Needham History Center & Museum

Good Times (and Bad) at the Baker Estate

William Emerson Baker entertains guests at a party in the Pavilion Grove, circa 1875. Baker is second from right, with the walrus mustache, studiously looking away from the camera.
William Emerson Baker entertains guests at a party in the Pavilion Grove, circa 1875. Baker is second from right, with the walrus mustache, studiously looking away from the camera.

William Emerson Baker’s Ridge Hill Farms is widely described as the first amusement park.  It was much more than that – a working farm, a science museum, a botanical garden, a laboratory for Baker’s social and political ideas and ideals. 

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 at the intersection of Grove and Charles River Streets, which he called the Ridge Hill Farms.  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, a pleasure lake, saloons and restaurants, and a 225-room luxury hotel. Many of the attractions included practical jokes and bad puns, which he would spring on unwitting visitors and guests whenever he got the opportunity.

So, more often than not, when we discuss the Ridge Hill Farms, it is in terms of Comedy – pigs sleeping in silken beds, shifting sprung floors that made Temperance visitors look drunk, ecumenical birdhouses, or parties to celebrate the birth of a calf to which 2500 people were invited.  There is, however, a serious side to the story – one that eventually verged on Tragedy.

The Representative of the Hub, made from wooden cartwheel hubs, was a satire on the Boston Brahmin class.
The Representative of the Hub, made from wooden cartwheel hubs, was a satire on the Boston Brahmin class. The photo is one of the many stereopticon views that Baker sold as souvenirs.

When it came to politics, Baker was a satirist, and many of his most comic efforts were aimed at the governing class.  Although Baker was himself wealthy, he was entirely self-made and had grown up in poverty.  His great wealth was the profits from his successful sewing machine company, Grover and Baker. His marriage in 1860 to Charlotte Farnsworth was a big social move upward, and he ran in circles that included some of the bluest blood in Boston.  Nevertheless, Baker was always keenly aware that he was not really accepted or acceptable to the highest strata of Boston society, and he played on this discrepancy when he created, for example, the ‘Representative of the Hub,’ a sour-faced Brahmin politico made entirely out of wooden cart wheel hubs; or the High Church, Low Church, and Broad Church birdhouses which criticized the local religious establishment (“…all supported by one stem, which was living, while the branches to which they were nailed were all dead.”)

But Baker got serious when the topic was public health.  Although he had some memorable stunts on this subject – the Sanitary Piggery Party, for one, where the pigs were given little beds with silk sheets and pillows to show how well cared for and pampered they were – most of his important public health work was away from the public eye.

The southern third of Baker’s estate, from Charles River Street to the Charles River, was a working farm.  The only public facilities on this part of his grounds were his Hotel Wellesley and his two health spas, and even these were a part of the work.  The hotel and spas were provided with food that was specially-prepared in kitchens that he built to train cooks in the principals of “pure” (ie, additive-free) and nutritious food.  Along with Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School (which Baker also supported) and other Boston-based institutions, the “scientific food” movement was an effort to regulate the additives in food (some of which were quite horrifying) and create standards for nutrition.  As Americans moved away from the farms and into the cities, they became more dependent upon ‘manufactured’ food and more vulnerable to the alterations or adulterations that tainted many of these foods.

The other aspect of Baker’s farms was “sanitary” stock-raising.  In the 19th century, tuberculosis and other pathogens were endemic in cattle (and therefore the milk supply). Pigs were urban livestock, and allowed – even encouraged – to eat garbage and other filth off the streets. This not only allowed the owners to feed the pigs “for free,” but had a genuine purpose in keeping the streets clear of the garbage that would otherwise attract rats.  The result, of course, was pork that was contaminated with numerous parasites and diseases, many of which could transfer to humans.

Baker’s idea was that one should raise the livestock under clean conditions, with wholesome food like grass, grain, and hay.  Their pens and stalls should be kept clean and free of waste. Silk pillows may have been a stunt, but they emphasized his point that livestock would benefit from clean bedding and living conditions: “ ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. The Hog is naturally much more cleanly in its habits than many of those who say he isn’t.”  The result would be fewer infected animals, which would result ultimately in less human disease.  It was easier and less costly, he reasoned, to prevent the incidence of disease in the first place, than to try to cure it afterward.  His working farm included not only the Sanitary Piggery, but also the Riverside Herd Barn for his cattle, the Buffalo Barn (he was researching whether bison meat was more healthy than beef), and the Laboratory for his research.

