“In memory of Richard Fry 1874 – 1950. Son of a Freedman. Friend and Benefactor of Needham Youth.” Who was Richard Fry, and how did he come to be hitching a ride into Needham?
In one corner of Avery Field is a large rock. On the face of the rock is an oblong recessed area which used to have a plaque. The plaque was removed after damage, but once read “In memory of Richard Fry 1874 – 1950. Son of a Freedman. Friend and Benefactor of Needham Youth.”
Who was Richard Fry?
Around about 1900 (give or take a few), Moses Alden passed Richard Fry, a young Black man, walking along the road, and gave him a lift in his carriage. Richard Fry was born in Alexandria, VA in 1874. His father had been enslaved. It is not known exactly when or why Fry left his home in Virginia to come so far north, nor how he came to be hitching a ride along the road to Needham. However, whatever he and Alden talked about must have impressed Alden greatly, because Fry was invited to live with them at their home (now 604 Central Avenue), and continued to do so for decades.
The extended Alden family owned several properties along the stretch of Central Avenue, between West and Webster Streets. They were descended from Henry Alden, who came to Needham from (?)Boston around 1704, when Needham was still part of Dedham. Henry was a grandson of John and Priscilla Alden, of Mayflower fame. The Central Avenue property shows up as belonging to the Aldens on the oldest map of Needham – the Barachiah Mason map of 1771 – and continuously thereafter until the 1930s. In 1911, Needham historian George Kuhn Clarke noted that the Alden house was “one of the most ancient dwellings in town.” It was still standing circa 1950, but was apparently torn down in the 1960s or 1970s.
Fry was employed by William Carter as a gardener and handyman for his home on Alfreton Road, and for his offices and mill on Highland Avenue. He was also Carter’s chauffeur; and after Carter’s death in 1918, Fry continued to drive for Mrs Carter until her death in 1932. Carter had provided that Fry would have employment for life, so he continued to work for the Carter Company into his old age.
Fry was a member of the Village Club, and of a Black Masonic Lodge in Boston. He never married and had no relatives in the area. He did, however, clearly inspire friendship. When Abbie Alden, Moses’ widow, died in 1933, she deeded ownership of the Central Avenue house to Richard Fry, and it continued to be his home for the next decade or so. After he could no longer work, Fry was cared for by his neighbors, the Cefalos and the Ferraras. Fry’s friends Asa Small and John Whetton arranged to put his affairs in order and helped him write a will. In his last years he suffered from dementia and needed more care, so they found a nursing home for him in Roxbury. He died in 1950 in Medfield; he was about 75 years old. He is buried in the Needham Cemetery, not far from the Carter family plot.
Richard Fry’s will left his estate to the Town of Needham. Once his affairs were settled, this amounted to $1800. Town Meeting accepted the bequest in 1952, using it to create and install a memorial to Fry, and the rest for improvements to Avery Field. Avery Field had belonged to the town since the days when it was a schoolyard, but it had not been drained and graded for use as a playing field. The bequest amount was supplemented by Fry’s friend, contractor Joseph Cefalo, who did the work, and by an additional $6000 appropriated by Town Meeting.
Avery Field was the first of the town’s Little League fields. There are now many such fields, and every spring Avery Field is the scene of softball league games, neighborhood games, games of catch, and all kinds of casual and family recreation. It is a neighborhood gem, brought to you in part by the generosity of a man who created a successful new life for himself, a long way from home.
[The information for this story comes from town records, and interviews made some years ago with people who knew Richard Fry – William Carter (Carter’s grandson), Anthony Cefalo, John Marr, and Mrs Asa Small.]
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum