The Early Years
The story of Medfield begins in Dedham, which originally included the territory that is now Medfield as well as the territory now embraced by Dedham, Norwood, Walpole, Norfolk, Wrentham, Franklin Bellingham, Dover, Needham and parts of Natick and Hyde Park. Dedham was incorporated in 1636, and by 1640 Dedham men started harvesting the grass that grew in the meadows along the Charles River. These grasses became important for feeding the cattle and livestock back on the Dedham farms. Our area was first known as Dedham Village.
In November of 1649 Dedham held a town meeting that approved laying out an area for a new town. This was accomplished in the early spring of 1650, and very nearly corresponds with the boundaries of the present town. Also included in the layout of the new town of Medfield was a grant by the General Court of land west of the Charles River, now Medway and Millis. Both the Dedham grant and the General Court grant were included in the new town of Medfield. The thirteen original settlers paid fifty pounds to the inhabitants of Dedham in compensation for the land.
Ralph Wheelock, a graduate of Cambridge University and considered the founder of Medfield, proceeded with Thomas Wright and Robert Hinsdale to the new settlement, which was finally incorporated as the 43rd town in Massachusetts on June 2, 1651. Twenty additional men were accepted as townsmen and grants of land made to them that same year.
Education was very important from the start of the settlement. In 1655 the settlers voted fifteen pounds “to establish a schoule for the education of the children and was held in the homes of townspeople.” Ralph Wheelock became the first schoolmaster. The first schoolhouse was built in 1666 on the south corner of Janes Avenue and North Street. A later school on Pleasant Street was named after Ralph Wheelock, as is the present elementary school on Elm Street.
King Philip’s War
By 1660 the town was laid out and new families admitted, thus increasing the population to 234. During King Philip’s War in 1675, Medfield became the frontier town when Mendon was abandoned. On February 21, 1676, somewhere between 300–1,000 Native Americans—under the command of Monoco—burned 32 houses, two mills and many barns.
Seventeen Colonists were killed, including Timothy Dwight, the original owner of the Dwight-Derby House on Frairy Street. An unknown number of Native Americans were also killed. Two streets serve as a reminder of those fateful days─Philip and Metacomet (Philip’s native name). After King Philip was killed in August of 1676, the indomitable settlers rebuilt and repaired the damage to their farms and mills, with monetary assistance and relief from taxes from the provincial legislature.
The Revolutionary War
Patriotic fervor was evident in 1774 when the town sponsored Minutemen to fight in the battles of Lexington and Concord, although they did not arrive in time to fight. One hundred and fifty-four Medfield men, however, fought during the Revolutionary War and three gave their lives for American independence. That made the ratio of soldiers one for every five of population. By 1787 a new oath was required of the town officers who renounced loyalty to the king and swore allegiance to the new sovereign, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Industry Takes Root
In 1800 the population of the town reached 745 and small industries began to take root. Straw manufacturing commenced in town for the first time in 1801 when Johnson Mason and George Ellis began manufacturing straw bonnets in what later became known as the Lowell Mason house. The manufacture of hats became the principal industry of the town until well into the 1950s. At its height, the E.V. Mitchell Hat Factory was the second largest straw and felt hat factory in the country, employing over 1,000 workers─more than the population of the town itself. Workers came from as far away as Maine and Canada to work at the North Street plant.
Other small industries included the manufacture of cut nails, a fork factory, a company for the manufacture of boots, a wire factory, a box factory and a substantial company manufacturing horse-drawn carriages. Known as Baker-Cushman Carriage, the carriages made there were sold throughout New England.
Throughout this time most of Medfield’s population growth was by natural increase. Small numbers of Irish immigrants came here in the 1850s to work as maids in Medfield homes and a small number would continue to enter the town into the 20th century. Italian immigrants came in a shorter span of time from the early 1900s into the 1920s and settled along Frairy Street.
The Civil War
The people of Medfield prepared to fight in the Civil War with the same patriotic fervor that was seen here during the Revolutionary War. Over 82 men served in the Army and Navy and 14 men gave their lives for the preservation of the Union. Noted abolitionist Ellis Allen lived here on 260 North Street and his house and barn became one of the prime stops on the Underground Railroad.
19th Century Transportation
In 1806 the Hartford and Dedham Turnpike was established and its stagecoaches stopped at Clark’s Tavern, next door to the Peak House. The stage route through Medfield was known as the Middle Post Road, but the Upper Post Road through Sudbury was preferred by travelers because it provided better taverns. The first train of passenger cars came to Medfield in August of 1861 and ran from Medfield to Boston.
By 1870, trains also commenced running on the Framingham & Mansfield railroad. The junction of the two lines, off Adams and West Mill Street, became an important “Junction” train station for Medfield residents. The trolley was here, running from Dedham through Medfield to Medway, Franklin, Mendon and points west, from 1899 until it was put out of business by the automobile in 1924.
