The VAF is coming to Canton…maybe!

Betsy Sugameli and Milda Richardson met at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where they are museum teachers. Both are eminently qualified for their positions as volunteer docents. Sugameli holds several advanced degrees in business and education while Richardson is a highly regarded author, researcher, and retired professor of architecture at Boston University. Sugameli, a member of the Board of Directors for the Paul Revere Heritage Site, would often discuss her work while developing art tours with Richardson. Richardson, hearing Sugameli’s enthusiastic descriptions of the on-going work in Canton knew it was something she wanted to investigate, especially since she is a member of the Vernacular Architectural Forum.

According to their website, the VAF is the premier organization in North America studying ordinary buildings and landscapes. It was established in 1979 and is composed of scholars from many fields including, but not limited to history, architecture, geography, anthropology, sociology, historic preservation, and material culture studies. Their purpose is to promote scholarship, which they do through organized tours of various sites throughout the region. Sugameli invited Richardson, as a representative of the VAF to Canton in the fall of ‘22. Milda, and her husband Bob, a professor of languages, were joined by Sugameli and this author on a day’s long tour of “Historic Canton.”

Richardson found the tour unexpectedly full of fascinating buildings and their history. She contacted the VAF and soon a date was set for another preliminary tour, this time including Sally McMurry, NE/VAF board member and retired Professor Emerita of History, Penn State University.

On Aug. 4, a small group of dedicated historians and history buffs met at the PRHS to tour “Historic Canton.” The group included Milda and Bob Richardson, Betsy Sugameli, Sally McMurry, George Comeau, and this author. The day began at the Draper Plant on Washington St.

Kristen Draper, President of Draper Bros., and Bill Shaul graciously guided our small group through an hours-long trek through the many interconnected buildings that form the Draper Plant. While there is still some active manufacturing, some space is vacant, and some is in use by various tenants for non-industrial purposes. One of the buildings which garnered the most attention was the “Pay Building” which still had two intact safes inside, one beautifully decorated!

From there the group returned to the PRHS where McMurry made
particular note of how adaptive reuse and preservation polices helped to save this former industrial eye sore and turn it into the lovely green space we have today. She noted that the PRHS represents an important shift in how US manufacturing capability was changing during the 1800s.

Next on the tour was the Unitarian Universalist Church, its Parish Hall, and Canton Corner Cemetery. The Unitarian Church is a beautiful example of a Gothic Revival structure, and, of course, we noted that the bell tower is home to a Revere cast bell! George Comeau discussed the time he climbed the bell tower and what it was like to stand in that spot next to the historic bell. From the church some of us ventured into the graveyard where Comeau pointed out two “Receiving vaults.” These vaults were built into the hillside and housed coffins during the winter until the weather warmed enough for graves to be dug.

The last stop on the tour was to Pequitside Farm. Here, Regan Milani from the Conservation Commission, was kind enough to guide McMurry and me through the long expanse of this intriguing building which had once been home to Paul Draper. Milani also let us explore the barn behind the house which McMurry described as part of a “high-end gentleman’s farm.”

McMurry, in her report to the VAF, identified Canton as a very favorable
site for a future VAF tour. Her job was to report her findings to the board and now we all await their answer as to whether a guided tour would be efficacious and fulfill their group’s goals. To host a VAF group tour would mean more exposure for Canton and its historic treasures. McMurry said in her report that there is, “a strong group of local history experts,” and that the group was very welcoming and interested in having the VAF come. An exact date has not been set for a tour but the fall of ’24 has been suggested. Fingers crossed!!

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