Throwback Thursday: “A long and useful life closed”

From time to time, The Citizen Chronicle delves into local archives and reprints news of note. Today we share a story from this date 120 years ago — August 2, 1898 — as The Southbridge Journal wrote of the passing of Sylvester Dresser, a prominent resident of the town. The following is the text of this article, in its entirety and as it appeared in the August 4, 1898 edition of The Southbridge Journal. Dresser’s passing took place two days prior, on August 2.

Sylvester Dresser

A long and useful life closed.

Sylvester Dresser passed away at his home on Summer street Tuesday forenoon. Aged 78 years. Mr. Dresser was a man who had been identified with the history of Southbridge for over half a century. He had been in failing health for some time and last winter spent some time in the South in the hope that it might be beneficial to his health, but he returned being little if any improved. He had been able to be out on pleasant days for a short drive until within a few weeks. But for some days his family realized the end was near. He passed away peacefully as a child falling to sleep.

Whenever the history of Southbridge for the past half century shall come to be written, the name of Sylvester Dresser will appear frequently and prominently upon its pages, for in all these years he has been a leader among the men of the town, not by his own seeking, but by the voice of his fellow townsmen. In his early manhood he showed that he had those traits of character that build up men and communities alike, and the story of the town’s growth and development is closely interwoven with that of his own career. To a singular degree his success has been the town’s success, for practically all of his many business enterprises have had the direct result of furthering the town’s material interest and prosperity. He was still the leader among his fellow-townsmen that he has been these many years, a fact in itself that shows that he was never found wanting when weighed.

Mr. Dresser was born in Charlton, but in a home only three miles from Southbridge. He was born April 25, 1820, the son of Asa and Elizabeth (McKinstry) Dresser. His boyhood days were passed in work upon a farm, meanwhile getting an occasional term at district school, until 1838, when in the fall of that year he attended a high school in Charlton. This Charlton high school was only maintained for a year and its master was the present venerable Jonathan A. Dana of Oxford. In the six years following 1838 Mr. Dresser was first a student at Nichols academy, Dudley, and then a school teacher, at which calling he was especially successful. He taught in Brookfield, Charlton, Southbridge and in Thompson, Ct., and for one term was assistant principal under Elisha W. Cook at Nichols academy, which at that time stood very high as an institution of learning.

It was in 1842 that Mr. Dresser made Southbridge his permanent home. With a cash capital of $80, all the money he possessed, he bought the small stock in trade of William S. Knowlton, consisting of toys, fancy goods, musical instruments and the like, and started upon a mercantile career. His location was the northwest corner of the Edwards block and a part of the story now occupied by the P. H. Carpenter company. Two years later he moved into a small room in the building on the opposite side of Main street, which is today a portion of the space occupied by a laundry. His business prospered all the while and shortly more room was required. He moved again, this time into the building where now Gamache’s lunch room is. In this new location new lines of merchandise, in addition to those already in stock, were added, such as jewelry, silverware, watches, clocks, newspapers and all periodicals of the day. Much of this new addition to his stock in trade was secured by his buying out the jewelry and book store of Robert H. Cole.

Mr. Dresser’s purchase of Mr. Cole’s jewelry business led to his securing the services of William C. Barnes as a practical jeweler and was thus instrumental in bringing to town a man destined later to become a leading merchant and representative citizen. Later, Mr. Dresser admitted Mr. Barnes into partnership and the business was continued under the firm name of Dresser & Barnes. In many of the older homes of the town may be found today books and articles, pasted upon which is a little label, reading “Dresser & Barnes, booksellers, stationers, etc., Southbridge, Mass.” Later, Mr. Barnes became sole owner of the store and business by purchase from Mr. Dresser. In or about 1852, Mr. Dresser bought the stove and tinware business in Southbridge, owned by William Camp, who was one of the first tinsmiths to located in town. In 1856, Mr. Dresser established a branch of the store in Globe Village, with E. P. Lewis as manager, who later purchased it of Mr. Dresser. The purchase of the Camp property included house, tinshop, and the Comins shop.

In 1856, Mr. Dresser erected a brick building on the Comins lot, which fronted on Main street. On the completion of this building he moved his lately acquired stove and tinware business into it added a general line of hardware. In 1860, the Camp house was removed to Central street and on the lot vacated Mr. Dresser build a second brick block, both which were in the very heart of the business portion of the town. On the last day of the year 1874, both buildings were destroyed by fire. Without wasting a day in vain regrets because of the loss he had met, and it was severe enough to dishearten any man, he set about to repair the loss and in the course of the year the present Dresser opera house building was erected, and it remains to this day a principal building in the town. The hardware business in the center village was sold in 1884 to Cummings & Williams.

