Thursday, January 10, 2008

B.M.C. Durfee High School

by Terry Thornton

One of my favorite places to shop in the Hill Country is a thrift store in Tupelo. The thrift shop supports a local Children's Home known affectionately as the Children's Mansion.

I enjoy looking at the never-ending variety of items donated to the thrift shop --- there I once turned down a huge church-sized electronic organ complete with multiple keyboards and a full set of bass pedals --- and more organ stops that I could count.

"Why you can have it for $25.00," the clerk said anxious to have the large piece out of the shop. The only reason I don't have that huge organ in my garage is that I had no way to haul the bargain home.

Shortly after Christmas 2007, I was at the thrift shop rummaging through the collectibles and glassware and ran across an old decorative/commemorative item. The plate-like wall hanging caught my eye as a possible interesting curio to add to my growing pile of curiosities. It is a small (6.5 inches across) hand-painted chalk decorative wall plate. It looked ancient and was so unusual that I decided to buy it. It was marked fifty-five cents.

Fifty-five cents was a bargain, I thought, for an antique piece that offered the possibility of some historical research with the probability of some genealogy research thrown in for good measure. This purchase combined the best of all worlds: bargains, curiosities, history, geography, educational history and the challenge to figure it all out.

The commemorative plate, as you can see in the pictures below, has some dings and pings (or
chigger bites as we say in Mississippi). But I thought the piece was interesting and intriguing --- and I got to thinking "How did a commemorative plate for a school in Fall River, Massachusetts, end up in a thrift shop in Tupelo, Mississippi?"

All of the various questions that raced through my mind about the plate made the fifty-five cents small ticket to pay for the adventure that was sure to come.

So I bought the plate and came home and started my research. What an adventure I've had --- I've gone from Lizzie Borden to Emeril Lagasse to George Stephanopoulos in Fall River to one of the older and wealthiest families to milling cotton cloth to a young man who died young to a memorial school built in his honor to a retrofitted and updated county court house. But I still don't have a clue as to how a school plate from Massachusetts ended up in Mississippi!

First, let's look at the pictures of the commemorative plate.
Commemorative plate showing the B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, Massachusetts.
The school was built as a memorial to Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee -- hence the name B.M.C. Durfree High School.
On the back of the plate is embossed "Made in Austria" and the penciled numerals 79 and 15. The chalk-ware is unpainted on the back of the piece; the small double loop of silk cord used to hang the plate is shown although one of the holes is broken.

Fall River was the epicenter for the cloth weaving industry in Massachusetts. Cotton fabric was made there by the tons. Because of its textile milling history, Fall River was once considered one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. Much of that wealth was concentrated under control of a few ruling families.

I learned that Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee was the son of one of the leading families in Fall River. His father died when Bradford Matthew Chaloner (B.M.C.) was a baby leaving the bulk of his fortune to him. B..M.C. Durfee himself died as a young man (at age 29). His mother offered the local town authorities a school built in her son's honor at her expense. Yes, there were some strings attached but not so restrictive that the state, city, and county didn't jump at the gift (see Memorial Book referenced below).

The resulting school was magnificent. Dedicated in the 1880s, the school served the needs of Fall River until recently when a new high school was built to replace it. Today, the old building has been remodeled and serves as a courthouse for Bristol County.
Photo of B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, MA, circa 1890s. Copyright (c) by Keeley Library, B.M.C. Durfee High School 1996-2006. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For twenty pictures of the B.M.C. Durfee High School, most made in the 1890s, click this link to Keeley Library collection: There are several excellent photographs of the interior and exterior of the building and of specific use areas within the building. [Editor's Note: You owe it to yourself to look at these 1890s photographs to see what public schools could be like if money was no problem!]
Drawing from the cover of B.M.C. Durfee High School Building, 1889 Memorial Volume. PDF file from Keeley Library, B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, MA. Copyright (c) by Keeley Library.

In 1889, a memorial volume was printed about the school (drawings, floor plans, speeches at the dedication, resolutions, letters, etc) entitled B.M.C. Durfee High School Building, Fall River, Mass. (Press of Almy and Milne 1889). A PDF file of that book is available at The text offers a unique look at the history of the school, the persons involved at all levels in the gift of a school to a community, the general floor plan of the building, drawings, down to a transcription of the speeches given at the dedication of the new building. I found the discussion about the telescope installed in the school most interesting! The line drawing above is from the cover that that memorial volume.

How did the commemorative plate get to Tupelo? Unknown! But, oh, the fun I've had learning about Fall River, about Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee and the high school built to honor his memory.

Thanks to Ronald Bettencourt, Cataloger, Keeley Library, B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, MA for his kind assistance.


Fall River, Massachusetts. Wikipedia. Good historical and current overview of the city and region.

For an interesting account of The Cotton Mills of Fall River, click here. Of interest are the accounts of The Mill Workers and The Mill Owners. B.M.C. Durfee and his family are discussed.


Lee said...

I collect cookbooks, and on occasion, someone's name will turn up on the inside cover of one. It sends me on a wild goose chase every time, and not once have I ever found the person! But, like you, I've had fun on the hunt. :-)

Thomas MacEntee said...

I'd venture to say that with cotton being grown in Mississippi and cotton fabric being manufactured in Fall River, that would be the most obvious connection. But why a high school commemorative plate?

Terry Thornton said...

Lee, It is fun the wild goose chasing, isn't it?

Thomas, The best mystery of all is how a high school "plate" from Fall River MA ended up in Tupelo MS.