A Brief Background of the Town

A Thumbnail Sketch
of Needham History

Needham's development began in the 1640's when the area was first explored by people from Dedham who believed that they had discovered gold. Settlers began bringing cattle to graze here in the 1680's, and in 1681 the land of present day Needham and Wellesley was purchased from tribal leader William Nehoiden for 10 pounds in money, 50 acres of land, and 40 shillings in corn.

Our colonial history is that of a poor farming community, off the main roads, distrustful of both the morals and government of Boston, and afraid of the French and Indian raiders (over 40 percent of our men served in the wars).

By 1711 more than 50 families had located here, enough to require a church, school, and local government. On November 5th of that year the Town of Needham was incorporated (another reason to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day!). The Royal governor selected the name Needham because a town of that name was close to Dedham in England.

The Revolution came to Needham very dramatically as 185 men from our three companies of militia responded to the battle of April 19, 1775, resulting in five militia men dead, and leaving four widows and 28 children. Subsequently, many other Needhamites served in the Revolutionary War under General George Washington, including the distinguished officer, political leader, and town father, Col. William McIntosh.

Until the arrival of the railroads in the 1800's the center of town was along the current Central Avenue at Nehoiden Street. The gradual movement of the old town center to the Great Plain Village from the 1850's on was necessitated by the fact that the Charles River Railroad did not come to the old center. In the 1870's, when the First Parish Church was moved to its current location in what is now Needham Center only the Old Burial Ground and the 1720 parsonage were left as the reminder of the original settlement.

The people of the town made a modest living as farmers, although eventually horticulture and dairying became prominent. Highlandville, (now Needham Heights, took on a completely different character with the migration of English knitters such as William Carter, Mark Lee, etc.,in the 1850's. What started as cottage industries developed into large knitting factories that produced world famous knit goods. The presence of a cricket field reminds us of their legacy.

Within 10 days of the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, posters appeared all over town, stating "Needham to the Rescue!", which summoned our citizens to enlist. During the rebellion over 40 of our men were credited with service.

Almost from its beginning the western part of the town was dissatisfied with the location of town government. This culminated in the separation of Wellesley in 1881, which approximately divided the town in half. It was not until the turn of the new century when a new high school building and a beautiful town hall were created, combined with the effect of seven different trolley lines, that Needham began to gain the momentum that made us a successful dairy and suburban community.

A significant event that should not be overlooked is the "Back Bay Fill", when a considerable amount of Needham's land was removed by train (day and night, from 1859 to the late 1870's) to fill in most of Boston's Back Bay. Needham was chosen as the removal site of the fill because of the abundance of gravel and reasonable rail access to Boston. Most of the land removed lay between the Charles River and the present Route 128. When the gravel was exhausted a devastated desert was left which was not developed until the post World War II construction of a large industrial center.

In the late 1800's William Emerson Baker achieved extraordinary results when he built his Ridge Hill Farms with its magnificent hotel, elaborate gardens, two man made lakes, and over 1900 acres of scenic views, wild animals, and mysterious caves.

When Swiss-American botanist Denys Zirngiebel lived in Needham he established a very successful commercial horticultural business where he first introduced the giant Swiss pansy to America. The pansy is now the official town flower. Zirngiebel was also the grandfather of one of America's greatest artists - Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth, who attended Needham schools, and used many Needham people and locations for his paintings and illustrations when he lived here in the 1920's.

One of the current attractions of the town is the significant collection of Wyeth works displayed in the public library and the Needham Historical Society Museum.

Gradually both dairy farming and the knitting industries declined. In 1955 the well known Walker-Gordon Dairy closed, and in the 1990's even the world famous Carter Company relocated. However, the creation of one of the nation's first industrial parks in 1950, the later addition of high technology firms, the improvement of access to Route 128 and Boston, frequent railroad passenger service to Boston, and the excellent quality of Needham schools have contributed to the town's emergence as one of the more desirable suburbs of Boston. Retention of the representative Town Meeting form of government and an abundance of trees and open spaces add to the feeling of a typical New England village.

Information graciously provided by Polly Attridge

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