Rufus Porter School of Folk Art



“It’s a simple tool,” Mr. Toppan said once, holding a stencil up to the light to see it more clearly, “but it’s served the world well through many ages. And there’s nothing fancy about it, for stenciling is as homespun a craft as weaving. Take what you know, the way a woman takes the wool from her sheep and spins it for her loom; take the colors God has given us in earth and sky and flowering things; then use the good sense that’s your heritage.”

“Will it always be beautiful, Mr. Toppan?”

“Yes,” he answered with conviction, “if you keep true to your own feeling for beauty. Some may call it dainty, some may call it daring—but none will call it aught but beautiful.”

“What do you mean by keeping true?” Jared asked, laying down his brush to rest his arm.

Mr. Toppan looked at him until his eyes seemed not to see the boy Jared, but the man Jared might become, then he said quietly, “It’s letting God take your hand so that it does the work He wants you to do. You’ve begun rightly, Jared, for that’s the beginning and end of all my teaching.”

From Patterns on the Wall by Elizabeth Yates

Often serving as a town’s gathering place for all governmental, social, and entertainment activities, the country tavern played a significant role in federal period New England. At the tavern, the locals as well as all kinds of travelers took part in great exchanges of news, information, and opinion. As many of the taverns were on stagecoach routes, there was a constant hustle and bustle of people coming and going. Lodging was usually offered, as well as good food and drink. Twenty five cents would get you a warm meal, and a mere twelve cents would afford you a place to rest your head for the night!

After the end of the Revolutionary War, thousands of miles of new and improved roads were created. These improvements allowed itinerant artisans, peddlers, professionals, and other individuals selling goods and services to gain quicker and easier access to the once isolated villages and farming communities throughout New England. All of these itinerants would pass through the taverns that were found in almost every town.

Look down the road and you see people endlessly coming and going. Stand a moment and watch them. Where are they going? Why are they traveling? What do they carry? Whence have they come?” …from Hawkers and Walkers in Early America, by Richardson Wright, copyright 1927 by J. B. Lippincott Company

The cast of characters that made their living roaming the highways and byways in 19th century New England was an intriguing lot! You could find Yankee peddlers selling every sort of useful item. The “notion” peddler would sell articles like buttons, pins, needles, scissors, combs, and perfumes. Some peddlers would specialize in a particular kind of item, like paper, tin, woodenware, or pottery. Others were the authority on clocks, brooms or books. The peddlers also shared the road with doctors, lawyers, preachers, and singing and dance instructors. Traveling troupes of entertainers, like magicians, ventriloquists, circus acts, and jugglers, were also a common sight. These entertainers would stop at the country taverns and offer their varied and sometimes provocative forms of entertainment to the locals and travelers alike. The itinerant wall stenciler also traveled on these same roads, selling his unique ability to enhance the living spaces of rural New Englanders. The itinerant stenciler would sometimes stencil his bold patterns in the taverns where he stayed, in return for his food and lodging. We know of several such establishments where Moses Eaton, Jr. embellished the plain plastered walls with his wonderful folk art. Surely, Eaton Jr. welcomed the opportunity to beautify the walls found in the taverns in which he stayed. What a splendid way to show off his colorful repertoire of folk art patterns, along with his skill at placement and design!

The David Damon Tavern was built in 1817 by Ebenezer Damon. Like most taverns “back in the day”, the Damon Tavern served as a stagecoach stop. Located in the heart of North Reading, Massachusetts it was at the crossroads of two different stagecoach routes; the Salem-Lowell and Boston-Haverhill routes. The usual fare of food, drink, and lodging were offered as well as fresh horses for the next “stage.” In the 1830s, a certain muralist, named Rufus Porter, passed through North Reading and stopped at this tavern. He left behind beautiful folk art murals on the walls of the second floor ballroom. Porter’s colorful murals, reflective of life in federal period New England, are an historic treasure. No doubt, they provided a wonderful backdrop for the many social activities that took place there so long ago.

Located in the center of the historic district in North Reading, the Damon Tavern looks proudly over the town common. For almost 200 years, the tavern’s expansive westward facing windows have enjoyed brilliant afternoon sunshine and the beauty of evening sunsets. The Third Meeting House, such an important building in the history of North Reading, is located across the street. The grounds of the c1720 Rev. Daniel Putnam House is a quick walk up the sidewalk. Here we find not only the Putnam House, but also the Putnam House barn, the c1840 West Village School house, a cobbler’s shop, and the Sgt. Flint House. The Sgt. Flint House is the newest edition to North Reading’s historic building collection. A half-story home, originally built in the 1600s, it is being rebuilt by North Reading’s Minit and Militia Company.


