Industrial History of Norwood (MA)

The industrialization of Norwood is the most significant and distinctive feature of its history. Beginning in the mid-19th century, local tanneries, printing presses, ink manufacturers and other industries helped transform Norwood into a booming and ethnically-diverse industrial town.

The story of Norwood’s industrialization and its impact on local residents can be seen in this selection of primary sources from the archives of the Norwood Historical Society.

Click here for a link to the website.

The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburban Municipality in New England

GFW talk.001By Heather S. Cole, presented at the Morrill Memorial Library in October 2006.

At the beginning of the 20th century, local industrialist and philanthropist George F. Willett nearly single-handedly reshaped the civic and physical landscape of Norwood. His vision was to transform what was then a small, industrial town into what he described as “the biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England,” and a model for other cities and towns. Between 1908 and 1918, George Willett led the reformation of Norwood’s municipal government, established the Norwood Civic Association, founded the town’s first public hospital, served as the first chair of Norwood’s Planning Board, crafted a master plan for the future development of the town and came up with an innovative scheme to finance all of these things without raising taxes. This evening I’ll be talking about George Willett, his vision and the changes he brought about in Norwood, many which continue to exist today.

GFW talk.003In order to understand the changes George Willett brought about in Norwood in the early 20th century, it is useful to first get a picture of what the town was like before.  The land that now comprises Norwood had originally been part of the town of Dedham. Primarily agricultural until the mid-19th century, Norwood didn’t become an independent municipality until 1872. During the first few decades of independence, Norwood went through huge changes as a number of new industries—including the Norwood Press, Plimpton Press and Bird & Son—set up shop in Norwood and established industries—including the tanneries and the Morrill Ink Works—expanded their factories.

GFW talk.004Norwood welcomed many of these changes: the town founded the Norwood Business Association in 1892 for the express purpose of promoting industrial development in town. The Norwood Business Association was generally successful and by the turn of the 20th century, Norwood was home to two tanneries, two printing conglomerates, a lumber mill, a paper mill, an ink factory and railroad car shops. But Norwood had not had the time to develop some of the infrastructure needed to support such rapid changes. As a result, parts of town had been haphazardly developed with hastily-built housing and poor roads, isolated from the rest of town. Norwood also had few public services, understaffed police and fire departments, no recreational facilities and only a small private hospital in town.

GFW talk.005Along with the expanding industry, Norwood also saw a rapid increase in her population from just 1,800 residents in 1872 to nearly 5,500 residents in 1900 to more than 8,000 residents by 1910 and 12,000 residents by 1920. Many of these new residents were immigrants, their children and grandchildren. Foreign residents were not new to Norwood; the town had seen a steady stream of Irish immigration since the 1840s. In fact, by 1905, 40 percent of the residents of Norwood were Irish or the children of Irish immigrants. But the new immigrants who came to Norwood in the early 1900s were different: they came from the politically tumultuous countries in southern and eastern Europe including Lithuania, Syria, Italy, Poland and Portugal. The foreign-born population of Norwood would reach a high of 40 percent by 1913. Many of these immigrants left their home countries with limited education, limited resources and without speaking or reading English. They also tended to settle (by choice or because they were restricted from other parts of town), in hastily-built, overcrowded triple-deckers in what came to be known as The Flats, or South Norwood. Electricity, sewer systems and trash removal were slower to reach the southern part of town, and some residents were concerned about the impact that the conditions in South Norwood would have on the rest of the town and feared that an outbreak of typhoid or other diseases in The Flats would spread to the rest of town.

GFW talk.006Norwood was not alone in facing these problems. Many industrial cities and towns experienced post-Civil War industrialization, urbanization and immigration. These municipalities, like Norwood, struggled to find ways to facilitate industrial and residential development while mitigating the problems that often came with it: overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, additional demands for public services, shoddy building construction, and exploitation of workers. In places like Boston and New York City, muckraking journalists like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine documented the negative aspects of urbanization and industrialization, inspiring reformers to advocate for government intervention. By the 1920s and 30s, these reformers would succeed in getting federal regulations passed on things like child labor laws, and building codes. But before then, hundreds of local reformers across the country experimented with ways to improve their own cities and towns through civic and municipal government reform. In Norwood, the leading reformer was a man by the name of George F. Willett.

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George Willett was born in Walpole in 1870, the only son of a laborer at a local twine factory and the grandson of a Walpole farmer. Although from modest means, his parents had instilled in him both aspirations for a grander future and a sense of civic obligation. After high school, George Willett won a scholarship to study industrial chemistry at Boston University. But he dropped out after his junior year in order to go to work—first at a bank in Boston and then selling wool for the Winslow Brothers tannery in Norwood.

