Western Footprints – The road to the West; Massachusetts to Wyoming
Due to the way our country grew, tales of the West often stem from tales of the East.
I recently visited North Easton, Mass., the home of my family for generations. Our roots in that town go back to 1803. I was there to attend an Ames family yearly dinner, and, as usual when I visit there, I learned more about the family. This time I realized how much the family has done for the town of North Easton since Oliver Ames established himself there in 1803.
The shovel factory that Oliver started provided gainful work for hundreds of men and supported many families from the beginning of Oliver’s business there until the family sold their share of the business in the late 1950s. Many of the workers in the 19th century were immigrants to this country, especially from Ireland and Sweden.
These new cultures became a part of the fabric of the town. When the company sold in the 1950s, the new owner was Bernard P. McDonough who had worked in the forge room of the Ames Company when he immigrated from Ireland at 16 years of age.
Oliver Ames & Company, later O. Ames & Sons, produced 60 percent of the shovels in this country in the 1800s. They did well because they maintained a high standard of quality. Starting with shovels used at Bunker Hill in 1774, the Ames provided shovels used for macadam roads, canals, the War of 1812, railroads, the Civil War (at Lincoln’s request),the gold rushes of Alaska, Australia, and, of course California. In California, Ames shovels were used as legal tender by the 49ers.
The success of the business created surplus funds that needed investing outside of the company. Much of those funds found their way into the western railroads, partly at the request of President Lincoln.
But, I started out to tell about what the Ames family had done for North Easton. In the town center is the gracious Ames Free Library, designed in 1877 by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Oliver Ames Jr., who had been president of the Union Pacific Railroad left it to the town in his will. When the need for more library space arose, one thought was to build a second library. Instead they extended the building to the back in such a way that the beautiful facade is not compromised. I am entranced by the vaulted wooden ceiling in the main room.
Oliver Jr. also left money for a Unitarian Church, which has recently been restored to its original beauty. The LaFarge stained glass windows sparkle with beautiful life in the sunlight.
Various Ames homes and buildings have been purchased or donated to the town and have been maintained to house community functions: governmental, political, educational and social. One fine example is the Frederick Lothrop Ames estate, which was purchased as a location for Stonehill College. The mansion looks out over the pleasant campus. The Ames family is grateful to have their family archives stored there.
North Easton is touched with the talents of some of the most gifted architectural artists of the late 1800s. Henry Hobson Richardson designed not only the library, but also the Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, the Old Colony Railroad Station (home of the Easton Historical Society), the Ames Gate Lodge and the F.L. Ames Gardener’s Cottage. These five buildings comprise the H.H. Richardson Historic District of North Easton.
Working with Richardson on the above were Orlando Whitney Norcross of Norcross Brothers, the first general contractors in the country, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a foremost sculptor of the time, who often embellished Richardson’s buildings. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape designer of New York Central Park, created public landscape for the town and for private estates.
The most recent and controversial project has involved the old shovel factory. Some potential developers just wanted to tear it down. It is an enormous campus with numerous long, narrow stone buildings, each for different stages of building shovel blades and handles, etc.. Once it was all run by waterpower. The final decision was to turn the buildings into housing units. Because of the placement of windows and doors (the spaces must remain the same for the sake of historic preservation) and the narrowness of the buildings, the configuration of the apartments has been a creative challenge. Most will be offered at market rate, the remainder for affordable housing. A sign-up list is growing and I understand that the Ames name shows up on it.
As promised, this story actually does find its way to the West. It involves the main focus of my research, which centers on a windy hill between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyo., at the 60-foot tall Ames Monument. I will be telling you much more about the monument and why it came to be in coming months. For now, it was the collaboration of these artists from the East bringing their talents West: designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, built by Orlando Whitney Norcross through his superintendent A.L. Sutherland, and decorated by Augusts Saint-Gaudens. Frederick Law Olmsted visited and pronounced it the monument most suited to it’s environment.