Another of Mr. Dresser’s important business enterprises was brickmaking, and he first became interest in this in 1865, when he bought a large tract of land with clay deposits on the Charlton City road, a mile or so north from Main street. He formed a partnership with the late William B. Potter and in the year following bricks they had made constituted a part of the first freight carried out of Southbridge by the first freight train to leave town over the Southbridge and East Thompson branch of what is now the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad. Soon after 1866, Mr. Dresser bought Mr. Potter’s interest in the Charlton road brickyard and operated it alone. The brickmaking operations of Mr. Dresser were further extended by his purchase in 1868 of land in Dudley and close by the Quinebaug railroad station, where he began the making of brick on an extensive scale and so continue to this day, after the lapse of 30 years. In 1881, the bought the Brown brickyard in the southerly part of Southbridge.

In all these years Mr. Dresser had made millions of bricks and his yards have consumed 50,000 cords of wood, which, if placed end to end to end, four feet high, and four feet wide, would make a pile of 76 miles in length, or a pile that would reach from Southbridge to Boston as the railroad runs, and well out into the Atlantic. To supply this great demand for wood, Mr. Dresser bought in 1870 a steam saw mill, and since that year he has cut off immense tracks of wood and timber land in Southbridge and Dudley, and in Woodstock, Eastford, and Ashford, Ct.

Mr. Dresser’s real estate and building operations have been many, besides those already mentioned. In 1853 he bought the Bela Tiffany land, on a portion of which is his own residence, and of the finest and largest in the town. On the remainder of this land he and others have built 21 dwelling houses, one schoolhouse, and other structures. The grounds of his home comprise some three acres, and are attractive in the manner of their planting and arrangement. On his Charlton City road property Mr. Dresser has built 14 houses.

Mr. Dresser has had a long, interesting and honorable public career. In 1850, the year he was 30 years old, he was elected a member of the Legislature. As a member of the General Court, he made his mark in the first days of the session, and so successful was he in the Legislature of 1850 that he was returned in 1851. In 1850 Ensign H. Kellogg was speaker, Charles W. Story was clerk, and Benjamin Stevens was sergeant-at-arms. Colleagues of Mr. Dresser in the General Court of 1950 were George S. Boutwell of Groton, who two years later was elected governor, when only 32 years old; Nathaniel P. Banks, Henry Wilson, William Schouler, adjutant general of the state during the war, Moses Kimball of Boston, John Milton Earle of Worcester, Myron Lawrence, the man who was so large physically that he had to have a chair in the house made expressly for him; Earastus Hopkins of Greenfield, father of Col. W. S. B. Hopkins, Worcester; Whiting Griswold and William Claflin. George W. Briggs of Pittsfield was governor. In 1852, when Mr. Dresser was serving in his second term in the House, George S. Boutwell was governor and N. P. Banks was speaker. In 1861, Mr. Dresser was elected ot the Senate from the Worcester southeast district, which consisted of 12 towns. William Claflin was president of the Senate, and it was the first year of the war. An extra session of the Senate was held and both the open and secret sessions were intensely exciting.

The list of town offices which Mr. Dresser has held is a long one. He has been moderator of the annual and special town meetings many times. He was treasurer of the town from 1846 to 1854, with the exception of 1848. His first election to this office was when only 26 years old. He was town clerk from 1848 to 1854, and was a selectman in 1846, 1859, 1860 and 1876. He served on the board of assessors three years, was a member of the board of overseers of the poor four years and was on the school in 1847, ’48, ’49, 1852, ’53 and ’54. In nearly all important matters relative to the town, Mr. Dresser has taken an active part. Whoever else might be on a committee, his fellow-citizens, with one accord have been quick to select him. He was on the committee to arrange with Holmes Ammidown concerning his gift to the town of the library building, and he was on the committee selected to build the new Town hall, and he superintended its construction on the part of the town. Another committee of which he was a member was the one selected to procure surveys for a steam railroad from Southbridge to Brookfield. To this enterprise he gave all his energy and power to make it successful, and when it came to a vote of the town the project lacked only seven of the two-thirds vote to be carried. Many persons believe the defeat of this project was the most serious mistake the town ever made. Mr. Dresser has been a member of the Southbridge Savings bank for 43 years and one of its vice-presidents for 30 years, and for many years one of its auditors, and was on the committee to erect its present excellent bank building. From the time of the enactment of the law creating the office of trial justice he held the position until 1871, when the system for the district was changed. He was United States assistant assessor under Col. Ivers Phillips when the internal revenue system was in force.

It was Mr. Dresser who first conceived the idea of the present law for the registration of voters. This thought and idea he evolved in the shape of an order which he had presented in the lower branch of the legislature of 1884 by Francis L. Chapin, then a member from Southbridge. The order was referred to the committee on elections, and Mr. Dresser, with others, appeared before the committee and urged that the order be made a law of the Commonwealth, and as a result chapter 298 was enacted.

Mr. Dresser was married April 4, 1848, to Miss N. Maria Morse of Spencer, the daughter of Dea. Oliver Morse. She died in 1888. During her life in Southbridge, Mrs. Dresser was active in social and church work and was held in the highest esteem by all classes in the town. Five children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Dresser, four of whom are now living.


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