by Jim Wulff
a biography, excerpted from Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake (copyright 1994, Wakefield 350). (books are still available for purchase; to send an inquiry e-mail, click here.)
For more information on the Wakefield Rattan Industry, click here.
Upon the death of Cyrus Wakefield, the Wakefield Banner said, "The death of Cyrus Wakefield has cast a gloom over the community the past week that no other event could. His was the master spirit of the place. His identification with every interest was so complete and thorough that hardly any calamity could be so great as his death for his plans for the future were so magnificent and on as extensive a scale as the great improvements already carried out, and which make the town of Wakefield one of the most beautiful and enterprising of Middlesex towns." This was not just the sentimental exaggeration common in the press of the last century. In fact you could call it an understatement.
In 1882, a caricature map of Wakefield was printed, showing the large or important buildings disproportionately out of scale to emphasize their significance.l (Editor's note: this map can be found on the opening of the "Overviews" section of this volume.) A look at this map puts the impact of Cyrus Wakefield on his town in perspective. Churches aside, virtually every one of the town's significant buildings bears the stamp of Cyrus Wakefield. (Not to mention the many tracts of land bearing the notation "Cyrus Wakefield" or "C.W.") Cyrus Wakefield changed the physical structure of South Reading and no doubt its social life as well. Demographic and industrial forces might have been changing the face of many small towns in that era, but in South Reading, those forces bore the stamp of one man: Cyrus Wakefield.
His presence in Wakefield was looming, but outside Wakefield, his presence was also impressive. He personally started the rattan industry and remained the single most important figure in this international industry. His real estate in Boston was of more value than his rattan factory in Wakefield. The value of his cargoes at sea were worth even more than his real estate in either city.
More facts? He was the largest importer of East Indian goods at his time in Boston. His pre-rattan ventures were so forceful that it is said that England changed its laws to combat him. He was one of the founders of the Boston Globe. And, yet, when he died suddenly, that same Globe pronounced his estate 'insolvent.'
Even a cursory reading of his life reveals a dynamic -- even magnetic -- personality, a man who just had to have a dozen irons in the fire at any time. He was a visionary who was able to achieve his visions, who was driven to press for more success, who made his own luck -- perhaps even the bad luck that would cost most of his fortune. In many ways, his life story is the tale of a man with Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill with the guts and grit to stick with it, and a magnanimous spirit to boot. A true American dream.
The story of Cyrus Wakefield's connection with South Reading actually starts long before his birth with the birth of Thomas Wakefield in 1727. From birth, Thomas was "kept and cared for" by the Abraham Gould family in our Reading, probably due to the frail health of his mother, who died the next year. As an apprentice carpenter to either Timothy Pratt or a neighbor, Thomas met and married Dorcas Pratt, moving into the Pratt house on Main Street "side the pond." (In the 1970's, Town Historian and Pratt descendant Ruth Woodbury believed that the Pratt's "Old Garrison" house, or perhaps a building incorporating the original house, still stood, although not at the original location.)
Thomas' son, Thomas Jr., "removed" to New Hampshire, while other branches of the family remained in Reading. Cyrus, the grandson of Thomas Jr., was born in Roxbury, New Hampshire near Keene on February 14, 1811. At the festivities marking the change of the town's name to Wakefield, Cyrus reminisced that his family farm was "one of the roughest farms to be found in that rocky, rugged locality ... a spot where the school master was deemed qualified for teaching, only because he was dis-qualified physically from any other occupation." As the Memorial Volume of Ancient Reading, published for the town's 250th Anniversary puts it, "The opportunities of young Cyrus for education were limited by the curriculum of the common school, three months in the year, but he diligently improved the advantages within his reach, and the home acres could not long hold this eager young man." Cyrus was already hoping to emulate the renowned Nathan Appleton, who in the 1790s moved from New Hampshire to Boston where he became one of the wealthy elite, combining with the Lowells and the Lawrences to build the prototypical mill communities of the area.
