An 1850s Journey Down Wellesley Avenue

There are several roads in Wellesley that cause me to hallucinate when I drive on them. Don’t worry…these aren’t drug-induced, These are history-induced. Instead of seeing a paved road, other cars, street lights, sidewalks, and modern houses and buildings, I see a dirt road, lined by tall elm and oak trees, and the occasional antique house or two. There are even some horse ploppies in the middle of the road. Understandably, these fantasies in my head are common when I travel down the more historical roads in town, say, Washington Street, Cottage Street, or the eastern end of Linden Street. There’s another road, however, that takes me back in time that I don’t think one normally perceives as historical. And that’s Wellesley Avenue. See, for nearly fifty years, that road was used by residents living in Wellesley Village (then West Needham) to get to Needham Town Hall, which was then located at the town poor farm on the current grounds of the Country Club. And to amuse myself, I like to envision being one of those residents walking or riding (on a horse and buggy, of course) from the town center deep into the woods to go to a town meeting. So follow me back in time as I take you on a journey along Wellesley Avenue in the 1850s.

Though before we begin, I need to make sure you’re all familiar with Wellesley Avenue in the modern age. As you can see below, it begins at its intersection with Washington Street and Brook Street right by Wellesley Town Hall. Then it more or less takes you as the crow flies to the Country Club, going through the rotary at Great Plain Avenue along the way. (Wellesley Avenue also continues to the east of the Country Club past Brookside Road and merges with Hunnewell Street, which then goes into Needham. This stretch of the road was probably how East Needham residents, and even those living in Lower Falls, got to Town Hall way back then. There aren’t any really old sites on this stretch of Wellesley Avenue and was pretty much woods until at least the late 1800s.)

On our journey, I want to zoom in on three parts of Wellesley Avenue. Outside of these three places, it was almost entirely a road in the woods and not much else can be said. So let’s begin at the head of the road at Washington Street near Wellesley Square.

For a long time, this intersection was known as Noyes’ Corner, named for the first pastor of the Village Church, Thomas Noyes. He was one of the most important men in Wellesley during the first four decades of the 1800s, so I’ll save a lot of the details about him for another post, but I will say that the Noyes residence was located a little bit east on Washington Street opposite where St. Paul’s Church is today on the current Town Hall grounds. The house burned down in the 1850s, but the old cellar, stone doorstep, and clumps of lilac bushes remained for over a century (though I’m not sure if they’re still there today…)

So as we begin our journey down Wellesley Avenue, we almost immediately pass two houses that belong to the Kingsbury family, maybe only 100 feet from our starting point. The one on the south side of Wellesley Avenue was the longtime home of Dexter Kingsbury, one of the most active citizens in town affairs, holding offices including that of assessor, selectman, and even liquor agent. It was razed in the 1920s to make way for Dexter Road.

Continuing onward along Wellesley Avenue, we’ve now entered the deep forest and don’t encounter much sign of civilization until we reach the current site of the rotary at Great Plain Avenue:

I hope it goes without saying that there was no rotary in the 1850s. But there is a little hub of activity here. On a little hill at the northwest corner of Wellesley Avenue and Seaver Street sits the 1809 Alvin Fuller farmhouse. In fact, Seaver Street was once the cart path through the crop fields behind the house. (In 1862, the house was moved west along Wellesley Avenue where it still stands at #62. The house that replaced it, the Edwin Fuller home, still stands at this corner — #100 Wellesley Avenue).

Across the street at what is now #107 Wellesley Avenue is another house built by the same Alvin Fuller in 1844. That house still stands — it’s the big red one on the right side of the road as you exit the rotary, heading up towards the Country Club. Later, during the first half of the 20th Century, this house was used as a nurses’ dormitory by the Channing Sanatorium, which operated on what is now part of the Babson College campus.

(Here’s a not-so-quick tangent for those Wellesley history buffs…the Alvin Fuller that I mentioned above should not be confused with ‘Uncle’ Alvin Fuller, the longtime postmaster and railroad station agent in Wellesley Hills during the second half of the 19th Century. They are related, however, as ‘Uncle’ Alvin is the nephew of Alvin. In other words, ‘Uncle’ Alvin’s uncle is Alvin. ‘Uncle’ Alvin lived almost his entire life on Forest Street, having been born at #24 Forest Street, the c. 1770 house just past the aqueduct that was later the longtime home of Alice L. Phillips and then, more recently, Dr. Lyman. It was razed in 1995. ‘Uncle’ Alvin then spent his adult life at a house on the southwest corner of Forest Street and Washington Street. That house was moved back to #11 Forest Street to make way for the Maddix Block (completed in 1925 and later housed Danny’s Pizza for many years). The Fuller house then served as part of Diehl’s moving company for many years before it was razed in the 1980s. Sorry for the tangent, but I find this stuff fascinating.)

