Robert “Father” Kemp: One Man’s Story
Part I: Early Life


Robert “Father” Kemp. His name alone elicits many questions: When did he come to Reading, Massachusetts? What had he done before he lived in Reading? What motivated him in his civic endeavors? Why was he called “Father”?

To answer these questions and others requires facts, preferably from one who lived them.  Fortunately for the curious, in 1868 Kemp published his autobiography, Father Kemp and His Old Folks: A History of the Old Folks’ Concerts. The following, unless otherwise noted, are Kemp’s words from that book telling his story. 

Kemp explained in the Preface, “It is a great undertaking to write even a small book. Everyone has an object in placing himself before the public in print. What my object is, will gradually develop itself as I proceed with my story.”

So begins his story.

Robert Kemp was born in Wellfleet, MA, June 4, 1820 (Kemp’s Obituary, Boston Daily Advertiser, 1897). His ancestors had landed in that area “but a generation removed from the Mayflower’s precious cargo.”

“At the age of nine years, I found myself aboard a Cape Cod pinkey boat, which was commanded by my uncle, occupying the position of cook for twelve men.” The first night on board, “there was quite a heavy sea” as he cooked dinner and daydreamed of his future successes. His daydreams, culminating in him becoming a commander, came to an abrupt stop. At the very moment of his imagined ultimate success, “the boat gave a sudden lurch, . . . and down came the great pot, full of boiling, hissing beans, upon the cabin floor!” In spite of such a beginning, “The beans went back into the pot, and thence into the stomachs of the fishermen, for which they were originally intended.”

Kemp’s youthful exuberance paired with his resourcefulness were apparent as he related on that same night once he completed washing the dinner’s dishes “and with the pan full of dishwater mounted the gangway to go on deck and ‘chuck’ the contents overboard,” not only did the dishwater go overboard, “so did a dozen knives and forks, which lay on the bottom of the pan and had escaped
observation. . . . During the rest of the voyage we operated at meal-time with wooden utensils, whittled out for the occasion, which answered for knives and forks. As the ship’s larder was not overburdened with meats, we were not troubled to any great degree.”

After Kemp fished the banks and chased “mackerel schools up and down the coast” for three years, he does not relate what he did or where he resided until “at the age of twenty I was in the boot and shoe business, on Hanover Street, Boston, being the junior member of the firm Mansfield & Kemp, and had made sufficient money, I thought, to take myself a wife. . . . Soon after this I purchased a farm in Reading, determined to enjoy the comforts of rural life, in connection with my city business.”

“I was at this time attacked with a disease which has prevailed to great extent among my neighbors and friends since my remembrance—‘Fancy Farming.’ I grew poor (in pocket) while the fever raged, but was rich in experience after the patient was cured.” He described his young flock of one hundred chickens “that fed from my hand one morning before I left for the city” who were struck that night by two devastating foes: “a cold and violent storm” and a hungry skunk. “Between the two they made a ‘good haul.’ ” By morning only “only five forlorn and shivering chicks . . . remained to tell the tale of that night of horrors.” He concluded that “raising fowls was profitable only in those places not infested by unfavorable natural elements, and animals whose appetites are not commensurate with their bump of destructiveness.”

His success in farming was limited. Another morning, he “left two hundred hills of squashes” in his garden; “the hot sun beat down upon them, the bugs got lively and voracious, and when I returned at night they were wilted and broken.” A third example of his farming difficulties concerned his “fine field of potatoes,” which was struck with “rot” and “did for them what other things had done for the chickens.”    

Not all was doom and destruction in his foray into fancy farming, however. Kemp “was very lucky in raising fruit.  . . . [his trees] were loaded with plump and luscious apples.” Once picked and packed in barrels, “they were disposed of to Mr. Curtis of Faneuil Hall Market, the total yield being two hundred and twenty five barrels.” He counted his “profits and found them to be exactly eight cents a barrel. This,” wrote Kemp, “is the most lucrative agricultural operation I was ever engaged in.”

The end of the New England growing season may have been a blessing for Kemp: “Winter came, and with it the long evenings, when the people in the country, and especially the good people of Reading, depend upon social intercourse for their enjoyment. Like them, I loved to be cheered by the company of acquaintances and friends. After a few evenings passed in quiet, and mostly in bed, a thought struck me, from which has originated the ‘Old Folks’ Concerts,’ which have since become so famous. There were many good singers in Reading, which also abounds in good things generally. It is a model New England town, where the inhabitants are social, intelligent, and hospitable, and after traversing so many thousand miles of my own and foreign countries I have become convinced that the fortunate day of my life was when I purchased my farm of twelve acres in that suburb.” 


First published in Reading Daily Chronicle. 23 July 2014: A1,A9. Print.