Joel Norcross House, Monson, Mass

The Joel Norcross House on Main Street in Monson, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The building in 2015:

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This house was built in the early 1830s, and aside from its architectural significance as an excellent example of Greek Revival style, it is also notable as the home of Joel Norcross, the maternal grandfather of poet Emily Dickinson.  The Norcross family was prominent in Monson’s early history; Joel’s father William built a large home and tavern on nearby Cushman Street in the late 18th century, and Joel himself became a successful farmer and merchant.  He married Betsey Fay in 1798, and the couple had nine children, including Emily Norcross, the mother of Emily Dickinson.

Betsey died in 1829, and at some point after that (one source says 1830, another says 1835) Joel had this house built.  He remarried in 1831 to Sarah Vaill, just a few weeks after Emily Dickinson’s birth.  Sarah became a grandmother figure to Emily, who undoubtedly visited them in this house during her childhood.  Joel died in 1846 and Sarah in 1854, and the house went to Joel’s son Alfred.  After Alfred’s death in 1888, his son Arthur D. Norcross inherited it.  Arthur attended Monson Academy, and in 1871 he was one of the 27 students in the first graduating class at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which would later become UMass Amherst.  Like the three generations before him, he was a prominent Monson citizen, and he served on the water commission, the school committee, the board of selectmen, and a number of other town offices.  He also represented the town in the state House of Representatives from 1904 to 1906, and the state Senate in 1908 and 1909.

Arthur’s son, Arthur, Jr., was born in Monson 1895, probably in this house, but he spent most of his life in New York City, where he founded the Norcross Greeting Card Company in the 1920s.  He did, however, continue to play a role in the town, and in 1939 he established the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson and the neighboring town of Wales.  When he died in 1969, he left much of his estate to the Norcross Wildlife Foundation for the continued operation of the sanctuary, which now consists of around 8,000 acres in Monson and Wales.

The old Norcross house, meanwhile, is still standing on Main Street, and it is one of the few surviving examples of a columned Greek Revival home in Monson.  A similar neighbor, which was probably built around the same time, was the Solomon F. Cushman, Jr. House, located just to the right of here.  It was demolished sometime in the mid 20th century, and it is now a shopping plaza.  As seen in the second photo, the Norcross House now has a jewelry store (on a personal note, I bought my wife’s engagement ring here), along with several other commercial tenants.  Thankfully, its exterior has been well-preserved, and despite the change in use, it still looks the same as it did during Emily Dickinson’s visits over 160 years ago.

Downtown Monson, Mass

Looking north on Main Street in Monson from near Lincoln Street, in 1860. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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The first photograph is among the earliest known images of Monson, and it shows a town in transition.  Founded 100 years earlier, Monson’s development had been largely limited by geography.  The town center, seen here, is located in a narrow valley with steep hills on either side, making large-scale farming impractical and transportation difficult.  However, 10 years before the first photo was taken, a railroad was built through the town, just out of view to the left.  This helped to spur industrial development, and in the second half of the 19th century the town’s population and economy grew thanks to a granite quarry, along with factories that produced textiles and hats.

When the 1860 photo was taken, this section of Main Street was still mostly residential, but by the end of the century many of these homes would be demolished and replaced with commercial buildings, especially the older homes in the foreground.  Other late 19th century changes included several new churches.  The old meeting house, whose steeple can be seen in the distance to the left, was replaced by a larger church in 1873, and in 1889 the Universalist church was built at the corner of Main and Lincoln Streets; it can be seen to the left in the 2015 photo, partially hidden by the tree in the foreground.

Despite all of the changes over more than 150 years, there are several buildings from the first scene that are still standing today.  The most obvious is the Methodist church, which was built in 1850 at the corner of Main and Cushman Streets.  Today, aside from a new steeple, it still looks essentially the same as it did in the 1860 photo.  Further up Main Street, many early 19th century houses are still standing today, but only a couple are readily identifiable in the 1860 photo.  The fourth house on the left is now the Unitarian-Universalist church parsonage, and it is located just beyond the present-day church and out of view from here.  Beyond it on the far left is the Joel Norcross House, which had been built around 30 years earlier by Emily Dickinson’s grandfather.  It is also hidden from view in the 2015 scene, but it is still standing and has since been converted into business and office space.

Solomon F. Cushman, Jr. House, Monson, Mass

The home of Solomon F. Cushman, Jr., on Main Street in Monson, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The site of the house in 2015:

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This Greek Revival style house was once the home of Solomon Cushman, Jr., the son of one of Monson’s prominent industrial leaders of the 19th century. His father, Solomon Cushman, Sr., was born in 1826 in Monson, Maine, a small town in central Maine.  After working in farms and lumberyards near his hometown, he became a store clerk, and later moved to Palmer, and then to Monson, Massachusetts, where he became a bookkeeper for the Monson Woolen Manufacturing Company, a textile company with a factory on present-day Cushman Street.

Cushman eventually became the owner of the company, and renamed it S.F. Cushman & Sons in 1878.  The Cushmans grew the company, purchasing a branch factory in 1883 at the corner of Maple and Elm Streets, and rebuilding the main factory on Cushman Street after a fire in 1886.  Solomon, Jr. was born in 1861, and he graduated from Monson Academy in 1880 and from MIT in 1882.  He also attended the Lowell School of Design, and later returned to Monson, where he was put in charge of the branch mill.  When the elder Cushman died in 1900, his five sons took over the company, but they soon began selling it.  The branch mill was sold in 1901, and the main factory operated under the Cushman name until 1912, when it was sold to a hat company.  The building has since been abandoned for many years, but it is still standing on Cushman Street over 125 years after the Cushmans opened it.

The house in the first photo was purchased by Solomon, Jr. sometime between about 1884 and 1894, but the house was much older than that.  Architecturally, it is very similar to the nearby Joel Norcross House, which was built in 1830 and is still standing today.  This house was probably built around the same time, and according to the 1857 county atlas, it was owned by Horatio Lyon, one of the owners of the Monson Woolen Manufacturing Company who first employed Cushman, Sr.  It was later the home of yet another factory owner, Cyrus W. Holmes, who lived here until his much more elegant Holmbrook mansion was completed just up the hill from here around 1870.

Several of the Cushman brothers lived nearby, including the oldest sibling, Edward, whose house on Main Street is now the Monson Senior Center.  I don’t know how long Solomon, Jr. lived here in this house, but he died in 1932 at the age of 70, and the house has obviously since been demolished.  Today, the former Cushman property is a shopping plaza with the Adams supermarket, a Rite Aid drugstore, and several smaller businesses.

Holmbrook, Monson, Mass

The Holmbrook mansion on Main Street in Monson, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The building in 2015:

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This beautiful Second Empire style mansion was built around 1870 for local factory owner Cyrus W. Holmes.  He named it Holmbrook, and he lived here until his death in 1891 at the age of 89.  Curiously, his son died only six days later, and the house eventually came into the ownership of Adelaide Wingate, who donated the house to Monson Academy in 1947 to use as a dormitory.  The school built tennis courts and a ski slope in the backyard, but in 1971 Monson Academy merged with Wilbraham Academy and moved to their Wilbraham campus.

The house was damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado, which destroyed two former Monson Academy buildings across the street from here.  When the second photo was taken, the house was still undergoing repairs more than four years later.  A 1988 Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System report described it as “undoubtedly Monson’s best example of the Second Empire style,” and even after the tornado it still retains much of its original Victorian detail, and it will hopefully soon be fully restored.

Ely Road, Monson, Mass

Looking up the hill on Ely Road toward the Keep Homestead, sometime around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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Ely Road in 2015:

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Ely Road is named for Alfred Ely, who lived on the street and served for 60 years as the pastor of the First Church of Monson.  The church is located at the bottom of Ely Road about a quarter mile from here, and from 1809 until 1843 Ely lived at the house at the top of the hill.  The house was built around 1800, and in 1854 it was purchased by Marcus Colton, who conveyed it to his nephew Edward Keep two years later.  From then it would remain in the Keep family for the next 132 years, until the death of Edward Keep’s granddaughter, Myra Keep Lovell Moulton, in 1988.

Upon her death, Myra willed the house to the town, to be used as the Keep Homestead Museum.  The house is hidden from view by the trees in the 2015 photo, but it is still there, and it is open to the public once a month from April to December.  Its collections include Myra’s extensive button collection, along with other antique furnishings, documents, and other items relating to the history of Monson.

Senior Center, Monson, Mass

The Edward Cushman House on Main Street in Monson, which later became the Monson Senior Center, probably around 1916-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The building in 2015:

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The present-day Monson Senior Center was built around 1850, and it is one of the many historic Greek Revival homes along this section of Main Street.  It was originally a private residence, with maps in 1857 and 1870 showing it belonging to a Mrs. L. Keep and a Mrs. Flynt, respectively.  Later in the 1800s, it was owned by Edward Cushman, the son of local industrialist Solomon F. Cushman, who owned a woolen mill on Cushman Street.  Edward and his brothers took over control of the company when their father died in 1900, and they ran it together until 1912, when they sold it to a local hat manufacturer, the Heimann and Lichten Company.

Edward Cushman died in 1915, and as part of his will the house became Monson Home for the Aged, a boarding house for elderly residents in town.  According to the house’s listing on the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, the house was enlarged and the tower was added during this conversion in 1916; if accurate, it helps provide the earliest possible date for the first photo.

The building was a boarding house until 1975, and since then it has been used as the Monson Senior Center.  It was damaged in the June 1, 2011 tornado that passed directly over it, but today it is in excellent condition and it is still serving the elderly residents of the town, a century after Edward Cushman’s death.  Incidentally, his father’s factory on Cushman Street is also still standing, although it is in poor condition and has been abandoned for many years.