John Mason Batchelder – Keen Observer of a Proper Holliston

The recording of local history during the 19th and early 20th century advanced significantly with the rise of newspapers that preserved – especially for the benefit of future historians – the everyday, seemingly mundane local news as well as “ancient” history. Holliston’s later historians still benefit from the weekly and eventually, daily news items that appeared in newspapers published in Holliston, Framingham and Milford beginning in the 1850’s and continued unbroken (except for the years of the Civil War) and continues right up to yesterday with sometimes thanks to the internet. Local writers occasionally reported events of a purely historical value, and the daily lives of Holliston residents provided a unique and personalized view about life in Holliston in far greater detail than is published today.

John Mason Batchelder, State Representative 1873

Fortunately for us, John Mason Batchelder, born in Holliston in 1832, was an astute observer of daily life and even more closely about his own social circle. John Mason Batchelder had picked up where Abner left off, and John may have learned a thing or two from him. Batchelder also used a nib and a fountain pen, and he also wrote during the age of the typewriter. He was the son of shoe and bootmaker John Batchelder and Emeline Mason.  Educated in local schools, he enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle due in part to his parent’s hard work and good fortune, and he occupied many roles in town and state (1873) government.

In 1856, he married Almira Lovering Pond, who died of consumption just one year later. He married Mary Harding in 186, and they adopted her niece, Josephine, who would later follow in his footsteps as president of the Holliston Historical Society, a position first held by her father. During the Civil War he was commissioned justice of the peace by Governor Andrew. He held various town offices until his death in 1917.  He was a library trustee, member of the Holliston Savings Bank board of trustees, and operated a store on the same spot where the Holliston Superette is now located. When he became the first president of the Holliston Historical Society in 1910, he set about writing essays that today give us an idyllic, nostalgic look at Holliston seen through a Victorian-era lens. He was polite, avoided controversial topics, injected a little humor when he could, and wrote about bygone times in a way that idealized life in Holliston.

Another fireplace story was the way the women of those days went shopping in Boston. Several women would gather their butter, cheese, dried apples or berries, herbs for medicine or flavoring, fruit in its season, yarn of their own spinning or stockings – not much of any one kind – load their saddlebags, mount the side-saddle on the back of the faithful farm horse and start for Boston, planning to have the husband of one of the women go with them, whether as an ornament or protection we can’t say. “Story of Tea Party Is Told,” John Mason Batchelder, 1911

His essays dealt with long-gone Native Americans who had lived in this region for thousands of years. He produced the only history we have about of the Acadian refugees brought to Massachusetts and distributed among towns between 1755 and 1767 – and who were quickly encouraged to leave for Quebec as soon as possible so that they would not become a financial burden. He gently revealed for the first time Holliston’s part in Mormon history, a sensitive subject that had been—until his 1912 essay—omitted from Holliston’s history. He wrote about Irish immigrants but depicted them only as stereotypical characters and mentioned very few by name despite the fact that the Irish immigrants had been a significant part of local history for nearly his entire life. He wrote about a Holliston that seemed lovelier than our town may actually have been:

No Rail Roads, no Telegraph, Telephone, or automobiles. Travel was by Stage Coach, horseback, “go as you please.Liquors were to be obtained at all the hotels, taverns, and stores in the Town. Teaming was largely by Ox teams. In 1812-14, Esq. Nathaniel Johnson drove an express team from Boston to Philadelphia with four oxen, in employ of the government, taking about six weeks for the trip, but the close of the war ruined that industry.

Washington street from East Holliston Depot to the Sherborn willows was not then built, the thoroughfare to Boston passing over Whitney Street by way of South Sherborn and South. Natick until 1829.

The old Meeting House stood on the corner of Hollis Street, nearly in front of the present Town Hall building.

Farming was the principal industry, the Shoe making business just coming to the front.  Money was scarce, barter the principal method of trade, and yet these people were as happy and contented and enjoyed life as well as the overworked City dwellers in the twentieth century. Notes  – 1916 – from a manuscript by John Mason Batchelder

At the Constitutional Convention in 1853 the district of Holliston and Sherborn was represented by a gentleman of the old school, rather eccentric, somewhat antiquated in costume, but of courtly mien and very approachable to the entire membership. He was constant in attendance, while his blue “swallow tailed” coat with gilt buttons and an enormous collar, antedating that time by a quarter century rendered him an object of attention to some of the city members, who proceeded to “guy” him about his personal appearance and becoming a trifle fresh with the country member, one of their number asked him if he was the best man his district could send to the convention. “Well, no,” he replied, “there are some better men in my district than I, but none of them have so good clothes so they sent me.” John Mason Batchelder, 1916

Holliston is looking forward to 2024, when the town will celebrate 300 years since its incorporation. Gathering history has radically changed. The internet has made historical – and genealogical history – much easier to find, and much of the “ancient” history of Holliston has been recorded in previous publications.

Today, we have many ways to view our history, and a grass-roots organization is coming together to take on the challenge of finding the best stories about Holliston.  In the spirit of Abner Morse and John Mason Batchelder and how they tackled historical research, we propose to do what Abner and John have done – ask people to tell their stories about what it was/is like to live in Holliston. The best people to tell the story – as Abner and John have demonstrated – is to encourage people to tell their stories – have all the people in Holliston become the town’s historians. We want to hear from people who have lived in Holliston all their lives (the so-called Townies), and we also want to hear from people who moved here last week.

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Joanne Hulbert

1 Comment

  1. Paul Saulnier on July 25, 2022 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for this review of John Batchelder and life in Holliston “back in the day”. I learned that the French Canadians captured in Nova Scotia were dropped off here in Holliston. Sherborn has posted this history as well (but then Holliston was part of Sherborn back then).