Once Upon a Time at the Baker Estate
– by Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham Historical Society
Hardly anyone outside Needham and Wellesley remembers anymore, but 120 years ago Ridge Hill Farms was known far and wide. Ridge Hill, also known as the Baker Estate, was the home and creation of William Emerson Baker. It was located on Charles River and Grove Streets, along what is now the Needham-Wellesley line.
William Emerson Baker was born in Roxbury in 1828. As a young man, he joined forces with a Boston tailor named William Grover, and together they formed the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company. The Company was phenomenally successful, and Baker retired in 1868, a very rich man at the age of forty.
After retirement, Baker purchased nearly 800 acres in the southwest corner of Needham. In the twenty years that followed, Baker filled his summer estate with over 100 amusements, attractions and exhibits. These included a museum of industry, two bear pits for his pets, an underground crystal grotto featuring the Forty Thieves (pictured below), a pleasure lake, saloons and restaurants, and a 225-room luxury hotel.
Although it was widely regarded as an amusement park, Ridge Hill Farms was in fact the physical embodiment of Baker’s opinions, often radical and always provocative, on American politics and society. Every attraction had its sharp point – and he used it to needle politicians, soldiers, scientists, and priests.
Public Health was the cause dearest to Baker’s heart. He supported the then-radical notion that many causes of disease could be eliminated by a more sanitary approach to food production. Several of Baker’s attractions were devoted to promoting the practice of Hygienic Farming. In his “Sanitary Piggery,” for example, pigs were kept in strictly clean conditions and given wholesome food. It was even rumored that the porkers were provided with little beds and little silk sheets – an unlikely accommodation, but certainly in keeping with Baker’s sense of humor. And it made the point that better treatment at the production stage led to a healthier food supply, which led to healthier people.
In 1881, Baker petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to allow him to secede his land from Needham and establish an independent Hygienic Village, to be called HYGERIA. He also requested tax-exempt status on the grounds that his discoveries would benefit all citizens of Massachusetts, and save the Commonwealth far more than was lost in taxes. The beneficial example of Hygeria would “…induce the people of this Commonwealth to practice such sanitary economies and household reforms as shall tend to diminish crime and disease and improve the vigor of the race.”
The Needham Selectmen opposed Baker’s petition, and it languished in legislative committees for four years before it was refused. Needham was unwilling to lose Baker’s estate, which amounted to nearly 6% of the town’s taxable acreage. Furious, Baker accused them of “strangling the Child of my Heart“, and threatened to leave “Suicidal Needham” and establish Hygeria in another state – a threat he had not enough time to carry out before his early death in 1888.
After Baker’s death, his wife sold the Ridge Hill Farms. Several attempts were made to keep the attractions going, but fires and lack of funds eventually doomed the effort. Over time, the land was sold off residential house lots, with few traces left of Baker’s “Fairyland of the Beautiful and Bizarre.”