Editor’s note: Gloria Greis, PhD., executive director of the Needham History Center and Museum, delivered an engrossing talk April 2 at the old meetinghouse, a.k.a. First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. The title was Mr. Baker’s Fairyland of the Beautiful and Bizarre. Around 1880, Baker built his 800-acre extravaganza near what is now the Needham-Wellesley border near the Charles River. What follows is Gloria’s script, plus some of the photos she showed.
Let me introduce you to William Emerson Baker – not one of the men looking at the camera – but the man sitting back and enjoying all the commotion.
The great author E.B. White once observed, “I wake up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day a little difficult.”
I always thought that this was an excellent description of William Emerson Baker, whose Ridge Hill Farms (better known as the Baker Estate), is widely described as the first amusement park. It was in fact much more than that – a working farm, a science museum, a botanical garden, a laboratory for Baker’s social and political ideas and ideals. But for all its serious purpose, there is no question that Baker – and everyone else – also expected to have one hell of a good time.
A Self-Made Man
William Emerson Baker was born in Roxbury in 1828. He was one of the seven sons of a not-too-successful businessman. Baker attended Roxbury High School, and hoped to go to college, but there was not enough money, so he went out to work at the age of sixteen. He was apprenticed to a wool-jobbing firm, and was paid $50 in his first year. This was generally considered adequate – apprentices received room and board along with their training. Nevertheless, in his second year Baker suggested that be paid on commission, a percentage of all the new business he could bring in. That year he earned nearly $1000. He saved enough of his earnings in the next couple of years to start investing. He was a mechanical tinkerer by nature, and the machine that caught his fancy was the newly invented sewing machine.
Baker made his fortune in sewing machines. In 1849, when he was 21 years old, he took his investment stake and formed a partnership with a Boston tailor named William Grover. Grover could see the great usefulness that sewing machines were going to have in his line of work, but the machines were not yet practical. The lower thread had to be wound off a bobbin, but because the bobbins were small, the thread was too short to allow for efficient industrial production. Together, Grover and Baker developed a mechanism to feed the lower thread off of a large spool like the top thread, so the machine could continue to sew for long periods of time. They formed the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company, with an office on Tremont Street in Boston. As their success grew, they established offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee.
Of course, there were others in the sewing machine business. You’ve probably heard of Isaac Singer and Elias Howe. In 1850, sewing machines were still new, and the patents still being developed. So in 1855, the main players – Elias Howe the inventor, Singer, Grover and Baker, and a company called Wheeler and Wilson – went to court in New York and formed a 20-year Trust. Members of the Trust agreed to pool their patents and limit the number or of licenses they granted to other manufacturers. So instead of fighting each other, they locked in a royalty from each and every sewing machine sold in the US and Europe.
This was savvy timing on their part. This was the beginning of the industrialized economy – the shift from handwork and piecework to mass production.
As he showed in his wool-jobbing days, Baker was not a man to wait for the customer to come to him. In 1854 he went to Europe, selling machines for military and other use to the governments of Russia, the Netherlands, England, Germany. Two years later, he was in France, negotiating with the Emperor, Napoleon III. Baker records in his diary that the Empress Eugenie tearfully begged her husband not to buy the sewing machines and deprive the seamstresses of Paris of their livelihood. She was so insistent, that the Emperor locked her in her bedroom so the men could finish their negotiations in peace. Back in the US, the new armies of the Union and Confederacy also needed machines to sew uniforms. The Trust got a royalty on every single one.
And the machines were not cheap. Their largest machine sold for $150 (several thousand in today’s terms), and even their least expensive was $80. In their first year they sold 500 sewing machines. In their best year they sold 77,403. Overall, they sold more than 500,000 sewing machines.
In 1860 Baker married Charlotte Farnsworth of Roxbury. The young couple enjoyed a months-long honeymoon rip to Europe – Charlotte seeing the sites, and Baker visiting potential clients. When they returned to Boston, they bought a house in the South End, moving uptown a few years later to the new neighborhood of Comm Ave. They had two sons, Walter and Eddie.
