“Rightly to estimate the present, we must invoke the past, of which we ourselves are the product, and its study cannot fail to teach us the importance of perpetuating those elements of true greatness in New England character bequeathed to us by our Puritan ancestry, and in which their descendants take a justifiable pride.”
Francis Samuel Drake, The History of the Town of Roxbury
This is another of my entries from my previous project, Walking the Post Road, which I have transferred over to this project for two reasons. The first reason is that it is relevant to this project in that it is a ‘ramble’ about a walk in Boston and having it here helps to clarify what I think is the purpose of this project. The second reason is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I want eventually to revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime the reader can read and comment upon this entry as part of this project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on Friday, May 14, 2010, as entry #7, Mile 3.
Eight years ago I planted a very special tree in my backyard. My wife and I moved to a Victorian house in Jamaica Plain in June of 1997 from a small apartment in the South End. It was a large house with a relatively small yard. It was not a very nice yard as it consisted almost entirely of patches of dirt and dried out grass, with a bit of hosta lining the front walk and a couple of locust saplings in the back yard. The house itself was such a big undertaking for us that I really had not given the yard any thought.
As a teenager I hated my yard, not because I did not like grass or trees, but rather because the yard meant yard work. I mowed the lawn, which seemed about the size of the Boston Common to me on a hot summer afternoon. Almost as soon as my family moved in, there was always work to be done in the yard. We removed a defunct above ground pool. We dug up a big section of the back yard and planted a large vegetable garden, which needed weeding and watering. In winter there was a massive driveway (or so it seemed) that needed to be perpetually cleared of snow (again the meteorological records do not support me, but I am sure it snowed every single day of winter from 1977 to about 1982). The last thing I wanted as an adult was a yard of my own. I certainly had no interest in gardening.
In July 1997 I purchased my first tomato plant. I only intended to have one or two plants on the back walkway in pots. Then I bought a pot of basil. The next year I planted a small vegetable garden. That same year I decided that there was too much grass and started planning to put in a tree or two. Then I discovered bulbs, and we planted tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and many other increasingly esoteric flowers whose arrival in the late winter brought a burst of color that lifted my spirits after the dark days of December and January. Ten years after we moved in my wife and I had the following plants in our yard:
Four apple trees, three pear trees, a peach tree, a cherry tree, a white pine tree, two spruce trees, a hawthorne tree, a crabapple tree, six lilac bushes, three rhododendron bushes, four blueberry bushes, two spirea bushes, two hydrangea plants, eight rows of raspberries, a ten by fifteen foot strawberry patch, twelve varieties of day lilies, thirteen varieties of hosta, a pumpkin patch, two separate vegetable gardens producing five types of tomatoes, eggplants, basil, green beans, pole beans, zucchini, peas, radicchio, arugula, mesclun mix, green leaf and red leaf lettuce, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, oregano, and lavender; many varieties of flowers including poppies, hollyhocks, violets, zinnias, gladioli, bleeding hearts; about twenty-five plants native to New England that we acquired over the years from the Garden in the Woods in Framingham; and two very large black locust trees, which had grown from the tiny saplings that were present when we moved in.
I am sure I am missing quite a few other plants, but you get the point. I had gone from having a pathological dread of yards to spending most of my free time working in my garden. It must be the fertile soil of Jamaica Plain that drew me back into the yard the way Michael Corleone was pulled back in to the “family business.”
But there is one special tree I planted that I wish to discuss here, the Roxbury Russet Apple Tree. This cultivar is believed to be the oldest apple variety bred in the United States, and it was first cultivated and named in Roxbury, Massachusetts in the early 1630s. The Roxbury Russet keeps well in the winter and is an especially good apple for the production of cider, a staple drink in a place and time where water quality was variable at best. It is not a pretty apple by most standards; it is grayish-green with a rough texture to the skin, hence the name russet, and has best been described by the University of Massachusetts Cold Spring Orchard website:
“A look at one suggests how the idea of a good apple has changed over the centuries, Roxbury presents a dull green, heavily marked face to the world. But the crisp, tart apple has more personality than some of today’s supermarket standards. Its yellow-green flesh is firm and course textured. Roxbury is suited to eating fresh and cooking and long has had a reputation as a fine cider apple. As with most older varieties, it keeps well for months.”
