Historic Structures

Dwight-Derby House, Medfield Massachusetts

Date added: November 11, 2022 Categories: Massachusetts House

Established as a town during the Plantation period (1620-1675), also known as the First Period of English settlement in eastern Massachusetts, Medfield is one of fourteen towns carved, in whole or in part, from the territory known as the Dedham Grant (1636). In addition to Medfield, all or parts of the following communities were once in the Dedham Grant: the present Dedham, Westwood, Norwood, Needham, Wellesley, Natick, Dover, Walpole, Norfolk, Wrentham, Franklin, and Bellingham, as well as the Dorchester, West Roxbury, and Hyde Park neighborhoods of the city of Boston. In 1649, the inhabitants of Dedham petitioned the General Court for a grant of land west of the Charles River, or the area now known as Millis and Medway. Medfield was set off from Dedham in 1650, its territory then encompassing the present towns of Medfield, Millis, and Medway. In 1651, the General Court recognized Medfield as a town.

The first land grants in the Medfield area, once known by the native name Boggestow and later as Dedham Village, date to 1643, and constitute some of the earliest expansion of English settlement west of the settlement cluster at Dedham. Most of the first English settlers in Medfield were from Dedham, Braintree, and Weymouth. They were married sons from large families who sought opportunities to use their skills and so support their own families. Both the town center and the river meadow served as principal foci for First Period settlement in Medfield. Early settlement clusters, dating from the third quarter of the ia century onward, included the Bridge Street Plain on Bridge Street, the South Plain area near the present Philip and Spring Streets, and the town center area near Vine Brook.

The original core of the Dwight-Derby House at the town center was built ca. 1651 for Timothy Dwight (ca. 1609-1675), one of the thirteen founders of the town of Medfield. Dwight and his brother, John Dwight, arrived in Boston from Dedham, England in 1635, and thereafter settled in the new town of Dedham. In 1638, Timothy Dwight married his first wife, Mary (d. 1668). His brother was one of three men from the original Dedham settlement who were chosen in 1650 to survey the boundaries of the land grant that would become the town of Medfield. By May 1650, Timothy Dwight also served on the committee to lay out Medfield's house lots and roads. The committee approved thirteen house lots, encompassing six-acre or twelve-acre parcels. Timothy Dwight's twelve acres fronted the highway (Main Street) on the north side of Vine Brook, bordered by the present North Street on the east and the land of John Frairy on the west. Dwight's house lot did not actually extend to Vine Brook; land along the brook was reserved for common use, specifically as a source of shade for the public.

Medfield's 1652 tax valuation ranked Timothy Dwight as third in wealth in the town. He was a founding member of the Puritan church whose first meetinghouse (1653-1656) was erected across Vine Brook, just southeast of his home. He was a member of the town's first board of selectmen, an office he held for eighteen years. In 1652, Dwight became Medfield's first representative to the General Court, and served as chief military officer of the town. He and his wife, Mary, were childless and both approaching the age of forty when they arrived in Medfield. Together they farmed the land until Mary Dwight's death in 1668. Dwight resigned his post as Medfield's military leader the same year, due to diminished eyesight.

Timothy Dwight's house lot directly faced the area that would become the town's center of activity. With the laying out of Vine Brook (later Vine Lake) Cemetery (1651) and the construction of the first meetinghouse (1653-1656) and the first town pound (1654), Medfield's institutional core emerged on the present Main Street. The town initiated public education in 1655 with Ralph Wheelock, who attended Cambridge University, serving as schoolmaster. Medfield's location provided early settlers with extensive river meadows, which were well suited for grazing livestock. Hunting and fishing supplemented agriculture as the basis of the economy, and the town's upland streams provided power for gristmills and several sawmills. Available population records for Medfield show 261 inhabitants, with forty-nine voters, by 1663.

The second phase of construction at the Dwight-Derby House, and the one that comprises much of the house's earliest core today, has been dated to ca. 1669. That year, Timothy Dwight married a second time, to Dorcas Watson (b.1639), who was thirty years his junior. They had three children: Timothy (b. 1670), who died as a young child; John (b. 1672), who died in infancy; and another John (1675-1751), who later inherited his father's property.

The senior Timothy Dwight was severely wounded when Medfield was attacked during King Philip's War (1675-1676), and he died three weeks later from his injuries. All of the Bridge Street settlement, plus many outlying sections of Medfield were burned, though most of the center village, including the Dwight house, survived. Dwight's will, dated March 3, 1675/6, passed half his estate to his eldest son, Timothy, including the house and a barn, with the remainder to be divided equally between his wife, Dorcas, and younger son, John. Both Dwight's will and his 1677 probate inventory suggest that the 2½-story addition (now the southeast rooms of the house) existed by that time. His will provided that if his son, Timothy, lived and grew up, that his wife, if she remained a widow, could choose which part of the house she would like to dwell in. The probate inventory refers to the presence of a "parler [sic] chamber," indicating the presence of at least one other chamber from which the parlor chamber is distinguished. The value of Timothy Dwight's estate exceeded £500; this included an orchard, meadows, woodlands, farm animals, and equipment, in addition to the house, barn, and household items.

In the months after her husband's death, Dorcas Dwight took her two young sons, as well as her bed and table linens (a valuable and portable part of a woman's wealth), and fled to the safety of her nephew's house in Dedham. One year later (1677) she married John Adams of Medfield. Adams had been burned out of his father's house on Bridge Street during the war. John and Dorcas (Dwight) Adams apparently resided in the Dwight house on Frairy Street, burying young Timothy Dwight and raising John Dwight during their time there. It is not clear when they died, though John Adams is supposed to have moved to Ipswich sometime after 1707.

During the Colonial period (1675-1775), Medfield began its gradual evolution from a frontier community to a moderately prosperous rural town. In 1702, Medfield had 123 land proprietors. In 1713, Medfield's territory west of the Charles River was set off as the town of Medway (and further divided, in 1885, to create the separate town of Millis). Early 18th-century improvements to the road network put Medfield at the crossroads of regional highways to Dedham (later State Route 109) and Taunton (later old State Route 27). Taverns opened in the town's principal transportation corridors. Other new interior roads provided access to meadows along the Charles River and mills throughout the town.

John Dwight (1675-1751), the only surviving child of Timothy Dwight, was associated with the house on Frairy Street for most of the Colonial period. In 1696, Dwight came of age and assumed his inheritance, which by then included the Dwight house and barn due to the death of his older brother. The same year, he married Elizabeth Harding (1678-1758) of Medfield. From 1698 to 1716, John and Elizabeth Dwight had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

Like his father, John Dwight was a prominent man in town affairs and Medfield's chief military officer. He served as treasurer, town clerk for six years, and selectman for ten years, and represented Medfield in the General Court in 1741 and 1743.

There is conjecture that a lean-to addition on the north side of the Dwight house was built in the late 17th century to accommodate the growing family of John and Elizabeth Dwight. During the first quarter of the 18th century, the setting of the house changed as well, as Vine Brook across Frairy Street was transformed into a mill pond. William Plimpton dammed the brook in 1724 to power his fulling mill, creating what later became known as Meetinghouse (or Baker's) Pond. This action initiated a long-term industrial use of the pond that continued into the late 19th century. Plimpton's fulling mill was one of several saw, grist, and fulling mills in Medfield that served local residents during the Colonial period, constituting the major industrial activity in the town at that time.

Between 1725 and 1733, John and Elizabeth Dwight saw their five adult daughters marry and leave the family homestead on Frairy Street. In November 1740, one month before the marriage of his youngest child and sole surviving son, Seth Dwight (1716-1776), John Dwight sold to Seth "1/2 my House, being the East end, and also the 1/2 my Barn and Barn yards and Gardens and also the 1/2 my Orchard." The transaction also included various parcels of land totaling twenty-three acres in Medfield, plus another forty-seven-acre tract in what is now the neighboring town of Dover, then still part of Dedham. Six months after his marriage to Hannah Fisher (1717-1792) of Dedham (Dover), Seth Dwight purchased from his mother one-half of her own inherited property, encompassing additional acreage in Medfield and Dedham (Dover). The ca. 1740s transformation of the Dwight house, from its expanded First Period form (ca. 1651, with ca. 1669 addition) to the present Georgian-style dwelling, is attributed to a joint venture of John Dwight and his son, Seth Dwight.

Like his father before him, Seth Dwight was a farmer, a Medfield selectman, and town treasurer. He and his wife, Hannah, apparently occupied the Frairy Street house with his aging parents. In 1751, his father, John Dwight, died intestate. The estate inventory shows John Dwight owned a dwelling house, corn house, barn, and six acres of upland in Medfield (likely his remaining half of the Dwight house property). He also owned another 468 acres of land in Medfield, Medway (later Millis), and the central Massachusetts town of Sturbridge (previously known as New Medfield). Seven years later, Elizabeth (Harding) Dwight died, leaving her son, Seth, and his family as the sole occupants of the Dwight house. Three children were born to Seth and Hannah Dwight: Patty (b. 1747), Timothy (1750-ca. 1800), and Hannah (1753-1761). Seth Dwight, who assumed title to the entire house after the deaths of his parents in the 1750s, contracted smallpox in 1776, dying of the disease at the age of fifty.

Early in the Federal period (1775-1830), the population of Medfield had grown to 775. Agriculture and animal husbandry remained the mainstay of the town's economy. The establishment, by the turn of the 19th century, of cottage industries in strawbraid, bonnet manufacture, and brush-making brought greater diversification to the economy and made use of the rye growing in the Charles River meadows. A few farms included orchards, like the Dwight family's property on Frairy Street, and dairy operations. There was small-scale granite quarrying in Rocky Woods at the boundary with Dedham (Dover), and seasonal grazing of sheep and cattle in the northeastern corner of town. Main Street, located south of the Dwight house beyond Meetinghouse Pond, was improved as part of the Boston and Hartford Turnpike, and a causeway was built over the Charles River to Medway (now Millis).

Though Medfield's town center remained a small cluster village during the Federal period, there were new residences constructed, commercial activities expanded, and institutional buildings replaced or remodeled. Diagonally across Meetinghouse Pond from the Dwight house, a new Congregational meetinghouse, now the First Parish Church, was constructed in 1789, replacing a 1706 building. Further east at the town center, the 1772 Baptist meetinghouse was enlarged in 1822. The 1793 incorporation of Norfolk County, of which Medfield is a part, lead to consideration of establishing Medfield as the shire town. This was opposed by some of the town's "prudent citizens" on the grounds that its young men "would fall into habits of idleness, and spend too much time in gratifying curiosity by attending trials in court". By the end of the Federal period (1830), Medfield's population numbered 817, down from a peak of 892 in 1820.

The Federal period was one of transition for the Dwight-Derby House. After one hundred forty years and four generations of ownership under the Dwight family, the property on Frairy Street would pass out of the family in the 1790s. Hannah Fisher Dwight, widow of Seth Dwight, retained a live tenancy in the house, which was inherited in 1776 by her two adult children, Patty and Timothy. In 1777, Patty Dwight married Jonathan Metcalf of Medfield, who had been appointed administrator of her father's estate. Jonathan and Patty Metcalf moved into the Frairy Street house, which they occupied with Patty's widowed mother, and their four children, Dwight (1778-1857), Patty (b. 1779), Jonathan (b. 1782), and Charles (1783-1819). The senior Jonathan Metcalf (1744-1821) served four years as a Medfield selectman, and was town clerk and treasurer for four years. He was variously described as a merchant or trader by occupation. Metcalf is known to have operated a store at the town center in 1784, and has been described as one of the first storekeepers in Medfield.

Jonathan Metcalf's business ventures, and the apparent deterioration of his financial condition, led to the sale of the Dwight Derby House in the 1790s. Timothy Dwight had sold his interest in the Frairy Street property to Metcalf, his brother-in-law, in 1786, and about the same time, he and Metcalf divested themselves of most the Dwight family farmland in and around Medfield. Timothy Dwight was a Harvard University-educated physician and Revolutionary War veteran whose errant behavior and illegitimate children contributed to his characterization as a "dissipated man" in a 19th-century history of Medfield. His widowed mother, Hannah Fisher Dwight, also transferred her interest in the property to her son-in-law and daughter. The Metcalfs in turn used the property on Frairy Street as collateral for a loan from Marshall Spring, a physician in Watertown, Massachusetts. After the death of Hannah Dwight in 1792, the Metcalf's moved permanently to Boston, where Jonathan Metcalf was a merchant and Patty Dwight Metcalf worked as a milliner. The Metcalfs apparently had some financial difficulties before leaving Medfield. In 1788, the Frairy Street property was attached for a period of fifteen years, during which time the rents from the property were to be paid to Ephraim Wilson, a Dedham (Dover) miller, as damages from a lawsuit.

Marshall Spring subsequently sold the Dwight property in 1796 to Deacon Moses Hill of Medfield, who died the following year. Hill's estate auctioned the property, which then occupied a sixteen-acre house lot. The purchaser was Horatio Townsend (1763-1826) of Medfield, an attorney. Townsend was a son of the Rev. Jonathan Townsend, who was ordained as an associate pastor of the Medfield church in 1745. The Townsend family homestead was located on the east side of North Street, across from the meetinghouse and down the road from the Dwight property. At the time he purchased the Dwight house on Frairy Street, Horatio Townsend served as Clerk of Courts for the newly established Norfolk County and resided in Dedham, the shire town, when court was in session. Townsend rented his living quarters in Dedham and did not purchase a home there. He married Anstis Green (d. 1850) of Boston, and they resided in the Frairy Street house with their children: Mary (1797-1880), Lucretia (1798-1880), Horatio Jr. (b. 1799), Sarah (1801-1869), and another son.

Construction of the 2½-story lateral ell at the northeast corner of the Dwight house is associated with the occupancy of the Townsend family. Archaeological evidence also suggests that an attached outbuilding was present on the east wall of the Georgian-style house during the same period (1790s-ca. 1820). The function of the outbuilding has not yet been determined; apparently it was removed from the house by about 1820. The only clapboard-clad exterior walls on the house are those viewed from the east,the first elevation seen on the approach from the town center, rather than the facade (south elevation). In this case, the facade has wood shingle cladding, as do the remaining elevations of the house. Further research is needed to determine when the clapboards were installed, and whether there is any connection between the clapboard wall treatment and other remodeling activity on the house's eastern elevation that is associated with the Townsend family.

In 1820, Mary Townsend, the oldest daughter of Horatio and Anstis Townsend, married John B. Derby. Derby, from a prominent Salem family, was educated at Harvard University and practiced law in Dedham at the time of the marriage. The young Derbys resided in the east half of the house on Frairy Street, while Mary's parents and siblings occupied the west half. John and Mary Derby had two children, Sarah (1821-1837), and George H. (1823-1861). Shortly after the birth of their second child, John and Mary Derby were divorced, and Derby left Medfield.

Period accounts of John Derby chronicle his deterioration and descent into madness up to his death in 1867. In 1823, Horatio Townsend deeded a portion of the house lot, the house, and a barn on Frairy Street to his daughter alone and her heirs. This action ensured that Mary Derby would have both a secure place to live and capital that could not be touched by her husband. Townsend died three years later, in 1826.

During the Early Industrial period (1830-1870), several women and children in the Townsend-Derby connection occupied the Dwight-Derby House, but its principal association was with the owner, Mary Townsend Derby. Initially, Mary Derby and her two young children occupied the house with her mother, Anstis Green Townsend, and one or possibly two of Mary's sisters. Minor remodeling of the house was undertaken at this time, including the installation of gabled dormers, the changes to the ornament of the main entry, construction of interior partitions in the north half of the second floor, and creation of an attic bedroom at the west end of the house.

The years between 1837 and 1854 brought the deaths of Mary Derby's daughter and mother, the marriage of Mary's sister Sarah, and the graduation of Mary's son, George Derby, from West Point. This left two single women, Mary and her younger sister, Lucretia Townsend, living alone at the Dwight-Derby House. After graduating from West Point in 1846, George Derby continued his military service in the Mexican War. By the 1850s, he had become a captain in the U. S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, serving at various western outposts while at the same time launching a successful literary career. Derby gained national literary fame under the pen names John Phoenix and Squibob. He married Mary Ann Coons of St. Louis and had three children. George Derby died of a brain disease in 1861, predeceasing his mother.

Following the deaths of Mary Townsend Derby and her sister, Lucretia Townsend, in 1880, the Dwight-Derby House passed to Mary Derby's three grandchildren: Daisy Derby Black, Mary Derby, and George B. Derby. From 1880 to about 1940, the Derby heirs rented the house out, with tenants occupying two or three apartments. Margaret Eveleth Black took title to the property in 1936, upon the death of her husband, Roger Derby Black, a great-grandson of Mary Townsend Derby. Margaret Black moved into the Frairy Street house in 1942 and subdivided the property. She sold the northern end of the house lot to an abutter in 1943, and in 1945 sold the remaining half-acre, including the house, breezeway, and attached barn, to Louisa H. Hackett, wife of William H. Y. Hackett of Dedham. This sale ended the Townsend-Derby family connection with the property, one that spanned five generations and one hundred forty-eight years.

The Baker family of Belmont, Massachusetts acquired the Dwight-Derby property in 1948. Like the Hacketts, the Bakers purchased the Dwight-Derby House for use as a vacation property. Thomas Baker owned an automobile dealership in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. His wife, Edith Baker, who took title to the property upon the death of her husband, moved into the house about 1950, and launched renovation and restoration work on the house and grounds. Under Mrs. Baker's direction, a new roof and sills were installed, the breezeway was rebuilt, the historic kitchen was restored, and a modern kitchen was installed in a small adjacent room. She also hired landscape architect Harriet (Hallie) Long to design and implement new gardens on the property that complemented the house's Colonial character. In 1963, Mrs. Baker sold the property to Chester and Jane Harris of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Members of the Harris family resided there for thirty-three years.

The Town of Medfield purchased the Dwight-Derby property from Jane Harris in 1996. The Friends of the Dwight-Derby House, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, leases the property from the town for $1 per year. The Friends group assumes the expenses of preserving and administering the house, and raised much of the funds for the exterior painting work. Long-range planning for the property calls for its use as a learning site, a meeting site, a museum site, and a special events site.