Reminiscences of Walnut Street

by Henry Ware

Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society.
Spring 1949, pp. 31-41.
(Brookline Public Library: [Brookline Room] 974.45 B77hn)

To such a learned group of historians, it is unnecessary to state that the very earliest maps of Brookline which showed any roads at all showed that when the road from Roxbury reached Brookline Village it forked. If you took the right hand fork, you would follow the road that now goes up over the railroad bridge and on, through our Harvard Square, either to Cambridge or to Watertown. If you took the left hand fork, you would be on the old Sherborn Road, which is our Walnut, St. Thus, as Walnut St. was in existence before the first such maps were made, we might well say that, speaking topographically, the old road was prehistoric.

The Sherborn Road runs along the side of a hill. High Street Hill slopes down to the valley where the railroad track runs, and the road, instead of following the valley, struck off more to the left and skirted along the hillside. If you try to build a road along the side of a sloping surface, you will, of course, have to cut into the bank on the upper side, in order to make your roadway level. And that is why you will find either stone retaining walls or sloping high banks on the left hand side of Walnut Street almost all the way to Cypress Street, with a corresponding absence of walls on the right hand side. An exception is the wall on the right opposite the end of Walnut Place, where a spur from the hill strikes off to the north and ends in that high mass of rock on Boylston Street, just beyond the Lincoln School.

Others are more competent than I to take Walnut Street from prehistoric days, and show it to you through its period of over two centuries. But it might be of interest to get a glimpse of it in the early 80’s, as it comes back to the recollection of one who was then a boy getting into his teens.

If you wanted to talk to some really old timers who have seen Walnut Street for a good many more years than I have, I would refer you to those two old oak trees on the edge of the sidewalk in front of Mr. Albert Brigg’s house, just west of Walnut Path. I do not know how far back they go, but when I first knew them, they looked about is big as they do now. There was another big oak tree just beyond them, apparently of the same vintage, but that had to come down in the interests of public travel. However its child still lives. In the early 70’s it dropped one of its acorns near our little brick house, where Mr. Daniel Snow lives now, and that little acorn began to grow at about the same time with a baby boy in that little brick house. That baby boy has grown to rather more than average height, but he is far behind in the race with the little oak tree, in spite of the fact that our horse post was near by, and the little oak tree had its head eaten off more than once. If you are interested to see how an oak will grow in seventy odd years, take a look the next time you pass Mr. Snow’s house.

Other old trees which used to line Walnut Street when I was a boy, but which have since been taken down, include a row in front of the Chester place not far front the present Oakland Road, but on the right hand side going from the Village. I remember seeing one gray squirrel chasing another in one of those trees. The leader scampered out on a limb high over the street and jumped to a tree on the opposite side. The second squirrel missed his jump and fell to the street, but he was on his feet in a twinkling and up the face of the stone wall. Perhaps it is the memory of these squirrels and the arch of the big trees spanning the road that now makes that part of Walnut Street seem to me a bit lop sided. One side of the arch has been taken away.

If you will come with me back to the early 80’s, we will stroll up Walnut Street beginning at the Village.

The present fire station stands on a triangular plot, with its rounded point headed toward Roxbury. Around that point was a block of wooden houses coming right out to the line of the sidewalk. This was called Whyte’s Block. As I remember them, the houses were only about two stories in height; modest little homes for people of moderate means.

On the other end of the fire station triangle, that is, on the part along the lower end of High Street, there was a blacksmith’s shop, — a real blacksmith’s shop, with a forge, and horse shoes hanging on the walls, and the smell that comes from putting a hot horse shoe on a hoof. Woodward’s blacksmith shop was not to be forgotten.

In the middle of the triangle, between the blacksmith’s shop and Whyte’s Block was a fire station, much smaller than the present fire station and housing, of course, only horse-drawn apparatus. However exciting may be the sight of a present-day piece of apparatus, roaring along with its siren wailing, it lacks something of the picturesqueness and stirring quality of the appearance of a pair of splendid great horses wheeling out of the fire station and galloping off with an engine, or a hose wagon behind. The old fire station fronted on Village Square, but those splendid horses at the back of the building looked through their little windows out on Walnut Street, so we can well include the old station as a part of our story.

