Special to Natick Report from the Natick Historical Society
The horrific fire in downtown Natick on Jan. 13, 1874, was a transformative event in the town’s history. It’s a bit too easy to forget that an earlier fire—on March 2, 1872—caused similar devastation and change in commercial and civic life in South Natick.
The South Natick blaze destroyed more than property. The March 4, 1872, edition of the Worcester Evening Gazette reported: “The fire is especially to be mourned from the fact that it has swept away the heart of the ‘old town’ rendered of interest to all, as the seat of Mrs. Stowe’s famous story.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe had published her iconic novel about American culture and small town life, Oldtown Folks, in 1869. She never lived in South Natick (her husband lived at 2 Pleasant St. as a child), but she based the characters in her book on her husband and other well-known residents of the village on the Charles River.
The Charles River Coffee House and other modern South Natick enterprises now occupy the site of the 1872 blaze. Volunteer firemen did their best, but the early morning fire rapidly consumed the Merchants Block and other buildings along Eliot Street (Route 16), then a dirt road west of the meetinghouse at Eliot and Union streets. Reportedly it started in the basement of a dry goods/clothing store, and spread to seven structures. The Evening Gazette estimated losses at more than $65,000 (more than $1.3 million in current dollars). No injuries were reported.
These businesses were wiped out: I. B. Clark’s Dry Goods Store, William Edwards’ Clothing Store, the L. A. Kingsbury meat market, E. Heuber’s barbershop, the Smith & Lewis grocery/drug store, the Goin Bailey hotel, and the Old Tavern, then called Eliot House, that was operated by Goin Bailey. Two homes burned down. Also, the South Natick Post Office and Engine House (fire department) were badly damaged. An 1880 History of Middlesex County noted: “But the energy of the people rebuilt at once larger and better than before.”
Perhaps the most tragic loss was the entire collection of the two-year-old Historical and Natural History Society of South Natick and Vicinity—the modern name is Natick Historical Society—which occupied an upper floor in the building where the fire started. At that time the society’s holdings principally were extensive plant and animal (chiefly birds) specimens that had been gathered by local volunteer collectors, as well as “historical relics treasured in private families for generations,” according to the Evening Gazette. Among the species of flora was the “second best” collection of ferns in the United States.
The young society’s entire collection was valued at $2,500 (current dollars: $56,000), and the Gazette said “The loss falls not upon the society alone but upon every lover of art or student of nature.” An enthusiastic benefactor traveled to South America in the following year to replace the scientific collections.
Numismatists note: A family history (Morrill Kindred in America, 1914) reported that 17 French and English coins dated 1696-1775 were found in the cornerstone of the Old Tavern.
Story and image courtesy of the Natick Historical Society
Natick History Museum: 58 Eliot Street (Route 16), Natick (508) 647-4841