Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Devil of an Ancestor

One family member my  mother spoke about on occasion was Uncle Thaxter. He was, according to my mother, a very well-known architect and someone she really respected. I never knew him but he seemed a fairly interesting fellow the way my mother talked about him, so I decided to do a little investigating. I only had my mother's stories to go by and that's where I started.

When my mother knew Uncle Thaxter, he and his wife Mabel were living in Belmont, on a large estate with beautiful gardens.

The family Estate in Belmont

According to my mother's recollections,  Aunt Mabel was a good friend of Mrs. Gardner, of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She remembers going to tea at Mrs. Gardner's house once. She said that Aunt Mabel's hair was bright red, but that Mrs. Gardner's hair was even brighter red. She remembered that she had a lion as a house pet and my mother thought it was a very large dog. Somehow, Mrs. Gardner was very friendly with some circus folk and through these circus people she acquired some performing dogs for my mother's grandmother. One of the dogs was named Trixie. Trixie could walk on her hind legs, holding my great grandmother's hand for the whole length of a city block. Now that would have left an impression on me, too.
Isabella Stewart Gardner

Mrs. Gardner was credited with the quote: "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." Unfortunately, I must say that what my mother remembered, was more likely something she was told. It is unlikely she went to tea with Mrs. Gardner since Mrs. Gardner died 4 years before my mother was born.

But, the story of the lion has some grain of truth to it as it is one of the more well-known stories about the eccentric Mrs. Gardner. Isabella Gardner had one child who died in infancy but she and her husband raised 3 nephews so, to give my mother the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was the wife of one of those nephews who she was remembering.

Since that bit of information really didn't pan out in the investigation, I went on to the normal research of census records and the like. Not knowing much about him except his name and his profession and that he was married to Aunt Mabel, it was a bit of a challenge. How Uncle Thaxter was related to us was another mystery that I had to solve and that I thought might lead me to some answers.

My mother knew that Uncle Thaxter's wife's name was Mabel, but she did not know to which branch of the family Mabel belonged. In one census record, Mabel's middle initial was W. I made the assumption that she might have been a West, my great great grandmother's maiden name. That assumption proved to be accurate and through the census records in Southbridge I found out that there was a Mabel West born almost 20 years after my great great grandmother Clara West Paige.
Clara West Paige my GGGrandmother.

They shared the same father but Mabel had a different mother. So, Uncle Thaxter was my great great grandmother's half sister's husband. Not exactly in my direct line. But, still interesting to me.

Although that mystery was solved, I wanted to know more about Uncle Thaxter. What I found out is that he was born in Boston in 1872, the son of a Boston physician and a wealthy socialite. I found out that his first name wasn't Thaxter, but rather Herbert and Thaxter was his middle name.

Uncle Thaxter was an architect of some note, as my mother remembered. He designed many public buildings and many private homes in the Boston area, but more specifically in Belmont, Mass. I found several Boston business directories listing Uncle Thaxter's architectural firm on Boylston street. He designed several municipal buildings in Belmont, including the Junior High School  and the Police Station. He designed the Sacred Heart Church rectory in Malden, the Watson Memorial Chapel in Acton and many homes throughout the greater Boston area.

His uncle Loring, a landscape architect, designed the first outdoor pool in America for the community of Belmont and Uncle Thaxter designed the locker rooms and the bathhouse for the pool, pictured below. The land on which the pool was built, surrounded by a large playground, was donated by Thaxter's Uncle Henry.
The outdoor pool at Belmont
Thaxter served on the Belmont Board of Assessors for almost 30 years and was a town meeting member for many years. He was president of the Middlesex County Assessors Association and the Massachusetts Assessors Association. He was a director of the Waverly Cooperative Bank, a charter member of the Boston City Club and several other charitable fraternal organizations. He was very active in his church as well.

At some point he became one of the most knowledgeable builders and architects of bank buildings, particularly in and around New Orleans. But he returned to the Boston area and that's where he died at the age of 77 and in his obituary in 1949 he left no children, just his wife Mabel, his sister Ethel and a niece from Peabody.

Uncle Thaxter was an interesting and successful fellow, I learned, but some of his relatives really piqued my interest along the way. He came from a large family of over achievers. His sister Ethel was an accomplished artist and was known in particular for painting miniature portraits. Perhaps that was how Mabel met Mrs. Gardner, or whomever.