Before proceeding up Walnut Street beyond High Street, let us go back to our starting point in Village Square and take a look it the left hand side of Walnut Street, across from Whyte’s Block. There, on the corner of Morss Avenue, were the car barns of the street railway. Except for an extension track which ran up over the railroad bridge and out along Washington Street as far as Park Street, the car barns were the terminal for the Brookline street cars. Sometimes a car would start from the very door of the car barn; sometimes it would pull out into Walnut Street and wait there for its passengers.

It was a long trip to Boston by street car in those days. Huntington Avenue was not yet open, and the cars went over the hill by the Mission Church, down to Roxbury Crossing, and then all the way in over Tremont Street to the old Tremont House, just beyond the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Like the fire apparatus, the cars were drawn by horses, and the horses for the Brookline line were housed in the rear of the car barns on Walnut Street.

How the old familiar horse car phrases come back! Painted under the roof of the front platform was this instruction to the driver, — “Walk your horses on curves and switches.” To the present generation I suppose the words “four horse time” are utterly meaningless. What possible connection is there between time and four horses? Well, for those of you of the post horse car era, here is the answer. A horse car was ordinarily drawn by a pair of horses. To maintain a running schedule of a certain frequency, say, once every ten minutes, they had to have a certain number of horses housed in the Walnut Street car barns. In, winter, when snow or ice-made the pulling harder, they would put on an extra pair of horses, four horses to a car. But with only a limited number of horses available, doubling the number for each car meant halving the frequency on which the cars ran. So the winter timing acquired the name of “four horse time.”

The car barns covered a large area, but there were also two or three houses on the left hand side of Walnut Street back of the fire station triangle, before you reached High Street. There was no Union Building.

Just across High Street, Walnut Street looked very much as it looks to-day, and was just as cold on a windy winter day. On the left were the two brick apartment houses (then called hotels, — Hotel Adelaide fronting on High Street and Hotel Kempton fronting on Walnut Street), and on the right was Mr. Quinlan’s carriage factory. (That factory, by the way, was famous for the good carriages Mr. Quinlan turned out, and Mr. Quinlan himself was one of the grand, old substantial citizens of Brookline.) One change has taken place in the factory buildings. Although the building on the very corner of High Street is the same, the adjacent brick building further up Walnut Street was not there, but in its place was Mr. Quinlan’s blacksmith shop. The forge and the anvil were as fascinating to us boys as Woodward’s blacksmith shop, but it didn’t have the smell of a real horse shoeing establishment.

Now we come to a stretch where there have been great changes. The old road of the 80s would not recognize itself to-day. There were none of the present wooden apartment houses, either on the right hand side as far as the brick block of three houses opposite Upland Road, where Mr. James Driscoll now lives, or on the left hand side all the way to and beyond Irving Street as far as Dr. Burrage’s driveway. Instead there were, on the right, two or three small single wooden houses (including one that always interested me because it had a real doorplate, reading “R. Woodward,” who you remember, was the blacksmith, and also the large square wooden house that is still standing, now squeezed in between the new apartment houses. When, however, we come to the brick block, we strike a stretch of Walnut Street that has undergone very little change in appearance since the 80s.

So let us go back to the left hand side of the street and begin at the brick Hotel Kempton, near the High Street corner. There was not a house fronting on Walnut Street all the way from the Kempton to Irving Street, unless we count the old Wright house that stood back on the hill almost as far back as the present Acron Road. Except for the two so-called “hotels” at the corner of Walnut and High Streets, the entire angle between those streets, as far back as what are now Upland Road and Acron Road was the big, open Wright place. Between Upland Road and Irving Street there was no house until you came to Mr. Arthur Mills’s house on Irving Street, opposite the end of what is now Maple Street. Between Mr. Mills’s house and Walnut Street was an open field, and that was our baseball field. Home plate was near Walnut Street and occasionally, but only occasionally, a mighty swatter like Waldemar Curry could land a ball on the roof of the Mills’s piazza.

If you will think of Walnut Street just before you reach the corner of Irving Street you will remember that there is a stone wall along the line of the sidewalk. I suppose that stone wall was really no higher sixty-five years ago than it is now, but to a small boy who was playing catcher behind home plate and let a ball roll by him and over the wall and down into Walnut Street, that stone wall looked awfully high after he had jumped down into the street and picked up the ball.

