In Needham, “the Mother’s Rest has a permanent home, in a beautiful section of the country, where [tired mothers] can have pure air, blessed sunshine, and enjoy the beauty of forest and meadow.”
This article is about a pretty but unassuming little house at 103-105 High Street, right at the corner where High Street turns into Greendale Avenue. Since at least the 1950s, it has been a two-unit condo, but it didn’t start out that way.
It started in the 1850s, when brothers James and Thomas Beless of Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, came to Needham. Loughborough was a small industrial town, just about in the dead center of England. Lougborough was known for England’s largest bell foundry, John Taylor & Co.; the Falcon Works (steam locomotives); and for the invention of a lace-knitting (bobbinet) machine. In the Beless’ day, it had about 10,000 inhabitants.
Like many knitters from the English Midlands, the Beless brothers left England as industrialization began to overtake the hand-loom market. They purchased land in Needham in 1853, at the junction of Greendale Avenue and High Street and established their own knitting company, J. & T. Beless. This was Needham’s first knitting mill – the first of what would become the mainstay industry of Needham Heights. The Beless mill had 12 knitting frames for making gloves, underwear, and hosiery. In addition to the mill, the brothers built themselves homes on the adjacent properties and grew their families. In time, James’ son Samuel also joined the business.
The High Street house may have been the first residence of one of the Beless brothers. Although the Assessor’s list dates the house to 1890, this is clearly wrong. The house is shown on both the 1887 birds-eye map of Highlandville (Needham Heights), and on the 1876 Sherman Atlas map. It was originally a single-family house. According to George Kuhn Clarke’s History of Needham, the Beless brothers had “already made their homes in what is now Needham Heights” by 1856. This is a plausible date for the house – 1850s/1860s. By the 1870s, the Beless family had built additional houses for their several families, as well as facilities for their business.
The Beless company ceased business by 1903, when the brothers both died. In 1906, the High Street property was purchased by The Mother’s Rest Association.
Mother’s Rest was an organization founded in Newton in 1900. The Rev. Everett D. Burr, pastor of the Baptist Church in Newton Centre, organized The Home for Tired Mothers. The Home was a group of Baptist women who hosted “tired mothers” from the poorer sections of Boston to come to the suburbs with their children in the summer for “a two weeks respite from the heat and turmoil of the city.” In their first year, they hosted 193 visitors, with the Newton women and their friends contributing supplies and beds. In 1903, the Association expanded to include other congregations, and incorporated as the non-denominational Mother’s Rest Association.
In 1906, Mother’s Rest purchased the Beless property as their rest home. At the time, the estate was nine acres in extent, and included the house, several outbuildings, and an orchard of fruit trees: “Here, the Mother’s Rest has a permanent home, in a beautiful section of the country, where guests can have pure air, blessed sunshine, and enjoy the beauty of forest and meadow.” (The Needham Chronicle, 9 July 1910)
By 1910, Mother’s Rest had hosted 810 women and 870 children. Its annual capacity was around 250 women and children, both native-born and immigrant, and there was a long waiting list. In addition to pure air and blessed sunshine, the home had a resident nurse, an on-call doctor, and also offered nutrition services: “Many cases could be cited of puny, sickly babies brought back to health under the wise care of the nurse; of mothers taught to care properly for their children; of tired, discouraged women restored to normal condition and sent home full of hope and courage.” However, despite its emphasis on health and nutrition, the Rest was not a hospital or clinic: “It is not the aim or desire of the Association to become institutional, but to give each guest an idea of a genuine home, full of personal influence, plainly furnished, with an abundance of well-cooked food, such as any woman might prepare in her own home.”
The Association relied upon members and donors to support its work; there was apparently no charge to the mothers and children. Membership dues were $2 per year, and of course more was gratefully accepted. Although originally a Newton women’s group, the Association had expanded: “The associated membership is unlimited as regards sex, place of residence, or amount over $2 contributed.”
Two weeks in the country may not seem like a lot, but Mother’s Rest was more than just affluent ladies’ good-doing. In the late 19th century, the city was crowded and filthy. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, processed foods were filled with noxious ingredients, the milk supply was tainted with tuberculosis, and even meat, when available, was rarely fresh. In poor and immigrant neighborhoods, there were few sources of clean water. Efforts like Mother’s Rest not only provided short-term relief and nutrition, but also some longer-term strategies for maintaining health and improving nutrition upon returning to the city.
The 1910 article in the Needham Chronicle was written in an effort to secure more donors, and emphasized the importance of contributing members to the Association, but it also mentioned that the organization was on a sound financial footing. A similar article in 1912, however, was more urgent. Although it repeated much of the pure-air-and-blessed-sunshine text of the 1910 article, it devoted more of its space to an appeal for increased membership and donations: “The possibilities in the future depend upon the support given the work. The Association is entirely dependent upon the loyalty and generosity of it helpers and donors. What it needs is an increased membership, so large that the income from membership be sufficient to place the charity upon a firm financial basis, and give the Association a regular yearly income.”
I guess not firm enough, because the Mother’s Rest Association apparently folded sometime in the next few years. By the 1920s, the property was owned by the Carter family. By 1926, the house had been partitioned into two units, and the nine acres had been subdivided into house lots. Tower Avenue and Bennington Street had been laid out, and the neighborhood took on the form we recognize today.
I live near that intersection, and several times a week find myself at the corner opposite the old Mother’s Rest, waiting for the long lines of High Street traffic to clear so I can turn. How much more pleasant to think about the thousand or so women and their children who found a few weeks’ of respite and recovery, in the pure air and blessed sunshine of Needham.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum