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- Annals and Reminiscences of Jamaica Plain - 1/6 -
Annals and Reminiscences of Jamaica Plain
By Harriet Manning Whitcomb
This sketch was prepared by request to be read before the Jamaica Plain Ladies' Tuesday Club. Subsequently a desire was expressed to have it put in a more permanent form and offered for sale at a Fair for the Jamaica Plain Indian Association. Although personally reluctant to appear before the public in this way, I have allowed my desire to aid a good cause and give pleasure to my friends who have kindly received my paper to influence me in its publication.
I am indebted to "The Memorial History of Boston" to Drake's "Town of Roxbury," to Dr. Thomas Gray's "Half-Century Sermon," and to the memory of a few of the older residents for some dates and incidents given.
If any of these should prove to be inaccurate, I must rely upon the charity and courtesy of my readers for only indulgent criticism.H.M.W.
ANNALS AND REMINISCENCES OF JAMAICA PLAINTo collect and review the circumstances and events which have made our homes and those of our ancestors for many generations is more than a pleasant service. We find an interest and fascination in every step of the way, leading us, as it does, into one of the most delightful portions of our country, and introducing us to not a few of the most refined and cultivated, as well as distinguished people of New England.
There is ever a charm about old-fashioned people and places, as about old books and pictures, antique furniture and china; they affect us by the very contrast they afford with ourselves and our surroundings, even though it is with a touch of pathos and sadness.
Long years ago a much-traveled man, who knew the country well, said, "Jamaica Plain is the Eden of America." He was not a Bostonian, and our village was still a part of Roxbury, so that the suggestion of conceit and boasting over this small portion of "the Hub" could not be imputed to him.
It has often seemed to us that the loving, favoring smile of heaven rested peculiarly upon our plain, environed as it is by gently rising hills, which, with their robes of verdure and noble trees, shelter it from harsh winds, and hold it in the warmth and freedom of a pure health-giving atmosphere. Our charming lake, covering more than sixty-five acres, nestles like a gem in its western borders, mirroring forms and colors, all of beauty, and holds upon its banks some of the most delightful of our homes.
In early days it gave of its clear, soft waters for the needs of the neighboring city; while through the eastern portion of our village the quiet Stony River made glad the farms and yielded power for mill and factory.
We find that the name originally given to out village was Pond Plain, but as early as 1667, it is referred to in an official paper as the "Jamaica End of the Town of Roxbury."
There are differing opinions as to the origin of the present name; some have so far reflected upon our colonial ancestors as to intimate that a decided fondness for Jamaica rum suggested it, and it is doubtless true that the punch bowl had other uses than to be simply ornamental on the sideboards of our grandsires. Others, however, believe that it was given to commemorate Cromwell's acquisition of the island of Jamaica, in 1670, which secured to Boston numerous very valuable products. There seems, to us, to be a peculiar appropriateness to the name, as it signified in Indian "Isle of Springs," because if the brooks and springs which abound here, making the land verdant and fertile. If we cannot to-day boast of grand and stately castles, reared in the olden time, as in the mother country, with guarding moats and bastions, loopholes for crossbows and guns, -- silent testimonials of opulence and power, -- we yet can bring to view pictures of many a dwelling, gray and brown with weather stains and lichens and folds of ivy, which have held within their walls of oak and cedar people and events whose records thrill our hearts with patriotic pride or affectionate reverence.
In early times our village was chiefly an agricultural community, and the cultivation of fruits and vegetables for the city supply was the specialty; but here and there were elegant countryseats occupied by government officials, professional and literary men, and city merchants. Some of these homes and people we hope to see, by favoring records and memory's aid, this afternoon.
Until within a short time, near the Boylston Station, stood a very ancient building, with a pitched roof in the rear sloping nearly to the ground, known as the "Curtis Homestead." It is claimed that this was one of the oldest houses in our country, and that, in 1639, William Curtis made a clearing in the forest for it, using timbers in its construction from his felled trees. The record is that William Curtis marries Sarah Eliot, sister of Rev. John Eliot, in Nazing, England, in 1618, and that, in 1632, they came with their four children to Boston, and it is believed that most of those who bear the name of Curtis in our country are direct descendants of this William and Sarah. For about two hundred and fifty years this house was the home of the Curtises, the last occupants being the widow and children of Isaac, seventh in descent from William.
During the siege of Boston, troops were quartered here and added their record of strife and suffering to that of domestic peace and happiness, in which the "Apostle Eliot" and his estimable wife often shared; and possibly Winthrop, Pynchon, and the Dudleys, and others whose names stand as pioneers of religious liberty in New England.
