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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dorchester Pottery Works by Anthony M. Sammarco

The Dorchester Pottery Works was established in 1895 on Preston Street (now Victory Road,) and was to produce hand decorated stoneware of distinctive New England motifs until its demise in 1979. Founded by George Henderson (1863-1928) on land adjoining the prestigious Harrison Square neighborhood of Dorchester, the pottery works initially produced stoneware for commercial use. Henderson, a native of North Cambridge, had been a partner since 1884 in the firm of S.L. Pewtress Pottery in New Haven, Connecticut, under the style of Henderson and O’Halloran. The decision to sell his partnership and move from New Haven to Dorchester may have been of a family nature, but when he relocated in 1895 he established a family business that would strive for old fashioned, well made stoneware.

From 1895 to World War I, the Dorchester Pottery Works produced such items as mash feeders, chicken fountains, cheese crocks, as well as acid pots and dipping baskets for plating and jewelry companies. Also, the patented “Henderson Foot warmer,” the clay pig and the forerunner of the rubber hot water bottle, went on to compromise twenty nine percent of the pottery works’ total annual sales by 1919. Adjacent to the Dorchester Pottery Works was Harrison Square, a neighborhood designed and laid out by local architect Luther Briggs, Jr., and named after President William Henry Harrison (1773-1841.) The area, now referred to as Clam Point, is near Dorchester Bay and the former Old Colony Railroad, which passed through the square. This transportation route enabled Henderson to receive his clay from South Amboy, New Jersey and cobalt from Germany and to ship his finished products, thus allowing his business to increase and to thrive. As the business grew, Henderson obtained a permit in 1910 to construct a new beehive kiln. Designed by him personally, the downdraft kiln was built four years later by specialists from Germany. Measuring twenty two feet in diameter, and ten and a half feet in height, the new kiln allowed for up to three freight car loads of pottery to be fired at one time.

The concept of stoneware is an important one, as it requires three thousand degrees of heat for firing, whereas earthenware only requires fifteen hundred degrees. The stoneware Henderson produced required two weeks of attention. The kiln was fired with a combination of wood and coal for forty eight hours or until the necessary temperature was attained. Once reached, the shutters to the fire holes were closed, and the kiln was allowed to cool slowly for five days before the unloading process could begin. The door to the kiln, composed of bricks and mortar, then had to be carefully dismantled. However, before the kiln could even be loaded, the potters had to produce pieces from clay. With wheels and molds, bean pots, casseroles, dishes, jugs and mixing bowls took shape along with the industrial goods being produced. By 1925, there were twenty eight employees with six potters and three salesmen.

Charles Wilson Henderson, the founder’s son, and his wife Ethel Hill Henderson assisted the family business from World War I until the death of George Henderson in 1928. The couple reevaluated the Dorchester Pottery Works at this crucial time, adding new lines of decorative tableware to augment those already in production. The Great Depression caused the business to suffer, as the pottery works’ most important customers were the factories affected by the harsh business decline. To compete with other pottery companies, Ethel Hill Henderson began to decorate her stoneware with motifs of old New England. Before her marriage in 1919, Ethel had been an industrial arts teacher at Dorchester High School and had designed fabrics and Colonial Revival motifs in her spare time. By adding to the stoneware decorations of pinecones, blueberries, strawberries, lily of the valley, pussy willow, the Sacred Cod and spouting sperm whales, Ethel Henderson revolutionized the Dorchester Pottery Works, breathing new life into the business. The stoneware~ fashioned on a wheel, hand dipped in sealer, and then hand decorated~ was produced through a time consuming and labor intensive process. However, the result was stoneware that literally said “Dorchester Pottery.”

Whereas the commercial ware lines so important in the early years of the works were undecorated and purely functional pieces, the decorative pieces could hold their own when compared to the well known Dedham Pottery, another Boston area pottery business. Charles Allen Hill, Ethel’s brother, also came to work for the business. Hill had been a chemistry teacher prior to joining the Dorchester Pottery Works, and his color mixing was of superior quality. This family affair was further augmented by Ethel’s sister, Lillian Hill Yeaton, who assisted in the sales end of the business. Charles and Ethel Henderson began a series of stoneware lines that made the pottery a veritable museum of design. After World War II, Ethel traveled to Mount Vernon, where she recreated an 18th century hanging herb pot like one used by President George Washington. Glazed, but undecorated, it was supplied to the gift shop at Mount Vernon for many years, as were stoneware mugs for Radcliffe College and the Tufts Dental School. Roommates at the colleges were given identical mugs, with handles of different scraffito designs, which allowed their use without confusion. The decorative stoneware grew to make up the majority of production revenues, while the manufacture of commercial ware dwindled.

