Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Waltham, Massachusetts: Stuck at the Border or, Pilgrim’s Lack of Progress!

Upper Boston Post Road Entry #2 (UBPR #2)

Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts (1806). This dramatic mansion, set in the midst of fifty acres open fields and woods, is the first building encountered after crossing into Waltham from Watertown along the Upper Boston Post Road.

“You will go through the counties of Suffolk and Worcester, taking a sketch of the country as you pass; It is not expected you should make out regular plans and surveys, but mark out the roads and distances from town to town, and also the situation and nature of the country. “

General Thomas Gage, Military Governor of Massachusetts. Instructions to Captain William Browne and Ensign Henry DeBerniere, February 22, 1775.

Some walks are more interesting than others. Occasionally there is so much to write about that the walk slows down and the narrative circles in place, as in this entry. Other times the narrative itself is so compelling that the walk moves along at breakneck speed as was the case more than 240 years ago, when another narrative of a walk along the Boston Post Road came to light.

On February 22, 1775, two soldiers of the British Army under the command of General Thomas Gage in Boston, Captain William Browne1Captain Browne is alternately listed as “John” or “William” depending on the source. This website lists all the known British soldiers in America during the period 1774-1783. As we know Browne was in the 52nd Regiment, only one name matches a Browne in the 52nd Regiment and that is Captain William Browne, commissioned June 24, 1771. Thanks to J.L. Bell (personal communication) for pointing me to this link. Also, as his name is spelled Browne in the regiment lists, I will use Browne as the spelling of his surname. of the 52nd Regiment and Ensign Henry DeBerniere of the 10th Regiment, received instructions to “go through the counties of Suffolk and Worcester, taking a sketch of the country as you pass.”2 General Gage’s Instructions of February 22nd, 1775, to Captain Brown and Ensign D’Berniere, with a curious narrative of occurrences during their mission, wrote by the Ensign. Boston: J Gill, 1779. General Gage, as military governor of an increasingly hostile populace in Massachusetts, wanted as much information as possible about the lay of the land outside Boston and thus his instructions were quite detailed. So too was the report provided by Ensign DeBerniere3 An Ensign in the eighteenth century was basically the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the infantry regiments, and was eventually replaced by the rank of Second Lieutenant. Henry DeBerniere was a skilled surveyor, about whom more can be read at the excellent Boston1775 website , a twenty page action-packed narrative of spying on, dangerous encounters with, and narrow escapes from the mostly hostile denizens of the hinterlands. The orders of Gage as well as DeBerniere’s report were found a year later in the abandoned quarters of the British Army after they hastily evacuated the town of Boston on March 17, 1776, and the narrative was published in 1779. While the nerve-racking adventures of our heroes are fascinating enough, my interest in Browne and DeBerniere derives from the fact that the two men followed, in large part, the “Main Road” to Worcester, what is often referred to as the Boston Post Road. The map they produced and the information they provided in the report are valuable clues to the state of the road on the eve of the Revolution.

Curiously, the orders omit Middlesex County, the county closest to Boston to the north and west of the Shawmut Peninsula, a county they would have to traverse to reach Worcester, and the county where the two men ultimately spent most of their time and energy, including the towns of both Lexington and Concord, soon to become famous as a direct result of the reports submitted to Gage by the two spies. Middlesex County was established in 1643 as one of the four “original shires”, along with Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex Counties.4Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880. p. 72 Essex County comprised most of the towns still in the county on the North Shore. What is today Plymouth County (along with what became Bristol and Barnstable Counties) was not mentioned because at the time (1643) it was an entirely separate colony from Massachusetts. Norfolk County encompassed towns well north of Boston such as Portsmouth and Exeter that are today part of New Hampshire and not towns like Braintree and Dedham south of Boston as the contemporary Norfolk County does; these latter towns were part of Suffolk County at the time. The strange neglect of Middlesex County was compounded by the fact that the two men hardly visited Suffolk County at all in the end, only passing through Brookline and Roxbury along the road via Boston Neck on the morning they returned to town.5Brookline, now a strange outlier in Norfolk County, was in 1775 part of Suffolk County. Norfolk County was ‘re-established’ in 1793 and comprised most of the towns that previously were part of Suffolk County. Hingham and Hull petitioned to remain with Boston and Chelsea in Suffolk County; In 1806, however, the two towns joined Plymouth County. This explains why Cohasset is isolated from the rest of Norfolk County. Roxbury and Dorchester were eventually absorbed by Boston and returned to Suffolk County. This explains why Brookline is isolated from the rest of Norfolk County. Brighton and Charlestown also became part of Boston; both had previously been part of Middlesex County. Finally, Revere and Winthrop later formed from territory originally part of Chelsea; thus there are now four cities and towns in Suffolk County: Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop. Not that counties matter much in Massachusetts as essentially all government is either at the town, state, or Federal level, with the curious exception of the court system.

