History and Tradition of Waban

— By Lawrence Watson Strong

 

[Dr. Lawrence Strong, a local M.D., was Isabel Strong's uncle. In this essay he describes Waban in 1875 as a group of farm-houses at the junction of Beacon and Woodward Streets, which was the main road to Newton Upper Falls, where you could catch a train to Boston and where the Waban kids were sent off each day to school per horse-and-wagon.

The new railroad built in the 80's was called the Circuit Railroad, because it went in a circle back to Boston where it started, so you could ride it either way and get to the same place. Beacon Street was originally named the Sherborn Road. It started in Newton Highlands, followed Woodward Street to Waban Square, and went off to Lower Falls, and from there apparently all the way to Sherborn. Waban itself was a part of Auburndale: it didn't exist independently until 1886 — J.M.]

 

 

Very likely the residents of Waban today think of that portion of Newton as an entirely new village. And so it is, but like many a city of antiquity it has risen on the ruins of an earlier civilization which was not without its glory.

I am going to draw a picture from memory and hearsay of these early times, without attempting to verify my facts by consulting authorities. Authorities would not be amusing, nor, indeed, possible for me, but I believe this account to be a fairly accurate one.

First, let me record how Waban comes by its name. My father, William Chamberlain Strong, was very active in securing the right-of-way for the Boston and Albany Railroad at the time the Newton Circuit Road was built. The location of a station here marked a potential village, and a name was required. My father had previously lived on Nonantum Hill in Brighton, where Waban, the Chief of the Indian tribe Nonantum, had his wigwam, and where Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, preached. A memorial marks this spot today. So the name "Waban" for the new village easily suggested itself to my father. I am told Waban, or Wabanoki, means "east" in the Indian tongue. The spelling of the name cannot be held to coincide with its pronunciation. I believe the pronunciation is correct and the correct spelling would be either Wauban or more probably Waughban. The error is older than the town.

My own recollections of Waban begin with 1875. It was then that my father bought a vacant farm in the section of Newton now Waban, and moved there with his family. Perhaps it may be interesting to know what Waban looked like one hundred years after the American Revolution, and not long after the Civil War. Changes then were less in a generation than today in a year, so we may suppose that this description would be applicable to the locality over several decades, at least.

Four rather large farms formed then a rough square with a common meeting point at the junction of the present Beacon and Woodward Streets. These were, southwest, the Collins farm; northwest, the Newton City or Poor Farm; southeast, the Wyman farm; and northeast, the Moffatt farm which my father purchased. These four farms form the heart of the present Waban. Two other farms to the eastward must be included, separated by Woodward Street, the northern later purchased by E...P. Seaver, and the southern by Joseph Bacon.

The Moffatt farm comprised Moffatt Hill and the surrounding land bounded by Beacon and Chestnut Streets from the present Church of the Good Shepherd to Moffatt Road. I believe Moffatt Hill to be the correct name for Waban's only hill, though a more picturesque name, "Flagstaff Hill," was in equal vogue at that time. Presumably there was a flagstaff at some time on this conspicuous hill, though I have never heard any account of it. It would be very interesting to find some reference to it. Perhaps it was the site of a Liberty Pole, or perhaps during the Civil War some patriot flaunted his colors there. Surely at the time it was a beacon in a wilderness, for even in my recollection there was no house within half a mile. Some time in the 80's the United States Coast Survey erected a tripod beacon on the crest, and used this point for triangulation. I think I was told that the crest of the hill was due west from the State House.

To the westward, just beyond the crest of the hill, and just where Windsor Road now ends, were two old cellars, and on the southern slope of the hill still stood two old abandoned cottages one formerly used as a pest house by the City Farm. This little group of four houses had its outlet to the west, entering Washington Street, Auburndale, near the present Woodland Golf Club House.

So here was a tiny hamlet, long, long since vanished without a trace. At the time of its foundation the site would seem even less familiar to a Wabanite of today, for there were two considerable ponds between the hillside and the present railroad, where the golf links are now. I said that this hamlet was connected with Auburndale, and not with the present Waban Village. In my youth all Waban was a part of Auburndale, Ward 4.