Baker began to spend his now considerable fortune. Although he never had the opportunity to go to college, he was by no means an uneducated man. He had a wide range of interests in the sciences, in health, and in public policy. He was a mechanic of considerable skill. He was also a writer and political satirist. He funded programs that fostered the knowledge of science and fine arts among the broader public. Baker obtained a grant from the city for land between Boylston and Newbury Streets, enabling the Society for Natural History and the new Institute of Technology to build their first buildings. They would later move to Cambridge as the Museum of Science and MIT. He was a patron of the Museum of Fine Arts and the first Boston Aquarium, where he experimented with fish-farming. He was a supporter of the Institute of Cookery, and Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School – institutions dedicated to nutritional science and sanitary cookery (what we would come to know as Home Ec).
A Man of Leisure
In 1868, at the age of 40, Baker decided to retire from business. He had plenty of money, and the Trust was about to expire, which would open up the patents to new competition. The two partners sold their stakes and retired in wealth.
Now a man of leisure, Baker started to buy up land in Needham for a summer residence. He chose an area in the south of town, where Charles River Street intersects with Grove, overall about 770 acres, which he called Ridge Hill Farms. Baker intended to live here for about half the year – April to October. He was genial and sociable and loved to give parties, and any excuse would do – his wedding anniversaries, the death of a pet, the birth of a calf, the laying of a cornerstone. Charlotte, unfortunately, did not share his sense of humor. She did not care for the Needham property, and rarely sent time there, preferring to stay in the Boston townhouse.
Charlotte may have regarded the Ridge Hill Farms as a pointless indulgence, but for Baker it was the place where he could indulge all of the interests into which his curious and energetic mind led him. Baker hired a Welsh landscape architect named Richard Greaves to help design the estate and to manage the staff. In the ten years that followed, Baker and Greaves filled the summer estate with over 100 amusements, attractions and exhibits. These included a museum of industry, two bear pits for his pets, an underground crystal grotto featuring the Forty Thieves, a pleasure lake, saloons and restaurants, and a 225-room luxury hotel. Baker did not intend the Ridge Hill Farms to become a public attraction; it was intended for the amusement of himself and his personal guests. But as the fame of the estate grew people would not be kept off. He opened it to the public as his “Fairyland of the Beautiful and Bizarre”.
If you look at a map of the Baker estate, you see that it breaks up into roughly three sections, which I will call the Grove, the Lake, and the Farm. Thematically, they correspond roughly to Science, Pleasure, and Health.
The Grove and Gardens
The eastern portion of the estate was dominated by Baker’s formal gardens and by the 6-story Norino Tower. The tower was said to be named after a Greek work meaning “Knowledge.” Each of its six stories was dedicated to a branch of science – mechanics, optics, medicine, architecture, sight and sound, and on the sixth floor – Death, “the End of Life: What is it? What is the Aim? What is the record at the end?” – all unanswerable questions. At the top of the tower was an observation deck with an unparalleled view of the surroundings.
Attached to the Tower on one side were the Arcadium for Children and the Tivoli Hall for Grownups – both of which provided amusements and displays of an interesting and edifying nature. They were also the main refuge for entertainment if the weather turned foul. Kids could also keep busy at the Arcadium while the adults went elsewhere.
Attached on the other side was the Black and Gold Stable, painted in these startling colors to eradicate the resemblance of the Norino Tower to a church steeple. The stable was filled with interesting vehicles and mechanical devices. There was an automatic conveyor that fed the horses every hour – though the precise timing was not so crucial since the horses were fake.
Baker’s own residence was in this section, surrounded by a landscape of formal European-style gardens.
At the back of the gardens was the Union Chapel for the use of Baker’s guests who might be religiously inclined. It was strictly nondenominational, consecrated (by Baker himself) to his creed “Liberty of Conscience, Faith, Hope and Charity”. There was a flock of stuffed doves suspended from the ceiling, which moved softly in the breezes. The Union Chapel was so called because it was dedicated to the peaceful reunion of the states after the Civil War.
Behind the Chapel was the Album Bowling Alley and the Pavilion Hall, among the few buildings that Baker reserved for the use of himself and his guests, and not the public.
The public were welcome to a drink of water from the Leaky Boot Fountain, or from Minnehaha’s Laughing Water Wigwam, a temperance exhibit. Unfortunately, the floor at the exit was mounted on springs, so the sober and virtuous would find themselves staggering and stumbling in a most drunken manner as they left.
