Chronicle of Duxbury (1896)

The following was written by Ruth (Ford) Bradford.[1]

A Chronicle of Duxbury


1879 Atlas showing the location of Matilda Peterson’s shop on Surplus Street, near the junction of South Station Avenue.

On a ridge of a sandy road, in the most barren part of Duxbury, known to the inhabitants as Poverty St. [Surplus Street] and not far from the South, and unpainted low double house, no trees to protect if from the fierce rays of the sun in summer, or from the cutting blasts of winter, that sweep in so keenly from the ocean, the thin soil would hardly sustain a garden if planted, only a few lilac bushes hold their own, each side of the front door, and a row of beach plum bushes on one side yield annually, their acid puckery fruit. These, with the wealth of lilac blossoms every Spring were the only return this barren home-stead afforded to its lonely occupant, Mrs. Matilda Peterson[2], or Aunt Matilda, as she was generally called. A common post and rail fence was the only protection from the road and the loose sandy soil, hardly gave support to that. This humble abode does not differ from many still standing in this historic town, but she, who lived there, and of whom I write, was no common woman, as a child I was awed by her stern aspect, and the settled melancholy which seldom left her features. When I asked why she was so different from other people, the explanation did not satisfy me. Her father was Thomas Chandler whose farm was near the shore of the bay west of Standish Hill. She married early in life James Peterson a house carpenter, they had not been married but a few years before he sickened and died, then her only child, a little boy by the name of John was taken from her, and also a father and mother were called to the higher life, this all within a year’s time and she was left alone with this little home. One would have thought that the cheerful faith of the Universalists which she held, would not only have enabled her to stand erect and bear life’s trials, but to wear again a sunny hard and cheerful temper, if it did, they were not apparent, but hers was no complaining spirit, she accepted her lot with quiet dignity, and impressed all with her reserve power and superiority over her surroundings, and no one knew of her sorrow, but by the settled sadness of her countenance. In a few years she opened a little store in one of her front rooms for the sale of dress goods and fancy articles, thus her lonely life was broken by the visitors to her house, yet they were not numerous, for the place was thinly settled, and her house was remote from the majority of the inhabitants. Her business tact had the keenness to provide articles which could not be found in other stores of the place, and in her day Duxbury was a rich town, prosperous with ship building trades, merchant ships and fishing interests, and he wives and daughters like and had the best the market afforded when it could be bought so Mrs. Matilda kept on her shelves dress goods of rare quality, and of exquisite patterns, muslin fabrics of dainty firmness and most reliable of all, wools of various colors for embroidery also printed patterns for working them, this latter was a specialty with her, she loved to use these worsteds herself, and always kept some beautiful work of the kind on hand, which was the admiration of the young ladies. A visit to her store in my young days was a great a treat as a call is now to Whitings or Stearns in Boston to see her take down the xx of bright worsteds or crewels as they were then called, and select there from the shades of working perhaps an ottoman, bag or cushion patterns of, which she kept in great variety was a pleasure which compensated for the long walk of two miles from my house over rough pastures and along bleak sandy roads. If a fancy article was wanted, or a ribbon match which could not be found elsewhere, a visit to Mrs. Matilda’s would procure it, or if not on hand she would buy it on her next visit to Boston, these journeys being made by stage coach which ran through Duxbury to Boston under the efficient management of Parker Jones and Seth Sprague. There are many still living in this town who with myself can recall with satisfaction their youthful visits to Mrs. Matilda’s store, if they rode, they remember the slow hard pull of the horses through the sandy road and up and down hills, then on reaching the place, hitching the horse to the fence and wondering if the post would hold, especially in fly time, the walk to the front door, between the lilac bushes, the little entry and the room where the dignified woman stood, behind the counter, stiff and tall, with plain dark cap and straight dress, a handkerchief was usually about her neck crossed in front, she also wore a front piece under her cap – close at hand she kept a snuff box which she used (with solemn dignity) at intervals. Flowers and birds kept her company and her windows were filled with the finest and rarest varieties of plants. Cactus, Alves and Roses – of the cacti family she had a curious variety. A journey through an Arizona garden would have pleased her but in those days that country was almost an unknown land. She had a great knack of having blossoms on her plants, and her windows were bright with them. A gay and chattering Paraquitte brought to her by her cousins from St. Louis held sway in her little domain, for many a year, and an interest expressed in the bird or in her flowers would win a smile from her when nothing else would. A cupboard with a glass door in the corner of the front room showed articles brought from over the sea by her father I think who had been a sea captain and quaint china, heirlooms tenderly cherished. On the walls hung pieces of elaborate worsted needlework framed and glassed. One of her odd conceits was to paper a room with pictures cut from books and papers – a peep into this room was an unending amusement for the children. Many years thus passed away till a sister of her husband was left a widow in destitute circumstances with one child she was a cripple – by this time her trade had given her a moderate competency, and she took this child to her heart and home now she took a new interest in life, and to appear more cheerful. Little Sophia was a rosy cheeked girl, and her cheerful winning ways broke down some of her Aunt’s reserve. Sophia in time went to school at Partridge

