Ezekiel Keith House, Springfield, Massachusetts

The house at 258 Mill Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2023:

Springfield was established by colonial settlers in 1636, making it by far the oldest community in Western Massachusetts. However, unlike nearly all of the other cities and towns in the area, it does not have any surviving buildings that have been verifiably traced back to the colonial period. Most of the colonial-era houses in Springfield were demolished during a period of rapid population growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and today there are only a few dozen buildings that predate 1850, with none that can be confidently dated prior to 1800.

Despite this apparent lack of early buildings, many of the older houses in Springfield have not yet been extensively researched, so it is possible that there might be at least a few 18th century homes still standing in the city. Most of the prominent colonial-era homes in Springfield were located along the Main Street corridor, which was heavily developed and redeveloped many times over the course of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. As a result, there are clearly no 18th century buildings still standing in the downtown area, but it is possible that some might still exist in the outlying areas, which experienced less development pressure over the years, and where individual buildings were not necessarily as well documented by past historians, who tended to focus on the downtown area.

There are several houses in particular that warrant further research, but perhaps the single strongest contender for the title of oldest building in the city is the house shown in these two photos, which stands at the northeast corner of Mill and Knox Streets. The early history of this house has not yet been fully traced, and the interior architecture does not appear to have been studied yet, but the exterior appearance of the house seems to suggest that it was constructed at some point in the second half of the 18th century. Important clues include the spacing of the windows, the steep roof, and the slightly overhanging second story, all of which were typical for houses of that period.

The earliest documented owner of this house is Ezekiel Keith, who was shown as living here on the 1835 map of Springfield. Keith was born in Canton, Massachusetts around 1778, but he was in Springfield by 1806 when he married Elizabeth Ashley. It is possible that this house was built around the time that they were married, but based on its architecture it seems more likely that it was built a few decades earlier.

The house remained in the Keith family throughout the first half of the 19th century. Elizabeth died in 1825, and four years later Ezekiel remarried to Mary Barber. He died in 1846, but Mary outlived him by many years and apparently lived in this house until her death in 1873.

During their many decades of ownership here, the Keith family would have seen many significant changes to the surrounding area. The house is located on a hill just a few hundred feet to the north of the Mill River, near where the modern-day Mill Street crosses the river. Ezekiel’ death records indicate that he had been a farmer, so it seems unclear as to whether he was involved in any of the manufacturing that occurred along the river, but during the first half of the 19th century this section of the river developed into an important industrial center.

The Mill River is the only major source of water power that is entirely in Springfield, so a number of factories were built along its banks, including the Armory Watershops, where much of the heavy manufacturing for the U.S. Armory occurred. The Watershops were originally located on three separate sites along the river, including the Middle Watershops, which were just a little further upstream from the Keith house. Downstream of the house, on the other side of Mill Street, were the Ames Paper Mills, which had been established by former Armory superintendent David Ames.

Census records prior to 1850 do not provide much information about exactly who was living in a particular house, but starting in 1850 the census recorded the names and demographic information of every household member. Here in this house, Mary Keith was living here with a large family. Two adult children from her first marriage, John Barber and Lucia Alden, lived here, as did her stepdaughter Olive Keith. The household also included Lucia’s husband Elijah Alden, and their children Lucia, Louisa, and Joel. Elijah worked as a carpenter, while John Barber was listed as being a gunsmith, probably at the nearby Armory Watershops.

After Mary’s death in 1873, her son John continued to live here. The 1880 census shows him here with his wife Harriet and a boarder, Dr. James W. Wicker. It seems unclear as to exactly what Dr. Wicker’s relationship to the Barbers was, but John died in 1887 and three years later Dr. Wicker married Harriet. He died in 1908, and Harriet died in 1916, ending about a century of ownership by the Keith/Barber families.

The house was subsequently owned by Walter and Otillie Cowles. They were living here by about 1918, and they initially rented the house before purchasing it in the early 1920s. During the 1920 census they were both in their early 40s, and they had five children: Augusta, Walter, Norman, Charles, and Irving. The elder Walter worked as a tile setter, while his 18-year-old son Walter was listed as a “tile helper,” presumably working with with his father. Their daughter Augusta was also employed, working as a machine operator in a toy factory.

The Cowles family was still living here when the top photo was taken in the late 1930s. By this point the house had undergone some exterior changes, likely after the Cowles family purchased it. These changes included a portico at the front entrance, a small addition on the right side of the house, and the installation of brick veneer on the first floor. Given Walter’s occupation as a tile setter, it seems plausible that he would have done the brickwork himself.

At some point the house was further altered by installing artificial siding on the upper parts of the house. This may have also occurred during the Cowles family’s ownership. Walter and Otillie lived here until their deaths in the 1960s, and the house remained in the family until 1990, when it was finally sold by Walter’s estate.

