Boston Evening Transcript, July 15, 1893
TWO OLD DORCHESTER HOUSES
Rich in Associations With Puritan and Colonial History.
Those who love to study the architecture, the relics and the ways of old Puritan New England will find a surprising amount of material in the town of Dorchester. There are so many little lanes and byways leading from the busy highways that within a short distance of the well-kept roads we find ourselves in narrow country roads, so little travelled that the grass grows between the ruts worn by the wheels and the horses' feet—such roads as one would expect to and many miles from the city.
We will take it for granted that those who accompany us on our trip to the old colony are fond of walking, else they may find it weari¬some, though we have but a short walk before reaching our first point of interest.
Down on this road we [ass, we will not call it street, for that savors too much of the metrop¬olis, and now out on the broad thoroughfare. As we pass along the main road, at one side some distance from the highway we see a small brown house which does not appear particularly interesting. In fact one would hardly notice it from anything unusual in its appearance. Nestling among the trees and shrubbery it looks very peaceful and quiet. A little country lane leads to the house, such a lane as one often finds leading to some comfortable old farm¬house.
Let us walk up the lane and view our subject at shorter range. The path is rather rough, and so we walk on the grassy side to avoid the bad walking. This charming little lane, the stately trees, the quaint old house, give one a very restful feeling. In the bright warm days of July the trees seen alive with the little songsters of the grove, and as they swing and twitter among the branches, they seem, to bid us welcome to their retreat.
If this house could speak, what memories it could tell, for it has been standing here more than two hundred years.
In 1628 the good people oft Dorchester, Eng¬land, purchased the land known as the Massa-chusetts Bay Colony In New England, and a year later a charter was granted and a fleet of fifteen vessels set sail for America [note: set sail in 1630]. Of this fleet the good ship Mary and John was the first to reach the New World. After some trouble with Captain Squib or Squeb, the commander of the vessel, as to their landing, they at last reached the Charles River. After a short stay there they were "ordered to come away from that place (which was probably near Watertown) unto a place called Mattapan (now Dorchester)." Here they landed at the mouth of the Neponset River, near what is now part of South Boston, and at high tide went farther up the river until they came to a favorable site for a settlement. [note: Captain Squeb left the passengers off at Nantasket. A small party including Roger Clap explored by boat, travelling up the Charles River to Watertown. This small party was the group ordered to come away to Mattapan by the greater body of the passengers who had traveled overland from Nantasket. Their landing was not at the Neponset but at Savin Hill].
They carried their goods back from the marshes and there built rude huts until they could provide themselves with better houses. Having finally settled they set about building substantial frame houses, and within the next few years several houses were raised. On this hill once grew a forest of huge oak trees and as these were felled to make a clearing they were converted into timbers suitable for building purposes.
The first house on record was that of George Minot, which stood just beyond until 1874, when it was destroyed by fire. His fellow-voyager Robert Pierce built his house probably soon after and his is the little house we see to¬day [note: dendrochronology has shown that the Pierce House as not built until 1683]. Here it stands just below the brow of the hill, presenting about the same appearance it did years and years ago.
Robert Pierce, with the aid of his neighbors, felled the great oaks and hewed them into the proper lengths and shapes for their needs. On the lower floor the timbers run lengthwise of the house and on the upper they run crosswise. Some idea of the size of the trees can be gained when we learn that the timbers which held the stairs were ten by twelve Inches. There are two distinct walls to the house, an outer and an inner, the space between being filled with seaweed which was brought up over the Neponset marshes at low tide. This was partly to exclude the cold and partly as a protection against Indian arrows. The roof ran to within few feet of the ground in the rear. The timbers are all pinned together with wooden treenails. This old structure was built like the old Puritan character, steadfast and strong, so that today, after two centuries and a half, the wildest New England storm cannot shake this stanch old Puritan.
