Needham History Center & Museum

The Thumbnail History of Needham

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

Fist Weir
Ancient stone fish weirs in the Charles River were revealed during the very dry winter of 1903. Weirs are rows of stone or other material that act as a funnel, forcing migrating fish such as shad, herring and alewife through the narrow opening and into the waiting baskets of the fishers. These fish traps were in active use from prehistory well into colonial times.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the area of Needham lay within the territory of the Massachusett, an Algonkian-speaking tribe related to the Wampanoag and Nipmuc.  Artifacts excavated near the Charles River banks in Needham showed that Native American communities had lived here for nearly 9000 years.  The landscape was temperate forest, rich in a variety of smaller game – deer, beaver, rabbit, turkey – as well as plentiful fish in the rivers and plants for food and tools. Rivers such as the Charles were ideal for hunting, fishing, and gathering during the warmer months.

The European settlement of Needham began in the 1630s as a part of the large Dedham Grant. Needham began as Dedham’s North Parish, the land north of the Charles River.  The land that later became Needham and Wellesley was purchased from tribal leader William Nehoiden in 1680 for 10 pounds in cash, 40 acres of land, and 40 shillings worth of corn.

The early settlers made their living as farmers.  Farming in Needham has always required some ingenuity. Tucked into a loop in the Charles River, Needham ground is low-lying and damp. The familiar English crops – wheat, barley and rye – could not thrive in Needham’s poor soils. Even Indian Corn, a staple of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, had limited success.  Instead of grain, therefore, Needham farmers relied upon the products more suited to their riverside lands – garden crops, hay, pigs, and especially cattle. They also gathered produce from the river, including reeds and alewife.

By 1711, settlement had spread far enough that the weekly trek (8+ miles!) to Dedham for church services had become a hardship. There were about 250 people living in the North Parish, enough to justify the establishment of a new town/parish and a town government.  The Farmers’ Petition seeking a new parish was granted by the General Court on November 6, 1711, and the new town was given the name Needham, after the English village of Needham Market (a neighbor of the English town of Dedham).  The First Parish church and the center of the new town were located along the coach routes, at the intersection of Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue.  The parsonage, the cemetery, the meeting hall, school, post office and tavern were all located there as well.

Needham remained a largely agricultural town until the mid-1800s.  In the 1830s, the first rail line was laid through West Needham, from Boston to Worcester, great increasing residential settlement in that part of town.  In 1853 a second line (Boston to Woonsocket) was laid, connecting East Needham to Boston.  Denied access to the town center at Nehoiden Street, the rail line was diverted southward into the largely-empty Great Plain.  The presence of the railroad drew both businesses and residents away from the old town center and toward Great Plain Avenue and the surrounding streets.  The Baptist and Congregational parishes also placed their new churches there.  In 1879, the First Parish church was lifted up onto rollers and moved to its current location on Dedham Avenue, firmly establishing Great Plain Avenue as the new town center.

Steam shovels fill the cars carrying gravel from Needham to the Back Bay, circa18. Gravel was loosed from the bank by men with sticks and collected by the steam shovels at the base.

Rail access to Needham was extended not only for travel purposes, but also to accommodate the “Back Bay Fill.”  Starting in 1859, gravel was transported to Boston to fill in the Back Bay for residential use.  For nearly 25 years, more than 1200 freight cars per day were loaded with gravel dug from the area that now forms the Industrial Center and the Route 128 interchange.

Also in the 1850s, Needham began to see the development of industry, especially in Needham Heights.  Knitters from the English Midlands, displaced by economic changes in their own country, migrated to Needham and the surrounding towns to reestablish their businesses. The most famous of these was the William Carter Company, which today still produces fine knitwear (though no longer in Needham). By 1890 there were more than 15 large companies (and numerous small ones) manufacturing knitted garments in Needham Heights.  Throughout the late 1800s, the demand for labor in these factories brought an influx of new immigrants to Needham – not only from England, but also from Ireland, Italy and Poland.

Farming continued to be important in the local economy.  By the late 1800s, the main agricultural goods produced in Needham were poultry, flowers, and dairy products.  There were at least eight large commercial dairy farms in Needham in 1900.  Flowers were grown for the Boston and wider market.  The most famous greenhouses were those of Needham’s “Pansy King”, Denys Zirngiebel, on South Street.  Zirngiebel was also the grandfather of the artist NC Wyeth, who was born and raised in Needham.