Famous Medfield People
Early American historian and pioneer in the field of comparative religion Hannah Adams was born in Medfield in 1755 and resided at 49 Elm Street. She was the first female American author to make a living from writing and lobbied for the United States’ first copyright law, passed in 1790. Some of her works include: An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day, A View of Religions, A Summary History of New England, The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited, History of the Jews, Letters on the Gospels, and the final edition of her first work, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations.
Musician and composer Lowell Mason was born here in 1792 and resided on North Street opposite the intersection of Dale Street. He would go on to become the first in America to receive the degree of Doctor of Music. Because of Mason’s initiatives and persistence, music today is now a part of the curriculum of nearly every school in America and many of his 1,600-plus hymns are still sung in churches around the world.
By the 1800s, the town had already established itself as a location for artists and musicians. Noted artist Dennis Miller Bunker resided here at Tannery Farm (661 Main Street) as did musicians Charles Martin Loeffler in his home at 274 South Street and James Carroll Bartlett, who lived at 3 Causeway Street and is buried in Vine Lake Cemetery.
George Innes, one of America’s great landscape artists, painted Medfield Meadows, Evening in Medfield, and his famous Peace and Plenty during his stay here from 1859 to 1864. His house and studio at 406R Main Street are now on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of his paintings are the property of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The Medfield Asylum
Medfield remained a small, stable, homogeneous agricultural community into the 20th century. In 1896, the establishment of the Medfield Asylum, later called Medfield State Hospital, would have a profound impact on the town, creating an economic center called Harding, which was named after the Harding family one of the first Medfield families to reside there. The hospital, built on 425 acres of land in the northwest corner of the town, would grow in population to be greater than that of the town. It was not until the 1960s, which heralded the beginning of changes in mental health treatment methods and laws, that the hospital’s population began to fall; a decline that continued until it was closed in 2003.
The town is currently in negotiations with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over the future of the hospital site. Current plans include 444 units of a variety of housing from single family to assisted living to low income. The final outcome of the hospital site will have a profound impact on the town.
The 20th Century
At the time of the 250th anniversary in 1901, Medfield was still a lovely village with green fields, lush meadows and winding rivers. Medfield had grown to 1,600 residents, not counting the residents at the state hospital. It was a typical New England town consisting of 335 dwellings. A tax rate of 1.1 percent based on town-wide valuation of $1,454,265 met the appropriated obligation of $17,347. Education had the highest share of the town budget: $5,375.
Medfield had three public schools. The Centre School, later named the Ralph Wheelock School, held all grades and served the village area of town. The Lowell Mason School at the corner of North and School Streets, generally holding grades 1 through 6, served the North District and the Hannah Adams School at the corner of High and South Streets, also generally holding grades 1 through 6, served the South District. Medfield High School was first officially established on March 24, 1870, and was located in the Centre School/Ralph Wheelock School on Pleasant Street, which burned down in 1940.
Long before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, Medfield encouraged the voting rights of women. In 1900, seven women paid a poll tax and qualified to vote in local elections. As early as 1881, women voted for the school committee and by 1916 women were permitted to serve on the school committee, as trustees of the public library and as overseers of the poor. When the state constitution was amended to conform to the Federal law, 48 of the 381 votes were cast by women.
In 1900 the importance of farming was reflected in personal property taxes, which were levied on 431 cows, 64 other cattle, 31 swine, 1,637 fowl and 256 horses. Associated trades and small industry, such as three sawmills and slaughter houses, a tannery and two cider mills, were flourishing trades.
The 20th century also saw buses and automobiles begin to replace steam and electric trains. The town sold its electric company in 1906 to the Boston Electric Illuminating Company and in 1921 the town took over the operation of the Medfield Water Company. In 1924, the town established a Planning Board to prevent haphazard growth. That same year the Peak House was restored.
Medfield’s sons and daughters participated in spirit and large numbers in both World War I and II. Eight Medfield men lost their lives in World I and ten in World War II. Following WWII, thanks in part to the GI Bill, large numbers of homes were built and then bought by young families. Medfield’s first subdivision was begun in 1948 in the Summer Street and Pine Street area. The large families that followed swelled the enrollment in the schools, causing new schools to be built. The housing boom continued into the 1970s, giving the town a more suburban look.
Attempts to conserve green areas came with the establishment of the Conservation Commission in 1962. In 1964, a Master Plan was undertaken to plan for projected growth. Medfield has continued to grow into a desirable, residential suburb. New subdivisions are developed in a controlled fashion and industrially zoned land has been limited to clean light industry.
In 1975 voters supported the purchase of some 260 acres of land off Causeway Street and Noon Hill Road, in the area known as Noon Hill. Today it is a vast area of conservation land, forest, ponds and streams. It is an invaluable resource for the town of Medfield. The town saved tenfold the cost of that land against what the cost of town services would have been and future generations will reap the benefits of that far-sighted action.
The year 1977 may well be regarded as a landmark year for conservation in Medfield. The Conservation Commission and town voters supported Congressional action turning over the wetlands all along the Charles River to the U.S. Government for a Natural Valley Storage as a way to ensure that our major wetlands are never filled in. This area serves as a vast sponge to store water in the spring and in the event of storms, reducing the possibility of flood damage in Boston and saving the Massachusetts taxpayers great expense in not having to build a dam in the lower Charles River area.
