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For the first two hundred years of our settlement, there, were very few fires, and those few were mostly in the woods. The Indians had been used to clearing their planting-fields by the summary process of burning; and they occasionally lighted a fire without regard to bounds or proprietorship. Not more than two buildings have been burned at the same time till quite recently; but, within the last ten years, it has seemed as if former exemptions were to be cancelled by rapidly increasing alarms and widely extended conflagrations. The deepest shade of sorrow is added to this calamity by the fact that the fires were sometimes the work of incendiaries. Several peaceable and excellent citizens have thus lost their barns at seasons when those barns were most full and most needed. The incendiary is truly a child of hell.
The parts of the Town House which were destroyed by two separate fires were restored without much expense to the town.
The greatest and most distressing conflagration that ever occurred in Medford was on the night of the 21st of November, 1850. It destroyed every building, on Main Street and its neighborhood, which stood between the bridge and South Street. The number, including dwelling-houses, workshops, and barns, was thirty-six. It commenced in the old tavern barn, at the north-west corner of the settlement, when the wind was blowing a gale from that quarter ; and it spread with such speed as to prevent all passage over the bridge from the north, where ten or fifteen engines were collected, waiting for the first opportunity for duty. There was but one engine north of the bridge. If, instead of a large barn, the first building burned had been a dwellinghouse, or if the wind had been at any other point, the terrible destruction might have been stayed; but, as every circumstance favored the spread of the flames, their progress seemed like lightning; and they appeared to leap with frantic fury from one building to another, as a starving man rushes to devour the first food within his reach. Before two o'clock, the whole district was in ashes. It must have gone farther, had not engines from towns south of us arrived, and a few engines from the north been ferried across the river in scows. Nineteen engines were present; and every fireman and citi
zen did his utmost. Next to the sufferings of those personally interested in the losses of the conflagration, were those of the neighbors and firemen who were stopped on the north side of the bridge, and who saw no way of going to the relief of their friends but by rushing through sheets of fire. If there be acute agony on earth, it is in witnessing calamities and pains which we have the wish, but not the power, to relieve.
The deprivations and exposures consequent upon such a catastrophe can better be imagined than described. Every heart and hand in Medford were ready to administer relief; and all was done for the sufferers that an active sympathy could suggest. Before the first barn was consumed, couriers were sent to the neighboring towns; and the firemen in each one answered with promptitude, and arrived in season to arrest the devastation. The amount of insurance on the buildings was in many cases small; and losses fell on those who could very ill afford them. $1,335 were immediately raised by subscription in Medford, and distributed by a committee to the greatest sufferers among the poor. To the honor of the sufferers be it said, they met the waste of their property, the derangement of their business, and the suspension of their comforts, with firmness and patience. Before the ruins had ceased to smoulder, the sounds of shovel, hammer, and trowel announced the work of reconstruction; and, before two years had passed, a new village, Phenix-like, had risen out of the ashes of the old.
The Committee of Investigation chosen to estimate the losses examined each case; and their report was $36,000, after all insurances were deducted. About half of the property was insured.
This conflagration convinced the town that another bridge across the river is a necessity; and we wish it had secured the straightening of Main Street, on the east, from the bridge to Short Street.
At the moment (March 6, 1855) that we chronicle the sad events above, we hear that the school-house in Park Street is in ruins. It took fire this morning, while the children were in it; and, being of wood and exposed to a high wind, it was soon consumed. The children were kept from dangerous alarm, and therefore left the house in safety. The building was insured for one thousand dollars.
In Medford, there were fewer “lands common " than in other towns. The making of fences was difficult at first; and the “pound” came early into use. It was placed so near a stream of water as to allow the cattle in it to drink. Where the first one in Medford was placed, we know not. The first record is as follows:
“Feb. 25, 1684: At a general meeting of the inhabitants, John Whitmore granted a piece of land for the use of the town, for the setting up of a pound; which land lies on the south-east of John Whitmore's land, lying near John Bradshaw's house, and is bounded south on John Bradshaw, and east upon the country road. At the same meeting, the inhabitants agreed to set up a pound on the land aforesaid.”
April 28, 1684: “ Thomas Willis was chosen to keep the town's pound; and said pound-keeper shall have, for pounding, twopence per head for horses and also neat cattle ; one penny for each hog; and, for sheep, after the rate of sixpence per score.”