GFW talk.008In 1891, when George Willett went to work there, Winslow Brothers was one of two tanneries in Norwood and one of the largest employers in town. The sounds and smells of the tanneries dominated the town, and had done so for more than a century. But by the 1890s, the Winslow Brothers tannery was struggling to keep up with the changes in technology and business development. George Willett advised the family on the reorganization of the tannery and helped modernize and streamline factory operations.

GFW talk.009In 1893, George Willett married Francis Winslow’s youngest daughter, Edith, and built a house on Walpole Street in Norwood. Two years later, George Willett bought the Winslow Brothers tannery from the family. Over the next decade, George Willett bought the other tannery in town, consolidated and modernized both of them and began investing in other industries throughout New England. George Willett was very successful as a businessman and became a millionaire by the age of 35. 

GFW talk.010Like other successful businessmen of his era, George Willett believed there was an opportunity to take some of the business management skills he had developed in the corporate world and apply them to the world of public affairs. Beginning around 1908, George Willett began spending large amounts of his own time and money investing in the improvement of his adopted home town, Norwood.

GFW talk.011Then, as today, one of the biggest complaints of Norwood’s residents was taxes. And then, also as now, people did their best to try to find ways to pay as little in taxes as possible. But the result was tax inflation and by 1908, Norwood’s tax rate was the highest in the state: $25 in taxes for each $1000 worth of real estate or personal property. There was a general feeling in town that some wealthy individuals and businesses weren’t paying their fare share of taxes. Town meeting had just voted to build a new fire station, a town-wide sewer system and were working on the town’s first electric light plant. In this time, prior to the introduction of federal income tax or sales tax, almost all the money in municipal budgets came from property tax. Norwood needed all the tax revenue she could get.

GFW talk.012In 1908, George Willett chaired a Committee on Taxation that reformed Norwood’s tax system and reassessed all the property in town, resulting in a rise in the valuation of property by a reduction in the tax rate. For the first time property was valued based on its potential use, rather than its actual use. In this way, undeveloped land near the railroad or along main streets in town was taxed at a higher rate, in effect encouraging the property owners to develop real estate in prime locations for business or residential use. Norwood’s tax rate dropped 67 percent in 1909, but within a few short years it began to creep up again, and George Willett came to believe that more drastic measures needed to be taken.

GFW talk.013Beginning in 1911, George Willett joined a group of local businessmen (known as the Committee of Five) in advocating for a new form of municipal government in Norwood. From its incorporation in 1872, Norwood had been run by a salaried Board of Selectmen and a battery of elected committees that handled everything from property assessment to licensing to budgeting in between Town Meetings. The Committee of Five believed that Norwood’s local government could be run more efficiently, saving money, increasing public services and keeping taxes low. Initially the Committee of Five advocated for Norwood to adopt a new city charter, eliminating Town Meeting and placing a mayor at the head of local government. Under state law, however, Norwood had too small of a population. So their alternative was a new form of town government that had been introduced in just a few other towns in the country: the town manager. Under this system, Norwood retained Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen, but reduced the number of other committees, gave increased power to the town Finance Committee and placed the day-to-day management of the town in the hands of a paid professional manager. It also eliminated the salaries for elected officials.

GFW talk.014It took three years of advocacy before the new government system came before Norwood’s voters. In October 1914, it passed by a narrow margin of 660 to 403 voters. Clarence Bingham, a civil engineer from Elisabeth, New Jersey, became Norwood’s first Town Manager in 1915.

Supporters of the town manager system (generally industrial leaders and local businessmen) said that the changes saved the town money and reduced taxes. Those in opposition (generally local workers) said that the new system made it more difficult for the average person to get involved in local government and reduced the number of municipal jobs. Historical evidence suggests that both sides were correct.

Whereas most of Norwood’s business community was satisfied with lower taxes and a more efficient local government, George Willett had much larger aspirations for Norwood. He believed that the town could serve as a model community for clean, efficient, neighborly 20th century living. And his approach was to focus on the physical layout of the town.

GFW talk.015Until this point, development in town had happened rather haphazardly, with local developers subdividing land and building roads with no real master plan. As a result, many of the roads were poorly laid-out, with no sidewalks and ineffective drainage. The town had developed into disconnected ethnic neighborhoods, and Norwood’s historic town center, known as “The Hook,” had become run down. George Willett wanted to change all that.

