More Treasures from the Basement


As I hinted last time, the basement hasn’t finished yielding up its social history treasures, for along with the Franklin Institute minutes, two weeks ago we also rediscovered the accounts of the Young Mens Lyceum.  As a document of social history, it is impossible to underestimate the value of this remarkable record.

The Lyceum was a debating society, much like the earlier Franklin Institute.  But this time, the notation covers the years between 1840-1861, perhaps one of the most turbulent periods in United States history, often referred to as the “Silver Age.” For in addition to the much debated Mexican-American War, our  expanding nation was dealing with the growth of  industrialization, a rapid rise in immigration, and the slow fragmentation of the Union over the issue of slavery. You might think that the inhabitants of agrarian Southborough would  have worried more about the local weather than the political clouds in Washington, but thanks to this record, we now know that wasn’t at all the case.

Here’s a look at some of the debate topics, with a bit of historical context added in, to give you a better understanding of just how up-to-the-moment our citizenry was:

29 November 1842: Which is the most beneficial to the United States: commerce or agriculture? (Voted 6 to 2 for commerce)
This is a very interesting result for what was then entirely agricultural Southborough, and shows that the rising tides of industrialization were beginning to spread out along the lines of the new railroad. Within the next decade, in fact, Southborough would have its first large-scale mill at Cordaville.

The mills at Cordaville originally produced cheap cotton cloth for the Southern slave markets, and only later turned to woolen blanket production,  highly ironic considering the fierce abolitionist stance of many Southborough inhabitants.

21 March 1843:  Have females the right to active part in public affairs? (Voted yes) The Lyceum, unlike the Franklin Institute, also seems to have had  a female “editress,” whose job appears to have been gathering news-bits of the day for presentation to the members.

22 February 1844: Is it right or expedient to prosecute vendors of spirituous liquors? (Voted 5 to 4 yes.) 
Massachusetts was technically dry during this period, but sellers of hard liquor weren’t hard to find, and the close vote is indicative of the popular stance — publicly opposed but privately for.  The state would try various solutions until eventually agreeing to license liquor vendors in the 1870s. Southborough remained officially dry even longer, and our thirsty citizens needed to cross the river to Hopkinton, where  those in search of  liquor, cards and other pleasures could find several famed houses of mixed repute.

Henry Clay, the “Great Pacificator”

23 September 1844: Can abolitionists consistently vote for Henry Clay? (Voted 2-6 against)
1844 was a presidential election year, and Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, was running against Democrat James Polk. Polk, from Tennessee, was a slave owner. Clay, from Kentucky, had also owned slaves, but was considered “soft” on slavery as he decried the institution and favored gradual emancipation and repatriation of slaves to Africa — a view shared at the time by Abraham Lincoln. Southborough, however, was a hotbed of abolitionists, and true to their convictions, the Lyceum members could not bring themselves to support Clay, despite his carrying the rest of the state.

24 December 1844: Are rewards of merit conducive to the best interests of our common schools? (Voted 4-5 against)
Corporal punishment was still a favored means of discipline in our schools in 1844. This practice would change markedly over the next twenty years, as Southborough formed a school committee and introduced semi-permanent female teachers, as opposed to the previous system of interim male tutors. Note, too, the date: 24 December. Christmas as a major holiday was still decades away, to be popularized by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.

3 March 1847: Ought the so-called free states remain in the Union? (Voted not to remain.) A very hot topic, this question was debated again on October, 6th, 13th and 20th. The vote taken on the 20th, 9-1 to remain in the union, reversed the previous opinion. Still not settled, the question was taken up once more, on November 16th and 22nd, this time the results being far closer, 8 to 6 to remain. This back-and-forth is truly fascinating, as it reveals that Southerners weren’t the only ones contemplating secession — something that’s never mentioned in our history texts — and that the residents of Southborough were more or less divided on the question. Imagine if the North had seceded and left the South to its own devices!  Alternate historians have speculated that lacking the industrialized north, the Southern states would have looked to the Caribbean and Central America for resource markets, extending slavery throughout the region.  A very different world indeed….

