by Carol Aleman
Harry Walter Putnam, an early bicycle enthusiast, sportsman, and athlete in Greenfield, began life in November 1870 in Springfield, Massachusetts,1 the son of John H. Putnam of Greenfield2 and Ann Eliza Smith of Pittsfield.3 By March, 1875 his father had died,4 and within five years Harry’s time was divided between his mother’s Wells Street home and the busy household of his grandparents, barber John and Julia Putnam, just down the street.5 In 1880 the Black population in Greenfield – less than 30 – included four families, plus eight individuals working as servants. Children under 10 numbered four, including Harry and his sister, Annie.6
Although he attended Greenfield High School,7 Harry’s name fails to appear in the record of GHS graduates. Yet, it’s clear that he was a familiar member of the community, captured in a front-page photo of the blizzard of 1888, atop a mountain of snow.8 In the warmer weather, Harry spent time as a fisherman, joining other young men of the village to cast his line and sport an impressive catch.9
A broken collarbone in 1892, suffered while playing football for the local YMCA at Franklin Park, appears to be the singular notable moment of the one-sided game mentioned in the local paper.10 That his was a vibrant presence in the community is further signaled bythe nature of Harry’s work. Over the years he developed skills as a bootblack, a chauffeur, and a mechanic at Potter Brothers garage11 and was entrusted with the care of the town’s Sportsmen’s Club.12
By 1894 Harry was competing as a Greenfield wheelman with a small group of other local men in bicycle races that featured entrants from New York and all of New England.13 Besides these New York contests where Harry frequently took honors, the Greenfield Athletic Club sponsored its first annual Labor Day bicycle meet in 1895,14 the same year Harry was married to Carrie Amelia Marcy of Worcester.15 The sports event attracted bicyclists from outside the county, including the Springfield and Massasoit clubs.16 Harry participated and again scored well; in 1896 he was put in charge of planning and managing thesecond annual Labor Day event.17
In 1897 Harry and Carrie became the parents of a son, Hubert Percy Putnam,18 who would follow his father’s course in pursuing sports and excelling in them. But Carrie’s death in 189819 would leave a gap in Harry’s life and his story. The notice of his own sudden death twelve years later20 describes Carrie only as “a white woman, who died about ten years ago.” In those years between her death and his own, Harry remained popular among his peers, receiving multiple awards in Highland Park track and field events21 and watched as his son began to take his own prizes in similar contests.22
The turn of the century would see Harry operating the production of baseball bats in Greenfield23 for teams as prestigious as Williams College baseball.24 Later, Hubert would inspire the people of town with his own athletic prowess and high diving skills,25 make a name for himself by starting a juvenile drum corps in town,26 complete WW I service at the rank of colonel in France,27 and thereafter be recognized for his fancy diving at events that included the Scottsdale Defense Fund Benefit sponsored by the NAACP.28
Today Harry’s memory is preserved in the baseball bats and bicycle races of Greenfield’s historical memory – artifacts that represent the life and experiences of an athlete and citizen, whose dedication to community guided his choices and defined his purpose.
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. https://www.sec.state.ma.us/vitalrecordssearch/vitalrecordssearch.aspx
2 U.S. Census, Greenfield, Massachusetts, 1860.
3U.S. Census, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 1850.
4 Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910. https://www.sec.state.ma.us/vitalrecordssearch/vitalrecordssearch.aspx
5 U.S Census, Greenfield, Massachusetts, 1880.
6 U.S Census, Greenfield, Massachusetts, 1880.
7Greenfield Recorder, 5 November 1910, p. 4.
8Greenfield Recorder, 22 March 1928, front page.
9 Gazette & Courier, Greenfield, Mass., 30 July 1888, p. 4, and Greenfield Recorder, 19 July 1902, p. 5.
10Gazette & Courier, Greenfield, Mass., 10 September 1892, p. 4.
11 Town of Greenfield directories, 1895-1909.
12Greenfield Recorder, 8 May 1902, p. 3.
13The New York Press, N.Y., 8 July 1894, p. 4.
14 Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 7 September 1895, p. 4.
15 Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910. https://www.sec.state.ma.us/vitalrecordssearch/vitalrecordssearch.aspx
16Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 7 September 1895, p. 4.
17Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 5 September 1896, p. 4.
18Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910. https://www.sec.state.ma.us/vitalrecordssearch/vitalrecordssearch.aspx
19Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910. https://www.sec.state.ma.us/vitalrecordssearch/vitalrecordssearch.aspx
20Greenfield Recorder, 5 November 1910, p. 4.
21Greenfield Gazette & Courier, 8 July 1899, p. 6.
22Greenfield Recorder, 30 June 1909, front page.
23Greenfield Recorder, 13 April 1904, p. 4.
24Greenfield Recorder, 13 April 1904, p. 4.
25Greenfield Recorder, 25 July 1939, p. 4.
26Greenfield Recorder, 22 June 1908, p. 4.
27Greenfield Recorder, 8 January 1919, p. 12
28The New York Age, 29 August 1931, p. 2.