The Norwood Historical Society is honored to present Agnes Abigail Curtin as our Wonderful Woman for November.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, Norwood was fortunate in that its industries and the railroad, along with its middle location between Boston and Providence, drew an influx of immigrants to grow and prosper the town. Among these many immigrants were the Irish.
Before the Great Hunger (Irish Potato Famine) of 1845 – 1849, most of the Irish Immigrants that came to America came from the north and east of Ireland, where English was spoken, and most were Protestant.
During and after the Famine, which affected the west and south of Ireland more greatly than other parts, the Irish that fled their country were Catholic and spoke Gaelic. Even after the worst of the Famine had subsided great poverty was rampant in these sections and immigration to America was huge, mostly through Canada, Boston, and New York. In the 1890 census, it is reported that a half million Irish were in New York, while a quarter million had settled in Boston.
Sometime around 1870 Timothy Curtin and his wife Mary Ellen Shea Curtin, both Irish immigrants, settled in Pochague NY, where on December 7, 1882, the first of their six children, Agnes Abigail Curtin was born. Timothy worked on the railroad and lost his leg in an accident. Exactly when the family came to Norwood is unclear but in 1887 the family was living in Norwood, and he was the gate crossing tender at the Railroad Ave crossing until his death in 1898. The family lived at 79 Casey Street in the Dublin section of Norwood.
Agnes graduated from high school at sixteen and attended Bridgewater Normal School, graduating in 1903. By 1904 Agnes was teaching first grade at the Balch School in South Norwood. Her class consisted of mostly immigrant children of Polish, Lithuanian, Syrian, Italian, and American heritage. Agnes not only taught the children she gave lessons to the immigrant parents in Americanization.
Embracing her new town, she became involved in all aspects of community service. Besides teaching at the Balch School and giving adult classes, Agnes started and became a Girl Scout Leader and a member of the Red Cross.
In 1912 when she was thirty years old, Agnes was elected to the Board of Trustees at the Norwood Morrill Memorial Library, a lofty position for an immigrant at that time. This was a testament to her active presence in the community and her leadership in the organizations that improved the town. She served as a trustee until 1922. During the 1917-1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic that ravaged the immigrant population of Norwood Agnes served as a volunteer nurse in the temporary hospital that was set up in the Civic Association buildings.
Agnes’s interest and involvement were not confined to only local and town organizations. In 1908 she was awarded a certificate from the Lincoln Farm Association. This organization was formed by the Collier magazine owners and other notables such as President Taft, and Samuel Clemens, to preserve the Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky, where Abraham Lincoln was born, as a National Historic Park. Anyone that contributed as little as $.25 to $25.00 was given a finely rendered certificate acknowledging their contribution and listed as a contributor. Agnes’s copy is kept at the Norwood Historical Society as is her nurse’s uniform from her volunteering during the Spanish Flu Epidemic.
Since her father’s death in 1898 Agnes and her brother John supported the family. John worked on the railroad while Agnes finished school, a circumstance not afforded to many young women at that age.
After Agnes completed her education and started teaching, she and her brother John were the breadwinners. Sometime in 1919 Agnes bought a large house at 32 Everett Ave in Norwood and moved the family into this house. Agnes continued teaching children and their parents at the Balch School, her work with the Red Cross in Norwood and Girls Scouts, and her duties as a Library Trustee. Then in 1922 Agnes, at the age of forty, married Charles Joseph McDavitt a widower. They had one daughter, Patricia in 1925, and continued to live with her husband, daughter, mother, and siblings at the house she had bought for her family at 32 Everett Ave.
Agnes continued to be active in Norwood Community organizations and in 1945 was made a block leader in the town’s Committee on Public Safety. This committee had been formed during WWI in 1917 and was basically for civil defense. During World War II this committee was instrumental in dividing Norwood into ten surveillance districts, or blocks, and even had plane spotters stationed in the clock tower of the Norwood High School on Winter Street.
Agnes’s husband Charles died in 1962 and Agnes continued to live at the house at 32 Everett Ave until 1973 when she moved to her daughter Patricia’s house. She died two months later in Simsbury CT. on December 8, 1973, at ninety-one years of age.
Agnes A. Curtin, the American-born daughter of Irish immigrants, embraced her country and her town with her enthusiasm, ideals of community, contributions to the betterment of the people she lived amongst, and tireless energy. She is truly a Wonderful Woman of Norwood.
Norwood Historical Society archives
Laurie Kearney, archivist
Norwood, a history, by P. Fanning
Keeping the Past: Norwood at 150, by P. Fanning
Influenza and Inequality, by P. Fanning
Lincoln Farm Association website
U. s government immigration history website