Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

Once Upon a Time at the Baker Estate

– by Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum

 Want more information?  We have a FILM and a BOOK about the Baker Estate as well!

The great author E.B. White once observed, “I wake up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time.  Sometimes this makes planning the day a little difficult.”

I always thought that this was an excellent description of William Emerson Baker, whose Ridge Hill Farms (better known as the Baker Estate), is widely described as the first amusement park.  It was in fact much more than that – a working farm, a science museum, a botanical garden, a laboratory for Baker’s social and political ideas and ideals.  But for all its serious purpose, there is no question that Baker – and everyone else – also expected to have one hell of a good time.

William Emerson Baker was born in Roxbury in 1828.  He was one of the seven sons of a not-too-successful businessman.  Baker attended Roxbury High School, and hoped to go to college, but there was not enough money, so he went out to work at the age of sixteen.  He saved enough of his earnings in the next couple of years to start investing.  He was a mechanical tinkerer by nature, and the machine that caught his fancy was the newly invented sewing machine.

Baker made his fortune in sewing machines.  In 1849, when he was 21 years old, he took his investment stake and formed a partnership with a Boston tailor named William Grover.  Grover could see the great usefulness that sewing machines were going to have in his line of work, but the machines were not yet practical.  Together, they formed they formed the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company, developing a practical stitch mechanism for industrial production.  As their success grew, they established offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee.  Of course, there were others in the sewing machine business, and new patents still being developed.  So in 1855, the main sewing machine companies – Elias Howe the inventor, Singer, Grover and Baker, and Wheeler and Wilson – went to court in New York and formed a 20-year Trust.  Members of the Trust agreed to pool their patents and limit the number or of licenses they granted to other manufacturers.  So instead of fighting each other, they locked in a royalty from each and every sewing machine sold in the US and Europe.

This was savvy timing on their part.  This was the beginning of the industrialized economy – the shift from handwork and piecework to mass production.

In 1868, as the trust was about to expire, Baker sold his stake in the company and retired, a very rich man at the age of forty.  After retirement, he purchased nearly 800 acres in the southwest corner of Needham as a summer estate. In the twenty years that followed, Baker filled his 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.

Baker used his estate and his connections to advance the social causes important to him – religious ecumenism, reconciliation between the North and South, home economics, and public health.  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.”  (Again ahead of his time – this is now the standard basis for establishing a nonprofit organization).

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 from a heart attack in 1888.  He was 60 years old.

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 amazing estate.

Beautiful & Bizarre: William Baker’s Ridge Hill Farms (DVD/Blu-Ray, 2016)

The Baker Estate, or Ridge Hill Farms (Book by Leslie Crumbaker, 1999)