Middlesex in 1643 was an even more expansive county than it is today. The county included Charlestown (now part of Boston in Suffolk County), across the Charles River from the North End, and included all the towns along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road from the ferry landing across the river, through the original settlements around Boston, and deep into the “Nipmuck territory”, which eventually became Worcester County in 1731: Charlestown (including at the time what is now Somerville), Cambridge (including what is today Newton and the Boston neighborhood of Brighton), Watertown (including what is now Waltham and Weston), Sudbury (including Wayland), Marlborough (including Northborough, now the first town in Worcester County along the Post Road), even the areas that became the towns of Shrewsbury and Worcester.6William Lincoln, History of Worcester County, Massachusetts. Worcester: Charles Hersey. p. 57.

The two men (along with their “servant” John) set out the following day, Thursday February 23, 1775, “disguised like countrymen in brown cloaths and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks,” taking the ferry to Charlestown instead of following the road out of Boston Neck, thus bypassing Suffolk County entirely. After passing through the “pretty” town of Cambridge, with its “college made of brick”, they passed through Watertown, “a pretty large town for America, but would be looked upon as a village in England.” Just over the Watertown line, in the town of Waltham, the two men stopped at the tavern of “a Mr. Brewer, a whig,” a shorthand euphemism for, to paraphrase Gordon Wood, a supporter of ‘liberty’ over ‘power’7Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. p. 18. A ‘Whig’ in Colonial America, in other words, was one of the inhabitants Gage fretted about, increasingly hostile to what was perceived as the oppressive and arbitrary rule of a distant Crown, as opposed to a ‘Tory’, a supporter of the traditional structure of government by a ‘ruling class’ who would in theory act in the best interest of society and who were skeptical of democratizing structures such as town meetings. Browne and DeBerniere had quickly entered a hornet’s nest and immediately learned the most important information necessary for their mission to take stock of the “situation” in the countryside.

John Brewer’s Tavern. The modern version of the colonial tavern mentioned in the narrative is across the street from the original.

It is here at Brewer’s tavern that the story gets interesting. Stopping for dinner, their server, a “black woman”,8I find the specificity of this observation interesting. How many “black women” were there in the countryside of Massachusetts in 1775? Was she a slave, an indentured servant, the wife of the tavern keeper? She clearly had “whiggish” sympathies and was definitely hostile to their presence. Here is a narrative thread I would love to pick up and follow but I am sure this is her brief moment of historical posterity was “at first very civil” but afterwards “began to eye us very attentively.” Later, after they explained that they were “surveyors” heading to Worcester to survey the “fine country” she told the men that on the road ahead they would encounter “brave fellows to defend it, and if you go up any higher you will find it so.” The men, realizing they were fooling nobody, became “disconcerted and…resolved not to sleep there that night, as we had intended”, paid up and left, whereupon their servant John informed them that she had identified Captain Browne as an officer from Boston and that she “knew our errand was to take a plan of the country” and that “she advised him to tell us not to go any higher, for if we did we should meet very bad usage.” Deciding they had no choice, as they would look foolish if they turned back, they decided to continue their route, traveling “six miles further,” where they ran into some men eager to “travel” with them. At this point they became extremely suspicious, and stopped at a tavern in Weston, the Golden Ball. What happened next the reader will have to wait to discover until I write about Weston, the next town along the Post Road.9For more information about these two men as well as the events leading up to the American Revolution, see David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. pp. 81-85 revisit the narrative of DeBerniere.