I wonder if anybody here can tell where Harvey Street led off from Walnut Street. I had forgotten all about the name until I saw it the other day on a plan. And who knows where Walley Avenue was? Mrs. Dr. Denny does, because she used to live on Walley Avenue. If any place is named a “street” or an “avenue”, you may be pretty sure that it has a certain amount of antiquity, and that it dates back before the time when the town went on an orgy of calling everything a “road”. If Harvey Street and Walley Avenue ever had any street signs, the signs have been taken down and those that have been put up in their place read “Upland Road.” Harvey Street was the part running from Walnut Street to Irving Street, and Walley Avenue was beyond Irving Street.

Going back to the right hand side of Walnut Street, there have, as I said, been very few changes all the way from the brick block nearly opposite Upland Road as far as the Chester place opposite Oakland Road. The little wooden house that stands next to the brick block was where a bright eyed, dark haired lady we used to call Madam Withington kept a school. Another small school (and I was once one of the only two little boys in this school of little girls) was kept by Mrs. Post (one of the sweetest little ladies this town ever knew). Mrs. Post’s school was in one side of the double brick house which we reach shortly before coming to Walnut Path.

Ah! Walnut Path! Now, a spacious town foot way, 10 feet wlde, paved and (comparatively) clean. Cut the width of this path in half, then take a foot more off that, reducing the width to 4 feet, build a high solid wooden fence on each side, and you will have what, to the eye, is a reproduction of old Cat Alley. But the real Cat Alley appealed to much more than to the eye. It appealed also to the nose and, to a certain extent, to the ear. It was a dark place at night and secluded, and not under the care of any street cleaning department. And the sound that it gave forth as you walked down it was a curious metallic ringing echo of your foot steps, due probably, to the high fences on each side. The memory of that sound and that smell is still very vivid.

I hope some local antiquary will some day write a monograph on the origin of the name of Cat Alley. The name is immortalized in the records of the Registry of Deeds at Dedham, for the path is so designated on a plan drawn in 1890 by Mr. French, the Town Engineer. Mr. French knew his Brookline.

As to the next three or four houses beyond Cat Alley, most of you would say that their appearance had not changed. That would be true of the houses themselves. But that small boy that I told you about, who lived in the little brick house where Mr. Daniel Snow now lives, used to play, with his young friends, in the common driveway that served both the little brick house and the double brick house next it (Mr. Albert Briggs’s). They were very little people who played in that driveway; so little, in fact, that when they played scrub, the baseball was rarely hit as far as the fence along Walnut Street, The driveway was used by both houses in common, because they both belonged to Mr. Philbrick, but in the final settling of Mr. Philbrick’s estate, the two houses were sold to separate owners and now a wire fence, dividing the driveway, has spoiled that ancient ball ground.

And speaking of Mr. Philbrick, let us cross over to the left hand side of the street and take a look at the Philbrick place. If I should try to make You see it as it was, I should have to tell you to wipe out of your minds Maple Street, the wooden apartment houses near the foot of Irving Street, and every house on that side of Irving Street until you came to the brick house just as you reach Upland Road. In place of the Irving Street houses imagine a high picket fence, painted dark red, running along Irving Street from Walnut Street to the brick house just mentioned. Behind that picket fence, picture a tall dense arbor vitae hedge and You will have a good idea of the Irving Street frontage of the Philbrick place. You must also wipe out of your mind all the other houses on the northerly side of Upland Road itself, excepting the southerly, or left hand, branch (going from Irving Street) until shortly after you pass Miss Chapin’s house. Everything else toward Walnut Street, was the Philbrick place.

The old stone house (from the outside) is just about as it was. The other stone house nearer Walnut Place long occupied by the Alfred Winsor family was also there, but otherwise the place was just a great open space, — except for one thing, one very important thing. That was the big Philbrick barn. And oh! what a playground that was in itself. If you were to put it back on the ground to-day, it would cover most of the Hunneman place and reach back about as far as the northerly part of Upland Road. And you would have to fill it full of old cobwebs and dried hay and farm tools and prize ears of corn hanging from wooden walls that have the brown sheen that comes only with age-old pine board. The main door on the lower level was behind the big house, but the land rises so rapidly as you go back to Upland Road that the side entrance opened directly on the upper floor, where Mr. Alfred Winsor kept his horse and carriage.

