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Historian documents Hill-Heustis historic family of Belmont and Cambridge - farm and farmland
Historic Case is made to preserve silver maple forest upland.
February 12, 2009
Town History Claims the Forested Uplands
What connections are there between the historic Heustis family farm and the Silver Maple Forest in the Belmont Uplands area? The interwoven natural and human history give us answers. Before the familiarly called "Silver Maple Forest" was transformed into a core forest buffer zone to the 115-acre Alewife Reservation, the property was the 25 acre farm site of Warren Heustis & Sons, a successful fruit, vegetable, and pig farm. "The hill", once the Heustis farm, has been returning to its early wilderness origins since the 1948 farm sale, and before that to the Menotomy Indian era and the First Nation of the Mystic Valley.
Although some of the history was previously published by the Herald, more facts have recently come to light. This property was part of the original 1633 land granted to Abraham Hill by King Charles I, according to Lydia Phippen Ogilby, a direct descendant who still owns a piece of the land, and grew up on the adjoining Amos Hill farm. According to materials compiled on the Hill family by the Belmont Historical Commission, they were from noble Norman extraction, entitled de la Montague, and became Hill under reign of Edward III in late 14th century. In late 18th century, a Hill ancestor became a Parliament member, a Viscount, an Earl, and later, Comptroller of the King's household and Treasurer of the Chamber. In 1775, he held a seat in the House of Lords.
When Lucy Ann Hill, daughter of Amos, married Warren Heustis in 1845, her father bequeathed to the couple 13 acres of prime agricultural land between Little River and the Arlington town line. The family operated what became known as the Heustis farm for more than a hundred years, until its sale in 1948 according to town historian, Richard Betts.
Farmer Warren Heustis was well known for the excellence of his vegetables and fruit, strawberries in particular. He received numerous engraved medals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and when he died in 1890, the Society eulogized him, calling him "a lover of the rose and an esteemed member of the vegetable committee."
In addition to horticultural cultivation, the Heustis family farm acquired a regional reputation as "the largest fancy pig farm in this section of the country," according to the New England Farmer magazine of 1894. The Heustis piggery numbered 1200 registered stock and the business stationery featured a drawing of a pig. Their favorite breed was the short-nosed Yorkshire, which was imported from England and today is known as Middle White, renowned for its excellent eating quality. Little pig, "snowball" remained on the farm for years, endearing to the family. He reflected the worthiness of the breed, despite later prohibition by town by-laws.
In January 2009, Lydia Ogilby formally requested The Massachusetts Historical Commission to consider protection of this historic farmland, which existed as a working farm before the incorporation of the town of Belmont in 1859. Recently, Ellen Mass, president of the nonprofit organization Friends of Alewife Reservation, discovered a stone foundation buried beside the majestic silver maple trees, verified with Lydia's presence and grandparent's maps.
If excavation or proper recognition of the property were undertaken, Belmont citizens of the 21st century would learn first-hand about their town's rich agricultural heritage of the nineteenth century. Preservation of the site would highlight a time when the annual Strawberry Festival, the town's most important social event, featured competition among the town's more than fifty farmers to cultivate the largest strawberry. It would reawaken imaginings of waking up to early morning sounds of house-drawn wagons, loaded with Belmont's specialties of celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, apples, and peaches, trekking over unpaved roads and special railway to the farm, to reach Faneuil Hall Market. It would bring back the memory of the fast horses that raced at Belmont's race track and the strong dray horses that hauled field stone to build the town's railroad station. It would allow future generations to revel in the fame of the stock farm on the hill, reputed to have imported the first Holstein cattle into the United States. It would awaken visions of artists on the hill, set up with easels painting the farming areas and the beauty of the Alewife watershed in Cambridge, Arlington and Belmont. I wonder how many of these paintings are hanging in Belmont homes today?
Just as the rare wilderness animals and birds of a pre-farm era have now returned to claim the ancient legacy of their original habitat, so too can the town claim its important historic roots. If the Silver Maple Forest is felled to make way for the development of 299 housing units, future generations will lose more than the unique natural woodlands open space, its function as a rare wildlife habitat, climate and storm water modulator. It will also erase the historic heritage of one of Belmont's finest working farmsteads.
Madelyn Holmes is a former Belmont resident and Harvard lecturer in History and Literature. Author of four history books including American Women Conservationists. She was a resident of Tobey Road and a Town Meeting Member. Madelyn now lives in Burlington, Mass. and continues to write on various subjects.