This post is for the Beebe Kids or so we still call ourselves. We were and are the progeny of a mill town, Beebe River, New Hampshire. We are bound by a common history of growing up as true children of the common community. We were wild and wonderful, running carefree under the paternal eye of a whole town that protected their children one and all. Everyone took responsibility for everyone. We belonged to one another in a way that persists even today. This summer has reminded me that being a Beebe Kid is a privilege afforded to very few. It is a blessing with a rich heritage for which I am thankful.
It has been a summer of revelation. When we accepted the Army Corps of Engineers contract in Uxbridge, MA, I had no idea that the next town over would be Hopedale. And the town after that would be Milford. These are two towns of major significance to my family and the coincidental fact that we would be spending quite a bit of time in both towns rekindled precious memories. Little did I know that I would find a web of hidden memories and joys in unlikely places this summer.
As we left the highway and turned onto Route 16 towards Uxbridge, I felt a funny feeling. I commented to Arnie that something seemed oddly familiar about that road. We passed a cemetery and I commented to Arnie that I felt as if I had been there before. Not to go all New Age on you, but it felt eerily familiar. As if, a long time ago, this place meant something to me. It was unsettling. But we were excited to be near our destination and I didn’t have time to think much about it. That funny feeling would return and grow.
After we got our feet under us and had been in the area for a few weeks, I called my Mom and shared that we were in an area of Massachusetts that I recalled from childhood conversations with my Grandparents and I thought that I had some memories of being here before. But after years of being filled to the brim with children and work and life challenges I had only sketchy pieces of memory of this place. I would find that indeed, I had been here before and that the connection was real and strong. From various sources over the summer, I would be piecing together recollections that had faded and now are meaningful once again.
My Mother filled in many of the pieces for me. She explained that she was brought up in Milford in the home owned by my great-grandparents until she and her parents moved to Beebe River, New Hampshire when she was going into high school. She gave me the address and Arnie and I went out like sleuths in search of that home. After a few false starts, we checked with the Milford Library and found that the streets have been re-numbered several times. Mom provided an old photo of the house and, with that in hand, we were able to visually identify the house. I recognized it immediately and remembered coming here with my Grandparents to visit. It is comforting to find it well-kept and cheerfully presiding over the street to this day.
This home on Purchase Street belonged to my Great Grandfather John Henderson. He was a Milford selectman for many years and lived here with his second wife, my Gramma Carrie. Pulling up to the curb, I felt a deep sense of connection and remembered visits to this home as a very young child. At the age of 66, how is it that I now end up for the summer staying minutes from a home that welcomed me as a six-year-old child? What aligned the planets to make this come about? Tears welled up as I missed my beloved Grandparents with an acute longing. Here, the elders of my family lingered over coffee and conversation. I can smell the kitchen. I can taste the apples from their orchard. I can see the color of the woodwork. I can hear the rain on the roof over the bedroom I fell asleep in with a feeling of safety that only a child can feel in the bosom of a loving family. All of these recollections had been put away for a time when I could truly appreciate them once again. When we are fortunate enough to return to the places where we formed the habit of loving we are reminded of what is important.
We also went looking for another home on Congress Street in Milford. This home was the residence of my Great Great Grandparents and the beautiful bow-window in the front is where my Grandparents stood to be wed. I have a picture of them there on their wedding day. This home too is well-kept and obviously well-loved by its present day family.
And remember the cemetery that gave me deja vu as we drove by? Grampa John and Gramma Carrie are buried there. When we originally turned off the highway towards our final summer destination, we unknowingly drove within sight of their resting place in Pine Grove cemetery. If I had looked to the right, out the window, I would have seen their graves lying under the cast of sunlight drifting through the old oak trees. Later, when we would visit and tend the graves, the breeze would snoop around with me, reading the inscriptions, remembering, whispering to the memory of kind, loving people long ago moved to the great universal energy. I marvel at the force that brought us to this place which I might never have come to. I am so grateful to have been led here because, being here has completed something in me. Memories recaptured this summer have imbued the ordinary details of the days with weight and importance. The plain details of life were transformed into something sweet and dear when filtered through the memories of these loved ones, the work they did, the good lives they lived.