Okay, we’re still at the intersection of Wellesley Avenue and Great Plain Avenue. In addition to the houses of the Fuller family (who owned almost the entire stretch of land from here all way down Great Plain Avenue into Needham), Richard Parker had two or three shoe shops to north of where the rotary is on the stretch of land between Wellesley Avenue and Seaver Street. I don’t know much about Parker besides that he married Almira Kingsbury around 1841. She was the sister of the aforementioned Dexter Kingsbury, as well as L. Allen Kingsbury, who owned land on Seaver Street, including where Kingsbury Elementary School, which was named after him, was built. The fate of the shoe shops is unknown, but Parker, or maybe a son of the same name, appeared to live in a house on that same lot in 1897.

Continuing east along Wellesley Avenue, we re-enter the woodlands and go up the hill heading towards Needham Town Hall. And there’s not much to see besides trees and maybe a field here and there until we get to the intersection with Forest Street:

Directly to the south of the intersection, maybe about a hundred feet in from the road is the William Lyon farmhouse. The Lyon family owned much of what became the Babson College campus (Roger Babson bought it from William’s son, Edward Lyon, in the early 1920s and immediately began building a new campus for the Babson Institute, whose mini-campus on Washington Street in Wellesley Hills was way overcrowded).

And on the north side of the intersection, a few hundred feet east along Wellesley Avenue, is Needham Town Hall, which also served as the town almshouse (poorhouse). So I guess now’s as good of a time as ever to give you a deeper history into this property and how the Town Hall came to be located here.

In the year 1699 (or soon thereafter), this land was settled by Josiah Kingsbury, who moved here from Dedham. (The earlier Kingsburys I mentioned all descended from Josiah’s son, Jesse Kingsbury, who settled at the corner of Washington Street and Kingsbury Street on the current site of the Mobil Station around the 1730s.) In 1828, the town of Needham bought the old Josiah Kingsbury farm from the widow Emily Kingsbury for the purpose of housing the town’s poor. Before this time, the poor and destitute would be auctioned off individually and the town would pay the lowest bidders to care for them at their own houses. To me, that could seem a bit demoralizing, especially for those poor men and women whom nobody wanted. Establishing a poor farm (and housing them in the old Kingsbury farmhouse) would remove that awkward process and give the poor a decent home in exchange for farm work.

Ten years later, in 1838, the town replaced the old Kingsbury farmhouse with a new almshouse. And, in addition, one of the rooms was made large enough to hold town meetings. And thus, Needham Town Hall was established. The building would serve as a town hall until late 1885, when the new Wellesley Town Hall was completed in Wellesley Square, though it would continue to operate as an almshouse until 1910 when it became the Country Club clubhouse. It was razed in 2008.

Now, I hope you’re wondering where Town Hall was located before 1838. Well, the short answer is that there was no such building or even a room dedicated strictly to town affairs. For many years in the 1700s, the Needham meetinghouse (in what is now Needham) served as both a church and a meeting place. But when it burned down in 1773, the town faced quite a dilemma. For some time, the Needham residents in the west side of town wanted a closer meetinghouse/church or even one of their own. Well, they soon got one when the West Precinct meetinghouse was built in 1774 (though it was left unfinished for two decades as a result of the Revolutionary War). This meetinghouse became what is now the Wellesley Village Congregational Church — the current church is the fourth building on that site. And until 1838, Needham would hold its town meetings at either this meetinghouse or the one rebuilt in the East Precinct (Needham), as well as at various taverns in town. Of course, that ended in 1838 when the new almshouse was built. This location made sense for the town because it really was in the center of Needham. No residents would view meeting there as unfair. I can only imagine what it would have been like to walk in the woods for two miles and then partake in a yelling match with your fellow citizens. And I guess if you lost, then the walk home would give you time to cool off.

On that note, I want to stress how important any town meeting was back in the old days. Besides the Annual and Special Town Meetings where various articles were discussed and voted upon, there were plenty of informal discussions. And everyone from the town showed up. That’s probably because anyone could vote (well…sorry, ladies, but probably just any man). It wasn’t until 1937 that Town Meeting took on a representational form like it has today where a handful of citizens are voted Town Meeting Members. Also, attendance was high because people weren’t busy doing other things. Life was so much slower and far less complicated. People didn’t have to pick up their kids at basketball practice, drive into Boston for a doctor’s appointment, or work late at the office. Therefore, most town meetings were actually held during the daytime until 1894.

