Our Clara Barton Connection

Until recently the only historical connection that I was aware of between Framingham and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and one of the most famous women in American history, has been her brief term of service as superintendent of the state prison for women now known as MCI-Framingham. But now I am pleased to report that I have been able to confirm a stronger and more personal connection – one that goes back to the very origins of Framingham as an incorporated town.


Clara Barton circa 1866

Clara Barton was born Clarissa Harlow Barton in 1821 in Oxford, a town about twenty-four miles west of Framingham. She came to fame during the Civil War as a tireless advocate of relief and care for wounded soldiers, organizing field hospitals, and searching for men missing in action. While doing similar work in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War, she learned of the International Red Cross, and on returning home she worked to establish the American Red Cross, which was accomplished in 1881. When Civil War General Benjamin Butler became Governor of Massachusetts in 1883, he asked Clara Barton to become the third superintendent at the state prison that was then called the Reformatory Prison for Women at Sherborn. She complied reluctantly and spent an unhappy nine months running a prison whose mission was contrary to her deep humanitarian instincts. After her time at the prison, her career of bringing relief and aid to people stricken by war and natural disasters continued until her death in 1912.


Women’s State Prison – Framingham

As the prison was located on land that was within the Town of Sherborn during Clara Barton’s tenure (a boundary change brought it into Framingham in 1924), Framingham’s historical claim to Barton has been a tenuous one, until now. My suspicion that there may be a deeper connection began with three clues: 1) one of the settlers of the Salem End district of Framingham, which was populated by refugees from the 1692 witchcraft prosecutions of the Salem area, was a man named Samuel Barton; 2) many of the families that settled at Salem End, including John Town’s and Samuel Barton’s, migrated farther west to the town of Oxford; and 3) Clara Barton was born in Oxford one hundred years later. It therefore seemed likely that Clara Barton may have been a descendant of one of our founding families at Salem End.

The possibility of an early Clara Barton connection with Framingham was made even more interesting when I learned from Temple’s History of Framingham that Samuel Barton was married to Hannah Bridges Barton, who was a daughter of Sarah Clayes by her first husband, Edmund Bridges. If Clara was a direct descendant of Samuel Barton, then she would also be a direct descendant of Sarah Clayes, the most renowned of our Salem refugees. Sarah Clayes had been indicted for witchcraft herself and was imprisoned in jail in Ipswich. Two of her sisters were convicted of witchcraft and hanged on Gallows Hill. Sarah managed to escape and fled to Framingham Plantation where she and her husband Peter Clayes founded the Salem End colony in 1693, and where they helped to establish the Town of Framingham in 1700.


Sarah and Peter Clayes House, built in 1693

The answer to my mystery finally came via the Internet. I had been doing some genealogy research for a woman in Virginia who found me through the Framingham web page. One of her family lines involved the Clayes family. I asked about tracing the descendants of Sarah Clayes and referred to James Roome, official genealogist of the Towne Family Association. Sarah Clayes’s maiden name was Towne. To my delight Mr. Roome’s response to my inquiry was a detailed genealogy chart linking Sarah Clayes to Clara Barton in a direct line of descent.

After leaving Framingham, Samuel Barton settled in Oxford where he died. His son Edmund had been born in Framingham and eventually settled in Sutton, the town just east of Oxford. Edmund’s son Stephen apparently moved back to Oxford where his son, also named Stephen, was born. This second Stephen Barton was Clara Barton’s father. One wonders if Clara was aware that her ancestry included some of the “Salem witches”. When she lived in the brick superintendent’s house at the women’s prison, did she realize that only a few miles away her great-grandfather was born? And did she know the story of Sarah Clayes and her dramatic escape from Ipswich? During Clara Barton’s time that background may have been considered a dark family secret. Now the secret is out, and our appreciation of both Sarah Clayes and Clara Barton is all the stronger for it.


Originally published in the March 1998 Framingham Historical Society Newsletter by Stephen Herring, Framingham Town Historian 

Tea & Talk Series: Who was Edna Dean Proctor?

tea series collage
March 9th at 2:00 p.m.
Edgell Memorial Library
3 Oak St, Framingham 

Enjoy tea while viewing a short lecture that will take you more deeply into our History in the Stitches exhibition. All guests are invited to stay and view the exhibition.

We knew Edna Dean Proctor was a local poetess during the Civil War era, but since we chose her 1870s tea gown for our exhibit we decided to do more digging. Storyteller Libby Franck will discuss Edna’s remarkable life including a solo trip to Russia. Libby is not able to join us for a live presentation on this day however, and Access Framingham has recorded her for our viewing. 

