|A Brief History of Wellesley
by Beth Hinchliffe Wellesley Clock Tower
More than 350 years ago, when a handful of men first settled the area around the Charles River that is now known as Wellesley, they were so delighted with their new town that they named it "Contentment." Although the name has changed over the centuries, the feeling of pride and satisfaction on the part of the residents toward their home still remains strong. For many residents, this feeling of community was best summed up in the 1981 Centennial Celebration, a year-long discovery of Wellesley which brought a new sense of awareness of its history, a new enjoyment of its present, and a renewed commitment to its future.
Through a history book, two multi-media shows, a time capsule, a historical play starring current elected officials as Wellesley's founding fathers, town-wide parties and birthday cakes, and skits for schools and summer camps, Wellesley spent a year learning about its past.
It learned that in the 1630s, after negotiations with Indian Chiefs Nehoiden and Maugus (whose names are still seen in town today), the first nineteen hardy pioneers paid five pounds of currency and three pounds of corn for the land which would become Wellesley. At the time, it made up part of a larger town, named Dedham. The land was good and within 75 years enough families were living in a section of Dedham so that a new town split off, named Needham. The western part of this new town, the part which was to become Wellesley, was called West Needham, and spent most of the 18th and 19th centuries as a small, quiet farming town. Men from West Needham joined their neighbors to fight and die at the beginning of the Revolutionary War at Concord on April 18, 1775, and at Gettysburg less than a century later.
In the 1820s farmers drove their produce to Faneuil Hall Market in Boston, and returned home to the popular clubs of the day: the "Newton, Needham and Natick Society for Apprehending Horse Thieves," and the Temperance Society. Then, in the 1830s, the railroad came to town, bringing Boston businessmen and the most modern way of life, forever changing the face of the quiet town.
One of the businessmen attracted to this pretty, restful place was Henry Durant, who in 1875 startled the countryside by founding Wellesley College, a college for women which has become one of the most respected colleges in the country, on its beautiful lakeside campus. He named the college to honor his next-door neighbor, Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, a wealthy businessman and town benefactor whose mansion was named "Wellesley" in commemoration of his wife, whose maiden name was Welles.
By 1880 the pace of life in town was quickening. Suddenly modern life was descending from all sides. There was the first newspaper, bank and telephone, with new churches and homes. Most importantly, the sense of identity which "West Needham" had always felt began to assert itself. Under the leadership of men like Durant and Hunnewell, joining together with the sharp town politician Joseph Fiske, Wellesley residents organized themselves and pushed for separation from Needham.
There was intrigue and frenzy, with a heated meeting at the town hall (which doubled as the poor farm and which later became the Wellesley Country Club), but finally the men of Wellesley triumphed and on April 6, 1881 the Massachusetts legislature christened the new town of Wellesley, which took its name as a tribute to benefactor Hunnewell.
Progress continued to come rapidly, and within a decade the most modern conveniences had replaced the kerosene lanterns, the puddled paths overgrown with grass, and the cattle and grocers' wagons which had filled the streets. The town fathers, with money, political experience and community spirit behind them, decided that Wellesley should develop as a carefully planned and lovingly nurtured new town. Whatever was best, that was what Wellesley would have. Before the turn of the century there were: railroad stations designed by H.H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted, America's greatest landscape architect; the first golf course in Massachusetts; a pioneering water system; commissioners to lay out park lands; Town Improvement Societies; town playgrounds; trolley cars; excellent schools; carefully planned neighborhoods; and,
most important, a sense of optimism and pride.
Through the foresight of town fathers who in 1914 made Wellesley the first town in America to adopt zoning laws, Wellesley grew into a beautiful town. By the 1920s it was recognized as one of the leading suburbs of Boston, becoming a center for shopping when Filene's department store opened its first branch.
Katharine Lee Bates, a town resident and Wellesley College professor who in 1893 wrote "America the Beautiful," was perhaps the first person to bring the name of her home town to international attention when her song became popular among soldiers during World War I. Other Wellesley residents have throughout the years continued her example of devotion to town and country, in their own fields and their own way.
Notable Past and Present Famous Wellesley Residents
The affluence and prosperity of the 20th century have left their mark on Wellesley, which has become a well-regarded suburb featuring a school system recognized as one of the best in the state. Although the town has always had the finest of beautiful land and homes, of schools and colleges, and every advantage of government, there are many who feel that her greatest resource has been her people.
Today the heart of Wellesley is her citizenry, the people who donate their time for Wellesley government and civic organizations. A quote from a 1906 article about Wellesley which was discovered during the Centennial celebration had, in the midst of some Victorian flourishes, captured the spirit of Wellesley, and many residents insist that it describes Wellesley today as well as it did more than 80 years ago:
"The citizens of the town of Wellesley, both collectively and individually, are constantly endeavoring to obtain for their town, their homes and themselves all that is best from Nature and Art. Fine old trees line the roads; handsome buildings have been erected for the public schools; even the railroad stations are objects of beauty. There are many fine residences ... no saloons, but numerous athletic, social and literary societies.
"A vast tract of woodland furnishes pleasant paths for long, lonely strolls ... Wellesley, a residential village with no manufacturing, has long been noted for its pure water and invigorating air.
"It is believed that this fine village is absolutely free from all evil influences which tend to corrupt youth."
More than 100 years ago, when the founding fathers of Wellesley adopted a design for the new town seal, they selected one made up of three symbols: arrows and tomahawks for the Indians; a book for the colleges and schools; and a flower to honor the world-renowned gardens of Hunnewell, the town benefactor.
Today, the town seal has come to take on even more meaning. The reference to the Indians reminds us of the importance of understanding and appreciating the remarkable history of the town. The book emphasizes Wellesley's current dedication to education (through three colleges and an outstanding public school system) and to providing a remarkable quality of life for her residents.
And, finally, the flower in the seal symbolizes the town's concern for its future. By providing new open space (particularly through the purchase of Centennial Park, the town's 100th birthday gift to itself), by recycling historic buildings instead of replacing them, and by continuing the level of pride in our town shown by Wellesley's leaders throughout the years, Wellesley's residents are pledging to future citizens gifts of immeasurable value: land, the beauty of nature, and the rare treasure of a community truly pledged to cooperation and unity.
(Beth Hinchliffe, former editor of The Wellesley Townsman and Presidential speechwriter, is the author of Wellesley's history book "Five Pounds Currency, Three Pounds of Corn," available through the Wellesley Historical Society, 229 Washington Street, 235-6990.)