Before that dried hay ever got into the dusty hay loft, it was freshly mown hay piled in neat haystacks between the barn and Walnut Street. And of course you just had to turn somersaults in those hay cocks, even though big John O’Hare did chase you. I can see and smell the perspiration on his great bearded face, as his lumbering body came charging down at us. But he was a great kindly soul, and it wasn’t quite fair to mess up his hay cocks.

Beyond the Philbrick estate comes Walnut Place, very much as it used to be in appearance, but now robbed by the automobile of one of its chief sources of joy. With traffic in Walnut Street as it is to-day, it would not be safe to coast down Walnut Place on a double runner behind Billy Searle, but those who have not done so will never know the excitement of trying to negotiate the turn into Walnut Street without smashing into the stone wall across the way.

Now let us go on up Walnut Street to what is now Oakland Road. Here, too, if you would picture the place as it used to be, I must ask you to wipe a number of things out of your mind’s eye. In the first place, eliminate those two blocks of stone houses which face Walnut Street, one on either side of Oakland Road. Then eliminate Oakland Road itself. Then go back to the large white house (the first house on the left of what is now Oakland Road) and turn it a quarter way around, so that instead of facing Oakland Road, it will face Walnut Street. There you will have the old Cobb house, sitting up on rising ground well back from Walnut Street, as imposing as its distinguished family of occupants.

From there on towards Cypress Street the changes have come mostly on the northerly, or right hand side of Walnut Street. The wooden three family and two family houses are all new, but behind the present three deckers the old Winsor house still stands (now occupied by Mr. McLeod, the mover). Remove the three deckers and you can easily picture the spacious setting for that big house.

Crossing Cypress Street and coming, on the right, to the comparatively recent group of brick houses on the corner and to the development of small wooden houses near the newly-opened Cushing Road, all of you doubtless remember the brown wooden house that used to stand near the corner, and particularly the larger yellow house beyond (with its show of wistaria) which you probably think of as the Harvey Cushing house. To my generation it was the Bennett house. There was no Kennard Road at that time, and the Bennett place extended as far as the Kennard place (where the Park School is now).

Both the Bennett place and the Kennard place contained a unique attraction. An open brook ran through them both, and in the Bennett place particularly they made a feature of it by widening it out into an attractive little pool. Then the brook swung off to the north and joined Village Brook near Brookline Hills Station. If you are tall enough to peek over the fence on Boylston Street, you can still see a part of this open brook, where it cuts across the rear corner of the place now belonging to Miss Rosamund Hunt.

Across Walnut Street, on the opposite side from the Bennett (or Cushing) place, there was the Taylor house on corner of Cypress Street, and where there is now a group of small houses, were two houses, both coming down from the old Clark family. The larger and more recent house, directly across from the Bennett house was occupied by the Cutlers. The smaller house, on the corner of Chestnut Street, was one of the really old houses in Brookline. Unfortunately my mind was not at that time alive to observing old landmarks that were apt to disappear, so that I have only a vague remembrance of a little low house, evidently very old, with low studded rooms. Miss Maron Cutler, who is a descendant of old Deacon Samuel Clark, could doubtless give you a much clearer recollection of the old building.

Although the old Clark house is no longer standing, we still have in the neighborhood an interesting relic probably of Samuel Clark himself. Where the brick wall stands that now shuts off the view of the Park School from Walnut Street there was in my day a low stone wall between the sidewalk and the old Kennard place, Set into that stone wall was an old milestone, somewhat similar to those that were scattered about this part of the world by Paul Dudley; but instead of bearing the initials “P.D.” (like the stone now in the grounds of the Harvard Church) this stone in the wall on Walnut Street bore the initials “S.C.” It was within a stone’s throw of the houses where Samuel Clark lived, and in all probability he was the “S.C.” When Mr. Hugh Ogden tore down the stone wall and built the brick wall, he preserved the stone and had it set in the brick wall. You will find it there the next time you go up Walnut Street hill and then you will know that you are 5 miles from Boston, — but don’t forget that if you want to cheek the measurement, you will have to go by way of Mission Church hill, Roxbury Crossing, the old Roxbury meeting house, in Eliot Square, and in over old Boston Neck.

