Roxbury's Southwest Corridor: Archaeology of Industry and Transportation by Jason Turgeon

Sponsored by Roxbury Historical Society & Haley House Bakery Cafe

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - 7:00pm

Haley House Bakery Cafe 
12 Dade St, Dudley Square 
Roxbury, MA 2119 
United States

Join the Roxbury Historical Society to learn about the archaeology of Roxbury’s Southwest Corridor! Archaeologists Beth Bower and Miles Shugar will present their work on these fascinating archaeological sites that were excavated in the 1970s before the construction of the Orange Line subway. 

Beth’s work uncovered a variety of interesting sites, including breweries, factories, foundries, and housing from the 18th-19th centuries. Miles will then discuss one of these sites, the Metropolitan Railroad Company Site, in more detail. Horse-cars and an electric street railway hub operated from 1850 to 1920 at the present-day Roxbury Crossing MBTA station. 

The archaeology of horse-car street railways and technological change will be illustrated through artifacts, documents, and photographs of Boston’s early mass transit systems.

by Jason Turgeon

This one isn’t technically Fort Hill related but it was too good to pass up a reblog. 
  cityofbostonarchives : 
 Clock system warranty letter, Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys, 1928, City Contracts (Collection #0700.005) 
      This work is free of known copyright restrictions.  Please attribute to City of Boston Archives.

This one isn’t technically Fort Hill related but it was too good to pass up a reblog.


Clock system warranty letter, Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys, 1928, City Contracts (Collection #0700.005)

Public Domain Mark
This work is free of known copyright restrictions.  Please attribute to City of Boston Archives.

Jacob Izenstatt and the Jay Shoe Factory on Fulda Street by Jason Turgeon

Every once in a while, life throws you a historical bone.  Today is one of those occasions.  I went to the main branch of the BPL to see the Orange Line Exhibit, only to find that it was closed for unspecified reasons.  Since I had some time to kill, I headed over to the newspaper archives to take advantage of the Globe archives that are digitized but only available onsite.

On a whim, I searched for Fulda Street.  The second of the 400+ results was an obituary for Jacob Izenstatt, who had owned a shoe factory on Fulda Street from the 1920s until the 1950s.  Could this be the shoe factory that Barb mentioned to me this summer?  A quick look at the maps suggests that there was only one factory on Fulda, and although it was owned by Louis Buff as late as 1931 (the date of the last historic Ward Map available for our neighborhood), it seems quite plausible that Buff leased it to Mr. Izenblatt.

The obituary, dated July 1, 1975, notes that Izenstatt had moved to Roxbury in the early 1920s from Lynn, where he already owned a women’s dress shoe factory, and that he later owned additional factories on Tremont Street in Boston and Potter Street in Cambridge.  The obituary cites his son, Norman, who reported that at its peak the firm was manufacturing about 4500 pairs of shoes a day and employed 900 workers.  In 1958, he closed all of his Massachusetts operations and set up shop in Norway, Maine, where the business remained until he shuttered it in 1971.

Izenstatt even patented a shoe design in 1935:

So now we finally know a bit about the old factory on Fulda.  But what about Mr. Izenstatt?  Fortunately, he has both a unique name and an excellent trail of digital breadcrumbs.  Half an hour of sleuthing turns up the following info:

He was born about 1894 in the town of Vileyka, Russia, in what is now Belarus near the Polish border.  The townspeople, known as Vileiker, sent over a group of 5 emigrants in 1890.  Three of the five moved to Lynn, and the Lynn group brought over many more friends and family over the next few decades.  Among these was Basevke Callnens (aka Bessie), who arrived sometime around 1913.  Bessie’s fiance, Jacob Izenstatt, came over just days before the start of WWI, when he would have been 19 or 20.  He worked in Lynn’s famous shoe factories for 6 years before he started Jay Shoe in 1919 or 1920, living at 124 Shepherd St.  We know this early history thanks to a letter written in 1971 that was transcribed onto a website detailing the history of Jewish Vileiker in the US.

The factory appears to have been successful, as he was able to start his manufacturing operation in Roxbury in 1922 and move his family to the large Jewish area then flourishing in our neighborhood.  They first lived at 69 Lawrence Street, between Blue Hill Ave and Columbia Road, but later settled closer to Fulda Street in a very tony house at 159 Ruthven Street.

According to the 1940 census, he lived there with Bessie, Norman (then 23), Norman’s 18-year-old sister Frances, and a maid, chauffeur, and the chauffer’s 17-year-old wife.  Apparently he weathered the depression in style.

