A Short History of Abington, Massachusetts
Long before Abington, Massachusetts became a town, the Algonquins migrated eastward from the Great Lakes region and assimilated with the local tribes. As they settled in, they brought with them the tradition of applying descriptive names to particular localities. Hence when they came upon a meadow with tall grass waving in the wind, they called the place Manamooskeagin, meaning “great green place of shaking grass.” The Abington town seal incorporates its Algonquian name.
These semi-agrarian tribes had regular campsites at Wessagusset (the salt-water fishing place) — what is now North Weymouth — in the winter, and at Robbins Pond in East Bridgewater in the summer, where they planted corn, beans, and squash. The path they used to travel between the two encampments was called “Satucket,” a shortened form of the Algonquin word “Massaquatuckquett,” which means “great pouring-forth stream place” — referring to the where the river flowed out of the pond.
Old Abington was located in what was a buffer strip between the Massachuset and the Wampanoag tribes, both of whom claimed the territory. This controversy led to continual border skirmishes in the area between the two tribes. It is probably for this reason that there were no Native American settlements here. So when Plymouth Colony began awarding land grants to individuals for public service to the colony, the lots were located in this area—on land purchased from the two tribes. These land grants were located along the Satucket Path, which over time evolved into what is now Washington and Adams streets in Abington. No original land grant recipients actually settled here. It was purchasers of the titles that moved into the area.
The first settler of record was Andrew Ford, originally from Weymouth, who moved here in the 1660s. His first house was located on the knoll above the “Stepping Over Place” on the Schumatuscacant River (now at the fork in the road of Adams & Washington streets). The Fords seem to have been a typical Colonial frontier family. They maintained ties with their family in Weymouth, but they were more or less self sustaining in their daily lives.
As far as the natives were concerned, the Ford family pretty much kept to themselves; there does not seem to have been any attempts to associate with the natives, such as in trade. Other families soon followed, with names such as Dyer, Gurney, Harden, Hersey, Nash, Poole, Reed, Tirrell, and Whitmarsh.
A petition for an act of incorporation was first presented to the General Court in 1706, which was turned down. It was followed by an order that said:
“The proprietors, purchasers and inhabitants, to take care to make a subscription of what they were capable and willing to pay annually for the support of an able, learned, and orthodox minister...”
Five years later, Rev. Samuel Brown (1687–1749), a native of Newbury, was engaged to serve as the town’s first minister. Thus the last requirement for this settlement to become an incorporated town was finally met. In an autobiographical document titled A Memoranda of the remarkables of my life, Rev. Brown wrote,
“I came to Abington, with a unanimous call from ye people there, in order to settle on the 8th of December Anno 1711... I was ordained Pastor of the Church of Christ in Abington Nov 17th 1714.”
With an “able, learned, and orthodox minister” to attend to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants, the petition to create a separate town out of a section of east Bridgewater and adjoining lands was approved. The official grant of township established June 10, 1712 as the date that Abington was incorporated as its own town. The town was so named by Gov. Joseph Dudley (1647–1720) to honor Anne Venables Bertie, Countess of Abingdon, England, who had helped him secure the position of royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The first sawmill was in operation ca. 1700 and several others were established soon after. These sawmills provided lumber for building, and consequently promoted settlement of the area. By the time the town was incorporated in 1712, there were about 20 families that lived in here.
As with any community, Abington needed a meetinghouse; the first one was built by Jacob Nash in 1710. A one-room schoolhouse was built in 1732 next to the meetinghouse. It was the only school in town for 23 years. In 1755, the town was divided into five school district and a schoolhouse was built in each district.
A unique natural resource found in Abington was a clay pit located behind the first meetinghouse. The high quality of the clay attracted John Henry Benner, a master potter, to move to Abington ca. 1760. Benner was a German craftsman who had worked at the Glassworks in Germantown (now Quincy). He lived and worked here until the 1790s. Bennerware is recognized as one of the finest examples of colonial pottery.