So, that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip back in time and the tour of Wellesley Avenue in the 1850s. And I encourage you to try to visualize this history as you make your way to the Country Club, the town dump (excuse me, the “Recycling and Disposal Facility”), or wherever you’re going. Just don’t close your eyes while you’re driving. We wouldn’t want you to become history.

Sources:

  • 1856 Map of Needham
  • A Genealogy of Ensign Thomas Fuller of Dedham, Massachusetts and His Descendants 1642-1895 by Francis Henry Fuller (1895)
  • 1897 Atlas of Wellesley
  • Our Town: November 1898
  • The Genealogy of the descendants of Henry Kingsbury, of Ipswich and Haverhill, Mass by Frederick Henry Kingsbury (1905)
  • History of Needham, Massachusetts: 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
  • History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 20 May 1910; 3 November 1922; 10 November 1922; 12 December 1924; 30 March 1928; 26 March 1937; 24 May 1956; 19 February 1987; 28 August 2008
  • Continuity and Change: Babson College, 1919-1994 by John R. Mulkern (1994)
  • Kingsbury Hall: The Genealogy of a Family: Volume 1 by Kenneth Jay Kingsbury (2005)
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files
  • Findagrave.com (Online Cemetery Records Database)
  • Google Maps
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Scandal in Wellesley: 1902 Edition

I’ve been debating in my head whether I should post this. This story bothers me. Not so much the part about theft and deceit from a century ago. Nah, that isn’t so bad. What really gets me worked up is that Wellesley seemed to do its best to hide this story. Don’t mention it and eventually it will go away. I always admired Wellesley’s leaders for their ability to shape the town according to their needs and desires, but I never had a concrete example from the early days of how they wiped away something unflattering. Well, now I have an example: Albert Jennings, the first town treasurer who served from 1881 until he was arrested in 1902. He was one of the Wellesley’s most highly regarded citizens, a leader within the Wellesley Village Church, and part of a prominent family that for decades had been large landowners and was active in town affairs. And just like that, he was gone. Wellesley’s only paper at the time of the incident — Our Town — didn’t cover the story at all, yet the Boston and New York papers did. And when the scandal resurfaced in 1906, the Townsman made only a limited attempt to cover it. Albert Jennings became ‘he-who-must-not-be-named.’ So here I am, trying to bring this man back to life. It may be unflattering for the town of Wellesley, but we can’t ignore our past.

Before I get into the meat of the scandal, let me back up a bit and talk about the Jennings family in general. I don’t want to bore you, but I need to give you some understanding of the prominence of the family and why I find the ‘disappearance’ of Albert Jennings so shocking.

The best available genealogy of the Jennings family comes from Epitaphs from Graveyards in Wellesley (Formerly West Needham), North Natick, and St. Mary’s Churchyard in Newton Lower Falls, Masschusetts by George Kuhn Clarke, a Needham historian from the turn of the 20th Century. I was unable to find the name of the first Jennings to arrive in the area, but it appears that they lived in Natick as early as c. 1750. Most of the Jennings family is buried in the North Natick graveyard on Route 27 just north of Route 9. Furthermore, there’s actually a pond in Natick, just over the Wellesley border, called Jennings Pond:

See Jennings Pond to the west of Morses Pond? For the most part, your family needs to be historically important to get its own pond (re: Morse, Longfellow, Abbott). The Jennings were probably up there as well. Just as an aside, before 1797, both the pond and the graveyard were part of the ‘Needham Leg’ of West Needham. In 1797, Needham gave this land to Natick in exchange for much of the current Hunnewell property in the southwest corner of Wellesley. That’s a story for another day.

As for specific ancestors of Albert Jennings, I’ll spare you the details about most of them, but I will say that his great-grandfather, Ethel Jennings, moved to Wellesley or Needham in the late 1700s or early 1800s. And by 1856, the Jennings family came into possession of Blanchard’s Tavern, which sat on a knoll on the north side of Wellesley Square on Washington Street to the east of the Shattuck Block (the four-story building on the corner of the road leading to the Post Office). This tavern was probably the most well-known house in all of Wellesley throughout the 1800s, a landmark for any passenger. It’s been said that George Washington slept there, but that can be said of three or four long-gone houses in Wellesley and it’s even questionable if ever spent the night here! What can be said for certain, however, is that during a part of the second-half of the 19th Century, the tavern had clapboards that were painted alternately red and white and the cornices were blue with white stars. Perhaps this was for the Centennial celebrations of 1876, but that’s just my guess.

