Francis William “Frank” Bird was around ten years old when his family moved to Walpole. He would have attended local schools before going to prep school at the Wrentham Academy and then to Brown University. Upon graduating in 1831, he decided to teach for a few years before going to law school, however, he fell ill when in the midst of his second year of teaching and had to return home, and therefore never went to law school. Instead he entered the family business, buying out his brother in 1833 and adding a second mill to the company in 1838. Over the years the business weathered financial hardships, as well as times of growth. It appears, Frank threw himself whole-heartedly into everything he was involved with, whether it was business, local improvements, social issues or politics.
Initially, Frank’s older brothers were running the family paper mill. This situation may have freed up Frank to be able to pursue other professions if he so desired. From the scant records of this family, it appears Frank was the only child of George and Martha Bird who attended college. Frank taught for a year in Northborough (MA), then the second year he opened his own school in Dedham. He advertised for this school, saying the long-term plan would be that it would become a school with staying power, versus a temporary school that closes within a few years. The President of Brown University even endorsed the establishment of Bird’s new school, in the advertisement. A few months into the school year, Frank took ill. He finished classes on Friday afternoon and went home to East Walpole and never returned to his school. However, Frank remained vested in education. He was elected to the Walpole School Committee in 1835, he was associated with a mission school in Boston and when he was serving as a Representative in the Massachusetts State House, he served on two committees (1851 and 1852) that looked into the schooling and educating of children with intellectual and development disabilities.
Once Frank’s health returned, be began working in the family’s paper mill. He formed a paper making partnership with Stephen Roberts in April of 1833, and bought out his brothers’ interest in the family paper mill in October of 1833, and began running the business, thus ending his notion of becoming a lawyer. A few months later, in January of 1834 he married Rebecca Hill Cooke, and the couple soon welcomed a daughter, and Frank settled into family life. Sadly, this new life Frank was creating did not last, as his wife died in February of 1835, from a long illness and his baby daughter died five months later. As a result Frank threw himself into work, his church, politics and into social issues. Soon after the death of his wife he joined the Walpole School committee, but he also “took charge of a mission school at Fort Hill,” a neighborhood in Roxbury, a part of Boston. In September of 1837 he participated in Norfolk County Temperance Convention and was elected as the person from Walpole who will make sure that “all laws in relation to the traffic in intoxicating liquors are strictly enforced.” Then in 1838 he purchased a second paper mill (the upper mill), which was next to his current mill (the lower mill) in East Walpole. As the 1840s were beginning, Frank’s interest in politics began to grow, as he entered a new phase of his life.
While working at the Fort Hill mission school, Frank met Abby Frances Newell, who was also working there. From a mutual interest in mission work and education, a relationship blossomed and the couple married in 1843. Frank would have brought his new bride home to his new house he called Endean, and over the next thirteen years, the couple became the parents of six children. It would have been about the same time Frank’s business failed, as in 1843 Frank filed for bankruptcy. Written accounts of this time do not state what tipped the scales into this financial disaster. His biography, published in 1897, says “an unexpected obligation obliged the firm to go into bankruptcy.” Frank took his financial obligations seriously, and although he legally did not have to, over time he paid back all his creditors, nor did he lose the mills. While he should have been busy focusing on just getting his business back on track, Frank’s interest and participation in politics was also growing at this time.
Philosophically, Frank was a progressive, early in his political career, he was a Whig, but when the Free Soil party was created, Frank became one of the leaders in the Norfolk County (MA) branch. The Free Soil party on existed a few years, from 1848 to 1854. Free Soilers had a strong anti-slavery platform. In Massachusetts, Frank, along with abolitionists Charles Sumner and Charles Francis Adams, were part of a group called “Conscience Whigs.” This group combined the notion of Christian Morality, with the need for social reform, such as abolishing slavery. In 1848, the Conscience Whigs did not like the Whigs nominee for president (Zachary Taylor), and broke away becoming part of the free soil party. Frank went to Buffalo in 1848 to attended the Free Soilers Convention where he helped to nominate Martin Van Buren as their presidential candidate. When the Republican party was formed in 1854, Free Soilers and Whigs joined this new party. In 1872, Frank became a Democrat, as they had a strong belief in free trade. So during his long political career, Frank was a Whig, a Free Soiler, a Republican and a Democrat!The
Frank was a very vocal abolitionist. Local Boston newspapers carried articles during the 1850s and 1860s, noting Frank’s involvement with the movement. In June of 1854, he gave a speech at Faneuil Hall, along with Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips, the speeches were so emotional that it caused a riot at Court House Square in Boston. Stones were thrown at the Court House breaking 40 windows, doors on the south side were bashed in allowing the mob to enter the Court House, and a man was stabbed to death. The next day, Parker incorporated the events of the night in his Sunday sermon, insinuating that he and the other speakers were not at fault. Frank was not undeterred by the events of that night as he continued to speak out against slavery, both as an orator and as a writer. He was a contributing patron, both financially and editorially, to the Chronotype, an anti-slavery newspaper. It is noted in several sources that Frank, was a very persuasive and impassioned writer, and that he could be a convincing speaker, but his speaking methods were indifferent.
Frank was first elected to the State (MA) Legislator as a member of the House of Representatives in 1847, here he served on a number of committees, one looking into the condition of Indians living in Massachusetts, and another addressing special needs students. He also sat on a board that was to see the extension of a railroad line from Dedham to Blackstone. In the late 1840s, Frank founded an organization called the Bird Club, which evolved out of the political issues of the times. It met weekly on Saturday nights for dinner and it eventually became a political powerhouse of Progressive ideas. It was said to be the place where many political decisions were made, long before they became debated on the floor of the Legislature. The Bird Club met regularly until about 1880. In 1850s and 1860s, he served as Council to the Governor. In 1860 he traveled to Chicago for the Republican Convention where he nominated Lincoln as presidential candidate. In 1868 he ran an unsuccessful campaign to serve in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Frank continued to active in state politics throughout the 1880s, and during these years, Frank worked on many political campaigns, working to get the best politician elected. Looking back at Frank Bird’s political career, his name does not immediately come to the forefront; Theodore Parker, Chas A. Adams, S. G. Howe, Geo. L. Stearns, and Chas. Sumner are some the notable names that come to mind, and all of them were associates of Frank Bird, as well as members of the Bird Club.
Frank Bird worked at his paper mill into his 82nd year. Health problems had plagued him ever since his first year of teaching. He swore that a vegetarian diet and daily exercise help keep him well. He experienced times of good health as well as times of sickness. The loss of his son, Francis Jr. in 1874 had been a horrible time for Frank and Abby, but when Abby died in November 1892, it really took the wind out of his sails. His obituary published in Boston Newspapers, say that by the time Frank turned 84, he had not been well enough to travel to Boston to see his friends for quite a while and that he spent much of his day in bed. Many papers reported that his death was hastened by the death of his daughter Mary a week earlier. Frank lived a long and successful life; he gave so much to his family, to his business, and to his community, he was wise and kind, perhaps that is why he was called the Sage of Walpole.
Fuller, A. James. “The Free Soil Party” Bill of Rights Institute. billofrightsinstitute.org (Arlington, VA) accessed September 11, 2021.
McPhearson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 2014)
Stearns, Frank Preston. Cambridge Sketches “Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club” (Philadelphia (PA): J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1905)
(Ward, Julia Howe?) Francis William Bird: a Biographical Sketch. (Norwood (MA): Norwood Press, 1897)
“Martin Van Buren” About the White House Presidents. whitehouse.gov (Washington, DC) accessed September 11, 2021.No tags for this post.