The rhododendrons may be blooming in your yard this week, but to savor the wild ones tucked away in the woods near the Catholic church you’ll have to be patient a little longer. The Rosebay variety found in the Trustees of Reservations’ Medfield Rhododendrons property typically bloom in late June to early July, the stand a hidden treasure that is one of only seven known natural populations in our area of a plant that once flourished all along the Appalachian Mountains and environs but that was nearly wiped out locally by exploding popularity and harvesting for the Boston Flower Market about 100 years ago. So mark your calendars for a couple of months from now to make your way to the Trustees’ tiny parking area at the start of Woodridge Road and then along the marked trail to enjoy the view. Just choose your footwear carefully—it hasn’t long been known in town as Rhododendron Swamp for nothing.
This was some of the advice and information shared at April’s Historical Society presentation by D.A. Hayden, director of the Trustees’ Charles River Valley unit, who offered both an overview of the Trustees’ history and some specifics about the nonprofit’s six properties in Medfield (the largest concentration in a single town of 117 locations in the state).
The organization was the brainchild of Charles Eliot, a young landscape architect in Boston who was a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted. By the end of the 19th century Boston was the fourth largest manufacturing city in the country, prospering spectacularly for some but for so many others a crowded, dirty place of poverty and illness. Conservationists had succeeded in protecting many natural wonders of the American West, but the urban areas of the East hadn’t gotten the same kind of attention, despite harboring most of the population that could directly benefit.
In 1990 Eliot looked at the new Museum of Fine Arts and slightly more established Boston Public Library and thought that what the masses really needed was comparable public access to natural beauty and open land, with a chance to enjoy fresh air and exercise for better health and enjoyment. Within a year he had enlisted the support of a group of distinguished and influential citizens and persuaded the legislature to establish the Trustees of Public Reservations “for the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public…beautiful and historic places…within the Commonwealth.”
By 1900 the Trustees owned six properties, among which was Rocky Narrows, just across the Charles from Medfield in Sherborn. The current holdings, all in Massachusetts apart from a few contiguous parcels across state lines, range from large woodlands, like Rocky Woods; to working farms, like Dover’s Powisset Farm; to cultural institutions, like the Old Manse in Concord; to Crane Beach in Ipswich; to hidden waterfalls, like Bear’s Den in New Salem. In 1972, the Trustees also started acquiring conservation restrictions on privately held parcels throughout the state. Altogether, they are responsible for protecting 70,000 acres, with 27,000 of them open for public use. Half the residents of Massachusetts live within five miles of a Trustees property.
Medfield Rhododendrons became the Trustees’ first holding in town when they bought the original acreage in 1934. The five other Medfield properties are Rocky Woods (acquired 1942), Noon Hill (1959), Fork Factory Brook (1966), Medfield Meadows (1968), and Shattuck Reservation (1970); most of the sites have been expanded over the years through additional gifts and purchases. Together the six cover 1288 acres and encompass almost 17 miles of trails; all are open to the public, with only Rocky Woods charging a modest parking fee for non-members—though you’ll need a canoe or a kayak to reach the Medfield Meadows Lots in the Charles River floodplain.
In the 18th century Rocky Woods was common land for Medfield residents to use for woodlots and lumber; in the 19th its granite quarry supplied the stone for the Dedham Courthouse. Dr. Joel Goldthwait bought 300 acres of it in the 1920s and developed the land for recreation with fire roads and ponds, and his donation of his property to the Trustees in 1942 formed the heart of Rocky Woods as we know it (at least seven other families have added their own contributions since to expand it).
Many in the audience last month remembered the early days when Rocky Woods was a thriving community center, especially in winter, with hundreds of skaters gliding over the frozen pond to the accompaniment of music broadcast from the clubhouse and then clomping their way up the wooden steps to thaw out with hot cocoa by the fire. In those days a day at the pond was routinely a family affair, with scores of local volunteers helping Trustees employees with operations and a “takes a village” approach to looking after the kids. Unfortunately as the decades passed the skating evolved into a drop-off operation, and eventually the Trustees shifted gears to more passive recreation…if hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country-skiing 6.5 miles of sometimes challenging trails can be called passive.
Noon Hill once held a sawmill; its Holt Pond was formed in 1761, when Sawmill Brook was dammed. The site also features in the story of Medfield’s grisliest murder in 1802, when selectmen at the end of their collective ropes over grave desecration in the episode officially voted to distribute the victim’s body parts over the property.
Fork Factory Brook, across the street from Rocky Woods, was farmland for 300 years and also was the site of an early grist mill, converted in 1839 to an edge tool factory for farm tools including pitch forks (hence its name) before yet another conversion to a paper cutting factory after the Civil War—but when Main Street was widened in 1927 the mill was paved over.
Dwight’s Causeway at the northern end of Shattuck Reservation was the site of a bridge that washed out in the great hurricane of 1938 (the same one that upended the steeple from the Unitarian meeting house and left it piercing the building’s roof). Hikers today who keep their eyes open can trace some of this history in the age-softened stone walls and building foundation remnants (though one hopes not the burial sites) when visiting any of them.
Currently the Trustees of Reservations has some 140,000 members and 2,500 volunteers supporting the mission of protecting and sharing natural resources and beauty across the sites, which together host more than two million visitors every year. A full 250,000 participants benefited from some 5,000 formal programs in 2017. Medfield is lucky to have such a concentration of Trustees properties here, most likely the result of a sort of “virtuous circle” in which landowners inspired by the generosity of neighbors were willing to entrust the care of their own properties to an organization whose whole reason for being is to do just that. For information about membership and more details of the Trustees of Reservations properties and programs, visit their website.