Albert Jennings was born in Wellesley about 1852 and probably grew up in this house (which around 1904 was moved a few dozen feet to the north and west when the current building on that spot — the Patridge/Kartt Block –was erected. The former tavern was razed in 1932 when the Shaw Block, which stood between it and the road, was expanded to make way for the new store of the Wellesley Fruit Company.) By 1888, Jennings lived on Grove Street two houses down from Spring Street on the site of the ’40 Grove Street’ office building. Besides serving as town treasurer, he also ran the family insurance business, started by his father, George Jennings, in the 1850s. That company was originally run out of the old tavern, but moved to the second floor of the Shattuck Block after its completion in 1889. In fact, Albert Jennings also acted as Town Treasurer from this Shattuck Block office.

OK, I think I’ve given enough background. On with the scandal…

The crime and the resulting investigation played out during the end of December 1901 into January 1902. Here’s a play-by-play of what happened. On December 30th, Albert Jennings met with Massachusetts State Treasurer Edward S. Bradford in Boston in order to cash a $5000 town note (worth about $135,000 in 2012 dollars). He presented Bradford a note that had the signatures of Wellesley’s three selectmen along with the cumulative amount of money borrowed from the town during that fiscal year ($60,000). Everything seemed legit, so Bradford gave him $4823 ($5000 minus interest). During the next week, on January 6th, 1902, Bradford was notified by a banking firm that it had purchased a $15,000 Wellesley town note from Jennings on December 31st, but the note said the town’s cumulative borrowing amount for the year was $70,000 — not the supposed correct amount of $75,000. Bradford then examined the notes and immediately questioned their authenticity. Suspecting that Jennings had forged them, he contacted the Wellesley selectmen. On January 10th in Boston, Bradford met with two of the selectmen (the third was out of town during this entire episode) and they assured him that they signed the $15,000 note, but could not say whether they signed the $5000 note. A police officer then brought Jennings to Boston to meet with Bradford and the two selectmen. And here’s what happened according to the Boston Evening Transcript of January 17th, 1902:

The State treasurer frankly stated his suspicions. Mr. Jennings denied the insinuation, and laughed the matter away as a clerical error, assuring the selectmen that it could be easily explained by an examination of his books. Mr. Jennings could not remember when and under what circumstances the selectmen had signed the note, although they could readily recall the circumstances attending the signing of the other notes, but they would not admit that they believe Mr. Jennings had committed a forgery and Mr. Jennings steadfastly repudiated that charge.

When Jennings was to meet with the two selectmen the following day to examine the books, he did not show up, but instead went to Bradford’s office in Boston with a check for $5000 in order to rectify the situation and redeem the cashed note. The state treasurer, however, refused to accept the money. When the two selectmen confronted Jennings later that evening, he lied to them, claiming that he missed their meeting because he had been called to Newton Lower Falls. And as the same issue of the Boston Evening Transcript reports:

[The selectmen] suggested that they begin on the books at once. Mr. Jennings demurred, on the ground that he had company at his house and that it was almost imperative that he should entertain them. Then it was suggested that they begin the examination on the following day. To this he again demurred, on the ground that his company would be entertained over Sunday, that he wanted to go to church, and that it was against his principles to do work on Sunday.

He was unmistakably informed that for once he would have to sacrifice his principles to the urgency of the situation, and on Sunday afternoon the inspection was begun…A record of the note for $5000 was…found in his treasurer’s books, as well as on his passbook on the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company, but in both of these cases the ink was so fresh that it had not turned from blue to black, as had the other records, and, although the note for $5000 was discounted on Dec. 30, it was not recorded on the passbook until Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, Bradford found another $5000 note cashed at the state treasurer’s office in December of 1900 that was not recorded in Jennings’ town records. At that point, the selectmen reprimanded Jennings by merely telling him he would have to step down as treasurer in the spring. To that, Jennings protested, but then confessed that he had been stock speculating and offered to repay all money taken. Unfortunately, for Jennings, his punishment doesn’t end there:

Mr. Jennings was arrested in Wellesley just before five o’clock by State Officer Rhoades after he returned from a sleighing party with his wife and a friend of the latter. There was hardly any need of the officer telling Jennings his mission, as the town treasurer guessed it the minute he laid eyes upon Mr. Rhoades, having met the latter at the State treasurer’s office last Friday night. After Jennings left the ladies, Officer Rhoades informed the town treasurer that he was under arrest. The latter simply said that he thought the matter had been hushed up and then made arrangements to accompany Mr. Rhoades to Boston on the 5:45 P.M. train and at 6:30 o’clock the prisoner was locked up in the tombs.

