Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 13, 2014

From wagon shop to millionaire's playhouse

Don Robb
Andover Historical Society

---- — In July 2010, Don Robb wrote this column about the history of Poor Wagon Shop for The Andover Townsman in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Andover Historical Society in 2011:

It started as a simple blacksmith shop, became a highly successful wagon factory, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and was eventually turned into a millionaire’s playhouse.

It’s known as the Poor Wagon Shop, and also as the Casino. Built in 1867, it still stands today on the grounds of Arden, the Wood family estate on North Main Street.

The building began its long history in an area then called Frye Village, where Routes 28 and 133 meet today. In 1833, William Poor, a descendant of one of Andover’s founding families, opened a blacksmith shop in the village on the street named for his family.

Soon Poor and his brother, Jonathan, added a facility for manufacturing wagons. Located in the heart of Frye Village, the wagon shop became a gathering place for locals, who met there to gossip and to discuss the politics of the day.

William Poor and his son, Joseph, were ardent abolitionists who took an active part in the fight against slavery. In false-bottomed wagons made in their shop, escaping slaves could safely be concealed for transport under a load of produce or hay.

Under cover of darkness, slaves who had been hidden in any of the several Underground Railroad safe houses around Andover would make their way to the Poor wagon shop. Hearing a knock on his door in the night, Joseph Poor would get up, go outside; saddle up his mare, Nellie; hitch up a wagon, and lead his illegal “cargo” north into New Hampshire, one step closer to freedom. His family recalled that he was usually home in time for breakfast.

Some estimates suggest that several hundred slaves passed through Andover, a good portion of them via the Poor Wagon Shop in Frye Village.

After the Civil War, the shop continued to prosper. When William Poor retired in 1895, his son, Joseph, took over the business until declining health forced him to sell out a few years later. The business was transferred elsewhere, but the old wagon shop remained in the Frye Village square.

Around the turn of the 20th century, William Wood began buying up property in Frye Village. The president of the American Woolen Company, Wood had purchased a summer home near the village in 1891, and now dreamed of creating a “model community” there for his company and its managers. He and his wife, Ellen, added the Poor Wagon Shop to their property holdings in 1900 and moved it to their estate, which was called Arden.

Gradually, between 1918 and 1924, Wood’s dream took shape. In the process, he changed many things, including the village name; it was now called Shawsheen Village. He also changed the course of the Shawsheen River, and the route of Poor Street, where the wagon shop once stood.

The former wagon shop eventually became sited on the banks of a small pond on the Wood property, where it became a playhouse for the family. Renamed the Casino, the shingled structure for years housed theatricals, dances, parties and family celebrations.

The building and the pond it overlooks are located behind the present Christian Science Church on Main Street, just south of Shawsheen Square. Although the casino is no longer used for entertainments, it still stands as a visible reminder of the early days of Frye Village, the challenging years before the Civil War and the 1920s heyday of Shawsheen Village.