AgricultureThe business of growing in Dorchester
Crops and livestock sustained the local population for nearly two centuries. Leading up to the American Revolution, Dorchester provided locally-grown food to Boston, which was under occupation by the British. Dairy farms continued in Dorchester into the early twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, there was a transition from farm crops to hybridization of new varieties and a turn to flower nurseries and horticulturists
In the nineteenth century, gentleman farmers began to hybridize new varieties of fruit. The Clapp’s Favorite Pear is one of the notable varieties, still in production today.
Wood, in 1633, in his New England’s Prospect, describes Dorchester as “the greatest town in New England, well wooded and watered; very good arable grounds and hay-ground; fair cornfields and pleasant gardens, with kitchen gardens, In this plantation is a great many cattle, as kine, goats, and swine. This plantation hath a reasonable harbor for ships, but here is no alewife river, which is a great inconvenience. The inhabitants of this town were the first that set upon the trade of fishing in the Bay, who received so much fruit of their labors that they encouraged others to the same undertakings.”
Johnson seems to have been struck by the form of the town, and thus mentions it in his Wonder-Working Providence, published in 1654:
“The form of this town is almost like a serpent, turning her head to the northward, over against Tompson’s [sic] Island and the Castle; her body and wings, being chiefly built on, are filled somewhat thick of houses, only that one of her wings is clipped, her tail being of such a large extent that she can hardly draw it after her. Her houses for dwellings are about one hundred and forty, orchards and gardens full of fruit-trees, plenty of corn-land, although much of it hath been long in tillage, yet hath it ordinarily good crops. The number of trees are near upon 1,500. Cows and other cattle of that kind about 450.”
The description that Josselyn made in his second voyage to New England, from 1663 to 1671, confirms that of the other writers:
“Six miles beyond Braintree lieth Dorchester, a frontire town pleasantly seated, and of large extent into the main land, well watered with two small rivers, her body and wings filled somewhat thick with houses to the number of two hundred and more, beautified with fair orchards and gardens, having also plenty of corn-land and store of cattle counted the greatest town heretofore in New England, but now gives way to Boston. It hath a harbor to the north for ships.”
In his journal, Some Cursory Remarks Made by James Birket in His Vogage to North America 1750-1751, Birket describes his stay with Henry Vassels in Boston. His entry for September 10, 1750, follows: Henry Vassels & Self went in his chace to Dorchester to dine with Col Robt Oliver being 9 Miles. Returned in the evening; this is a very pleasant country town and stands about 4 miles from Boston, here the land seems to exceed any that I have seen in this country, & their orchards seem to be of the best fruit trees and are very large which enables them to make abundance of cyder …
The following description is from Hayward’s Gazetteer of 1839. “The soil of Dorchester is rocky, but very fertile and under a high state of cultivation. It is exceedingly productive, particularly of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Its surface is greatly variegated, presenting a continual succession of picturesque and delightful views of the country, city, and sea. Its hill-tops and valleys are decked with farm houses and tasteful villas, and nowhere can be found the union of town and country enjoyments more complete.”
Many fruits that became popular in the 19th century came from Dorchester: The Downer cherry; the Andrews, Frederick Clapp, Harris, and Clapp’s Favorite pears; the Dorchester blackberry; and the President Wilder strawberry.
Agriculturists include: Marshall Pinckney Wilder, 1798-1886, merchant; Samuel Downer, inventor of kerosene; William Clapp.
A reference to the quince orchard of the Humphreys estate appeared in a poem published by the Humphreys on the occasion of their leaving the old house in 1917 when the house was sold to be razed.
In Dorchester once fine fruit did grow
And the Humphreys quince orchard made a fine show.
One hundred and fifty bushels or more
Have been seen in the fall on the great barn floor.
The Memorial History of Boston has a chapter::” The Horticulture of Boston and Vicinity” by Marshall P. Wilder, in vol. 4, p. 607 and following
The following is from Good Old Dorchester by William Dana Orcutt:
Good Old Dorchester has long been famous for the interest it has taken in horticulture. For the first twenty years of the existence of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Dorchester and Roxbury furnished all its presidents and treasurers. The first settlers of the town brought with them a love of horticulture, and early laid out gardens and orchards. Several of the older present residents of Dorchester have boasted the possession of pear-trees which have formed a direct link between the past and to-day. A glance at the estates of the present century which have become more or less famous brings to our attention those of the Hon. Marshall P. Wilder, the Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris, William, Thaddeus, Frederick, and Lemuel Clapp, Ebenezer T. Andrews (the partner of Isaiah Thomas), Samuel Downer, Cheever Newhall, Zebedee Cook, Elijah Vose, William Oliver, John Richardson, and William R. Austin. Many of the choice fruits which are now in cultivation have gone forth from Dorchester, many of them bearing the names of Dorchester horticulturalists, – namely, the Downer cherry; the Andrews, Frederick Clapp, Harris, Clapp’s Favorite, and other seedling pears; the Dorchester blackberry, the President Wilder strawberry, and the Diana grape, which was raised just over the Dorchester line, in Milton, by Mrs. Diana Crehore. This grape became prominent in 1843, being the first seedling American grape at the exhibitions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society which was deemed worthy of notice. The Clapp’s Favorite pear, mentioned above, was greatly desired by the Massachusetts Agricultural Club, who wished to name it after the Hon. Marshall P. Wilder, and to disseminate it for general cultivation. They offered Mr. Clapp one thousand dollars for the control of it, hut the offer was declined.