There is a sad note to this story, though.  Although the Jewish Vileiker who made it over to the US prospered, those who stayed behind were slaughtered in a ghastly massacre at the end of June, 1941, when Hitler’s forces captured the area from the Soviets.  Not to be outdone, the Soviets killed several hundred Polish political prisoners before they retreated.  The American Vileiker had been sending money home for decades and Bessie had even paid a visit home in 1929.  The news that 15,000 of their townspeople, including more than 6,000 Jews, had been killed in one day must have been beyond devastating.  

Mr. Izenstatt, however, lived out the American dream.  Next time you walk by Fulda Street, tip your cap to the boss of the factory that was once there.

The Trimont Tool Company by Jason Turgeon

The Trimont Tool Co. wasn’t technically on Fort Hill with its location at 55-71 Amory Street in JP, but it was so close that I can see it from the rear of my house on Beech Glen Street now that the leaves are off the trees.  

The Trimont factory on Amory Street in 1915.  The building is still standing and is better known for its predecessor, the Rockland Brewery.  It was the original home of Bikes not Bombs and was for many years used as artists lofts.  Below is a picture of it from Columbus Ave near the Dimock Hospital.

After the Rockland Brewery closed in 1902, the Trimont Tool Company moved in.  The company, owned by the Ely brothers, was famous across the country for its high-quality wrenches and pipe-fitting tools made under the Trimo name.  The tools were built to last, and you can still find serviceable pipe wrenches on eBay for about the same price as you might pay for a more modern version.  I’m happy to say that I was able to pick up a wood-handled 8” wrench that I would be glad to use on a plumbing job for under $10 shipped.  It’s so strange to think that they used to make tools like this across the street.  

A 100-year old Trimo wrench

The company was well-advertised, and you can find old ads in Scientific American magazines from the 1910s and 1920s easily enough.  Here’s a typical ad from 1924:

Trimont Ad

One of the interesting things about the Trimont Company was its role in labor disputes in the early part of the 20th century.  At the time, working conditions were terrible across the country and unions were making rapid inroads.  Here’s a letter written in opposition of a proposed 1902 law that would have required companies supplying equipment to the federal government to have given their workers an 8-hour workday.  It was written by Charles Ely, who took over as president of Trimont just a few months earlier after the death of his brother Edward.

I would expect that some of the men who worked in the factory lived in our neighborhood, probably along Ritchie Street, Marcella Street, and the lower end of Highland. It’s comforting to think that after their 10 or 12 hour workdays, they could stop by one of our local breweries and saloons for a pint before heading home.

But despite his hard-nosed business tactics, Charles Ely had a softer side.  He published a book of poetry that is available online called “The Image Maker and Other Poems" which is a must-have for the Roxbury historian, although I’m not sure poetry lovers will feel the same way.  It’s not so hard to imagine him sitting on a hill somewhere in Roxbury with his quill pen writing his odes to nature.  Click the picture for a link to his biography.

The company stayed in business until 1954, when it appears to have been sold.

Josiah Banks and the Goodyear Vulcanite Denture Patent Murder by Jason Turgeon

A few months ago, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of Charles Goodyear and his quest to make a useful rubber product.  That quest ended up with the development vulcanized rubber, which quickly found uses in just about every industry in the rapidly industrializing company, but only after a variety of patent battles.

So imagine my delight when I found that the most recent edition of the podcast 99% Invisible was based on the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company!  It concerns the 1879 murder of Josiah Bacon, an early patent troll who pushed a dentist using the Goodyear product to the brink.  It’s worth a listen, even though the whole story takes place outside of Fort Hill.  Enjoy!

Update to the Boston Belting Company by Jason Turgeon

I stumbled across this biography of James Bennett Forsyth while researching something else entirely.  Mr. Forsyth apparently grew up in the offices of the Boston Belting Co. factory where his father worked and eventually went on to become its director and to hold over 50 patents relating to vulcanized rubber.  In fact, it would appear that all modern firefighters owe a debt to him and the company for inventing rubberized fire hoses.  Click through for a brief but fascinating read about one of our forgotten residents.

The Thwing Family and Estate by Jason Turgeon

Some names are immediately recognizable to all Fort Hill residents.  Alvah Kittredge, William Lloyd Garrison, John Eliot, and Nathaniel Bradlee all roll off our tongues.  But one of our most long-lived family names has been largely forgotten, with the nothing but a cul-de-sac to remind us of their past glory.

The cul-de-sac, of course, is Thwing Street, a short stub of a street etched into the steep slope of the hill off Highland Street just before it meets Marcella.  It represents all that is left of the once-grand Thwing estate, shown here in 1873 at the height of its glory.

