J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Powderhouse: Public Resource or Private Property?

One of the places that plays a significant role in “The End of Tory Row,” as I’ve entitled my free public lecture on Thursday evening, is the gunpowder storehouse that still stands on a hill in Somerville.

Originally that spot was in Charlestown, and in 1703 John Mallet bought the hilltop and built the cylindrical stone structure that still stands there. In A Century of Town Life, James F. Hunnewell wrote:
Its walls, built of rough broken stones, perhaps 30 ft. high, form, as measured by the writer (April 15, 1886), a nearly exact circle 60 3/4 feet in circumference on the outside. At the one door (towards the north) they are 2 1/3 feet thick, and the diameter of the interior directly thence is 14 ft., 2 in. Both outside and inside they curve slightly inward towards the top, which is covered by a tall conical wooden and shingled roof with curved outlines. Across the interior, until recently, there were heavy beams, and flooring, all of late broken, but these have been removed, leaving the whole space clear; the floor is the earth; the doorway unclosed, as also is a window opposite; and the interior is dirty. Otherwise the structure is in tolerably good condition. Its roof was painted, and its walls were whitewashed on the outside, a few years ago.
The structure Mallet built was a windmill for grinding grain. It had four big sails and a roof that turned to face the wind. According to Wikipedia, it’s the oldest stone building in Massachusetts.

In 1747 the province of Massachusetts bought the “stone edifice, formerly a windmill,” and the quarter-acre of surrounding land from Mallet’s heirs. The government converted the structure into a gunpowder storehouse, replacing the windmill and grinding apparatus with a relatively light wooden roof. If the gunpowder inside ever blew up, the thick walls would direct most of the explosion up into the air, away from nearby buildings or people.

The powderhouse remained part of Massachusetts’s militia infrastructure until 1818. At that point, New England culture was probably less excited about military readiness. Massachusetts no longer faced the danger of invasion from inland. The region had soured quickly on the last war and wouldn’t get excited about another one for almost forty years.

The state therefore sold the quarter-acre and the powderhouse to Peter Tufts, a local farmer. He kept the building, probably because it was too solid to tear down and possibly because he could use it. The Tufts family eventually became merchants and professionals. In the 1870s, according to a brochure from the city of Somerville, they leased the stone tower to pickle maker George Emerson, who used it as a storehouse and marketed an “Old Powder House Brand.”

Hunnewell’s description above indicates the building was deteriorating by 1886. Four years later, it once again become government property as the Tufts family donated the land and building to Somerville. The city officially named the site Nathan Tufts Park, landscaped it with paths and plantings, and added benches and statuary. And everyone calls the neighborhood Powder House Square.

1 comment:

SFoley165 said...

Thanks for this history. I grew up near there and still pass by occasionally. Always wondered if it was the original bldg. And also thrilled to see the connection between an old Powder House pickle jar I own, and the Powder House property.