Brookline Historical Publication Society
PUBLICATIONS, NO. 11.
About The Author
Marion Louise Sharp (1878-1967), a senior at Brookline High School, was a winner of the J. Murray Kay Prize Essay for 1897. She went on to graduate from Smith College in 1901 where she won the Furness Prize for best essay on Shakespeare. She had a career as a teacher at various schools in Massachusetts.
Her grandfather, Samuel Robinson, built three house in Brookline in 1892 (two on Fairbanks St. and one on Washington St.) and owned a tannery on Washington St. At one point there were three generations living at 12 Fairbanks St. and Marion St. and her father later moved to 9 Fairbanks St. which still stands.
Three Glimpses of Brookline, In 1700, 1800; and 1900
By MARION L. SHARP
J. Murray Kay Prize Essay for 1897.1
The Last Days of Muddy River.
At the close of the seventeenth century, a little hamlet belonging to the town of Boston, Muddy River by name, was just beginning to emerge from its former obscurity, and to assert its individuality in the face of its larger and more powerful neighbors. Founded in 1630 by Boston men who had received grants of the "arable grounds and meadows" lying to the west and north of the stream called Muddy river, this settlement had remained closely connected with the larger town until the year 1686. At that time the inhabitants petitioned and obtained their request, that, whereas before this time they had been wholly under the jurisdiction of Boston, paying taxes there and having their officers appointed by the Boston selectmen, they should now be allowed to manage their own town affairs, including the maintaining of a school, and that they should be exempt from paying taxes to Boston. Later, in 1700, they asked to be made a separate town, but this petition was denied. Again, in 1704, they sent in another petition to the same effect, and were again unsuccessful. Nothing daunted, they tried once more, and a petition signed by the leading men of the hamlet, and acted upon in the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, November 13, 1705, was granted and Muddy River was incorporated as the town of Brookline.
What of this little community of people, who with the true spirit of New Englanders, thus persevered until they gained their independence? Bordering on the Charles river and Muddy brook, and with a landscape diversified with wooded hills and fertile valleys, their town was the most beautifully situated of all in the vicinity of Boston. For about half a mile west of Muddy river extended broad salt marshes where the tide rose and fell, and where were doubtless fine shooting and fishing grounds. Farther down towards Boston, Muddy river united with the Charles, and a broad expanse of water covered the present Back Bay fens. The only connection of the hamlet with Boston was by way of Roxbury, and over Roxbury neck, and even this was twice a day covered by the tide. A wooden bridge leading to Roxbury crossed Muddy river at the point where now Tremont street crosses the Parkway. Beyond the marshes, much of the land was covered with woods, except such as had been cleared for houses, pastures, and roads. Still farther back, on the hills especially, and in the south part of the town, were dense forests, which sheltered many wild animals.
The principal highway of the hamlet, called the Sherburne road, led from the bridge across the river, and followed the course of the present Walnut street, turning sharply to the right at the comer where is now the junction of Walnut and Warren streets, in order to avoid a marsh. Thence it continued a short distance, and then, turning sharply to the left, went on in a southwesterly direction as far as the boundary of the town, following the courses of the present Boylston and Heath streets. A short distance from the bridge, the Cambridge road, sometimes called the Road to Newtown, (Cambridge being originally called Newtown) branched off to the right from the Sherburne road, and skirting the edge of the marshes, continued to the Cambridge colleges. About one-eighth of a mile from the junction of Sherburne road and the road to Cambridge, the Watertown road left the Cambridge road, going west to Watertown. A short distance from the comer of the Watertown and Cambridge roads, a short lane or cart-path, called School-House lane, led from the Watertown road to the Cambridge road. There was also a private lane, leading from the Cambridge road opposite School-House lane, down over the marsh and through the woods, until it connected with another lane which led from a point farther up on the Cambridge road to the marsh. This latter was probably the same as the present Sewall avenue. Probably there was a private lane where Warren street present Warren street. Also, the fact that houses are known to have been situated on the present Cottage street, Goddard avenue, and Newton street, would indicate that there were private lanes, probably identical with the present streets, leading to these dwellings. Another lane, now Reservoir lane, led northwest from the upper part of Sherburne road straight to Watertown. This was an Indian trail, and came out, in Watertown at a village of Indians who had been converted by the Apostle Eliot. A lane leading to Cambridge or Watertown left Sherburne road a little below the junction of the Indian trail and Sherburne road. Where the old Brookline Reservoir now is, was a part of the common lands, where the inhabitants of Muddy River could pasture their cattle.
