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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5 thoughts on “An 1850s Journey Down Wellesley Avenue

  1. Great blog- fascinating information you have put together. Reading your post about Wellesley Ave. has me wondering if you came across any interesting facts or photos of our house, which I’ve been told is the original Hewins Farm house (#5). As the story goes, the house faced Forest St, until the late 1980’s or so, when the property was sold and a developer built our street and the houses on it. Our house was essentially flipped, with the back becoming the front and facing the new Hewins Farm Road. Any insight into this?

    • Tom — I absolutely love your house. The developers could have razed it, but chose to renovate and save history. For starters, I would check out this Townsman article if you haven’t seen it http://digital.wellesleyfreelibrary.org/1988/#/288/zoomed
      I know the Historical Society has many old photos taken during the construction of the Hewins house, so I would contact them. And I think a simple google search would shed some light on the Hewins family. I’ll see what I can find.

      • Thanks for pointing me to the Townsman article. Seems we were off by about ten years on the age of the house (we thought it was 1894, not 1904). I’ll contact the Historical Society for a look at the photos…it is a great old house, we feel like caretakers here. Interesting picture in the article, also. Now I know what it looked like without the current garage.

    • Interesting — so I guess he was either living in Wellesley before he built your house or knew KLB through some other way. I know that she wrote ATB as a hymn or poem and published it in a magazine (obviously without music).

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