Primus P. Mason: Springfield Benefactor
Primus P. Mason was a significant figure in the history of Springfield. He was an entrepreneur, an investor, a philanthropist, and a California pioneer whose impact on Springfield is still visible almost two hundred years after his birth. His accomplishments were all the more impressive given that he was a black man in a city not known for its racial tolerance.
Primus Mason was a great story-teller and his tales have been reported many times over the years, so it’s sometimes difficult to sort out the facts. Primus Mason was born in Monson, Mass., in February 1817. He was the son of Jordan and Lurania Mason, free people of color. However, Primus was orphaned by the age of seven. He spent five years of his childhood in Suffield, Connecticut with the family of Jonathan Pomeroy before allegedly running away to Massachusetts. There, he was apprenticed to a Monson farmer named Ferry. Legend says that in 1837, with just weeks left on his apprenticeship, he was beaten severely by Ferry’s son, causing Mason to run away, again. It is supposed that the master ordered the beating with the intent of making Mason break his indenture, saving him the $12 due at the end of his service.
The 20-year-old Mason settled in Springfield in the section known as “Hayti,” where he worked as a pig farmer. It is said that he purchased his first house, on the north side of Boston Road, by borrowing $50 on a mortgage to the seller, Daniel Charter. He worked odd jobs and menial tasks and also had a contract with the city for clearing dead horses from the streets. Another one of his enterprises was collecting old shoe leather; he then sold the leather to the Springfield armory which used it in the process of hardening rifle barrels. In the 1850 census, Primus Mason was listed in Springfield as a farmer owning $1000 worth of real estate.
It’s not known when Mason left for California after gold fever struck the Springfield area, but it is said that Mason went to California “around the horn” of South America and that his wife, Lucretia, died during his time away from her. Different sources give differing reports of how successful he was in California, but probably the Springfield Republican was closest to the truth:
“He returned to Springfield without money, but with a decided experience in favor of consecutive enterprises, and his business life thenceforward illustrated what can be achieved by industry, prudence, foresight, and judicious investment in real estate.”
Upon returning to Springfield, Mason earned a reputation as a shrewd real estate speculator. He invested in land in the yet-undeveloped Hill district, which would become Springfield’s tony McKnight neighborhood, netting Mason significant wealth. Part of his land became Winchester Square, later renamed Mason Square for his family and him. In 1888, the Springfield Republican reported:
“In 1860, he bought a large tract of land lying near State street for $150 and ten years later sold it to the McKnights for $17,500. At present he owns eight lots of land with houses just east of the school for Christian workers, which he values highly. Fully 15 houses he owns in the city and has claims on other valuable lands in the district where he lives.”
Mason was known and respected as an honest, but clever businessman. Uneducated, he learned to read and write sometime after his fortieth year. He relished telling the story of how he evened the score with Mr. Ferry, his former master who ordered him beaten to save $12. Mason learned that Ferry planned to purchase a parcel of land in the Hill district for $40. Mason went to the owner and purchased the property for $60. He then turned around and sold it to the Monson farmer for $100.
Apparently, not everyone was pleased with Primus Mason’s success. In 1888, someone set his barn on fire. Before the fire department could respond, the blaze was out of control, resulting in a total loss to the building. The owner managed to salvage three horses, two cows, and six carriages, but four tons of hay and other farm equipment went up in flames. Mason valued his loss at about $1500, which was covered by insurance. Three months later, the newspaper reported succinctly that “William Sharp was tried for burning the barn of Primus Mason and the jury reported a disagreement.” It would appear that a hung jury resulted in the case’s dismissal.
Primus Mason and his family lived in a gracious home on State Street in Springfield, near the corner which would be named Mason Street in his memory. He outlived his numerous wives and his only child, Emily, who died with no offspring in 1873 at age thirty-four. He was generous with his wealth; it is said that he quietly paid the funeral expenses for many indigent people of color. A Springfield newspaper reported another aspect of his devotion to his community:
“In abolition days, Primus Mason was one of the useful underground railway agents, receiving notice from Hartford allies when an escaping slave was on the road to this city and conveying the information to the Rev. Dr. Osgood, who looked out for the entertainment of the fugitive and sent him on toward Canada.”
When he died in 1892, Primus Mason left an extensive will in which he bequeathed small amounts to his numerous brothers, cousins, nephews, and nieces. He also left $2000 to the Union Relief Association “to be used for the relief of aged couples.” The bulk of his estate — a substantial sum of more than $25,000 – was given to the city of Springfield to establish a Home for Aged Men. This institution still exists in Springfield, now called the Mason Wright Retirement Community. His bequest was the largest gift to the city up to that time.
Carvalho, Joseph, III, Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1855, New England Historic Genealogical Society and Institute for Massachusetts Studies, Westfield State College, 1984.
Graphic, The, Springfield, Mass., 23 January 1892.
“Hayti Settlement That Was. Some of Its Ancient Worthies,” Springfield Republican, 20 May 1888.
“Negroes of Springfield. Race in Typical Northern City,” Springfield Republican, 5 February 1905.
“Primus Mason Will Case,” Springfield Republican, 30 April 1892.
“Primus P. Mason: A Black Legend,” Springfield Journal, 9 February 1989.
Pryor, Dorothy J., “Primus Mason, Rebecca Johnson, and Albert Pryor – Agents for Dignity and Diversity,” speech delivered by the author at the Springfield College Club, 10 February 1993, manuscript copy at the Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Mass.
Springfield Republican, 6 July 1888; 3 October 1888; 18 January 1892.
“The Will of Primus P. Mason,” Springfield Republican, 16 January 1892.