Our entire farm of one hundred acres was enclosed by a stone wall, and on half of this, that is, the length of Beacon and Chestnut Streets, the stones were carefully faced. Inside the stone wall, at a distance of ten or twelve feet, was a picket fence for the hill portion of the farm, the idea being to make a deer park out of the hill with a driveway encircling it. One thing that mystifies me in regard to this deer park, with its fence and wall undeniably existent, is that even a half-grown faun would skip it as lightly as a feather. Perhaps, however, the theory was that the deer would use the park as a sanctuary, and the fence was not to keep them in but to keep dogs and other intruders out. It amuses me to recall that years later Mr. Day of West Newton had the same idea of a deer park for this region, and that he bought the back land along the north base of Moffatt Hill and enclosed it with a wire fence. I doubt if he knew that he was repeating history. At any rate, the deer repeated by vaulting his higher fence. In practical form this deer park became a cow pasture, and there was a square milking paddock under a big oak just where the Saville and Brown houses join today.

The farmhouse which we came to occupy is the present rectory of the Church of the Good Shepherd, and has changed very little with the years. The front of the house cannot be very old, probably about the time of the Civil War, but it was rebuilt from an older structure as its sills and floor beams clearly show from the cellar, and the present kitchen was part of the original structure. I suppose the tiny eaves window close to the floor of the upper story of the kitchen (if still there) gives a hint of great age. I was told by a member of the Crafts family (Newton Highlands) that this farm was the original grant of land to John Staples, first schoolmaster of Newton, for a lot from which to cut wood, and that John Eliot, the Indian's Apostle, married Staples to his wife, Mary Crafts, from this very house.

I was also told by George Collins, Mrs. Gould's brother, that he remembered when cord wood, in its full four foot lengths, was carried into that kitchen for the winter fires. The team was backed up to the door, and a load carried in at one time. The little windows under the eaves were only a foot high and were close to the floor. The sloping roof over the kitchen left room for a tiny chamber where I used to sleep. It was out of such windows that the early settlers, lying prone on the floor, defended their homes against Indian attacks.

For the eighteen seventies and for that remote situation, the house made some pretentions of elegance, with its French doors, its Italian marble mantelpieces, and particularly for its large oval dining room, paneled in oak. The ceiling of that room was higher than that of the rest of the house, and projected into the second story, so that the "best room" over it was also somewhat grander than the rest of the house with a higher ceiling and arches at the sides.

All this new splendor was quite evidently grafted onto an originally simple farmhouse. The stairs in my time were in the front hall, running up from the back of the hall so that the landing was over the front door. This made a sloping niche facing the front door, and here was located the "register," blessed isle of refuge from the nipping cold. In the winter time the large oak dining room was abandoned, and the cozy sitting room at the left of the front door was used instead.

In the kitchen cellar was originally a large brick cistern into which water was pumped (by hand) from a well located at the left of the drive in front of the house. The big, brass-bound force pump over the kitchen sink required the exertions of a sturdy man to fill the tank in the "best room" attic. Back of the kitchen extended a series of wash rooms, preserve room, and woodshed, making a very complete "plant," as we would say today, for household economics.

The story of our farm before we came is very vague to me. I only know that it was the country estate of some gentleman who evidently had expended a considerable amount on it, and then abandoned it, traditionally on account of ill health.

At the entrance were two large wooden gates flanked, I remember, by large smoke trees. In the dooryard stood, as it stands today, a beautiful elm, and I was told by Robert Turner, my father's foreman then, that he dug that tree from "the lower part of the farm" (the present market garden) and himself planted it there, where it spreads its graceful branches wide over the house and yard.

Behind the elm was a large graveled yard in front of the big barn, brooding over the site of the present Windsor Road. This big barn (now demolished) was moved to a new site and became the Windsor Hall School for Girls, the first house from Beacon Street on Windsor Road. The building originally had a cupola, itself no mean structure, in which the wheeling pigeons reared their young. Sordid fact must admit their end in sundry pies undeniably delicious. This three-storied barn was to our childish eyes enormous, and the jump from the upper beams into the haymow brought one's stomach into one's mouth in a most satisfying way. Likewise the swing, hung midway in the long aisle, was a sure fire nauseant. A big door on a track closed either end of the barn, and an earthen ramp at the back door permitted two-horse teams of hay to enter, unload, and leave.

To the left of the barn door was a tool house, next a workman's cottage, while at right angles on the right was a large, fine carriage house with a hard pine floor and slate roof. This carriage house was the "barn" of Windsor Hall, demolished some years ago. The farm road ran from the graveled yard in front of the barn around the carriage house, and on the opposite side of this road was the kitchen yard with several large black heart cherry trees, and just at the kitchen door a nice red cherry tree in which we children largely lived at the proper season.

On the eastern side of our house was quite an elaborate formal garden with paths and a well. I remember syringa bushes and lilies of the valley. It was here that my sister planted the beans she had rubbed on my warty hands. Miraculously one morning my warts were gone, and "Margie," tiptoeing across the dewy garden, found that the beans were sprouted! (We had an Irish nurse! My middle name is Watson and I always supposed it was because I had "warts on" my hands.)


