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Land on Barberry Lane.

By Aaron Sargent.
The land which is the theme of this story was owned by Patrick T. Jackson, of Boston, seventy years since. He was a wealthy and prominent business man, one of the projectors of the Boston & Lowell Railroad, and was named in the act of its incorporation in the year 1830.

In 1835, Jackson sold the property to William True and Jacob Sleeper. It was described by metes and bounds, and is the only full description of the whole of the premises on record. The boundaries given are, condensed, beginning at a corner of the Craigie Road, so called, leading to Medford, and of a rangeway between this parcel of land and the land of Fosdick; thence running southwesterly on and by said rangewax to a lane; thence on said lane northwesterly to land of John Tufts; thence northeasterly on land of said Tufts; thence southeastern (by the Boston & Lowell Railroad); thence easterly; thence southeasterly on and by said Craigie's Road, and thence easterly to the first-named bounds; containing 13 acres, 3 qrs., and 21.82 rods.

In 1836, Sleeper conveyed his undivided half part to Amos and Abbott Lawrence, brothers, well and favorably known in Boston a half century and more ago. Subsequently the Lawrences reconveyed to Sleeper. True conveyed his interest to Ezra Mudge, and he conveyed to Sleeper, who thereby became sole owner of the nearly fourteen acres. Sixty years ago Jacob Sleeper was in the wholesale clothing business in Boston, with Andrew Carney, whose name is perpetuated by the Carney Hospital. The firm was Carney & Sleeper, and their place of business was in Ann Street, now North Street, and they supplied the United States government with clothing for the army or navy, or perhaps both. It comes within my recollection to say [74] that both were considered as honorable and upright men of business; but this was no novelty at that time.

In 1844, Sleeper made an agreement with Orr N. Towne, representing the then new Unitarian society, to convey to it a parcel of land, called on Prospect Hill, and the erection of a church was commenced. The next year the agreement was carried into effect and the land was conveyed to the First Congregational society in Somerville. It was described as being on Prospect Hill, ‘on the street which passes the new church, running from Spring Hill, Central Street, to Medford Street,’ and was said to contain half an acre. The city bought this land in 1893.

In 1845, Jacob Sleeper and others, abutters, released from their respective estates to the town of Somerville strips of land for the widening of a rangeway, ‘formerly known as Barberry Lane, running from Medford Street, near the house of Edwin Munroe, Jr., and passing Mr. Thorpe's house, and the new Unitarian church, to the Ireland rangeway.’

In 1851, Sleeper sold to the town land described as being on the corner of Church Street, for a high school house. The second story of the building erected was used as a high school till 1872. The lower story, in an unfinished condition, was used several years for town business, and for purposes of amusement. The lot of land contained about a half of an acre.

In the same year (1851), Sleeper sold to Isaac F. Shepard land adjoining the church land, containing about an acre. Shepard mortgaged back to Sleeper, then sold the equity to Thomas J. Lee, who subsequently quit-claimed to Sleeper, and he thereby again became the owner.

In 1859, Sleeper sold Shepard another lot of land. It adjoined the then high school house land. In 1860, George W. Coleman, as assignee of Shepard, sold this lot to Chester Guild, who in 1868 sold to Benjamin Hadley, and he in the same year sold to Elizabeth S. Fenno. In 1870, Fenno sold to John R. Poor, and he sold to the town of Somerville. The lot contined about a half an acre. Several prominent men in town had been interested in having the whole of Mr. Sleeper's original [75] purchase belong, eventually, to Somerville. My recollection of this Fenno land transaction is that John R. Poor and Robert A. Vinal, acting in concert, concluded to buy the land, if they could, trusting to the town's taking it off their hands; and all this was accomplished. There were some persons in town at the time who did not hesitate to assert that the two purchasers made a sum of money on the sale to the town, but the statement was absolutely false. They made nothing, and a more unselfish act by unselfish men was never performed, than the act of John P. Poor and Robert A. Vinal, by which Somerville came into possession of the Fenno land.

