Meet the remarkable and versatile Galen Orr

Today’s story is about a person named Orr, who became a hero in Needham. No, not Bobby, the magnificent hockey player. Galen John Orr, who lived almost a century earlier, and would be considered a hero for all he did for the city and its people during and after the Civil War.

The Galen Orr blind hinge plant near Rosemary Lake.  The factory has produced hinges and accessories for over 40 years and supplied hinges for the new development of Back Bay in Boston.  The buildings adjacent to the left were the lodgings that Orr provided for his workers.

Galen Orr’s father, Thomas, was born in July 1785 in Shirley. He moved to Needham as a young man, where he met and married Rachel Bullen. They moved to Shirley in 1812 and Galen was born in 1815, the fifth of six children. When Thomas died in 1819, Rachel and her family returned to Needham to be closer to her family. As she could not afford to raise her family without help, Galen was raised by various parents while working odd jobs. One of the jobs was in a nail factory in Charles River Village. The nail barrels were brought to Boston by a team of oxen, and as a driver he had to make the round trip alongside the team. Such jobs gave him a spirit of independence and the will to work hard, but denied him the benefits of regular schooling.

In October 1837, Galen Orr married Mary Ann Smith, of Needham, and in 1838 he bought two acres of land on the west side of North Hill and built their house, which still stands at 1119 Central Ave. He began making blind hinges in his barn cellar, where a horse fed. Not content with just one job, he also ran a glue factory with his brother Thomas.

In the early 1840s, the land and hydraulic privileges around Blacksmith Pond (now Blacksmith Road) belonged to Michael McIntosh, who owned a large factory on the site. When McIntosh’s mill burned down in 1844, Orr bought the water rights and about five acres of land and built a small factory, where he made blind hinges and fasteners. The business has had great success, including selling the hinges and fixtures needed for the many homes under construction in the developing Back Bay neighborhood. But Orr was not yet short of ideas. While living on Nehoiden Street near the Hinge Factory, he also purchased over 50 acres of land in town for farming, successfully growing corn, potatoes, and hay, and raising also a few cows.

In 1851, Orr also purchased the old Rosemary Lake Hat Factory (now the site of the Tillotson Apartments) and operated a cotton mill, known as the Rosemary Brook Batting Mill.

Then in 1857, working with Thaddeus Bullen of Haverhill, he tried his hand at making nails and finishing nails in the pulp mill. This did not succeed, so in 1860 he sold the machines and opened a flour mill, from which he sold grain and flour for several years; this led him to open a grocery store in the Revere Block, near the intersection of Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue, then the center of Needham.

Then came the civil war. Barely 10 days after the attack on Fort Sumter, a poster appeared in Needham proclaiming NEEDHAM TO THE RESCUE! He asked “the citizens to gather the following Saturday at the town hall to reflect on our duty in the current crisis”. Being too old to enlist in the military, Orr took up the post of recruiting officer. This role made him responsible for securing the town’s quota of 300 men to serve in the military. The federal government paid an enlistment bonus for each volunteer, and Needham paid an additional $ 125. Due to Orr’s dedication and perseverance, there were a lot of volunteers, and only the city needed to recruit a man.

Orr was elected chairman of the Selectmen board and overseer of the poor throughout the war, taking on the challenge of caring for the families of the enlisted men, providing them with moral and financial support, and securing that they had food and a place to live. He helped the families of soldiers through the trials of absence and grief, with a combination of counseling, compassion and money. In addition to his official duties, Orr took it upon himself to do whatever he could to help, which included responding to requests from the soldiers. One example was a letter from a soldier stationed in Virginia who said they lived on salt pork and hard beans, but what they really wanted was tobacco. On the back of the letter was a note from Orr simply stating “2 pounds delivered, December 1864.” He also gave the leftover cotton wool from his mill to the women in town to make medical supplies for the soldiers.

As a post-war veterans officer, Orr oversaw the distribution of soldiers’ pensions, indemnities, and death benefits, and continued to do so long after the war was over. The Grand Army of the Republic of Needham, the Civil War veterans organization, named its post Galen Orr Post, No.181, in honor of the man who did so much for the cause and the soldiers . It was the only GAR post named after a civilian.

Galen Orr has served the city in countless other ways. He was part of several school building committees; he was county commissioner for 10 years; he has served on two committees to study fire protection; and was Needham’s representative to the General Court in 1864. He was chairman of Needham’s first bank, Needham Savings Bank. He was a member of the committee that drafted the terms of Wellesley’s separation from Needham. And he was a member of the Norfolk Rifle Rangers, the only uniformed military organization in town history. Orr had a passion for music. He enjoyed playing the pipe organ and studied different ways of using the stops. He donated an organ to the Congregational Church and was their organist for many years.

In 1872 Orr appointed his son-in-law, Edgar Bowers, a partner in the hinge factory, as Galen Orr & Co. In 1880, when Orr’s health began to decline, he retired and a lived quietly in Needham until he died on March 4, 1881.

Although Galen Orr has never played hockey to my knowledge, he certainly did enough to earn himself a place on Needham’s list of those who, when needed, brightened the lives of its citizens.

Polly Attridge has been an archivist for the Needham History Center for approximately 25 years. Visit for program schedules and information.

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