Yankee Traditions: Mumma Dudley

My first exposure to Douglas and its rich history was through “Mumma”. As I listened to my friend tell stories about Mumma and all the “odd” things she did, I pictured a lady and a town growing up together. My favorite story was how she would ride her tractor out in the street to pick up her mail (occasionally re-routing the neighbors mail as she saw fit); and how she was convinced that any day now Ed McMahon was going to call and tell her she had won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes (“and won’t you be sorry when he does”). But the stories that made me love her and Douglas were the Yankee stories, the stories of how she worked to preserve and protect a heritage that she was proud of. I first met Mumma when she was 89 years old. She was a small woman wrapped up in layers of flannel shirts and sweaters and wearing a battered old blue hat. She was “sans” teeth while doing the crossword puzzle at the kitchen table, her bright blue eyes glaring at me as she whispered, “they think I’m senile”. Then she grinned an impish grin at me and I immediately felt like a conspirator in her plot, we both knew the truth. The little old toothless lady grunting at the table was really a sharp old cracker. After our secret exchange, she took her walker, went out into the yard and hitched herself up on her garden tractor and went motoring off into the fields she loved. I was not concerned about Mumma’s safety; I was more concerned about the poor individual who crossed her path. Stalwart and determined, she hit the brakes for no man or beast.

Mumma was born Grace F. Dudley on May 18, 1910 in Douglas, on the farm that had given birth to generations of Dudley’s before her; evidence of them hung on every wall and was placed on every shelf. She was next in the line of proud Yankee’s that had earned their keep working the land, asking no one for anything, but contributing much. From out of the windows of the “Big House” Mumma could see the hencoops, barns, ice house and fields that had been in her family since the beginning. The story of her farm represents the final chapter in the tale of the Native Americans and their removal from their ancestral land. In the beginning of colonial settlement, the English paid what they believed was fair value for the Nipmuc lands to ease concerns abroad about exploitation of the Indians. Eventually the appearance of propriety in land dealings would be cast aside, natives were seen as an impediment to the manifest destiny of the white settlers and they should be dealt with quickly and cheaply. Right after King Philip’s War, William Stoughton and James Dudley were ordered by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to survey all of the Nipmuc territory and acquire the land from the Indians. In 1681, Stoughton and Dudley purchased 1,000 square miles of the remaining land of the Nipmuc people, and in the southern portion of this purchase falls the land that Mumma would call home. Three land grants from the General Court (along with individual land grants) would form the town of New Sherborn (re-named Douglas in 1746) and from this would come a family who actively preserved its Yankee culture. While a proud people were banished from their homeland, a proud family came to replace them; and like their Nipmuc predecessors, they passed down through generations a love of the land and a respect for tradition.

Relations of James Dudley (who originally purchased the land from the Nipmucs) would settle the land on the Thompson Road in Douglastown (the original center of town). Samuel Dudley began building a small three-room cape on the farm and his son William would finish it around 1730. The family lived here till Paul Dudley began building the “Big House” next door around 1800 (finished in 1820) and Paul’s son John and his wife Submit would set up housekeeping there. (John’s wife, Submit Hill, was a descendent of Ephraim Hill who was the first white settler in Douglas) As Mumma would say, the Dudley’s were farmers and the Hill’s were “downtown people”, what an eclectic family this union would produce. The 500-acre farm was at the junction of two major roads right by town center near the Congregational Church where they owned a pew and worshiped every week. Using the farm’s excellent location to his advantage, Paul would build the Dudley Inn across the street from the Big House (c.1820) and it would become a stagecoach stop on the Ninth Massachusetts Turnpike (Boston-Hartford Turnpike). Paul was one of the original investors in this toll road (along with Ezekiel Wood in Uxbridge and Philip Ammidown in Mendon) that was originally laid out as the “Middle Post Road” by Benjamin Franklin himself. Local historians trace the history of this road as far back as the French and Indian War with many saying it is the original Indian path mentioned in early Mendon deeds.

 

Douglas was not much more than a one-horse town at the time Mumma was born. Her father, Ralph Dudley, was a farmer like all the Dudley’s before him. However, like all farmers, he was more than just a “simple farmer”, beneath the worn hands and tired frame beat the heart of an artist. The walls of the Big House are filled with examples of his work, and his paintings were cherished gifts for friends and family. He lived in the Big House with his wife Lola, their six children, his brother Walter, his sister Loiezer, and her husband. Hard work, frugality, and family cooperation were the values taught to Mumma and her siblings. The farm was totally self sufficient, everything was grown or made on the farm, right down to the soap. When Mumma’s father died, his brother Walter assumed control of the farm and “Grandma D” (Ralph’s wife) went to work as a teacher in the local elementary school, eventually becoming the principal. Mumma, always the pioneer, attended one of the few area colleges that offered a B.S. in nursing and obtained her degree (specializing in psychiatric nursing). She served as a nurse during World War II in Australia, stationed in a psychiatric hospital caring for American POW’s. She saw brave soldiers who were beaten and tortured in the Japanese POW camps, commit suicide rather than continue to live. These men could not face going home after what they had been through. Uncle Walter died just after Mumma returned home from the war, leaving a farm sadly in need of a person to love it and bring it back to what it once was. Again the pioneer, Mumma decided to take over the management of the farm, a brave undertaking for a woman in 1946. Her service in the war had left her with emotional scars that would not heal quickly, so she healed herself; she returned to working on the farm she loved. She re-built the burned down barns, built tractors out of spare parts and kept the farm solvent.

 

Mumma raised her daughters the same way she herself was raised, living in one house surrounded by extended family. Her daughter Betsy grew up in the Big House with her mother, her Grandma D, her Uncle Putty, his wife Lois, their four children and Lois’s mother (Grandma Etta). Life consisted of haying, growing vegetables and fruits, caring for the beef and milk cows, feeding the goats and pigs and once a month making the trip into town (East Douglas) to buy staples at Jenkes store. Amazingly, until 1968, there was no electricity on the farm because Mumma was afraid it would burn down the house. Like generations before them, the older generation passed down traditions and skills to the younger ones. From her Grandma D, Betsy learned to sew, make her own clothes, and quilt. Her Grandma Etta taught her how to spin wool, dye it and knit. Aunt Lois taught her cooking and canning. From Mumma she learned that nothing was impossible as long as you had a Massie Harris tractor and a chain saw, with these you could move mountains and shape the landscape. She brought Betsy up to be proud of who she was and how she lived because the family was rich in what really mattered. Mumma did not approve of people who put on “airs” about their heritage, she was proud to be a farmer and she would shake her head (and maybe a stick) at those who bragged about how long their family had lived in New England. To her, it did not matter what the people before you did, it was what you did with the heritage they gave you that mattered. Mumma gave Betsy the old cape William built as her own home and Betsy’s little family became part of the bigger Dudley clan.

As years went by changes were happening in the world and even on Mumma’s farm. Land had to be sold and farming life had to be given up. Mumma had come full circle in the Dudley history; she was born in the Big House but came to spend her last years with Betsy in the small cape that was the beginning of the Dudley family story. The history books of Douglas do not have the names Dudley and Hill on every page listing all the accomplishments and contributions the family made to the town’s history. The part the family played in Douglas history was in the preservation of the “old ways” and the saving of every scrap of history in boxes and cubbies for future generations as a window to the past. Mumma passed away at the ripe old age of 93 knowing that her farm had been in the hands of only two owners, the Nipmucs and the Dudley’s. When you sit in the fields on a quiet day, you can hear the whisperings of the previous inhabitants telling their stories to you, thankful that this one family has kept their memory alive.