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Some old trees.—number 2

By Sara A. Stone1

(read before the Somerville Historical Society November 7, 1906.)

Have we any old trees in Somerville? Yes, a goodly number. It is difficult to find out the exact facts in many cases, but, counting individual trees, there are over forty which are at least 125 years old, and some of them must be older. Half of the number are red cedars, which may be found in West Somerville and in the neighborhood of Albion street, the location which was formerly known as ‘Polly Swamp.’ They look worn and dusty beside the fresh foliage of the deciduous trees, and bring to mind the lines of Dr. Holmes:—

Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both looking and feeling queer.

No doubt they are more than a hundred years old. Many of them are remembered by old residents in other parts of the city. One remembers them at the corner of Highland avenue and Walnut street, and adds, ‘They were considered a natural growth.’ [54]

A few trees, mostly elms, were silent witnesses of the events of the Revolution which took place on Somerville soil. Many, not now standing, overshadowed old homesteads which have long since been demolished, whose inmates left honored names. Here and there an apple or pear tree, or remains of an orchard, testify to the thrift of former days. This may have been prophetic of the saying of this generation, that ‘Somerville is a city of homes.’ Nowadays, however, few bridegrooms have an opportunity to plant a tree in honor of the bride.

It is said that in the early days these hills were wooded. A military map of 1775 is generously sprinkled over with marks meant to represent trees, indicating a wooded country. Another fact would bear out the assertion. The soldiers encamped here during the Revolution cut down so many trees, in their desperate efforts to be comfortable, that the inhabitants protested.

This fact and the lapse of time would make it highly improbable that even a single tree of the original woods is standing to-day. It would be safe to say that, with a few exceptions hereafter to be mentioned, all our trees have grown since the Revolution. Many will remember the beautiful trees which bordered the drive into the McLean Asylum grounds. These probably dated back to the time of Joseph Barrell, who sold the estate for a retreat for the insane in 1816.

On Washington street, below the railroad bridge, there stood a row of elms of handsome proportions, which were sacrificed when that thoroughfare was widened in 1873-4. Before that time the car track was located next the sidewalk, and the elms were between it and the roadway.

Above the bridge, near the corner of Medford street, once grew a tree of a very rare species for this part of the country, an English walnut. It was planted by a member of the Tufts family, and yielded many bushels of nuts in its day.

Further on in front of the Ives Hill house, was a Revolutionary elm, and in front of the Pope schoolhouse were three more. Here James Miller, ‘too old to run,’ was shot down by the British on their return from Lexington.

On the opposite side of the street, in a lot in the rear, is a gear tree, with a trunk more than a foot in diameter, which is in [55] the neighborhood of a hundred years old. It stood on the Shedd estate when a portion of it was purchased by Andrew Kidder eighty years ago.

A very large elm stands in the yard of the old Prospect Hill schoolhouse, near the foot of Bonner avenue, which is eighty or a hundred years old.

In a picture on the cover of the Somerville Journal Souvenir, published in 1901, is represented a tree of advanced age standing at the corner of Sanborn's grocery store in Union square, with a pump and drinking trough in front of it.

Two button-wood trees once grew in front of the house in Union square which was moved to make way for Pythian block. This spot was once part of the homestead of the Stone family. A few rods in from the square stood a very old pear tree and a few apple trees, doubtless part of an orchard.

Until a few years ago, back on the hill, on Columbus avenue, was a button-pear tree, said to have been over a hundred years old when it was cut down. Could it have been one of those pear trees mentioned by Miss Vinal in ‘The Flora of Somerville,’ which were believed to have grown from seeds scattered by the soldiers encamped on Prospect Hill during the Revolution? A pear tree is left among the shrubbery set out around the base of Prospect Hill park. This may be a descendant of those pear trees, which, together with locusts and red cedars, were common here a few years ago.

A group of willows and a fine button-wood tree once grew near the foot of Walnut street. A row of pear trees, with an apple orchard behind, extended from Walnut street to the Hawkins house on Bow street, where the Methodist church now is. A row of tall trees bordered each side of the walk to the house, one of them a thorn, a tree considered a rarity then. Two immense willows remained in recent years. Two large elms overshadowed the old Hawkins house on Washington street, near the railroad bridge.