Several tanneries were established in the area; the first one in present-day Whitman ca. 1710. The availability of leather led to shoemaking as a popular cottage industry involving the majority of the families. Old Abington soon became a one-industry town: shoe manufacture. For the rest of the 18th century, shoes were made in “ten-footer” shops by hand.
Abington’s history is very closely tied to the shoemaking industry. In addition to the natural increase in the families already in residence, young people from other towns moved in because of the shoemaking jobs that were available. They settled here and started their own families. By 1822, population growth required enlargement of the school system into eight districts; and by 1830, there were eleven districts.
The 1850 census records 36 boot and/or shoe manufacturers in town. A number of these were still the cottage industry of shoemakers in independent shops. But some were partnerships forming relatively large firms. Over the following decade, the small shops dropped out of business or were absorbed into the larger firms and the business of shoemaking became concentrated in large factories.
In 1858, Lyman R. Blake (1835–1883), an Abington shoemaker, patented the first machine capable of sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers with satisfactory results. He sold the rights to his patent to Gordon McKay (1821–1903) of McKay Shoe Machinery Co., who patented an improved version in 1862 and promoted their use by the growing shoe industry. These machines were instrumental in transforming shoe making from the backyard “ten-footer” shops to large factories.
During the Civil War, the Union army was in desperate need of footwear — quickly. Because of the timely installation of the McKay machine by the shoe companies, Old Abington was in a unique position to fill that need. Seth Bryant of East Bridgewater won the contract to provide shoes for the entire Union force. He sub-contracted half the job to manufacturers located in Old Abington, such as Arnold, Commonwealth, Crosset, Hurley, Regal, Turner, and Wright.
Prior to the Civil War, Island Grove Park was the site for many abolitionist meetings. These spirited meetings undoubtedly contributed to Abington’s active involvement in the anti-slavery movement, and consequently, the Civil War. After the Old Colony railroad was put through in 1845, this idyllic spot became easily accessible and thousands would come to the rallies.
In addition to bringing people to Abington, the railroad service also gave Abingtonians access to other places, especially Boston—allowing residents to work in the big city while continuing to live in their own home towns. Thus the commuting lifestyle came about and began the transformation of Abington from an industrial town into a bedroom community.
By the time the Civil war ended, the eastern and southern Abington communities had evolved into their own “villages.” The town had also grown too large to maintain its simple town structure—economically and politically, and several community leaders became proponents of dividing the town.
In 1871, the town voted to build a school in each section of the community. The school built at Center Abington, on Dunbar Street, far exceeded the budget; the town refused to pay the bill and the builder sued. The other sections of town, who managed to build their schools within the budget, became very disgruntled about the whole thing and used this opportunity to create a cause around which they built their campaign. The debate continued for three years, and in 1874, East Abington withdrew to become the Town of Rockland. The following year, South Abington became a separate community, and in 1886 adopted the name of Whitman.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Herbert H. Buffum, originally from Hanover, started a shoe machinery factory in Abington. His primary interest, however, were engines, and H. H. Buffum Co. was soon manufacturing motor cars and boat motors. Buffum continued to produce automobiles here until ca. 1910.
This era saw the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles as the means of private transportation. By 1915, all of the streets and roads in town were paved—though still with gravel or crushed stone. However, better surfacing with blacktop was not far behind, demanded by the fast-increasing automobile traffic.
The Great Depression of the 1930s marked the end of large scale shoe manufacture in Abington. The resiliency of the people are reflected in the continuing development of the town. When one source of income dwindled or disappeared, they turned to another or made adjustments and adapted their businesses to keep up with the times.
The residents now either commute to work elsewhere or are involved in the service industry that support the local lifestyle. In any case, with the disappearance of heavy industry in the area, Abington completed its evolution into a bedroom community
Learn more about Old Abington
The Historical Society of Old Abington, Inc. (HSOA) was organized in 1939 and incorporated in 1986 for the purpose of preserving the 200 years of common history shared by Abington, Rockland and Whitman.