The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on June 25, 2015.
He was no Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Nor was he Rudyard Kipling or John Greenleaf Whittier. In fact, it’s possible he never wrote a single poem in his entire life.
Rather, Cyrus Washburn — the eponym of Washburn Avenue, a half-mile long dead-end street in the Poets’ Corner section of Wellesley — was a carpenter. A housewright, to be exact.
How then did his surname become part of a neighborhood whose roads are named after famous poets and writers? Well, technically, Washburn Avenue isn’t part of Poets’ Corner, a subdivision created in 1919 and largely developed during the 1920s and 1930s.
Indeed, Washburn Avenue dates back to 1884 when Cyrus Washburn laid out a private way in order to construct two rental properties — 9 and 11 Washburn Avenue — at the eastern edge of his 8-acre estate.
Confession: The story of Cyrus Washburn beyond this — at least that which involves Wellesley — isn’t especially noteworthy. After all, he was never that active in political or social affairs. But Washburn did play a small part within the history of our town’s early residential development.
In 1879, Cyrus Washburn purchased a partial interest in 111 acres of pasture and woodlands comprising most of what is now considered the Poets neighborhood. It stretched from Damien Road to Longfellow Road. His partners were former Somerville mayor William Furber and Benjamin Parker, a Boston businessman whose firm manufactured and supplied doors and windows. (Furber and Parker were brothers-in-law. Their connection to Washburn, however, remains unclear.)
Perhaps this story would be of more interest had these three men developed the Poets. But they didn’t. Instead they sold off that land long before its development, only retaining smaller parcels along Longfellow Road on which they had constructed their own residences: Washburn at #22, Parker at #29, and Furber at #41.
Quick tangent: Technically, Longfellow Road is also not part of the Poets. It was laid out at the time Washburn and Parker built their homes in 1879-80. Furthermore, Longfellow Road doesn’t refer to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but rather Nathan Longfellow, a farmer who lived at 303 Worcester Street and operated a paper mill at Longfellow Pond during the mid-1800s. (Although, for what it’s worth, Henry and Nathan were third cousins.)
Despite the fact that Cyrus Washburn was neither a poet nor played any role in the official development of Poets’ Corner, his imprint on Wellesley is not unnoticeable. Between 1880 and his death in 1899, he had constructed on his property a total of ten houses (not including his own): two on Walnut Street, five on Washburn Avenue, and three on Longfellow Road, not to mention a barn and carriage house that were later converted into dwellings. Remarkably, all these structures still stand today.
Washburn’s impact, however, was far greater outside of Wellesley — specifically in his native East Bridgewater and adopted hometown of Weymouth. It was in this latter community that, from 1840 or so until the late 1870s, he built a significant portion of the town’s residential housing — literally hundreds and hundreds of homes — in order to accommodate the families of the workers at the bustling Weymouth Iron Works. And the only reason Washburn stopped building there and relocated to Wellesley was that the town inexplicably cut down the trees in front of his mansion.
But his enduring legacy comes from his gift of $10,000 to East Bridgewater for the construction in 1897 of the town’s first public library — a Romanesque-style building that is still used for that purpose 118 years later. Such a philanthropic gesture was only possible because his numerous real estate investments in Weymouth had helped him amass a fortune of nearly $300,000. (That’s approximately $8 million in 2015 dollars. Not too shabby for a carpenter!)
So although Cyrus Washburn may not have been a poet, at least he did what he could to encourage the advancement of literacy, scholarship, and learning.