Members $5; Non-members $10. Space is limited; Reservations required.


Edna Dean side view

Tea Gown owned by Edna Dean Proctor – 1890s

Christmastime at Shoppers World

This submission written by storyteller and FHC volunteer Libby Franck (written in 2009)

Christmas at Shoppers World in Framingham (1951-1994) used to be truly festive.  Two levels of stores surrounded an open courtyard.  Bridged walkways let you walk from one side to the other.  With Jordan Marsh at one end and General Cinema at the other, this was an inviting setting for Christmas shoppers.  In the courtyard Santa held forth in the gazebo with a pen nearby for his reindeer. Huge blocks spelled out Joy to the World. And then there were the soldiers – a platoon of 24 wooden toy soldiers ­- the smallest of them 10 feet tall and the 20 foot tall General who commanded them.  All were garbed in red, blue and gold, each smartly presenting a shiny black wooden rifle.shoppers-world2

The idea came from a woman in the promotions department.  The actual soldiers were made by Shoppers World maintenance worker and celebrated woodworker Hal Purrington.  An underground workspace beneath Windsor Button Shop was turned into a veritable Santa’s toyshop from March ­ Thanksgiving 1975. Each soldier was made up of 3 pieces, the head and body, the legs, and the gun. The legs were bolted to the body and the gun is detachable.  Each piece was hand crafted assembly-line style.  The train, the gazebo, and the Joy to the World Blocks were also the work of Purrington. When Shoppers World got ready for Christmas the soldiers were placed facing out each against a pillar on the lower level.  The huge General had a fancier hat, no cross on his chest and held no gun.  All were stored under Windsor Button Shop to await the next Christmas Season.


Santa’s reindeer

In 1994 Shoppers World was demolished and no one could manage the removal of the 20 foot General.  Rumor has it that he lies buried under the rubble of the historic shopping Mall.  The other soldiers were given away or sold.

 In 1996 or 1997 the soldiers reappeared, scattered about Framingham, assigned their posts by the Parks and Recreation Department: the Common in Framingham Center, the Memorial Building, the bank next to Dunkin Donuts, the Common in Downtown Framingham, Bowditch Field, Amazing Things Arts Center, Cushing Park, ADESA Car Auction on the site of the old GM plant. Other soldiers can be spotted at the Sherborn Inn and two rest in a private garage on Water Street. 


Holiday traffic on Route 9 in Framingham. South Middlesex News, December 23, 1975

Cheese or Laundry? The 175 Year Old Wooden Tub that Sparked the Question


Who would you go to for wooden tub repairs? A cooper, of course!

A few months ago this wooden tub was in pieces. Time and weather conditions had caused the metal hoops to fall off and the pieces of wood had come apart. Why would we want to keep a broken tub you ask? Because it was made by Framingham resident Warren Nixon (1793 – 1872) between the 1830s-70s.

Warren Nixon FHC Collection

Warren Nixon – FHC Collection

The provenance of an object (the object’s origin) is the most important reason why museums keep artifacts. In this case, Warren Nixon was a shoe cobbler and land surveyor who created the Framingham Map of 1832 along with Colonel Jonas Clayes. He was also the great-grandson of military hero General John Nixon, grandson of skilled carpenter Colonel Thomas Nixon Sr., and son of Revolutionary War fifer Captain Thomas Nixon Jr. All of these men were prominent Framingham residents and the family’s long history makes this tub a valuable object of Framingham’s history.

The cooper that kindly reassembled this tub was Strawbery Banke Museum‘s resident cooper Ron Raiselis. Mr. Raiselis was delighted to learn of the age and history of this tub and he wrote “my estimation is that this beautifully made tub was built between 1830 and 1870s. Excellent work that survived.” He goes on to say that the tub appears to have been white-washed or painted inside, often an indication of dairy use, but it could easily have been a laundry tub as well. What do you think was the original use of the tub?

Women doing laundry in wooden tubs - very similar to the Nixon tub

Women doing laundry in wooden tubs – very similar to the Nixon tub

Museum Mysteries: Who is “Aunt Rebecca” Kingsbury?


Kingsbury Tea Gown

by Stacen Goldman, FHC Curator

If you’ve already been to see our newest exhibit “History in the Stitches: Framingham Fashion through the Centuries,” then you may remember this tea gown.

You may have learned from the exhibit a little bit about the history and use of the Tea Gown in the late 19th Century, but we didn’t tell you about the mystery that underlies this particular garment, perhaps one of the most puzzling mysteries of our costume collection. Who wore it?