The memories flooded back and Arnie and I went on to explore further. The next town over from MIlford is the town of Hopedale. As a significant locale in the Blackstone River Valley Historical tract, it is protected and we decided to take a Ranger tour provided by the National Park Service one Thursday evening (for more information http://www.adinballou.org/walktour.shtml ). As we walked and listened, I was mesmerized. Here, in this town, in these buildings, my Grandfather worked as a young man. The ranger described the emergence of this town conceived and built by the Draper Corporation and the information below is from my notes on this tour.
Hopedale mirrors the small mill town that I grew up in, Beebe River, NH. I know that some of my childhood friends follow this blog, so I am going to share some of the details. See if you recognize any parallels with our little hometown. I thought of all of you and wished that we could all take this tour together.
Hopedale is unique. It was founded in 1841 as a small commune of Practical Christians who advocated temperance, abolition, women’s rights, Christian socialism and non-violence. Hopedale evolved into a paternalistic model company mill town. Today, its tree-lined streets, rows of mill houses and green parks still remain beside the silent towering mill complex remind me of Beebe River in its hey day. The Ranger tour invites us to relive the story of a town rooted in the dream of “peace and love” and tempered by the fire of industry and spectacular wealth in its time. That wealth is still evident in some of the grand homes and stately municipal buildings that remain and are amazingly well-kept.
The story really began when Universalist Reverend Adin Ballou and forty-five followers purchased a 258-acre farm in an area long known as “the Dale”. Each person owned shares and through their communal efforts they hoped to transform the world by establishing more Practical Christian communities to spread their philosophy.
Among this small band of Yankee pioneers in Utopian living was Ebenezer D. Draper, who ran a machine shop that produced parts for mechanical weaving looms. Eventually, Draper’s business became the main source of support for the communal association and in 1856, he and his entrepreneurial brother, George purchased the majority of the shares and assumed all of its debts. George Draper gave rise to a new era in Hopedale. His successful use of technological innovations resulted in the Draper Company’s emergence as the nation’s leading manufacturer of looms for the textile industry.
Combining great wealth with a strong social conscience, the Draper family maintained complete control over the town for over one hundred years. They provided jobs, built and maintained award-winning worker’s housing, erected imposing public buildings and regulated most aspects of public life within the community. They also left an endowment that continues to be used for community projects today.
At the height of production, the Draper Corporation employed more than 4,000 workers in the massive mill in Hopedale. My Grandfather, Harold Henderson worked in their business office which still stands across from the mill, now providing housing for seniors. Today the mill itself stands abandoned over the river and on silent watch over the town. A single guard patrols its depths each night to prevent vandalism.
My Grandfather was recruited from the Hopedale business office to move to New Hampshire and help to recreate the mill town model in rural New Hampshire in a locale where timber was plentiful and the bobbins used in the looms could be made. My Mother recounts that the decision to leave family and all things familiar did not come easily but it was a good promotion that might not come along again. My Dad, Ed Wentzell would work in that mill for many years and we would grow up as true children of the community attending the two room schoolhouse, participating in events at the Community Center, gardening in the community gardens, swimming and skating on the central pond, living in mill housing and shopping in the company store. By design, life in Beebe River reflected that of life in Hopedale.
The original values of Rev. Ballou continue to filter down through the generations and into our own lives. It should be of no surprise that I take no issue with temperance, abolition, women’s rights, socialism and non-violence as a good starting point for a well lived life given that I essentially grew up in a commune!
Draper Place, is the old Draper Company Office now
But, due largely to the decline of the American textile industry, the Draper family divested themselves of most of their town properties in the 1960’s and the corporation was acquired by outside owners. In 1978, the Hopedale plant was closed. Many of the mills in this area have been repurposed for commercial or residential use, but the Hopedale mill is a gigantic and sprawling complex. Reportedly, there are interested developers, but it is tied up in international litigation through Rockwell International, mostly owned by investors from China. Many families in all of the Draper properties lost not only jobs, but pensions and a sense of community when the Draper paternalistic model of management ended.
All my journeys, inside and out have led me here and now. I cannot help but wonder why was I led to the very place; this place. where I can still see my Grandmother and Great-Grandmother sitting by the window of the big old house on Purchase Street, hand sewing together the strips of wool that they would braid into colorful warm rugs. I am reminded that while memories of Milford and Hopedale remained in storage for most of my life, certain riches ripen only later in life. And now, I will simply savor the invisible braiding and intertwining of memories that weave the past to the present and on to the future. The braided past gives us a Way of Being crafted by family and community. The work is fine, hand done, linking us all together across generations and miles as family and friends.
For you, Beebe Kids, with love.