The people of this beautiful town were of the good old Puritan stock, strong, true men and women, vindicating their Puritan principles none the less in their quiet, uneventful lives, than had their ancestors who left their native land to find a home in the wilds of New England. The early history of Muddy River, like that of other New England towns, is preeminently a history of families. Large estates were often kept in one family to the seventh or eighth generation, and the men of one family were in succession prominent in town affairs, so that the family became essentially a part of the town, and its welfare closely connected with that of the community in which it was placed. Before noticing the separate families, however, let us consider the people as a whole, and the factions bound together in a common town government.
The town-meeting was of course the principal means of government. Here the inhabitants of Muddy River chose the usual officers of a New England township, which before 1686 had been chosen by the Boston selectmen; the constable, whose duties were the collecting of taxes, the announcing of public meetings, etc., the "fence-viewers," who looked after the fences, and settled all disputes as to private boundaries; the surveyor of highways; the tything-men, who were supposed to keep order in church; and the perambulators, whose care it was to see that the boundaries between the towns were clearly marked. The old town records of Boston thus carefully describe the boundary between Muddy River and Cambridge: "a walnutt, a red oake, a chestnutt by ye ash swamp, beyond ye ash swamp severall great trees, then a running water," etc. In addition to these officers, three men were annually chosen to manage the business of the town in general. Committees of four or five men were often appointed for special business, such as the laying out of highways, and the settling of church matters. In those days, church and state were inseparable. It was in the town-meeting, also, that the four petitions were drawn up and signed, and here the order of the General Court for the incorporation of Brookline was formally accepted.
Muddy River could not boast of numerous or fine public buildings. On the Sherburne road just at the corner where it turned to the right, and where probably the lane connected with it, stood a small wooden school-house. In this building was kept the principal school in the town, and this school is probably the one referred to when it was "Voted, that John Searle teach school in Muddy River from the first Monday in May, 1697, to the last day of February, 1698, ten months." Doubtless the town meetings also were held in this building. There was another school building on School-House lane, near the corner of the Cambridge road, but there is no record of its having been used at this period. This latter was probably the first school-house in the town, having been built before 1686, while the town was still wholly under the control of Boston. There was no meeting-house in Muddy River until 1715, the people attending the First Church in Roxbury, where one-fifth of the sittings were allotted to the inhabitants of this town, and where they were received as members with the same privileges as Roxbury people. Also, the old Roxbury cemetery was for many years used for burial purposes by the inhabitants of Muddy River. The old Punch Bowl Tavern which was probably built about this time, and which stood on the west side of Sherburne road, near the bridge, was a center of much of the social and political life of the town. Here stopped many people who came through Muddy River from towns west of it, and thus its fame was spread throughout the surrounding country. The two school-houses and the tavern were the only public buildings in the hamlet.
That the health and welfare of the poor was not neglected is shown by the following quaint record, which, although dated 1671, indicates the general custom of the end of the century: "Doctor Daniel Stone appointed for twelve moneths next coming... to take care of the poore of this town as to physicke and chirurgery, for which he is to have twentie shillings out of the town treasury, and to be rate free the next yeare." There was probably at this time another general practitioner in the town, Dr. Thomas Boylston, but the date of his death is not given. It was his son who afterwards became the famous Dr. Zabdiel Boylston who first introduced inoculation for small-pox into America.