"Diligent" he was. At 12, Cyrus worked in the pits where charcoal was made. He went to Peterborough as a 'picker-boy' in a cotton mill. This must have been an abysmal although brief experience -- "a most excellent position to dissipate the rosy hues which had gathered about his ideal world, and to discover to him the cold stern reality." Not dismayed at the reality, at 15, he came to Boston, where he first was employed in a grocery on Washington Street while living in the North End. "Thrifty" also applies, since in a few years, he had amassed what must have been the impressive sum with which he became a partner in his own grocery, Foster & Wakefield on Commercial Street, Boston.
"Educated" did not apply to Cyrus, since he abandoned his original goal of pursuing schooling when he had saved enough money. Later in life he spoke of regretting this decision and developed an interest in education and educational theories. However, the lure of the business world was too great. This lure may simply have been the desire for money and success, but he needed the energetic pace of business and the dangerous element of risking capital. As you read about Cyrus, it is difficult to see him sitting contentedly in a classroom. Typically, he surmounted his lack of formal education by more activity; attending a variety of evening lectures and classes.
He certainly was not handicapped by his lack of education. He did well as a clerk at Stearns, Cobb and Winslow on India Street. Interestingly, in light of his later career, he was allowed to sell empty barrels and casks and made shipments to Valparaiso and other South American ports. By 1834, when he was 23, he was a partner in Foster and Wakefield, a grocery business opposite Commercial Wharf. When this dissolved, he sent for his younger brother Enoch, with whom he went into partnership as Wakefield & Company. Eventually, Wakefield & Company would be such a successful and aggressive shipper of woodenware to England that the Board of Trade in Liverpool was forced to petition for protectionist tarrifs to compete with the Wakefield products.
Enoch was not the only Wakefield the successful young entrepreneur brought to Massachusetts. It was about this time that Cyrus brought down his eldest sister Hannah for "better educational advantages than he had enjoyed." Sabbath was the time for calling in this era of the 6-day work week. Accordingly, one fine Sunday, Cyrus and Hannah rented a horse and two-wheeled chaise to visit cousins in Reading who recommended the town's Academy run by Reverend Heath. (The South Reading Academy was then located where the Lincoln School is today. The Academy building was later moved, and still stands at 7 Foster Street.)
Hannah was enrolled in the school and began boarding at the corner of Lafayette and Main Streets, where the Baptist Church now stands. As the Citizen and Banner of 1895 said, "Who would have thought that from this event would result the building of the Wakefield rattan works, and the change of name of the town of Wakefield itself? ... Thus did the old South Reading Academy attract to its walls the little country girl, whose brother's name should be immortalized and his life work perpetuated in the name and interests of the town of Wakefield."
Hannah Wakefield must have had her brother's engaging personality since the Banner & Citizen article related that after she had travelled all night, the 'kind-hearted driver of the stage took pity on the little country-girl, so unaccustomed to travel and to city ways, and drove to the very door of the house ... and waited until he made sure that her brother boarded there." Hannah would remain in Reading and in 1895, "this same Hannah Wakefield, under the name of Mrs. Edwin Sawyer, lived almost on the site of that boarding-house where sixty years ago she made her first acquaintance with this town and with many life-long friends."
Hannah's living in Reading had as much of an impact on Cyrus as on the town. As he visited Hannah and other relatives, not only did he recognize the 'beauties of this section" (and undoubtedly its industrial possibilities), but Cyrus, described as "a handsome young man of grand physique and gentlemanly bearing," also met Miss Eliza Ann Bancroft, the daughter of a wealthy retired sea captain in Lynnfield. "At once a strong attachment for her sprang up in his manly breast, which she in due time reciprocated." They married in 1841.
Cyrus and Eliza moved to South Reading in 1851, buying several parcels including that which would become his estate. Their first home was a comparitively simple colonial on the present corner of Main and Armory Streets.
