Freedom Hall about 1910, showing fire escape from Masons’ Lodge in the attic. Courtesy of Historical Society of Ssntuit and Cotuit.
Archive for March, 2012
FREEDOM HALL: CRADLE OF LIBERTY
Freedom Hall, Cotuit’s civic center, is 150 years old, and for all those years, it has been the heart of village life.. It was founded at the height of the national discord before the Civil War, in February 1860. Third party candidate Abraham Lincoln appealed for unity, but his election in November precipitated the Civil War. Cotuit was solidly behind the freedom for the slaves.
A meeting on Feb. 4, 1860 led by Selectman Charles C. Bearse, decided to “consider the expediency of building a public hall in this vicinity”, and set up committees to draw up a constitution and to plan building. Nine days later, a constitution was adopted for “a suitable place, free for all well disposed persons to assemble in, and hold meetings, Lectures, Parties, Assemblies, Levees, Lyceums etc.” It authorized $100 to buy Capt. Leander Nickerson’s lot north of the Union Church, and $1400 for a building 33′ x 40′ to be done by Oct. 1.
The two-story building was built in the Greek Revival style, a tribute to Athenian democracy. The design was probably by Charles Bearse, who had distinguished himself as housewright. James West, who had just built the huge three story Santuit House, is the likely builder. Costs were paid for by $5 shares, principally from whaling captains Seth Nickerson ($200), James Coon ($150), Bearse ($125), and summer residents Congressman Samuel Hooper and James Parker ($100 each).
Before the war ended, the stockholders declared the popular hall too small, but no expansion occurred for 25 years, with Mr. Bearse building a stage and curtain in 1868, the Masons fixing up the attic in 1870, a shed and ladies’ privy put out back in 1872, enlarging the platform in 1878. At last, in 1884 Mr. Bearse added 20 feet at the back, costing $1000. In 1899 Alex Nickerson enlarged the basement for a dining room, and the next year, a fire escape to was built from the Masons’ attic rooms. A new floor was laid in 1902, and the next year a furnace replaced the old iron stove.
Freedom Hall, often called “Cradle of Liberty”, was the birthplace of Cotuit’s associations: Santuit Lodge of Good Templars (1866), Mariner’s Lodge of Masons (1870), Cotuit Improvement Association. (1882), Cotuit Library (1885), Knights and Ladies of Honor lodge (1888), Sons of Temperance (1897), Knights of Pythias (1901).
The Cotuit Lyceum used the Hall regularly. Recalling the Greek educational forum of Aristotle, this institution pioneered in adult education. Its evening meetings opened with music and readings by local residents, and featured a debate on topics ranging from foreign policy to women’s virtues.
The most popular event at Freedom Hall was an “entertainment”, with vocal and instrumental music, readings of poetry, dramatic skits and farces by local talent. Balls and dances were held to the music of Prof. Elisha B. Fish, who rented the Hall for singing and dancing classes.
The national lecture circuit brought repeat performances by ventriloquists, slight of hand artists, comedians, minstrel shows, a blind signer, and of course, speakers on national issues and foreign lands.
Every Yuletide, there was a Christmas tree loaded with a present for every child, and sometimes for adults, followed by music and games.
Freedom Hall was used for business, too. There were often auctions of whole estates, or of household goods and apparel, and even of large ships like the “Essex”, whose shipowners met here.
This was also the village political center, where Democrats and Republicans met, caucuses were held to nominate men for vacant offices, and “indignation” meetings. In 1887 the town clerk registered new voters here, and the first local elections were held in 1895.
The neighboring Union Church used the Hall for services when the church was under repair, which resulted in its being the site of sermons by famous ministers such as Everett Hale and Phillips Brooks (1871). A three day regional Congregational church conference was held in 1884.
For a century and a half Freedom Hall has been the heart of Cotuit village life.
Published in The Barnstable Enterprise 30 March 2012.
THE TAUSSIG GENIUSES OF COTUIT
For most of the twentieth century Cotuit enjoyed the presence of the Taussig family.
In 1896 Mary T. Gorham, heiress of the famous silver company of Providence, bought a new shingle style house in the south end of Cotuit.
Mrs. Gorham enjoyed having her daughter Edith and her children spend their summers on the beach and sailing here. Edith had married the famous Harvard economist Frank W. Taussig (1859-1940) in 1888. His classic “Tariff History of the U.S.” came out the year of his marriage, followed by books partly written in Cotuit, the standard American textbook “Principles of Economics” (1911) and “International Trade” (1927).
Professor. Taussig said of himself, “In politics I am a disgusted independent, awaiting a new party.” But he served President Wilson as first chairman of the U.S. Tariff Commission 1917 tp 1919, reforming the antiquated system of customs and introducing free ports and free zones. Most importantly, he was adviser to President Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference where many economic issues of the postwar period were determined.