GFW talk.016Willett had a very particular vision for the physical layout he wanted for a 20th century Norwood: modern roads, a retail district, a “traditional” town square, a new town hall and schools, parks and playgrounds. But his plan was not just beautification for its intrinsic value. Ever the businessman, Willett believed that formal planning and beautification of the town would attract new residents to town, bringing in additional tax dollars that would more than pay for the improvements. Willett wanted Norwood to be “so beautiful and attractive that it would come to be recognized throughout Metropolitan Boston as a suburb which offered unusual attractions as a place in which to live and bring up one’s family.”

GFW talk.017This focus on transforming Norwood into a suburb is particularly interesting. Willett was not interested in having Norwood grow into a large industrial city like Waltham, Lowell or Lynn. Instead, George Willett saw Norwood’s future as a bedroom community for middle class businessmen and professionals.

Thus, George Willett’s focus was on developing middle-class residential housing and the various public services that would support such residents. He wanted the immigrants crowded into multifamily homes to instead become property owners. And he wanted new residents who would commute into Boston on the new parkways he was arranging to be built to connect with surrounding towns. In order to attract these residents, George Willett believed Norwood needed to transform itself into the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England.”

GFW talk.020On the top of George Willett’s agenda for town planning in Norwood was improving the condition and layout of the town’s roads. George Willett believed that for the wealthy and middle-class, the automobile would replace the streetcar and trains, Norwood’s main roads needed to be redesigned to facilitate auto traffic. Washington Street was the main north-south thoroughfare through town and, until 1915, was still a dirt road, often muddy and potholed, with trolley tracks running down the center. In 1915, Washington Street was widened, paved and sidewalks were installed. Other roads in town were straightened, widened and paved in order to better manage the growing traffic through Norwood.

George Willett and the Planning Board also gave a great deal of attention to the growing retail business district in the center of town. Several brick and concrete business blocks had been constructed along Washington Street between 1900 and 1913. The business blocks had retail stores on the ground floor and apartments or offices upstairs. The Planning Board wanted to replace the remaining 19th century residential housing with more business buildings. George Willett bought and tore down several wooden buildings on Washington Street that he thought were eyesores. George Willett paid to have four large Victorian homes moved from Washington Street onto side streets, completing the transformation of Washington Street.

GFW talk.021But George Willett had much bigger plans than improving just one road in Norwood. By 1917, George Willett had recruited noted landscape designer Arthur Shurtcliff, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead, to draw up formal plans for the town. The “Plan for Vicinity of Center of Town” showed a tree-lined Washington Street connecting the downtown business district to a new hospital, community center and high school complexes. Along Washington and nearby Walpole Streets were churches, banks and the Morrill Memorial Library, donated to the town by the Morrill Ink Works family. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, with two Norwood stations, ran parallel to Washington Street to the east. The rest of the streets from there east to the railroad would be used for business or factory sites. It was a grand plan and although George Willett expected (and at first received) town support, he knew taxes along could not pay for the changes he envisioned. Thus entered George Willett’s plan for the Norwood Housing Association.

GFW talk.023In 1913, George Willett created the Norwood Housing Association, a public real estate holding company. The purpose of the Norwood Housing Association was to purchase land throughout Norwood—both undeveloped land on the outskirts of town and developed lots in the residential and business parts of town—and hold it for future development. The idea was that the Norwood Housing Association would sell the land only to those who would develop the land along the lines laid out by George Willett and the Planning Board. He also developed plans for the Norwood Housing Association to get involved in building new houses, with the idea being that they would purchase supplies in bulk and build houses at a cost that was affordable to the working man.

The NHA, however, was neither a non-profit nor a government agency. The NHA was like any other real estate holding corporation, except that all the real estate was located in Norwood. George Willett turned over personal real estate he had in town to the Norwood Housing Association, taking stock in return. The Norwood Housing Association issued stock in order to fund the purchase of other parcels of land in town, identified by George Willett and the Planning Board as essential to their plans for Norwood. George Willett believed that as the town continued to develop businesses, schools, recreational facilities, etc. that the value of the property would continue to grow.

George Willett deflected some of the criticism that he was reaping personal benefit from his position on the Planning Board (as well as his position as president of the Norwood Trust Company, which worked in cooperation with the NHA to issue mortgages), by explaining that he was doing this work to benefit the town. Like single tax advocate Henry George, George Willett believed the capital gains on property should benefit the entire municipality, rather than individual property holders. But instead of a tax on property that would go into the town’s general operating fund, George Willett wanted to control the development and the spending.

