Many years ago my first drive through the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, hooked me into a lifelong passion to know more of her and her people. From viewing the 1870’s brick row houses on Mattoon Street to the gilded age mansions of Ridgewood and Maple Hill, it did not take a lot of imagination to conjure up a vision of the city’s glory days. The architecture and beauty of the homes spoke clearly. My research began.
Court Square, c. 1910, the downtown heart of the City of Homes
The Registry of Deeds launched my exploration with a legal skeleton of house information: names, dates and land descriptions. The local history room at the Carnegie-built public library offered a variety of volumes, but, best of all, scrapbooks. History buffs and library staff over the decades had filled un-indexed volumes with clippings from newspapers. Browsing through the random pages, I became acquainted with the individuals that gave the city life. Microfiche of newspapers were then available on bulky readers, and occasionally I stumbled upon specific information I sought, but Lady Luck played a large role in such fortuitous events. Eventually the computer age came to the rescue with digitized records, search engines and printing capabilities.
Springfield Public Library where librarians have preserved the city's
written history since 1912
Before Springfield newspapers became available online, I knew only that the 1850s house at 22 Salem Street had been built by an ambitious fugitive slave, John N. Howard. Bits of his history could be pieced together by the stories in the library scrapbooks, but the digitizedSpringfield Republican (Jan. 5, 1863) introduced me to the man:
“The Friends of the Cause of Freedom and Humanity, without distinction of shade or cast, are invited to participate with the colored citizens of this city in a celebration in honor of the president’s late proclamation of freedom to be given at the city hall…The Rev. H.H. Garnet, Wm. Wells Brown and other distinguished speakers are engaged for the occasion.”
Mr. Howard was listed as one of five on the committee of arrangement. The digitized Springfield Republican also revealed that in addition to serving in his church, singing with the all black Thalberg Union, and fellowshipping with the (Charles) Sumner Masonic Lodge, he attended the Prohibitionist Convention with some of the city’s most prominent teetotalers.
Springfield house at 22 Salem St. where fugitive slave John Nelson
Howard found refuge in the 1850s
Later stories attested to Mr. Howard’s friendship with legendary abolitionist John Brown, who had resided briefly in town and returned frequently to rally support for his mission to end slavery. According to a July 4, 1909, Republican article, Howard was one of Brown’s Gileadites, a league organized in 1851 to band together for mutual defense against slave catchers. The group’s resolution was signed by “54 Springfield negroes, many of them ex-slaves and refugees. This list was headed by B. C. Dowling and included J. N. Howard, sexton of South church.” Reasonable speculation would suggest that the famous reformer may have visited the premises at 22 Salem Street.
When a friend bought her first home in Springfield’s Victorian McKnight section at 158 Sherman Street, I scoured the library’s genealogical records to track the Ellis family who had owned the house since 1893. The Ellis’ nine-year-old Harriet would continue to live in the domicile until her death in 1977. Miss Ellis did well by her old New England stock and became a teacher of drawing in local schools. Upon searching her name in the digital edition of the Springfield Republican, I learned that when class was not in session, she practiced in her home studio a spectrum of art forms, including her specialty: paper silhouettes of children.
An advertisement in the January 2, 1927, Springfield Republican (page 7) suggested that “As a keep-sake, a present day silhouette will be priceless in the future. Arrange for sitting appointments today at 158 Sherman Street.” A sample of her work illustrated the ad.
Throughout her life, she offered private art instruction at home and in a summer school. The Springfield Union (May 11, 1969) gave us a room-by-room tour of the artist’s home as well as a look at the 85 year old woman herself. “There is a peace and tranquility about Miss Ellis. Her thoughts go back many years. However, she knows the present world but is not disturbed by its noises, blasts and fury for she is hard of hearing. Yet, unlike the musician who must hear to really appreciate, Miss Ellis still sees beauty around her.”
Across the city on Vinton Street stands the ornate Italianate mansion once briefly owned by a hired man with a troubled past, George D. Nelson. As I flipped through the pages of one of those library scrapbooks, an old photo of the stately 19th-century edifice jumped out at me. The caption introduced the story of heiress Emma Goodrich Vinton. Mrs. Vinton bore resolutely her marriage to an ill-tempered alcoholic. She looked to Mr. Nelson, her coachman, for encouragement and fortitude. When her spouse died, she shifted business decisions to her unlikely confidante. When she, too, left this world, the terms of her will by-passed stunned relatives and left the family fortune to the handsome man who had cared for her horses—and her.
After the dust had cleared, the February 9, 1910, Republican disclosed the story in detail. The horse whisperer had arrived in town around 1875 with “a pair of horses for President William Bliss of the Boston and Albany railroad.” The article further noted that “Mr. Nelson was a fine looking young man when he came to this city.” He found Springfield a comfortable place to stay and, as a result of his employer’s legacy, came to own not only the Vinton Street mansion but a Main Street hotel and theater as well. He enjoyed his properties only two short years before dying a lonely man in his room at the Nelson Hotel. Rumors spread that he was intestate, and Nelson “heirs” surfaced to claim their share. Alas, they found that Mr. Nelson had rearranged his name prior to his arrival in Springfield to evade angry creditors. He was, in fact, George Nelson Dunn and his borrowed kingdom went to his out-of-state nephew George G. Dunn.
The glory days of my beloved Springfield may have faded, but the reformers, artists and lovers of years past left their indelible mark on the places they lived. Every time I view another digitized page of a vintage newspaper, I expect to add to the remarkable roster of yesteryear’s residents in the City of Homes.