The men who formed this little commonwealth were almost all farmers, cultivating the land which they had inherited from their fathers. Many of them were bound together by closer ties than those of a common government, for among the prominent names of the town appear fathers, sons and brothers, as well as many more remote relationships. Often two or three houses, belonging to different members of one family, were built on the same large estate. Let us follow some of the principal men of the hamlet from the town-meeting to their homes, and try to see them as they worked their farms or sat among their families.
Heading the list of names affixed to the petition of 1705 is that of Samuel Sewall, Jr. He was also town clerk in 1705. He came of a most distinguished family, and was the son of Judge Sewall, a very prominent man both in Boston and Muddy River. The Sewall estate extended from the Charles River to the Cambridge road, comprising many acres of marsh and woodland. The house, built by Samuel Sewall, Jr., in 1703, was occupied by him for many years, and here his father was a frequent visitor. It stood on the lane from the Cambridge road to the marsh, near the site of the present house of Charles Stearns.
Farther up the Cambridge road, on the east side, was the estate of John Devotion and Edward his son, bordering on the Sewall farm. The names of both John and Edward Devotion appear in the last petition, and both were prominent men in the town.
Farther down on the list are the names of five men, all of one family, and all much respected and prominent in town affairs: John Winchester, Capt. John Winchester, Jr., his son, Henry, probably the son of Capt. John, Josiah, probably brother to John, Sr., and Josiah, Jr., his son. John Winchester owned a large farm on the opposite side of the Cambridge road from the Devotions, and extending back over the top of the "great hill," now Corey hill. His house stood near the Cambridge road, opposite the Devotion house, and here he lived with his son. The other three Winchesters lived in the south part of the town; Henry near the meeting of the lanes which are now Cottage street and Goddard avenue, and Josiah Winchester, with his son, near the corner of the present Warren and Cottage streets.
The names of two members of an old and important family appear on this petition: Capt. Samuel Aspinwall, and Eleazer Aspinwall. Capt. Samuel Aspinwall was famed as a soldier, having gone on an expedition to Port Royal in 1690. He occupied the house built by his father, Peter Aspinwall, who came to Muddy River in 1650. The house was long known as the "old Aspinwall house," and was taken down only a few years ago. The Aspinwall farm was bounded on the north by the Sewall farm, and extended back as far as Muddy River. The private lane from the Cambridge road, opposite School-House lane, went by the rear of the Aspinwall house, and part of it is now Aspinwall avenue.
William Sharp was the only one of his family that signed the successful petition. His grandfather, Robert Sharp, had come to Muddy River with Peter Aspinwall, and had bought a large tract of land west of the Cambridge road, extending far up into the valley between the "great hill," and the hill south of it, now Aspinwall hill. The Sharp house stood near the comer of the present Harvard and Auburn streets.
The Gardner family was an old and well known family in Muddy River, Peter Gardner lived far up on the Sherburne road, above the junction of the lane which is now Warren street. His nephew Thomas, who was afterwards one of the first deacons of the church, and Thomas' son Caleb, lived farther down on the Sherburne road, opposite the present Brookline cemetery. Other members of the family owned houses on the Sherburne road near Peter Gardner's.
Three members of the White family signed the petition: Benjamin White, his son Benjamin, Jr., and Joseph White. Benjamin White was afterwards deacon of the church with Thomas Gardner, and he lived on Sherburne road, a short distance below Peter Gardner. His brother Samuel lived near the corner of the Sherburne road and the Indian trail. Joseph White was the father of Samuel, and lived a short distance below him on the Sherburne road. Major Edward White, brother of Joseph, lived on the comer of the Sherburne and Cambridge roads.
Thomas Boylston, the doctor before mentioned, and Peter, his son, lived on Sherburne road a short distance below Joseph White. Zabdiel Boylston, son of Thomas, only twenty years old at that time, probably lived there also.
Joseph Goddard and his son John lived on a lane that is now Goddard avenue, and owned a large estate extending as far north as the lanes which are the present Warren and Cottage streets. The Goddards were among the largest land-owners in the town, and afterwards became one of the most important families.