4 November 1848: Can a true patriot vote for Cass or Taylor for President at the coming election?

1848 was another presidential election year, and this time the candidates were even less palatable to the Lyceum members. Taylor, though nominated by the Whigs as the hero of the Mexican-American War, shared none of their values. Cass, a Southern Democrat, (though he was born in New Hampshire) was equally unacceptable. That left former president Martin Van Buren, who

Results of the 1848 election

ran as an independent.  The record of the Lyceum says it all: “The question was discussed for an hour and half but with little earnestness owing to the fact that there being no one to oppose from principle, and it was then decided 4-1 in the negative.”  This result should give some heart to modern day residents: it appears that the 2016 election wasn’t the first  where voters went to the polls holding their noses.

24 January 1849: Which contains the greater evidence of a supreme being, nature or the bible? (Voted Nature 5-1)
Given the Pilgrim founding of Southborough, this is another really interesting result, as you might have expected  more traditional religious views, but it seems that our Lyceum members shared more than a little streak of transcendentalism.

28 February 1850: Which has been treated worse, the Indians or the Negros? (Voted 7-1 for the Indians)

20 February 1850:  Is it probable that the country will be benefited on the whole by the discovery of gold in California? (5 to 4 against)
Southborough wasn’t immune to the call of California gold, and the Society possesses a fascinating series of letters from a former resident who left to try his luck — but that’s a story for another day.

23 February 1850: Which is worst, the slanderer or the thief? (Voted 4 to 2 for the slanderer)

16 October 1850: Ought Massachusetts sustain the Fugitive Slave Bill? (Decided unanimously against)
The Fugitive Slave Act, part of Henry Clay’s Great Compromise of 1850, allowed anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave to be arrested on merely the claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The law was widely despised and resisted in the North, as the residents of Southborough clearly reveal here.

31 March 1852: Is a monarchical or republican form of government better adapted to the promotion of the arts and sciences? (Voted  3-10 for the republic)

Great Britain has just hosted the Crystal Palace Exhibition showcasing British industry and arts, and this question is undoubtedly the result of some nationalistic chaffing.  Americans would have to wait until the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 to see something similar.

22 December 1852: Should the annexation of Canada be encouraged? (8 to 6 for)
There was serious discussion in both the US and Canada (especially Quebec) about annexing all or part of Canada to the US, which wasn’t as far fetched as it sounds to us today. The Dominion of Canada had yet to be formed, and many viewed the territories to the north as ripe for acquisition, as the Alaska Purchase would confirm in 1867.

27 December 1859: Is the reading of fiction beneficial to society? (Voted no)
So much for Dickens! Interestingly, the Society, in conjunction with the Library, possesses the 1852 founding documentation (including book lists) for our Library, and its one of our future projects to study and digitize these records. It would be interesting to see exactly what books were considered “beneficial.”

3 January 1860: Is John Brown to be justified in his conduct at Harper’s Ferry? (Voted yes)
The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry was an effort by abolitionist John Brown to initiate an armed slave revolt by taking over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It was put down by the US Marines, and Brown, a long-time resident of Springfield Massachusetts, was tried and hung for treason. That the residents of Southborough would support this violent action is indicative of just how fiercely anti-slavery many of the Town residents had become.

24 January 1860. Is one nation justified in forcing civilization upon another? (Voted no)
An astoundingly modern view, given the nationalism of the Victorian age.

An extremely rare period view of Southborough, taken from the spire of Pilgrim Church.

26 March 1861: Should foreign immigration be encouraged? (Voted 15-6 no)
Hardly surprising in Southborough where the founding Yankees were beginning to feel the pressure of Irish immigration.

9 April 1861: The very last entry of this incredible record. The Civil War was about begin and soon many members would be putting courage to the same convictions they had earlier professed at the Lyceum.

“Owing to the small number present,” reads the record,  “it was thought best to have no discussion. Voted to adjourn sine die.”

And thus the golden age of Southborough’s debating societies came to a muted end, drowned out by the drums of civil war.

Neither the Town, nor the Nation,  would ever be quite the same again.



The Outlaws of Cordaville

[It seems hard to think of Southborough as a wild-west kind of town, but for a while from 1860s-1890s the area around the Cordaville mill was a pretty rough place. The Kelly family, Irish immigrants who came to work in the mills, had settled around Oregon road and soon were running a protection racket (your house might suddenly go up in flames unless you agreed to pay up; a bootlegging operation; a widely notorious whorehouse; and another, Chattanooga, where women were also available. Needless to say, “proper folk” were appalled, but the gang was entrenched and enjoyed the support — loyal or otherwise — of the locals. It wasn’t until the coming of the reservoir system that this changed: As part of the deal to take the land for the reservoirs, the city of Boston was forced to supply and pay for 5 police officials — the beginnings of the Southborough Police Department — and the end of the Kelley gang. 