Today a modern John Brewer’s Tavern exists almost directly across the street from the original tavern, on Main Street in Waltham, just over the Watertown border. The name is a direct nod to the original John Brewer, as mentioned on their website, so cheers to the owners for making the effort to maintain a link to the history of the corner. Today’s incarnation, with a few small rooms, a dark wood interior, and pleasant wooden booths in the bar room, has a bit of an eighteenth century feel. However, the televisions on virtually every wall disgorging a steady stream of college basketball games dispel any sense of traveling through time. So I toast the spies (for producing the narrative that is of such great use to this project) with a locally-brewed Mighty Squirrel beer, enjoy my burger, study the local memorabilia on the wall, and lose myself for a while in the gossip that passes for sports coverage on ESPN, while listening in on the conversation in the next booth, which is about the Bruins and not about revolution or the rights of man.

Detail of the map produced by Captain William Browne and Ensign Henry DeBerniere from their February 1775 mission. This section of their map shows the Post Road from Watertown to Weston through the town of Waltham. Brewer’s Tavern is the red rectangle at far right, along Main Street just after it enters Waltham from Watertown, opposite what is today Warren Street. The upside down text states “Watertown to Weston 6 miles”; it is almost exactly seven miles from the Watertown bridge to the Golden Ball tavern in Weston. The map also shows the crossing over Beaver Brook (center) and Stony Brook (left), as well as the road to Lincoln (see the next entry for a discussion of all these features.)The map, entitled Roxbury to Concord. Roads & distances, &c. 1775,  is part of the collection of Peter Force donated to the Library of Congress in 1867. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Taverns in eighteenth century America had a much more important place in society than their contemporary role of providing a meeting space to drink, eat, and watch sports. Taverns were indeed places to drink (and colonists drank quite heavily!) but were also one of the few places “where people could meet and talk openly in public, and to many colonists the life of the tavern came to seem the most democratic experience available to them.”10Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past, 15th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015. p. 122. Taverns were disliked by the government, which sought to restrict their activity or to close them altogether for their role as enablers of lewd behavior and public drunkenness. The view from the bar stool was different: “gradually many began to see the attacks on the public houses as efforts to increase the power of existing elites and suppress the freedoms of ordinary people.”11Ibid. Taverns were also places where meetings were held and where even illiterate men “could learn much from them about the political concepts that were circulating through the colonies.”12Ibid The political nature of taverns was recognized as early as 1760 by John Adams, who generally disapproved of taverns as the place “bastards and legislators are begotten.”13Diary entry for Friday May 30, 1760. L.H. Butterfield, editor.The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Volume I, 1755-1770. New York: Atheneum, 1964, p. 130. an online version is here

Nostalgic photo on the wall of my booth at John Brewers Tavern. Notice how hard it is to avoid the ubiquitous televisions.

The political nature of Brewer’s tavern in particular was readily apparent to Browne and DeBerniere, who astutely decided not to stay the night as they had originally planned. John (or Jonathan) Brewer, the proprietor of the eighteenth century version and namesake of the twenty-first century incarnation of the tavern at this location, was somewhat more than a ‘whig’. Born in Framingham in 1726, Brewer gained military experience at an early age. In 1748 he was at Fort Dummer in Vermont fighting the French, and also was part of campaigns in New York and in Quebec during the French and Indian War from 1754, ultimately becoming a Captain by 1759. On April 24, 1775, Eight weeks after the visit of the two spies, and only days after the events at Lexington and Concord, Brewer volunteered his services to the ‘rebels’ and was charged with forming a regiment, which only eight weeks later served at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Promoted to Colonel, Brewer was wounded at Bunker Hill, and retired his commission in November, 1776 after his regiment was subsumed into the newly-formed Continental Army. Brewer died January 4, 1784, at the age of 57.14Drake, History of Middlesex County, pp.442-445. It appears Browne and DeBerniere, along with their servant John, read the room correctly. Incidentally, the three men took a different route back into Boston expressly to avoid passing Mr. Brewer’s tavern.

My ‘spying’ mission at the modern incarnation of Brewer’s Tavern goes undiscovered and so, after enjoying my burger and beer and learning more than I ever desired about the current state of the hometown hockey team, I leave the cozy confines of my booth to follow Browne and DeBerniere and begin my own walk west through the town of Waltham. However, I first cross Main Street to visit the site of the original tavern on the corner of Main and Gore Street where an even more dramatic historic structure awaits to further detain my progress. The “Seat of His Excellency Christopher Gore, Esq.” is one of the more prominent features on Hales’ 1819 Map of Boston and its Vicinity, and the stately building from 1806 marked by a black dot on the old map still stands today surrounded by trees and open fields much as it was then. The photo above gives some sense of the majesty of this early Federal mansion, which has a rich and varied history.

