it was awfully cool. Paul Revere would have ridden past that house when it was new built. So when we found this house (with a lovely lack of disastrous masonry), it didn’t seem all *that* old. The decor was dominantly an 80s horror (helloooo shag carpet and paneling!). The date on the paperwork said it was ~1900. I had hoped we might find some cool old treasures when we moved in, but the prior occupants did an exceptionally good job of clearing out the attic and basement. There were no boxes of old letters we might find, and no ghosts have haunted our sleep. (Well, except the ghost of fraudulently uninstalled insulation.)

But as we have very gradually updated rooms, we’ve found these hints of how old our house really is. Most of the walls, under the ugly paneling, are plaster and lathe covered by some truly hideous wallpaper. We had a very brief oral history from the prior owner, which mostly told us the house had been in the same hands for nearly fifty years and they’d raised seven children here. Also, her late husband had done all the “improvements” himself, with his two left hands comprised entirely of thumbs. (Ok, maybe that was my interpretation…)

These eagles are now hidden behind the drywall in Thane's room
These eagles are now hidden behind the drywall in Thane’s room

And then she was gone to Florida, and the history of the house felt like a blank slate.

But as I got a little more involved with Stoneham – as part of the bikeway kerfuffle and got to know the Historical Commission folks. One of them came by one morning with a full writeup on my house. We spent the morning in fascinating discussion of the building.

The Nobility Hill Historic District
The Nobility Hill Historic District

It was built in 1898, and the funds to build it were provided by the guy (Lorenzo Hawkins) who built the beautiful white mansion right up the hill from me. That lovely house is a anchor of the Nobility Hill Historic district (which I learned about at the same time). The house, at nearly 120 years old, has been owned by ten owners, and four of those ten were in the 40s. The builder was a man named Parker G. Webber, who also lived in the house for two years after he built it. It changed hands for $100 in 1944. There was also this really cool list of the occupations and names of the people who lived in the house on various dates. In 1943 the house was occupied by Eleanor Keenan (34, housewife), James Keenan (36, bus driver) and father-in-law Joseph Keenan (69, shoe worker). Likely there were a passel of kids then too.

More questionable wallpaper choices
More questionable wallpaper choices

Glancing up and down the list for 1948, I noticed a 96 year old resident in my dear neighbor’s house down the street… a 96 year old named Parker G. Webber. He lived with what must have been a second wife, Alice F. Webber (77, housewife). So fifty years after he built my home, he was living in close sight of it. He must have spent the greater part of his life on this block – perhaps he built most of the houses in it, and not just mine. It’s this wonderful connection to imagine the care that must have crafted my home from a man who was proud enough to live in it and willing to look at his work every single day thereafter.

By the way, the list of occupations is fascinating. There are tree surgeons, a “dier”, a “grinder”, a “burner”, someone mysteriously in the “egg bus.” (A house on Franklin Street has a prestidigitator. Now that would be some exciting history!)

After the visit (well, some time after) I got around to signing up for a Historical Marker for the house ($55 is the bargain of the century, and they’ll help you fill it out). In New England, this isn’t a particularly old building, but 120 years old is not pathetic, either. The commission says anything over 50 years qualifies, and this most certainly beat that. I settled on the name “Parker G. Webber” to grace the sign, in honor of the man who had built the house with such craftsmanship a century and a score ago. The signs are all hand made (and come with the research!), so it took a little while before I got it. But I just found it on my porch this week, and I can’t wait to get it placed in a prominent location on my house!

Thanks for building my home, Parker
Thanks for building my home, Parker

Stoneham History

The murder of Jacob Gould
The murder of Jacob Gould

The weekend before Thanksgiving, the Stoneham Historical Commission held their annual two-hour opening of the Old Burying Ground. For years I’ve wanted to go, but that was usually the time I’d hold Thane’s birthday party. It also coincides with the town Trick-or-Treating. This year, Grey and Thane decided that they were too big/cool/old to do that. I have mixed feelings about that, but grabbed the chance to go visit the cemetery I’ve long wanted to see. It’s usually closed since it’s not quite safe for wandering. There are leaning tombstone and depressions (marked off with yellow caution tape on this day). While this makes for good daydreams about the haunted cemetery, it’s less good for someone who really would like to wander it.

One of the first gravestones I checked out was one of the most dramatic. It stood higher than my head, and had outrage practically dripping off the chiseled headstone. It detailed the 1819 murder of Jacob Gould “who was barbarously murdered by some ruffians in his own dwelling”. There were deaths heads and warning epitaphs and poignant poems (all the things I love best of old graveyards), but this was one of the most intriguing headstones I’d seen.

When I got home, I looked it up on Google. You see, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I decided to do it this year. (Because I’m crazy. That’s why.) So I was on the prowl for a good novel premise. Murder by ruffians seemed like as good a place to start as any. So I had a reason for my investigation.

My very first search on “Jacob Gould murder” hit the biggest paydirt imaginable; namely “A Brief History of Stoneham, Mass, From Its First Settlement to the Year 1843: with an Account of the Murder of Jacob Gould, on the Evening of November 25, 1819” by Silas Dean. Silas (I feel like he and I are on a first-name basis now) wrote an absolutely hilarious and riveting account of Stoneham. It includes ancient ruins, naked dudes, wolf attacks, haunted houses, Indian raids, aggressive bugle players, people who died of stupidity, mysterious springs, ne’er-do-well pranks of the first water… I could hardly tear myself away from reading in order to start writing. It’s possibly the most entertaining primary source I’ve ever read.

Ruins in the Fells in Stoneham - this might well be the house where Jacob Gould was barbarously murdered.
Ruins in the Fells in Stoneham – this might well be the house where Jacob Gould was barbarously murdered.

I felt like I won the novel-writing primary source lottery. And I started to get really into the research of the early history of the town (before the boring shoe-making bits). Once I started pulling at the thread of local history, I pretty easily uncovered more fascinating details.

For example…

Wright's Tower
Wright’s Tower

Boston commuters pass Wright’s Tower every day. I’m standing next to it in this picture. Well, Elizur Wright for whom the tower named was kind of amazing. He:

  1. Was an abolitionist, who was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act for
  2. Basically invented actuarial tables, which make life insurance possible for all of us. He read life insurance literature for fun.
  3. Invented and manufactured two new kinds of faucet fitting type things
  4. Ran a newspaper, which got sued for calling out liquor manufacturers
  5. Translated La Fontaine’s Fables and wrote a foreward to a book of poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier
  6. In his copious free time, also pushed for the eventually successful passage of the Massachusetts Forestry Act, which is why we get to hike in the Fells and why they erected a tower in his honor

I mean, I’m impressed with myself when I get my blog post out on time. I didn’t make major contributions in four or five totally different spheres. And yes, he did find the time to marry and beget children too. I’ll admit – I’m kind of a fangirl now.

Anyway, I have these wild and crazy thoughts about how to get this really awesome information about this town out there. Who, living in a town founded in 1725, wouldn’t like to hear about some of the hijinks that happened nearly 300 years ago where they currently stand? I’m going to contemplate that question while I see how many other really cool things I can uncover in my research.

I’d also like to beg your indulgence. I’m attempting to turn all these cool facts I’ve uncovered into a novel. NaNoWriMo requires about 1668 words a day if you’re going to write a 50k novel in the month of November. I’m already well behind. But it’s going to be extra hard to write a thousand word blog post on top of the 1600 words I need to write every day to have a hope at completing this thing. So I might be… terser than usual this month (and/or obsessed with Stoneham town history).

Mysterious constructions in the Fells
Mysterious constructions in the Fells