In the 1960’s, the labor intensive business was recognized as one that still employed “old-time methods of production.” Lura Woodside Watkins, a noted authority on American decorative arts, wrote that the Dorchester Pottery Works “alone maintained the high standard of workmanship that characterized the potteries of an earlier day.” With the last firing of the huge custom built kiln in 1965, the final decline of the Dorchester Pottery Works began. The beehive kiln was replaced by a smaller gas-fired one which proved more efficient and economical, but took some of the charm of workmanship away at the same time. The death of Charles W. Henderson in 1967 struck the death knell of the business, as for the next twelve years his survivors simply produced enough pottery to keep the works going. Carried on by his widow, her brother and sister, and ably assisted by the last potter, Nando Ricci, the Dorchester Pottery Works was one of the few stoneware factories founded in the 19th century that still remained.

After Ethel Hill Henderson’s death in 1971, the showroom was only open on Thursdays, for however long the pottery lasted, and still later only on the first Thursday of the month. Collectors would line up at the door at dawn to await opening. The pieces available were few, and the demand was fierce. The Dorchester Pottery Works truly represented a specialized market for people who appreciated fine stoneware of a distinctive design. The closing of the business was sparked by an arson fire, which in 1979 gutted the pottery works and showroom. In 2001 Bay Cove Human Services acquired the property and renovated the former pottery works for its own use, keeping the kiln room and the kiln itself intact for community exhibitions.

Roswell Gleason by Anthony M. Sammarco

When we think of silver plate, the names of Reed & Barton, Rogers and Lunt come to mind. Few of us realize that the first attempts at silver plating base metal in this country took place on Washington Street, near Four Corners, in the mid 19th century.

Roswell Gleason (1799-1887) was born in Putney, Vermont, the son of Reuben and Abigail Fuller Gleason, but came to Dorchester as a young apprentice to William Wilcox, a tinsmith at Four Corners. In 1822, after Wilcox’s death, Gleason was able to conduct business on his own. His shop produced tin and pewter items that were used in every home of the period, but it was the introduction of Britannia that brought fame to Gleason. Britannia is a pewter alloy composed of lead, tin and other metals to form a pliable metal that withstands constant use. Gleason, through melding and experiment, made a large array of Britannia ware serving pieces that had a more durable quality than the softer pewter. His business was successful enough that he moved from the former Wilcox shop to a new factory at the present site of “Mother’s Rest.”

The new factory employed numerous workmen, and was to produce a high quality Britannia ware that was sold not just locally, but shipped by barge, boat and train throughout the eastern seaboard. Gleason produced lamps that held whale oil, teapots and coffeepots, and caster sets that became a staple in most households; the designs and the quality of his products brought the attention, and inevitable purchase, of buyers from Stowell & Company and Lows, Ball & Company, two fashionable Boston shops.

However, it was in the late 1840’s that Gleason learned of beautiful wares that had a polished surface that looked as if it was made from the finest solid silver. Urged by his friend Daniel Webster, Gleason sent his sons Roswell Gleason, Jr. (1826-1866) and Edward Gleason (1829-1862) to England to study the process of silver plating; they returned after a short while with not simply the knowledge to produce silver plated metal, but with English workmen who were trained and skillful in the process. “In 1849 he … increased his business by introducing the art of silver plating, and was the pioneer of that business in America.” With the establishment of this new line in his already successful business, Roswell Gleason was to make silver tea services available for those with fancy tastes but not the money to purchase solid silver services. With the availability of silver plate, Gleason revolutionized the silver industry, and made cruets, pitchers, services, and serving pieces available at a fraction of the cost of solid silver.