The Hotel Wellesley stood in the field between Charles River Street and the Charles River. It had more than 200 rooms and was widely known for its luxury.
The Hotel Wellesley stood in the field between Charles River Street and the Charles River. It had more than 200 rooms and was widely known for its luxury.

In April 1881, Needham and Wellesley split, running the new town boundary right through Baker’s estate, and making him the unhappy citizen of two separate towns. Therefore, that same April he petitioned the General Court to be allowed to secede his 800 acres from both towns, and to establish a “hygiene village” that he would call Hygeria.  In Hygeria, residents would practice the most scientific and modern methods of sanitation and hygiene in food and dwelling.  The lessons learned would be offered to the state as a benefit to others.  Baker therefore also requested to be exempt from taxes on the grounds that his discoveries would benefit all the citizens of Massachusetts, and save the Commonwealth far more than was lost in taxes. The beneficial example of Hygeria would “encourage and control the veterinary care of animals intended for market supplies, improve the quality and the preparation of all food products,… and organize such practical applications of chemistry…. as shall serve to educate even casual observers how to detect impurities in food products…. and shall induce people…. to practice such sanitary economies and household reforms as shall tend to diminish crime and disease and improve the vigor of the race.” (the Hygiene Reporter, April 1881)

The Needham Selectmen opposed Baker’s petition.  Needham had already lost nearly 60% of its taxable land base to Wellesley; it was unwilling to lose Baker’s estate a well, which amounted to another 6% of the town’s taxable acreage.  And frankly, they were not so impressed with Baker himself, whose flamboyant style was at odds with the more serious and provincial character of the town.  Apart from the necessities of real estate – easements, taxes, etc – Baker had had little involvement with town officials and almost none in town affairs.  The Selectmen were not inclined to do such a favor for someone who had done so little for them.

Using their influence with the MA legislature, the Selectmen kept the petition languishing in legislative limbo for four years – from the Public Health Committee to the Committee on Mercantile Affairs and back again.  During this time, Baker kept up the fight, haranguing (and alienating) legislators and friends alike: “Now, Gentlemen, I regret exceedingly that you should treat this petition as a foot-ball and not take time to give it proper consideration… With all due courtesy and in the name of the Taxes which I have paid…, I demand that you shall give me a hearing on this application….  I write from no selfish motives, and if I throw out threats towards you, it is simply because you are strangling the Child of my Heart, for which I have no selfish, no commercial interests, other than to advance humanity and Progress, and improve the Public Health….”  (Letter to the MA Senate, May 20, 1885).

When the petition was finally refused, Baker was furious. He fired off an open letter to the Needham Selectmen entitled “Suicidal Needham,” in which he accused them of unlawfully influencing the General Court.  He threatened immediate legal action (“I will contribute my share of the money and time necessary to…. indict some one or more of these legislators”). He also gave them “formal and timely notice” that he would “forthwith take immediate measures to get my estate outside of the border lines of the town of Needham.”   (Letter to the Boston Post, May 26, 1885).

The long fight was costly.  Baker depleted his funds, and his energy.  There is no record of further activity at the estate – parties, new constructions, or other events.  To make ends meet, he went in debt to his father-in-law for $100,000 – roughly $3 million in current dollars. There is no way to know whether he actually moved on his threat to pack up or liquidate during the next two years.  But the strain took its toll, and in January 1888 Baker died of a heart attack at the age of 60.

After Baker’s death, his wife sold the Ridge Hill Farms. Charlotte Baker had no interest in maintaining a property that had drained their funds and which she almost never set foot in. 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 now left of Baker’s amazing estate.

Baker’s obituaries tended to focus on his estate and his eccentricity. Few mentioned his many philanthropies, or his public health work.  Nevertheless, ideas that he championed and that were radical in his day – nutritional standards, disease-free livestock – are standards in our day.  The notion that he should be exempt from taxes in return for creating a public benefit is the basic justification for a non-profit organization today. He may have been humorous and he may have played games, but when it came to certain topics he was serious.  Deadly serious.

The Spray Fountain and ice house on the shore of Sabrina Lake. Baker had the scenic Lake dug by hand to accommodate his pleasure boats. It included the Spray Fountain, two boat houses, several decorative bridges, and gardens.
The Spray Fountain and ice house on the shore of Sabrina Lake. Baker had the scenic Lake dug by hand to accommodate his pleasure boats. It included the Spray Fountain, two boat houses, several decorative bridges, and gardens.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum