Reconnecting with our agrarian roots

As highlighted in a front-page article in this week’s edition, Dorchester was “settled” by English immigrants in 1630 – one month before Boston. Of course, people were living here for many centuries before our friends from Europe crossed the pond and alighted upon “Rocky Hill,” the early name for what we now call Savin Hill. It was not until 1870 that Dorchester and Boston were officially joined through an annexation process approved by Dorchester’s leading citizens of the time.

Back then – and for most of our recorded history – Dorchester, including what we now call Mattapan, was an agricultural community. Pears and apples were grown in abundance across the rolling hills that undulated between the Great Blue Hill to the south and the tri-mounts to our north.

Early in the 20th century, the bucolic pastures of olde Dorchester rapidly gave way to streetcar tracks and subdivisions. The orchards were plowed under and three-deckers – our signature housing stock – sprang up in their place. Dorchester’s principal crop has since become the generations of new Americans flung out from our bosom like wild geese to all points on the compass. Boston’s breadbasket became a streetcar suburb, a borough, a warren of side streets and corner stores and stone steeples that gave our rambling town-turned-neighborhood its identity.

There are a few precious links left to those pre-pubescent days when Puritan pioneers eked out a toe-hold on the near shoreline and erected crude homes and the continent’s first schoolhouse. One of them, the James Blake House, Boston’s oldest abode, with its origins in 1661, now sits next to Edward Everett Square. (The structure was relocated from its original spot on what is now Massachusetts Avenue in 1896.) Owned by the Dorchester Historical Society, it is available to tour by appointment and during select open house days hosted by the Dorchester Historical Society. The next one happens to be this Sunday.

Soon, another historic property that is directly linked to our distant agricultural DNA will be thrown open to the public as well. As we reported last week, the Clark-Fowler farm on Norfolk Street in Mattapan has been purchased by Historic Boston, Inc. The non-profit organization will spend more than $3 million to restore the property, which includes a farmhouse and barn on what was once a sprawling, 330-acre estate.

The Clark-Fowler project is one that should be heralded by everyone who cares about our country’s history. It was nearly lost to “demolition by neglect” after its former owners became unwilling and unable to care for its upkeep. The city of Boston, under Mayor Tom Menino’s leadership, stepped in to seize the property in 2013 in what was an unusually aggressive – but necessary – step to prevent further decay. The action landed the city in court and led to the eventual sale to Historic Boston, an outcome that will now lead to its restoration and re-use as a working farm again.

Mayor Walsh will visit the Clark-Fowler Farm on Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. for a ceremony to kick off a $1 million fundraising campaign to assist Historic Boston in its important work. It is a cause that is definitely worthy of our attention and generosity.

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