Needham suffered a setback in its growth in April 1881, when West Needham voted to separate from East Needham and form the new town of Wellesley.  Their successful vote was the seventeenth attempt to effect this separation, reflecting long-standing disputes between the two sections of town that dated back into the 1700s.  The separation reduced the land and population of Needham by about half.

The farming and knitting industries sustained Needham’s economy through the beginning of the 20th century.  By the 1920s, however, both began to decline and the Needham Board of Trade began to market Needham explicitly as a residential suburb.  There was ample land, and good train and trolley service to encourage urbanites to make the move to a fresher and more comfortable lifestyle.  Then in the 1950s, Needham businesses began to shift toward new industries and technologies as the construction of Route 128, “America’s Technology Highway,” carried the intellectual capital of Boston’s universities out to the land-rich western suburbs and created a hub of technological innovation.  The Needham Industrial Center, built on the land stripped for the Back Bay Fill, was the first such business/industrial center in the country.  The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, America’s newest and most innovative engineering school, was dedicated in 2002.

“Keep Your Eye on Needham” – Starting the1920s, the Needham Board of Trade made a deliberate (and successful) effort to market Needham as a desirable residential suburb rather than a farming town.

Needham continues to change.  The attraction of local colleges, high-tech businesses, and accessible transportation has enriched the cultural diversity of the town.  Development in the business center along Route 128 continues to attract new corporate clients. The town is rapidly becoming a destination for dining and entertainment.  Even some long-standing traditions have changed, as Needham voted a few years ago to allow the sale of liquor, after a ban of nearly a century.  Needham today is primarily a residential suburb of Boston.  Ready access to the city and to the western part of the state is a boon to both businesses and residents.  Its fine schools, attractive real estate, and strong sense of community keep Needham vibrant and growing into its fourth century.

 

How Did Needham Get Its Name?

“In the affaire of the Inhabitants of Dedham living on the North side of the Charles River, by their Petition humbly Praying to be made a Township by reason of their great Distance from the place of the Publick Worship of God in Dedham… Ordered that the Prayer of the Petition be Granted, And that the Lands now within the Town of Dedham Lying on the north side of the Charles River…be made a distinct and Separate Town by the name of Needham.”

Needham, MA, was named after Needham Market, a town in Suffolk, England. This area of Massachusetts was settled mostly by people from the English coastal counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk, and many of the towns in our own Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk Counties are named after English towns they left behind. Other examples include (among many others) Cambridge, Boston, Framingham, Braintree, Dover, Chelmsford, Stoneham, Sudbury, Dover, Sandwich, Harwich, Ipswich, and Chatham. 

The English village of Needham Market was probably settled sometime before the Norman Conquest in 1066.  It was granted its market charter in 1245, which is the first written record that mentions the town. The word “Needham” comes from the Anglo-Saxon, and means “Lower Village” (Germanic nieder- meaning nether or lower, and -ham, signifying a village or hamlet).  None of the early residents of Needham, MA, bore the surname “Needham,” though it is quite a common family name in southern England.

Needham was originally part of the land grant of Dedham, which was named after the English town of Dedham, in Essex.  The Dedham Grant was settled in the 1630s, and settlers immediately started to claim land north of the Charles River to graze cattle in the rich wet meadows.  By 1711, 45 families lived in the North Parish (now Needham), and were finding it difficult to travel the eight miles to church in Dedham.  Because of their remoteness from the center of Dedham and the tendency of the Charles River to flood in the winter, they were often deprived them during the winter months of access to school, church, and Town Meeting (which took place in church, right after services).  An appeal was made by the 45 families for permission to establish and support a school and church north of the river, but this was denied.  Citizens of the North Parish, therefore, petitioned the General Court in Boston to be “Allowed & Enabled to Settle and Support ye Gospel of Christ among ourselves.”  The petition was signed by 40 of the 45 householders.

The Petition was approved on November 6, 1711 and Needham became the third town to separate from Dedham.  When Needham was granted its separation in 1711, MA Governor Dudley called the new town “Needham,” giving it another familiar English name.