Benjamin C. Putnam, of Greenfield

Benjamin C. Putnam, of Greenfield

By Carol Aleman

Benjamin C. Putnam was born in Greenfield on January 21, 1855,[1] the son of the village’s popular barber and musician, John Putnam, and his wife, Julia,[2] and he resided at the family’s Wells Street home.[3] A well-known runner and local competitor, he was a familiar figure at local fairs and races, both in Franklin County and beyond.[4] With his close friend, gymnast Ned Slocomb, Ben was engaged in converting the old Fellenberg Academy building in town into a gymnasium that Ned would then operate.[5] Ben was employed at Ned’s gym as his first assistant.[6] The building no longer stands.

Ned Slocumb organized the Eagle Hose Company No. 1 of Greenfield, which during the 1870s, competed in firemen musters around the county. Ben Putnam, apparently the only member who was of African descent, led the team in its races.[7] In 1878, with the purchase of uniforms, they donned dark blue knee breeches, white stockings, white flannel shirts with a red eagle on the breast, and a red bandage for caps.[8] However, in a photograph of this team, housed at the Historical Society of Greenfield, Ben Putnam does not appear.[9]

“Champions of America for 1878,” photograph, Historical Society of Greenfield, Greenfield, MA.

During the seventies Hose Company No. 1 of Greenfield held the world record.[10] Ben “Put” was key to their success and remembered for his impressive speed.[11] A common feature of the Hose Company victories was the warm reception they received on their return to town.[12] Separately, Ben’s victories in foot races frequently hit the local paper in the years 1878 until his death in 1882.[13]

Over the period of his 27 years, Ben also worked as a machinist, a bottler, and a laborer.[14] His obituary[15] describes Ben as “a well-built, athletic man and a favorite with his companions.” The 1882 funeral took place at the home of his parents and, not surprisingly, was largely attended by firemen.[16] The Eagles appeared in full uniform, while Hose Co. No. 1 of Northampton sent a delegation of its own.[17] One might easily speculate that Ben served as an inspiration not only to his family and friends, but also to those members of the community who had the opportunity to witness his lightning speed and team spirit.

Carol Aleman, representing the Historical Society of Greenfield as organizational participant, is a budding researcher, a lifelong student, and a current member of the historical society’s Board.

[1] Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910.

[2] U.S. Census, Greenfield, Massachusetts, 1860.

[3] Town of Greenfield directories, 1874-1880.

[4] Gazette & Courier, Greenfield, Mass., 27 September 1880; 11 October 1880; 26 September 1881; 31 October 1881; 10 April 1882.

[5] Greenfield Recorder, Op. Ed., 28 April 1978, p. A7.

[6] Historical Society of Greenfield, undated newspaper clipping, Fellenberg Academy (Schools).

[7] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 April 1872.

[8] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 26 August 1878.

[9] “Champions of America for 1878,” photograph, Historical Society of Greenfield, Greenfield, MA.

[10] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 27 September 1919, p. 4.

[11] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 11 October 1880 and 26 September 1881.

[12] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 26 August 1878.

[13] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 27 September 1880, and 11 October 1880.

[14] Town of Greenfield directories, 1874-1880.

[15] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 April 1882.

[16] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 April 1882.

[17] Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 10 April 1882.

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