England had its Tudors; Italy its Medicis; the U.S. has its Kennedys, Bushes and other powerful dynasties. Through Hopkinton’s earliest centuries, its most notable family was the Claflins.
Their influence and their contributions benefited Hopkinton, New England and the entire country. Their ranks included a Massachusetts governor, a shoe magnate, bank founder and champion of education for all.
“My mother and grandmother always told me that I can hold my head up around anyone,” says Sandy Altamura, whose mother was a Claflin and whose family carries on the Claflin bloodline today. “They said we come from a very distinguished family.”
The earliest Claflins came to Wenham, Massachusetts from Scotland in 1656. Robert Claflin’s original name was Scottish; immigration officers changed his name to Claflin when he arrived. He married Joanna Warner in 1664 and their son Daniel, born 1674 in Wenham, was the first Claflin born in America.
Decades later, Ebenezer and Hannah Claflin moved from Wenham to Hopkinton and had six children. They and their descendants would occupy homes near the common. Some Hopkinton maps, which list household names, also include a huge swath of Claflins around what is now Elm Street. Back then it was known as “Claflinville.”
One of the most notable Claflins was Lee, born in 1791. The son of Ebenezer and Sarah Claflin, Lee would distinguish himself as a businessman, statesman and education proponent. He showed his resilience early in life. One account, from 1895, recalls how he nearly drowned after tumbling off a boat. While everyone thought it was a hopeless situation, Lee’s frantic, crying mother moved another passenger to doff his coat, dive in and save the boy. “It was a sad beginning, but shows, at least, that the lad was not easily drowned,” the article noted.
A 1946 article by Daniel McHugh, President of Boston University, which Lee helped found, described him this way: “He was a big man by every measurement. Physically, he was of large frame, and unusual strength, with so great powers of endurance that five or six hours of sleep in twenty-four sufficed.”
Called “Honest Lee Claflin,” he was admired for his discipline, his Methodist faith and his plain tastes. A tanner by trade, Claflin was also thrifty, which along with his business acumen helped make him very rich.
“He indulged in no luxury,” one story about him noted. “He neither chewed nor smoked, nor drank liquor, nor drove fast horses, nor spent his money at theatres or the gaming table.”
Lee helped develop the shoe manufacturing techniques that put Hopkinton on the map as a shoemaking capital. He helped establish and build the Methodist church in his hometown and served as a Massachusetts state representative and senator. He also was passionate about the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, and harbored fugitive slaves in his home. His wife Sarah was a relative of U.S. President John Adams.
The family lived for 10 years at 2 Park Street, across from the Town Common, a distinctive home that still stands today. Another family member, Charles W. Claflin, eventually built another distinctive home, at 4 Park Street. His son Charles Leslie Claflin modified the home in the late 1800s, and donated the stone fountain to the Hopkinton Town Common in honor of his parents.
Lee’s son William would follow in his footsteps. He was a social reformer who opposed slavery, and in 1848 helped found the Free Soil Party in Massachusetts. That year he was elected as a Massachusetts representative, and served from 1849 to 1853. In 1868 he became Massachusetts governor, and during his tenure promoted voting rights for women, prison reform, public health and other social causes. Along with his father Lee, he chartered Boston University as a Methodist college.
After William’s term was over, he and his father donated funds to purchase land for Claflin University, founded in 1869 to give blacks opportunities for higher education.
Other Claflins would also distinguish themselves in business. Charles Winslow Claflin, born in 1820, was both a bootmaker and the innkeeper of Hopkinton’s Stone Tavern. He also helped establish another tavern in town, the Central Coffee House. And he established C.W. Claflin Co., a lumberyard on the site where Hopkinton Lumber is today.
His youngest daughter Mary married Arthur Young, who eventually took over his father-in-law’s business. In 1910, Arthur merged the company with the Sumner Coal Company.
Throughout the 1900s, according to Altamura, the Hopkinton Claflins and cousins from around Massachusetts would gather for reunions at a family compound on Elm Street, decades before Rte. 495 cut it in two.
“They slept in the barns, in fields and everywhere they could,” she recalled hearing from older relatives. “They would pitch tents near the old homestead. Some Claflin cousins would stay for days. It was a great time for everyone.”
The number of Claflins had dwindled by the mid-1900s, but those that remained kept the memories alive. Some longtime Hopkinton residents remember that a total of six Hopkinton streets included the name “Claflin.” Most of them were renamed because it became too confusing for police and firefighters, and thus potentially dangerous. Today half of them remain: Claflin Street, Claflin Avenue and Claflin Place.