The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on October 16, 2014.
If you were asked to name ten people who lived in Wellesley over a century ago, could you do it? Probably not, right?
The reason for this is quite simple: our local history has never gotten the respect it deserves. Beginning long before Wellesley was incorporated in 1881, its residents have looked forward, not backward. As a result, with the exception of those individuals whose names grace our school buildings, prominent citizens from our distant past have been all but left behind.
Of course, this isn’t to say that it has been wise for us to ignore them. After all, these men (and a handful of women) were the Town officials, educators, developers, and community leaders who helped Wellesley evolve from a farming community into an affluent suburb. Perhaps their wisdom and the principles that guided their actions could have helped us avoid many of the problems we’ve faced over the years.
This post is therefore the first in a semi-recurring series that will briefly examine some of these notable citizens.
Our first individual is Lyman K. Putney.
The only reason his name may be somewhat familiar is because of Putney Road, a short street near his first permanent residence in Wellesley — the pink farmhouse at 161 Oakland Street close to the entrance to Centennial Park.
Lyman Putney, however, did more than just own a farm. In fact, he played a pivotal role in the separation of Wellesley from Needham. Serving as the State Representative for the Ninth Norfolk District – which included the entire Town of Needham – Putney was able to help organize a petition by the residents of West Needham and bring it to the floor of the Legislature in 1880. (Joseph E. Fiske, however, was chosen to present the petition to the Legislators.)
Putney was also one of the first three Selectmen after the Town’s incorporation. For eight years, he was asked to make important decisions as Wellesley sought its footing and developed its public schools, infrastructure, and system of governance. Although deeply fiscally conservative, Putney was always able to see the value in committing to progressive undertakings that would provide the town a better future.
No doubt, this was a skill that Putney had picked up years earlier as a founding partner of a teamster company in Boston that he helped grow into one of the leading shipping firms used in the shoe and leather trade. (In fact, he had to lead the business through that process a second time following its complete destruction in the Great Boston Fire of 1872.)
In addition to his career in business and politics, Putney was also quite active in real estate development in Wellesley Hills. Two specific developments are worthy of note.
The first is the three-story Putney Block on the north side of Washington Street in Wellesley Hills Square (in which Nick’s Pizza is currently located). One of the largest buildings in Wellesley Hills at the time it was constructed in 1887, this commercial block served as a catalyst for further development within this village center. (A circa 1920 remodeling greatly changed the appearance of the structure.)
The other notable development is what was affectionately known as Putneyville. Located along Washington Street, Seaward Road, Abbott Road, and Bemis Road, this area was developed by Putney from 1890 until his death in 1902 into the site of four duplexes, thirteen single-family dwellings, and the Lyman Apartments (the large brick building directly opposite the end of Cliff Road). Much of Putneyville, however, no longer exists, as more than half of its structures were moved or razed to make way for the Fraser Medical Building, the two banks at the corners of Abbott Road, and their vast parking lots.
So despite the lack of recognition of and appreciation for Lyman Putney today, there is still much we can learn from the man. First and foremost, he was able to show time and time again that significant obstacles can be overcome if one has the appropriate amount of persistence.
But perhaps more importantly, Putney teaches us that the Town and its citizens should always think critically about the consequences of our present actions. Only through deep consideration will we be able to determine what is best for our long-term future.