Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Thoreau Walked Thru (what later became Maynard)

On August 26, at 7:00 p.m., the Maynard Public Library will present a Zoomed talk titled: “Thoreau Walked Thru.” Register at https://www.maynardpubliclibrary.org/may150. This is the seventh in a monthly series of history lectures produced by the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee as part of Maynard’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of its creation on April 19, 1871. The September talk will be “Schools Through the Centuries.” A new history book “MAYNARD MASSACHUSETTS: A Brief History”, is for sale for $21.99 at 6 Bridges Gallery, 77 Main Street, WED-SAT, 12-5.  

This stamp, issued May 23, 2017, commemorated
the 200th year anniversary of HDT's birth. The
oil painting used as its model a photograph of
Thoreau taken when he was 39 years old.
He died five years later (May 6, 1862)
Henry David Thoreau's writings contain mention of this area in 1851, documented in publication of the journals after his death as an entry "A Walk to Boon's Pond in Stow."

It begins "Sept. 4. 8 A. M.  A clear and pleasant day after the rain. Start for Boon's Pond in Stow with C." By "C" he meant William Ellery Channing, who had been a classmate at Harvard, a neighbor in Concord, and the author of the first biography of Thoreau, published in 1873. From mentions of landmarks along the way it is possible to recreate a map of their path. The round-trip distance was a tad over 20 miles, some of it on roads or along the railroad, some through farmers' fields and woods.

Outward bound, Thoreau notes that odors from the gunpowder mills made them cough. Their walk continued westward on what is now Route 62. They skirted the paper mill (now site of 7-11/Dunkin), but did not cross the river on the newish (1840) bridge, nor walk down Main Street. Instead, they turned south onto what is now Route 27, then west on Old Marlboro Road, then into what is now the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.

Click to enlarge. Boon was
killed in 1676 during Metacom's 
War (King Philip's War)
Boon's Pond, their goal, was a much smaller body of water back then, described by Thoreau as shallow and muddy looking. The pond was the namesake of Matthew Boon, who had started a farmstead in 1660. The pond drained via a short creek to the Assabet River. Some time after 1850, Amory Maynard had bought land and water rights around Boon's Pond, then built an earthen dam to raise the water level. His goal was to have additional water reserved to release to the Assabet, so as to keep his mill in operation during summer months. Decades later the wool mill converted to steam power, so less water was needed. The water level no longer dropped every summer. Campsites, rented cabins, second homes, clubhouses and resorts proliferated on the now stable shoreline of the renamed Lake Boon, popular because it could be reached by train from Boston.

On the way back, Thoreau and Channing walked along the railroad tracks, beside the Assabet River. Construction of this railroad spur off the Boston to Fitchburg line had begun in 1849, and by 1850 extended through Stow to Hudson. Thoreau complained in his journal that there was no good place to bathe for three miles because Knight’s new dam (the Ben Smith dam, constructed 1846-47) had raised and stilled the river. His description “The fluviatile trees standing dead for fish hawk perches and the water stagnant for weeds to grow in.”

They crossed what is now the White Pond Road bridge, climbed Summer Hill, then headed east on Summer Street to Concord Street, and so homeward. At the time of their visit the gunpowder, paper and wool mills of Assabet Village were the business center of a population of about 800 people, citizens of Stow or Sudbury depending on which side of the river they lived.

A typical day in the life of Henry David Thoreau might mean work in the morning, either the family’s pencil manufacturing business or later as a surveyor-for-hire, followed by an afternoon of walking and an evening of writing in his journal. In his own words: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” He became alarmed if he found that he had gotten a mile of so in the woods, but his mind was still filled with thoughts of his obligations in the village.

“Walking” was the title of one of his essays. His first public reading was at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851. Between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read from the piece a total of ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “Walking” was published in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, shortly after his death from tuberculosis at age 44. The essay’s length is slightly more than 12,000 words. Various internet sources have the complete essay available on line – some with researchers’ annotations. He was aware, however, that his Massachusetts terrain was not true wildness, but rather a post-colonial return of once-farmed land to meadow, woodlot and forest. Civilization had led to local extinction of bears, mountain lions, wolves, deer, turkeys and beaver, so the largest wild animal Thoreau might sight would be a fox.

One dozen Thoreau pencils, with the original
paper wrapping, in the collection of the 
New England Historical Society
Wait, wait…pencils??? Charles Dunbar, brother-in-law to Henry’s father, John Thoreau, was in the pencil-making business from 1823 onward. Natural deposits of graphite, then called ‘plumbago,’ were mined. If very pure, the graphite was cut into rods, encased in wood (two pieces, glued together), to make a pencil. If not of highest quality, the graphite was ground fine, then mixed with a binding agent such as hard wax, encased in wood, to make a not-very-satisfactory pencil. The Thoreau ‘factory’ was in a shed behind the house.

After finishing his education at Harvard (in part paid for by pencils) Henry took it upon himself to make a better pencil. He either learned about a European process or developed it independently, to mix clay with the graphite, resulting in pencils of varying hardness depending on the ratio of clay to graphite. Henry also invented a means to collect only thoroughly ground graphite. A wooden tower was erected over the grinding apparatus, and a fan was directed to gently blow from the bottom upward. A collecting shelf was at the top. Only the smallest particles accrued on the shelf, the larger falling back to the grinder to be further milled. 

Thoreau pencils came be known at the best-made pencils in America. The high-quality plumbago was also used in electrotyping (an electroplating process). With a different ambition. Thoreau could have expanded the factory, hired more people, and become very wealthy. Instead, the business was kept modest – enough to provide the Thoreau family with a middle-class lifestyle – thus allowing for Henry to hie off to Walden Pond for two years, and in general, to use his afternoons for wandering and his evenings for writing.

At auction in 2018, an authenticated Thoreau pencil sold for more than $1,400.          

No comments:

Post a Comment