Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 9)

Published April 5, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter 9

Sudbury Proprietee Reorganized

Henry Ford’s announcement in the June 6, 1926, edition of the Boston Herald that he planned to buy the C.O. Parmenter Mill in South Sudbury and establish one of his famous “village industries” drew more than casual interest from at least one Sudbury resident. A short time after the news hit the streets, Earl J. Boyer, innkeeper at the Wayside Inn, received a visit from one Warren Wetherbee to discuss a “certain proposition.”

I stopped the conversation then and there,” Boyer later told the Boston Transcript. “I told him that no matter what his proposition was, it would not interest me.

Had Boyer and the good citizens of Sudbury realized at that time just what Wetherbee had in mind, the chances are that they would have been very interested in his proposition, albeit probably for the wrong reasons. Wetherbee, his father, H.J. Wetherbee, and Samuel D. and Edward J. Hannah of Bourne, indeed had a plan. They were going to revive the ancient Proprietee that was formed when Sudbury was founded, take title to any unclaimed land and water rights, clear title to these rights and sell them to Henry Ford at a handsome profit.

In 17th Century New England, the Proprietors were the original grantees or purchasers of a tract of land, usually a township, that they and their heirs, assigns or successors, together with those they saw fit to admit to their number, held in common ownership. They enjoyed the absolute ownership and exclusive control of such tracts of land as were granted to them. Wetherbee and the Hannahs were convinced that they held the power as Proprietors to settle the disposition of any unclaimed lands, specifically, the water rights on Hop Brook which Giuseppi Cavicchio refused to sell to Ford.

They hatched their plot on February 4, 1928. Warren E. Wetherbee and Samuel D. Hannah contacted Chief of Police and Constable Seneca Hall to witness postings of warrants of a Proprietors’ meeting on bulletin boards at the Old Town Hall and Memorial Congregational Church.

The Warrant:

A meeting of proprietors of Sudbury Plantation will be held February seventh, 1928, at 8 O’Clock p.m. at the home of H.J. Wetherbee, Concord Road, Sudbury, Mass to vote the following articles:

Art. 1st–Election of officers

Art. 2nd–Method of calling future meetings

Art. 3rd–To raise money to conduct the Proprietors’ affairs and business

Art. 4th–To determine whether the clerk elected at the meeting shall be given authority to make a search of the records and determine if the Sudbury Plantation and the said Proprietors own any land, waters and rights which may be sold, and if any land, waters and rights etc. are found, what disposition shall be made of them.

Art. 5th–To determine whether the clerk elected is to receive any expense for the purpose of conducting the affairs of the proprietors.

Art. 6th–To determine what action will be taken as to lands, waters, rights etc. originally owned by the Proprietors, but which were divided and later abandoned.

Art. 7th–To determine whether the clerk elected is to be given authority to make deeds or releases of lands, waters, rights etc. which he may sell or otherwise dispose of.

Art. 8th–To act upon any other business presented at the meeting.

A proprietor of the Sudbury Plantation

Wetherbee asked Chief Hall for an affidavit certifying that he had witnessed the posting. Hall gave him one, but, because he was ill, never actually saw the notices being tacked to the bulletin boards. He later returned to check both boards and discovered that the warrants were missing. The following morning, Forrest Bradshaw found one copy hidden beneath the Town Hall steps with no tack holes in it. Bradshaw ran off several hundred copies on his mimeograph machine and they were soon distributed all over town.

Hall immediately sent special police officer Fred Elser to fetch Wetherbee, who was attending an American Legion meeting at the old Wadsworth Schoolhouse. Wetherbee reposted the notices, but later testified that both were missing the following morning.

It was obvious that Wetherbee and Hannah had hoped that no one would see the warrants and that the only people attending the meeting at Wetherbee’s house on Concord Road would be the Hannah and Wetherbee families. Unfortunately for them, this was not to be the case. The evening of February 5, more than 40 citizens–all concerned that they might find their titles clouded–met at Bradshaw’s and hired lawyers A. Van Allen Thompson and Harold Williams to represent their interests.

Thompson and Williams recommended Quo Warranto court action that would thwart the proposed attempt of the Wetherbees and Hannahs to do in Sudbury what they were already trying to do on Cape Cod–revive the ancient proprietee which held title to certain lands and rights on Nobscot Mountain, the Sudbury River meadows and local rivers and streams.

The Wetherbees and Hannahs were already involved in litigation under consideration by Judge Wait of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to determine by what right Hannah revived the Cape Cod proprietees. There was also a case before Judge Davis of the land court, where Raymond M. Adams of Brookline sought to have title registered in his name to a piece of property claimed by Mrs. Wetherbee to have been obtained by her from the Cape Cod Proprietee.

