Hobbs Tannery

In 1729, Josiah Hobbs purchased 122 acres along North Avenue at the heart of the Kendal Green Historic District, including water rights to what is now known as “Hobbs Brook.” The Hobbs Tannery, which may have been established as early as 1730, was among the first tanneries in the Massachusetts colony and was so well-known that it was a custom in early days to locate houses and people in Weston by their distance from the tannery.

Tanning hides was an important colonial industry, as the tough, strong leather material was indispensable for use in harnesses, saddles and shoes. Making leather required an abundant water supply. Hides had to be washed and soaked in vats of lime solution to loosen the hair, then scraped, smoothed, and tanned in pits of water containing ground-up bark, which produced tannin. The tannin slowly penetrated the hides in the tan pits and turned them into leather, a process which took 12 to 18 months. The leather was pounded to make it flexible and then “dressed” by curriers who stretched the hides and kneaded them in oil.

Five generations of the Hobbs family operated the tannery for over a century and branched out into slaughtering cattle and making harnesses, carriages, whips, leather cartridge boxes, belts, boots and shoes. Of Josiah Hobbs’ eight children, the oldest, Ebenezer (b.1709) is the ancestor of all the Hobbs family in Weston. The houses at 121 North Avenue (18th c., Map #6, MHC 23) and 87 North Avenue (Map #2, MHC 27) are the earliest family dwelling houses. In 1786, the third son of Isaac Hobbs, also named Isaac (Jr.)(1765 – 1834) built the house now known as the Hobbs-Hagar House across the street at 88 North Avenue (Map #38, MHC 26). Isaac Jr. married Mary Baldwin in 1790 and their daughter, Mary Ann, married Nathan Hagar in 1832. Nathan Hagar formed the partnership of Hobbs and Hagar with his father-in-law. On the death of Isaac Hobbs Jr.in 1834, Nathan and Mary Ann Hagar moved to the Hobbs-Hagar House, and their descendants occupied it into the 20th century.

After Isaac Jr. died, the family real estate and personal property was appraised. The resulting probate document provides insight into the extent of the business. Along with various dwelling houses, the property included a tanyard containing about 60 vats, bark houses, currying shop, and “all the necessary buildings for doing an extensive business” with sufficient water power for grinding the bark, pulling hides and rolling leather, “with mills for same.” Several thousand skins and hides are listed, along with over two thousand finished boots, bootees, shoes, slippers, pumps and brogans and great quantities of shoe-making supplies.

The Hobbs enterprises were typical of water-powered industries in rural towns throughout New England in the pre-Civil War period, before the establishment of large mechanized factories geared toward mass production. Probably because of the presence of the tannery, boots and shoes were the principal articles manufactured in Weston by the late 1830s, according to John Warner Barber’s Historical Collections. 5 Barber reported that in 1837, 5,606 pairs of boots and 17,182 pairs of shoes were manufactured in the town, a figure thought to represent about the peak of the leather industry here. The firm of Hobbs and Hagar continued the shoe factory until about 1850 and the tannery closed shortly before the death of Nathan Hagar in 1860.

Shoemaking was an important cottage industry in the Kendal Green area until the mid-19th century. Among those who made shoes in their homes was Jonas Hastings, a cordwainer born in Weston in 1784, Jonas acquired property on both sides of North Avenue over a period of about thirty years, from 1805 to 1834, and, in 1823, tore down an old house on the property now numbered 199 North Avenue and erected the Hastings Homestead (Map #14, MHC 14). By about 1833, the west end was occupied by his son, Francis Hastings, who married that year. This Francis Hastings, a bootmaker and farmer, was the father of the organ manufacturer, Francis Henry Hastings, who was brought up in his grandfather’s house.

Except for the tannery, land within the Kendal Green Historic District was used for farming. The Hastings land was farmed, as was the neighboring land which, by the 1820s, belonged to Converse Bigelow. In 1859, the Bigelow farmhouse (Map #10, MHC 19) and 70 acres were sold to Kendall H. Stone, who established a large dairy farm. In 1881, Stone sold the property to Edward Coburn, member of a prominent Weston farm family, who turned it over to his son, Thomas. The huge barn set right on North Avenue in front of the house had space for over 30 cows and five or six horses. Coburn’s dairy was large enough to support three or four regular employees. After Thomas’s death in 1916, his son Harold (Sr.) managed the farm, which continued in operation until after World War II.

The construction of the Fitchburg Railroad (later the Boston and Maine) in 1844-45 did not immediately change land use within the district, which remained predominantly agricultural until the late 1880s. The railroad stopped at what was then called the “Weston” station on Church Street, location of the present Kendal Green Railroad Station (c.1901, Map #36, MHC 247), which replaced an earlier depot shown on the 1875 map. A second stop just outside the Kendal Green Historic District, called “Hastings”, was added later when the organ factory was established here. Although the railroad increased transportation options, North Avenue continued to be heavily used. In 1874 the town established a watering place near the Hagar House with a pump and stone trough for the benefit of the traveling public.

In the early 1880s, the Hobbs land at the corner of North Avenue and Church Street was inherited by General James F.B.Marshall (1818-1891), nephew of Abigail and Samuel Hobbs. Marshall, who served as paymaster general of the Massachusetts militia during the Civil War, was one of several Weston residents important in the establishment of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school for the education of black teachers founded at the close of the Civil War.6 Marshall was an incorporator and original trustee who initially helped by raising money in Boston and later became the school’s treasurer, assistant principal, and bookkeeping teacher. With General Samuel Armstrong, Marshall is sometimes referred to as the co-founder of the Hampton Institute.

The property inherited by General Marshall included three houses on the north side of the street (#87, 107-9, and 121) and thirty acres. He enlarged and remodelled the 18th century Isaac Hobbs House at #87 and called his North Avenue estate “Kendal Green.” As a well-known educator, Marshall received many letters, and in 1885 the postal service decided to open an office to serve the northern part of Weston, to be located two doors down from Marshall’s retirement home. Marshall suggested the name “Kendal Green” as being “of pleasant sound and significance,” as he explained in a Letter to the Editor of December, 1885.7 According to the letter, “Kendal” commemorated Marshall’s grandfather, Rev. Samuel Kendal, last of Weston’s colonial pastors and an important figure in the early history of the town. “Kendal Green” was the name of a green cloth manufactured in the English town of Kendal and adopted as a uniform by Robert, Earl of Huntington, when he was outlawed and took the name of Robin Hood. Marshall’s letter quotes Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Act II, Scene VI, when Prince Hall asks Falstaff, “How couldst thou know these men in Kendal Green, when ’twas so dark thou couldst not see thy hands?” By 1886, the Kendal Green Post office was in operation along with a small general store. The railroad station adopted the name as well.

The post office and general store soon became an integral part of the Kendal Green neighborhood. In 1899, both were taken over by George Warren Brodrick (1872-1952), who ran Brodrick’s Store at 107-9 North Avenue (Map #4, MHC 24) for half a century. Residents who called for their mail at the post office lingered to discuss local or national politics or eat sandwiches at the “tea room” built off the end of the store. By 1897, the town installed a scale in front of the store for weighing coal and farm produce, and by the 1930s, Brodrick’s had a gasoline pump.