Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama


Letters sent home to Massachusetts by Frederick W. Blanchard while living in Fort Payne during the boom days of 1890 and 1891 / First published by Landmarks in The DeKalb Legend, Volume Five, 1977-1978

Frederick W. Blanchard.
Frederick W. Blanchard.

Frederick Blanchard was born in Holbrook, Massachusetts in 1861, the son of Stephen A. Blanchard, a bootmaker, and his wife Rhoda, who died when Frederick was 13 years old. Though Stephen had little education or wealth, his children showed a strong desire for self—improvement by taking Chatauqua courses and by reading extensively. Frederick was especially ambitions and talented and wanted very much to become a mechanical engineer. Unable to attend college, he studied drafting books on his own.

In January, 1890, Frederick decided to quit his job as a clerk in the corner grocery in Holbrook to seek employment in Fort Payne, a town in which many Massachusetts citizens were investing heavily. While he was there, a steady stream of letters flowed to and from his home. These were saved and stored in a barn, where they were salvaged in poor condition after Blanchard’s death in 1947. Copies were sent to the DeKalb County Library by Frank A. Polkinghorn, of Bloomfield, New Jersey.

The letters from Fort Payne depict the interesting reactions of a New England country boy from an intensely religious family to his experiences on his first major trip away form home. They also provide new insight into life in Fort payne during the boom period.

After returning to Massachusetts in June, 1891, Blanchard was employed as a draftsman and machine designer in the Boston area for nearly 30 years, working on printing presses, early automobiles, and some of the first airplane engines. However, after World War I, he found it difficult to compete with college graduates and took a position as treasurer of the Holbrook Cooperative Bank, which he held until he was about 80 years old. He continued to live in Holbrook and took an active part in civic and church affairs until his death at the age of 86. He was never married.

Blanchard’s letters have been edited to delete personal and irrelevant matters, leaving his statements and observations which might be of importance to those interested in their historical significance. The words in this article are those of the young Massachusetts draftsman, just as he wrote them——and just as they might have appeared if the ambitious boom period worker had actually kept a journal or diary.

These letters are taken from the Landmarks publication, “The DeKalb Legend”, published in 1977 and 1978.

January 16, 1890

This morning I went up to call on Col. Spaulding and found him a very pleasant man and a man I think one can depend on. I showed him my letters and he directed me to Mr. A. W. Train, the manager of the Ft. Payne Rolling mill. I went to see him and after talking with him he told me to go and get my instruments and come back to his office.

I went to work on a drawing of the ground plan of the entire works and have worked all day on it. The schools, as far as I can see here are two in number. One is a public with a male teacher and two assistants. It is the only public school in town and fit for college. The other is a private school kept by a “professor.”

January 17, 1890

I go to work at 7:00 and do not get back until dark. I have plenty to eat and it is just as good as any in the north——except at home. We don’t have squash pie or Jonnie cake. But I have to pay $9.00 a week board. I have a place in view with one of the Y.M.C.A.’s where I think I can get into a private family some cheaper. I go to the Y.M.C.A. every eve to see the Boston Journal.

January 23, 1890

The excursion has just arrived and I go up to see if anyone from Mass. I know has come.

January 27, 1890

Sunday went to the Presbyterian Church where they are having revival services by Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. They were conducted about as they are in our churches. In the p.m. took a walk around town and then to meeting in the Y.M.C.A. rooms at 4:00. In the eve went to church as in a.m. crowded house and much interest. The excursion comes down and I may see some one I know.

February 1, 1890

Thurs. eve. had a long talk with Mr. Dean who boards here and is a school teacher of the Southern school system. The state gives the poll tax as an appropriation to the support of the public schools but it amounts to less than $1 a pupil so it costs more than it is worth to get it. Most of the schools are private and charge for tuition. The colored children have schools for themselves and col. teachers. A white teacher of col. pupils is rarely received into good society. Primary and intermediate teachers get a salary of from 30 to 40 dollars a month.

We have a colored church, Southern Presbyterian and a Northern Pres. is being formed, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a M. E. Church is being formed, a Cong. and an Episcopal. The white churches——Southern——will not allow negroes to go into their churches as a rule. Sometimes they have the gallery or a seat on one side for them. As a bit of gossip, the Cumberland Pres. Church was taken hold of by Mr. Godfrey, Mr. Train and others last summer, the church building remodeled, new seats put in and an organ bought. But one day a negro, who is a northern educated man, who came south to teach the colored children, came in at Sunday School and quietly sat down in the back of the room. A southern lady saw him and went to her father and tried to make him put out. Well, Mr. Godfrey and the rest don’t go there anymore. It is also said the elders were afraid the northerners would get too much control of affairs. A Cumberland Pres. Church is one which rejects some of the Calvinistic doctrines, notably predestination and preordination. There is to be formed a Cong. Church and I presume Mr. Godfrey will be gen. manager.

There was a lawsuit in court yesterday between the Furnace Co. and a contractor and Mr. True V. Pierce was council for F. Co. An Alabama jury is about the hardest looking set of men one often sees.

New England House, located on the corner of Gualt and Second Street North, where Central Bank is now located. Man in light jacket is Frederick Blanchard.

I am fairly suited with my boarding place. $7 a week. At New England House. I am the only draftsman employed by the Co. They will manufacture ingot steel and rails, cars of all kinds, and have room and power enough to manuf. all kinds of tacks and nails. Works cover a good part of six acres.

Group of New England House boarders in 1890. Man on right in top row is Frederick W. Blanchard.
Group of New England House boarders in 1890. Man on right in top row is Frederick W. Blanchard.

February 6, 1890

The coal here is all soft coal. Soft coal is not nearly as good, burns faster and makes more ash.

There is a new boarder here, a Mr. Abbey of Kansas, who has a place in the Rice Investment Co. I like my boarding place quite well. The boarders are nice people and I feel quite at home. A Chinaman does my washing, charges about the same as the H. one.

Ft. Payne is bound to go. It may be some time but it cannot help it finally. I have not been at work this week but have seen Mr. Godfrey and he has taken my case in hand.

Sec. Pierce (Editor’s Note: Massachusetts Secretary of State Henry B. Pierce) just came to town and will stay a week of more. I met him this noon and had a very pleasant chat.

February 16, 1890

Monday I saw Mr. Train and as no blue prints had come he thought I had better look elsewhere for work. So I went to see Mr. Dustin of the Dustin Hubbard Works and he talked very favorable to me. I liked him very much but his building will not be done until April so I had to look elsewhere. Mr. Godfrey introduced me to Major Mullins the engineer of the Furnace Co. and he took me over to his office and after a little talk told me to come to the Furnace office Saturday. I don’t work but eight hours a day so I don’t get tired.

Today is bright and I have been to Church without my overcoat. Went up to the spring 3 miles north of the city Wednesday and found a few flowers. The mud dries up very quick, but it is mud when it rains.

February 23, 1890

The assistant engineer when I came here was a Sweed and though a good hearted fellow has been railroad surveying for years and is very profane. He has gone to Kentucky now and been succeeded by a Mr. F. E. Smith of N. E. Boston. Am pretty well acquainted now with Mr. Christenson, the Co.’s engineer.

Furnace at the south end of town. Ore mine is directly behind the furnace and the trestle of the Fort Payne and Eastern Railroad is on the right side.
Furnace at the south end of town. Ore mine is directly behind the furnace and the trestle of the Fort Payne and Eastern Railroad is on the right side.

Have been to church and Y.M.C.A. Went to the Baptist Church this morning. Mr. Joiner preached on “wives.” Thursday Eve. went to the DeKalb and saw Mr. Pierce a few moments. So if you want to see one who had seen “Fred,” call at the State House when you are in town.

The stockholders meeting was held thi week and elected the same management only more so. May Godfrey and D. Ford being elected in place of two Birmingham men who have lost interest in Ft. Payne since it bids fair to rival Birmingham. The city is to put in sewerage system this winter so Ft. Payne will be a healthy city.

March 2, 1890

Monday ––Tuesday and Wednesday it rained hard. The creek rose so the fire brick works, stove works, ice factory, etc. that were located near the creek were flooded. The bridge where I cross to go to work was covered with 18 inches of water, but I waded through all right with my boots on.

March 9, 1890

I have had work all the week mostly on general plans of the furnace. Made also drawings for slides to let coal from bins to carrier belt.

There have been some large sales of real estate the last week. One lot of 100 x 100 feet on corner of Gault Ave. and Main St. selling for $20,000.

I wish I could get a cheaper place to board for it does seem awful to pay $7.00 a week. The people here are real nice and I should hate to leave. We have all kinds of people. Mr. Johnson is the Pres. of Y.M.C.A. and has been clerk of S. S. and librarian at home. Mr. Wilson is Mr. Johnson’s partner in the furniture business and married his sister. Prof. Dean is principal of the school, is a quiet man but a very good companion. Miss Hanson or Hanscomb is a school–marm and I think I shall mash her. Then there is Mr. Brown who runs a farm to the west of Ft. Payne over the hills of 300 acres and Mr. Young the P.O. Clerk, a young man of 22, perhaps born in Cal. These all sleep on the upper floor. Downstairs Mr. and Mrs. H. Herrick of Maine have the best room. Three quarters of the men here will back Blaine every time. I shall be a Republican if I am South. I keep my mouth shut until I know my man though. Mrs. Herrick is a very pleasant woman and good society. Mr. Keith of Brocton is a real estate agent and a man of the world. Good company though. Mr. Townes, the treas. of Rolling Mill is not a well man and I have heard he is an atheist. He does not talk on religion though. Then a new comer is Mr. Franbres from Atlantic City, N.J. who will establish a Sash Door and blind factory.

