History museum and library dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the Taunton region.
Mission: The mission of the Old Colony History Museum is twofold: First, to collect, preserve and exhibit the history of the region of southeastern Massachusetts once known as the Old Colony. Second, through a vigorous program of outreach and education, we aspire to interpret the area's history in ways that are accessible, inclusive and meaningful to local residents and visitors.
Moving the District Courthouse
In 1890, the beautiful Greek Revival building standing at the corner of the Taunton Green and Court Street was the old Bristol County District Courthouse. Erected in 1836, it stood at that location until the autumn of 1891, when the historic building was moved around the corner to make way for the soon-to-be constructed Superior Courthouse.
The contract to move the brick building was signed in September 1891, with the job expected to take only 4 weeks. In the second week of September, excavation began around the foundation of the building and then, on Saturday, October 17, workmen using construction jacks lifted the building off its foundation and placed it on large wooden rollers. And so the journey—of about as far as a man can throw a stone—began.
Progress was slow and it became obvious that this was not going to be just a 4-week job. On November 5, the Taunton Daily Gazette reported that “inch by inch the old Court House crawls along.” Through October and November the work proceeded at a snail’s pace as the building crept westward down Court Street. Looking at the calendar, local people wondered what would happen if a heavy snowstorm buried downtown before the courthouse reached its destination. Finally, near Thanksgiving, the building arrived in front of its new location. Workmen wrapped the structure in a huge sling-like harness and swung it back from the street and onto a new foundation. Despite some damage incurred in transit, the building was patched and placed. It reopened on December 22, 1891.
With the opening of the new Taunton Trial Court complex in 2011, the old District Court building was decommissioned but not demolished. Renovated and repurposed, today it serves as The District Center for the Arts, a historic performing arts center.
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On May 8, 1899, Lulu M. Plant, 35-years old, died at a military hospital in Savannah, Georgia. “A young woman of rare loveliness and culture,” according to one eulogist, she was an 1893 graduate of the Boston City Hospital’s school of nursing who had devoted her short life to caring for the sick. A look at her background gives us insight about the choices she made.
Lulu’s parents, Robert and Susan Plant, were both native Tauntonians. Married in 1858, their son Robert, Jr. was born in July 1861, three months after the outbreak of the Civil War. He arrived just as his father, a member of a local militia unit, was returning home from duty in Virginia. A tack maker by trade, Robert immediately reenlisted in the army and his regiment saw heavy action during the Peninsula Campaign. Wounded and captured in June 1862, he spent six debilitating months as a prisoner of war before being discharged from the army because of disability.
Robert rejoined his family in December 1862, and Lulu was born on September 17, 1863. Broken by the war, he worked only when his condition allowed, but the young family had hope for the future. Their dreams were shattered in January 1868, when Susan Plant, 28-years old, died in childbirth. She left two small children and a husband in frail health.
Little wonder then that Lulu Plant would want a career as a nurse. After graduation from nursing school, she did private duty work until the Spanish-American War broke out. In those days the military didn’t allow women to enlist, but in April 1898 Congress approved the hiring of civilian “contract nurses” to staff military hospitals and smaller infirmaries in army camps. To serve, a military nurse had to have formal training as well as appropriate character references. She would be paid $30 a month, plus board and transportation.
The first military nurses were appointed in May 1898 and Lulu joined them a month later. Her initial assignment sent her to a U.S. naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. She worked there from June to September and then went to an army camp in Knoxville, Tennessee. In December, she was attached to the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment and ordered to Cienfuegos, Cuba. To make the lives of the soldiers more comfortable, she wrote to friends in Taunton asking them to send reading material so that she could establish a reading room at that forlorn camp.
In total, more than 1,550 nurses served in the Spanish-American War, most of them in the U.S. Some, however, were posted in foreign countries or on hospital ships. Nurse Plant was one of only 76 who were sent to Cuba. By the time she arrived, the fighting was over, but the U.S. military did occupation duty on the island for several months thereafter.
In that war, only 12% of American deaths were combat-related; most were due to disease. Yellow fever and malaria were the worst killers but other highly contagious mosquito-borne illnesses also claimed lives as did food poisoning.
We’re not exactly sure what took Lulu Plant’s life. In May 1899, newspapers reported that she had become seriously ill with “blood poisoning” and had been returned to Savannah. She died there on May 11th and was buried in Taunton a week later. Her simple gravestone in the Plain Cemetery gives no hint of her enormous sacrifice.
Hickey’s Diner, 1944-1986
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 34 years since Hickey’s Diner made its last, beetle-like sprint from Court Street, around the Common to its place on Taunton Green. At one time the old lunch cart was as familiar as any of the monuments that still decorate the Common, and toward the end it was, like its bronze and granite neighbors, appreciated as a piece of Taunton history.
Jack Hickey graduated from Wentworth Institute in 1936, and in normal times he would have gone to work as a draftsman or an architect, but those were the Depression years and there were no jobs. By 1942, he was working in a flower shop and also picking up some part time hours with Arthur Brady, who operated a lunch cart on the northeast corner of the Green. In 1944, when Hickey bought the aging diner, we can only wonder if he thought he’d be in business for the next 42 years.