The biggest area under Cyrus Wakefield's dominance is, of course, the Wakefield Rattan Factory. In a direct follow-up to his activities at Stearns, Cobb, and Winslow, Cyrus in the early 1840's spotted and sold a discarded bale of 'ratan,' as it was then spelled. Ratan was then used as "dunnage," packing used to prevent damage to the real cargo, in vessels from the Far East. This simple act was the birth of the international rattan business. (The 1874 History by Lilley Eaton, who should have known, says that the lot of ratan had been "accidentally" purchased. This wet blanket aside, Cyrus certainly was quick to recognize the potential when it fell into his lap.)
A whole chapter could be written on the rattan business in Wakefield (Editor's note: click here to read it.) Even in quick summary, the record is impressive. Eventually, his manufactories and storehouses covered an area of ten acres of flooring and gave employment to over a thousand men and women. His overwhelming position in the industry is nicely illustrated by the fact that Cyrus peronally decided to change the spelling from 'ratan' to 'rattan.'
From the base of the rattan factory, Cyrus expanded his control in what today might be called vertical and horizontal integration, bringing all facets of the industry under his control. Specifically, he took control of the two major transportation methods he used in his business: shipping and railroading. We concentrate on Wakefield, but keep in mind this was truly an important international business.
Of course, Cyrus showed in his business life his chief personality traits. Clever, hard-working, he could be described as "obsessed" with the idea of using every scrap of the rattan; his success in nearly doing so was one of the keys to his success. Cyrus also showed some revealing traits which seem peculiar to us but may have not been that unusual for the tycoon of his day. Even as the scope of the enterprise spread, Cyrus kept his hand on the most minute details: "As an evidence of his care, it may be said that no bill, be it for fifty cents or $50, was paid without Mr. Wakefield's own mark of approval being put upon it." A second practice does show the personal ownership style of the era. When in need of money, Cyrus would simply stop by the paymaster's office at the factory and pick up the needed funds.
Diagonally across Water Street from his factory -- almost on the corner of Main Street -- stood the Center House. This was in bad shape when Cyrus renovated it as a company hotel for his guests and sales force.
While he is today remembered for his rattan factory, a single industry -- even an international one started by himself -- was not nearly enough for an energetic entrepreneur like Cyrus. Recognizing again the possibilities that the railroads brought, he was responsible for the foundry on what today is appropriately known as Foundry Street. Cyrus may have been a major but hidden partner when the Blanchard, Tarbell & Company opened in 1854. He had sold them the land, and he was cited as an advisor. When the foundry was reorganized and enlarged as the Boston & Maine Foundry two years later, Cyrus emerges into the light as the major shareholder.
Around the corner and south a block were the grounds of the impressive Wakefield mansion laid out by a "Copeland" in 1863 to replace his earlier and simpler house standing where the Civic Center now stands. The stunning property contained a stone house with a mansard roof, an immense barn to the rear, with canals and a gazebo. Orchards covered much of the property. There were extensive greenhouses. In 1913, partially at the urging of the heirs, the town purchased the mansion and 10 acres of grounds for $25,900 as a site upon which to build a school. Perhaps Cyrus himself would have approved of the destruction of his mansion for this purpose; spurred by his own regretted lack of formal education, he had a lifelong interest in education and educational theory. He studied European theories and considered their application to the Wakefield Schools, attended every school board meeting, and was on the 1871 building committee for the high school. (Today's town hall.)
Lest we concentrate on Cyrus Wakefield's contributions in terms of these imposing buildings, keep in mind that he had a hand in virtually everything happening in town. Reading a list of his interests exhausts lesser mortals: Wakefield Savings Bank, National Bank of South Reading, Citizens Gas and Light, South Reading Ice, president of his own Wakefield Real Estate and Building Company, Library Trusteee, Mason at the Melrose Commandary. I will stop here although some sources suggest other activities which are less certain.
The centerpiece of the town at that time was the square, composed of a trio of buildings at the northeastern corner of Main and Water Streets. The central building, the jewel of the town in the 1870's, was the Town Hall. The gift of this building to the town was the direct cause of the town's adopting his name. North on Main Street was the Wakefield Block. This building survives today as the Taylor Block, but in a far less imposing state since its top mansard story has been truncated. (The story goes that the owner removed the top story in a fit of anger during a dispute during taxes.)
