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

Presidents, in their Day


It is February, when we commemorate the lives and accomplishments of our greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And as we do so, it is important to keep in mind that essential question –

What’s this got to do with Needham, anyway?

Well, Gentle People, its true – George Washington did come to Needham.  Well, it was West Needham then – sadly, now in Wellesley.  He did not sleep here, but he did stop for a drink of water (which he praised as being of very high quality).  The visit took place on November 6, 1789, as Washington was en route from Watertown to Sherborn during his presidential tour of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He was met at the town line by a party of supporters and former comrades-in-arms, led by Needham’s Col. William McIntosh, who Washington is said to have greeted by name.  As he passed through Lower Falls, he had his drink at a well near the bridge at the intersection of River Street and Route 16; the well is now gone, but there is a small park with a plaque commemorating the event. Washington then went on his way to Sherborn via the old Sherborn Road – ever since known as Washington Street.

This may actually have been Washington’s second visit to Needham. It is thought that he passed through town in 1775, on his way to Cambridge to take over the Continental Army. But since he was not so famous then, and in a big hurry, no one bothered to record it for sure.

Though many people have claimed over the years to be friends of George Washington, the evidence that he and Col. William McIntosh were in fact acquainted comes from the Washington Kerchief.  The Kerchief, a cotton textile printed with an image of Washington on his horse, was commissioned by Martha Washington from John Hewson of Philadelphia in 1776 or 1777, and were given by her to friends and supporters.  Not many were made, and even fewer still exist. The Needham History Center’s Kerchief was passed down through the Colonel’s family, and came to us through a descendant in 1911. (More about the Kerchief here).


Abraham Lincoln never came to Needham, but he had heard of it, and he knew two Needhamites quite well.  Which is more than most towns can boast.  Needham resident Edgar Whitaker, who served this town in many capacities, left Needham in 1859 to take up a post with the US Treasury Dept.  While in Washington DC, he spent time at the hospitals visiting the war wounded.  In the course of these visits, he met Lincoln and the two became friends. Lincoln also became a friend of the Rev. Abijah Baker, minister from 1854 to 1861 of the Congregational Church in West Needham (now, the Wellesley Congregational Church). Early in the Civil War, Rev. Baker went on pastoral business to Washington DC, where he met with his friend John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary (and later Secretary of State). Hay introduced Baker to Lincoln, and Lincoln recognized Baker’s name right away as the author of several widely-known catechism texts, which Lincoln had used while teaching Sunday School in Illinois. Mrs. Rev. Baker had also written numerous moral stories for children, and Lincoln was happy to relate that he was currently reading her book Tim, the Scissors-Grinder to his son Tad.

Neither Washington nor Lincoln ever heard of the town of Wellesley.  Just sayin’.