With the town government reform and the town planning well underway, George Willett decided that the stock proceeds from the NHA would be deposited in an account to fund the third piece of his reform efforts in Norwood: the Norwood Civic Association.

GFW talk.024In 1905, George Willett bought a five-acre plot of land at a prime location between the railroad and Washington Street. At the request of a local minister, George Willett converted an old barn on the property into a basketball court for local boys to use. After an article in the local newspaper bemoaned the fact that there was no place that teenagers could go for recreation so they were getting into trouble on the streets, George Willett realized that there was an opportunity to build a larger facility that could meet the recreational needs of more of Norwood’s residents.

GFW talk.025The Norwood Civic Association officially opened in 1911 and was described by The Sunday (Boston) Herald as the “finest civic plant in the world.” George Willett poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the Civic and by 1915 the Civic was a 30,000-square-foot complex with an auditorium that sat 700, a clubhouse, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard room, social hall and meeting rooms for government and town organizations. On the land surrounding the Civic were athletic fields, tennis courts and a grandstand. The Civic regularly hosted lectures, concerts and socials; gymnasium classes and athletic demonstrations; Civic-sponsored sports teams and military drilling brigades. The Civic also had meeting rooms that could be rented by town organizations.

Attached to the Civic was a Model House which was “modestly furnished as an example and illustration of an attractive home” where lessons were offered in sewing, millinery, cooking and housekeeping.

GFW talk.027In 1913, on land adjacent to the Civic, George Willett opened the Corner House Hospital with 23 beds, an operating room, dental clinic and eye clinic. The Corner House was Norwood’s first public hospital and served as the housing and headquarters for local and school nurses. Prior to participation in any of the sports or gymnasium activities at the Civic, children and young adults underwent a physical examination by an on-site nurse. Young people needing dental or other work were referred to the Corner House for free or reduced-cost treatment. The hospital included a state-of-the-art operating room and a maternity wing, which were utilized by the entire community

George Willett had promised that his Civic would not be a drain on the town’s resources. Once the Civic was running, George Willett continued to finance many of its activities, but wanted to find a way to insure long-term viability of the organization. He solicited donations from local industrialists, but when that was not as successful as he had hoped, George Willett looked to the Norwood Housing Association. His plan was to have the stock proceeds from the Norwood Housing Association support the activities at the Civic.

GFW talk.028George Willett believed that all these various entities—the Civic, the Corner House Hospital, the Norwood Housing Association and the Planning Board—needed to work together for a comprehensive civic program for the town. Each was to support the other, and he argued that they needed to have centralized and coordinated control. George Willett drew a map of how the various boards of directors would work in cooperation with town officials and community groups, including the NBA. Not everyone agreed with his vision of a centralized civic program, but George Willett spoke publicly and frequently about it, both in Norwood and elsewhere.

George Willett believed he could teach current and aspiring municipal managers how to bring about civic reform like he was doing in Norwood. In 1916, George Willett partnered with his alma mater Boston University to begin plans for a School of Social and Political Sciences to train students in civic leadership and municipal management. George Willett, a university trustee from 1911-1933, spent $60,000 to renovate a building at 525 Boylston Street for what Boston University termed a “College for Mayors.” Although the College for Mayors never came to pass, the building was used by Boston University’s newly-formed business school and a history of the university credited George Willett’s financial contributions as “a vital factor in the early days of the college.”

On January 27, 1918, the Providence Journal published a glowing full-page spread congratulating George Willett on the civic reforms he was bringing about in Norwood: “The Norwood idea is undoubtedly the most progressive of its kind in New England.”  Yet just as Norwood’s reforms seemed to be at their height, the financial basis of the Civic Association, the Corner House Hospital and the Norwood Housing Association began to crumble.

GFW talk.029When America entered World War I, life in Norwood changed abruptly. There was less interest in civic and municipal activities and more focus on military preparedness. In early 1918, George Willett was asked to come to Washington, D.C. to advise the Quartermaster General of the Army on the reorganization of the War Department.  Unfortunately, while he was away his business interests suffered some serious setbacks and by September 1918, George Willett had lost controlling interest of the Norwood Housing Association to his creditors and understood that he no longer had the funds to support either the Civic Association or the Corner House Hospital. He would later file a $10 million lawsuit against a group of Boston banks for allegedly conspiring to take over his businesses. He won the lawsuit, but it was reversed on a technicality and George Willett was never able to regain the money and business success he lost.