Albert Jennings was charged with forgery and released on bail. Unfortunately, two days later, on January 19th, 1902, he was arrested again and charged with larceny of $5000, having cashed another forged town note at a Natick bank in 1896.

Oh, if only the story ended there! In early February, as his two trials began (one at Natick District Court and the other at Suffolk Superior Court), rumors circled about whether Jennings and his lawyers were working towards getting an insanity ruling. The Boston Evening Transcript even ran an article entitled ‘Is Jennings Insane?’ Well, these rumors proved true and Jennings was declared ‘incurably insane’ by physicians and sent to the state hospital for the insane in Worcester. The trials were postponed until further notice. Flash forward four years to July 1906 and, as a headline in the Boston Daily Globe tells us, ‘Jennings Now Rational.’ Jennings was released from the hospital and taken to court where he pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. Yet, in December of that year, the court ruled once again that Jennings was insane and the case was closed.

And here’s where I lose track of Albert Jennings. I consider myself pretty good at historical research, but this guy dropped off the face of the planet. Obviously, the town was not too thrilled with all of the national attention over this incident, so I’m guessing it did everything it could to avoid mentioning Jennings. No newspaper coverage. No mention in the history books. And that makes it pretty tough to figure out what happened to him. Where did he go? When did he die? In short, I have absolutely no idea. All I know is that in 1913, the Townsman  published (by law, not by choice) a probate court notice regarding a petition by his wife that “her husband fails without just cause to furnish suitable support for her, and praying that the Court will, by its order, prohibit her husband from imposing any restraint on her personal liberty,” and requiring him to show up at the courthouse in Dedham. This must have been some kind of divorce hearing. There is also a land court notice in the Townsman in 1914  (again, published by law and not by choice) mentioning that Albert Jennings lived in Oklahoma City. So what happened to the first Treasurer of Wellesley after 1906? If someone could fill me in, I would greatly appreciate it.

But am I done with the story? Of course not! In 1906, the town was sued for $15,000 (almost $400,000 today) by Mrs. E. Adelaide Bass, who in 1900, had bought three $5000 town notes from a local note brokerage that had obtained the notes from Albert Jennings. Bass had then exchanged the notes for a new $15,000 town note at the end of 1900 and again in 1901, both of these new notes being forged by Jennings. When she tried to recoup her money after the Jennings saga, the town wouldn’t pay, claiming it wasn’t liable because the three $5000 notes were never shown to be genuine, and even if they were genuine, she voluntarily exchanged them for a forged note and that’s not the fault of the town. To complicate matters, two of the three $5000 notes were never found and the town was extremely poor at bookkeeping (no records where kept of when notes were signed or even the total amount of money the town had borrowed). I’m not really sure how the town could think that the voluntary exchange of a forged note constitutes a legal payment. Well, neither could the court, which ruled in favor of Bass, forcing the town to pay up. Actually, the town didn’t lose any money here. Its bonding company did.

So that’s the end of the story. Like I said at the beginning, the actual events may be rather mundane by today’s standards, but everyone should be fascinated by the fact that Wellesley chose to ostracize Albert Jennings and avoid mentioning the scandal in perpetuity.

As a pseudo-epilogue, I thought it would be interesting to look at the fate of Albert Jennings’ immediate family, here’s what I know:

  • Albert Jennings and his wife, Mary Frances Jennings, had one child, George Hoyt Jennings. At the time of the incident in 1902, George was a student at Harvard. For at least a few months that year, he took over his father’s insurance business before selling it to Fred O. Johnson (who was also the new town treasurer). George Jennings then moved briefly to New Jersey before settling in Fort Worth, Texas, working in the cattle industry. In 1910, he married a local Texan and moved to Portland, Oregon to continue working with cattle. He had one daughter.
  • Albert’s wife, Mary, floated around for the next decade, living first in Haverhill and then in Texas and Oregon with her son, often coming back to Wellesley for extended periods of time. I’m not sure when she passed away. In 1923, Dana Hall, which had been leasing the former Jennings home on Grove Street for some time, took ownership of the house.
  • Albert Jennings also had at least two sisters, who lived with their mother at 31 Brook Street (which still stands on the north corner of Brook Street and Hampden Street). The mother died in 1908. One of his sisters, Julia F. Jennings, was the first librarian of the Wellesley Free Library from 1887 to 1904. She passed away unmarried in 1928. Another sister, Ellen M. Jennings, had been a teacher at the old Hunnewell School on Central Street (near the fire station) and died unmarried in 1940. In 1942, Dana Hall converted the house to a dormitory, but I believe it is back as a single-family residence.