These were the principal families of Muddy River about 1700. Many of them were very numerous, and there were many inter-marriages of members of the different families, so, that they were scattered all over the town. In general, however, the north and east parts of the town were owned by the Aspinwalls, Sewalls, Sharps, Winchesters, and Devotions, and the south and west portions by the White, Gardner, Boylston, and Goddard families.
Brookline in 1800.
Let us look again after a hundred years, at the town which we left as the hamlet of Muddy River. The passing century has not materially changed the topography of the town. The same salt marshes, not yet built upon, the same forests, uncut as yet, stretch out as formerly over Muddy River. The principal roads are the same, while a few new ones have been built. One of these, called the New lane, although it is eighty years old, leads from the comer of the Watertown road and School House lane over swamp and pasture land, to the Sherburne road. Another lane (the present Clyde street) has been laid out from the "Road to Jamaica" (now Newton street) to Sherburne road. The private lanes of the last century have, some of them, become public highways, as for instance the one which is identical with Warren street, and which is now called (1800) "the road to the Brookline Meeting House," and the lane that led from Sherburne road to Cambridge, now called the Brighton road.
The old people, of course, have long passed away, but their descendants still live on the family estates, and the same old families in the third or fourth generation still influence the affairs of Brookline, as did their ancestors those of Muddy River. Nevertheless there have been many changes in the ownership of the old places, some through intermarriage, and some by purchase.
The farm far up on the Sherburne road, once owned by Peter Gardner, is now in the possession of Benjamin White, one of the numerous Whites descended from the ancient family. He has taken down the old house and built a new one on the same site.
The estate owned in 1700 by Deacon Benjamin White is now the property of Hon. Jonathan Mason, a wealthy Boston gentleman, who lives here in summer, and in Boston during the winter.
Farther down on Sherburne road, the house where lived Samuel White, the brother of Deacon Benjamin White, is occupied by Mr. John Heath, an old man who came into possession of the property by marriage, and his son Ebenezer, familiarly called Ebby. He has also a daughter Betsy.
Joseph White's old farm, on the comer of Sherburne road and the Brighton road, was bought in 1705 by the Ackers family, and has been their property ever since. It is now owned by William Ackers, grandson of the one that bought the farm, but the old house has been replaced by another.
In the old Boylston homestead lives David Hyslop, whose father purchased the estate from the Boylston family sometime in the latter part of the century. Mr. Hyslop is very wealthy, and owns much of the surrounding land.
The old Goddard place, where lived John and Joseph Goddard, is still in the hands of the Goddard family. A grandson of John Goddard, the John Goddard of Revolutionary days, and his son, John Goddard, Jr., live in the old houses and carry on the farm. John Goddard has made the place of great historical interest, by hiding cannon in his barn before the fortification of Dorchester Heights, in which he took part.
The principal representative of the Aspinwall family is Dr. William Aspinwall, grandson of Capt. Samuel Aspinwall, and much loved and respected in the town. He owns all the large farm of his ancestors, and besides this has bought land on the hill south of the "great hill." Dr. Aspinwall has a small-pox hospital down on the marsh on his old estate, where he receives many patients for inoculation. He is very successful as a physician, as well as beloved, for his personality.
The large farm of the Sharps is owned principally by Stephen Sharp, commonly called 'Squire Sharp. He is the great-grandson of Robert Sharp, brother of William Sharp.
The Sewall family has died out here, with the exception of a great-granddaughter of Samuel Sewall, Jr., who has married Edward K. Wolcott, and who lives in a house built on the same site as that of her ancestor.
The Winchester and Devotion farms have come into the possession of the Griggs family, three of whom, Moses, Stephen, and Joshua, own houses on the Cambridge road.
Beside these representatives of the old inhabitants of Muddy River, many new families have moved to Brookline, until the population is now about 600, and consequently many new houses have been built. But the old families and houses outnumber the new, and Brookline is still a town more of the past than of the future.