Boyer later told The Boston Transcript that Wetherbee approached him about adjusting Ford Titles to Wayside Inn property. Boyer declined the offer, noting that all Ford’s titles were insured.

At 8 p.m. February 7, the time set for the meeting, a delegation of about 150 men and women formed a caravan at the town hall and drove to the nearby Wetherbee house on Concord Road. Besides 50 actual descendants of proprietors, there were about 100 “sightseers.”

Everyone who so desired was given entrance to the house, with Chief Hall on hand to keep order. In the living room they found Warren Wetherbee, Samuel D. Hannah and his son Edwin J. Hannah. There was a prolonged and awkward silence before Wetherbee opened the meeting.

Attorney Thompson rose to question the legality of the meeting, but Hannah and Wetherbee insisted they were in the right and invited anyone wishing to participate in the meeting to step forward and prove they were descended from one of the original Proprietors. About 40 men and women stepped forward, gave their names and addresses and said that they would provide proof of ancestry “when the time came.” As far as they were concerned, they were just as much Proprietors as Wetherbee and Hannah.

After an hour of collecting names and addresses, Wetherbee re-opened the meeting, only to have someone nominate Bradshaw as moderator. Not being a descendant of a proprietor, Bradshaw wasn’t eligible, but Harvey N. Fairbank, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, was quickly nominated and elected. Reverend Elbridge C. Whiting was elected clerk and immediately someone moved to reconvene the meeting at the Town Hall where there was more room.

At the Town Hall, Fairbank dispensed with the remainder of the agenda and asked Thompson to explain what was going on. Thompson told the people gathered, most of whom were concerned that they might not hold clear title to their lands, that the continued existence of the Proprietee was questionable at best, as was the possibility of it being revived.

Hannah countered that there was no question that the meeting was properly called by the proper persons and that the Proprietee definitely did exist. He also assured the crowd that no individual’s title would be endangered.

Someone asked why then did Hannah want to revive the Proprietee, and Wetherbee responded that the only question concerned some wild lands which could be clearly settled as to ownership in no other way–only meadow land and some on Nobscot Mountain, he said. No one need be concerned about his titles. “Why the fuss over waste land?” someone said. “I think someone wants to claim it,” countered Fairbank to a series of snickers.

Wetherbee elaborated that the lands in question were along the Sudbury River, the marshes, some of the streams and on Nobscot Mountain. They could all be disposed of in one evening, he said.

Former Assessor Fred Ham questioned this assertion, noting that he knew of no unclaimed lands in Sudbury. Ernest Little moved that the chairman appoint a committee of five to investigate titles, legalities etc. and report to a legally called meeting in the near future.

Hannah later told reporters he planned to wait until the body abolished itself, but since he had lost control of the proprietorship he was unsure as to what he could do. He told the Boston Transcript that the whole idea of reviving the proprietorship was not his or Wetherbee’s at all, but was broached by those desirous of selling water rights to Ford. It was planned to revive these proprietary rights, establish a clear title and then sell at a high rate to Ford. This idea, he said, was fostered by certain residents of the town who, the previous night, appeared in opposition and took the meeting from the hands of Wetherbee.

Hannah explained that if Ford held the proprietor’s rights, he could petition to register the whole area that he wants to improve (including the Giuseppi Cavicchio plot). His claim would then go to Land Court where his rights would be recognized and the whole situation in the swamplands in Sudbury Basin would be cleared up.

Hannah claimed that his chief adversary to a satisfactory settlement was the Ku Klux Klan, which was known to be especially strong in Sudbury. he charged that the majority of the townspeople at the meeting were Klan members or sympathizers and that the Klan’s “riot squad” and signal men were in attendance. Had not the meeting gone supposedly in the townspeople’s favor, violence might have resulted, he said.

Bradshaw, one of the prime movers against Warren Wetherbee, denied that the Ku Klux Klan had taken any hand in the matter. The Klan, he said, had not been active for four years in Sudbury and any charges that it had participated in the present situation were false and ridiculous. (He neglected to mention that Klansmen and Saxonville Irish bricklayers and mill workers rioted August 9, 1925, just a three years earlier, at the Libby Farm on the Sudbury-Framingham line.)

For ten days I have been investigating these rights, visiting courts and libraries in Boston and talking with lawyers,” Bradshaw told The Transcript. “I have found that, with the exception of certain lawyers and judges who have worked on the Cape Cod case, no one in the entire state understands the ancient proprietees except Mr. Hannah and his associates.

“The charges then, that they did [understand the proprietee] and that they [the proprietees] were to have been revived by residents of this town in order to extract large sums from Henry Ford as stated in your [Boston Transcript] interview with Mr. Hannah are not only false, but they are comic. I deny them on my own behalf as well as one of the citizens who will seek Quo Warranto proceedings against Wetherbee on behalf of the other citizens of this town.