Gore Place in an image from Hurd’s 1890 History of Middlesex County (after page 712). The property had been owned since 1856 by the Theophilus Walker, who passed it on to his nieces upon his death in 1890 (Hence ‘the late’ in the label above). After their deaths, the property suffered some grievous injuries before being taken over by the Gore Place Society, who have managed to restore much of the beauty apparent in this image.

Christopher Gore (1758-1827) is one of those charismatic characters Massachusetts seemed to produce in abundance in the early days of the Republic. At various points in his long career he was a successful trial lawyer who defended participants in Shays Rebellion to name one of his many interesting cases, an even more successful financial speculator (whose father-in-law happened to be a director of the Bank of Massachusetts, as he himself became in 1785), a Massachusetts State Representative, the first United States Attorney for Massachusetts, a diplomat representing the United States at the Court of St James as part of the team negotiating what became the Jay Treaty, a Massachusetts State Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, and ultimately United States Senator for Massachusetts from 1813-1816. He also found time to serve on the Harvard Board of Overseers, was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was a member of the American Antiquarian Society, and was President of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1806-1818.15Memoir of the Late Christopher Gore, of Waltham, Massachusetts in The Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume III of the third series. Cambridge: E.W. Metcalf, 1833. pp.191-209.

Gore’s father was a Boston merchant and Loyalist, who left Boston with the soldiers of the British Army during the Evacuation in 1776, leaving behind his son, then a student at Harvard, his wife, and three daughters. The younger Gore, in contrast to his father, had ‘whiggish’ sympathies, and joined the Continental Army, serving until 1778, then studied law, which presumably aided him in winning legal control of the family assets in 1779. His continued success as a lawyer and his financial acumen (he speculated in securities from the Revolutionary War) earned him a large fortune and, after marrying Rebecca Amory Payne in 1785, the Gores began purchasing land on both sides of the border between Watertown and Waltham for a summer estate ultimately totaling about 400 acres.

Fields and pasture (alas no sheep) at Gore Place, straddling the Watertown/Waltham border. The mansion can be seen in the distance. Amazingly this property is inside of Route 128, the traditional boundary between the dense urban suburbs and the typically leafier (and wealthier) towns just outside the belt road. The area of this inner circle is a little over 300 mi2 with a population in excess of two million inhabitants; as a city it would rank among the half dozen largest and densest cities in the country! And yet there is room for this!

Today Gore Place retains only about 50 of the original 400 acres, but is nonetheless impressive. Old trees (including at least one chestnut dating to the Gore era), line the drive leading to the main house, an elegant red-brick Federal style mansion built in 1806 after the Gores return from Europe (an earlier house burned down in 1799). According to the website, architectural historians believe the Gores originally painted the house white, but the walls were later sandblasted to reveal the present facade. A lovely coach house from 1793 sits near the entrance gate, some farm buildings at the southeast corner house sheep in the winter, there are walking trails across open fields and past fenced pasture land where sheep graze, all of which is enclosed by classic New England rock walls. The boundary between Watertown and Waltham crosses the property diagonally from the northeast to the southwest and the mansion itself is barely on the Waltham side of the border, along with only about a quarter of the property, including the main entrance and driveway. The house is open for tours and is definitely worth the effort; the guides are very informative, the interior is even more impressive than than the exterior (the staircase alone is worth the trip!), there are family portraits by Trumbull and (perhaps) a young John Singleton Copley, and the house has an impressive collection of furniture from the Early Republic. One of the most notable aspects of the Gore Estate, a property less than eight miles as the crow flies from the center of Boston, a vestige of the early Republic surrounded by two million people densely packed into about 300 mi2, are the sheep grazing at various times in different fields on the estate. In the spring there is an annual sheep-shearing festival, replete with herding dogs, music, arts and crafts, and historical reenactors.

SHEEP!!

