Imagining Norwood’s Past

“Imagining Norwood’s Past: Old Home Week and the Creation of Community Memory” by Heather S. Cole. Presented at the 10th Annual Conference on Cultural and Historical Preservation (Newport, RI), September 2006.

“North Dormer was preparing for its Old Home Week… of course North Dormer was so full of Associations…historic, literary… and ecclesiastical…he knew about the old pewter communion service imported from England in 1769, she supposed? And it was so important, in a wealthy materialistic age, to set the example of reverting to the old ideals, the family and homestead, and so on.” – Edith Wharton, Summer (1917)

New Hampshire Governor Frank W. Rollins invented Old Home Week in 1899 as part of his efforts to revitalize the state’s economy. Designed as a celebration of local history and culture, the festivities were intended to encourage former residents who had left New Hampshire to find fame and fortune elsewhere to return to their hometowns for a week (or several days) of reminiscing and reconnecting with family and friends. The Old Home celebrations variously consisted of parades, concerts, fireworks, historical addresses, readings of poetry and dedications of various memorials and statues to local heroes. At the end, organizers hoped, the former residents would be inspired to invest in their hometown, perhaps by endowing a local library, purchasing their ancestral home or, at the least, making their hometown a regular summer vacation destination, bringing much needed funds to the town coffers. Old Home celebrations reached their height of popularity by around 1904, when more than 100 cities and towns across New England were celebrating it in one form or another.

Two historians who have studied Old Home Week, Dona Brown and Joseph Conforti, have argued that these celebrations were part of the efforts of declining northern New England towns to revitalize their local economy by capitalizing on the popularity of the Colonial Revival, described by Conforti as “a historical refuge where the native-born could indulge their nostalgia for simpler times.” In true Colonial Revival fashion, organizers hearkened back to a colonial past—real or imagined—and were often part of larger efforts to restore old buildings and celebrate old-fashioned Yankee values. Nostalgia played a large role in Old Home Week as organizers, often members of a local historical society or preservation organization, promoted their towns as traditional, picturesque, harmonious New England villages and escapes from the increasingly crowded, industrial, ethnically diverse and politicized cities of southern New England.

In 1902 and 1903, the town of Norwood, Massachusetts decided to join the Old Home Week trend. Excepting that they were Old Home Days, rather than full weeks, Norwood’s celebrations were similar in several ways to those described by Brown and Conforti: the parades, historical addresses, dedication of memorials, reminiscing of old-timers. Norwood organizers also hoped that the festivities would inspire former residents to contribute financially to their hometown. But beyond those similarities, the case of Norwood is quite different and complicates our understanding of Old Home Week and the purposes of those celebrations.

At the turn of the 20th century Norwood was no declining rural village; instead, it was more similar to the places Old Home participants were supposed to be escaping. Located about 15 miles southwest of Boston, Norwood in 1902 was a bustling, crowded industrial town. Although it had a population of just under 6,000, Norwood was experiencing the same forces of immigration and urbanization that were affecting larger cities and towns. The town’s population had tripled in 30 years, and as early as 1895, one-third of Norwood’s residents were foreign born. Many of those immigrants lived in crowded multi-family homes and worked in the loud and dirty local industries including two tanneries, two printing conglomerates, a lumber mill, a paper mill, an ink factory and railroad car shops.

Norwood also bore little resemblance to the northern Colonial Revival villages in another important way: until 1872 the land that would become Norwood was part of the south precinct of the town of Dedham. Norwood had been incorporated as an independent town for just 30 years when it held its first celebration commemorating the town’s past.

So what was a place like Norwood, Massachusetts—a growing industrial town, flooded with immigrants and only recently incorporated—doing hosting an Old Home celebration?

In Norwood, organizers used this staple of the Colonial Revival not to advocate for the preservation of historic buildings or the recreation of an “Olde Timey” New England village, but to generate support among current and former residents for the town’s industrial development and to create a common history and identity for the town. Many of the organizers were not local old-timers, but young entrepreneurs, many of whom had moved to town only recently. And the town history and identity they were celebrating was one that they crafted to suit their purposes.

Much of this industrial development in Norwood since its independence had been led by the Norwood Business Association, an organization formed in 1892 to “to advance the growth and encourage the business prosperity of the town.” With the support of town officials, the Norwood Business Association pushed for the expansion of industrial development in town, successfully recruiting new and established businesses to town with offers of free land and tax benefits. It was this same group of prominent businessmen who organized Norwood’s Old Home Day celebrations.