In the summer of 2004, I volunteered to give a room at the David Damon Tavern a period wall treatment using the designs, patterns, and motifs of Moses Eaton, Jr., the well known itinerant stenciler. This room was slated to become the new home of the Historical Society’s Welcome Center. The Welcome Center is adjacent to the Resource Room, which houses all the history and ephemera important to North Reading’s past.

Interestingly enough, Moses Eaton, Jr. traveled on occasion with Rufus Porter, the artisan who painted the murals in the ballroom of the Damon Tavern. One day, Rufus Porter traveled through Eaton’s hometown of Hancock, NH and the two became friends. They went on to collaborate at a couple of locations, with Porter painting his trademark frescoes, and murals and Moses Eaton, Jr. stenciling his colorful folk art. The pair painted together at the Hancock Inn in Hancock, NH and at the Joshua Eaton House in Bradford, NH. In honor of the historic connection between the artist who painted the murals in the Damon Tavern, and his friend, the itinerant stenciler, the North Reading Historic Commission felt it appropriate to have the room stenciled in the tradition of Moses Eaton, Jr.

The same historic patterns and motifs found in a small inn room at the Quaker Tavern in Falmouth, Maine and attributed to Moses Eaton, Jr., were selected for the Welcome Center. First, the walls were painted a brilliant yellow, and then the stenciling was done in the traditional colors of red and green. The stenciling has five major elements:

Frieze: Running along the top of the walls, you will find one of Eaton’s most popular designs; a border design comprised of “three big oak leaves”

Chair rail: The chair rail is topped by a small design of marching leaves

Motifs: Pineapples and oak leaf clusters are stenciled within the panels.

Verticals: A “diamond and petal” vertical stencil accents the architectural features of the room. This pattern streams down the corners of the walls, outlines the windows, and divides the walls into “panels.”

Overmantle: In keeping with tradition, the overmantel receives a special treatment. The wall above the mantelpiece is stenciled with colorful flower baskets and graceful willow trees.

Although the North Reading Historical Society’s Welcome Center at the Damon Tavern is still a work in progress, the historic wall treatment featuring the authentic designs and motifs of Moses Eaton Jr. is now complete. Surely it is fitting that the Damon Tavern has added yet another New England tradition to its heritage!

Brilliant late day sun pours through the 1817 Damon Tavern’s westward facing windows. Certainly, a welcome treat on this cold January day. The sunshine reflects off the snow banks on Bow Street and illuminates the interior of the little room, now known as North Reading’s Historical Society Welcome Center. The room fairly glows on this particular winter afternoon!

The red and green motifs that I carefully and methodically stencil on these cheery, yellow walls reflect the life and times of 19th century New England. Oak leaf clusters that march in unison across the walls symbolize the steadfast strength and loyalty of rural New Englanders in post-revolutionary America. The pineapples I stencil hearken back to the days when resilient seafaring captains, returning home from the sea, would display a pineapple over their doorway announcing to family and friends that they are “welcome” for some good cheer and company. Eventually, colorful flower baskets, colonial symbol of friendship, and graceful willow trees, symbolic of long life, will adorn the overmantle and complete the period décor fitting for a room in the historic Damon Tavern.

As I arrange my stencils, paints, and brushes for today’s work, I hear exclamations of joy and glee. I peek through the sun drenched windows and gaze towards the town common. I see brightly bundled children with sleds, slides and saucers. They glide quickly past the ancient oak tree that has stood sentinel on this hill for hundreds of years. Its wonderful craggy branches are well defined against the white of the new fallen snow. At the top of the snowy banks, the Third Meeting House stands boldly against the bright blue winter sky, and completes the picturesque New England backdrop for this festive winter scene.

In the days of horse drawn carriages and self-reliance, the Damon Tavern served as a bustling stagecoach stop and social epicenter of the rural farming town of North Reading. Soon this little tavern room with its bright and colorful folk art motifs, stenciled in the tradition of Moses Eaton, Jr., will once again welcome the townspeople of North Reading and offer them a window into the town’s historic past. As I climb the steps of my ladder and begin to swirl my paint brush in some bright red paint, I contemplate the generations of New Englanders that might have passed through the doors of this little tavern room. I picture the weary travelers, itinerant painters, entertainers, traveling troupes, peddlers, preachers, and teachers, all gathering at the tavern and sharing their colorful stories. I can almost hear the rowdy exchanges along with the clanging of plates and utensils and the crackling of the fire. Horses whinny and neigh outside heralding the arrival of some new visitors. Welcome to the David Damon Tavern, oh weary traveler, and tarry awhile. And if a comfortable seat in a warm room, along with a hearty dinner renews your spirit, there is still time to join the musicians in the ballroom upstairs for some lively entertainment and dancing!

 

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