Such do we see the town as it appeared in 1800, and such the changes that had taken place in the old families. Among all the people, old or new, however, none was more beloved, none had greater influence in all affairs pertaining to the town, than Dr. John Pierce, the pastor of the church, and of Brookline. Dr. Pierce was a young man at this time having been settled only three years in the town, but even in this short time he had firmly rooted himself in the hearts of the people. He was not only faithful in parish work, but a historical student, and delivered several addresses on the history of this town. An amusing story is told of Dr. Pierce by his daughter. He wore his hair at this time in a long cue, such as is seen in portraits of men of the period. This cue required to be curled about once a week, and this was done by Dr. Pierce's wife until her death in 1800. After this, until he married again, in 1802, Miss Betsy Heath was in the habit of coming every Saturday afternoon to the parsonage, to curl Dr. Pierce's hair in readiness for the Sabbath.
Other important men in the town were the two deacons of the church. Deacon Samuel Clark lived on the Sherburne road, a little below, and on the opposite side from the church. His grandfather had built the church, and had been one of its first deacons. Deacon Joshua C. Clark, who was later a very prominent man in the town, was the son of Deacon Samuel Clark.
Deacon John Robinson was one of the later comers to Brookline. He and his brother-in-law, Enos Withington, had come from Dorchester in 1791, and bought land from Stephen Sharp, on the Watertown road, between the two hills. There they built two houses, which still remain, and a tannery, for they were tanners by trade. Deacon Robinson held his office for fifty-seven years, and was selectman for thirty years and representative for twelve years.
Brookline in 1800 had not grown in numbers only. Like their Puritan ancestors, whose first care was to found a church, and then a school, the people of Brookline soon after its incorporation as a town provided for the moral and intellectual growth of the community. The First Church was formed in 1715, and with this church the inhabitants of the town almost without exception habitually worshipped. Indeed, it is said that if anyone were absent from church services without a good reason, the neighbors would immediately call to inquire if he were seriously ill. The meeting-house was situated on the north side of Sherburne road, a short distance below the entrance to the "lane leading to the Brookline meeting-house." In this building, which was wholly unwarmed, the people sat through two long services each Sunday, many walking long distances to their homes, for Brookline, after the Revolution, like the rest of the country, was very poor, and few were the people who could afford carriages.
Connected with the church, and taking the place of the modern Sunday schools, were the "catechizings" which were held by Dr. Pierce once a month, on week days, during the summer seasons. At these times he met all the children of the town in the brick school house, and instructed them from the catechism, and the psalm and hymn books.
With their instruction in spiritual things, the town provided munificently, for those days, for the intellectual development of the children. Instead of the one or possibly two little wooden school houses which were used in 1700, Brookline had in 1800 at least four, though these were probably not all kept open at the same time. One was on the "road from Jamaica," near the corner of the lane that is now Clyde street, and another was situated on the Sherburne road near its junction with the present Warren street. Farther down on the Sherburne road on the site of the former wooden building, was a fine brick school house. In this building school was kept by a collegian from March to December. The ancient building on School-House lane was neglected, and fast tumbling down, but on the opposite side stood another wooden school house, which was kept open for boys from the first of December to the last of March, and for girls during the summer months. Squire Sharp was for many years a teacher in this school. Dr. Pierce was much interested in all the schools, and used often to visit them.
The old Punch Bowl Tavern was still standing in 1800, and was as much as ever a center of social life, and the place where all matters of interest were talked over. The village around it had considerably changed, and there were several carpenters' and blacksmiths' shops.
Thus we leave the quiet country town of a hundred years ago, to see it once more at the end of the nineteenth century.
Brookline in 1900.
The one characteristic of the nineteenth century, that in the future will stand out more clearly than all others, is the element oŁ change and progress in all departments, A comparison of the present Brookline with the small town at the end of the eighteenth century, affords a striking example of this. From a little community of 600 inhabitants it has grown to the proportions of a city with a population of over 16,000, though it still retains its ancient and simple form of town government- From a poor, insignificant township, scarcely holding its own place among the larger towns around it, Brookline has become, in proportion to its population, the richest town in the Country, and one of the most influential of the towns about Boston. Moreover, its influence is always on the side of the best good of the community, and its philanthropy is carried out on no mean scale. Brookline was always beautiful in its wild picturesqueness, scarcely less beautiful is it now, with its well-cared-for roads, its fine public buildings, and elegant residences. And if one involuntarily longs for the old days when all the town was pasture or woodland, and where a few families dwelt quietly on their broad farms, let him remember that utility and fitness are the essences of true beauty, and that in adapting itself to the changed conditions of a greatly increased population, and its nearness to a great city, Brookline has necessarily sacrificed some of her former charms for the good of the many.