A minor structure around the barn was a cook house for the pigs, where a massive cauldron boiled all the small potatoes,and it must be admitted, scalded the pigs themselves come November and killing time. That horrid festival forms a vivid memory for me to this day, nor did the pig's bladder football, cunningly inflated with a straw by Peter, the hired man, make me forgetful of the gory murder.

A sheep shed in the rear of the barn, a cow shed next to the cow yard, and a long hen house stretching away to the west, complete the catalog of what the well appointed farm should have.

The farm road, a mere cart track, but the forerunner of Windsor Road, ran along the top of a gravelly ridge, with swamp on either side, and reaching the base of the hill it bore to the right, roughly following the present Moffatt Road. The whole southern slope of the hill was covered by an apple orchard, with a fringe of peach and pear trees along the eastern side of the present Windsor Road. The crest of the hill, shaggy with boulders, a typical drumlin, was the cow pasture, for our farm was planned primarily as a dairy farm.

Flagstaff Hill was encircled by the two arms of Cheesecake Brook, which had its headwaters in the swamps lying on both sides of the present Windsor Road. To show how much the land has dried up since then, there is the fact that a horse wandered from our barn one night and became bogged down and perished in the swamp directly behind Windsor Hall, the first house on Windsor Road. Also, the eastern branch of Cheesecake Brook, coming up through the present market garden land to end behind the present Club House, had high banks and was a good trout stream. I have known a horse to bog down in this stream also.

Where the Waban Club now stands, the land rose in a gravelly hill on which the farm boys used to cut faggots for the kitchen fire. The top of this hill my father used as fill in the swamp below. This alternation of swamp and gravel gives the key to an understanding of the early roads and the location of the various farms.

Beacon Street, from Newton Center to its junction with Woodward Street at Waban, is of comparatively recent origin. Cold Spring swamp made an impassable barrier just east of Waban. The early settlers then came along the high sand plains of Eliot, thus making the present Woodward Street (pronounced Woodard in those days). This veered to the south at Waban, while a little extension ran straight to the Staples house door, in front of which was that vast and venerable elm which finally succumbed to the march of progress. Oh, noble tree, loved in my youth, green in my memory today, what a story of Waban you could give!

As Cold Spring swamp was a barrier to the east, so the Charles River with its bordering marshes was a bar to the south, and the west bound traveler passed through the unborn Waban on his way to the ford at Newton Lower Falls. Probably this was the earliest westward route from Boston via Newtowne (Cambridge), the ford at Watertown, Newton (Center), Newton Highlands, Waban, and Newton Lower Falls, where traces of the fording place still remain and may be seen at low water. Probably the Worcester turnpike (Boylston Street) was a much later route.

When Beacon Street was put through it completed a triangle with these other two roads, and in my youth this green was of considerable size and contained some half dozen elm trees, making a pretty little lawn on which my father kept flower beds. The aforesaid march of progress has of course rectified all that!

One of the greatest beauties of Waban in my youth was the virginal stands of white pine lining both sides of Beacon Street, of which a few melancholy specimens remain today. There were also many noble oaks of massive bole, some of which fell at the coming of the railroad, or to various other engines of enlightened progress. Thus "Pine Island," a circular area of perhaps two acres rising a little above the swamp, a gem in a green meadow, and where we used to picnic on holidays, has yielded to the more remunerative cucumber. The "Oasis," a smaller, very interesting group of Scotch pines, lay in the swamp just east of the Club. Father's "Rock Knoll" was a group of oak and pine off Moffat Road. Between that and Windsor Road was a lovely grove of white oak where I once waged a successful battle with the gypsy moth.

Such were the features of our own farm, and doubtless a better informed chronicler than I would be able to tell equally pleasant or better tales of the other three main farms of Waban. I can give but the barest outline of them.
The Collins farm began at or near where the Cochituate aqueduct crosses Woodward Street and thence along Beacon Street to the west limits of Waban. It ran back to the Charles River and was bisected in its whole length by the aqueduct. It also was an alternation of glacial sand gravel and river swamp and was little used for farming. There stood first the lordly Judge Collins house, then the Gould house, next the fine old Collins house as it stands today, and lastly the Queen Anne George Collins house (all demolished but the third).

Across Beacon Street from the Collins farm was the Newton City (Poor) Farm, a big rambling wooden structure with a big barn. Everyone was glad when these were demolished and the farm moved. They were torn down in 1902. I remember one or two visits to this dreary house of charity with its institutional smell and depressing plainness.

