From the Middleboro Gazette:
Posted Apr. 23, 2015 at 2:01 AM
MIDDLEBORO — If the walls of what is now known by some as “The Oliver House” could talk, they would have quite the story to tell, from its construction in 1769 as a likely wedding present to Judge Peter Oliver’s son and his bride, to seeing its sister-structure, the larger “Oliver Hall” which once stood on the same estate, burned down by revolutionaries, and finally its journey back into the care of the family whose direct descendants built it. Today, with the fate of the historic Middleboro estate now lying in the hands of town meeting voters, many, including Oliver-descendent Prue (Oliver) Harper, await to see what the next chapter in this 246-year-old story will entail.
According to historical record, the existing Oliver House was originally dubbed “The Small Oliver House” due to the fact that it was adjacent to Oliver Hall — a larger structure built prior that served as home to Judge Peter Oliver. The Small Oliver House was built around the time when Judge Oliver’s son, Dr. Peter Oliver, Jr. was marrying then-Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s daughter Sally, leading historians to believe that the house was a wedding gift from the judge. Judge Oliver, who started an iron mill across the way at today’s Oliver Mill Park, would eventually become a local target due to his loyalties to Britain during Revolutionary times. After he fled to Britain, his Oliver Hall was burned down. The Small Oliver House and its contents were later claimed by the commonwealth.
The estate, with Small Oliver House still intact, would be passed down through several families before landing back in the ownership of an Oliver, which occurred when Prue Harper’s father, one of several namesakes to Judge Peter Oliver in the generations that followed, learned the property was for sale back in the 40s.
Harper, 82, now living in Manhattan, says though it was quite a process, her parents enjoyed seeing the historic building being restored step by step.
“Around the end of World War II when it came on the market, my father decided to buy it. He knew it was an important place, not just for our family, but in history, and wanted to see that it was taken care of,” she said. “It was in very bad condition at the time, but my father liked that it still had the original floors, moldings, staircases, furnishings and so many things like that, so he thought it was well worth preserving. And it was a lot of work but they had fun doing it. They got great pleasure from seeing it all come together because it was all being done out of love.”
When the restoration was finally finished, Harper says a grand party was thrown there for all of Middleboro to attend, noting that she believes the Middleboro Gazette ran a story about it. While this took place as she attended boarding school in Millis, it wouldn’t be long until she became acquainted with the property that summer.
Harper estimates she was age 13 for her first Middleboro summer.
“My sister and I were in boarding school most of the year but our family enjoyed spending the summers with all of us together in Middleboro,” Harper said, noting family crochet games on the front lawn and canoeing, fishing on the Nemasket River as some of her fondest memories. “My father always had a love for the water, so he especially appreciated the fact that we had the river there and of course we enjoyed that too. It was like a child’s dream to have all that land to explore and to play.”
As time moved on and the Oliver children grew up, eventually the family brought in a tenant — a Middleboro school teacher named George Simmons, who helped maintain the property for many years.
“George took care of things there for a long time and he had a lot of love for the property too, but as he got older we realized we wouldn’t be able to keep it up ourselves, so I think in the early-2000s we started working with various conservation groups to find a buyer who’d preserve the house and land because of all the open space. We always kept the town in the loop as to what was going on too and we had the thought to sell to the town from the beginning, but at the time they were very honest and open with us that they just weren’t in a good financial position to buy it,” she said. “So that’s what had been going on for the past ten years or so until recently.”
The estate has also been significant in the lives of the Eayrs family in Middleboro.
“My uncle Walter, my father’s brother, was hired by the Olivers to do a lot of the restoration work to the interior of the house,” said local historian Ted Eayrs. “So he was the first generation of my family to have an involvement. Then when I was in high school, I did a project on it that ended up becoming a science fair project which won first place at the state science fair two years in a row. And basically the first year I focused on the layout of the land, the buildings, what was found in the buildings and things like that, and the second year I focused on the later manufacturing enterprise there.”
That later manufacturing enterprise was the “shovel works”, which Eayrs later explained after skimming through the history leading up to that point.
“If you go back to before Judge Oliver, that land was a Native American site and had been so for probably a couple thousand years. When the pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving, the Native Americans who came as guests came from Middleboro, specifically that site which was called ‘Muttock’. After the early 18th century their numbers decreased and they moved onto North Middleboro, or Titicut. Around 1734 I believe, a group of local men decided they’d develop the site because of the change in altitude of the land there and it was an all-around great site for a water powered factory of some sort so they in fact developed an iron works there, and later it was sold to Peter Oliver,” he said.
After Peter Oliver grew his business with his royal connections to the British crown, Eayrs says Oliver fast became the largest employer in Middleboro, with continued success up until the Revolution. After Oliver fled, Eayrs says the site evolved into a manufacturing site for metal shovels, which was groundbreaking for its time.
“By that time, there were a lot of foundries in the area, so the next thing on the horizon was the idea of metal shovels. Most shovels in the 18th century were wood with a metal chip, and you can imagine how long it took to dig back then. So with advances in things like stamping they were able to make a metal shovel blade,” he said.
Ted Eayrs’ son, named Walter Eayrs like the uncle who helped restore the house, wrote his Masters’ thesis on the Olivers and the Oliver Estate, and, like his father before him, deepened his appreciation for the property and its significance to the town.
“It’s a very interesting property in town. There are high technical achievements architecturally and really, it’s more like something you’d see in Boston, so it makes it a unique feature to find out in a place like Middleboro. It was very unusual in that period to see a house like that built on the countryside,” he said. “It’s also rare to find an estate like this — an early example of an industrial and domestic complex — that is still so close to original condition and hasn’t been changed or added on to.”
Walter Eayrs says he’d like to see the site protected, as it would be under the town’s ownership.
“It’s pride of place. All this could have been built in Boston or someplace else with all the money the Olivers had, but they chose Middleboro. And because they did, we now have all this history here available to us,” he said, noting that former tenant George Simmons used to take students through the house for a history lesson. “With the Oliver Hall burned down, and the mill beyond repair, this is the last piece of the puzzle we have left.”
Prue Harper, like her parents, and Eayrs, also wants to see the site preserved for future generations.
“We all know how much this property meant to my parents, and so it was somewhat a relief when we got word that people were working on a way for the town to buy it,” Harper said. “This property has been a part of the town, part of its history, and part of American history. I know a lot of people have been working very hard on this, and I think it’s for good cause because this is something that will benefit the town in the end.”
Middleboro Annual and Special Town Meetings will be this upcoming Monday, April 27, at 7:15 p.m. in the Middleborough High School auditorium, 71 E. grove St. The article relative to the Oliver Estate/House will be Article 18 of the Annual Town Meeting warrant.