There used to be two stores side-by-side in the heart of Marstons Mills. The grocery is still the thriving Cash Market. Just to the left of it used to be Foster Crocker’s store. Some people called it a general store, but it didn’t sell groceries, just hardware. But Foster Crocker built it as a machine shop.
Foster Crocker was born in 1857, second son of whaling Captain Oliver Crocker, in the house next to the church. Before he was twenty he had found work in Worcester at the Wheelock Engine factory, where they built the latest steam engines that did the work of the new industrial age. In Worcester he married Esther Hall, also daughter of a mariner, Captain John Hall. They moved to Providence, where he was probably working on steam engines.
In 1885, when he was 28, he decided to come home to the Mills. With help of a mortgage from his father he bought the house on the Mill Pond that Arthur F. Greene had built in 1847. He fitted up a building for a machine shop, and began selling the popular Singer sewing machines. This was the same year that Singer introduced its greatly improved “vibrating shuttle”.
Foster Crocker became the “celebrated Machinist” of the area. He provided steam engines that pumped water out of cranberry bogs. In 1888 A. D. Makepeace hired him to install the latest George Blake steam engine to crush clay for the West Barnstable Brick Co.
In the fall of 1889 Crocker built a new machine shop. Historian Nancy Clark says the construction is so similar to the 1916 schoolhouse that it may have been built by the same builder, Hamlin & Fish of Cotuit. Opened in February 1890, the Patriot praised it as “an ornament to the village”.
Here one could buy and repair agricultural machinery like mowers, all kinds of steam engines for pumping water, and, of course, sewing machines. If you needed a clock repaired one could bring it in for watchmaker Weber to fix. When autos arrived Foster put in a Socony gas tank, and he was a natural to sell Stanley Steamers. A. D. Makepeace had two Stanley Steamer trucks that Teddy Pierce heard puffing up the hill toward Cotuit he’d grab a tailboard for a free ride. Steamers were quiet and had no gears, but they took too long to thaw in the New England winters. Cop Hinckley told Barbara Hill: “Foster was a big, fat man. He used to steer the car down the street with his stomach.”
But before cars, Foster was a great fan of horses. When the crack sulky driver Henry Swain beat him in a close race at the Cotuit race course (now Ralyn Drive), Foster hired Swain to drive his “Lady Stilphin” in the big 1887 Thanksgiving Day race in Cotuit. But Lady Stilphin lost to A. F. Bearse.
Foster spent a lot of time fishing in the Mill Pond back of his house. He rigged up a door bell on the machine shop that would ring in the house, that might bring out his wife Esther. If not, you went away. Barbara Hill says their philosophy was “if you hadn’t had it all this time, why should you need it now.” “Fat Man Crocker”, as he was called, was only 65 when he died in 1923. His childless widow sold the house and store in 1927 to Lorenzo Gifford. It took four or five days for a couple of trucks to move the old machine shop on roller logs a quarter of a mile north to the Gifford Farm.
Postmistress Nora Gifford had it attached to the back of the house, where the village women worked on her quilting frame. Claire Melix recalls Foster’s huge vice on the workbench. Here Nora stored their the big barrels of picked pork, and the year’s supplies of dried vegetables and canned goods, and where the dairy’s milk bottles were sterilized. Upstairs was a bunk room for the grandsons. Everything could be cleared out for dances or for big family gatherings of a dozen kids and their children.
When the Giffords sold the farm in 1971 the machine shop became the playroom of Sue Davenport’s Children’s House. Today it is a private library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, desks and workstations, and one-time archives of the Marstons Mills Historical Society.
Published in Barnstable Enterprise 1 July 2011