The cemetery on Somerville avenue, the land for which was given by Samuel Tufts in 1804, has many interests. In it are two large willows, their trunks in an advanced stage of decay, and half their tops cut off, from the effects of an ice-storm five [56] or six years ago. A schoolhouse, called the Milk Row school, once stood on the front easterly corner, and it is said that a Revolutionary elm was cut down to afford room for the building.

Until the summer of 1905, a remarkably large sycamore tree stood at the foot of School street. It was six feet in diameter, the largest tree anywhere around. A lady ninety-one years of age remembers willow trees and other shrubbery growing in the cemetery near the Milk Row school, which she attended in her girlhood. She also remembers the custom among the scholars of sitting under a large sycamore tree at the foot of School street to eat their dinners on pleasant summer days, and that a large orchard grew in back of it. Doubtless this was an orchard planted by John Ireland, familiarly known as ‘Johnny Ireland’ by old residents and passing travelers, who stopped for rest and refreshment at his little store at the corner of School street.

Possibly the few apple trees now found in the vicinity of Landers street and Preston road, streets cut through the Ireland estate, are survivors of that orchard. The pear trees there were probably set out by George W. Ireland, a grandson, fifty years ago. He was greatly interested in pear-raising, and amateurs in the art used to come to him to name their varieties. When asked how many kinds he had, his reply was, ‘Fifty too many!’ The trees on the sidewalk were planted by him over forty years ago. They are elms and sycamore maples, alternating, the latter a variety imported from Europe about that time. A Lombardy poplar and a group of locusts also grew on the place.

His daughter writes: The sycamore, or button-wood, as we used to call it, was the last of four I remember. One stood near Knapp street, and was hollow, and, as a child, I used to play in it, and remember a fine powder that covered the floor of the cave. A third stood on the other side of School street, nearly opposite Preston road, and the fourth was behind the house as it then stood, a little ways up Preston road on the right. The latter had twin trunks, and I remember that one was blown down in a storm, and nearly escaped injuring the house; then, for safety, the remaining half was cut down. I used to look out of my bedroom window at the great speckled arms of the one [57] opposite the house, and the sight of a sycamore tree to-day carries me back to my earliest memories.

‘I remember an elm that was a landmark. It must have stood somewhere near Summit avenue and Vinal avenue. There was a stone wall running from Highland avenue to Bow street, and we used to go across the fields aiming for that tree by the wall, and from there across the old Revolutionary earthworks to the church on Cross street.’

There was a group of willows near the brook which crossed School street, between Summer and Berkeley streets. A pond at the corner of School street, where the drug store now is, was the delight of some ducks. A spring on the opposite corner, covered by a roof, furnished water which was carried to Cambridge through an aqueduct made of hollowed logs.

A row of ten elms of various sizes stands on Somerville avenue, between the Tube Works grounds and Park street. One of them, which appears much older than the rest, in front of the house formerly the headquarters of General Green, is one of two standing here which were of Revolutionary fame. Some of the others in the row, which in old times extended to the Middlesex Bleachery grounds, and numbered eighteen at the time of the widening of Somerville avenue in 1873-4, were set out by Samuel Tufts Frost about 1830. He carried them on his shoulder from the place where they grew.

A former resident of Laurel street remembers a large elm tree which loomed up from the vicinity of Dane's ledge, not probably very old, but noticeable, springing up from such unlikely surroundings.

The elm on Somerville avenue, near the foot of Central street, is one of the oldest in Somerville, and possibly the largest when in its prime. Twenty-five or thirty years ago some of the smaller branches from the centre of the tree nearly touched the ground. The widening of Somerville avenue brought the boundary line through the centre of the tree, and the change of grade left the large roots on the street side much above ground. These bulwarks were cut away, to the great injury of the tree, and this mutilation has caused it to age fast, [58]

A seat was built around the base on the sidewalk, and formed a convenient resting-place for travelers. When that was worn out, the roots themselves were used for the same purpose, and the bark is quite smooth from constant friction.