Now that we know something of the history of our house, let us go in side and see what will interest us there. As we step in the door we find ourselves in a little square entry, straight in front of us is the stairway which makes one turn before it disappears above. Under the stairs, against the wall, hangs the coat of arms of the Pierce family. To the left is the dining-room, in one corner of which stands the quaint old dresser, on which stands the heavy plate and the dainty gilt-edged pink-lined china which have been handed down as heirlooms though not from the earliest members of the family. The china reminds us of that used by Martha Washington at her grand fetes. One would suppose that she must have spent most of her time taking tea if he may judge from the great number of cups from which it is said “Martha Washington sipped tea." Yet a writer of the time said of General Washington, "He dined at two, and drank tea early in the evening; supper he eschewed altogether; his breakfast was very frugal, and at this meal he drank tea of which he was extremely fond." Doubtless the good lady shared her husband's love of the beverage, and we may thus account for these reports.
Now back through the little hall and we are in the family sitting-room. Notice the low
Ceiling; you can easily touch it with your hand. There is the cupboard and book-closet built into the wall. Most prominent among the books is the old family Bible. Now we can see the great beams running throughout the rooms which still show marks of the broadaxe used when the timbers were hewn for the house. The windows have deep seats and are closed by the same shutters which protected the occupants from the terrible Indian attacks.
Originally the great chimney extended the width of the house and held the conventional brick oven and immense fireplace, but it has been superseded by a smaller chimney, and the once great fireplace is contracted to one such as may be seen in any of our modern houses.
It happened that at the time of the settlement, bread became very scarce, so one good soul, knowing that in time of sickness bread would be a very welcome thing to have, stowed away two bread cakes in a pigeon-hole of an old desk. Years after her children rummaging the desk found the bread, and remembering the circumstances of its perservation determined to keep it.
A hundred years after, Colonel Samuel Pierce, who then occupied the house, while shelling corn, found one cob that seemed harder and shelled better than any other. So, after that season’s work was done, it was laid away and was used each year. This was found some years after by one of the family and was placed with the bread, and today this corn-cob and the two pieces of bread are to be seen resting under glass in a mahogany case, which is kept securely locked when not on exhibition. The bread presents the appearance of cork, while the cob looks is if it were carved from a piece of very hard wood. Both seem thoroughly petrified.
During the Revolution, this Colonel Samuel Pierce held a commission in the continental army, and as they were short of barracks, he quartered some of his regiment in the attic of this house.
Through this doorway and up one step and we are in a room which is now used as a summer sitting-room. This is much lighter, having windows on two sides, but has much the same appearance as the other. We notice here that the beam is cased in and we are told by the genial hostess that a few years ago it became power-posted and so casing was necessary.
This great chest is the combination of two boxes in which were packed goods on that memorable first voyage. That little light stand in the corner held the great Bible from which those good men, John Warham and John Maverick spoke words of cheer and comfort to the worthy voyagers in the cabin of the Mary and John.
Running back from the house to the top of the hill once stood the sheds and barns usually found on a farm, but these have long since disappeared.
As we step out the door, just in front of us across the lane is the old well surrounded by a prim hedge of arbor vitae; a little path leads to it, worn deep by the feet of many generations. What conjures up so many memories as such a well in such a place as this? The children shouting from school hasten to slake their thirst at the old well. Even as we stand here on the worn door-stone a blooming lass comes tripping down the path. As she reaches the well she is startled to find some one there, but as it is only a neighbor's boy she is not alarmed. As he draws up the bucket and purposely splashes the water, a merry laugh rings out from the greenery. Now comes the aged wor¬thy leaning heavily on his staff to drink, as be has done so many times before, from the bucket; yes, truly, the old oaken bucket. In such a place as this it seems sad that it should be necessary to forbid all trespassing.
Here on summer nights owls hover around the house, like spirits of the past, as if loth to leave their old accustomed, haunts. Lovers strolling in the lane—for it is a veritable lovers' lane—are often interrupted in their love-mak¬ing by the shrill "tu-wit tu-hoo" of these relentless birds.
Walking up the lane, then across the field, we come to a gate to which is a brilliant blue sign of warning to him who should dare trespass farther on this historic ground. Mounting the wall we obtain a fine view of the surrounding country. Dorchester Bay lies just below us dotted with craft of many kinds; the Neponset flows placidly down to the bay with its low marshes extending back and blending, finally, into the higher lands beyond. A little farther to the right we see the spires of Wollaston: the derricks of the Quincy granite quarries stand out in sharp outline against the sky. Follow that ridge of blue haze and our eyes rest on the Big Blue Hill, with its little brown observatory resting peacefully on the summit; at our ex¬treme right stands Brash Hill, and farther our view is cut off by the surrounding trees.