“The thorough silliness of the Klan charges to anyone who knows anything about the Klan in this region are so ridiculous that they answer themselves. They exist only in the imagination of Mr. Hannah.

The principals had their day in court before Judge Wait on February 10, 1928. Judge Wait denied petition for Quo Warranto by five citizens of Sudbury including Forrest Bradshaw, against Warren Wetherbee, Samuel Hannah and others.

Judge Wait was prepared to take the matter under advisement and settle once and for all whether there is any precedent to allow the reorganization of the ancient proprieties. But he changed his mind and dismissed the case when both lawyers pointed out that the original petitioners (the Hannahs and Wetherbees) no longer controlled the proprietee.

Fairbank named a committee of five to inquire whether there were any lands or rights to which the proprietors might have title, and, if so, report back to the proprietors to have them determine what was to be done. The committee consisted of Bradshaw, Fred R. Stone, Percival W. Jones, H.H. Rogers and Ernest L. Little.

Fairbank also directed that any unclaimed lands be deeded to the town by the Sudbury Plantation, which would then dissolve itself forever.

On March 25, 1929, The Town Meeting had the final say on the matter, voting that: “The Town assume the responsibility of accepting from the heirs of the original proprietors of the Sudbury Plantation all claims, rights, titles and interests of any and all nature without redress which may have been held originally by the Proprietors and to handle as seems fair to all persons concerned, any claims to said lands, water rights or buildings situated now or formerly in the original town of Sudbury with its additional grants.”

While their claims to Cape Cod lands were denied by Judge Waite in the Yarmouth Case, the Hannahs and Wetherbees did gain a significant victory that would come back to roost in Sudbury some 40 years later. Judge Waite ruled that it was legal to reorganize an ancient proprietee if land was found which had escaped division through error.

The Sudbury case involved the old training field on Old County
Road in East Sudbury. For some years, the ownership of this piece of property where militia and minute companies had drilled since the early 18th Century had been questioned, with various individuals laying claim to it. The matter came to a head in 1968 and the Selectmen authorized Bradshaw to attempt to establish the present legal owners.

Bradshaw discovered that the training field was one of three laid out by the Proprietors “for a perpetual Comon for training fields,” and could find no records of any sales to private individuals until the Proprietee disbanded around 1805. There were records of two attempts to sell portions of the training field in 1774, but both were turned down by Town Meeting.

On April 2, 1792, The Town, evidently in a move to challenge the authority of the Proprietors, sold the field to Ephraim Carter and demanded that the Proprietors deliver all plans and records of undivided land to the Town Clerk. The Proprietors, declaring they had control of all undivided lands, refused to do so. The sale never was consummated.

Bradshaw concluded that the training field and several other small properties in town, notably the site of the Landham School House at the corner of Landham Road and the Boston Post Road, were part of the undivided land and should be dealt with under the action authorized by Article 33 of the Town Meeting of 1929.

The Town concurred with with Bradshaw’s recommendation, negotiating a settlement with the Philbob Real Estate Trust which returned the training
field to the jurisdiction of The Town.

* Just what the Hannahs and the Wetherbees were trying to accomplish–aside from lining their pockets–is a matter of conjecture. They may have been acting as agents for other landowners/speculators looking for a windfall at Ford’s expense, or they may have been simply seeking a way by which the Cavicchio land could be secured so that the project could go forward. Ford’s secrecy in his early dealings for the Wayside Inn properties drew criticism from local landowners hoping to make a killing on land that was marginal at best. Cavicchio’s refusal to sell his water rights to Ford left at least one prominent citizen of the town holding title to worthless meadowlands bought on speculation.

Henry Ford’s Wash Brook Project never materialized and eventually all his land purchases were sold back to their original owners. Sudbury would not become the Utopia that Ford and some people envisioned and, as far as the majority of the townsfolk were concerned, it was just as well.

That notwithstanding, there was no question that the town could use extra revenue. At a Special Town Meeting on May 11, 1925, a proposal to build a new Center School to accommodate the upper grades and provide space for physical education, assembly halls and offices, was first approved in principle and then defeated. The Finance Committee recommended against $2,500 for planning the $75,000 project. A year later a proposal for $50,350 for alterations and an addition to the present Center School was passed.

There was no question that more schoolrooms were needed. Enrollment had slowly crept up to 210 (46 in high school) in 1926, requiring 12 teachers and helping push the tax rate to $31 per thousand.

Earlier, the town voted to accept a gift of $3,000 from Lydia Raymond in honor of her late husband to be called the George J. Raymond Scholarship Fund for the promotion of higher education at the Sudbury High School.

Raymond, who started a lucrative dry goods business selling hats from a pushcart in Boston, first bought the old Hunt farm on what was to become Raymond Road as a summer retreat. Later he and his wife retired there. They are buried in the family mausoleum just off Warren Road.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.