Sources:

  • Needham Map of 1856
  • Wellesley Atlases of 1888 and 1897
  • Epitaphs from Graveyards in Wellesley (Formerly West Needham), North Natick, and St. Mary’s Churchyard in Newton Lower Falls, Masschusetts by George Kuhn Clarke (1900)
  • Boston Evening Transcript: 17 January 1902; 30 January 1902; 3 Feburary 1902; 7 February 1902; 8 February 1902; 21 December 1906;
  • New York Times: 19 January 1902
  • The Lewiston Evening Journal: 12 February 1902
  • Boston Daily Globe: 25 July 1906
  • Wellesley Townsman: 27 July 1906; 7 September 1906; 21 September 1906; 8 February 1907; 10 July 1908; 26 February 1909; 25 February 1910; 3 June 1910; 14 June 1912; 28 March 1913; 4 December 1914; 7 December 1923; 23 November 1928; 22 March 1940; 2 July 1942; 9 February 1961; 7 November 1963;
  • Harvard College, Class of 1903, Decennial Report (1913)
  • History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
  • Google Maps

The Story of a Little Bridge on Cameron Street

In starting this blog, one of my main motivations is to help people recognize the historical aspects of seemingly unhistorical things in Wellesley, be it a building, a street name, or a small pond. Part of this desire comes from the fact that only the “important” people and places from Wellesley’s past are presented to the public. My frustrations about this are compounded by the sporadic occurrences of these history lessons. They only seem to pop up when there’s a fight over planned demolitions of historic buildings (e.g., the 1938 High School, the Wellesley Inn, or the old Country Club clubhouse) or during special occasions, such as the town’s birthday (April 6th) or dedications of plaques and memorials. So this blog is my attempt to bring Wellesley’s past to the forefront with greater frequency in the hopes that more people will have a broader and deeper understanding of the town’s rich history.

The first story I would like to share involves Cameron Street, the road used to access the main library and the Hunnewell Elementary School (as shown in the embedded Google map below). Currently, it runs south from Washington Street just east of Wellesley Square to Hampden Street with a length of only a quarter mile. In particular, I want to look at the stone bridge where Cameron Street crosses over the Fuller Brook. The bridge, itself, is charming, but unassuming. However, if you’re curious enough to look into the construction of this bridge, a fascinating story appears — one, no doubt, filled with juicy tidbits of Wellesley history.

To fully understand this story, you need to know what Cameron Street and the surrounding area looked like just before construction of the bridge began in 1928. So for starters, familiarize yourself with the modern geography of the area by zooming in and panning around using the above embedded Google map or click here to see Bing Maps’ MUCH COOLER bird’s eye view (which I’m unable to embed). Now that you’re oriented with the area, let’s jump back in time.

In 1928, Cameron Street was nothing more than an unaccepted private way that divided the Simons Estate to the east (which occupied the entire property between Cameron and Brook Streets from Washington Street all the way south to the Fuller Brook — now the site of the main library and Hunnewell Elementary School) and the original Dana Hall campus to the west (now the site of an office building, some parking lots, the Glen Grove apartment complex, and Bardwell Auditorium, the only vestige of the old Dana Hall campus). Additionally, Cameron Street in 1928 did not cross over Fuller Brook. Instead, it turned west about a hundred feet north of the brook and exited onto Grove Street (passing by the home of the Cameron family for which the street was named — which has long since been moved or razed).

So let’s finally talk about the significance of the stone bridge: At this time in Wellesley’s history, the town was facing serious traffic issues. A soaring population (approximately six thousand in 1920 to ten thousand in 1928) along with the increasing popularity of the automobile resulted in jammed roadways, which were laid out at a time when Wellesley was a sleepy rural community, not a bustling suburb where residents used their cars daily to get to work, go shopping, and visit friends. The main centers of town, especially Wellesley Square, were always congested. To alleviate this traffic, the town wanted to make Cameron Street an accepted public way to provide a cut-thru for drivers to get from Washington Street to Grove Street, thereby avoiding the main intersection. However, rather than laying Cameron Street on top of the existing private way, entirely north of the brook, the Town Meeting of 1928 approved a plan to construct a bridge and extend the street over the brook to Hampden Street (which connects to Grove Street).

Perhaps, this Town Meeting article passed unanimously because Helen Temple Cooke, the longtime head of Dana Hall, offered to assume all costs associated with the $15,000 project. Cooke was always deeply passionate about the welfare of the town, even lamenting over her decision in 1939 to establish Dana Hall as a non-profit institution, thus removing a hefty tax burden. From then on, she would annually gift to the town much of what she would have paid in taxes. It is not surprising then that Cooke would have no objections to covering the costs of constructing the fieldstone bridge and laying out the road.