Prof. Taussig’s remarkable father, Dr. William Taussig (1826-1913) was a frequent summer visitor. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, he had half a dozen successful careers, as a chemist, a pistol-packing doctor who called on patients on horseback, mayor and top judge in St. Louis, banker who financed the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi, the longest in the world, and railroad operator. One story he told in Cotuit was how he turned down a share of a venture of Andrew Carnegie, but remained a friend of the multimillionaire until they vehemently disagreed about the character of an acquaintance. Taussig apologized, but Mr. Carnegie would never forgive him.
The Taussigs’ son and three daughters grew up summering in Cotuit, sailing with of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club from its beginning in 1906, winning 11 championships in the skiff named “Swastika”, which was then an ancient good-luck symbol before it was used by the Nazis.
The most famous of these children was Dr. Helen Taussig (1898-1986) whose discovery of a cure for blue babies in 1944 saved the lives of thousands of children. Honored as “The First Lady of American Medicine”, she won all of the highest awards in medicine, and President Lyndon Johnson gave her the national Medal of Freedom.
Helen Taussig was dyslexic, and developed deafness, handicaps that increased her powers of observation. She wanted to become a doctor like her grandfather, but her father said public health was more suitable for a woman. When she applied to the Harvard School of Public Health, the dean said she could study, but not get a degree. She told him angrily: “Who is going to be such a fool as to spend two years studying medicine and two more years in public health and not getting a degree?” The dean said “No one, I hope”, to which she replied “Doctor, I will not be the first to disappoint you.”
After graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School, Helen Taussig asked the head of the heart institute, Dr. E. P. Carter, what form of heart disease was least understood. He said congenital heart disease. She told him she intended to learn more about that than anyone in the world. She did.
Dr. Taussig made medical history in 1944, beginning a whole new area of cardiac surgery with the Blalock/Taussig procudure that restored oxygen to failing children’s hearts. In 1960 she played a major role in warning of the dangers of the sedative thalidomide which caused babies to be born without limbs.
Never married, Dr. Taussig retired to her beloved summer home in Cotuit, where at age 88 she wrote a paper on hearts of birds, seeking to reveal the origins of congenital heart disease.
Published in The Barnstable Enterprise 9 March 2012
OLD SELECTMEN’S BUILDING
The Old Selectmen’s office built in West Barnstable in 1889 is the closest thing we have to our first town hall. It’s the last surviving building of its kind on Cape Cod, and perhaps in Massachusetts. It is architecturally significant as a rare example of the Stick style, sometimes called the first truly American style.
In July 1888 the three town selectmen sweltered over the annual town assessments in a tiny room in the old Alms House in West Barnstable. They asked town meeting for $1000 to build the first town hall. Money in hand, they designed a fine comfortable office. The three designers were Charles C. Crocker, lumberman and co-founder of the Barnstable Brick Co., Eben Bacon Crocker, and “the Cranberry King” Abel Makepeace.
Noah Bradford Jr. of Hyannis, also a brick company founder, contracted to build it, bringing the frame from B.F.Crocker’s lumber yard in Hyannis. A fine building was finished by May 1, 1889 on Meeting House Way, just north of the Almshouse, which had been built for the poor in 1769 on the land of the Lombard Trust.
Walter Muir Whitehill, the noted architectural historian of the Boston Athenaeum called it “a charming example of the shingle style.” The unusual stick features were a decorative truss in the gable, fish scale and diamond shingles on the facade, painted olive green with dark green trim. The foundation 22 x 28 was Barnstable brick. The front door had a colored glass window.
Inside, on the left side of the entrance was a tiny toilet room with wash basin; on the right a cloak closet. The main hall had two windows on each side to let in cooling breezes. At the west end was a fireplace with a pier-glass (mirror) over a fancy mantle. The walls were fitted with glass-fronted bookshelves for the town library. At the northwest corner was a steel vault. The floor was hard pine, the ceiling stained white and cherry color.
Selectmen began work on town business in June 1889, which continued there for 36 years until the new town hall was built in 1926 on Main St. Hyannis, now the Kennedy Museum. By World War II electricity and plumbing had been installed in the Old Selectmen’s building. After the war it became a community center where the West Barnstable Fire District met. In the 1970s it served as the office of the Conservation Commission. In the 1980s, it was a storeroom for the town’s tables and chairs. It was placed on the National Register of historic places in 1988, but it was falling down, with souvenir hunters mining the Barnstable brick foundation.
Barbara Birdsey and Betty Nilsson organized a community effort to restore it to original appearance. The town historical society took a lease of $350 from the Lombard Trust for a year. The Dacey brothers put on a new roof; Tom Bednark of Cape Cod Bat Co. restored the signature sticks, Dick Kiusalas of West Barnstable Table Co. carved a new mantle. The community put in about $35,000, given as a present to the town on its 350th anniversary on June 10, 1989.
Since 1991 the Old Selectmen’s Building has been host to exhibits of creations of local artists, bringing an income for maintenance of the building.
Every historic building must be maintained, and after nearly a quarter of a century the old town hall needs a new foundation and roof, painting, handicap access, and lots of minor repairs. All of this will cost about $145,000. Neighbors have already collected $60,000 from art exhibits and donations. We’re counting on the Community Preservation Committee for the rest.
Published in The Barnstable Enterprise 2 March 2012.