In 1947, Hickey, with a degree in drafting, took possession of a brand new lunch wagon which he had designed himself. Custom built, the 8’ x 18’ cart was manufactured by the Worcester Lunch Car Company at a cost of $12,000. At first mounted on a 1934 truck chassis that had belonged to Brady, it was later placed aboard a 1954 two-ton Chevrolet truck frame. State of the art, with porcelain inside and out, mahogany woodwork and 10 track stools, it was the last of its kind ever manufactured by Worcester.
At one time from the late 19th and well into the 20th century, there had been four horse-drawn lunch carts, one licensed for each side of the Green. Thanks to the ever-increasing presence of automobiles, traffic became a nightmare, and so the city enacted an ordinance letting lunch carts park on the Green only during late afternoon and evening hours.
Every day, except Sundays and legal holidays, Hickey’s would open at the far end of Court Street, a location secured in 1951 and today occupied by a small commercial building. When the diner’s doors were unlocked at 6 A.M., its regular customers would already be waiting for their coffee. The lunch cart operated there until about 3:30 P.M., when it would be packed up and disconnected from its utility fittings. The old ’54 Chevy motor would rumble to life and the diner, top-heavy and teasing the laws of gravity, would move slowly—slowly—down Court Street, nudge its way into the inside lane of traffic around the Green and move to its appointed place.
About 350 people a day visited the lunch cart, some inside trying to find a place on one of the stools, others outside, mounting the portable steps for take-out. The famous came—Baseball Hall of Famer Roy Campanella and bandleader Sammy Kaye, among them—but mostly it was Taunton people. Just about everybody knew Hickey’s. When the diner closed, at between 1 and 2 A.M., it was back to Court Street, where the process would begin again in a few hours.
The diner provided a comfortable living for Jack Hickey, his wife and 8 children, and it also brought the kind of backbreaking work—65 to 70 hours per week—that is all too familiar to small, family-owned businesses. At age 70 and in compromised health, he decided that 44 years was enough, and the last lunch cart on the Green closed on March 3, 1986. Jack Hickey died three years later.
The diner went to the campus of the Bristol Plymouth Vocational Technical High School, where it remained until 1998, when it was sold to the American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I.
Henry David Thoreau's Letter to Taunton
Somewhere out there, in a private collection, is a letter that Henry David Thoreau wrote asking for a job in Taunton. The letter, which has surfaced from time to time over the years, was most likely written during the first week of October 1838. In it, he gets to the point quickly:
I learn from my mother and sister, who are recently employed as teachers in your vicinity, that you are at present in quest of some one to fill the vacancy in your high school. . . . As my present school, which consists of a small number of well-advanced pupils, is not sufficiently lucrative, I am advised to make application for the situation now vacant. I was graduated at Cambridge in '37 and have since had my share of experience in school-keeping."
As references, Thoreau gives the president and faculty of Harvard College as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Rev. Ezra Ripley, both of Concord, Massachusetts. He also lists parents of three of his current students as references. He closes on a note of urgency:
"If you will trouble yourselves to answer this letter immediately, you will much oblige your humble servant,
Henry D. Thoreau"
Most likely Thoreau was teaching at Concord Academy, a small grammar school that he and his brother John had organized earlier in 1838. He had previously taught in Canton and at a Concord public school. But aside from what Thoreau's mother and sister had advised, Henry must have had some prior knowledge of Taunton, because John had taught here at the Hopewell School in Whittenton for three years, from 1835-1837. Sixty years later one of John's former students remembered how much she had enjoyed the nature walks taken while she was a member of his class. She also remembered Thoreau's mother and sister teaching in a small private school on Summer Street.
Great fame would come to Henry David Thoreau, but not in Taunton. If the town ever replied to his letter, no record of it survives.
Friends, today is May 4th, and it's our 167th birthday!
To celebrate we're launching a virtual tour of the second-floor exhibits. If you haven't been for a while and want to pop around the exhibits, here you go: http://www.vtility.net/virtualtour/O9d96GNVhL
The William Mason
William Mason made textile machinery for a living, and it provided him with a very comfortable lifestyle. But there was also a period in his life when he had the chance to combine his mechanical skill with his ingenious sense of style and to produce pieces of art that were not confined to cotton factories. While some artists express themselves through paint, or literature or music, Mason built locomotives. One of his best still survives.
A Connecticut native, Mason had come to Taunton in 1835 to work in a cotton mill, and within a decade had made himself one of the most prosperous industrialists in the region. In the early 1850s, when orders for his textile machinery temporarily slowed, he began the manufacture of locomotives. The first was completed in 1853, and between then and about 1890, Mason Machine Works produced 754 steam locomotives. This number included more than 20 that were manufactured for the U.S. Military Railroad during the Civil War.
In November 1856, Mason delivered a 25.4-ton, wood-burning steam locomotive to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The engine was unnamed at the time, but it entered the B&O’s books as No. 25. Mason insisted that not only would his locomotives be well made, but he also demanded that they be attractively painted and simply appointed. He saw them as not only mechanical beasts of burden, but also as machine-driven expressions of beauty. Photographs prove that the B&O No. 25 fulfilled those expectations.