After the crisis had passed, in January 1919, a group of local businessmen purchased the Corner House Hospital from George Willett and applied for a state charter of incorporation for a new hospital in Norwood, renamed the Norwood Hospital. Norwood Hospital was eventually able to overcome its financial difficulties, with a few injections of capital from wealthy trustees and fundraising canvasses in Norwood and surrounding towns that made use of the hospital facilities. Norwood Hospital still exists today as part of the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

GFW talk.031After George Willett’s creditors gained control of the Norwood Housing Association and the hospital was incorporated as a separate entity, George Willett and a few remaining supporters made several gallant efforts to keep the Civic up and running. But the financial troubles of the Civic were complicated by two fires at the complex in February 1924 and November 1927. After a third fire in April 1930 destroyed the Civic buildings beyond repair, George Willett reluctantly sold the Civic property to the town, which decades later sold it to the Norwood Hospital for the expansion of their physical plant.

Throughout the 1930s, even as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and George Willett’s pocketbook was “even flatter than the day he started,” as one newspaper reporter described it, George Willett continued to work at his plans for Norwood. If he couldn’t persuade town officials to support his plan for turning Norwood into a model community, then he would create a model community within Norwood.

GFW talk.032George Willett still owned several hundred acres of undeveloped land around a manmade pond on the outskirts of Norwood—property that George Willett purchased back from the creditors of the Norwood Housing Association in the early 1920s. George Willett refocused his plans on developing this area into a new residential housing development, modeled after garden villages he saw on a trip to England in 1906, but built using the latest scientific methods. Westover, as he named it, was to be a middle-class residential neighborhood with high-quality, mass-produced housing, surrounded by beautiful scenery and landscaping and within a short driving distance of all the advantages of downtown Norwood and Boston.

George Willett spent the next 20 years trying to find investors for Westover, trying to persuade town officials to support new roads that would connect Westover to the rest of town and batting with the Board of Selectman over taxes on his Westover properties. But b1953, Westover was in bankruptcy and the following year outside developers purchased the property. George Willett died on April 13, 1962 at the age of 91, never having seen his plans for Westover come to fruition.

In 1936, a local newspaper reporter described what may have been the general consensus in Norwood towards George Willett’s master plan for the town: “[it is] an ideal so vast and daring that many in our midst have merely shrugged it off as a dream—‘George Willett’s Dream.’”

When people in surrounding towns think of Norwood today, what likely comes to mind is Ernie Boch, Jr. and the Route One auto mile that greets visitors with car showrooms, gas stations, fast food and an assortment of chain and big box stores. Yet one need only take a short walk across town to the historic downtown district to see the lasting impact of George Willett’s reform efforts in town.

GFW talk.034Today the Washington Street business district remains the center of social, recreational and cultural life in Norwood. The downtown business district, anchored at one end by Norwood’s Town Hall, conceptualized by George Willett and finally completed in 1928, and at the other end by the Morrill Memorial Library, celebrating its 108th anniversary this year, is much as it was in George Willett’s time.

GFW talk.036Most of the brick, stone and concrete business blocks remain, now with restaurants, bars and small, independently-owned stores on the ground floor and offices in the rooms above. For the past three years the Norwood Planning Board, organized more than 90 years ago under George Willett’s direction, has been working with the town Historical Commission to restore and rehabilitate several of these early 20th century storefronts.

GFW talk.037Although the original Civic Association buildings are long gone, the insurance settlement from the 1930 fire that destroyed it was placed in a fund “to be used for the benefit of the people of Norwood.” Part of that money eventually found its way to the town’s Recreation Department, established in the 1940s, and helped fund the renovation of department facilities. The Norwood Recreation Department, which serves hundreds of residents a year with sports and athletic programs, is now housed at a former state armory in town, affectionately known as the new “Civic.”

GFW talk.038The land where the original Civic Association once sat is now the heart of the complex of brick and concrete comprising Norwood Hospital, also founded by George Willett and now serving more than a dozen towns south of Boston.

George Willett’s great unfinished planned community in Norwood, Westover, never came to pass. Westover’s twisting streets laid undeveloped for several years after George Willett’s death. The beach on Willett Pond that was once part of the Civic Association was sold to the Boston Archdiocese and is now the parking lot for St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church, established in 1964. The rest of the Westover land was eventually sold in the 1950s and has been developed. There is no longer any public access to Willett Pond.

GFW talk.039As for George Willett himself… Remembered both for his grand vision and his dynamic personality, more than 40 years after his death, George Willett is now generally recognized as one of the town’s greatest philanthropists and credited for the founding of the hospital and the Civic, if not for the Washington Street business district. In January 1969, the town dedicated the Willett Elementary School in his memory. There is also a Willett Parkway and an auditorium in the Recreation Department named in his honor. Histories about the town published in 1972 and 2002 devoted entire chapters to detailing George Willett’s contributions to Norwood.