You can get some sense of the goings-on from this amusing article from the Westborough Chronotype dated Saturday Morning Jan 26, 1895, which was reprinted in the Boston Advertiser the next week. “License” by the way, is the right to sell liquor in a town. At the time, Southborough and the surrounding towns were ‘dry.’ Eds.]


Cordaville is a village, lying partly in Hopkinton township, partly in Southborough, and partly in Ashland. Southborough is in Worcester County; the other two towns are in Middlesex County. The Kelly wine place is in Hopkinton; but it lies within 160 rods of the Southborough line and for this reason may be legally raided by officers of Worcester County.

The three towns have generally voted no license; and when license has received the popular vote Kelly has always been refused a license because of his reputation. “But men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.” License or no license, Kelly’s is always open.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t keep Kelly from selling gin. Middlesex has about 17 deputy sheriffs, Worcester 28; Hopkinton has 5 constables, Ashland 3, Southborough 6; Yet even with the State Police added the army isn’t enough to eject Kelly.

77.34.4 Cordaville Train wreck 1 copy
In addition to the dangers of the Kelly gang, Cordaville residents faced other threats, such as the not-so-infrequent wrecks on the B&A line, such as this on in 1912, which happened to be a deliberate derailment in order to rob the train.

“Yes,” said Constable Tidsbury of Ashland, “no license was voted in all three towns, except Hopkinton, and there the vote was so close that the selectmen refused to sign any licenses; but for all that liquor is sold in all three places.”

Then he related the same tale as before, that if Hopkinton selectmen gave him authority he would proceed to raid the Kelly mansion.

Driving over to Southborough from Ashland, I asked my driver why it was that at the Central House, Ashland, it was necessary to go up stairs to get a drink. “Oh” he answered, “they’re ‘fraid to let the girls serve it at the dinner table ‘fraid they’ll drink it themselves. They’re of no count; they come over from Worcester County, them girls did.” (This illustrates the unhappy feeling between the citizens of the two counties in juxtaposition, and it is largely because of this feeling that the Kelly’s et al.  are suffered to maintain themselves). “At our hotel,” my driver continued, “yer don’t have to go upstars. Matt Tierney does the biggest business, though. He’s wholesale as well as retail. He’s got bar’ls an’ bar’ls ‘er larger, ‘en whiskey, and he’s got a re’lar rowte through 5 ‘er 6 towns.”

“Why does the town vote no license and then allow liquor selling?”

“Oh, I guess there’s some sort of deal.”

The road leads through “Chattanooga.” The name is appropriate, for the place is evidently a battlefield. In some houses even the doors are gone; none have their windows entire. This is the habitat of the “hoboes” who labored on the water works, when they labored at all. Cordaville has a new lockup since “der gang” smashed the old one.

In the two counties of Middlesex and Worcester there is one brave officer of the law: Constable Dorr. For 35 years he has fought the Kelly gang. He it was who looked down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of desperate Jim Rafferty. Jim tried to prevent Mr. Dorr from making an arrest, but the old man said shoot away! I intend to arrest this man.” Jim fired, but by some miracle the bullet glanced along the side of the old hero’s head, and Jim didn’t got a chance to fire again! For this playful act on Jim’s part the court gave him 18 month’s vacation. The short sentence was doubtless due to his reputation as a man of war.

But even Mr. Dorr has declared a truce against the Kelly gang. Since the loss of all his property by fire last July he has been living with his daughter; his wife is an invalid and for the sake of his family the valiant and venerable old man has relinquished the war.

Since the burning of Mr. Dorr’s buildings and the attempted burning of the mills, (Mr. Wilson, the manager, is also an uncompromising enemy of the Kelly’s,) the gang is held in greater awe than ever. More than one who talked with me said; “Don’t print my name in the paper, I beg you, else we shall feel the vengeance of the Kelly!

I asked Selectmen Morse of Hopkinton why such a set of outlaws was allowed to remain in town. “We’ll we’ve raided them 15 or 16 times but we don’t seem to get anything. You see Mr. Chaflin, he’s chairman of the selectmen. He said he was going to drive them out.”