Still unnamed, the 25 remained in service for almost 40 years. Among the highlights of its career was its part as one of the locomotives that pulled President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train to Washington, D.C. in 1861. The railroad retired the engine in 1892, nine years after William Mason’s death and burial in Taunton. It was carefully conserved by the B&O and placed among its Baltimore collection of historic railroad equipment.
The 25 has received far more attention in retirement than it did while in service. Still operational, it was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. In 1927, it was formally named the William Mason in honor of its builder, and was later displayed at yet another World’s Fair, this one in New York in 1939.
Retirement also gave the William Mason time for a career in motion pictures. It appeared in The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Raintree County (1957), Wild Wild West (1998) and most recently God and Generals (2003). The locomotive was occasionally used by the B&O Museum on weekends until 2014, when it was again brought inside the museum’s roundhouse, and that’s where it can be seen today.
ArtWeek has gone virtual! Join us and Artweek for #ArtWeekAtHome–ten days of creativity! Follow us and Artweek from May 1–10 for artistic-themed challenges to try at home. Learn more at artweekma.org
Today's creative challenge is part of our #KidsMakeHistory program where Saria and Olivia are making butter! Give it a try, share your results, and see all of our #KidsMakeHistory activities at http://www.oldcolonyhistorymuseum.org/kidsmakehistory/.
#PowerofCulture #ArtsMatter #CultureHeals #KeepMakingArt #mapoli #ArtsHeal #creativityliveshere
#ThrowbackThursday: Taunton Inn Fire
On January 29, 1926, a frigid Friday afternoon, the Taunton Inn caught fire, probably because of a defective furnace. Built in 1852 at the corner of the Taunton Green and Broadway, it was the city’s best hotel. Anyone who was anyone stayed there, and from its balcony two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, had campaigned.
The good news was that because the fire broke out during the day, there was no loss of life; a nighttime fire might have been tragic. The bad news was—it was gone, a landmark obliterated in an instant.
The scene today gives no hint of what happened there.
The Wreck of the City of Taunton
At Brayton Point in Somerset, on a rock-strewn beach washed by Mt. Hope Bay, lies the wreck of an old steamer called the City of Taunton. Able to be seen now only at low tide, each year the remains of the decaying ship become less visible. What’s left of it brings to mind an era when the great coastal steamers of the Fall River Line, called “floating palaces” by some, carried well-heeled passengers between Boston and New York.
The City of Taunton, though owned by the Fall River Line, was hardly luxurious. Built in 1892 at a length of almost 300 feet, it was a heavy-duty freighter that made unfortunate headlines at least twice during its sea-going career. Once, in Long Island Sound on the night of March 21, 1903, it collided in dense fog with its elegant sister ship, the Plymouth. Although larger and faster, the elegant passenger ship was no match for the iron-hulled Taunton, which tore a gaping 75-foot hole in the Plymouth’s side. One passenger and five crewman were killed on the Plymouth, and several others were injured in the collision. “ . . . The groans and cries of the wounded was [sic] heard for a moment,” said one eyewitness, “and then followed an ominous silence.” No one on the freighter was hurt, but both ships suffered what one reporter called “spectacular injury” and had to be towed into the harbor at New London, Connecticut.
Seven years later, on the night of October 3, 1910, another incident on Long Island Sound almost claimed the Taunton. On its way from New York to Fall River, the freighter was loaded with cotton, wool and coffee when suddenly, 50 miles off Huntington, New York, an intake pipe broke and the vessel began shipping water so fast that it seemed destined for doom. Even as sailors in the engine room worked in knee-deep water, Captain F.D. Whiting ordered crewmen to prepare the lifeboats as he pointed the vessel toward Bridgeport, Connecticut in a race with a disaster. With its steam whistle blaring a distress call, the Taunton made it just inside the harbor and into the care of the fire department with only seconds to spare.
The City of Taunton’s actual demise was far less dramatic. The Great Depression, the collapsing cotton textile industry, cheaper railroad fares and certainly the rise of the automobile all conspired against everything the Fall River Line had once represented. Beset by labor troubles, the company finally gave up the ghost in the late 1930s. The City of Taunton, beached just south of the Braga Bridge, awaits better days.
66 Church Green
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The history of the original Old Colony is one that reaches from Rehoboth to Provincetown, and from Scituate to Dartmouth. It’s as distant as 1639 and as relevant as a moment ago. It is a history that plays like a page-turner, replete with epic battles, brash entrepreneurs, new-for-the-time technologies – and the stuff of everyday life. Things that happened in the Old Colony made the region what it is today and frequently influenced events worldwide.
At the Old Colony History Museum, we’re proud to be the keeper of this history. It is our ongoing mission to be able to bring it to life for the region’s families and children as well as historians of every age. Open year-round, we curate exhibits and offer guided tours, lectures, workshops, field trips and special presentations for school groups. We invite you to join us, to personally experience our collective past in a way unique to our region.