Behind the Town Hall stood the Miller Piano Factory, which has been replaced by Baybank. Cyrus put up the two structures for about $150,000 in the 1870's. The following shows some insight into Cyrus' role as general benefactor of the town (as well as the perilous financial times): Cyrus offered one building rent free to a Peabody shoe manufacturing firm provided it employed a certain number of people. The deal fell through when the shoe company went under. (Of course, philanthropy aside, the canny Cyrus undoubtedly saw this as a way to get an eventually paying client into an empty building.)
The action that changed the town's name in Cyrus Wakefield's honor came about as a convergence of four factors: first, general unhappiness with the name South Reading; second, the desire to build a suitable monument to honor the soldiers and sailors who had been slain in the Civil War; third, the desire for a new town hall; and, fourth, Cyrus Wakefield himself.
In November, 1867, the town set up yet another comittee to create a Civil War monument. Cyrus approached the monument committee and offered $30,000 (plus another $5,000 if necessary) and the land for a new town hall which would include a memorial to the Civil War dead. The townspeople, impressed by his generosity and by his excellent record of public service (and perhaps by the fact that he employed so many of them) decided to change the town's name to Wakefield. Cyrus in turn was so tickled by the town's action that he tripled his offer to $100,000. The stupendous generosity of this gift can be seen when one realizes that the gift from Lucius Beebe which led, in the same year, to the naming of the Beebe Public Library was for $500.00.
The festivities celebrating the name change took place on July 4, 1868, with the Town Hall being completed and deeded over on February 22, 1871. The deed to the building stated that portions of the Town Hall shall also "be used for patriotic, charitable, scientic (sic), military, literary, aesthetic, educational, moral, and religious purposes and for meetings, lectures and addresses promotive thereof." While this may seem to be a broad brush list of every possible virtuous activity, one senses that Cyrus indeed saw these virtues in Wakefield, and saw himself (and others) aiding in promoting all these virtues.
How important was all Cyrus' industry and property to the town? In 1871, Cyrus Wakefield is listed as incurring a poll tax of $2.00, $2,895.75 "tax for personal" and $2,622.71 "tax on real estate" for a total of $5520.46. After a 'discount' of $275.95, he paid $5244.59. ("Personal" included such non-real estate items as stock-in-trade, machinery, horses, carriages, furniture, and "income.") Three years earlier, in 1868, the town's entire appropriation was $31,238.03. Ignoring any possible changes in expenditure between the years, Cyrus footed 17% of the town's tax bill. With 1993's property taxes running at $11,354,163, consider someone paying a tax bill of $1,930,208.
Cyrus was obviously the whale in South Reading's small pond. But he ws more than this; he was a reasonably large fish in the oceans of Boston and beyond. The areas of economic opportunity for those years were the shipping trade with the Far East, railroads, and real estate. Cyrus jumped into all three. His early days as a clerk in Boston had been related to the sea. Wakefield & Company had relied heavily on shipping. Obviously the rattan business depended on shipping; Cyrus "began to consider that the rates of freight he was paying to Messers Wm. F. Weld and Company and others were too high." (Given the coincidental naming of Massachusetts' current governor, many readers might argue that the rates paid to Messers Wm. Weld and Company are still too high.) Cyrus was soon saving $200,000 a year by controlling the transportation of his own goods. Never a man to do things halfway, he became the largest importer of East India goods in Boston. These goods included rattan, but, even more, spices.
At the dedication of Wakefield's town hall, Judge Thomas Russell, the collector of the port of Boston, declared
it is a gratifying thought that one busy brain here in quiet Wakefield is employing and feeding men and women in all parts of the globe; that highly-freighted ships (eighteen last year) are now, in obedience to a single will, crossing the Atlantic and Indian Oceans; that these ships are bringing cargoes valued at millions of dollars; and destined to gain by labor missions more of value; that in the jungles of India, by the water-side of Singapore, in the perfumed forests of the Spice Islands, men are now gladly doing the work of our friend. You are resting today, but resting in comfort and in peace, because so many of you are sure of well-paid employment, provided by the industry of your fellow citizen.