On the third of May, 1869, in town meeting, on motion of Clark Bennett, it was voted that the selectmen be instructed and authorized to purchase a piece of land on Highland Avenue, which, in their judgment, shall be suitable for a town hall with town offices, and for an engine house; and on the 29th of the same month, the selectmen having received three several propositions to sell to the town the land contemplated by its vote, accepted, the finance committee acquiescing, the one for a parcel on the corner of Highland Avenue and Walnut Street, having a frontage of 450 feet on Highland Avenue, and extending back on a line parallel with Walnut Street, to Medford Street, containing about three and a half acres.

In 1870, Sleeper sold to George W. Coleman and the late William H. Brine all the remaining land of his original purchase, and in a few days these two sold the premises to the town of Somerville. There is quite a story connected with the transfers of this last piece of property. A short time before the sale and purchase of this remaining parcel, Mr. Brine, who lived near by, conceived the idea that some one might deem it an object to buy the land in anticipation of its being wanted by the town. He thought of Mr. Coleman and suggested it to him. It seemed feasible to Mr. Coleman, and he wanted Mr. Brine to join him in the purchase; ‘but,’ said Mr. Brine, ‘I cannot, for I have no money.’ ‘I will furnish that,’ said Mr. Coleman; and so the land was bought. The consideration in the deed was $25,000, but this may not have been the exact sum. Then came [76] a move to have an article inserted in the warrant for the next town meeting, to see if the town would authorize the purchase from Messrs. Coleman and Brine. Mr. Brine was naturally active in the matter, and may have been one of the prime movers in the whole transaction, for his interest in it as a business affair was of the utmost importance to him.

An active part was taken by John R. Poor, not only in the preliminary proceedings, but also in the transactions which led to the completion of the purchase, and much credit is due to him. in furtherance of this scheme of purchase, an article was inserted in the warrant for a town meeting to be held on the 11th of June, 1870, when, on a motion made by myself, though the fact had long ago been forgotten, and was only brought to mind, recently, by an examination of the records, it was voted ‘that a committee of five be appointed by the chairman, who shall be, and they are, hereby authorized to purchase a lot of land situated on Highland Avenue, School and Medford Streets, and the Boston & Lowell Railroad, and adjoining land already owned by the town, and that the sum of thirty-four thousand dollars be appropriated therefor; said land to be used for any purpose for which it may be required by the town.’ Then on a motion, naturally made by the same person, as he was a member of the finance committee of the town, it was voted that the treasurer be authorized, with the approval of the finance committee, to borrow $34, ()00.

The committee appointed by the chairman or moderator to make the purchase consisted of John R. Poor, chairman, Reuben E. Demmon, Charles H. Guild, Christopher E. Rymes, and Oren S. Knapp,—all representative men in Somerville. The land,—about eight and one-half acres,—was purchased for $33,683.70, and the whole transaction was perfectly legitimate, straightforward, and honorable on the part of all concerned,— grantors and grantee. This last sale and purchase comprised all the land of the original Sleeper purchase of 1835, not at that tine owned by the town; except the Fenno lot, which was bought a few months later, and the land of the First Congregational society, which was not bought till 1893, [77]

This, then, is the story of Land on Barberry Lane. Its area now, as seventy years ago, is intact. Its original boundaries still remain, and the highways and the railroad that held it then in their rigid grasp, hold it now. The names of these highways, it is true, have been changed, but that is all. Barberry Lane is now Highland Avenue; a rangeway (erroneously called land of John Tufts in the deed) is School Street; the aristocratic Boston & Lowell Railroad, with its original par value of $5100 per share for its stock, is now substantially the Boston & Maine Railroad; Craigie Road leading to Medford is Medford Street, and a rangeway separating the land from land of Fosdick is now Walnut Street.

Of the nine men who were active in the purchase of the large tract of land in 1870, only one is now living, the member of the finance committee already mentioned.

Future generations will pass over and stand upon our Central Hill, and not a person will know, perhaps, what thought, and time, and painstaking were required that Somerville might become the possessor of that sightly and historic spot.

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