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John S. Edgerly: and his home on Winter Hill

By Helen M. Despeaux
I have seen published many memories of Somerville events so far from correct, I am the more willing to tell what I know to be true of my father's life. When the semi-centennial of Somerville was celebrated in 1892, it seemed to me that the mention of the first settlers of the place was far less than that of those who followed in the city's ranks. Having occasion to write to the late John S. Hayes about that time, I mentioned the fact to him, and in his reply he said: ‘It has fallen to me to write a “History of Somerville,” and it is my full intention to put conspicuously to the front the men who made the city possible by their great interest in the town.’ Mr. Hayes was taken ill, and unable to carry out the task assigned him. We can forgive him our part in it, as he gave in the twenty-fifth Annual Report of the Somerville Public Library such a laudatory notice of my brother Edward Everett Edgerly, whose portrait hangs in the library building to-day. He said in closing: ‘May his memory in connection with this library prove an incentive to the youth of to-day, not only to live to accomplish our ideal of personal work, but also to help others to think high thoughts, to do brave deeds, and live a noble and blameless life.’ Unfortunately, the youth seldom see [37] these Reports. Except for mention here and there of people and landmarks, I think no history of Somerville has ever been written, and I should not presume to write one; but I am asked to give you this evening a sketch of John S. Edgerly and his home on Winter Hill.

Mr. Edgerly was born in Meredith, N. H., not far from Winnepesaukee, November 30, 1804. He was the son of Samuel Edgerly, who married Betsey Smith, January, 1794. There were twelve children in the family. In the earlier generation, his first ancestor who came to this country was Thomas Edgerly, before 1665. He landed probably at Portsmouth, and was received as an inhabitant of Oyster Bay, township of Dover. In the generation that followed there was much trouble with the Indians, and in some cases they were massacred by them. Like many another young man before and since, when he had reached the ‘years of discretion’ he was ambitious to see what the larger life of the city of Boston had for him; and I judge he left home for that purpose when about twenty years of age. I presume he had the struggle most people do to find the right thing to do. But he became a stonecutter (physical labor was not considered as menial then as now). I have no doubt his love for stone was acquired by this labor, for we always had stone steps and stone flagging to our front door before others did, and I believe he advocated strongly stone steps around the Unitarian church building that has since been demolished.

After leaving this business, he went to work in the grain business for a Mr. Vinal. We have seen in some reports that it was Deacon Robert Vinal, and that he was a member of the household; but on applying to Mr. Quincy Vinal, son of Deacon Robert, he said he thought it was without foundation. But he does remember hearing his father say that when Mr. Edgerly first came to Boston, he was the smartest young man he ever knew of, desirous to learn, very energetic, and busy every moment. Be that as it may, I know he was well acquainted with DeaconVinal and Mrs. Vinal, and they were the only ones from Charlestown present at the marriage of Mr. Edgerly at a little home in Boston over seventy years ago, from which house he moved, with his [38] wife and two children, in 1836, to the house that he had bought on Winter Hill.1

The house is between the road to what is now Arlington and that to Medford. It was built in 1805 by Colonel John Sweetser, and was called ‘The Odin House,’ and as I have heard that it was formerly a ‘tavern,’ I presume it was at that time. At some time later it was occupied by Dr. Samuel Parkman. From 1826 to 1830 it was occupied by the Hon. Edward Everett, and in 1836 Mr. Edgerly took possession. He always liked things on a large scale, which doubtless accounts for his buying so large a place; and after a few years the house had to be enlarged. Mr. Edgerly, though what might be termed a self-made man, was, nevertheless, of importance to the town, and in 1842 he succeeded, with several others who were indignant at the treatment from Charlestown (of which it seemed to be the fag end), in obtaining permission from the Legislature to become a separate town, the limits of which were as they are to-day. There was great rejoicing when the decision was announced, and 100 guns were fired from Prospect Hill. The first five selectmen of the new town were Nathan Tufts, Sr. (chairman), John S. Edgerly, Caleb W. Leland, Luther Mitchell, and Francis Bowman. Charles E. Gilman was clerk; Oliver Tufts and John C. Magoun, assessors; Edmund Tufts, treasurer and collector. The population was 1,013.