It was attaining its prime at the time of the march of the British to Lexington,—at least, this is the tradition in the family,—and shaded an old house, unoccupied at the time, which was removed to Garden court in 1869, and is still standing. On the return of the British it afforded shelter for a wounded soldier, probably the one said to have been buried across the street.

Another old house, where the Widow Rand lived, stood near the other corner of Central street. Her son Thomas, it is said, in 1778, at the age of eighteen, set out the elm which was standing there till 1894. This tree, after the widening of Somerville avenue, occupied the centre of the sidewalk, and the fence was carried inward to accommodate travel. James Shute, the owner of the land at that time, was so interested to have the tree preserved, that he offered the use of his land for the sidewalk, that the tree might be kept as long as possible.

At one time, many years ago, a party of young people, some of them descendants of Thomas Rand, were passing there, when some one remarked, ‘We ought to take off our hats to this tree,’ and it was done. It was one of the few trees in Somerville old enough to command the homage of a younger generation, the members of which were directly descended from the one who had planted it. It was cut down to make way for building, and was found to be still sound to the core. Some of the wood was saved for the purpose of making chairs as mementos, and they are owned by descendants of the Rand family.

Up ‘the lane,’ as Central street was once called, on what are now the Unitarian parsonage grounds, grew a large wild pear tree, whose fruit made delicious preserves, and also, tempted the boys, for their depredations often roused the then owner of the tree to indignation and strong language. The diameter of the tree was more than two feet at the time it was cut down, about fifteen years ago. Its removal was watched with interest by one who had remembered it from boyhood, and was an unusual spectacle, as it was cut down intact, and went to pieces like the [59] ‘Deacon's One-Hoss Shay.’ Before the top had touched the ground, the small twigs were broken into inch pieces, and after it had landed, a cloud of dust arose.

Old apple trees in the pasture known as Shute's field, on Central street, before it was cut up into house lots, were part of the Rand orchard. A very old apple tree on the easterly side of the street, the one shown in the frontispiece, which was made from a picture taken in ‘war-time,’ is still cared for by a member of the Rand family.

Benjamin Rand set out the row of maples next to the street, on the parsonage lawn, some time between 1850 and 1860. Columbus Tyler afterwards set out many others of different varieties on this place.

Rev. Augustus R. Pope began the good work of planting trees on the estate on the corner of Summer and Central streets, now owned by Henry Baker, about 1850. When it passed into the hands of Nathan Tufts, about 1860, there were many varieties, forty, between the gate and the front door. These were thinned out in after years, and others were planted in various parts of the grounds by Mr. Tufts. The horse-chestnut in the circle in the driveway was planted in 1844 in East Somerville, and transplanted here about 1860. The tulip tree, a gift of John K. Hall, was also removed a little later. A remark made by Mr. Hall that it would always be in blossom the Seventeenth of June was never forgotten. The larch trees, now so straight and tall, illustrate an old proverb, amended, ‘As the twig is un-bent, the tree is inclined,’ for one of them was tied to a broomstick when small to make it straight. The apple trees in the lower garden were moved from the grounds of N. E. Fitz on Winter Hill.

Old apple trees a few steps up Summer street challenge inquiry. One of them, on what was once the Thomas Brackett place, was brought there, a good-sized tree, in 1852-3 or 4.

In the fall of 1847, or the spring of 1848, fruit trees and an elm were set out on Harvard street, at the corner of the westerly part of Chestnut court, by Samuel Brackett. They probably came from some nursery. The tree next to the corner was set out by Lebbeus Stetson about 1850. The tree was quite large, and Mr. Stetson was laughed at when he insisted that it could [60] be transplanted and live. The price paid for it was $6, and it was brought from a tract of land just across the railroad, very near the Franklin school. It out-topped the others in the court.

The apple trees on Ezra Robinson's place near by, on Spring street, now owned by John M. Woods, were good-sized trees in 1847.

The well-known ‘Round House,’ built by Enoch Robinson in 1850, has near it an elm set out by him soon after, and a double birch tree, which grew up of its own accord. A sweetbrier rose, brought from Polly Swamp, tempts the children in the springtime with its lovely blossoms.

At the foot of Spring street a tree of Revolutionary date stood in front of the old Kent house. A large willow once grew near Pitman street, and was the scene of many good times remembered by scholars of the Franklin school. The girls used to sit in the branches, which spread out near the ground, and the boys made whistles of the twigs, which led to trouble in school later.!

The Franklin school yard, now a playground, is well stocked with shade trees, which were set out under the supervision of the school committtee in 1849 or 1850. One of the scholars recollects that Deacon Charles Forster, so well remembered by residents of Winter Hill, was on the school committee and had a prominent part in the work. Another scholar remembers the willows at the foot of the yard in 1847. None are there now, but two or three peep over the high fence of the Bleachery, and a row of them probably once thrived on the border of a creek there.

A walk along Elm street reveals a thoroughfare in keeping with its name. A row of aged pine trees, however, on the corner of Cedar street gives a little diversion to the fancy. These pine trees were probably set out by John Tufts, son of that John Tufts whose house on Sycamore street has long been a landmark. Mr. Tufts lived for some time in the old house which stood on this estate until within a few years. There were some cedar trees in the front yard. Cedar street was probably named from the great number of cedars growing in the vicinity. Years ago it was a pasture, known as the ‘cedar pasture,’ and was owned and [61] used by Thomas Rand, whose grandsons drove the cows there and gathered wild rose leaves for distilling.

Old residents remember a small, round pond, with an island and solitary pine tree, just beyond Cedar street on the left. John Tufts set out the pine tree, it is said, and the place was a playground for the boys of the neighborhood. As is often the case, at one time they wished to build a fire. The tree was still small, and, with unusual thoughtfulness, they inverted a barrel over it to protect it from the heat. Pond, tree, and island are now things of the past, and looking at the spot, now built over with houses, it is difficult to see where a local poet drew his inspiration for the following poem, one of many dainty productions from the pen of a lifelong resident of Somerville, nearly, Lewis C. Flanagan:—

Pine Island Pond.

Tis even so; within our city's bounds
We have a pond; not one with bottom paved
And edges curbed with stone, but rough and plain
From Nature's hand; nor large, nor deep, yet still
A pond; and equi-distant from its shores
An island stands; and though a modest lump
Of earth, that may not be compared with those
On which the salt waves lay their angry hands,
By geographic rule as much an isle
As Cuba's slope or Iceland's stormy pile.

The urchin small, when asked to give at school
Description of an isle, forgets his text;
At which the teacher leads his truant mind
To this, the spot which he himself has seen
That very day; and though the growing boy
Soon scorns to build upon domestic ground,
But names some vasty pillar of the sea,
The teacher tries again with younger minds,
And smiles, perhaps, to see the lads refuse
To own the step they once did gladly use.

[62] From out the turf a solitary pine
Sends up its bristling spire to heaven;
Its branches gently wave with summer winds,
And bend and break to winter's ruder blast;
Among its fragrant boughs the blackbird rears
Her young; and in his pilgrimage the crow
Will tarry long upon its tufty top;
But not alone the “feathered tribe” possess
The tree, for at its roots two muskrats have their home,
And oft abroad for food and pleasure roam.

But now must close the pond's romantic praise;
The red deer comes not now to bathe his flanks,
Nor does the Wampanoag send across
The wave his birchen keel. If erst they did
Frequent the spot, they leave no sign; but in
Their stead the docile heifer seeks the tide
To slake her thirst: while on the shore the frog
Sings pensive roundelays at day's decline;
Yet, e'en with these, the eye is sometimes fond
Of resting on the pine, the isle, the pond.