The Grove and Gardens was also the home of many of Baker’s zoo exhibits, including monkeys, colorful birds, and numerous small animals. Baker’s two boys spent much of their summers on the estate. They had a souvenir stand and a market garden in the Grove, given in an entirely futile attempt to teach them the habits of thrift and industry.
Where did Baker and Greaves get all this stuff? Some they built themselves, but they were shameless scavengers. If there was a fire or demolition in Boston, they were there. They bought statues, columns, architectural details for their stockpile. A major source was the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, which brought exhibitors from all over the country and the world. Of course, once it was over there was a lot of material to sell off, and Baker bought it – the Chilean Pavilion, the Leaky Boot, the Peruvian Pavilion, the Krino Arch, the Garden arcades, the statues of Neptune and Mercury, and of course, the Hotel Wellesley, which we’ll talk about in just a bit.
Sabrina Lake and the Sunset Slope
The dominating feature of the western portion of Baker’s estate was of course Sabrina Lake. The Lake was entirely man-made, dug out from a marshy hollow. It was bordered by the Lakeside Balustrade, decorated with classical figures and busts of American presidents.
Along the eastern edge was the Arboretum Basin and Spray Fountain, created out of copper pipes and statues recovered when the old Boston Theater was demolished.
Farther out in the lake, the White and Gold Boathouse sheltered the canoes and rowboats; it was decorated with allegorical and humerous painted panels from the former St. George Cafe on Tremont Street. Once again, the whole thing.
There were several small islands in the lake that could be approached either by boat or by bridge – Swan Island, Oak Island, and Tripont Island, so called because it was connected by three bridges – the lovely Arboretum and Rustic Bridges, and the monumental Colosseum Bridge. The Colosseum Bridge was constructed of timbers from the Peace Colosseum Building of the Boston Peace Jubilee, held in 1869-72 to celebrate the renewal of North-South friendship at the end of the Civil War.
Between the Lake and the road was the broad lawns of the Sunset Slope. The Union Monument Building marked the site of Baker’s Cannon Party for Union and Confederate soldiers. In January of 1876, Baker was in Charleston, SC, where he met a number of the officers and men of the Washington Light Infantry. After his return to Boston, the regiment sent him a cannon – a beautiful Blakely gun. That summer, Baker invited the regiment to a party at his estate in Needham, where he had installed the gun overlooking Sabrina Lake: “You who stood behind it, will meet those who stood in front of it, and shake hands over it.”
Several hundred people gathered at Baker’s estate that June, including the Light Infantry and their ladies, members of the MA National Guard, the Governor of MA, the Mayor of Boston and numerous other dignitaries, for a raucous party that lasted more than a week. Toward the end, the southerners gathered noisemakers, drums, pots and pans and serenaded the ladies with their terrible music. Coming to the rescue, the northerners ambushed them with pillows obtained from the ladies’ quarters. The southern ladies armed their own men in similar fashion, and a battle between the Blue and Grey Pillow Brigades carried on for over 30 minutes, until innumerable pillows were destroyed, and everyone was laughing too hard to stand. After the party, Baker erected the Union Monument Building on the site of the fight, celebrating the return of at least one small measure of peace between the North and South.
The Chilean Pavilion was the former Chilean Mineral Resources exhibit at the Philadelphia fair. For a while it was used as a garden pavilion, and later as a pumphouse for the estate’s water supply. To the north of the Pavilion was the Boston Fire Monument, made from granite columns salvaged from the old Boston Post Office after the Great Fire (1872), tied together with an iron arch, and surmounted by a small statue of Mercury, messenger to the gods.
The Slope was also where Baker housed his pet bears, in the Circular Bear Pit and the Octagonal Bear Pit. Finally, beyond the bears was the gateway to the Krino Valley of Fancies, Follies, and Frivolities. Here was found a large cement bottle-shaped structure, from which numerous empty wine bottles were suspended as a souvenir of the Cannon Party, and dedicated “to the departed spirits”. Near the bottle were other displays – Darwin’s Hut, a commentary on the theory of evolution; a gentleman made out of bourbon barrels known as “One of the Old Kentucky Bourbons;” a sour-faced portrayal of the Boston governing classes made out of wheel hubs and of course called, “the Representative of the Hub”. Leaving the Krino Valley, a small bridge crossed over a stream; unfortunately, the bridge would often subside, leaving the crosser with wet feet.
