Wednesday, July 17, 2024

This Pearl Street house has been in the same family since it was built in 1886 by George Southward. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

Have you ever wondered who built your home or who lived there before you? Denise Davis-Sullivan, former family liaison at the Morse School in Cambridgeport, doesn’t have to wonder. In 1884, her great-great-great-grandfather, George Southward, bought a lot on Pearl Street near the present-day Morse school and built the wood-frame house that stands there to this day. It has passed down through five generations of the family to Davis-Sullivan, who owns it (but does not live in it).

Although Davis-Sullivan has photographs of the ancestors who lived in the house as well as artifacts that belonged to them, many mysteries remain about her forebears. Luckily for her, and all Cambridge residents, the city’s public library has a trove of resources available online that can provide insight into the lives and times of people who lived in every dwelling in Cambridge. These include insurance maps (drawn to show every property in the city, the names of the owners, the proximity of surrounding buildings and the construction material); city directories (precursors of telephone books that listed residents by home and work address); and most interesting of all, Cambridge newspapers (many were published in Cambridge, not just the Chronicle). The newspapers are searchable. Simply type in a name and see what pops up!

Davis-Sullivan knew that George Southward had served in the merchant marine, perhaps rising to the rank of captain. How does she know? A slim journal in his handwriting has passed down through the generations. Inside the front cover, George jotted down the dates of the voyages on which he had embarked, along with the names of the vessels. He set off on his first adventure in 1849, when he was 16. Seven more voyages followed, with the eighth and apparently final ocean journey in 1863 when George was 30. 

Inside the cover of a journal, George Southward totted up the 59 months he had spent at sea. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

At the time of the Civil War – perhaps because of it – Southward appeared to have put his sailing days behind him. According to family lore, a tragedy befell the family in that period making it unbearable for them to remain in their Arlington home. Davis-Sullivan doesn’t know what the calamity was, but it must have been dire to compel Southward, his wife Frances, and their two children to leave what appears to have been a lovely setting. In December 1895, the family advertised the property in the Cambridge Chronicle, describing 481 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, as made of of 2 acres with an orchard, a “hennery,” barn and large house all “in A1 repair.” 

The family had moved to Cambridge at least by 1866, when Southward first appeared in a city directory. At that time was employed as a clerk in Boston. Six years later he is listed as a “traveling agent.” What exactly did this occupation entail? We don’t know! Starting in 1879, Frances Southward appears in the city directory as well selling boot and shoe “findings,” tools and supplies used by cobblers. By 1884, George Southward seems to have assumed the day-to-day operations of the business and is listed as the purveyor of leather and findings, rather than his wife. He shared his retail space at 534 Main St. with his adult son, Thomas, who crafted trunks and bags and repaired luggage.

Guilford and Charlotte (Southward) Davis, perhaps on their wedding day. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

The family moved at least six times between 1866 and 1886, finally settling for good into their freshly built house on Pearl Street with their daughter, Charlotte, 24, and Charlotte’s husband, Guilford Davis, a native of Nova Scotia. On maps and deeds, the house is listed in Frances’s name. This was a common practice at the time. Were George to be sued, the house would be safe from creditors. 

Newspaper notices give a glimpse into their daily lives. In 1876 he served as a juror on a trial for a tailor who shot his wife to death by “careless handling of a pistol.” A few years later the Southwards fell prey to a clever ploy. The Cambridge Press reported that Southward had a horse he wanted to sell. “A fine appearing young man” had come to his store to take it for a test ride. The fellow liked the horse and promised to return the next day with money. Instead, the “adroit thief” went to the Southwards’ home and told Frances that George needed the horse and had sent him to fetch it from her. Frances believed the scoundrel. She not only allowed him to take the horse but helped him hitch a “nice buggy” to it. The fellow trotted away, “since which time man, horse, buggy and harness have not been seen.” 

Charlotte Southward and Guilford Davis operated a flower shop also in Central Square. To supply the business with fresh buds, the couple built a greenhouse on the Southward property, visible on insurance maps in 1900 and 1903. By this time, the lot had been divided in two, with Frances Southward listed as the owner of one half and Davis the owner of the other. When the 1916 map was published, the greenhouse had disappeared. Davis had sold his portion of the plot and a new house had been built just a few feet from the Southward dwelling.