Yet the model George Willett created for a comprehensive civic program including recreation, education, health care and town planning could still serve as a model for planning communities today. As Americans seem to be further and further removed from a sense of place and have less commitment to community and neighborhood, a central community center—a place for recreational, educational and social programs as well as a place to encourage involvement in civic affairs—would be a welcome addition to Norwood or other cities and towns.


This talk is based on research that I did for my Masters thesis in history, a copy of which is available here at the library. I’d like to take a moment to thank some of the Norwood people who helped me with my research. First, thank you to Margo Sullivan, Judith Kontz, Mary Finney and the reference staff here at Morrill Memorial Library. Thank you to Patti Fanning, John Grove, Elisabeth McGregor and Ed Sweeney at the Norwood Historical Society. And thank you to Town Planner Steve Costello, Civil Engineer Sara Winthrop and Town Assessor Paul Waseck who helped me locate and interpret Norwood’s early 20th century municipal records. Photographs and other images in this presentation are from the collections of the Morrill Memorial Library, the Norwood Historical Society and the personal papers of the Willett Family.


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.


Wielding a Mighty Force for Civic Righteousness

“‘Wielding a Mighty Force for Civic Righteousness’: A Case Study of a Community Center in the Progressive Era” by Heather S. Cole, presented at the New England Historical Association Spring Conference, April 2006.

Most of us are at least generally familiar with the historiography of the Progressive Era in America. The late 19th century saw a rise in industrialization, urbanization and immigration—which coincided with the rise in the power of big business, party politics and labor organization. Early in the 20th century, muckraking journalists began exposing the downside of the nation’s urban and industrial growth and its negative impact on the residents of America’s cities and towns.

In response, women and men from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of agendas spent the next two decades experimenting with strategies to assist the populations impacted by the effects of modernization. This period, roughly 1900-1920, has come to be known as the Progressive Era.

One of the ongoing debates in Progressive Era historiography is around the issue of the role of big business and big businessmen in the reform of the period. On one hand, industrialization and business incorporation caused many of the problems that progressive reformers hoped to mitigate. But, on the other hand, many individual businessmen were involved in financing, (and sometimes) planning and implementing, the reforms of the period. So, one of the great ironies of the Progressive Era is that businessmen were often both the cause of and the perceived solution to the problems of this period.

Historians have studied the role of businessmen in the reforms of large cities and on the national level. But, the federal census tells us that prior to 1920, most Americans lived not in cities but in small towns or rural areas. Many of these small towns, in particular, experienced their own reform in this period. My research examines Progressive Era reform in one of these small towns

The town I am studying—Norwood, Massachusetts—is located about 15 miles southwest of Boston (and about 20 miles northwest of where we are today). Between 1908 and about 1918, Norwood was transformed from a struggling industrial town to what the Providence Journal described as “the most progressive [town] of its kind in New England.” This transformation involved reforming the town’s municipal government; reforming the town’s tax structure; introducing town planning; building parks and playgrounds; building the town’s first public hospital and building the town’s first community center. All this reform was conceptualized, led and financed largely by one man—a local industrialist named George Willett.

We don’t have time today to look at George Willett’s entire plan for civic reform in Norwood—which is the focus of my recently completed Masters’ thesis. Instead, I would like to focus on one piece of his reform plan—the creation of Norwood’s first community center. I think it is the most interesting and most exemplary piece of the reform in Norwood, and it brings together strands of Progressive Era historiography that are often talked about separately, including social, business and political history. It also gives us some insight into the motivation of one particular Progressive Era businessman-reformer, and the impact that his reform had on one particular New England town.


Norwood, Massachusetts was part of the town of Dedham for the first 200 years of its existence, only becoming incorporated as an independent town in 1872. Shortly after incorporation, Norwood began active recruitment of industry to the town, believing that was the fastest route to generating income for the young municipality. This effort was generally successful, and by 1900 Norwood had a population of about 5,500 and was home to several large factories producing books, leather goods and other industrial products.

Concurrent with Norwood’s industrial growth, the town also experienced a population and development boom. Much of the increase in population was due to chain migration of new immigrants who came to Norwood to work as laborers in the local factories. By 1913, Norwood’s foreign-born population had reached a height of 40 percent, including growing numbers of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, with languages and cultures that were very different from earlier immigrants.