It was precisely the ability of Gleason’s adaptation to changing public tastes and the changing methods of production that enabled him to revel in phenomenal success. His career was successful, and he was fortunate in his family, for he married Rebecca Tucker Vose (1805-1891) of Milton, daughter of Reuben and Polly Willis Vose, and built a splendid mansion, known as “Lilacs,” for her in 1837. His success as a businessman allowed him the finest material comforts, and his large Gothic villa was on Washington Street, just south of his factory. The house was one of the finest in Dorchester, with superb panoramic views of Dorchester Bay from the piazzas. It was complete with a stable and grapery, and had white lilacs planted about the property, from cuttings secured from those at Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s estate in Virginia. With a playing fountain, and a large carriage drive, the estate was not just an elegant country seat, but testimony to Gleason’s ability as a businessman. He was listed in the book Rich Men of Massachusetts in 1851 and he was honored and esteemed in Dorchester. His financial support of the Christopher Gibson School located on School Street was widely appreciated and he served as captain of the Dorchester Rifle Company, a local drill company composed of Dorchesterites who met at Mount Bowdoin to exchange sham battles and to feast upon lavish dinners prepared for the occasion. Gleason was successful and popular, and the deaths of his sons effectively ended his business.

Both of Rebecca and Roswell Gleason’s sons died relatively young. It was their deaths that prompted Gleason’s closing of the business. The Civil War had ended the shipments of his wares to southern markets, and an explosion in his factory caused tremendous damage. Unable to continue, Gleason closed the silver plate and Britannia ware factory in 1871 and retired to a life of ease as near a “millionaire” as had ever been known in Dorchester. He continued his support of local charities, including the Second Church in Codman Square, where he attended both morning and afternoon services every Sunday. He eventually went blind, but maintained a sense of duty to the end. His death came suddenly, and he was buried in his family lot in the Codman Cemetery, the parish burial ground of the Second Church on Norfolk Street.

The family, the only surviving child being Mary Frances Gleason Vandervoort (1825-1885,) maintained “Lilacs” as a virtual museum, with many Gleason produced items among the family antiques. A fire destroyed a portion of the house, and rather than rebuild, the house was moved to face Dorchester Bay and the former carriage drive to the stable was cut through and renamed Ridge Road (now Claybourne Street.) The wealth amassed by Roswell Gleason during the 19th century enabled him to live in comfort, and to amass a large estate; however, it was that estate that made the greatest fortune for the family, as after the annexation of Dorchester to the city of Boston in 1870, land values skyrocketed and were the best investment one could make. “Lilacs” stood atop the hill at the corner of Park and Claybourne Streets, not just as a reminder of the man who built it, but as a monument to the silver plated empire he created on Washington Street in Dorchester.

Howard Johnson: 28 Flavors by Anthony M. Sammarco

Howard Johnson created an orange roofed empire of ice cream shops and restaurants that stretched from Maine to Florida and from the east coast to the west coast. Known as the father of the “franchise industry” he revolutionized the restaurant industry in the United States and ensured good food and quality prices that brought customers back for more.

Howard Deering Johnson (1897-1972) was born in Wollaston, a part of Quincy, the son of John H. and Olive Belle Wright Johnson. His father was treasurer of the United Retailers Company, a cigar manufactory on Summer Street in Boston; Howard Johnson left school to begin work with his father, but he entered World War I, serving in the American Expeditionary Force, 26th Infantry Division, in France before returning after the Armistice to rejoin his father. His father’s death in 1921 left him heavily in debt, however Howard Johnson was in 1925 to open a corner store at 93 Beale Street in Quincy, where he had a soda fountain and sold newspapers, cigars and three flavors of ice cream. In the 1920’s Johnson began producing a rich ice cream with a doubled butterfat and natural ingredients that brought repeat customers, which was augmented by grilled frankfurters and fried clams. His ice cream stand on Wollaston Beach proved so successful that in 1929 he was able to open his first restaurant in Quincy Square’s Granite Trust Building. Here, he opened a restaurant that served New England fare throughout the day, with specials that attracted business people as well as families.

