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Building Committee Chair Ponders Appropriate Acknowledgement Of 117-Year-Old Bequest

By Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — When a resident attending a public forum on plans for the Bristol Municipal Building raised the issue of the Mason bequest, Committee Chair Edward “Ned” Gordon said the philanthropist “should be recognized in some way for his contribution”.

Charles E. Mason is nearly forgotten today, the sole acknowledgement being a plaque on a door in the basement of the town office building, naming it the Mason Music Room.

He had hoped for a bigger legacy.

Charles Mason was a stockholder of the Mason-Perkins Paper Paper Company, established by David Mason, who came to Bristol in 1852 and was engaged in a number of businesses relating to pulp and paper production.

With George W. Dow, David Mason operated Dow & Mason, a strawboard company on Willow Street (now Bristol Hill Road). When Dow retired during the Civil War, David Mason continued the business, adding a paper mill under the name D. & D.S. Mason & Co. In 1871, he became head of a new firm, Mason, Perkins & Co., erecting a brick paper mill which absorbed the other businesses. The company incorporated as the Mason-Perkins Paper Company on July 7, 1886, and later absorbed another business venture in which Mason was engaged with R.D. Mossman and William A. Berry, manufacturing pulp by the railroad station. At the time of his death in 1899, David Mason was considered the wealthiest man in Bristol.

Charles Mason was considered well-off, too. A Knight Templar Mason and a Democrat, he served two years as a selectman in Bristol.

In his will, dated November 1900, he left his property to his widow, Katharine A. Mason, giving  $1,000 each to Union Lodge 79 of Bristol and Mount Horeb Commandery of Knights Templar of Concord, among other bequests. But his biggest legacy was to be “a building to be forever owned and maintained by [the] Town of Bristol, as a town-house and opera-house”.

The funds for the building were to come from a trust overseeing the income and dividends from his stock in the Mason-Perkins Paper Company, but only after the death of his wife. While she remained alive, the stock proceeds would support her.

He died Nov. 20, 1900, but his wife lived until Jan. 16, 1963.

By that time, the cost of building the kind of facility Mason envisioned far exceeded what the paper company stock would provide. However, Bristol selectmen saw the money as a way to help pay for a new municipal building. Selectmen at the time were meeting on the second floor of the building at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Central Square.

Selectman Gaylord G. Cummings contacted the late attorney Richard W. Upton to gain control of the funds, valued at $71,141.01 as of July 20, 1963. Cummings’ daughter, Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom, says, “My presumption is that my father told him that Bristol didn’t need an opera house and by then it would have cost too much.”

L. Kenneth Tilton, as trustee of the Charles E. Mason Fund, petitioned the Grafton County Superior Court, writing, “various questions have been raised as to the interpretation, construction, validity and effect of the third paragraph of said Will … and your Petitioner requests the advice and instruction of this Court as to his duties and the rights of the parties thereunder,” noting that he “is exposed to sundry suits by said claimants, and to loss and damage therefrom.”

Upton was a powerful and persuasive attorney for the town, leading the court to conclude, “The amount of money remaining in the residue of said trust estate is wholly inadequate to defray the cost of constructing and erecting a combined ‘town-house and opera-house’ for the Town of Bristol. There is no statutory authorization for a municipal corporation to own and operate an ‘opera-house’. The Town of Bristol now owns a town-house [today known as the “Old Town Hall” on Summer Street] which the parties agree is reasonably adequate as a place of town meetings.

“The objects and purposes of the trust created by said Article Third have become, by the passage of time and changes in circumstance, impossible and impracticable of accomplishment.”

The court concluded that, “The use of the residue of said trust estate for the acquisition of a town office building by the Town of Bristol to provide office space for town officers and record storage space, with suitable recognition for the name of the testator, would be a practical purpose, as nearly as possible in accord with the general charitable intent of the testator.”

The court decree added the stipulation, “provided that there shall be one room of suitable size in such building designed as a multiple-purpose room and reserved for public conferences, official hearings or court proceedings, which shall be suitably designated by permanent marker as ‘The Charles E. Mason Room’, which shall be always available to the general public for musical rehearsals and concerts for limited audiences, when not needed for public business.”

With that, the town had a sum of money to go toward the construction of the Bristol Municipal Building, with a courtroom on the lower level and a plaque on the door of the judge’s chambers, naming it the “Mason Music Room”.

After the municipal courts were absorbed by the district court system, Bristol turned the courtroom space over to the Bristol Police Department, which expanded into more space after the municipal building received a wooden addition. Today, the town is considering converting the entire building into a police station and building a new town hall next door.

“I have always disdained the ‘Music Room’ plaque on the Courtroom door,” Nordstrom said, noting that she is “a classical music advocate to the core” and saying, “I doubt that it was ever used for a concert to justify its existence.”

As the town considers building a new town hall, or reconfiguring the current municipal building to accommodate Bristol’s needs, resident Archie Auger raised the question, “How are we going to honor this bequest?”

Space needs committee member Susan Duncan said after the meeting, “I was completely unaware of the Mason donation to the town until [Town Administrator] Nik [Coates] sent the materials to us recently. Obviously, we will need to appropriately recognize and honor him! Yes, would love to know how that disappeared through the years!”

9 October 2017

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