The Thwing name goes all the way back to the early years of the Puritans.  In 1635 young Benjamin Thwing, at the tender age of 16, hitched a ride across the Atlantic along with his wife Dorothy (who may have had to ride on a separate boat) as a servant or apprentice to Ralph Hudson in Boston.  He and Dorothy had seven children, and those children that survived had broods of children of their own, and so on until the Thwing name was spread across the young country.  We know all this because in the eighth generation of Thwings there was a man named Walter Eliot Thwing (note the Eliot name, a nod to Roxbury history).  

Walter Thwing was a genealogist of the first order, and in an era without the internet or Fedex or telephones he was able to catalog the lives and fates of hundreds of his relatives, including a fair bit of research into the Thwing name in the UK.  His magnum opus, Thwing : a genealogical, biographical and historical account of the family, takes us deep into the family history and its relationship with Roxbury circa 1883.  Some 20 years later, he published the History of the First Church of Roxbury.

Walter was a true son of Roxbury.  According to his brief autobiographical statement in the genealogy, he was born in a boarding house on Cedar St., went to a series of local private schools before attending Roxbury Latin, and managed to get into Harvard before he dropped out to work for his father.  The day after Christmas, 1870, he boarded a ship bound for California and kept on going around the world with stops in China, Japan, India, Egypt, mainland Europe, and England before returning home two years later.  He claims to have been the youngest man ever to have been around the world at that time.  He lived at the family estate on Highland Street with the brief exception of a move to JP for a few years at the end of the 1870s.

Walter’s interest in history was not to be outdone by his sister Annie Haven.  Born on the auspicious date of July 4, 1851, Annie’s love of history bordered on the obsessive.  She is well-known among historians for her book, The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston 1630-1822, but probably should be better known to the rest of us as the author of the classic children’s story Chicken Little.  Her crowning achievement, though, was her creation of a massive 74-drawer card catalog detailing every bit of the history of Boston she could track down.  Thanks to the wonders of computers, historians can now use a searchable database of her work as they research Boston history.  She also created a 3-D model of the City of Boston as it looked in 1775 and traced back her family on the Haven name as far back as 1372.  Ms. Thwing lived in Fort Hill, probably at the family house at 65 Beech Glen Street, until her death in 1940.  She is buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in the family plot.  The Forest Hills Trust has a more detailed bio of her at this link.  She also warrants her own page on wikipedia.

65 Beech Glen Street, the home of Annie Haven Thwing, as it appeared in the April 2, 1881, edition of American Architect and Building News.

Walter and Annie were the children of Supply Clap Thwing.  The wonderfully-named man was born on October 27, 1798, in what is now Post Office Square.  Supply Clap was a family name; according to the meticulous records of his son he was named for a distant ancestor, Roger Clap, who, “during a famine in the town, had a son born on the same day supplies were received from England, and showed his gratitude by naming his son Supply Clap.”  

SC Thwing was a well-to-do man with businesses in the mercantile trades between the East Indies and New Orleans, partial ownership shares of ships, and even business in the coal trade later in his life.  He moved to Roxbury in 1824 and never left.  He was a pillar of the community, becoming a deacon of the first church, a trustee of Roxbury Latin, and a VP of a local bank, the Institution for Savings in Roxbury and Vicinity.  He and his family lived in a beautiful house at 177 Highland at the corner of Beech Glen and Highland St, sadly long gone and replaced by a somewhat drab triple decker on roughly the same spot.  He’s seen below standing in front of the wall.  Annie Haven and Walter are on the steps.

One final note about Supply Clap:  He was a dear friend of Caleb Fellowes, the subject of a future post.  When Supply found out that Mr. Fellowes had arranged to leave him a large part of his fortune as part of his will, SC urged him to leave the money to charity instead.  That money became the endowment for the Fellowes Athenaeum, known to you and me as the original Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library.

By 1895, the Thwing Estate had been largely sold off and built out and Thwing Street had been added to the maps.

Louis Prang by Jason Turgeon

Louis Prang, whose name lives on in the Prang House on the corner of Centre and Gardner, was one of the celebrities of our neighborhood in its industrial heyday.  I’d been meaning to write a full post on Prang and his printing company, but Mark over at And This Is Good Old Boston beat me to it.  

The short version: Mr. Prang published the first Christmas card in the US right here in our neighborhood, and lived in his luxurious estate right behind the factory.  Go read the full version at this link, and if I can find more info to add to it I’ll update this later.