Howard Johnson’s restaurant was well placed, located at the junction of Dennis F. Ryan Parkway and Hancock Street in a thriving shopping district. In 1929 Eugene O’Neill’s play “Strange Interlude” was banned in Boston by Malcolm Nichols, the mayor, and the New England Watch & Ward Society, and was moved by the Theatre Guild to Quincy, in a theatre opposite his new restaurant. As the play was extremely long, there was a dinner interlude and the theatre-goers flocked across the street to Howard Johnson’s. The restaurant was a great success but the impact of the Great Depression caused severe problems and the credit line his business depended upon was restricted by his bank. The concept of franchising his name was a fairly new business idea but if he let a franchisee use the Howard Johnson name, and purchased all food and supplies from him, he could charge a fee in exchange of the use of his logo, “Simple Simon and the Pie Man.” The franchise concept was quite successful and Johnson is thought of as the “Father of the modern restaurant franchise” in the United States.

Howard Johnson restaurants, in attractive Colonial Revival buildings sporting orange roofs and sea blue shutters, began to be franchised throughout the New England area; by the late 1930’s, with the ascendancy of the automobile, these restaurants were opened on major roads and interstate highways where the travelling public could be assured of consistently high quality foods that was the same served locally or in Maine or Florida. These franchised restaurants sprang up as if by magic throughout the eastern seaboard serving the same delicious Ipswich clams, grilled frankfurters, chops and steaks and twenty eight flavors of his famous ice cream. In 1939 Reader’s Digest did an article that said “Who is Howard Johnson?” so well know had his name become through his successful franchise concept. The public had come to expect quality service, affordable prices and family friendly service and the restaurants became known as the “Landmark for Hungry Americans.”

Opened on June 15, 1935, the restaurant in Dorchester was among the first of the franchises and was awarded to franchisee Harry L. Densberger.  Located on the Old Colony Parkway (now known as the William T. Morrissey Boulevard) near Neponset Circle, those travelling south in the two decades before the Southeast Expressway was built in the 1950’s passed the orange roofed restaurant, and with ample parking space and a solid tradition of quality and family friendly service, was a major attraction for the travelling public. Following World War II, Howard Johnson was expanding so rapidly that his empire was perceived as the world’s largest food chain with hundreds of restaurants serving standardized fare such as fresh roast turkey, the newfangled clam strips as well as whole clams, and twenty eight flavors of delicious ice cream that the public had come to love. The diligent business acumen was incredible and he was quoted as saying that “I think that [building my business] was my only form of recreation. I never played golf. I never played tennis. I never did anything after I left school. I ate, slept, and thought of nothing but the business.”

Howard Johnson retired as president in 1959, his son Howard Brennan Johnson assuming his position with a company that had 675 restaurants, 175 motor lodges and annual sales of $127 million dollars. However, the founder never really retired, as he “continued to monitor his restaurants for cleanliness and proper food preparation. He would be chauffeured in a black Cadillac bearing the license plate HJ-28 [his initials and 28 flavors of ice cream] while performing unannounced inspections of the restaurants.” He created an orange roof empire that attracted the public on a daily basis. “His contribution to the restaurant industry was the idea of centralized buying and a commissary system to prepare menu items for distribution to his restaurants. This helped to insure a uniform consistency and quality, as well as lower costs.” The American public repaid him in kind, as his name will forever be remembered by referring to him and his restaurants as the uncontested “King of the Road.”

Hyde Park by Anthony M. Sammarco

Hyde Park was the last town to be annexed to the city of Boston, becoming in 1912 the southernmost neighborhood of the city located between Milton and Dedham, Massachusetts. Named by the Reverend Henry Lyman after the aristocratic borough of Hyde Park in London, England it was incorporated as an independent town on April 26, 1868 from sections of the towns of Dorchester, Milton and Dedham, Massachusetts.

Hyde Park has evolved as a bucolic suburb located just seven miles from downtown Boston. Located on the Neponset River with panoramic vistas of the Blue Hills, the town began prior to the Civil War when a group of land investors and developers known as the “Twenty Associates” purchased one hundred acres of land at $200.00 per acre in Milton’s Fairmount section; they laid out Fairmount Avenue, flanked by Warren and Williams Avenues, that connected Brush Hill Road and Water Street (now Truman Highway,) which paralleled the river. Here the associates, headed by Alpheus Perley Blake (1832-1916,) who is considered the founder of Hyde Park, had George Currier build twenty identical wood framed houses that were typical of the middle class dwellings being built throughout the Boston area at the time. The associates included William E. Abbot, Amos Angell, Ira L. Benton, Enoch Blake, John Newton Brown, George W. Currier, Hypolitus Fisk, John C. French, David Higgins, John S. Hobbs, Samuel Salmon Mooney, William Nightingale, J. Wentworth Payson, Dwight B. Rich, Alphonso Robinson, William H. Seavey, Daniel Warren, and John Williams.

