Blanche Ames and Oakes Ames came from prominent but unrelated Massachusetts families. Among their ancestors were blacksmiths and manufacturers, congressmen and governors, generals and yachtsmen, farm wives and—Blanche’s grandmother—a Shakespearean actress. The mansion’s exhibits tell the stories of many of theses people.
The ship Hercules brought the forebears of Oakes Ames to Massachusetts in 1638. Several generations of farmers and blacksmiths later, John Ames of Bridgewater became the first American to manufacture shovels. Within a few years, the colonists no longer needed to import shovels from England. In 1803, John’s son, Oliver Ames, moved to North Easton where he founded the Ames Shovel works company. The company developed a lightweight shovel much favored during the Gold rush, the settlement of the Northwest Territory, and the Civil War. The Ames shovel was so highly regarded that at one time it was used as “legal tender” on the frontier.
It was during this period of prosperity that the Ames family first became involved with politics and national affairs. Oliver’s son Oakes served in the U.S. Congress from 1862 to 1873. President Abraham Lincoln, a staunch supporter of a transcontinental railroad, personally asked Oakes Ames to take over the financially-ailing Union Pacific. Oakes, together with his brother Oliver, undertook the venture. Their success was celebrated on May 10, 1869, when the “golden spike” was driven at promontory Point, Utah, linking the Union Pacific with the Central Pacific Railroad and creating the country’s first transcontinental railway. Oakes’ son Oliver continued the family’s political involvement serving as Governor of Massachusetts from 1887 to 1890. It was his son Oakes who pursued a career in botany and developed Borderland.
Blanche’s family roots also go back to colonial Yankee stock. Her mother’s side of the family included veterans of the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Her most famous forebear was her maternal grandfather Benjamin Franklin Butler. He proved himself a military leader of high caliber as a General of the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1864, President Lincoln asked Butler to be his running mate for his second term. Butler declined, believing he could better serve the interests of his country by remaining in the army. Had he accepted, Ben Butler—not Andrew Johnson—would have become President following Lincoln’s assassination.
After the Civil War, Butler resumed his political career. He returned to Lowell, Massachusetts, and was elected to the House of Representatives. During his years in Congress, he led successful fights for the first Civil Rights Act and a bill to curb the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1882 he became governor of Massachusetts. Two years later, Butler ran for President of the United States on the third party Greenback ticket.
His wife was Sarah Hildreth Butler, a Shakespearean actress from Dracut, Massachusetts. She gave up her stage career after their marriage, and remained in Lowell to raise their three children while Ben Butler was in Congress. When their daughter Blanche was a young woman, she often went to Washington to watch her father at work. It was at the Capitol that she met Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine who represented Mississippi in the Senate. They were married on July 20, 1870, in Lowell.
Adelbert Ames was a much-decorated Union Army officer. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a Brigadier General of the U.S. Volunteers and Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. Following the Civil War, Adelbert was appointed Provisional Governor of Mississippi. In 1870, that state sent him to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1873. Elected Governor of Mississippi in 1874, he served two years before leaving politics for business, and returning to his home and family in Lowell. He later commanded American troops in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He and Blanche Butler had six children, the fourth of whom was the Blanche Ames of Borderland.