“The Remarkable Cyrus Wakefield”

24Feb13

A Talk by John Wall
Cyrus WakefieldMany people know the story of how the town of South Reading, MA came to be renamed after industrialist Cyrus Wakefield. But most people probably don’t realize the extent to which he shaped the town of Wakefield as we know it today.

In a talk on Feb. 20, 2013 to a large crowd in the Heritage Room at the Americal Civic Center, local historian John Wall helped to flesh out the portrait of the 19th century business tycoon.

Heywood-Wakefield workers“There was not much that he didn’t have his fingers in,” Wall said. People associate Cyrus Wakefield with rattan furniture manufacturing. And while dealing in rattan supply and distribution was a key element of Wakefield’s success, Wall explained, it was only one of many businesses in which he prospered. In fact, according to Wall, it was only in the last few years of Wakefield’s life that his company on Water Street began actually manufacturing furniture.

Wall said that what little is known about Cyrus’s childhood comes from Lilley Eaton’s biography of Wakefield. But Wall cautioned that at least with respect to Wakefield’s early years, Eaton’s sketch amounts to hagiography written in the self-aggrandizing rags-to-riches style of the day.

Born in 1811 on a farm in Roxbury, New Hampshire, Wakefield desired to strike out on his own at an early age. In an effort instill in him an appreciation of home life, Wall said, Wakefield’s family arranged a series of jobs for young Cyrus in and around the village, including one in a shop cleaning cotton and another milking cows for a Calvinist minister.

None of these jobs ever lasted more than a few days, according to Wall, and Cyrus’s family finally acquiesced to "Friendship of Salem"his determination to escape home and sent him to work as a clerk for a grocer in Boston. The grocer, Wall said, encouraged Wakefield’s entrepreneurial spirit and soon the young man was supplementing his income by buying and selling discarded boxes and packaging from the city’s docks.

Eventually, Wakefield’s scavenging led him to gathering the reedy material used on ships as dunnage – packing material to protect a ship’s cargo from damage due to shifting during transport. This flexible weedy material was harvested in the Far East and stuffed into empty spaces on cargo ships bound for Boston and other western ports. The weeds were known as “rattan” and Wakefield began selling the material he picked from the docks to chair makers who wove the material into chair seats.

Soon Wakefield moved up the pecking order and became a “jobber,” someone who took the material scavenged by others to resell it, Wall explained. Wakefield now had a little money to invest. But things really took off for Wakefield, according to Wall, in the 1840’s after he married Eliza Bancroft, the daughter of wealthy sea captain and shipping magnate Henry Bancroft.

With his in-laws’ business contacts in China, a principal source of rattan, Wakefield was able to expand his business. According to Wall, Wakefield modeled himself after the successful tycoons of the day, like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt, by attempting to corner markets and build monopolies.

Before long, Wakefield began doing business in other commodities in addition to rattan, like spices, coffee and tea, Wall said. He also began buying and selling real estate.

Wakefield FactoryCyrus Wakefield moved his rattan business to South Reading in 1851, Wall said, on the present site of Shaw’s Supermarket. He moved here with his wife in 1855, building a home on the spot currently occupied by the new CVS store. He began buying land and property in Wakefield, Wall added, at one point owning much of the downtown area as well as real estate along Water Street. By about 1864, he had built his new mansion after draining the swampy site where the Galvin Middle School now sits.

Wakefield Junction - Wakefield, MACyrus Wakefield, Wall explained, “bought everything he could and sold it for a profit.” The railroad first came through the town of South Reading in the 1840s and by 1855 Cyrus sat on the board of the Boston & Maine Railroad and was its largest stock holder.

“By the early 1860’s Wakefield had made a killing in the rattan market,” Wall said. He made and sold the core material that was used in everything from furniture to mats to hoop skirts.

Wakefield Town Hall - 1912By the end of 1865, he had been working in many charitable ways to benefit the town,” Wall noted, culminating with his giving the town $30,000 for a new town hall. Within days of that donation, according to Wall, the town of South Reading renamed itself “Wakefield.” Cyrus was so moved by the gesture, Wall said, that he gave another $90,000, which allowed the town to build the elaborate grand old Town Hall that stood from 1868 to 1958 on the corner of Main and Water streets, on the current site of the municipal parking lot.

In his day, Wall pointed out, Cyrus Wakefield was the principal real estate developer in town, was one of the incorporators of The Wakefield Savings Bank, served as a director of the Citizens’ Gas & Light Company, organized the Quannapowitt Water Company, was a member of the school board and organized local lectures of a scientific nature, Wall said.

On top of all that, Wall added, his Boston warehouses brought in all sorts of commodities from around the world.

“What it came down to,” Wall said, “was that he put the coffee on your table, he gave you clean water to make the coffee, he gave you gas and light to warm your house and brighten rooms in the winter time, he provided ice to keep things cool in the summer time and he provided numerous scholarships to the students of Wakefield.”

Someone in the audience asked Wall if, in addition to being a successful businessman, Cyrus Wakefield was liked as a person.

“He was liked by his employees and treated them fairly,” Wall said, adding that Wakefield provided homes for his senior staff, and provided jobs for many immigrant workers. Wall said that he could find no criticism in any written work of Cyrus Wakefield as a manager or as a person.

Last night’s talk was one of a series of free lectures celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Americal Civic Center. The next lecture will be held on in the Heritage Room on Wednesday, March 20 when the speaker will be Barry M. Stentiford who has written a new history of the Richardson Light Guard.

[This story originally appeared in the Feb. 21, 2013 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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