In addition to industrial and residential growth, Norwood was also undergoing a generational change. By 1902, the men who had fought for Norwood’s independence from Dedham and led the town in its first few years were easing their way into retirement and passing the reigns of their businesses and town leadership to a new generation. This generation included college-educated men who brought new ideas and new innovations to business and public service.

The year 1902 marked the 30th anniversary of the incorporation of Norwood. On the occasion of this anniversary, Norwood’s Old Home Day celebrations were intended to be both an opportunity to show off the changes in Norwood, a way to help the town’s elite negotiate the change in their town and a means to establish unity and common history among residents who may have felt threatened by the changes in Norwood. Although they may have found themselves in the minority population-wise, this was a way for them to stake their claim on the history, mythology and culture of the town and for newcomers to reaffirm their commitment to the cultural and political hegemony of Norwood.

The idea for an Old Home Week celebration apparently grew out of an earlier effort to define a symbol with which to identify the town. In the fall of 1901, the Norwood Business Association proposed that the town of Norwood should have a new town seal. A committee, chaired by local attorney and newcomer James A. Halloran, invited town schoolchildren to submit designs for the seal. About 80 students responded. Several of the proposed seals included eagles, flags and other patriotic symbols. Two portrayed Wampanoag chief King Philip. A few others were drawings of buildings or streetscapes in town. But the most popular symbols included in the proposed town seals were of Norwood’s industries and included imagery of books, printing presses, ink wells, smokestacks, even pieces of flayed and hung leather. This was Norwood as the children saw it. It was apparently not the Norwood that the Norwood Business Association wanted to portray. The Norwood Business Association thanked the schoolchildren for their efforts, but decided to indefinitely postpone the selection of a seal. Instead, the Norwood Business Association appointed a new committee to organize an Old Home celebration in Norwood in the fall.

With only three months to plan, organizers decided that the event would be a modest Old Home Day, rather than a full week. The Norwood Business Association rented the largest hall in town, arranged for music and food, recruited hostesses and commissioned a historical talk to be accompanied by stereopticon slides of both the oldest and newest buildings in town including, of course, homes of some of the Norwood Business Association members. They sent out invitations to between 400 and 500 former residents inviting them to the celebration.

Less than three weeks before the big event, organizers decided that the central event of the day’s festivities should be the dedication of a historical tablet. But organizers had a particular challenge in identifying exactly what event or person in the history of the town should be commemorated. As the former south precinct of Dedham, residents could claim part of a rich history dating back to the Dedham land grant of 1636. But Norwood’s elite wanted to establish a sense of Norwood’s own identity and history, separate from that of Dedham. As such, organizers did not select any of the Dedham men for recognition.

Instead, the man who the Norwood Business Association selected for commemoration was a little-known local man named Aaron Guild. Guild was born in 1728 and lived his entire life on land that would eventually become part of Norwood. A farmer by trade, Guild served as captain in the French and Indian War and played a very minor role in the events leading to the American Revolution. But a minor role was good enough, especially since there were more than a few of Guild’s descendants among the organizers and participants in the Old Home festivities. In celebrating Aaron Guild as a local hero, organizers established their hereditary connection to this esteemed past.

As the actual location where Aaron Guild lived was private property, organizers received permission to place his commemorative stone across the street, appropriately on the grounds of the Congregational Church. They commissioned an engraving on a granite boulder, using language lifted nearly verbatim from an 1867 genealogy of the Guild family. The stone, which still stands, was engraved in gold letters to read:

Near this spot
Capt. Aaron Guild,
On April 19, 1775, Left plow in
Furrow, oxen standing,
And departing for Lexington,
Arrived in time to fire upon
The retreating British.

Harold Fales spoke at the dedication, describing Aaron Guild as descended from a long line of men who led “pure, wholesome and Christian lives” devoted to family, country and God. Said Fales: “We honor Aaron Guild, but we honor him more as a type of many who shows their heroic devotion, for the heroes that day were numbered by the thousands.” But the dedication was not just a commemoration of Aaron Guild but also an affirmation of the connections between the town’s current elite, the former residents, (described by Fales as “scions of those sturdy families who founded this community”) and the town’s colonial forefathers, such as Guild.