It didn’t take long for the town to begin to feel some of the negative effects of its rapid industrial and residential growth. Having been dependent on, and somewhat neglected by, the mother town of Dedham for so many years, Norwood had few public buildings, limited public services and a tax rate that was the highest in the state as the town struggled to build an independent infrastructure. There was concern among the middle class residents about the cost of “Americanizing” Norwood’s newest residents and the demands they were believed to be placing on the town’s charitable organizations. Moreover, public recreational facilities for all ages and classes were non-existent, a fact that was pointed out by a series of articles in the local newspaper. The newspaper reporter wrote: “There is still a chance for some public-spirited citizen to donate land for park or playground purposes… [a place where] the exuberant physical nature of boys and young men may find vent.”

Elsewhere in the country, early 20th century reformers and philanthropists responded to similar calls by building networks of public parks and playgrounds, YMCAs for middle class youth and settlement houses for the immigrants. In Norwood, local businessman George Willett answered the call to civic responsibility with the creation of the town’s first community center. He named the community center the Norwood Civic Association—or, the Civic, for short.

The Civic was designed to serve all of the town’s residents—rich and poor, immigrant and American-born. It was to be what one Civic publication described as “a real community center where all of the people may gather, and which as an institution may wield a mighty force for civic righteousness in the community.”

The Civic’s founder, George Willett, was a multi-millionaire businessman and nationally recognized for his skill in industrial reorganization and management. He made his first million dollars by introducing scientific techniques and streamlining the business processes in Norwood’s tannery industry, one of the oldest and largest in the country. George Willett then went on to found Willett & Sears, a Boston-based industrial management consulting and holding company that controlled more than a dozen large industrial concerns throughout New England. Not just a local figure, George Willett’s expertise in industrial management was later recognized by the federal government when he was asked to consult on the reorganization of the War Department in preparation for America’s entry into World War I.

Like other wealthy industrialists of the time, George Willett envisioned taking the same business methods that he instituted in his factories and applying them to the broader arena of public affairs. Willett’s goal was to mitigate the problems of industrialization and urban growth in Norwood by transforming the small, industrial, working-class town into what he said would be the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England.” He intended to do this in two ways: first, by creating a stable, efficient workforce and, second, by attracting upper- and middle-class homeowners and taxpayers to the town. The Civic was one of the mechanisms by which he hoped to carry out these plans, and he invested at least half-a-million dollars of his own money in the Civic.

In February 1911, George Willett opened the doors to the Civic. The Civic was located in the center of town, adjacent to the business and government center. It began with just a gymnasium and meeting rooms, but soon expanded into a 30,000-square-foot complex with an auditorium that sat 700, a clubhouse, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard room, social hall, meeting rooms and classrooms. On the five acres of land surrounding the Civic buildings were athletic fields, tennis courts and a grandstand.

In hopes of attracting upper- and middle-class residents, the Civic hosted lectures, concerts and socials, including performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a series of lectures called “The Forum” which brought in world-renowned experts to speak about current events and politics. Tennis courts and bowling alleys could be rented by the hour, and there was a library and reading room with current business and news publications.

Several social, charitable and government organizations, including the Norwood Business Association, Women’s Club and Planning Board, had their offices in the Civic buildings. And the Civic auditorium—the largest public hall in town—hosted Norwood’s annual Town Meeting and elections.

Concurrently with these activities, the Civic ran very different programs targeted at Norwood’s working class residents, particularly the new immigrants. In contrast with the middle class-oriented programs, these programs were not for the leisure or entertainment of the immigrant residents, but instead were designed to help “Americanize” the immigrants by teaching them middle class values and lifestyles. According to George Willett, these programs were designed “to improve the morality, industry, thrift, health, cleanliness, education and good citizenship” of the immigrants.

Towards these ends, the Civic advocated for the construction of new playgrounds in town, and provided “highly trained and specialized” staff to organize and supervise the children’s activities. The Civic operated a Vocation Bureau, where young men and boys could attend lectures on various trades and meet with a counselor about which vocation would best meet their “mental, physical, oral and social characteristics.”

Adult men were encouraged to attend English language and citizenship classes, in preparation for becoming American citizens. And the Civic especially targeted immigrant women with classes in sewing, millinery and cooking intended to teach them to how to increase their purchasing power through following “American standards” of cooking, cleaning and housekeeping. The women’s classes were held in the Civic Association’s Model House, a building that was described in Civic publications as “modestly furnished as an example and illustration of an attractive home.”