For two decades, the Twenty Associates and their families were joined by others who were attracted to the area and the convenience of transportation with the Boston and Providence Railroad and the Midlands branch of the New York & New England Railroad having depots within walking distance of the new homes, and a short commute to Boston for business or pleasure. The Boston Land Company, of which Blake was president, and the Hyde Park Real Estate and Building Company, headed by Henry A. Rich, attracted many new residents that purchased building lots that would eventually see the increase of population to fifteen hundred by 1887.

During the Civil War, Camp Meigs, named for Brigadier General Montgomery Cunningham Meigs (1816-1892,) was opened in the Readville section of what was then Dedham. Here Union Civil War troops were assembled and trained, including Company 54, the first African American troop that was led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and which was immortalized in the stirring movie “Glory.” Another well known regiment that trained at Camp Meigs was the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, half of which was recruited in California and transported by clipper ships to Readville for training before being sent to Virginia to fight in the Civil War.

The immediate years following the Civil War were momentous, as there was a movement to incorporate Hyde Park as an independent town. In 1868, following months of acrimonious and often bitter debate, the commonwealth of Massachusetts accepted Hyde Park as an independent town with the creation of a town government with a board of
selectmen, the first to serve being Henry Sturgis Grew, chairman, Zenas Allen, Benjamin Radford, William Stuart and Martin Whitcher. In 1870 a town hall was erected, having been moved from Boston and adapted for use by the new town. The town hall was erected at the corner of
River Street
Gordon Avenue
, and would serve as the seat of government until January 1, 1912 when the town was annexed to Boston. In the last half of the nineteenth century, the population dramatically increased as residents of Boston’s densely populated neighborhoods sought more open space and “looked to the outskirts and discovered Hyde Park.” With houses set on large lots of land with attractive tree lined streets, convenient shopping areas, numerous churches, and schools within walking distance, and ease of transportation, Hyde Park’s population amazingly grew from fifteen hundred in 1887 to fifteen thousand at the time of its annexation to Boston.

Since the mid nineteenth century, Hyde Park's residents had traditionally been people of English descent, but by the early twentieth century had a far larger percentage of Polish, Italian, and Irish ethnicities similar to other parts of the city. Today, Hyde Park is a diverse neighborhood with the descendants of the earlier residents being joined by African-American, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, making it a thriving and diverse nexus of cultures. Residents, no matter what their origin, share the common desire to live in a comfortable, safe and well kept suburban city neighborhood with a rich history and sense of tradition.

In the early part of the twentieth century, a prominent harness racing track, called the Readville Trotting Park, was located in Readville on a part of the former Camp Meigs. The racing track was later used for auto racing before it became a Stop & Shop warehouse and distribution center, and which is now used as a multi-use warehouse property. Today, Hyde Park can proudly boast of the George Wright Golf Course, named for baseball Hall of Famer and Cincinnati Reds shortstop George Wright (1847-1937.) After retiring, he moved to Boston and he cofounded the sporting goods business of Wright & Ditson. The championship golf course was designed by the famous golf course designer Donald Ross, and is considered to be one of his finest designs. The Hyde Park Branch of the Boston Public Library is a wonderful library that was once the town of Hyde Park’s library that was built in 1899 on
Harvard Avenue
. Greatly enlarged in 2000 with a modern design by Schwartz Silver Architects, the library’s classic Grecian Ionic design with gray Roman brick and terra cotta trimming is now offset by the walls of glass in the new addition, opening the space to the world around it.

This Then & Now book on Hyde Park, Massachusetts prominently highlights the squares, homes, streets, churches and schools of this lovely neighborhood of Boston. Comparing old photographs with contemporary ones, it shows why this place has been called “Home” by generations of Americans, all of whom pride themselves as being proud residents of Hyde Park.