stereoview partridge002

Town Hall and Partridge Academy, c. 1870. As they would have appeared when Ruth Bradford attended.

Academy and I remember her as one of my school mates, though she was younger than I was, her friends were invited home and made welcome; before many years Sophia’s mother was invited to live there also, this required no small amount of unselfishness, for one arm was paralyzed and useless, but she learned to sew with her left hand, by the use of a pillow and in many ways helped herself, and assisted others. Sophia grew to womanhood and married James Bradford – her aunt liked her choice, and was reconciled to losing her, the great interest Mrs. Matilda took in Sophia’s married life was evident to her friends, on the birth of her first child Sophia died, this was a very severe blow, as she lived a distance away and she could not be with her. True to her nature she met this shock with much of her natural calmness, and in a short time she took the infant home and gave to that the love she had its mother, so as the years went by the stately severity of her silent sorrow was, through her human interests, and love again unlocked the put up barriers to her heart. It was beautiful to her friends to see this change from former days. A piano was bought for the little girl, and gradually the shop was given up, the stock ceasing to be replenished. About this time the Old Colony Rail Road carried its South Shore branch through the town, which superceeded the Stage Coach so people could go to Boston to buy their dresses, and match their ribbons and worsted. The crippled grandmother still had her place in the house and a cousin Rhoda Simmons, who had served a long and faithful life at service in many houses was invited to come and spend the rest of her days here. It was indeed a haven of rest to her who had worn herself out in patient and unselfish toil; sometimes it proved too quiet in its changes from former days, but after various attempts to service again, she quietly settled to the life here, until the end came. Sophia’s husband married again, the little girl grew up and married also. Now the old grandmother is dead and Mrs. Matilda has also passed beyond our ken to be reunited with those she loved and lost – her life proved a blessing and benefit to others, and is a lesson for the worth of keeping up human empathy under all the trials of life.

Ruth A. Bradford, Riverside, Cal. April 1896

[1] Ruth A. (Ford) Bradford was born in Duxbury on Sept. 30, 1832 to James Turner Ford and Anna Dingley Waterman. Her father was one of the owners of the Ford Store on Tremont Street in Duxbury, considered to be the oldest department stores in America. She attended primary school at the Millbook School and graduated from Partridge Academy, a private co-educational secondary school established in 1844. In 1857 she married Duxbury native, Rev. George Bradford (1828-1859). Bradford had attended Harvard and, in 1852, was a teacher at Partridge Academy. He later entered Harvard Divinity School. At the time of their marriage, George was the Unitarian minister in Watertown, MA. He died in 1859 of consumption. Ruth did not re-marry and remained in Watertown until her death in 1912, at the age of 79. While writing this memoir, Ruth was visiting California.

[2] Matilda W. (Chandler) Peterson (1798-1884) was born in Duxbury, the daughter of Thomas and Matilda (Wadsworth) Peterson. In 1822, at the age of 23, she married James Peterson. James died three years later, in 1825, leaving Matilda a young widow with no children. She opened a store in the front rooms of her cape-style house on Surplus Street. This shop sold dress goods and “fancy articles,” as well as wool for embroidery. A visit to her store was considered a great treat to the young women in town, including Ruth Ford Bradford and Pauline Winsor Wilkinson (both women fondly recalled Peterson’s shop in their memoirs).

Matilda Peterson’s widowed, sister-in-law, Sophia (Peterson) Sampson, lived with her and assisted in the store. Together the women raised Sophia’s daughter, Sophia B. Sampson. After the death of Sophia B. Sampson in childbirth, they raised her daughter, Sophia Matilda Bradford.