This extraordinary essay about Bolton in the 1890’s is excerpted from the book, The Locomotive-God, by William Ellery Leonard (1876-1944), published in 1927 by Century Company. Leonard was a poet, playwright, and scholar. He was the son of The Rev. William Leonard, Minister of the First Parish, Bolton, 1893-1898. It is remarkable how many traces of the Bolton of that time can still be found today. Will our successors look back upon us as kindly as Leonard does here?
Special thanks to The Rev. Richard Jones, Minister of First Parish, 1995-present, for sharing this. The photos are scenes of Bolton taken by Dr. Oliver Everett around 1902 and are presented courtesy of the Bolton Historical Society.
A farm house—woods—stone walls—not a rail fence anywhere—between openings in the low hills either side, a pond here, a pond there. Little Pond. West Pond. A bend in the road, a cluster of white houses, each with a white barn clapped on behind it — cordwood piled on the roadside. The cluster is called the Pan. Only a mile more to the center. A cemetery, behind a low stone wall, and a row of maples. I see it.
Hills all about us, and yet Bolton itself is in the hills. Great hummocky Wattaquottoc where the sun sets, with the upward brown road along its side and the long brown farm house on its top; the great ledge with the little brick powder-house, in decay from the War of 1812, they say; the stretches of sunlit meadow-lands, woods, plowed fields, farmsteads.
Bolton center with its forty houses, its little new Baptist chapel, its blacksmith shop, and its general store at the crossroads, its wooden high school (so called). Between me and the red brick of the Town Hall is an immense and ancient live oak on the sloping common. Across the road, down there, the distance of a revolutionary musket-ball, is the parsonage. It looks like the picture of Emerson’s house in Concord, only nineteen miles away.
The folk that carried on among the hills was perhaps the sturdiest of their Yankee stock. They had the tenacity to stay, where there was still work to do. And every one a citizen, a real citizen in town meeting, with real civic problems, the repair of this road or that, the election of constable, school committee, or the three selectmen — the triumvirs of an agrarian republic six miles square.
So different, too, in the primitive simplicity of its social structure; the Sunday-school superintendent peddles through the center his strawberry crop; the selectman’s daughter works out for Mrs. Whitcomb; the girl that washes the Postmaster’s shirts dances of a Saturday night with the Postmaster; the son of the school committeeman mows hay in the fields with the town clerk. So it has been since 1738.
There are others to meet in the blacksmith shop or in the hayfield, in the cow-barn, working out the taxes on the road, at bean-suppers and corn-huskings, on doorsteps, laying stone walls, beating eggs, sewing, feeding chickens — and a story, many stories, in each — the inexhaustible treasures of humanity. Tragedy, Comedy, and eloquent common-place. Here was God’s plenty. The realest people, all in all, I have ever known were the Bolton villagers…or is it simply that a village four miles from the railroad is the only spot now left in the Western World where we can get near enough to people, and long enough, to know how real they are.
And all their thought and emotion comes from where their potatoes and Indian corn and hay and apples and elms come from — from the glacier drift and the rains and the snows and the sunshine.
I have turned many times to those farmsteads and roadsides and hill in imagination, without sentimentality, indeed with a very real sense of spiritual commonality in fundamentals of toil, pain, dignity, reserve, worth, humor, friendliness.