(We should realize that controlling a ship's cargo did not necessarily mean owning the ship. It was common to contract for the ship.)
America, and its young fortunes, was turning from the sea to railroading. Cyrus was a director and the largest stockholder of the Boston & Maine Railroad since "the principal industries in wich he was engaged being upon the line of this road." In fact, The Completed Century, a history of the Heywood-Wakefield Company, calls Cyrus the 'majority stockholder of the B & M.' Other holdings included a majority of the Fitchburg Railroad and intersts in the Nashua, Acton & Boston, and the Middlesex.
Boston was as important to Cyrus as was Wakefield. Boston was the major port for his shipping, the 'downtown' offices of the Wakefield business, the major terminus for his major railroad, the place in which he had begun business. And, specifically, it was the North End of Boston, where most of these connections lay. Even while working elsewhere in Boston as a youth he had lived in the North End. It was natural for a man of Cyrus' financial vigor and restless energy to invest in North End real estate. Boston of the mid-1800's was still expanding; only a few years before the South End had been created. Then the top of Beacon Hill was cut off to create the Back Bay from an odoriferous tidal marsh. Cyrus saw the potential of the North End with its convenient location and railroad ties. Cyrus could do nothing in small measure. One source lists 23 purchases bought over 10 years; some of these purchases include multiple properties and some are for significant buildings.
Along the way, Cyrus became one of a consortium which founded the Boston Globe.
Let me digress to include two stories, both instructive although in different ways. The first appears in one of the Banner issues devoted to Cyrus at the time of his death. Since this is from the funeral oration of the Reverend C. R. Bill, who says that "He (Cyrus) once related (the story) to me," we must believe it, bizarre and out of character as it sounds. The story takes place early in Cyrus' career. "Having become greatly wearied in his business, discontented and unhappy, he suddenly left his counting room, purchased a suit of laborer's clothes, went to some out-of-the-way town in New Hamshire and, without revealing his real name, let himself as a common farm hand for two months."
The second story is entirely unrelated but does contain a warning for all readers. The Banner believed "many of our readers will recall the fact that he gave $100,000 to Harvard College, about two years ago, to erect the hall which now bears his name." This is yet another example of the tremendous public generosity by the untutored man with the abiding interest in education. Unfortunately, conversations with the Harvard Library and its archives show that no such gift was ever made, certainly not to Harvard at any rate. This very direct Banner statement is either some egregious typo or a gross misinterpretation of some hearsay. Either way, keep in mind that the Banner is one of the chief -- and perhaps not the most unreliable -- source that this biographer has been blithely citing. (By the way, the Banner also had the month of his birth wrong in their eulogies.)
High-flying man of vision, from uneducated farm boy to magnate in at least four industries. Everything was golden in the post-war expansionist era. Then the world turned. First globally with the disastrous panic of 1873, then more personally with his unexpected death on October 26, 1873. In an interesting view of the simpler outlok on health of the time, Cyrus is reported of complaining of "a pain across the top of his lungs, remarking to his wife that it was different from anything he had before experienced." Despite this, Cyrus Wakefield passed the pain off, and retired to the sitting room before the fire -- soon to be discovered dead.
After some debate, Mrs. Wakefield did allow a public viewing. The town -- including by a contemporary account "the many persons of the poor and middling clases who have been so largely benefited by the enterprises of their late townsman" -- trooped by in sincere grief as well as some healthy concern for their own future. After an impressive funeral service attended by many notables from Boston, Cyrus was buried at Lakeside.
Cyrus' death was ill-timed, no doubt from a personal standpoint, but most obviously from a financial standpoint. A quaint term like "panic" may not seem as disastrous as "depression," but the Panic of 1873 was the severest depression to that date in the nation's history and remains one of the most severe to this day.