One of Ethel's miniatures.
Thaxter's brother George was a Boston purchasing agent and his other brother Western, was a Los Angeles Banker. Thaxter's uncle Loring, the designer of the pool, was a highly respected landscape architect who designed many large gardens in the area and around the country. He was the resident landscape architect at Vassar College and designed their Shakespeare Garden, the second oldest in the country in honor of the bard. It was built in 1916 using seeds from Shakespeare's own garden.

Building the Shakespeare Garden in 1916

Shakespeare Garden at Vassar today
Loring wrote several books, mostly about gardens, featuring his own photos. Loring and his brother William Lyman, in fact, were both well-known commercial photographers. W. Lyman concentrated on nature of the northeast. A book of the photos of Thaxter's two uncles entitled "Gentlemen Photographers" is available on

W. Lyman and Loring enjoying nature
W. Lyman published several books as well, including "The Mosquito Nuisance and How to Deal with it";

"Wilderness Adventures" and  "Wild Brother: The Strangest of True Stories from the North Woods" published in 1921.

Bruno in the living room in Belmont
This Wild Brother story is about Bruno, a bear cub found when he was just a day or two old after his mother had been killed. He was taken in by a family called the Weldons who lived in a lumber camp in northern Maine. Mrs. Weldon who had a newborn herself, actually nursed this tiny two pound bear cub along with her own child. Kind of a strange thought, but the story is quite interesting and touching as well as humorous. It includes photographs taken by Uncle Lyman.

Baby Ursala and Bruno and Mrs. Weldon-nursing her cubs.
Uncle Lyman and Bruno
As the story unfolds, the bear, Bruno, after a few months, moves to Belmont where Thaxter and his Uncles, Aunts and cousins made their home on the family estate. The book is available in its entirety on Google Books where you can read it for free, but don't go there until you've finished reading this post because there's more to Uncle Lyman's story.

Thaxter's great grandfather William, father of nine, started a condiment company in 1822. This successful company was the source of much of the family's wealth. His son William J. carried on the family business. In turn, William Lyman, although most well known as the photographer, also was very involved in the company and took on the task of improving the process of preserving foods.

In 1836 the company had switched from storing the condiments and other foods in glass containers to using cans lined with tin because Boston glass manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand. However, there were often problems with bulging cans and tainted food. During the civil war, Uncle Thaxter's great grandfather's company supplied much of the food to the Union Army in the field and one wonders if the food these cans contained may have caused some of the casualties of that war.

Years later, during the late 1890s, Uncle Lyman, in a forward thinking stroke of genius, approached the biology department at MIT in order to solve the problem of safely preserving foods that plagued the company since its inception. In collaboration with MIT professor Samuel Cate Prescott, Uncle Lyman spent 1895 and 1896 researching clams. With Uncle Lyman's photographic skills, he was able to capture images of microscopic bacteria that assisted in this research. What this partnership between industry and academia accomplished, aside from solving the problem for the family business, would be a breakthrough in time-temperature research changing the entire food industry. It would also lead to 'food science and technology' as a profession. William Lyman retired from the company business in 1899 and for the next 30 years, until his death in 1929, he devoted his time to the study of bacteriology at MIT and took no pay for this work.
Uncle Lyman and Professor Prescott
Although this story started out as an investigation about Uncle Thaxter, it led me down a different path toward his uncle William Lyman and the others in his family. The family food business is still prospering today. I wonder if you've guessed what the last name of this family is. The company, located in Boston developed a recipe for canning spiced ham during the Civil War. William Underwood, Thaxter's Great Grandfather was the founder of that company.

And Wm. Underwood and Company's Deviled Ham is the recipe that most of us are familiar with today.

So, I thank Uncle H. Thaxter Underwood of Belmont, Massachusetts, architect and husband of Aunt Mabel West, friend to some woman named Mrs. Gardner, owner of circus dogs and a lion; nephew of William Lyman Underwood, the hero of this story, in my opinion, for taking me down this road.

It was a devil of an investigation that I thought would take me somewhere else entirely, but I loved ending up here!


Robin said...

I have recently acquired a piece of furniture which was owned by the William Lyman Underwood family. Would love to chat with you about it:

Robin said...

I have recently acquired a piece of furniture belonging to the William Lyman Underwood family. Would love to chat about it.