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Boston’s oldest home marks 350th birthday

The 350th birthday party for the James Blake House was one of the high points of the recent Dorchester Descendants weekend with guests from all over the United States who are descended from Dorchester residents from 1630 through the 21st century.

The James Blake House was built in 1661 and moved from its original location approximately where the NStar parking lot is today next to the Venetian Garden restaurant in 1895 to save it from demolition. This was the first recorded instance of moving a house due its historical significance.

The 1748 subdivision plan for the Blake estate presents an illustration of the house and shows its relation to Cottage Street. James Blake’s son John died in 1718 leaving minor children John and Josiah to share the family property. This survey was obtained only in 1748 after the death of Josiah the year before to aid in the subdivision of the property between John and Josiah’s heirs.

Deacon James Blake held public office, becoming a constable, town selectman, and deputy to the General Court as well as a pillar of the First Church, serving as Deacon for 14 years and later Ruling Elder for about the same length of time. James married Elizabeth Clap, who in 1634 was one of the earliest children to be born into the newly established Puritan Society, the daughter of Deacon Edward Clap and niece of Roger Clap. The Blake House became the primary focal point of a very comfortable and well-to-do 91-acre estate that included a 10-acre home farm with at least two outbuildings and orchard, yards and garden.

The impetus behind the Dorchester Descendants project is the energy and spirit of Elisabeth Blake, known to us as Bettina. When John Goff was preparing the Historic Structures Report on the Elder James Blake House, he pored over the names in the guest books at the Society to determine if there were any Blake family members whom he might contact to add to his study – to see if they might be able to round out the Blake House story with their own memories of the house.

It was a lucky day for the Society when he found name and address of Elizabeth “Bettina” Blake. By a freakish stroke of good luck, Bettina was about to sell off some her family furniture in preparation of a move from the Midwest to Boston. After John contacted her, she offered the Blake furniture to the Dorchester Historical Society for the Blake House, and the house now displays these pieces.

After Bettina arrived in Boston, she continued to take an interest in the Blake House and in the Society, and she advocated for the establishment of a group to encourage an interest in the Society by those people who had ancestors who had lived in Dorchester over its 375 year plus history – to more fully learn about and celebrate their Dorchester connections. She recognized that this was a group of stakeholders that the Society had not specifically targeted for special outreach in the past. Some of them might already be members of the Society, but she knew there would be others who didn’t know what they might enjoy by being associated with our organization.

Bettina also recognized that a project would be most successful if she provided the funds to allow the Society to hire a coordinator. The Society maintains a busy schedule already – in fact, I think it ranks among the top local historical societies in Massachusetts, but that fact meant that there would not be enough time for the Society to concentrate on this new project. That is how Faith Ferguson came to take on this project. Bettina sponsored not only Faith’s tenure on the project and the events of Dorchester Descendants weekend – tonight and tomorrow, she has also provided the means to publish a book—a stunning photographic essay—about the Society’s collections recognizing that collections include buildings as well as artifacts.

To obtain a copy of the book, please contact Earl Taylor at ERMMWWT@aol.com.
Earl Taylor is the president of the Dorchester Historical Society.