The physical aspect of Brookline has undergone a very great change, so great in some plans of the town that there is left hardly a trace of the former surroundings. Especially is this true of the north and east portions. Where once Muddy river wound through the still marshes, there is now a beautiful parkway, with fine roads following the course of a clear stream, which flows in an artificial channel, crossed at frequent intervals by picturesque stone bridges. Where were once the thick woods beyond the marshes, there is now one of the most beautiful residential parts of the town, our Longwood, covered with fine houses and intersected by many streets. Farther west and north, where formerly extended the large farms of the Aspinwalls, Sewalls, Sharps and Winchesters, are many streets bordered thickly with houses. The names of the streets Sewall avenue and Winchester street recall these ancient families, and the beautiful Edward Devotion school, standing on the old Devotion farm, is a fitting tribute to the memory of the man who gave to the town the first donations for schools. The old Cambridge road has changed its name, and is now Harvard street. Farther west, the two hills, now Aspinwall and Corey hills, on which formerly grew thick woods, are thickly covered with houses, as is also the valley between. On the ancient Watertown road through the valley, now called Washington street, and on Beacon street, a broad thoroughfare from Boston to Newton, run the noisy electric cars.
In the south and west parts of the town there have been fewer changes, though there is much that would be strange to the land owner of a hundred years ago. Sherburne road follows the same winding course, although different portions of it are now designated as Walnut, Boylston, and Heath streets. The old Boylston, Gardner, White and Gardner estates are much the same, and some of the old dwellings are still standing. Among the latter is the old Goddard house on Goddard avenue. The streets of the south part of the town are the former private lanes leading to the old estates, and some of them have still the appearance of country roads. Indeed that whole section of the town, with its large estates and open fields, is far more suggestive of the country than of a suburb of a large city.
With the growth in population and the many changes in the physical features of the town, has come a larger growth in good government, and the better provision for the aesthetic life of the people, which has made Brookline the model of a perfect town, and the admiration of men throughout the country.
There is no longer one church for whose support all are taxed, and whose pastor watches over the whole community as his parish, having as much influence and interest in town affairs as in matters strictly ecclesiastical. Instead of this there are fourteen churches, in some cases several of the same denomination, and there is no connection between church and town government. However unfortunate such conditions may appear from one standpoint, it is evident that, under the circumstances, they are both necessary and desirable.
In educational advantages the improvements have been very great, until now the Brookline public school system is widely famed for its excellence. In place of the four small school buildings of 1800, there are fifteen school houses, almost without exception fine modern buildings, with about one hundred and twenty-five teachers. The other public buildings in Brookline are worthy of the town. A large town hall and the public library stand near the village. The establishment of an efficient health department and the erection of a new public bath house give evidence of the same liberal and philanthropic spirit as that shown by the record of two hundred years ago, "Dr. Daniel Stone appointed ........... to take care of the poore of this town as to physicke and chirurgery."
Brookline is no longer a town of the past, but of the future. The great changes of the past century are predictions of still greater changes to come. Let us hope that the future history of our town will be an evolution from lower to higher, and that the changes which will surely come may be in the line of greater and nobler attainments.
NOTE.-The maps do not pretend to be accurate, and are intended merely as suggestions of the locations of some of the principal roads and houses of the town. Most of the information used in making them was derived from a Map of Brookline from 1635 to 18~, now in preparation by Mr. Bolton and Mr. Hughes, and from Samuel Aspinwall Goddard's Recollections of Brookline from 1800 to 1810, also from Miss Woods' Historical Sketches of Brookline, and from a recent map of the town.
Printed in September, 1897