Emerson aptly said, "There has never been a clearing made in a forest, that did not let in the light on heroes and heroines."
A few years since, the march of improvement, so called, obliterated this genuine relic of colonial days, with the fine old elm, which for more that a century had shaded it and wafted kindly breezes over it.
Although we have no knowledge that the Apostle Eliot ever lived in the "Jamaica End of Roxbury," he is closely identified with our early history and development, and deserves more than a passing notice. In 1689 he gave some seventy-five acres of land, including the tract lying from Orchard to Thomas, and from Centre to Pond streets, "the income from which was to be used for the support of a school and a schoolmaster." The street, hall, and schoolhouse, which bear his name, commemorate his generous gift. This noble man stands out in those early days as a beacon of godliness, for education, and for trust in philanthropy. Perhaps, in no sphere of his remarkable life does he more command our admiration and reverence that as the friend of the Indian and the Negro. His untiring zeal and self-denying labors on their behalf entitle him to be called "the Apostle."
In a letter to a friend in 1659, he writes: "Pity for the poor Indian, and desire to make the name of Christ chief in these dark ends of the earth, and not the rewards of men, were the very first and chief movers in my heart." Nor can we question that these were the all controlling motives, when we consider that after acquiring their language, by the aid of a young Pequot, he translated the entire Bible into their tongue, besides a Psalter, primers, grammars, a and other useful books; and all this in addition to faithfully fulfilling the duties of minister of the First Church in Roxbury for fifty-eight years, a record of devotion, diligence, and scholarship almost unequaled.
One has beautifully summed up his life in these words: "His missionary zeal was not less that Saint Paul's, his charity was as sweet as that of Saint Francis d'Assisi, and his whole life a testimony that the call to saintliness has not ceased and the possibility of it has not died out." Eliot lived to see the fruits of his devoted work in the changed character and life of many Indians. More than two centuries have elapsed since this leader on the Indian cause went to his reward, but his mantle rests to-day on some here who deeply feel the need and love that work in behalf of the poor Indian.
In 1663 our Centre Street was laid out and called the Dedham road or highway, being a direct route from Boston, by way of "the Neck" and Roxbury Street, to Dedham. At that time and for more than one hundred and fifty years after traveling was by horseback, by private carriage, and by the stagecoach. Those who were unable to own horses or pay stage fares walked to and from Boston, often heavily laden.
The accommodation stages would stop for passengers along the route, blowing a horn as they approached the dwelling, wherever a signal had been placed for them. The express stages, used chiefly by business men, running from Providence and the New York boat, took no heavy baggage, required double pay, and made stops only as they needed relays of horses. Four such changes were made from Providence to Boston, and the journey was completed in about four hours. In 1826 the first Jamaica Plain hourlies began to run; the fare was twenty-five cents. They started from Mr. Joshua Seaver's store, and would call for passengers in any part of the village as requested in the order-box.
Mr. Seaver's store, established in 1796, stood on slightly elevated ground farther back from the street than the one now occupied by his grandsons, and connected with his dwelling.
Here, also, was the village post-office for many years, and the favorite meeting-place of the townspeople to discuss local interests, indulge in pleasantries, as well as exchange their coins for fine groceries, small wares, and farming utensils. Our grandparents of that day folded their quarto sheets, sealed, stamped, and addressed them, and paid twelve and one-half cents for the privilege of sending then on their mission. The advent of the two-cent postage stand and the one-cent card was not then dreamed of.
Entering Centre Street at the Railroad bridge, frequently confounded with the historic Hog's Bridge, which formerly spanned Stony Brook near Heath Street, we see on the right all that remains of the once extensive and very beautiful estate of the Lowells, a family among the most honored in our State for character, learning, and culture. The original house, built of stone in the latter part of the last century, was modeled from an old castle in Europe, and became the property of Judge John Lowell in 1785, who resided here until his death in 1802. He was President of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, and his extensive grounds were largely devoted to the cultivation of a variety of the finest fruits and plants. His son, Hon. John Lowell, inherited this estate and the talent and fondness for horticulture and agriculture, and added several fine glass houses, which he filled with rare and beautiful plants, many of them imported from Europe and other foreign lands. He erected the present commodious mansion. The aged lady who occupied the house until recently was a sister of Dr. Charles Lowell, once minister of the West Church, Boston, and father of Hon. James Russell Lowell. The Lowell Institute for free lectures on scientific, literary, and religious
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