Can you blame them for looking so serious, so clearly bearing the weight of Posterity? For thinking, as they sat, of their long lives together? Of how they were now notable for their memories, for their age, for having aged together?
I love these guys! This picture never fails to make me laugh – the three elderly men scowling at the camera, peering suspiciously out at you (you young whippersnapper!), as if you were an unwelcome interruption to the conversation of three old friends.
Friends they were, and old indeed. When this picture was taken, on 30 October 1906, all three men were I remarkable for being in their 90s. That’s a notable accomplishment even today, but when these men were born, in the 1810s, the average life expectancy was around 45. True, in rural towns such as Needham, life expectancy was higher – the water and air were clean, food was fresher and more varied, and a sparser population (compared to the crowded cities) provided fewer opportunities for disease to spread. And if you survived through young adulthood, with its high risks from injury and childbirth, you had a pretty good chance of living to be fairly old. A quick scan through the Needham cemetery dates for people born around 1800 shows that many lived into their 70s or even 80s.
“A notable Needham group photo has just been taken by G.L. Abell, whose Wellesley studio has a reputation for really artistic work. It includes three of our citizens over 90 years of age in whom we all take pride – George H. Gay, Hon. E.H. Tucker, and Ezra Fuller.” (Needham Chronicle, Nov. 1906)
Even so, 90th birthdays were rare, and these gentlemen were notable for their longevity. At the time of the picture, George Hiram Gay was 94, Enos Tucker was 92, and Ezra Fuller Jr. was 91. The photo was taken at Ezra Fuller’s property by George Abell, a professional photographer who was active in Needham and Wellesley at the turn of the 20th century. The portrait was clearly a planned event – the men are dressed up, and there are several versions, some with hats and some without. It was made to commemorate three respected citizens who had passed a milestone; and perhaps an acknowledgement that time was running out on their long friendship – Gay passed away the following January, just two months after this photo was taken and days past his 95th birthday.
So, who were these guys? Nobody special, really. Just typical Needhamites of their day. All three were born in Needham, lived their whole lives here, and did their part in the affairs of the town. All three came from families that had lived here for generations. The Gay and Fuller families lived in this area when it was still part of Dedham; the Tuckers were relative newcomers, arriving in the 1700s.
George Gay was a farmer, and had an extensive property extending along Great Plain Avenue and Broadmeadow Road. His forebears fought with the Needham militia in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Ezra Fuller Jr. was a carpenter, until he cut his knee so badly that he could not continue in that profession any longer. He became a shoemaker, and later ran a general store behind his home at the corner of Great Plain and Central Avenues (the former tavern site). His son was the botanist/ornithologist Timothy Otis Fuller, of whom we have written before. Enos Tucker was an Assessor and Selectman in Needham in the early 1880s, and then served in the General Court and state Senate for a few years. In his youth he helped to dig out Rosemary Lake (formerly Swamp). He also served as the superintendent of the railroad line through Needham for about 20 years.
Despite their sour faces, all three men were well-respected and not particularly ill-natured. They had plenty of smiles – just not for the camera. Photography was a serious business in those days. On the rare occasion on which you faced the camera, you presented your best – an image of sober propriety, civic responsibility, and aged wisdom. No informality, no levity. Can you blame them for looking so serious and dour, so clearly bearing the weight of Posterity? For thinking, as they sat, of their long lives together in Needham? Of how they were now notable for their memories, for their age, for having aged together?
Really, it makes you want to smile.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum