114 Years Ago, Dorchester Day took root in Savin Hill

James Stark was the publisher and president of the Photo-Electrotype Engraving Company, was noted historian and organizer of the Dorchester Historical Society in 1891. He might well be considered the father of Dorchester Day. Photo courtesy Dorchester Historical Society/ dorchesteratheneum.org

Excitement wafted through the crowd along Savin Hill. The community was gathered for a special event that would evolve into a tradition. Sails dotted the blue waters of Dorchester Bay below the shady slopes, where a “historical pilgrimage” was about to unfold. It was June 25, 1904.

As the people of Dorchester turned their thoughts back to 1630, when the weary passengers of the “Mary and John” claimed their foothold in the New World, the first Dorchester Day Celebration was on the move.

In many ways, the genesis of Dorchester Day began with the creation of the Dorchester Historical Society in April 1891. William H. Whitmore, who served as the City Registrar, and local luminary James H. Stark, both of whom were known as avid students of the town’s past, spearheaded an organization that numbered 25 members at its inception. That number would quickly swell.

To celebrate the town’s rich annals, the society envisioned a way to blend the past with the present, to gather those who lived in Dorchester and those who had moved, and to bring them together in something of a historical homecoming.

Trask writes: “...many of the best known and most influential men of the old town have become members [of the society]. Among the result of the society’s work may be mentioned the observance of the 274th anniversary of the settlement of Dorchester and the inauguration of Dorchester Day, which is now a fixture, and under the auspices of the society the anniversary is observed yearly, and is practically a ‘home coming’ for the residents of old Dorchester that are scattered throughout the land.”

Trask describes the festive mood that filled the city, then and now: “Business houses and private residences are elaborately decorated. There are parades, addresses, regattas, ringing of bells, fireworks, etc.”

In an April 1904 meeting of the society, Stark, the organization’s vice president, first pitched the notion of a “Dorchester Day.” He proposed that the town celebrate its founding by gathering the community atop Savin Hill, where the Puritan company of the Mary and John had built their first fort and had carved their first tenuous foothold in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Stark’s stated objective was “to draw the attention of the public to this most beautiful and attractive historic spot, with the end in view that the city should purchase it for a park and hand down to posterity this lovely hilltop.”

There was just one problem: The society’s funds were depleted from having refurbished its home. Still, Stark pressed the concept of Dorchester Day and “argued that it would not only draw the attention of the public to the necessity of preserving to posterity this historic spot, but it would advance the interests of the society, as it would bring it more prominently before the public, and if it proved a success ‘Dorchester Day’ would become the annual ‘field day’ of the society.’”

Stark’s powers of persuasion worked. The society voted to celebrate the town’s settlement with a band concert and ceremonies at the summit of Savin Hill. James H. Stark, chosen to raise funds, came up with $135 in donations, enough to foot the bill for a tent, printed fliers, and refreshments; he also persuaded officials to provide the Municipal Band and flags for free.

That the first “Dorchester Day” was a smash hit is evident from the pages of the Boston Herald the next day, June 26, 1904: “Lifted nearly one hundred and fifty feet above Dorchester bay, the craggy slopes and tree-covered heights of ‘Rocky Hill,’ ‘Old Hill,’ or ‘Savin Hill,’ as it has been variously styled, were yesterday the scene of commemorative exercises that seem destined to make a new place of historical pilgrimage for the tourist whose steps are annually bent toward Massachusetts.

The members of the Dorchester Historical Society, having planned to turn this long-neglected spot into a park, which shall at the same time commemorate the settlement of Dorchester in 1630, and possess the character of a national monument, had enlisted the aid of several local societies, such as Savin Hill Improvement Association, Gen. Rufus Putnam Chapter, D. R., Savin Hill Yacht Club, Harrison Square Association, Dorchester Lower Mills Improvement Association, Mattapan Improvement Association, Field and Forest Club, Dorchester Veteran Firemen’s Association, Benjamin Stone, Jr., Post 68, G.A.R., and the United Improvement Association of Dorchester.

“Under invitation of these organizations some two hundred citizens of Dorchester gathered in a tent on the crest of Savin Hill, and there, alternated with selections by the Boston Municipal Band, under Emil Mullenhauer, patriotic addresses were made on the significance of the day and the site, the speakers being Richard C. Humphreys, President of the Dorchester Historical Society; James H. Stark, who delivered the oration; the Rev. Eugene R. Shippen of the First Church in Dorchester, who presided; the Rev. Peter Ronan, and Representative Guy A. Ham.”

The presence of Father Ronan was especially telling, proving how far the town had come from the days of its first English settlers, Puritans who loathed anything smacking of “Popery.” In 1904, the Catholic cleric’s honored place at the ceremonies reflected an era when the Irish Catholics were finally winning greater acceptance from the descendants of the Mary and John emigrants.

In Dorchester Day celebrations to come, whether the 25th or 50th versions, the festivities became bigger, parades and even regattas took shape, and more money was poured into the event, one aspect remained virtually intact. That aspect was Stark’s vision of Dorchester Day as a “homecoming.”

A look at the Dorchester Day coverage by the old Dorchester Beacon newspaper reveals that many of the civic organizations and businesses that supported the first such gathering remained long-time backers. Even as new arrivals to the town took their own places in the festivities through the years, that sense of place and home — of community — has stood the test of time. Dorchester Day 2018 will be proof positive of that.