The earliest memory I have of wanting to know more about Wellesley’s history is when I entered Fiske Elementary School for the first time in the Fall of 1989. I had just moved from West Newton and now I was surrounded by unfamiliar people and places. Quickly, however, I found comfort away from home in my new elementary school. And it wasn’t just the building and the people in it that helped me deal with my new environment. It was also the name: the Joseph E. Fiske Elementary School. It might sound really stupid, but I felt more at ease because I shared with this Fiske guy for whom the school was named a first name beginning with the letter ‘J’. Yeah, I know…that makes no sense. But I was six years old and much of what was going on in my head was nonsense. Regardless, I felt an attachment to Joseph E. Fiske. Yet, in my five years at the school, I can’t recall one time that any of my teachers or administrators told me anything about the man. I didn’t even know what his middle initial stood for. Well, twenty years went by, and I finally had enough of not knowing much about the namesake of my elementary school. So I dug deep and sought an answer to my question of who was Joseph E. Fiske.
Turns out, this guy was a big deal. Like if I had to name the top five most important citizens in all of Wellesley’s history, Fiske would be up there. And boy, did he have a ridiculously fascinating life: born into an important family whose roots in the area date to Puritan times, educated at Harvard, fought against the Confederacy and ended up as a prisoner-of-war in the South, returned to Wellesley to start a family only to lose his first wife during childbirth, entered into politics and led the fight for separation from Needham, and once Wellesley was born, became one of the largest property dealers during the town’s transition from rural community to suburb. I’m shocked his life hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Well, here’s my best attempt at bringing Joseph E. Fiske to the big (computer) screen.
Joseph Emery Fiske was born in what is now Wellesley on October 23, 1839, but the story of his ancestors in Massachusetts began over two hundred years earlier when Nathan Fiske (his great-great-great-great-grandfather) came here from England in 1636 and settled in Watertown (which was then comprised of Watertown, Cambridge, Belmont, Waltham, Weston, and Lincoln). How the Fiske homestead came to be in Wellesley is a bit confusing. In 1778, Enoch Fiske (a prominent citizen of Natick and the great-grandson of Nathan) bought 200 acres of land in the Hundreds Woods, in the general vicinity of Carisbrooke Road, Woodlawn Avenue, and Hundreds Road. It wasn’t until 1804 when he built a farmhouse on the property for his unmarried son, Isaiah. When Isaiah finally married in 1831, he moved to Maine with his new bride and sold the homestead in 1833 to his second cousin, Emery Fiske, who had been residing in Dedham. Six years later, Emery’s son and the subject of this post, Joseph Emery Fiske, was born in that farmhouse.
Joseph E. Fiske’s life started out rather uneventful. His mother, Eunice Bacon Morse of Natick and a descendant of the families for whom Morse’s Pond and Bacon Street (in Natick) were named, gave birth to eight children, but only two survived beyond infancy, Joseph being the youngest of those eight. He was educated at the local public schools, including the ‘Little Red Schoolhouse‘ in what is now Needham, until 1852 when he enrolled at an academy in Falmouth and then was fitted for college at the school of N.T. Allen in West Newton. (There was no high school in Wellesley until 1865, so most students desiring a college education went to the Allen school.) Fiske entered Harvard in 1857, graduating in 1861.
That fall, he enrolled in the Andover Theological Seminary in Newton, but left in the summer of 1862 to enlist in the 43rd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. He was soon ordered to Beaufort on the coast of North Carolina, where his company was put on garrison duty far from the battlefields. Fiske also had the additional assignments of being post chaplain and his company’s orderly, which kept him busy throughout the day, but often left him with little to do when the soldiers at the fort were off fighting. This frustrated Fiske, who noted, “I would rather run my risk of getting killed or wounded than of missing the sight of a big battle.” Unfortunately, not much changed until June of 1863 when he was ordered back to Boston on recruiting duty. And things still didn’t get any better when Fiske returned to the South in December and was put in charge of Fort O’Rourke in Norfolk, Virginia, a job similar to what he had been doing in Beaufort but on a much larger scale. But all this would change in February of 1864 when he was transferred to Fort Gray along the banks of the Roanoke River in Plymouth, North Carolina. This fort was threatened by Confederate forces, who wanted control over the river and thus the ability to resupply soldiers within the interiors of North Carolina and Virginia. Unfortunately for Fiske and the Union, the CSS Albemarle, a Confederate ironclad ram, was successful against the Union naval defense surrounding the fort, leaving it more vulnerable to enemy fire. In April, the fort and town were surrendered to the Confederate forces and Fiske was taken as a prisoner-of-war. For ten months, he was held in South Carolina and Georgia prisons before successfully escaping in February of 1865. A free soldier once again, Fiske joined Sherman’s Army in the middle of its march through the Confederate States and was put on the staff of Major General Francis Preston Blair. He would remain in that group for a month before being allowed to go home, leaving Sherman’s Army a mere month before the Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War. After two and a half years of service, Fiske had been promoted all the way to Captain. Not too shabby for a volunteer with no military training.
Once back home in Wellesley, Fiske chose to finish his degree at the Andover Theological Seminary. However, instead of entering into the ministry when he graduated in 1867, Fiske returned home to care for his elderly father and start a family. Tragically, in 1871, his new wife of two years died after the birth of their first child, Nellie. Unfit to provide for his daughter, Fiske gave up Nellie to his wife’s sister and her husband, Charles Wilder (who was a very successful and wealthy paper manufacturer and lived nearby on the current site of the main parking lot of the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church — the Wilder house later served as its parish house until it was destroyed by a fire in 1948, though the former Wilder barn was moved to the rear of the parking lot where it still stands today). The Wilders were childless, having lost their two-year-old son the previous year, so they were more than happy to care for their niece. The following year, Fiske remarried and soon had another daughter, Isabel. It wasn’t long after that before little Nellie rejoined her father and his family.
Now that his home life was more stable, Fiske chose to enter into politics, serving locally as Needham Selectman from 1873-77. He was also elected to the Massachusetts Legislature, first serving as a Representative from 1873-74 and then as a Senator from 1876-77. Needless to say, these were very important times during Wellesley’s history as it worked to separate itself from Needham. And Fiske certainly had an intimate role in the process. Besides being a liaison between Wellesley and the Commonwealth, he was probably sought for advice by town leaders more than any other citizen. In 1880, Fiske was even chosen to announce to the Legislature that Wellesley was going to submit a petition requesting separation from Needham and incorporation as a new town. That following year, the town of Wellesley was born.
Fiske also took an active role in developing the local public schools, helping transform them into models of modern education. His most profound influence was from 1876-79 when he served on the School Committee (which more or less ran the entire school system at the time). During these years, he would make unannounced stops at the schools and quiz students, asking such annoying questions as ‘Is three times zero equal to three or zero?’ Or he would ask the kids to turn around completely, and when they only went around halfway to face the opposite direction, he would admonish them for not doing a full 360° turn. Fiske’s quizzes, however, were not as terrifying as they seem. At one visit, he secretly had little kittens in his pockets, which began to peek out as he lectured at the children. Surely, such a display of cuteness would overwhelm any intimidation brought forth by Fiske. He may have valued education over all else, but he had a soft heart and was attuned to the sensitivities of young children.
By the early 1880s, Fiske’s life had shifted away from politics and he spent the next two decades in real estate. By buying and selling land, he was able to influence how certain properties were used, which was crucial as Wellesley began its transformation into a true Boston suburb. And although he was removed from the political arena, Fiske was still consulted by town leaders on all kinds of matters related to the development of Wellesley. His service, however, did him in, as he collapsed after moderating a meeting and never fully recovered. Joseph Emery Fiske died at the age of 73 in 1909 in the same house on Woodlawn Avenue in which he was born.
The Fiske name, however, never left Wellesley. For starters, the Fiske homestead still stands near the end of Woodlawn Avenue, though it looks nothing like what it did when he lived there — after it was sold out of the family in 1936, the old farmhouse underwent an extreme renovation that included a 90° rotation. But the Fiske name, of course, is most closely associated with the schoolhouse on Hastings Street. This building, however, was not the first Fiske School. The original Fiske Grammar School was actually located on the site of Ouellet Park on Cedar Street. Built in 1892, the school closed in February of 1954 when the current Fiske School was completed (the old school was razed in 1962).
I hope you all now understand why I believe that Joseph Emery Fiske was one of the greatest citizens this town has ever had. His intelligence, patriotism, leadership, and sagacity helped shape Wellesley (and the country) during its most fragile period. Fiske was a true hero in every sense of the word. And I’m darn proud to have attended the elementary school that bears his name.
- First Triennia Report by Harvard College, Class of 1861 (1864)
- Harvard University in the War of 1861-1865 by Francis Henry Brown (1886)
- Fiske and Fisk Family by Frederick Clifton Pierce (1895)
- War Letters of Capt. Joseph E. Fiske by Joseph E. Fiske (1900)
- Ware Genealogy: Robert Ware of Dedham, Massachusetts, 1642-1699, and his Lineal Descendants by Emma Forbes Ware (1901)
- Wellesley Townsman: 26 February 1909; 19 April 1929; 4 May 1934; 11 February 1943; 4 March 1943; 30 December 1948; 13 March 1952; 4 February 1954; 19 April 1962;
- History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
- Report by Harvard University, Class of 1861 (1915)
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
- Images of America: Hartford, Vermont by Frank J. Barrett Jr. (2009)
- Wellesley Historical Commission Files – #126 Woodlawn Avenue
- findagrave.com: Isaiah Fiske (accessed in January 2013)
- Needham Public Schools (accessed in January 2013)