When we, leave Chestnut Street and go up Walnut Street hill, if we give out, imagination a little rein, we begin to feel more and more the atmosphere of the old town. On our left is the burying ground, dating way back, and unchanged in appearance during the last 65 years. A little further on is the old stone building now known as Pierce Hall. In its original form, it was the old town hall, built in the early 1820’s and soon used also as a high school. It later passed into private hands, and it was there that I went to a private school after leaving Mrs. Post’s little school for girls. The school was in charge of a competent and rather masculine lady named Miss Rideout. Although she and our radio friend the weather forecaster, Mr. E. B. Rideout, spell their names the same way, don’t make the mistake of pronouncing them the same. It was Miss R’dout’s school.

At about the beginning of the present century Pierce Hall was incorporated into a group of connected buildings, constituting the home of the First Parish. But in my school days, it, stood by itself, quite apart from the church. Built on to the rear of the original stone building was a wooden addition. In the upper story, the floor of the addition was raised well above the main floor, with a broad opening between that could be closed by folding doors. As you can see, this made a grand stage and a grand chance for private theatricals. Tall screens, as a rule, served for the simple scenery; but unpretentious as the setting was, the acting was apt to be good, and at times very funny, particularly when Mr. Edwin Lincoln took part.

Back of Pierce Hall were the church horse sheds; perhaps it would be more in keeping with the horse shed era if I said the horse sheds of the meeting house.

The meeting house itself stood where the present church stands, but it faced the other way. It faced down Walnut Street instead of up Walnut Street. The church goers, after climbing Walnut Street hill as far as Pierce Hall, then had a last short, steep climb up to the front door of the church. By the side of the front door was the belfry, topped by a steeple, with the bell, the same old bell, up in the bell tower. That bell was rung, morning, noon and night, by the town, doubtless a survival of the days, not so very long ago, when the parish was a department of the town and not a separate organization. At any rate, the thing that interested us school children was the fact that the bell was rung during our noon recess. The bell rope came way down to the ground floor, and after Barney McDonald had given it a good pull down, one of us would grab it tight and away we would go in the air as the bell swung back. Fortunately the ceiling was high.

The meeting house was of wood, painted brown, and behind it, about where the front of the present church is now, was a little wooden vestry, or Sunday School chapel. When the meeting house was torn down, this little vestry was moved to the back of the new church, and stood, at first as a separate building, where the present Sunday Chapel and minister’s room now are.

On the other side of Walnut Street, across from the church, the adjoining land is well above the level of the street and there is a retaining wall of pudding stone along the inner edge of the sidewalk. I hope the children of to-day still hunt in that pudding stone wall for a little dark red stone no bigger than the end of your thumb; and I hope they still put a thumb over that stone and make a wish before they go on. I don’t believe any boy or girl in my school days ever went by the place without stopping to thumb the wishing stone. It gave me a very warm feeling to receive a note from Mr. Prouty on note paper headed “Wishing-stone.” The Prouty place during my school days and for long afterwards belonged to the Poor family. The old house has been greatly altered.

From the top of the hill the present Walnut Street continues straight ahead, crosses Warren Street and drops down to the Reservoir and Dudley Street. There was no such extension of Walnut Street 65 years ago. The street followed the right hand road way and was Walnut Street (not Warren Street) all the way to Boylston Street. At the time of which I have been speaking the old Gridley house was still standing. Mr. Moses Williams had acquired the place, and in the middle 80’s he replaced the Gridley house with the present house now occupied by Miss Hunt.

Across the way, backing up to the Reservoir, was the old Bowditch place, running down as far as Dudley Street, with its old brown house standing on high ground and seeming to keep watch over the top of the hill.

At Boylston Street, the Walnut Street of my time came to an end; but I suppose the old Sherborn Road continued up Boylston Street, skirting what is now the Reservoir, and continuing over Heath Street out into the country. And so let us leave the old road, going calmly on its ancient way and on into the distance.