That little bridge led out to the grave of Billy Bruin, one of Baker’s pet bears. In July 1874 Baker took delivery of a 2 1/2 year old black Labrador bear, which he called Billy Bruin. Billy weighed over 500 pounds and stood some 8 feet tall. Baker owned Billy for approximately three hours – that’s how long it took the bear to escape (Billy was smarter than the average bear). Billy spent his first night in Dedham under the porch of the Congregational Church, then wandered back to Needham where he spent some time in the High Rock woods. He was next spotted in Quincy several days later, and got as far as Weymouth before he was finally shot and killed while trying to swim the river. His body washed up in Hull, and was returned to Baker, who had the skin stuffed and put on display. The rest of Billy was buried in a solid-copper coffin and buried overlooking the Lake. Baker invited more than 1000 guests to Billy’s funeral, and regrets had to be expressed in the form of poetry. [ procession – animal masks, Father Time the Great Destroyer]
Near the Krino Valley entrance stood the Gothic Freestone Arch, salvaged from the Presbyterian Church on Beach Street. The Arch was the gateway to the mysterious Smuggler’s Cove and Grottoes. The Grottoes were underground caverns where the smugglers captives were held for ransom or punishment. Here could also be seen “Mrs Cardiff” and the Forty Thieves, suffering a gruesome and somewhat eccentric punishment for their crimes. The Grottoes could only be seen by the dim light that filtered through the stained-glass roof of the Crystal Tower on the surface above. Unwary visitors, emerging from the dim tunnels into the bright daylight often took a wrong turn, only to find themselves face to face with the bears in the Circular Bear Pit. They were relieved to find, as their eyes adjusted, that there were strong bars between them and the bears, but no doubt they hurried back out the correct way.
The Charity Reservation
South of Charles River Street was Baker’s farm. This area, known as Mount Charity or the Charity Reservation, was less an area for tourists and more a home for Baker’s other experiments. One way we know tourists did not go here is the unfortunate lack of pictures.
The farm was where Baker did his livestock experiments. The makes him sound like a mad scientist – and maybe he seemed this way to many at the time. Public Health was the cause dearest to Baker’s heart. This was a time when most sources of food were highly compromised – tuberculosis was endemic in cattle, and pigs were little walking bundles of parasites [FIVE POINTS]. These diseases entered the general population through the food stream, causing widespread human illness. Baker believed – correctly – that the filthy conditions under which food animals were raised was the source of these infections. He espoused the then-radical notion that many causes of disease and debility could be eliminated quite simply by a more sanitary approach to food production and preparation. Most of the facilities in the Reservation were therefore devoted to improving public hygiene.
Baker argued that most food animals were naturally clean, and that if treated properly would remain healthy. His beloved pigs resided in splendor in the famous Sanitary Piggery. In the Sanitary Piggery, the pigs were kept in strictly clean conditions and given wholesome food. It was even rumored that the porkers were provided with little beds and little silk sheets – an unlikely accommodation, but certainly in keeping with Baker’s sense of humor. Baker believed that the usual method of pig-keeping, penned in filthy sties or allowed to roam free and eat trash, bred diseased animals with tainted meat:
“The flesh of those swine fed on city garbage is liable to be unfit for market, as this garbage is often fermented and sour. And thus the City of Boston, by the disposition of its garbage, directly aids…in filling our hospital wards with patients diseased from eating unwholesome pork.”
The laying of the cornerstone for the sanitary piggery was the occasion for another of Baker’s spectacular parties. Some 2500 people attended the festivities, including the Governor of MA, the Mayor of Boston, the VP of the United States (Henry Wilson, from Natick), Union Generals Sherman and Burnside, the Washington Light Infantry from Charleston, the Fifth Maryland Regiment from Baltimore, and the Massachusetts Fifth Regiment.
The Reservation is also where Baker built his two hotels. Many of you know about the spectacular Hotel Wellesley. The Hotel Wellesley was a reconstruction of the American Restaurant from the Philadelphia Exposition, though apparently somewhat enlarged. It was the very last word in luxury accommodation - it had 160 guest rooms, 12 toilets, and 5 baths; the best rooms cost $4 per night, and were said to be worth every penny.