Fales used language which implied not only genealogical connections, but the racial superiority of Norwood’s elite. He described how Norwood’s “sons and daughters” had “gone forth to all portions of this broad land, building up new communities, making them stronger, better and purer for their presence.”   

“We have now a land upon which the sun never sets, and I believe that the end is not yet reached. Call it imperialism if you will, the word does not frighten us: on the contrary it signifies that the Anglo-Saxon race, which has done more for human liberty than any other race, is still possessed of those virile qualities which make up that blind instinct to press forward, to rule, to civilize, using peaceable means wherever possible, force when it must… Our ancestors have left us a splendid heritage… so we may glory in the fact that we are American citizens.”

Some historians have pointed out the ties between Colonial Revival commemorations and early Americanization efforts: the idea that the celebration of colonial heroes was both to “inspire colonial descendants and to encourage respect for tradition and interest in Americanization” among new residents. In the case of Norwood, however, there were likely few immigrants present to  hear about local hero Aaron Guild. Very few, if any, members of Norwood’s working class (including the bulk of Norwood’s immigrants)would have been able to participate in the festivities. In 1902, admittance to most of the festivities were by ticket only and restricted to former residents, their friends and family and “really old residents.” The 1903 festivities were to be open to “the whole town without regard to social, political or religious differences;” yet, despite requests from organizers that manufactures give their employers at least a half-day off for the events, none of the major employers gave their employees any time off. Members of Norwood’s working class were absent, and their contributions to the history and economic development of the town over the previous 50+ years were also conspicuously absent from the commemorations.

This didn’t seem to bother the local newspaper, which commended the Norwood Business Association on their efforts with a special edition of the newspaper. The editor wrote: “The enterprising gentlemen [of the Norwood Business Association] have evolved from their labors a proof and demonstration of the fact that the town has a past, of which it may well be proud, and we may trust that the town has also a future whose achievements will surpass the hopes of the most sanguine.”

Not all of Old Home Day was a success, however. Like Governor Rollins of New Hampshire, the Norwood Business Association hoped the festivities would inspire former residents to make some financial contributions to the town. During the 1902 festivities, Frank Fales (one of the organizers who had been born in town) spoke to the visitors about the changes that had taken place in Norwood over his lifetime. Fales focused on the material improvements to the town: the new businesses, library and railroad station, and the recent paving of roads and sidewalks. At the conclusion of his talk, Fales bluntly asked for contributions to the continuing improvement of the town: “If any of you have come back to us with fortunes and desire to immortalize yourself, you might leave us a Town Hall. That and a system of sewerage are our most pressing needs.”

Organizers were a bit more subtle in 1903 when they placed illustrations of two recently-donated public buildings—a public library and chapel—on the cover of the Old Home Days program. But apparently none of the former residents had the means or the interest in supporting Norwood’s development.

1903 was the second and final year that Old Home Day was celebrated in Norwood. Despite an increase in the number of out-of-town visitors, organizers evidently determined that the work and money to organize the festivities were not worth it. None of the visitors donated a new town hall, a new sewer system or anything else of substance to the town. After that year there was no further mention of Old Home Day in the local newspaper, town reports or the minutes of the Norwood Business Association. Old Home Day in Norwood died as quickly as it had been born, but the symbol of Norwood’s idealized remained one that emphasized patriotism, Americanism and industry.

So what ever became of the plans for a new town seal?

The plans were showcased at the 1903 Old Home Day celebration. Shortly thereafter, the Norwood Business Association awarded first prize to high school student Ethel Hubbard for a drawing of Norwood’s downtown area. But Ethel’s design was never made into Norwood’s town seal. There are no accounts in town reports, the minutes of the Norwood Business Association or the local newspaper as to what happened, but two years later the issue of a town seal came up again at Norwood’s Annual Town Meeting. A new committee was appointed to “make recommendations as to the adoption of a new town seal,” and the following spring Town Meeting voted to accept as a town seal a design presented by the committee. But the seal that was presented to and accepted by Town Meeting in 1906 was not Ethel Hubbard’s design. Instead, the seal that was selected, and that continues to appear on all official town documents 100 years later, was the drawing made by the second place winner, high school student George Boyden. And the drawing: it is of our dear patriot, Aaron Guild, leaving plow in furrow, oxen standing, and departing for Lexington.

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