Key to understanding Wakefield's position is that the Panic was a most precipitous financial disaster. Begun in financial manipulation of the railroads, the situation bcame a true "panic" when Jay Cooke's Wall Street firm failed. Wall Street was closed for ten days. Cyrus was not alone in his troubles; unable to cope with the lightning change from boom to depression, over 18,000 businesses failed for the reasons you might expect: they were over-extended, credit became tight, income disappeared, stock was over inflated, etc.
Perhaps some of these problems applied to Cyrus Wakefield and his financial empire. As one would expect, he seems to have been plowing ahead full-speed on both the rattan and real-estate fronts. He had a tremendous amount of capital tied up in cargoes coming from the Far East. A source at the Peabody and Essex Museum in Salem explains that planning and execution of such shipping journeys might take up to a year (although Cyrus, being experienced in this trade, would not have taken quite so long). Additionally, we do not know if Cyrus had contractual commitments which required his continuing the trade even if he had any sense of worsening economic times.
Most likely, Cyrus simply was not the personality to lay back in a storm. He was a "bull" physically and emotionally, probably incapable of pulling in his horns. This vigorous man, a risk taker who always bet on the side of action, this man acknowledged as "stubborn," had bet on continued success, on the same approach which had brought him so incredibly far. Hence his continued purchases of Boston real estate after his own maneuverings had pushed prices in the North End up. Hence his heavy investment in East Indian cargoes, which required such a long period before they returned their profits.
Cyrus may have sensed a downswing. "Luckily" -- and Cyrus has been cited as a man who made his own luck -- only three weeks before his death, he incorporated the Wakefield Rattan company, keeping 995,000 of the 1,000,000 shares himself. This incorporation allowed the company to continue as a separate operating entity after his death. We cannot know if Cyrus would have avoided the financial penalties for his optimism if he had lived, Perhaps he would have achieved one more vision by carrying his companies through the troubled times by the force of personality.
His death brought chaos to his companies, even though the Globe's cry of insolvency was sensationalism. Not surprisingly for this man who took such pride in his own strength, he had no will. Moreover, to an extent, he did business out of his pocket. He had the stunning sum of $22,000 in cash when he died. For years claims were made on the estate by persons with notes and commitments signed by Cyrus. ("Years" is literally true. The probate process was a quagmore, appreciated only by lawyers, accountants and clerks, who billed a total of $180,000 before it was over It took two years before the original statements of assets and liabilities could be filed; it was a dozen years before the estate was finally settled.)
Straightway, it must be understood that Eliza was a rich woman, that assets greatly outnumbered debts when the dust settled, even though the estate sale during hard times led to losses on many items. The Boston real estate was valued at $1.3 million (keep in mind that these are 1873 dollars). The shares of the rattan company were valued at $1.6 million of which $1 million represented the factory itself and $600,000 other property in town. Other real estate in Wakefield was valued at $100,000 (including half of the Beebe estate). Dwarfing these is the $2.5 million in "straights goods," i.e., his cargoes in 23 ships at sea at the time of his
The fascinating part of the cargo list is not the expected 340 tons of rattan but the 800 tons of black pepper. Who of us thinks of Wakefield's Cyrus as sitting atop that unimaginable mountain of pepper? Is it possible that the entire population of Wakefield has used any significant portion of that much pepper in the last 120 years?
The cargo lists go on through myriad other spices, tin, buffalo hides, sugar, and so forth. Interestingly, the original estimate of the cargoes' value is $2.5 million; for estate appraisal purposes, it is later listed as $1.4 million. While this may represent a crafty accountant's reducing of estate taxes, it may also represent the type of loss the estate had to take on these shipments compared to their original value; when the ships came in, the market for these goods had dropped through the floor.
There are other examples of losses due to hard times and the absence of Cyrus himself. Cyrus, with his characteristic fervor, had bought some $400,000 in Boston and Maine stock at the time he was named to its Board of Directors; the estate took a bath on these a few years later. Another claim on the estate was by the intriguingly named "Music Hall Association," which presented Cyrus' signed pledge to subscribe to $168,000 in shares. The estate was forced to buy the shares but then could only sell them for one-half the price.
