The Rochester Historical Society headquarters are in a former church located at 355 County Road on a far edge of Rochester and across the street from the Wareham town line. It seems fitting that the society’s center should be in a church; after all, churches were the beating hearts of community life for early settlers. It is also fitting that the location is on the edge of town since Wareham was, once upon a time, not Wareham at all, but just more Rochester. Imagine if you will a time when Rochester encompassed not only Wareham, but Marion and Mattapoisett as well. It was massive.
But land alone does not a community make. It is the people who establish roots – deep, deep roots that make a place home. And Rochester was home to many esteemed people. Just ask Connie Eshbach.
On September 18, Eshbach gave a presentation at the meeting of the Rochester Historical Society held in that petite historical ye olde church. Her presentation is the prelude to the opening of a new exhibit focused on the people who transformed Rochester from pine forests to a thriving center of commerce, and a community that valued the education of their children.
The exhibit titled “Notable People of Rochester: Past and Present” opens on September 28 and will bring to life, as Eshbach described it, “people who made significant contributions.” But narrowing down the field of possible inclusions when considering influencers through centuries of time was no small tasks.
The society grappled with who to include and what criteria to use when evaluating what made a person “significant.” In the end, the list is very long. But the stories of their lives and their contributions slip off Eshbach’s tongue easily. She’s been studying old documents and diaries for years.
The exhibit will start at the very beginning, Eshbach said, when a group of investors known as “proprietors” purchased swaths of land from local Indians in 1694 for the princely sum of around five shillings. The names of those investors sound like a who’s who of Rochester – Dexter, Clark, Ellis, Briggs, and Hammond.
Eshbach talked about the first gristmill located at the now iconic yellow farm known as Eastover Farm that was carved out of the lush landscape by one Joseph Burge, a name that would later become Burgess. She talked about the many men who became lawyers and members of the judiciary, noting that the number of educated people in Rochester set the community apart.
And what about the women? Eshbach said that they bore a heavy burden of raising children and taking care of homes and farms, especially when their man-folk took off on adventures like mining for gold in California.
There was one woman, possibly an eccentric, named Eugenia Haskell known far and wide for her “unique personality and relationships with poets and even a friendship with a President.”
Bouncing between the 1600’s and the 1800’s following family trees and land purchases gave Eshbach’s presentation the feel of a jaunty buggy ride; the stories of how the town prospered and grew, however, never gets old. There is always some new discovery to be found in the pages of Mr. E. Humphrey’s diary, a nearly blow by blow account of daily life in those early times.
Much of Eshbach’s presentation focused on what today we might call movers and shakers, but there were also those whose skills in farming helped to establish Rochester as tightly connected to its agrarian beginnings.
Caleb Briggs is credited with pioneering the cultivation of cranberries. Eshbach noted that, when he passed away, he left a large sum of money to Rochester schools. Raymond White is known to have revive farming in Rochester when he established White’s Dairy in the 1950’s, and going back again into more ancient history, Richard Church purchased 300 acres along the Mattapoisett River and created the first sawmill in the area.
Eshbach also noted the generosity of such influencers, many of whom have left large swaths of open land to be held in permanent conservation restriction either through gifts or sold to preservation organizations at below market value. She remembered the contributions of George Church and the Hiller family who together made nearly 1,000 acres unavailable for future development.
The Rochester Historical Society exhibit opens on September 28 and can be viewed on Sundays from 1:00 – 3:00 pm.
Rochester Historical Society
By Marilou Newell