The Wyman farm occupied the great triangle formed by Beacon, Chestnut, and Woodward Streets, with an orchard on the south side of Woodward Street from Chestnut to the aqueduct. On this farm were four small ponds, large enough for skating, however, and all the joys of wading, boat sailing, and turtle hunting in summer. Sweet flag root and wild mint grew in the pond in the deep hollow next to the old Wyman house. This house was remodelled somewhat by Prof. Langford Warren, later by Mr. LeRoy Phillips, but still presents its old-time atmosphere.

A second Waban brook had its headwaters in the swamp south of the Wyman orchard. This crossed Chestnut Street to run through the Bacon farm, and, recrossing Chestnut Street at the Dresser farm, made its way into the Charles River. Trout were in this stream, too.

The Woodward farm should have a chronicler of its own, but I remember that the Woodward boys' great, great aunt, Miss Hattie Woodward, then in her old age, told me that the oak beams of the frame of the house were brought from England. This is not as fantastic a tale as it appears, for it was not for lack of wood but on account of the great reputation of English oak. I also remember being told that there were Indian graves in the Woodward yard.

Another little group of houses present in my childhood, but no longer on the site, was at the crossroads of Beacon and Chestnut Streets, with one house occupying the little triangle formed by the short diagonal road.

Another fragrant memory of my youth surrounds the two glue factories, one on the south bank of the Charles and the other on the Bacon farm. These industries, feeling themselves not wholly loved, withdrew before the march of progress. One more institution of somewhat dubious repute was relegated to the backwoods of Waban, namely the Pine Farm School for Wayward Boys, located at Chestnut and Fuller Streets. Those poor little tykes would sometimes run away from the school, only to be retrieved by some one of the farmers.

The Circuit Railroad was begun in the fall of 1884, and this marks the change from a farming community to the ultimate development of a village. Anent the name "Circuit," that evidently means so little to the citizens of Newton today, with their motor cars, that there was no protest when the Boston and Albany Railroad deliberately chopped it in halves at Riverside. The very purpose of the "Circuit" was to unite the Southern and Northern Newtons, and it was with this pledge that the right-of-way was donated through the adjacent farms. To carry the children to high school, and to carry the local Solons to the City Hall, were the main objects of the railroad. You should picture the Newton of those days as a ring of villages around a very large uninhabited center. I was amused at the specious arguments given at that hearing for abandoning the Circuit which originally ran from Boston to Boston, but now makes Riverside the terminal.

In laying out Windsor and subsequent roads, my father thought of beauty even more than of utility, and, in addition to planting at once as large trees as possible, he insisted on a rather narrow roadway of gravel with a wide border of grass on each side of it. This grass he kept mowed to lawn smoothness and brightened with beds of cannas and salvia, flowers which, it must be confessed, his descendants did not greatly appreciate. Indeed, in later years, the expense of making these roads conform to city regulations in the matter of sidewalks was considerable, but let us dwell on the years when the road was a pleasant country lane and not a glaring, gravelly desert.

The first of Waban's modern settlers were Mr. William Saville, Mr. Alexander Davidson, Mr. Frank A. Childs, and Mr. Louis K. Harlow. Great was the excitement and elation when their homes began to rise on "Moffatt Hill." I wonder if that name is ever used today?

What new life and happiness came with the advent of those three families! Few there remain to remember the Sunday evenings in the studio of Louis Harlow when the chafing-dish was in its glory. Or who remembers the dauntless trip of the Viking Saville and his boyish crew, the first to go by motor boat from New York to Boston to win the Rudder trophy? And dear Alexander Davidson! A sweeter soul ne'er breathed! It is more than two decades since he left us sorrowful. After these beginnings, there came settlers in quick succession—the Buffums, Charles and William, the Comers, Winchesters, Flints, Shepleys, and others. The names begin to crowd so that I must cease to catalog.

The development of the village was by no means rapid, even with the stimulus of the station, but its start was most auspicious and favorable. The caliber of the first newcomers determined the future course, and is responsible for what Waban is today.

During his life in Waban, my father was always a leader in the community, willingly devoting his time, energy and money to its development. Among his many interests was the building of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which still stands today and for which he gave the land, and it is fitting that the original farmhouse has now become the rectory.

His interest in the town's walks and trees and flowers is a precious heritage and a tradition to be carried on by future generations in preserving the beauty of Waban. My father built for the coming years and in that he was wise.

 

Back to Waban Early Days