Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: The woes of a street sprinkler

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A profession that disappeared with the advent of asphalt street paving was the sprinkling cartman. Nelson Yon (1852-1902) of North Adams is a good example. He told a Transcript reporter in April 1898 that "while people begin to complain on the first dusty day, they withdraw to inconspicuous positions when asked to pay for the sprinkling."

Lightly watering the dirt streets was not a municipal responsibility; entrepreneurs such as Yon solicited subscribers. When he had sufficient number on a given commercial byway, 75 percent, he provided service. As long as people paid. "He says he is not running the sprinkling carts as a philanthropic scheme, and this year the rule will be pay in advance."

Cartmen encountered acts of rudeness. Jodias Roy, in Yon's employ, was taken before Judge Carlton T. Phelps in August 1898 on charges of using his cart as a weapon. "Fred E. Pike was standing in the street beside his team and refused to get off the street when the cart came along," the Transcript reported. "Mr. Roy therefore `sprinkled' him, wetting him down so thoroughly as to lay all the dust there might have been on his clothing. Mr. Pike swore out a warrant, and after hearing a good deal of amusing evidence, Judge Phelps decided that Mr. Roy owed the court $3." (Pike earlier in the year had been fined $10 for disturbing the peace.)

The Roy episode, rather than elicit sympathy, prompted at least one letter writer to ask: "Is there anything short of manslaughter that will keep the sprinkling wagons from inundating the streets?" The Transcript quipped that "there is the comfort of knowing that they [sprinkle carts] can never be carried as concealed weapons."

Other problems faced the sprinkle men. In a chill April, the pipes froze and burst at the standpipes where Yon filled wagons. He had to make $100 worth of repairs. During summer droughts, he was forbidden to use municipal water and had to locate other sources. He typically sent his carts out at 4 a.m., and on occasion as early as 3 a.m., so streets would be moist by the time people were on their way to work, school or shop. In 1897, services of two teams were required in October and into November — as natural rain was sparse.hat year, tardy payments became such an issue.

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Yon wrote a letter to the newspaper: "People should not expect to be well served unless they are willing to pay their share of the expense. Some people are too little to do that. For instance, on Eagle Street the Troy Cash grocery store is willing to let its neighbors pay for the sprinkling in front of that store. Another such one is the candy store owner on the corner of Center and Eagle streets — he even wants to dock for a rainy day when I ask him only 25 cents a month. On Main Street one of the druggists refused to party a cent all last summer toward the sprinkling of Main Street. A large property-owner on Church Street who rides a bicycle and claims he don't like the `mud' refuses to pay. There are others — and the street in front of their places will not be sprinkled from now on unless they pay."

In spring 1899, Yon decided to retire. He put his business up for sale. Based at the Wilson House Block, it consisted of six horses, three new sprinkling carts and other wagons and sleighs. The selectmen called for sealed bids to sprinkle certain streets. The Transcript observed, "More and more the citizens are coming to look with favor on the oft-suggested plan of having the city do the work, and looking with envy at the cities where street sprinkling is already a municipal matter."

Finding no buyer, Yon continued his service that year. He set his cartmen to work in May. He said he was "beset on all sides while the carts were not working."

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In 1900, he finally sold his business to George Owens. After having resided in North Adams for two decades, Yon moved to Pittsfield. He joined his brother, Joseph T. Yon (1872-1932), in conducting a furniture store on North Street under the name Pittsfield Auction and Commission Co. To divert for a moment, Joseph himself had lived in North Adams for several years, running Yon & Morin shoe store. The brothers purchased rights from Alfred Belaire for an improved device to make one-piece uppers and a reinforcing stay piece for heels. The Yons arranged with C.T. Sampson Manufacturing to use the device. When Sampson failed to pay royalties, they sued in 1896 charging infringement. Sampson claimed it didn't work and he'd come up with his own method. The Yons were ultimately vindicated in 1898 — providing the capital to open the Pittsfield store,

Nelson Yon suffered a burst appendix and died in 1902. A native of St. Stephen de Bolton Quebec, he and his wife, Adelaide Tatro Yon (1855-1932), had eight children.

Joseph Yon recruited another brother, Simeon (1848-1927) — they had once gone off together to prospect for gold in the Yukon, without success — left his job with Smith Paper to join the furniture store that by then was on Summer Street in Pittsfield that continued in business until 1928.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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