Why did Guilford Davis sell? Davis-Sullivan believes he may have been short of money. The idea of his being strapped for cash is supported by a notice published in one of the Cambridge papers on three dates running in 1900. Guilford owed the city of Cambridge $71.45 (equivalent to $2,560 today) for “Park Betterment.” More evidence pops up in 1907. He had been trying to make ends meet by selling flowers on Sundays, a no-no in Cambridge in the early 1900s. When Davis saw that a nearby druggist was offering bouquets for sale on the “Lord’s day,” he brought suit against him. Probably to Davis’ chagrin, the man was fined only $1 for his transgression.

In the early 1900s, Guilford Davis painted a mural in the home’s entryway as a tribute to his father-in-law, who sailed three-masted ships in the merchant marine. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

Of all the family members who lived in the house on Pearl Street, Davis left the biggest and most dramatic mark on the structure: an enormous mural in the house’s entryway that remains in place to this day. What a wonder it is! Measuring 7.5 feet by 5, this image of a three-masted sailing ship plowing through the ocean takes up most of the wall next to the staircase. The family believes Davis honored his sea-faring father-in-law by painting the type of ship on which he had most often sailed. 

Not only was Davis an artist, but he also modeled for professional painters, sometimes bringing his wife along. A well-known artist of the day, Gertrude Fiske (1879-1961), painted a lovely portrait of the two surrounded by flowers. The composition, “Florists,” is in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art. 

Guilford and Charlotte Davis modeled for Boston artist Gertrude Fiske (1878-1961) in her “Florists.” (Image: Portland Museum of Art)

Charlotte Southward not only ran the florist business with her husband, she bore five children all at home (three survived to adulthood), and was active in the community. In the 1920s and 1930s, newspapers reveal her serving on committees and hosting meetings of the Ward 5 Civic Association. Speakers provided insight into local beneficent organizations such as the local Shut-In Society. A representative presented “touching stories about bringing comfort and cheer to the members shut in from the pleasures of the outside world.” On another occasion, a member of the Visiting Nurse Association addressed the gathering in uniform. She unpacked and explained the function of each item in her medical kit. 

When the Davises celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary in 1936, the Cambridge Chronicle interviewed her for a short article. She reflected on her happy marriage. “‘We invested all our love, effort and intelligence in marriage, and we found ourselves well repaid in dividends of a home rich in happiness and security.’” She went on to say that she wasn’t sure modern women had the right ideas about marriage: “The average girl today goes into marriage . . . with a private resolution that if it isn’t all moonlight and honeysuckle, she’ll walk out.” To celebrate their anniversary the couple enjoyed a movie and then had a private dinner together.

The family home would pass to their son, Richard Davis. When Richard was just 16 (the same age his grandfather had been when he first set sail), the United States declared war on Germany and entered the conflict later known as World War I. Richard was the first Cantabrigian to enlist in the army. A private in the 26th Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, he served in a field hospital corps in France. While overseas, Richard not only helped injured troops but volunteered to be a guinea pig (one of 82 Americans) for a medical research study. Doctors were trying to determine the cause and treatment of a disease that plagued the fighting forces: trench fever. Those struck by the illness suffered from high fevers, excruciating headaches and sometimes incapacitating eye, back and leg pain. In part because of this study, scientists successfully identified the culprit: lice. One can only imagine how unpleasant participating in the study must have been! For his courage and generosity, Richard Davis was awarded a Purple Heart, with several commendations for his courage on the battlefield.

Upon returning from World War I, Richard H. Davis moved goods in an eye-catching truck. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

Upon his return to Cambridge at age 20, Richard Davis soon married. His betrothed was Miss Madeline Anderson of Everett. Like his grandparents and parents before him, Richard went into business for himself. He set up a moving and transport business, frequently advertising his services in a local newspaper. His ad featured a drawing of a handsome truck and averred that Richard Harding Davis Trucking would take on “any job anywhere, New York and Philadelphia – All Points South and West – Canada and New England.” 

The story of this house on Pearl Street and its owners and occupants continues through three more generations, with the Cambridgeport experiences of later owners in a future story. Research the owners and previous occupants of your house and you never know what you may find.

Richard and Madeline Davis at home on Pearl Street. (Photo: Denise Davis-Sullivan)

Denise Davis-Sullivan is grateful to her cousin, Steven Davis, who has traced the family history back to the 14th century and has generously shared his research with her.

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Gretchen G. Adams is a volunteer for History Cambridge.