Good deeds

360 Prospect Street, Fall River, Massachusetts, 1962. The houses to the right have been torn down or moved. The cupola of Sacred Heart Academy, far right, is another demolished building.

In the summer of 1962, when I was three, my parents bought their first home on the corner of Prospect Street and Highland Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts. They paid $9,500! The house had 13 rooms, four fireplaces, two heating systems, servant call buttons – and my favorite device for childhood eavesdropping, speaking tubes (literally pipes through the walls). All light fixtures had combination gas jets and light bulbs. Like many substantial homes of the late Victorian era, a separate enclosed servants’ staircase went from the cellar to the third floor. That portion of the house had never been renovated, the carpeting on the stairs worn thin.

Growing up here fueled my curiosity about the first occupants of the house. Our neighbor immediately to the north (left side of photo), the late Walter Fraze, told my parents several stories about prior owners. First, he said that Frank L. Allen, owner of a lumber mill, built the house in 1897. Its original address was on Highland Avenue, but Allen changed it to 360 Prospect Street to avoid higher taxes. Frazes’ house, whose interior mimicked ours, was the product of a family feud, “built for spite.” All these stories later proved incorrect.

Next door, proceeding to the east at 376 Prospect Street, was the Second Empire home of Clara Davol, whom I remember as a frail old lady sitting in a window, her full-time nurse always near her side. Clara told my mother that the framing of our house had been finished in time for a torchlight parade up Highland Avenue honoring the election of William McKinley. When Clara died in 1963, my parents bought the Davol property and divided the back yard with the Frazes. My father planned to make his physician’s office on the first floor of the house and rent the second and third floors. After consulting with an architect, curiously a distant relative of the Davols, my parents were advised to tear down the Davol house “because it needed too much work.” All that remains of the Davol house today are two repurposed marble fireplace mantels that followed us to Vermont.

Bristol County Court House in Fall River, ca. 1907, from my postcard collection.

I learned more about the Davols and their extended family by locating their graves in Oak Grove Cemetery, whose entrance was at the head of Prospect Street. Wanting to learn more about our neighborhood house histories, I asked our family lawyer how I would go about doing that. “Simple,” he answered. “Just go to the Registry of Deeds and find the grantor and grantee indexes.”

At age of eleven, used to going just about anywhere on foot within several miles from home, I walked the five blocks down the hill to the Bristol County Courthouse, Southern Registry of Deeds. Thus began a lifetime attraction to registries! Everyone on that day was more than gracious, even asking me if I needed help carrying the indexes. Certainly, I must have been a curiosity. It took several weeks to assemble all the puzzle pieces. The original tract of land extending from Prospect Street to Highland Avenue belonged to banker Abner Davol, Clara’s father. He sold what became my parents’ house and lot to his niece-by-marriage, Mrs. Melvin Horton, née Louise Buffington. Louise lived on Prospect Street through the late 1950s. Abner Davol also sold what became the Frazes’s parcel to another niece who, in turn, sold it to Frank L. Allen, owner of the lumber yard. Years later, after pulling out a dining room buffet drawer and turning it over, I learned that Allen supplied all the woodwork for our house.

“Some frugal Yankees just did not want big yards.”

I also had the benefit of walking to the Fall River Historical Society, just three blocks away, and accessing its collection of city directories. Our family home was not built in 1897, but rather framed by William McKinley’s second inauguration in 1901. Another remarkable source connected to the early days of the house was the curator of the Fall River Historical Society, Florence C. Brigham (1899–2000), who knew the Hortons. She assured me there was no family feud in the division of the properties: “Some frugal Yankees just did not want big yards.”

My parents sold the Fall River house in 2005; by then the view had completely changed, with the expansion of Charlton Memorial Hospital’s parking lot and garage. Knowing who once lived in the neighborhood has added to the richness of my memories and appreciation of local history. I have a genealogy file on the Davol family.

Compared to the slow way I once acquired information on foot, I remain astonished at what we can learn today with the click of a mouse. Nonetheless, I cherish the memories of all those helpful people at the registry who helped a youngster learn lifelong research skills.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

25 thoughts on “Good deeds

  1. Well done! I, too have an old Victorian family home in my history that I would to know more about. Built about the same time in Beverly, MA.

  2. When I worked at the Norwalk Public Library (CT) local history collection, our team was always thrilled when (on rare occasions) a teen came in to research.

  3. Great article! The servant call buttons reminded me of my fascination with the buzzer under the carpet at my mother”s place at the dining table, circa 1952. A button, but no servants at dinner or on weekends, so it was usually us kids who pushed it, to the annoyance of our mother, who was in the kitchen.

  4. I love “older” houses and their descriptions. I thoroughly enjoyed your storied history of the house in which you spent your childhood. Thank you for sharing your warm memories.

  5. Old houses are absolutely fascinating! Thanks for the story. Grew up in Somerset myself in what the former president of the FRHS says was known as the “dead baby house.” Built about 1891 “in a secluded part of the wilds of South Somerset”.

  6. Your stories are always classics: well-researched, well-documented, interestingly told and rich in the kind of nuance that gives the whole thing the ring of verisimilitude! Well done, Nephie! I’m trying to remember if that was the house your aunt and I visited; it doesn’t look especially familiar, but things change.

    1. Thank you, Uncle. In 1975 you approached the house looking west and parked in front of Dad’s office where the Davol house had stood. That encounter should have been a Kodak moment!

  7. Fall River has a special place in my heart because a distant cousin who did a single name study decades ago for my paternal line hails from there. I am rather a shy person, especially when it comes to making phone calls, but the 300th anniversary of our immigrant ancestor’s death gave me the nudge to call him up six years ago. So glad I was able to express my thanks for all his excellent work.

  8. Excellent post. I especially enjoyed the realization that “Some frugal Yankees just did not want big yards.” What a deeply important thought. Having as much as possible does not bring happiness. Old house histories are mirrors of the people who built them.

  9. I enjoyed this post. I’ve been wanting to visit Fall River as I have Brightman ancestors buried there. My great great grandfather’s middle name was Buffington. I wonder if there was a relation to the person in your story.

    1. Brightman and Buffington are among Fall River’s old Yankee names, and there are streets named after these families which attest to their past prominence. The incorporation of Fall River, so close to the Rhode Island line, dates only to the beginning of the 19th century. You may find these names either in Dartmouth or in Rhode Island.

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