Continuing up Elm street, we come to the home of Timothy Tufts. Here are two large elm trees which were set out by Mr. Tufts' grandfather before the Revolution. On a knoll several rods back from Elm street is another old elm, notable for its size and thrifty condition, which was set out at or soon after the time he built a modest cottage there at his marriage in 1761. The tree is best seen from Banks street. Inquiry brings out the existence of another tree, a pear tree still bearing, which was also set out by Mr. Tufts' grandfather. A very large red cedar, whose trunk was more than a foot in diameter, once grew on Willow avenue not far away.

From Willow avenue to Davis square was a tract known as ‘Rand's woods.’ In the sixties it was a resort for enthusiasts in botany. A little further north, where the power-house now is, was another ‘cedar pasture,’ owned, as were the woods, by Benjamin Rand, of North Cambridge. Mrs. Rand was wont to [63] say that probably many a sermon had been rehearsed in the ‘cedar pasture.’ In the rear of the houses on Hall avenue is a group of these cedar trees, twelve in number, which may or may not have been set in place, they are so nearly on the boundary line. They seem like stranded waifs from the past looking on in wonder at the prosperity around them.

A large cherry tree on Cameron avenue has for a long time attracted the attention of an occasional passer-by by its size, knotted trunk and branches. Residents are so used to it they think nothing of it, except in cherry-time, when it is besieged by boys. It measures ten feet, four inches in circumference. It is one of three fine-fruited trees which grew here, together with many other excellent varieties of fruit, on what is best known as the Hayes estate. By rough calculation, it must be about seventy-five years old. The Hayes estate of fifty acres was purchased of Philemon Russell, and was remembered by a lady, now deceased, as an extremely pleasant place to visit sixty years or more ago. The cherry trees, red and black ox-hearts, golden porters, and other delicious varieties, a well, and a waving field of mowing, with a cart-path through it, left such an impression that, in after years, when in search of a place for a home, her thoughts turned to this spot, and she was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a lot here. During the Rebellion this tract of level field was used as a camp and drill-ground for soldiers, and was called Camp Cameron.

A large elm on the sidewalk in front of the Baptist Church on College avenue is well on towards a hundred years old, according to one who remembers it as a large tree in his boyhood. It grew up naturally along by the stone wall. A large elm further on, in front of an old house known as the Hall house, now demolished, still holds its own. There was an old elm tree at the junction of College avenue and Broadway.

On Broadway, nearly up to Clarendon Hill, is a group of beautiful trees, which seem like an old-time family, with its patriarchs and young people. Some of these trees have doubtless seen the fortunes of more than a hundred years. The largest one is nearly opposite Simpson avenue, and the trunk measures [64] thirteen feet in circumference. A near-by resident says: ‘It was a fine, spreading tree, whose branches came down nearly to the ground, so that the children of the Walnut Hill school used to swing on them. There was a pond near, but the sewers have drained it. Of the elms on the Walnut Hill school lot, adjoining on the east, the largest one grew up naturally; the others were set out by the town probably about 1849 or 1850.’

The elm in the yard nearly opposite this group of trees is almost 100 years old. The above-mentioned writer tells this story of it:

I have heard my mother say, after she came here, sixty-six years ago, there was a man who, when he drove by, would stop his team, jump over the stone wall, and clasp his hands around the tree to see how much it had grown. He said, one Sunday, when walking out with a girl, they pulled up two switches, and set them out. His died, but hers lived. They did not know the man, and he came but seldom.

One very cold winter's day father decided to cut the elm down. He ground the axe and came into the house to whet it by the fire. Mother did not want the tree cut down, and kept him busy talking till it was too dark. Next day there was other work, so the tree was spared.

A small elm was removed from this locality by Lorenzo W. Dow about 1852, and stands, a notable tree, in his yard on the top of Clarendon Hill.

On the golf grounds there is a stump of a chestnut tree, four or five feet long, and a yard in diameter, with new growth springing from the old root. The writer's theory in regard to this is, that it may have been a sapling left at the time the original woods were cut. Calculations based on the average rate of growth of chestnut trees would bring the age of this tree to 120 years at the time it was cut down, now many years ago, and carry the date of it back to the time of the Revolution. If this is correct reasoning, there is a chance to preserve in one of the young shoots a real child of the forest.

(To be continued.)

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