The bucolic setting of today’s estate creates the illusion that the landscape has remained essentially unchanged, stuck in time, since 1800; in reality the land and the house have had a much more turbulent history. The estate remained a residential property for 70 years after the deaths of the childless Christopher (died in 1827) and Rebecca Gore (died in 1834), owned first by Theodore Lyman Junior (whose family owned another fantastic Waltham estate), later by a descendant of the artist John Singleton Copley and, for most of the second half of the nineteenth century, by the “industrialist” Theophilus Walker. The estate was described as late as 1890 as “among the most attractive of the State. The grand, imposing mansion, not ornate but substantial, the spacious grounds and beautiful old trees, and the extensive fields under high cultivation, show the accumulated taste and care of nearly a century.”16 The History of Middlesex County, edited by D. Hamilton Hurd. Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis, 1890. p. 713 The twentieth century history is more mixed and illustrates the role contingency often plays in the preservation of historical sites.

General plan of the Waltham Country Club. A framed image in Gore Place presumably of the original plans for the Donald Ross-designed course built after World War I. Notice the mansion at center in its incarnation as the clubhouse! The Club went bankrupt in 1929, which provided the opportunity for the Gore Place Society to acquire the property and restore it to some semblance of its former glory. I highly recommend an excellent guided tour of the Mansion; the building itself is astonishing and the interesting artifacts they have acquired over the years to furnish the house are of a very high quality. Finally, note the border between Waltham and Watertown crossing the property from northeast to southwest.

The last owners in the nineteenth century were two sisters, Mary Sophia and Harriet Sarah Walker, the latter of whom willed the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts upon her death in 1904, with the intention that a cathedral be built on the land. Instead, the land was leased to a dodgy Colorado property company, who promptly sold off most of the furniture and chopped down most of the trees, before breaking the lease. In 1911, the diocese sold the property to a local manufacturer, who used the mansion for offices and the fields as an aerodrome.17An airfield; my sense is that this is a British term or perhaps an archaic term used at the time. This is the term used on the Gore Place website so I left it alone. In 1921 the property was sold to a consortium including the mayor of Waltham at the time, Henry F. Beale. This group turned the property into the Waltham Country Club, complete with a nine hole Donald Ross designed golf course, using the Mansion as the clubhouse and the Carriage House as the caddy shack. Fortunately for us, the depression forced the Country Club into bankruptcy, the Waltham Savings Bank took over the property, and a group of preservation-minded individuals gained control of the property in 1935, slowly restoring it to the lovely tableau one sees today walking along the Boston Post Road.18This sordid story along with the happy ending is described in greater detail on the website of the aforementioned preservation organization, the Gore Place Society.

*****

One of the reasons I enjoy these walks so much is the serendipity of discovery that is inevitable along a road with such an ancient pedigree. One of the pitfalls of this type of project is that there is so much of interest it sometimes takes a long time to make much progress along the road. And so, much time and many paragraphs later than perhaps I originally intended, I finally begin my walk west across Waltham along the Boston Post Road. What happened along this walk will be revealed in the next installment of this project. I doubt the story of my walk along the Boston Post Road will be anywhere near as exciting as that of Gage’s spies but I will try to be as entertaining as possible without having to run for my life as they did. What new and exciting discoveries will I uncover along the Boston Post Road? Follow in my footsteps as I follow George Washington’s route in 1775 and in 1787! What happened to the old crossings at Beaver Brook and Stoney Brook? What secrets lie along Tavern Road? Will we discover how Waltham became known as Watch City? Will I get across Route 128 safely? Be sure to stay tuned also for the further adventures of our spies Browne and DeBerniere! To be continued…..

Detail from Map by John G. Hales of Boston and Vicinity from 1819 showing The Boston Post Road from Watertown Bridge (at lower right) to Weston (the pink area at left). Notice the prominence of the “Seat of his Excl.y Chr.r Gore, Esq.” below the WAT of Watertown on the Post Road (the house is the black dot just over the border in Waltham). Is the black dot at the junction above the Gore Mansion and below the S in PLAINS the building that once housed Brewer’s Tavern? Another large estate, discussed above and also still around today, the “Seat of Theo Lyman Esq.” is visible above the WALTHAM PLAINS type.
One last photo of Gore Place, for the road, so to speak.

Total distance traveled in this entry: 0.2 miles

Total distance traveled from Old State House : 10.8 miles.

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