Now, this may not seem like a particularly exciting mystery. This is a question that museums are forced to ask themselves all the time, and more often than not, the answer eludes them. We, however, have just enough information to whet our appetites, but not enough to satisfy our hunger for knowledge! This tea gown is one among a number of items in our costume collection that was donated by a member of the Kingsbury family, an old Framingham family. A few of these pieces (primarily black shawls and outerwear) are additionally marked as belonging to “Aunt Rebecca.” This tea gown is not one of those pieces, so we can’t know for sure that it was Rebecca’s. However, there are a number of clues that lead us to reasonably deduce that it might have been hers.

The first, and most obvious, is dating. The Aunt Rebecca pieces that we have positively identified are dated between 1880 and 1910 and this dress is circa 1893-1896, which falls right in the middle of that range. The next clue is style. Rebecca’s garments are intricate, expensive, and LOUD. I mean that literally; one of the shawls we have from Rebecca is covered in “noisy fringe,” which is fringe made from yarn-covered wooden beads. When in motion, the beads clack against each other, making noise. It’s easy to tell from this shawl that the women who wore it wanted to turn heads.noisy-fringe-side-by-side

The tea gown, while not literally loud, certainly has a lot going on. Between the iridescent patterned silk (which will be addressed in a later blog post), the busy crocheted lace, the velvet collar and cuffs, and the rouching in the back, I would not blame you for calling this dress loud! Each of these details is also rather expensive; this dress is undoubtedly finery. From what we can tell, loud, busy, and expensive was exactly “Aunt Rebecca’s” taste.

After making the educated guess that this dress did, indeed, belong to “Aunt Rebecca,” I wanted to know more about her: Where did she live? Was she married? Was she really as eccentric as her clothing makes her out to be?  So I put our research team to work trying to locate her in the historical record. Fred Wallace, Town Historian, and Ruthann Tomassini, a dedicated genealogist hunted for a “Rebecca Kingsbury” from the late 19th century to no avail. Then it occurred to us that perhaps she was not a Kingsbury herself, but maybe a maternal aunt, or the aunt of someone who married into the Kingsbury family.

I had a breakthrough when I discovered a note in one of our records, stating that an “Aunt Rebecca” piece was likely donated by Esther Kingsbury Fair in 1941. A quick glance at our hand written records indicated that Esther donated 83 costume pieces to the Framingham Historical Society that year! It seems likely that most, if not all, of our Kingsbury pieces came from Esther. I turned to the genealogical record to see if Esther had an aunt named Rebecca.

I found two possibilities, both on Esther’s maternal (non-Kingsbury) side in the Bullard Family of Holliston. The next two paragraphs may get confusing, so here is a visual of Esther’s family tree with our two possibilities highlighted:

kingsbury-bullard-family-treeThe first Rebecca is a great-aunt: Rebecca Bullard, aunt of Esther’s mother Frances Joanna Bullard. However, Great-Aunt Rebecca was born ca. 1820 and died in 1906 and our latest Aunt Rebecca piece dates to 1910. It is possible that the dating on the clothing isn’t exactly right, but this Rebecca would have been of a fairly advanced age when wearing some of what we have in our collection, which doesn’t really seem to line up with her style.  Another strike against great-aunt Rebecca was that she had seven children. It seemed more likely to me that our “Aunt Rebecca” didn’t have any children of her own, otherwise she would have passed her clothing on to her direct descendants, rather than a niece. Great-Aunt Rebecca was a possibility, but things weren’t lining up perfectly.

The second candidate is Alice Rebecca Bullard (1844-1924), Esther’s mother’s sister. It’s fairly common to find a woman who went by her middle name, and Alice Rebecca’s dates line up more closely with the items in our collection. She was childless and was buried with her parents in their plot in Holliston, indicating she was unmarried. These are the hallmarks of a woman who might leave her clothing to a favorite niece. Still, the records I could locate were spotty and there is no clear indication that Alice Rebecca went by her middle name. Yet again, things weren’t lining up perfectly.

So far, this is where we are left with the mystery of “Aunt Rebecca.” Although we have two candidates, her exact identity still eludes us. We haven’t entirely given up hope though! Perhaps you, members of the greater Framingham community, can help us discover more. If you have any information about “Aunt Rebecca,” the Kingsbury family, or the Bullard family, please email me at curator@framinghamhistory.org or call 508- 626-9091. With your help, maybe we can finally illuminate the story behind a significant portion of our costume collection.


History in the Stitches: Framingham Fashion through the Centuries is open to the public Wednesday-Saturday, 1-4 PM through the end of April.