Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Historic Photo of My New England Village

New England is dotted with picturesque villages, each with its own Common or Village Green surrounded by white church spires, an ornate town hall and imposing Colonial and Victorian mansions. Every Yankee will argue that his own village is the prettiest and most historic.

I want to nominate MY village of Grafton MA , which is celebrating its 275th anniversary in 2010, and to share with you what may be one of the earliest photographs taken of the Grafton Common.

But first some of Grafton’s history:

*Grafton, incorporated in 1735, was originally called “Hassanamesit”, a Native American word meaning “place of small stones.”

*Four acres were set aside as common land in 1728. The present town Common is so typical of New England that MGM filmed parts of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness there in 1935. MGM built the bandstand on the spot where Grafton’s first meeting house stood. It has become the town’s trademark. The Common holds a big Independence Day concert annually and the Bandstand is the site for prom and wedding photos and festivals year ‘round.

*In the 1800’s Grafton became a national leader in leather tanning and currying and in boot and shoe production, specializing in work boots for slave use in the South. By 1866 there were 10 boot-making shops, two tanneries and several other leather goods establishments around the Common.

*In 1806 Jonathan Wheeler built the Wheeler block, which still houses the Grafton Country Store and other businesses.

*The Congregational Church at the west side of the common has steeple and gallery clocks made by the Willard family, the famed Grafton clock makers. Their original house and clock factory is now a museum, a few miles north of the Common.

*Shoe manufacturer Samuel Wood built the Grafton Inn, the oldest structure on the Common, in 1805 at the intersection of key stagecoach routes from Boston to Hartford and from Providence to Worcester.

Last week the Grafton News, our small weekly newspaper, stated: “As part of this yearlong celebration, the Grafton News is compiling a virtual scrapbook of the town’s history at….If you have a historic tidbits or photos that you would like to share, please email them to us.”

Just last year I acquired a wonderful cased image-- an ambrotype of the Grafton Inn, which has functioned as an inn on the Common for its entire 205 years. It’s one of the favorite images in my collection of antique photos. So I scanned it (above) and e-mailed it to the editor with the following letter.

Dear Grafton News,

I am attaching two views of what probably may be the earliest photograph of Grafton you receive.

It’s an ambrotype of the Grafton Inn. Ambrotypes were introduced in 1854 and were popular until 1861. An ambrotype is a negative image produced on a glass plate which becomes positive with the addition of black backing.

(The first kind of photograph, introduced in 1839, is a daguerreotype –an image produced on a silver-coated copper plate. Both daguerreotypes and ambrotypes must be protected by a piece of glass and then a brass mat and then they are kept in a case which opens like a book.)

This is a 1/6 plate ambrotype, which means it is about 2.5 by 3 inches in size. It has black paint behind the image and the paint is damaged. I am attaching one view of the image with the protective mat and one in which I took away the mat so you can see more of the scene. Clearly the image needs cleaning and restoration but I am not expert enough to do this.

This image of the Inn could date from anytime between 1854 and 1861. If you look carefully you can see the figure of a little boy holding the horse and carriage (while the owner of the carriage, inside, is probably taking some refreshment.) There is also a figure in white clothing in the side door, watching the boy. I think it may be a woman with a white apron.

The editor of the Grafton News, Don Clark, wrote back the same day that he intends to publish it both in the newspaper and on the website. So I thought I’d give a sneak preview to the readers of ”ARollingCrone”.

The color photo above is one I took a few years ago, showing the Inn and the Bandstand as they look today.

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