Some of the Civic activities reached across class and cultural lines and, as other historians have observed, these were often athletic activities. Mirroring national trends, the Civic sponsored a baseball team and hosted gymnastics competitions and military drilling exhibitions that were popular with a range of residents.

Throughout the 1910s, the Civic was bustling with activity most afternoons and evenings of the week. And the most popular activities at the Civic were free Saturday night movies, attended by up to 1000 residents during warm summer evenings.

In June 1913, The Boston Globe devoted a full page spread to a profile of the Civic. The article credited the Civic with “doing much to wipe out class distinction,” called George Willett a “mighty practical visionary” and compared the work he was carrying out in Norwood to “the sort of Utopian dream one reads about in a book like [Edward] Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward.’”

But contrary to its portrayal in the Boston Globe, the Civic was not a place where class distinction had been eliminated and it was not quite Bellamy’s vision of social equality. And it was never intended to be.

Although George Willett insisted that the Civic be open to all residents of Norwood, he didn’t actually expect the various cultural and class groups to interact socially. In what became his most famous speech, George Willett said, “the Civic Association is an organization for the purpose of centralizing in some one place the various community activities, rather than a social organization for the purpose of bringing all of the townspeople together in a common social basis. That would be clearly impossible.”

Ever the businessman, George Willett was less interested in equality than in efficiency. And although its activities were social, the Civic’s mission was not social reform but structural reform. Just as he streamlined the production of boot leather in Norwood’s tanneries by standardizing processes and centralizing management, George Willett intended for his Civic to streamline civic and recreational activities in town—activities that were integral to his vision of a modern suburban town—through standardization and centralization.

In the end, George Willett appears to have been quite successful in centralizing civic and recreational activities in town. By 1913 at least one out of ten of Norwood’s residents was a member and many more attended programs.

Most of the residents who attended Civic programs appear to have been from Norwood’s middle class, rather than from either the upper class or immigrant populations. The Civic’s monthly newsletter and other publications make special note of immigrant group participation in particular events, suggesting that it was not a common occurrence. And, according to a survey in December 1913, only 46 of Norwood’s 170 most successful businessmen and industrialists were members of the Civic.

It was this lack of support from Norwood’s upper class residents that eventually led to the dissolution of the Civic. In early 1918, George Willett’s companies ran into financing problems and by the end of the year, George Willett was on the brink of bankruptcy and no longer had the funds to support his reform efforts in Norwood. The Civic embarked on a series of fundraising campaigns, but received just lukewarm results. Evidently Norwood residents were happy to participate in Civic programs, but couldn’t or didn’t want to pay for them.

Without George Willett’s financial support, the Civic began a slow decline through the 1920s, offering fewer programs and frequently in debt. A fire in April 1930 destroyed the main Civic building beyond repair and, without the funds to rebuild, it closed for good.


So what can we learn about the businessmen in the Progressive Era from the case study of George Willett and Norwood’s Civic Association?

While it is important not to generalize from one example, I think we can get a sense of the power that wealthy businessmen in small towns could continue to wield, even as these small towns were becoming part of national communication, transportation and economic networks. It also demonstrates how quickly reforms could come to an end, if the funding for reform activities dried up

I think the case of the Civic also demonstrates that, in some cases, the businessman and the reformer were the same person. And it shows that there were often contradictions between the intents of reformers, how those reforms were promoted, and effects the reforms had on the targeted populations. This reminds us that, as historians, we need to pay careful attention to the sources we consult when telling the story about Progressive Era reform.

Finally, I think that although the results may not always have been what they wished, it is truly remarkable the complexity of the plans that Progressive Era reformers developed to transform the cities and towns around them and the visions many reformers—both businessmen and others—had for remaking American society.   Their optimism that business methods could apply everywhere—might remind us that looking for a universal solution to all problems is not likely to be entirely fruitful.


Images of South Norwood

southnorwoodImages of America: South Norwood
By Patricia J. Fanning and Heather S. Cole
Arcadia Publishing, 2004

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, immigrants streamed into Norwood, attracted by work at industrial sites such as Morrill Ink Works, Norwood Press, and Bird & Sons. Arriving from Lithuania, Poland, Syria, and Italy, they took up residence in the southernmost section of town, nicknamed “the Flats.” Facing prejudice and isolation from the more established community, the area became a self-contained neighborhood characterized by small businesses, ethnic cooperative markets, benevolent associations, and the St. George, St. Peter’s, and St. George Orthodox parishes. Today, the immigrant population still thrives, and generations of families keep this melting pot alive with fairs, festivals, and neighbors who truly care about one another.
Available for sale on my shopify website.