Down by the river, opposite that belt of woods which is known as Minot's woods, Bray Wilkins kept his ferry-house, part of the underpinning of which may still be seen. The town records show the date on which he was permitted to [unreadable] and run his ferry.
What a vastly different view the stern old Puritan fathers saw that day when they first moored their boots and wearily climbed the hill. Imagine them as we stand here trudg¬ing across the marshes and up the hill. We hear each advance his own ideas and, finally, they conclude to tarry here, then they set about building their huts. So we may follow the years and the centuries down until today; two hundred and sixty-five rears later we stand on the same spot, view the same territory, but how changed is the landscape!
Now, let us retrace our steps down the lane. We must walk some distance before we reach our next antique; but the air is bracing, so we shall not mind it. Our way lies through the more modern part of the town, and as we ad¬mire the beautiful architecture of the nine¬teenth century we can but wonder if the houses of our day will bear the attacks of time as well as those we are studying.
Here we find another lane leading, as did the other, from one of our principal thoroughfares. This is not so much used as is that leading to the Pierce House.
Farther down stands the old landmark, pre¬senting a remarkably well-preserved appear¬ance. Years ago this was one of those conventional red New England farmhouses which we now occasionally find back in inland towns, but now it wears a coat of buff.
This is one of the oldest homes in this vicin¬ity. It was built probably In 1634 or 1636, by Barnard Capen, one of the first settlers in the colony. He was a very prominent man, and held many positions of honor and trust in the service of the town and church. The present occupant of the house was mar¬ried here when a young man and has lived here more than half a century. He is a lineal descendant of Barnard Capen. For many years he was the village blacksmith and had his forge farther down the rood. Many stories are told by his old friends of his great strength.
Within, the house is much like our first study, the timbers running in opposite directions, the ceiling very low and the beams projecting be¬low the plaster. Knowing that they would be subject to Indian attacks, the early settlers, when a block house was not near at hand, usually provided themselves with a place of safety at home. At one end of the attic of this house a slight overhang projects; on the floor a huge oak beam is stretched the width of the house, and above this a wall of old-fashioned soft brick stretches to the ridgepole. This resisted the arrows which the Indians showered upon the hones, so when the good people saw signs of an Indian attack they flew to their stronghold and so escaped from the savages.
The general air of this house is not so ancient as the old Pierce house, but when we compare various points in the two buildings they seem to resemble each other and appear to be in much the same order of architecture.
Think of the changes this house has witnessed in the neighboring country, from the stern old days of the Puritans to the days of Dorchester as a suburb of Boston! As we stand here gazing with reverent thoughts at the dear old house an electric car rushes by with its dis¬mal hum within a stone's throw, rudely banishing our reveries with its non-Puritan speed.
When the house was first built there was no regular road, but later a road was built passing by the front of the house and also passed near what is now known as the old Codman Burying-ground on Norfolk street. When the new roads were built the old one was abandoned, but traces of it may still be seen in some places. From the highway we see only the end of the house, but we know that the first road ran in the opposite direction in front of the house, thus accounting for its position [note: is this true?].
Barnard Capen was the first to be buried in the old Dorchester burying-ground. The orig¬inal stone was found underground and is now in possession of an antiquarian society. A stone similar in appearance was erected bearing this inscription—
lies the bodies of
Mr. Barnard Capen
& Mrs. Joan Capen, his
Wife; He died Nov. 8
1638, Aged 76 years
and she died March
Aged 75 years.
His name, which has been brought down from so distant a time, will not soon be forgotten with such memorials as those. His descendents are scattered throughout the native town and State, yet we find one branch still on the same spot and in the same house where he lived two centuries ago, which is unusual in orr country.
So we might visit many more interesting old places, for scattered throughout New England are many dear old houses which, though lacking in important history, are still interesting as illustrative of the New England life a century or more ago, and remind us of our worthy ancestors and the days of "auld lang syne"
H. E. W.
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Created: July 17, 2010 Modified: July 17, 2010