March 13, 1890

I am through with the Furnace Co. for a time but go to work soon for Coal and Iron Co., on a map of the whole city. I shall work up town so I will not have to walk much

March 15, 1890

Fricay eve. went to Episcopal service in Y.M.C.A. rooms. The minister boards here. This morning I attended S. S. Mr. Brown, the teacher, is a Scotchman and one of the old stock. He is a Baptist though. The clerk’s report was att. 43, Col. $1.31. A good collection for att.

There is a new comer at our house. Mr. Hubbard and his wife who is interested in the basket factory. A row of 15 houses between here and the Furnace on a back street rent for $15.00 a month. So rents are away up.

Three tenant houses on Godfrey Avenue where rents went up to $15 per month.
Three tenant houses on Godfrey Avenue where rents went up to $15 per month.

April 6, 1890

The town is going on allright it seems. They are a little afraid Mr. Rice’s action at Cardiff might hurt us and Mr. Godfrey postponed the excursion on that account in part and partly on account of six other excursions which are to come to this section of U.S. to boom other towns. Mr. Rice finally agreed to bring his whole train of 54 Pullman cars here first to stay a day and then go back to Cardiff

The Mineral road is to be built, we are to have a new stone and brick depot to cost $12,000, the finest in Alabama. The city is to put in a sewage system to cost $80,000, and all houses will have to be connected with it. I still room at N.E. House and take my meals at Mrs. Tenny’s.

April 20, 1890

Our Y.M.C.A. Exhibition came off Wed. Eve. and was fairly successful. I had a part in it and stood up in the class twice and said my piece. We had an audience of 200 or so.

We expect the Excursion here this week. Mr. Pierce came Sat. and I met him a moment.

I had a little talk with Mr. Johnston, the assistant engineer who is from Georgia of the war and Sherman’s march. He talked without the least hard feeling but said the people through there hate Sherman like anything. At the table the other day I met a Mr. and Mrs. Tyler whom Mrs. Tenney said were from Ipswich (Mass.).

Have spent my Evenings this week mostly in Y.M.C.A. room at home. This morning went to Bapt. S. S. and then at 11:30 to Cong. Church service at the DeKalb as the Opera House was engaged by the Epis. Church. Mr. Godfrey says that we shall, if possible, have a Cong. service every week now. A Rev. Mr. Marsh of Springfield, Ohio preached. This eve. hope to go to Cong. service in the Opera House. In the city today there were services by Cong. Epis., Bapt., Pres., Northern M.E., Southern M.E. and a service in the Cave Addition besides two or three colored churches. So we are well provided with preaching.

April 27, 1890

The last has been quite an eventful week at F. Payne. Monday afternoon three excursions from Boston arrived in town and looked the place over as much as they could in two or three hours. In the eve there was a mass meeting in the hall and we had some fine speaking. Of course everybody told how much they loved Ft. Payne and what a wonderful city it was and what wonderful possibilities it had. They all went back at 11:00 p.m. to Cardiff and for the next three days there was the greatest sale of real estate ever made in the South. Over $1,000,000 worth was sold. mayor Godfrey went up at the close and got a train full to come back here so we got our share after all. Monday, when the Ex. was here the weather was fine and F.P. never looked lovelier for the mountains and hills are just a beautiful emerald and from the opposite side are a perfect picture.

May 4, 1890

I was talking with a Mr. Ewing, a lawyer from Virginia, of the heat here and he says it is not nearly as hot as we have at home in N.E. Mr. Hemphill, who was in Kansas before he came here, says last summer was much cooler than in Kansas.

I do not think we shall have an orthodox Church here untill fall. There is a good deal of trouble to get a hall as there are several new churches without buildings and all want the Opera House.

New Englanders inspecting mine after arriving in Fort Payne on excursion train.

May 11, 1890

I got through at the Furnace the first of the week and was out of work a little but now am back in the Co. building at work for Mr. Christenson.

The big building of the rolling mill is nearly finished and the Foster Hardware Co. is being pushed rapidly. Everything is just booming in this whole section. It is said there are 200 towns being boomed within 100 miles of Chattanooga. Some of them must die but as Ft. Payne is a year ahead of most I guess she will survive.

May 18, 1890

I have had some new work this week, real surveying. I took a transit costing $280.00 and went up into the woods and took topography all one day. That is to find the elevations of the land so we can make a map showing how much higher the land is in one place than another.

May 24, 1890

I have had a first rate week since I wrote last. I have been out in the field surveying three days and I liked it first rate. It was on a new cemetery south of the town a mile or so south of the Rolling Mill. It was hot and I got burned up a little.

Monday night I went to the Y.M.C.A. to the Coal and Iron Co. and had a pleasant time. We had a supper consisting of ice cream, lemonaid, cake, candy and fruit. I took Col. Mullins’ wife to supper and sat with Mr. and Mrs. Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Train, and Mr. and Mrs. Vernon, the editor of the Herald, so I got into pretty high society. After supper we had games and a drawing contest. Each one tried to draw a pig with his eyes shut, his own not the pig’s, and it was decided I drew the best one. I was rather glad as I am a professional.