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The Jonathan Watson house.

WHILE the present issue of the Register has been in preparation one of Medford's old houses has been demolished, preparatory to extensive improvements in the immediate vicinity.

Built by Jonathan Watson in 1738, it has, till within the past eleven years, been constantly occupied, and is worthy of more than a cursory notice.

When first erected, the Watson house had but four finished rooms, two on each floor, and two unfinished attics, the latter lighted by one window in each gable, and was of the gambrel roof type, then so much in favor. Its front door opened between the rooms into an entry, which, with the winding staircase, only occupied about a third the width of the house, the rest being filled by the massive chimney and fireplaces. The latter were at last small, having been bricked in on all sides, and underneath the massive wooden beam extending across the top and built into the masonry. According to the ancient custom of joinery, the entire end of each room next the chimney was of panelled wood-work, and the staircases mortised and tenoned so as to be self-supporting, though the lower flight had later a closet built under. The panel work was carefully removed, to be used in the renovation of the slave quarters at the Royall House.

The exterior of the house presented a quaint appearance, with its long and narrow, small-paned windows, the colonial doorway, and the weather boarding extending to the corner angles without the usual and more modern corner board.

Mr. Watson gave the west half of the house to his daughter, Abigail, the widow of Samuel Angier, probably [p. 60] by will, though we have not ascertained the date of his demise. Mrs. Angier kept a ‘dame's school’ in her only first-floor room at some time after her husband's death.

The eastern portion went to Mr. Watson's son Jonathan, who, with his sister, sold the property and moved to Upper Medford, now known as Symmes' Corner in Winchester. Timothy Fitch was the purchaser, and was then a resident of Boston and Nantucket. He never lived in this house, and it would seem that he purchased for investment. Later he became a resident of Medford, buying the home of Parson Turell not long after the latter's death, which occured in 1778.

Mr. Fitch enlarged the house by building at its rear, extending the new portion by the ends of the original house, and building a large chimney therein. This part was divided into numerous rooms, and sheds extended backward. He did not remove the old gambrel roof, but covered the new portion with a roof of one continuous slope backward, the rafters being fitted against the older ones. The attics of the older part were roughly plastered between the joists and the mode of construction easily seen.

In his turn he gave the eastern half next the meetinghouse to his son Charles, then a bachelor, and the west-tern to his daughter, also an Abigail. She is said to have lived and died a ‘quasi’ widow, for her Scotch husband, Hugh Tarbett, was a Loyalist, and decamped with the Tories in 1776.

Charles Fitch rented his half to General John Brooks (afterwards and for seven years governor), who had taken up the practice of medicine in Medford after the Revolution. It was here that he was living when President Washington visited him while on his New England tour, in October, 1789, coming from Boston early in the morning, and going from Medford to Salem.

The Medford schoolhouse was then close by and the school kept by Mr. Prentiss. He ranged his young charges before the house, each holding a quill that the [p. 61] illustrious visitor might know that they were school children. Seventy years afterward the testimony of aged residents—these former school children—was gathered up by one interested, and incidents carefully noted. Of these written, but unpublished, notes we mention a few. One who was then a young miss tells how gaily she was attired, and speaks of the polite bow the President accorded her as he passed her home. Another, a boy, and of course interested in horses, tells of the cavalcade of gentlemen that escorted Washington from Boston, and how the horses were cared for at his father's stable, where is now the vacant Magoun mansion. Another girl remembers her elders of the women telling how General Brooks requested Mrs. Brooks to have Indian corn cakes for breakfast, knowing his superior's especial liking therefor.

In after years, when a Medford boy visited Governor Brooks, who took great pride in his garden and was taking the boy about it, the Governor told him with much pleasure of his illustrious visitor, remarking that it was their last interview.

The house had a succession of tenants till in 1810 Samuel Swan became its owner and occupant, dying at sea in 1823. His widow Margaret, commonly called Peggy, Swan, continued to reside there and rented a portion of the house until her passing away.

Of the occupants during the past fifty years we can speak with certainty of but one, the last, Cleopas Johnson, who died there on December 17, 1902. He was a carpenter and builder and a thorough mechanic, as was also his partner and brother, Theophilus. The brothers were familiarly called ‘Cope’ and ‘Tope’ by all the old-timers of Medford. Cleopas outlived his brother. When the Unitarian Church was burned he rang the bell in alarm until the rope burned off and fell, useless.

The old Watson house has been a near neighbor to three houses of worship: the last built by the town; the Unitarian, built in 1839 (on which was the old Paul Revere [p. 62] bell and the clock given by Peter C. Brooks, both in service on the former house and destroyed by the fire); and the present stone edifice of the First Parish.

Since Cleopas Johnson's death the house has been unoccupied and falling into decay. It is now to give place to dwellings of modern type and containing such accessories and conveniences as were little dreamed of when Mr. Watson built it or Doctor Brooks entertained America's first President within its walls.

The room that was the doctor's office was very unpretentious as compared with those of modern practitioners, but the fireplace where the corn cakes were cooked for Washington's breakfast was a substantial one of generous size, and supported by a massive arch in the cellar. These were in the newer part added by Timothy Fitch. The fireplaces in the original house were much larger, and the one in the west room had the ‘chimney corner’ where the old people sat snugly ensconced beside the fire which roared up the great chimney. In this the mantle-tree was an oaken stick nine by twelve inches in size and over ten feet long. This fireplace was at first nearly three feet deep, and at two subsequent times was reduced in size by building smaller fireplaces within and shutting off the chimney corner.

The various stages of alteration were clearly defined, lime mortar being used in these, while the chimney itself was of a different kind of bricks, laid in clay mortar, with square tile for hearths.

The house was at the time of its erection a pretentious one as to style, and had the peculiarity of long windows reaching the ceiling, with blinds on the outside, made in one leaf instead of two. Some of these still remained. Probably those of two leaves that were in such marked contrast to the former replaced those destroyed in the great tornado of 1851.

The outside finish about the front door was an elaborate piece of workmanship, while the door, of more modern construction, had on its inside the old-fashioned [p. 63] ‘barn-door hinges’ of wrought iron, probably made by the village blacksmith of long ago.

About 1830 a swarm of bees took possession of a vacant space in the roof near the attic floor, remaining there several years. In the demolition of the house the workmen found evidences of the same on the boards and timbers.1

As we noticed the detail of construction and the demolition of this old landmark that has housed so many and notable people, we wondered if the workmen of today will erect their modern buildings so they may last as long as has the Jonathan Watson house that overlooked the old training green in Medford.

1 See Register, Vol. XI, page 46, for an account of same.

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