Rather than end with these sordid financial dealings, let's return to the more important picture of Cyrus in life, striding grandly across Wakefield. Perhaps it is most fitting to consider last not only the scope of what he accomplished but to consider his equally gigantic vision of the future.
To get some inkling of the astounding scope of this man's thinking, consider his plans for Boston as given in the Banner at the time of his death. Consider also that these plans were in an area which could have been no more than a sidelight to his major rattan and shipping grades. As the Banner said,
The real estate and building projects which were floating through his active brain are too numerous to mention -- taking, as they did, now the shape of uniting Studio Building, Music Hall and the Bromfield Street Church into a grand caravansary; now of founding an immsense hotel on the Quincy House, City Hotel, Central House and Brattle Street Church sites, embracing considerable contiguous property; and now of reducing the whole of Copp's Hill and connecting by a broad avenue to the city's centre.
The man was going to re-shape the earth of Boston, much less its brick and mortar. Such modern plans as a domed stadium or convention centre would have been child's play.
Never fear that his plans for Wakefield were on a lesser scale. C.S. Eaton said in his funeral address, "I have read in his mind the eager and confident anticipation of a great and glorious town, rich in its varied industries, distinguished for its means of culture, and made attractive by the beauty of its belongings." Eaton goes on to list the improvement of architecture, streets, the efficiency of the fire department and religious and educational institutions as among Cyrus' aims. His suggestions had already led to a vote for a "large public park on the banks of Lake Quannopowitt." Cyrus additionally had plans for a glorious school in Wakefield, offering post-high school education, probably as a technical school.
This then was the story of Cyrus Wakefield. It is easy enough to assemble some facts, but more interesting to speculate on the character of the man. It is easy to see the truth of the funerary statement that he was "possessed of a vigorous constitution, and endowed with a fertile mind and irresistible executive force." More interesting is the declaration that his "character had not only those elements wich are commonly termed strong, but others that brought to light emotions and feeling which endeared him to men."
What a fascinating person he would have been to have known: what we would now call a type-A personality, never without a dozen diverse irons in the fire, a self-taught man who prized education, an industrial and community leader of far-ranging vision. And yet a "gambler" as one modern correspondent called him. In a somewhat unusual funeral oration from which I have already lifted that story of his working as a laborer for two months, The Reverend C. R. Bill described this trait: "the vigor of his purposes, combined with the intensity of his feelings, sometimes began an impetuosity of action and words that overleaped due bounds; but none suffered so much on account of it as himself." If this is not merely referring to Cyrus' financial aggressiveness and optimism, there is another set of stories untold about the man.
It is fasincating to speculate on where that vision might have taken Cyrus and the town had not he died early. Even further achievements or even deeper ruin? Instead, he was eventually somewhat a victim of that vision, a high-velocity optimist when the times required caution.
He had created an industry and transformed the town. The industry may have faded but the town still thrives, bearing hs name. Imagine a counterpart to that 1882 map, one that pictures the important residents of our Reading, South Reading and Wakefield. Just as his buildings do on that original map, Cyrus Wakefield would loom up disproportionately, rising above the rest.
Read more about the Wakefield Rattan Company in Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake, an oversized, hardbound book available by mail for $45 postpaid from Wakefield 350. (P.O. Box 521, Wakefield, MA 01880)
See more photographs of Cyrus Wakefield and Wakefield Rattan in Images of America; Wakefield, a 128-page softcover book published by Arcadia Publishing in November of 2000. The book can be purchased by mail from the West Ward School Association for $21.95 postpaid,
(West Ward School Associatioin, P.O. Box 1911, Wakefield, MA 01880)
For more information about either book, e-mail to Nancy Bertrand.
To return to the Wakefield History page, click here.
To visit the Wakefield Historical Commission page, click here.
To visit the Wakefield Historical Society page, click here.
To take an architectural Tour of Wakefield, click here.
For more information on Wakefield Rattan, click here.