Shortly after Mr. Edgerly was made chairman (and we are told he held that position for fourteen consecutive years), his interest in the welfare of the town was almost paramount to everything else, notwithstanding he did a good business in the grain trade in Boston. He was also on the school committee and overseers of the poor, and always had time to give a helping hand [39] and a bright and merry word to anyone about him. He never ‘passed by on the other side,’ and never was there an empty seat in his carriage or wagon if there was anyone who wanted to be helped along. He represented the town in general court, and on one occasion, when a member of the House, in making a speech, aired his Latin phrases rather too frequently, Mr. Edgerly arose and said: ‘Mr. Speaker, I move that the gentleman be required to translate his Latin for the benefit of the English-speaking people.’ Another arose and asked to make an amendment to that motion, to, the effect that money be appropriated to educate those people. The joke was appreciated, but had Dr. Edward Everett Hale been present, he would most likely have said: ‘Not so fast, my friend. Education does not consist in learning Latin, or French, or Sanscrit, or even mathematics, but it is rather the training that develops a man on all sides to take a broad view of life.’ I am sure there was nothing narrow or sordid in Mr. Edgerly—his observation and experience made him an all-around man. Hence he was sent to the Legislature, and was made a member of the school committee, for though, in a way, we need professional men in such places, we also need good business men, who can not only count the cost, but compute the interest. As overseer of the poor, he was ever ready, after a day of business in Boston, to take his horse and sleigh, and with lantern and shovel make a path to some house where poverty and suffering existed; and the chances are that there was plenty of nutritious food to keep the bodies sustained, while the hearts ached with trouble and misfortune.

It is hard to look back and imagine the streets about Winter Hill and other places so banked up with snow as to need a shovel to start out on one's way; for with the electric cars and electric lights, life seems comparatively easy, and if not a very pleasant evening, there are many who say in these times, ‘I think we won't go out to-night, it is rather stormy.’ But with most men of those times duty was a principle, and they did not swerve. Many may say, ‘But there wasn't so much brain work then; we get more mentally tired.’ I have heard it said by advocates of physical culture that physical work is the very best antidote for [40] too much mental labor, and if a girl is overtaxed with study don't send her to a dance for recreation, but rather let her wash dishes, or do some other manual labor that is not exciting. Can you tell me of many men who, like Mr. Edgerly, conducted a regular business in Boston, carried on a small farm at his home, supplied his neighbors with milk and eggs, and had cut $1,000 worth of hay, besides what he needed for his own cattle and horses? Mr. Edgerly, as I said before, liked everything on a large scale,—the highest horse, the biggest sheep, the largest fowl, and all such things he would buy, and then call the neighbors in to see and enjoy their surprise. He also kept a good driving horse, and often a pretty fast one, and I can recall twice in my memory of his being thrown from his sleigh and dragged some distance; but someone who knew him would bring him home, and in a few days he would be about his duties again.

Mr. Edgerly was for many years on the standing committee of the Unitarian church, and ever stood outside awaiting the last person to enter, that no stranger should lack for a seat. I have heard my father say he would like to be a minister, that he might work all the week and preach on Sunday. After about thirty years living on Winter Hill, two sons and two daughters having gone out into new homes, Mr. Edgerly sold the Winter-Hill house to Mr. Hittenger, who spent much money on it, but except in removing the front piazza and putting on a porch with a tower, there was not much change.

There were lots of fine, pleasant neighbors, and the first I will mention is John C. Magoun, who, being a farmer, had time to be assessor and one of the overseers of the poor. He occupied both positions several years. He lived in the old Adams place, where his wife was born, married, and died, and one daughter and granddaughter still remain there. His wife had two brothers, Samuel Adams, who was always called ‘Uncle Sammy,’ and another, Joseph Adams, who lived down the hill further, and was the father-in-law of Mr. Aaron Sargent, who is well known as the former treasurer of Somerville, previous to the time of our beloved and departed friend, Mr. John F. Cole. Mrs. Magoun had still another brother, Charles Adams, father of the distinguished [41] singer. Mr. Magoun was a fine, pleasant looking man, and as I saw his photo yesterday, I could still see the face so benign, as I saw it so many years ago.

Mr. John Boles lived across the way from Mr. Magoun, and though not so well known to the people at large, he and his family were much loved by all the neighbors, and when the Edgerly carryall could not take the children to the high school on a stormy day, the Boles carriage did.

Next came the Woodburys, a large family, and when we needed our houses freshened up, either inside or out, Mr. Woodbury was the man to do it. He was a fine painter, and his graining was so perfect it was almost like the natural wood. Next door to Mr. Edgerly was Mr. William Jaques, with wife and son. Mr. Jaques was one of the three sons of old Colonel Jaques who owned Ten Hills Farm. All the brothers have passed away, but one son and family still remain at the foot of Winter Hill. Uncle Edmund Tufts, so-called, lived nearly opposite, with his charming sister, Aunt Abbie. But they have both passed away, and the site of their little home is occupied by a block of buildings.