By the fall of 1930, the road and bridge were completed and those drivers that were heading south of Wellesley Square could now get there more quickly. An epilogue to this story, however, would show that traffic in Wellesley Square was not alleviated, as the town population continued to soar. Furthermore, the construction of the Hunnewell Elementary School in 1938 made Cameron Street a less desirable cut-thru. Regardless, Wellesley today has a wonderful little bridge that tells an interesting story — one that I hope you will remember every time you drive or walk over it.

Sources:

  • The Wellesley Atlases of 1888 and 1897
  • Wellesley Townsman: 9 March 1928; 23 March 1928; 22 August 1930; 5 September 1930; 30 June 1939
  • Google Maps & Bing Maps

Brownleigh Hall (Needham)

I always feel like Grove Street doesn’t get nearly enough attention when discussing the history of Wellesley and Needham. It begins at the Wellesley Square Post Office adjacent to Town Hall and stretches two miles all the way to Charles River Street in Needham. On that journey, it passes the Wellesley Square intersection, the site of the old Dana Hall campus, the current Dana Hall and Tenacre Country Day School campuses, the former location of the Charles River Hospital, and the long-gone Ridge Hill Farms. Certainly each of these sites deserves its own post. Here, however, I’m going to focus on another historical jewel of Grove Street: Brownleigh Hall, a beautiful estate house, built in 1882, that stood for 44 years until it burned to the ground in 1926. But before we get into all those details, let’s back up several years.

During the 1870s, the southern leg of Grove Street was part of the William Emerson Baker estate. Baker, a Boston businessman who made a fortune selling sewing machines, had acquired a number of large farms in that part of town beginning in 1868. Eventually, he had amassed 755 acres (of which 125 were in what would become Wellesley). On this land, Baker built Ridge Hill Farms, an ‘amusement park’ consisting of a collection of odd attractions, as well as objects of natural beauty, including man-made Sabrina Lake, which his workers had dug out by 1876. The vast majority of the attractions were located east of Sabrina Lake on both sides of Grove Street, as well as south of Charles River Street. (A future post will delve more deeply into Ridge Hill Farms.)

For reasons unknown to me, in 1881, seven years before Baker’s death and near the peak of Ridge Hill Farms’ popularity, a section of his property on the east side of Grove Street near the intersection with Charles River Street was sold to James Wentworth Brown. Perhaps Baker needed the money to continue to finance his amusement park (which was never profitable). Anyways, Brown was president of the Walker, Stetson & Sawyer Company, a Boston firm that imported and sold all sorts of fancy dry goods and novelties — everything from fine clothing & supplies to perfumery and soaps. It even had a large manufacturing division of “print dress wrappers” and fine women’s and children’s clothing. The business was immensely successful, making Brown quite a wealthy man. This being the Gilded Age, it makes sense that Brown would want to build one of the finest homes in the Boston area. And that house was dubbed ‘Brownleigh Hall’ (pronounced and often misspelled as ‘Brownley’):

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Brownleigh Hall, late 1800s
(Courtesy of Cornell University Library)

Construction on Brownleigh Hall, which was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Allen & Kenway, began in October 1881 and ended in September of the following year at a total cost of $50,000. It was meant to resemble an English estate (with a focus on privacy and coziness), but drew heavily on the American and French desire for grand entertaining spaces. I find it amusing that it’s noted that efforts were taken to make the house not too opulent, yet here is a description of the interior space from an 1883 issue of The British Architect:

The hall (two storeys high) and corridor are finished in quartered oak; the billiard-room is finished in hard pine; the library in bird’s-eye maple; the morning-room in white pine shellac’d, and the dining-room in cherry; the chambers are finished in white pine shellac’d. The floors throughout are of oak, cherry, and hard pine.

A gas machine furnishes the house with gas, and every burner is lighted by means of electricity. The house is heated by two furnaces in the cellar, from which hot air is supplied to every room through tin pipes. Open fireplaces are also provided, the one in the hall being of stone and 5 feet wide.

Here’s a sketch of the house as it appeared in that issue:

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Sketch and floorplans of Brownleigh Hall
(Courtesy of The British Architect)

There’s not much else I can say about its grandeur that isn’t obvious from these images. For 44 years, Brownleigh Hall sat at the end of Grove Street with views west and south of rolling hills and the meandering Charles River. As for its occupants, James Wentworth Brown died of a heart attack (while in a Boston streetcar) in 1894 at the age of 68. His son, James Freeman Brown, who had his own successful dry goods firm in Boston, must have inherited the estate, but died of a heart attack-induced drowning in 1901 at a beach near his New Jersey summer house.