Roxbury for more than two centuries after English settlement in 1630, was an important agricultural area. As Drake notes, “The Roxbury colonists were people of substance, many of them being farmers…they struck root in the soil immediately.”¹ The soil was good and there was lots of land unlike the town of Boston as we have seen. However there were problems-in fact the very name of the town gives us a clue to one problem- which plagued the town of Roxbury as well as many newly settled towns in New England. The soil was and remains quite rocky and indeed large stone outcroppings are found all over the neighborhoods not built on reclaimed land. This landscape would later be much admired by Frederick Law Olmsted who incorporated rocks into many of his designs for parks such as Central Park in New York and Franklin Park in Boston, but it was a pain in the neck for a farmer. Many eventually gave up and headed west settling upstate New York, and later Ohio and other midwestern states, where the soil was more tractable.
There were not, however, problems with Indians. The Chief sachem of the territory which included Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester was Chickatawbut. Although once a powerful leader of a large population, visits by previous Europeans had brought diseases unfamiliar to the inhabitants of the Americas and massive population declines resulted in a much smaller and weaker group of Indians by the time of the arrival of the Puritans. I will come back to the topic of the “original” inhabitants in future entries, but I need to get moving if I am ever going to leave Boston on my adventure. Suffice it to say here that Chickatawbut, with 50-60 subjects, did not have a lot of bargaining power, and the Puritans quickly overwhelmed his territory.
On the other hand, there were significant problems with native animals. Wolves were a considerable presence in the early days of Roxbury and there are many reports of livestock being killed by wolves. Bounties were quickly instituted and the native wolf population was decimated by the end of the century. Many animals survived in the area for a longer period of time. In one week in September,1725 twenty bears were killed within two miles of Boston. Paul Dudley noted on June 7, 1740 “a good fat bear was killed on our meetinghouse hill.”² Actually it seems that the animals had significant problems with humans. Again, I will return to this topic again in future entries.
Eliot Square at the top of Meetinghouse Hill in Roxbury is the first place on the Post Road where I feel the sensation of actually being in the past. Fortunately the area has been ignored for the most part by developers and boasts a beautiful wooden church from 1804 surrounded by a large green, a beautiful colonial-era house, called the Dillaway Thomas House, a number of beautiful nineteenth-century houses lining Centre Street, and the Parting Stone. Although Roxbury was predominantly agricultural and had a small population as late 1830, the town was a natural area for the expansion of the city of Boston. In 1652 it is estimated that there were 700 people in Roxbury. A century later there were still only 1,467 inhabitants, and by 1830 the population had swelled to only 5,247, roughly a sevenfold increase in 200 years. Then new roads were developed and streetcars arrived, bringing newly arrived immigrants, and by 1870 Roxbury had 34,772 inhabitants, a sevenfold increase in four decades. Today Roxbury has about 60,000 people, depending on how the lines of the neighborhood are drawn (a controversial subject as we saw in a previous post). Most of the surrounding area feels like the city, bustling and built up, but Eliot Square is relatively tranquil and actually quite handsome. The diversion of traffic from the road I am traveling by the construction of straighter streets has most likely played a major role in the preservation of the character of Eliot Square.
Roxbury originally covered much more territory, including present-day Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and West Roxbury, but these neighborhoods slowly developed their own commercial centers and eventually Roxbury split into first two towns and then three, when Jamaica Plain separated from West Roxbury. All three towns were part of Boston by 1880. All three developed as ‘Streetcar suburbs,’ and farming became increasingly a backyard recreational pursuit rather than a way of making a living.
I leave Roxbury, heading down Meetinghouse Hill on Centre Street, the new name for the Post Road for the next six miles, as it winds its way out of Boston. I depart only the contemporary Roxbury, as all the territory through which I will now pass is part of the original colonial Roxbury, the first area farmed by the colonists and the place where the seeds of the United States were first planted. True, apple trees are not native to America, but neither are Europeans. Yet both thrived in New England’s stony soil, and apple trees and flinty New Englanders are as iconic images of New England and America as, well, apple pie.
The Roxbury Russet represents another time-the qualities of the apple are similar to the qualities of the original Puritan settler- a little dull in color, but having much more personality and substance than appearances imply. The tree in my yard, planted as a bare-root sapling in the soil from which it was originally produced, is now ten feet high. In a few years time I hope to drink to the original farmers of Roxbury, with some cider from the scion of the original Roxbury tree, the Roxbury Russet.
1 Francis Samuel Drake, The Town of Roxbury: its Memorable People and Places (Boston, 1878. reprinted in 1907 by the Municipal Printing Office), 9.
2 Drake, 266.