This answered all purposes until May 15, 1758, when the town voted “to build a new pound with stone." This was built accordingly, and placed on the west side of the “Woburn Road,” six or eight rods north of Jonathan Brooks's house, in West Medford. Mr. Samuel Reeves, whose house stood on the spot now occupied by Mr. James Gibson's house, was the pound-keeper. The walls of this pound were very high and strong; and bad boys thought they had a right to throw stones at the cattle there confined.
March 6, 1809: Mr. Isaac Brooks and others petitioned the town to have the pound removed. This petition was granted thus: “Voted to have the pound removed to the town's land near Gravelly Bridge, so called ; and said pound to be built of wood or stone, at the discretion of the committee." There the pound remained only for a short time; when it was removed to Cross Street, near the old brick primary schoolhouse.
That our Medford ancestors should have subjected themselves to the attack of some new diseases, or rather of old
diseases in modified forms, is most probable. An early historian says of this region, “Men and women keep their complexions, but lose their teeth. The falling off of their hair is occasioned by the coldness of the climate.” He enumerates the diseases prevalent here in 1638: “Colds, fever and ague, pleurisies, dropsy, palsy, sciatica, cancers, worms.” Consumption is not mentioned ! We apprehend that the health of our fathers was unusually good. There is scarcely mention of any epidemic. A new climate, poor food, scanty clothing, necessary exposure, hard work, unskilful physicians, may, in some cases, have caused desolating disease to do its rapid work of death ; but, as a general fact, health prevailed through the first fifty years.
1764: With reference to the prevalence of smallpox in Medford, we find the following vote : “ That a fence and gate be erected across the main country road, and a smokehouse also erected near Medford great bridge, and another smokehouse at the West End, and guards be kept." In 1775, a smokehouse was opened for the purification of those persons who had been exposed to the contagion of smallpox. It stood on the west side of Main Street, about forty rods south of Colonel Royal's house. Visitors from Charlestown were unceremoniously stopped and smoked.
1775: During this and some following years, there was fatal sickness in Medford from dysentery. Out of fifty-six deaths in 1775, twenty-three were children. In 1776, there were thirty-three deaths ; in 1777, nineteen ; in 1778, thirtyseven ; and in 1779, thirteen. No reason is given for these differences in numbers. Out of the thirty-seven deaths of 1778, eighteen were by dysentery, and twenty were children. Whooping-cough has, at certain times, been peculiarly destructive. Throat-distemper, so called, is often named among prevalent causes of death. In 1795, ten children and three adults died of it between the 20th of August and the 1st of November. Apoplexy seems to have destroyed very few lives. During the first fifteen years of Dr. Osgood's ministry, only one case occurred!
Oct. 15, 1778: The town voted to procure a house for those patients who had the smallpox. No disease appeared to excite so quick and sharp an alarm as this. The early modes of treatment gave ample warrant for any fears. In 1792, the town voted that Mr. Josiah Symmes's house is the only one authorized as a hospital for inoculation. At this
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here house, many, both male and female, whom we have known, have told us that the patients there were numerous, young, and not very sick; and that the hilarity and frolic of the convalescents exceeded all bounds.
There was one disorder not uncommon among our early settlers and their descendants :' it was dropsy; and we opine that over-doses of cider may have been the cause. Cider did not produce intoxication ; but it filled the stomach to satiety, and produced a kind of water-loggedness and distention, which were apt to make the men cross, and the women sleepy. There is another more active demon, not chronicled in ancient mythology, whose history has recently been written in fire. He gets a letter of introduction, and comes in the guise of a friend to a house, but finally murders the whole family. The temperance reformers have tried to cast this demon out; but he will not depart until he has thrown down his victim, and “rent him sore." Luxurious living has produced diseases in the digestive organs, and boundless ambition has produced them in the nervous system. Humors have ,been created in our day, and are becoming transmissible to a degree which threatens whole families. The marriage of firstcousins together has done something to produce imbecility and early death.
It is supposed that Medford, during the first ten years of its settlement, was quite populous; but the withdrawal of Mr. Cradock's men left it small. Another circumstance which operated unfavorably for the settlement of the town was the few large landholders. Mr. Cradock's heirs sold lots of a thousand acres to individuals, who kept possession of them; and thus excluded those enterprising and laborious farmers who were the best settlers in those days. Medford could fill up only so fast as these few rich owners consented to sell. This fact explains much of the early history of the settlement.