When Southborough Was a Mill Town

A circa 1900 advertisement for Cordaville Woolen Mills
A circa 1900 advertisement for Cordaville Woolen Mills

In 1847 Milton H. Sanford of Medford purchased several parcels of farm land along the Sudbury (then Concord) river in Southborough, Ashland and Hopkinton. One of them conveyed the mill privilege – the right to dam and use the water of the river. In addition to this ample power source, the area was attractive for milling because of the proximity to the new Boston & Worcester railroad, which ran through the site. Not only would transport to far-away markets be assured, but the railroad would supply the workforce needed for the new facility. Sanford began building workers’ houses on Parker and Cottage Streets, and by 1850, a company store on Main Street, later named Fitzgerald’s, which still stands. The village he named for his wife Cordelia.

By 1854 the Cordaville Manufacturing Company consisted of a cotton factory and a building that housed a machine shop and planing mill. The company produced a rough fabric for use by slaves on the Southern plantations, as well as woolens. (For reasons of culture and geography the South had few manufacturing centers of its own, and most industrial mill production was carried out in the the Northeast with its abundance of river power and ample immigrant work force, then shipped southward.)

millonpondcordaville web
The mill pond with the mill buildings, looking east

The workers for Sanford’s mill were largely newly arrived Irish immigrants, who had fled the devastating potato famine that had begun in 1847 and would eventually lead to the emigration of almost 2 million souls. Approximately sixty workers were employed at the mill; two-thirds were women, and paid only half that of their male counterparts.  The influx of Irish to the mill caused the first Catholic mass to be said in Southborough, on Easter Day 1849, in Wilson’s Hall above the company store.

A fire — a very common occurrence in mills with their highly flammable cotton dust — destroyed the original mill complex and killed three workers in 1855. It was rebuilt, this time including both water and steam-powered apparatus. With the outbreak of war, Sanford quickly abandoned the manufacture of plantation goods, and instead manufactured woolen blankets for Northern troops. This quick response allowed his Cordaville mill to survive when many competing mills failed due to the loss of the Southern market. The mill’s location on the principal rail line between Boston and points West also helped; it was a major transport line for the Federal army.

In 1864, the complex was sold and the business converted to a joint stock venture, the Cordaville Mills Company. By 1870, the mill had grown considerably. There were now two mill buildings, an office, three freight houses, a waste house, a picker house and factory store, now operated by the Wright brothers, which also housed the post office. The village of Cordaville grew with the addition of its own train station, school, and in 1872, St. Matthews Church; and in 1876, a jail. That same year, the company was reorganized as the Cordaville Woolen Company, and the shift to steam power, already underway, accelerated — aided by a prolonged period of drought in the 1880s that dried up many mill ponds. Once again, this timely shift to steam allowed The Cordaville Woolen Company to remain a profitable concern well into the next century.

b&a station
Cordaville Station with Fitzgerald’s visible behind

By 1928 however, the corporate model of a company owning an entire village seemed out-dated and unprofitable, and the Cordaville Woolen Company was sold off in pieces. Individual workers were allowed to buy their homes if they wished, and the owner of the company store, a certain Mr. Fitzgerald, purchased it as well. Under various owners the mill buildings continued in one industrial capacity or another until 1957. After that, the buildings sat abandoned; by 1974 the complex was deemed unsafe, and was torn down by the Town of Southborough, which sold off the bricks of the once proud buildings. (The fate of the mill buildings much resembled that of Cordaville’s H.H. Richardson-designed train station, which the Selectmen voted to demolish in the 70s with seemingly little public opposition. The stone was sold to a builder in New Hampshire.)

The loss of the Cordaville Mills is but one of Southborough’s many historical “if-onlys”.  If only the buildings had been allowed to survive a little longer, the nascent historical protection movement would have realized their incredible value as a mixed commercial, office or residential site. Can you imagine how handy a condo complex with a hip restaurant and bar right next to the commuter rail station would be viewed by today’s consumers? Or how much land might have been preserved from controversial state-mandated 40B projects if we had converted the complex to affordable housing and filled Southborough’s quota of units? Of course hindsight is 20-20, but Southborough needs to be far more vigilant these days in protecting its remaining architectural heritage.

More images of industrial Cordaville and Southville: