Forgotten Wellesley Citizens: Moses Grant

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 2, 2015.

Moses Grant (1785 - 1861) Source: The American Temperance Magazine (1851)

Moses Grant (1785 – 1861)
Source: The American Temperance Magazine (1851)

He’s the only individual who once had an entire village in Wellesley named after him. Indeed, from the mid-1840s until the Town’s incorporation in 1881, Wellesley Hills — specifically the area around Washington Street from Forest Street to Oakland Street — was officially known as Grantville. Surely this forgotten citizen must have been quite instrumental to the village’s early development, right?

Well, maybe not. Moses Grant’s sole contribution was to provide a bell for the newly constructed chapel on the site of what is now the Hills Congregational Church. Doesn’t it therefore seem a bit too generous on the part of the residents to name the entire village after him? But that’s how the story has been told for over a century.

Here, judge for yourself: The story begins in 1846 when a group of parishioners who had split from the Wellesley Village Congregational Church chose this small, almost nonexistent village in what was then North Needham to establish their own religious organization — the Orthodox Trinitarian Congregational Church. At the time, this village consisted of nothing more than a handful of houses and farms, a store or two, a tavern, and a railroad station. But there wasn’t any church, not even any district school. In fact, the village can be best thought of as a pit stop for travellers along the Worcester Turnpike, which ran right through what is now Wellesley Hills Square.

Why they settled on this location for their new church is unknown. It could’ve been that some of the members lived there and just wanted the church to be close to home. Or maybe this group desired its own area of town, far from Wellesley Square or Lower Falls where the only other churches — the Village Church and St. Mary’s — were located. Remember, this was still during a time when the church and village life were very much linked. Less competition from other religious groups meant more power for the church.

It’s therefore not outlandish to think that someone providing a substantial gift to the church would lead to the renaming of the village after that person. But is a bell substantial enough?

In actuality, the story must have been more complicated than that. Multiple historical records, after all, refer to this village as Grantville at least one full year prior to the time he gifted the bell to the church in November 1847. Maybe Moses Grant was more involved within the community than previously thought.

Indeed, Grant had at least some association with the surrounding area as far back as 1809, when he joined his father as a partner at one of the paper mills in Newton Lower Falls. (They made glazed book board.) And although it appears his primary residence was always in Boston, his connection to the village became stronger in 1826, when he brought on George K. Daniell as a junior partner at the mill. Daniell, whose immediate family lived in the yellow saltbox colonial at the east corner of Oakland Street and Washington Street, would later marry Grant’s adopted daughter (and only child), Hannah.

This may explain why, in 1842, Moses Grant constructed a large home — a summer estate? A residence for his daughter and son-in-law? — at the southwest corner of Worcester Street and Oakland Street. (In 1903, the house was moved further back on the property to what is now the south corner of Grantland Road and Oakland Street — where it still stands today — to accommodate the widening of Worcester Street.)

All that said, none of this provides any evidence that Grant was active in political or social affairs within what would become Grantville — at least enough to justify renaming the village after him.

So let’s consider the following hypothesis: Perhaps this small village took on the name Grantville simply because people started associating the area with him. This isn’t a very novel idea. In fact, West Needham Village — now Wellesley Square — was first referred to as “Wellesley” in the 1850s because of that village’s association with Horatio Hunnewell’s summer estate, Wellesley, that was located on Washington Street near the South Natick line.

But what about Moses Grant was so distinguishable? Well, first and foremost, he was almost certainly the village’s wealthiest resident. It was what he did with his money, however, that made him nationally renowned. Deeply concerned about the destitute and sick, Grant became one of the region’s greatest philanthropists, providing significant funding to such organizations as the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, the Home for Aged Men, the Farm School for Indigent Boys, and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

He was most involved, however, in organizations that promoted temperance — that is, the abstinence from the consumption of alcoholic beverages. (It is believed that this issue became so important to him after witnessing firsthand the detrimental effects of alcohol among the employees at his paper mill who relied on it to keep warm at work during the winter.)

All throughout his adult life — at least from the 1820s until his death in 1861 — Grant led rallies all over the Northeast on the issue of temperance and prohibition. Possessing great zeal and blessed with a simple, yet persuasive speaking style, he was able to motivate his fellow supporters like few others could.

Unfortunately for Moses Grant, temperance reform never did occur during his lifetime. The liquor manufacturers just had too much control over the politicians. And by the time the prohibition movement gained momentum decades later, he had died. Other temperance leaders therefore got all the credit when the Eighteenth Amendment took effect in 1920.

Similarly, here in Wellesley, Grant — whatever his actual role was within the early development of Grantville – was largely ignored in the years following the separation of Wellesley from Needham in 1881. Okay, so few people ever thought that Town leaders should have kept the name “Grantville.” But maybe they could have tried a little harder to preserve the legacy of Moses Grant.