Cooks trained at Baker’s Institute of Cookery provided the food for his hotel, all prepared under the scientific principals of sanitary food preparation. Some of the proceeds from Baker’s hotel and restaurant went to support the Trepho-Phagian Institute (a name that Baker claimed came from the Greek word for “nourish”). The Trepho-Phagian Institute was a charity organization whose purpose was to “distribute the delicacies of sanitary cooking, to the urban poor”.
Public health became, over time, Baker’s main passion, and the main focus of his energies. In 1881, Baker petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to allow him to secede his land from Needham and establish an independent Hygienic Village, to be called Hygeria. In Hygeria, residents would practice the most scientific and modern methods of sanitation and hygiene in food and dwelling. The lessons learned would be offered to the state as a benefit to others. He therefore also requested tax-exempt status on the grounds that his discoveries would benefit all the citizens of Massachusetts, and save the Commonwealth far more than was lost in taxes. The beneficial example of Hygeria would “…induce the people of this Commonwealth to practice such sanitary economies and household reforms as shall tend to diminish crime and disease and improve the vigor of the race.”
The Needham Selectmen opposed Baker’s petition. Needham was unwilling to lose Baker’s estate, which amounted to nearly 6% of the town’s taxable acreage. And frankly, they were probably not so impressed with Baker himself, whose flamboyant style was at odds with the more serious and provincial character of the town. Apart from the necessities of real estate – easements, taxes, etc – Baker had had little involvement with town officials and almost none in town affairs.
Using their influence with the legislature, the selectmen kept the petition languishing in legislative limbo for four years – from the Public Health Committee to the Committee on Mercantile Affairs and back again – before it was finally refused. Furious, Baker accused them of “strangling the Child of my Heart”, and threatened to leave “Suicidal Needham” and establish Hygeria in another state - a threat he had not enough time to carry out before his early death from a heart attack in 1888.
And we’ve only gone through the highlights – there was so much more.
After Baker’s death, his wife Charlotte sold the Ridge Hill Farms. She had no use for the land, and certainly not for the attractions. One purchaser, George Alden, tried to keep parts of the estate in operation, including the Hotel Wellesley and several of the attractions. This was not successful – the Ridge Hill Farms was a creation of Baker’s restless imagination as much as his money, and really could not survive him. Another problem was that most of the structures were never really built to last – the Philadelphia Exposition, the Boston Peace Jubilee – these were short term events, and the constructions were never meant to stand the test of time. Fires and lack of funds soon doomed the effort. The Hotel burned down in 1891, too far on the fringes of town for the fire brigade to reach it on time. The land was sold off residential house lots – thanks to Sabrina Lake, some of the most desirable real estate in Needham and Wellesley.
Some pictures taken in the years following give an idea of the sad breakdown of the estate.
Bits and pieces of the buildings and foundations are still visible in people’s yards or woods, but over time, have nearly eradicated all traces of Baker’s magnificent “Fairyland of the Beautiful and Bizarre.”
I will leave you with two quotes, from Baker’s obituaries – the first is more critical, the writer more conventional:
Baker was a man with an immense amount of imagination, money with which to indulge it, and not enough education to keep him from being wildly eccentric. But his apparent madness was interspersed with any amount of method, and some of his eccentricities were object lessons. And so under all his queerness, may be traced a substratum of shrewdness and practical sense, which, had it been curbed and reined in by the prevailing methods of the world, might have put him on record as on of the foremost men of the century.
But the second writer is more generous, and maybe more understanding –
William Emerson Baker was a gentleman who had accumulated a large fortune by the exercise of the qualities which compel success in every day affairs; and yet part of his life was lived amid surroundings as grotesque and in occupations as little reasonable as those which obtain in the world on the other side of the looking glass. He spent a great deal of money and a great deal of ingenious effort in the adornment of his [Wellesley] estate; and in the countless inventions of a fantastic and extravagant imagination without a parallel, so far as we are aware, among the solid citizens of this Republic. It was a gentleman’s country place, a dime museum, a junk shop and a perpetual April Fool’s-day combined. Thousands of people visited Mr. Baker’s establishment in order to inspect the achievements of a spirit of fooling allowed to run riot. Respectable visitors were always welcomed, and the more amazement they manifested at Mr. Baker’s masterpieces the better pleased was the gentle hearted creator and proprietor of this little world turned topsy-turvy. He might have spent his money worse.