In 1910, the Brown heirs sold the nine-acre estate to Martin Luther Cate, who ran a successful insurance and real estate business in Boston. Cate was born and raised in New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard in 1877. He then married the sister of Edwin Upton Curtis, who was mayor of Boston in 1895.  They had five children, three sons (all of whom went to Harvard) and two daughters (one of whom graduated from Wellesley College in 1907). The use of Brownleigh Hall as their summer residence was rather brief. Cate sold it only a year or so later at nearly the same time as the death of his youngest daughter, who was a student at Vassar College at the time. (A trip to the Registry of Deeds would clear up the timing of these events.) Martin Cate died in 1924 while living in Boston.

The last owner of Brownleigh Hall was Orville N. Purdy Jr., a successful Boston wool merchant, who bought it from Cate around 1911. Not much information is easily available about him or his family.

Tragically, in April of 1926, Brownleigh Hall burned to the ground, the result of a fire that started in the third-floor attic. All that was left standing was a small section of the exterior walls and a few of the home’s six chimneys. Fire departments from Needham, Natick, and Wellesley responded to the scene, but were unsuccessful in fighting the fire — perhaps due in part to a broken crank shaft on Wellesley’s only pump truck, leaving the fire department unable to do much besides remove all of the valuable furniture from the first floor.

The Purdy family, who used the house as their winter residence, chose to rebuild on the same spot. The new home, built entirely of stone, was completed in 1929.  However, when the Great Depression hit, the costs of its upkeep were too great and in 1944, the house was torn down despite its fine condition. Orville Purdy later lived in Brookline and died in 1960 at age 82.

There’s one more historical note to add to the story of this estate. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), a small plane piloted by a British officer with an enlisted man on board crashed on the estate grounds, killing both men. (I believe this was just before the house was razed.)  According to Tom Walker, who witnessed the event as a young boy from his home on Longmeadow Road only a few thousand feet from the crash site, the teenage pilots had been stationed at the Squantum naval air base in Quincy. During a training mission, they took the opportunity to fly by this section of Wellesley and Needham to impress some local girls they had met at a dinner party here a few days earlier. The plane apparently had engine trouble, so the pilot tried to circle around to find a place to land, but went into a spin and plummeted to the ground. The plane dug a crater 3 feet deep and 15 yards long before crashing into a large tree. The explosion and fire from the impact left only twisted steel wreckage. Additionally, the machine gun and other live ammunition on the plane were set off. The resulting fire destroyed a large section of the woods, but it doesn’t appear that any homes were damaged.

Beyond that event that occurred 68 years ago, I’m unable to find any record of Brownleigh Hall or the house that replaced it in 1929. I think it’s fair to assume that the estate grounds stayed as fields and woods until the early 1990s when the area was developed into Pinehill Drive. Check out this aerial view from Google Maps:

For those of you curious about the precise location of Brownleigh Hall — it was located about 300 feet to the east of Grove Street in line with the southern edge of Sabrina Lake. Thus, its precise location today would be in the middle of Pinehill Drive, almost two houses in from Grove Street.

So I hope you now have a new found appreciation for the history of Grove Street.  There’s a lot more to discuss beyond Brownleigh Hall, but I’ll save that for another day.

Sources:

  • American Architect and Building News: Volume 14, Issue 144 of September 8, 1883
  • The British Architect: A Journal of Architecture and the Accessory Arts, Vol 20, Issue of September 14, 1883
  • Boston and Bostonians by American Publishing and Engraving Co.  (1894)
  • Boston Evening Transcript: 6 December 1894; 5 May 1906; 25 June; 25 June 1910
  • The Ancestors of the John Lowe Family Circle and Their Descendants by Ellen Maria Lowe Merriam (1901)
  • America’s Textile Reporter: For the Combined Textile Industries, Vol 15, Issue of September 12, 1901
  • 1909 Atlas of Needham by G.W. Bromley & Co.
  • The Fulham Genealogy by Volney Sewall Fulham (1910)
  • Harvard College, Class of 1877, Seventh Report (1917)
  • The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol 32 (1924)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 23 April 1926; 9 June 1944; 25 April 1946; 30 December 2010
  • Boston Globe: 25 October 1960
  • The Baker Estate or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham by Leslie G. Crumbaker (1975)
  • Google Maps

(I’d also like to thank Scott Beckwith for bringing the above photograph to my attention on the Facebook group ‘Remember when? Growing up in Wellesley…’ In trying to answer a few questions, I was inspired to research Brownleigh Hall more deeply. This post is the result. A trip to the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds is missing, but I did what I could.)