Today, the house is still easily recognizable from the first photo, and even the saw palmettos in the foreground appear to be some of the same ones that were here in the 1930s. At first glance, the age of this house is somewhat difficult to tell, since the exterior is entirely covered in 20th century materials. However, it is definitely one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, and depending on its exact construction date it might be the city’s only surviving colonial-era building.

Hannah E. Griffin House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 175 Mill Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2017:

This house was built around 1890, and was originally the home of Hannah E. Griffin, an elderly widow whose son, Solomon B. Griffin, was the managing editor of the Springfield Republican. According to the 1899 city atlas, Solomon owned the house, although he and his wife Ida were living on Round Hill at the time, with Ida’s mother. During the 1900 census, Hannah was 80 years old, and was living in this house with her unmarried daughter Mary, as well as a servant. Hannah lived here until her death in 1903, and the following year Solomon built his own house on an adjacent lot, which is visible in the distance on the left of both photos.

Solomon’s sister Mary continued to live here until the late 1910s, and by 1920 the house was the home of Solomon’s son Courtlandt and his newlywed wife, Alice. Courtlandt was a salesman for the Carew Manufacturing Company, a paper manufacturer in Holyoke, and he and Alice lived here for several years, before moving to Sumner Avenue around 1924. The house was subsequently rented to Charles C. Ramsdell, the vice president of the  Gilbert & Barker Manufacturing Company, a West Springfield-based company that made gasoline pumps, oil burners, and similar equipment. He and his wife Marguerite lived here until around 1927, but by the end of the decade they had moved to an apartment at the Hotel Kimball on Chestnut Street.

This house sat vacant for several years, but by the early 1930s it was being rented by Dr. Arthur Edgelow, an English-born physician who lived here with his mother Caroline, his wife Cybel, and their four young daughters: Carol, Catherine, Honour, and Margaret. They were still living here when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, and the 1940 census shows them paying $80 per month in rent, while also employing two maids. However, the family only lived here for a few more years before moving to a house on Oxford Street in the Forest Park neighborhood.

Over the years, the house declined to the point where, by the early 2000s, it was tax-foreclosed and vacant. The house remained abandoned and boarded-up until 2015, when it was purchased from the city and restored. At some point over the years the porches had been enclosed, so part of the restoration included rebuilding these to match their original appearance, and today the house does not look much different from how it looked when the first photo was taken nearly 80 years ago.

Solomon B. Griffin House, Springfield, Mass

The house are 185 Mill Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2017:

This large Tudor Revival-style home was built in 1904 for Solomon B. Griffin, the managing editor of the Springfield Republican. Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1852, he attended Williams College, where his father was a professor and librarian. However, because of poor health he did not graduate, and after leaving college he came to Springfield, where he was hired by Republican editor Samuel Bowles as a member of the newspaper staff. Although he started out as a reporter, he soon earned greater responsibilities, first becoming the local editor and then, in 1878, the managing editor.

Solomon Griffin was a bachelor for much of his adult life, but in 1892 he married Ida M. Southworth, the 34-year-old daughter of the wealthy paper manufacturer John H. Southworth, who had died the year before. After their marriage, Solomon and Ida lived with her mother Elizabeth in the Southworth mansion on Round Hill in the North End, where they raised their two sons, Bulkley and Courtlandt. However, Elizabeth died in 1901, and within a few years the family had this house built on Mill Street, directly adjacent to 175 Mill Street, which Griffin had owned since the 1800s.

The house was situated on a large lot, extending along the south side of Mill Street from Pine Street to Maple Street, and all the way back to the Mill River. A century earlier, the property had been the home of David Ames, Sr., an early Springfield industrialist who served as first superintendent of the armory, and the lot was later sold to Horace Smith, the co-founder of Smith & Wesson. The old Ames house was demolished around 1890, and by the time Griffin purchased the property the lot was vacant. He built this house on the northwestern corner of the property, along with a carriage house on the opposite side of the lot, set back from the road.

Solomon Griffin remained the managing of the Springfield Republican for more than 40 years, before finally retiring in 1919, and he lived here in this house until his death in 1925. In the meantime, though, his son Bulkley was also involved in the newspaper business, starting out as a reporter for the Republican before establishing the Griffin News Bureau in 1922. He was a veteran of World War I, and he would also go on to serve as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II.

After her husband’s death, Ida continued to live in this house for the rest of her life. During the 1930 census, the property was valued at $100,000, or about $1.5 million today, and Ida was living here alone except for a servant and a cook. She was still here when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, but she died soon after, in 1940. The property was subsequently acquired by Amity Lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows, who continue to hold their meetings here more than 75 years later. Along with the rest of the surrounding neighborhood, the house is now part of the Ames/Crescent Hill District on the National Register of Historic Places.