Dorchester’s greatest debt of gratitude for its prominence in the horticultural world is due to the Hon. Marshall P. Wilder. His estate, on which his experimental grounds were laid out, was formerly owned by Governor Increase Sumner. At his death, in 1799, the estate passed into the hands of his son, General William H. Sumner, who was one of the founders of the Horticultural Society, and from whom it finally passed into Mr. Wilder’s possession. On these experimental grounds there were produced, during the last fifty years of Mr. Wilder’s life, under his personal supervision, more than twelve hundred varieties of fruits; and from thence there were exhibited, on one occasion, four hundred and four distinct varieties of the pear. Here the Camellias Wilderi, and the Mrs. Abby Wilder were. originated by the art of hybridization, the latter of which received a special prize of fifty dollars. The Mrs. Julia Wilder, the Jennie Wilder, and other camellias were also raised in great perfection; while from Mr. Wilder’s estate went to the Boston Public Garden, on its foundation in 1839, the entire collection of green-house and garden plants.
The Rev. Dr. Harris was a great lover of fine fruit, and said on one occasion to Mr. Wilder: “Your exhibition of pears is grand; but there is one variety that I miss, – the Bon Chretian (the Good Christian). I shall bring some forth from my garden to-morrow.”
Zebedee Cook, who served as the second president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, some sixty years ago, had a large garden opposite the Andrews estate, on the east side of the then turnpike road, where he grew, with great success, several kinds of foreign grapes, apricots, peaches, and pears. Among the grapes there was a white variety named Horatio, after Mr. Horatio Sprague, consul at Gibraltar, from whom Mr. Cook received it. This grape is now popularly known among famous varieties as the Nice grape.
Cheever Newhall was the first treasurer of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and a distinguished cultivator. On his estates he had extensive orchards which embraced a large number of varieties, especially of the pear, which he cultivated with great success up to the time of his death, in 1880. Mr. Newhall’s place was once the residence of Thomas Motley, father of the historian, John Lothrop Motley, and of his brother, Thomas Motley, the president of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, who were here born. A coincidence in regard to John Lothrop Motley is that he was born, as here stated, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and died in Dorchester, England.
Elijah Vose, the third president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, was the possessor of a fine orchard, in which he grew several fruits to great perfection. His greatest success was in producing the Duchesse d’ Angouleme pear.
William Oliver, vice-president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, grew pears and other fruits which attracted attention for their excellence. His estate became afterwards the residence of Ex-Governor Henry J. Gardner.
An old garden in Dorchester which deserves attention is that which is supposed to have been laid out first by Governor Oliver in colonial times. It is connected with the house in which Edward Everett was born, and is better known to the people of later Dorchester from the number of choice fruits and flowers which have been produced there from seed by the diligence and skill of John Richardson.
William R. Austin, at one time treasurer of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, had a pear orchard which became celebrated for the size and beauty of its fruits, produced by pruning the trees into the shape of a wine- glass.
Birket, James. Some Cursory Remarks Made by James Birket in His Voyage to North America, 1750-1751. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916.
Hayward, John. New England Gazetteer; Containing Descriptions of All the States, Counties and Towns in New England … Fifth edition. Boston, 1839.
Johnson, Edward. A History of New-England. From the English Planting in the Yeere 1628. Untill the Yeere 1652.. London, 1654. as cited in Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence, 1628-1651, Edtied by J. Franklin Jameson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Josselyn, John. Account of Two Voyages to New-England. London, 1674. as cited in John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler. A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England. Edited and introduced by Paul J. Lindholdt. Hanover: Universit Press of New England, 1988.
The Memorial History of Boston, 1630-1880, edited by Justin Winsor. Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1880. Vol. 1 and 4.
Orcutt, William Dana. Good Old Dorchester. A Narrative History of the Town, 1630-1893. (Cambridge, 1893), 49-51.
Wood, William. New England’s Prospect. London, 1634. as cited in the edition: Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.