I had nearly forgotten to speak of the little schoolhouse, where now stands the Orthodox Congregational church. Here we learned our A B C's. More than one of the teachers boarded at Mr. Edgerly's, for where there is a large family, there is always room for one more.

Next to Edmund Tufts lived Mr. Jonathan Brown, who still answers to the roll-call at ninety-two years, the last of the oldest friends, but his life has been a regular one. Being associated with a bank, his hours were shorter than other business men's, and he had time to enjoy his garden and plenty of choice books. We were always glad on Christmas morning to have the Brown boys bring over their new books, for while we had our share of the good things the Father and Mother Santa Claus brought on ‘the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,’ we didn't always have the books our neighbors had, and it was an added pleasure for each to enjoy the other's gifts. Next came Charles Forster's [42] family. Words fail to express the love and respect everyone felt for this saintly man. I cannot tell his best characteristics, but, literally, ‘none knew him but to love him, or named him but to praise.’ The Forster school on Sycamore street is named for him. The Stickney & Poors were among our ‘smart’ and ‘spicey’ friends, and many the good times we had at their expense. There was a saying that they kept a carpenter employed between them all the time, and their homes showed it. It seemed such a pity to me that the Stickney house should be torn down, when, by its being enlarged as it was, it was the most spacious and social of all the homes on Winter Hill. It had been used previously by Mr. Charles Strickland, who was greatly interested in the school work, and also at one time by the Riddles,—parents of the distinguished reader, George Riddle. The Brooks, I must not pass by. Mrs. Brooks was of delicate health, and did not mingle as much with others. Ex-Mayor Perry married the daughter. On the opposite side were Messrs. Oakman & Eldridge, whose houses, when building, it was thought would obstruct the view from the Edgerly mansion, and although they did to some extent, we could still see from the second story, right over their roofs down to the lower light in the harbor.

Mr. Zadoc Bowman lived next door, and though I do not associate him so much in town affairs, he gave us his son, Hon. Selwyn Z. Bowman, so well known in the affairs of the city.

Mr. S. A. Carleton came next, and was, I think, connected with the school board. Mr. Fitz lived and still lives next door to Mr. Carleton. He married into the Magoun family, and was brother to Mrs. Gilbert Tufts and Mrs. Nathan Tufts, 2d. Here I may say another daughter of Mr. Magoun married the nephew of Mrs. Edgerly, and was connected with Mr. Edgerly in his store for a time, and was a member of the household, Mr. Henry F. Woods, who was interested in the school committee, was one of the first of the common council, and also commissioner of the sinking fund.

Mr. William Tufts and Mr. Asa Tufts were among the older residents of the hill, but I don't recall anything especial about them—but they were kindly, pleasant neighbors. Mr. Jacob T. [43] Glines, though not exactly on the hill, was much interested in town affairs, and his third son has been your honored mayor for the past three or four years. The oldest son was sacrificed in the Civil War. I might go on indefinitely enumerating names of good friends around us, but I must close the list by simply the mention of the Downers, the other Woodburys, the Hardings, the Spencers, and Sawyers, etc., etc.

After leaving Winter Hill, Mr. Edgerly moved to East Somerville, where he.lived at 1 and 3 Webster street some years, and passed away January 20, 1872. His wife followed him about ten years later, and there now remain but two of the large family who so dearly loved the old spot that our infancy and childhood so fondly knew on Winter Hill.

There is an Edgerly schoolhouse on Cross street, East Somerville, and as long as it stands may it prove an honor to the honored memory of John S. Edgerly.

1 Mrs. Edgerly was the daughter of Moses and Lydia Watts Woods, and was born in Hillsboro, N. H., May 1, 1807. There were nine children. Mr. Woods figured quite prominently in military affairs, and was colonel of the Ninth New Hampshire regiment. His father, Moses Woods, 1st, was one of the forty at Concord Bridge who took up arms against the soldiers of King George III, April 19, 1775, and ‘fired the shot heard round the world.’ He later came with the regiment that marched to Roxbury March 4, 1776, and still later was first lieutenant in Colonel Samuel Bullard's regiment, that became part of the Northern army.

Mr.Edgerly and Mrs. Edgerly had three sons and five daughters: John Woods Edgerly, Annie E. W. Edgerly (now Mixer), Charles Brown Edgerly, Adine Franz Edgerly (afterwards Pratt), Helen Mar. Edgerly (now Despeaux), Edward Everett Edgerly, Madeline Lemalfa Edgerly, and Caroline Edgerly.

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