Agreements worked out guaranteed the town direct control over its recreational use. The protected area includes 75 percent of all existing wetlands in the Charles River watershed. Protection of the Charles River wetlands has provided numerous additional benefits to communities like Medfield throughout the basin. Without protection, the Corps estimated that 40 percent of all existing wetlands at the time would have been lost to development by 1990.
Preserving Our Historic Places
The Medfield Historical Commission was established as a part of the town government in the early 1970s. The commission is appointed by the board of selectmen and serves as an advocate for preserving the town’s rich history so valued by residents. A town meeting vote in 1992 approved the demolition delay bylaw, administered by the historical commission. It’s the commission’s most important tool for preserving the town’s historic assets: it prevents a developer from summarily tearing down an historic property without taking the time to explore alternatives to demolition.
Medfield passed an historic district bylaw and created the John Metcalf Historic District during the 1989 annual town meeting. This first historic district included four houses on West Main Street and the oldest portion of Vine Lake Cemetery. The district was enlarged to include a total of sixteen historic buildings in 1996.
The second historic district, established in 1994, included 33 buildings at the Medfield State Hospital and the historic landscape surrounding the buildings. A third district, the Clark-Kingsbury Farm Historic District on Spring Street, was approved at the 1997 town meeting. This provides some protection to the unique grouping of the 18th century farm house, outbuildings and pond with grist mill. A fourth historic district covers much of the center of town.
The voters of Medfield have committed themselves to several significant projects downtown. Having agreed to purchase land for a post office site a year earlier, in 1996 the town went forward with plans to build a new post office, to completely renovate the Town Hall and to construct a major addition to the library. The Town Hall, library and post office were completed in 1998.
Also in 1996, the town assisted the Historical Society in its efforts to save the Dwight-Derby House from destruction by purchasing the property. Shortly afterwards the Friends of the Dwight-Derby House was formed to restore, manage and share its historic significance with the community. By July of 2011, the Dwight-Derby House was about 75 percent restored.
The Dwight-Derby House, an ongoing project, is of particular significance because it is one of the oldest houses in the United States. The results of recent dendrochronology testing concluded that the original section was built in the 1690s. In 2002 it joined the Peak House, The First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church and the First Baptist Church on the register of State and Federal Historic Landmarks.
Medfield’s preservation efforts continued into the 21st century. In March of 2010, another of Medfield’s historic homes was slated for demolition—this one the birthplace of the leading figure in 19th century American music and music education, Lowell Mason. The house was thought to have been built in 1714, but some of the beams have been tested and date back to the years 1650 and 1651, making it one of the oldest buildings in Medfield and, perhaps, in the United States.
Shortly after the Medfield Historic Commission granted a one- year demolition delay, through a grass-roots effort, the Lowell Mason Foundation was formed to move, restore and manage the Lowell Mason House. In April of 2011 the home was moved from Adams Street to its new location on Green Street. The Foundation plans to restore the birthplace of the “father of music education” to its original glory with a museum on the first floor, office space in the basement, and eventually building an addition that will include recital and practice space.
Most recently, the historic 1811 Fairbanks/Chenery/Hale house at 34 South Street was partially saved from demolition after an agreement was reached early in October 2011 by the developer and the Medfield Historical Commission. The developer will install a new foundation under the house, rehabilitate the outside and put in a new interior. The rear of the house, leading to the barn, and the barn itself, were, however, demolished.
Medfield in the 21st century remains a desirable residential community that continues to draw people to the town based on its renowned school system and its still rural character. The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit land conservation and historic organization dedicated to preserving natural and historical places in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, owns several large parcels of property in Medfield including Rocky Woods, Noon Hill and the Rhododendron Reservation (known by locals as the Rhododendron Swamp). Large amounts of land, especially in the Noon Hill and Charles River areas, have been permanently protected from development. The historic homes and open space with natural beauty continue to give the town that special quality that locals say is what makes Medfield, Medfield.
Anyone wanting a more detailed history may refer to three books available at the Medfield Public Library. History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts: 1650-1886 by William S. Tilden has an interesting section on genealogy; Medfield Reflections, 1651-1976 is an historical commemorative book published during the town’s 325th birthday; and the recently published History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts 1887-1925 by Richard DeSorgher, which continues Tilden’s history. The Norfolk Hunt- 100 Years of Sport has text and pictures of Medfield as well as surrounding towns and The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore, is a compelling account of some of the events of the war itself―or at least of what we think happened, based on written accounts produced by colonial authors for consumption by readers in old and New England―as well as a provocative meditation on the words of war and their effects on authority and memory.
The brick Medfield Historical Society headquarters on Pleasant Street, behind the library, is open Saturdays from 10:00 am until 12 noon, First Thursdays (time varies, but generally 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm) and by appointment for those who wish to learn more about the town and its history, to browse its collections or to conduct research.