An elegant mansion and 200 acres of riverfront were not part of the original plan. Charles Foster just wanted the fresh milk he couldn’t find in Brookline. And in Needham he found that, and more.
The Town announced last week that it will be asking Town Meeting to approve the purchase of 34 acres of land at 484 Charles River Street, as part of a partnership with developer Northland Residential to acquire the 64-acre Foster estate, Castle Farm. This acquisition would increase the acreage of the Ridge Hill Reservation and improve trail access to the Charles River. Northland would use part of their parcel to build a residential development that includes an affordable component (“friendly 40B”), and the rest would create a buffer for the residential properties along Whitman Road. More information is available on the town’s website (http://www.needhamma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1475).
Castle Farm was built in 1901 for Charles Henry Wheelwright Foster and Mabel Chase Foster of Brookline. Foster was an executive at his father’s company, the Boston Sugar Refinery Company; Mabel’s father was a director of the Bank of Boston and an investor in the railroads. In addition to Boston Sugar, Foster also had business interests in the Brookline National Bank, the Northern Railroad of NH, and two piano companies. Foster owned property in Brookline and Marblehead, including a summer home and a local hotel called “The Ship’s Cabin.” He was a polo player and avid yachtsman, owning several vessels and becoming one of the founding members of the Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead. The land that the Fosters purchased for their Needham home was formerly part of the William Emerson Baker estate. Remnants of the estate were still intact at the time, and Foster’s children would explore the fallen ruins of the bear pits, the burned remains of the Hotel Wellesley, and crawl through the narrow tunnel that led to the grottoes.
Although “Farm” is a common enough affectation for an elegant country estate, Foster bought property in Needham because he was starting an actual dairy farm. One of Foster’s daughters, Hilda Chase Foster, wrote a memoir about her life, and describes her father’s efforts. Foster had decided to operate a dairy farm in order to have a clean supply of milk for his nine children. Tuberculosis contamination of the milk supply in the late 1800s was a significant problem, though not everyone had the wherewithal to solve the problem by buying their own dairy farm. Around 1890, Foster went looking for land in the country with easy railroad access to Brookline (to carry the fresh milk) and found 15 acres in Needham that fit the bill. There was, until the 1960s, a convenient train station on Charles River Street (hence the current rail trail). He built a farmhouse on the property, acquired a herd of purebred Jersey cows, and hired a man named Henderson to run the dairy. Soon Henderson was sending in enough fresh milk for Foster’s children and several of their Brookline neighbors as well. Coincidentally, William Baker raised his own cattle in this pasture in his day, researching ways to provide a cleaner commercial milk supply. Foster probably did not know this when he bought the land, but I’m sure one of the neighbors filled him in eventually.
The demand for milk began to outstrip the capacity of the farm, so in 1898 Foster began looking for more land. There was a property across Charles River Street that was just the thing – 200 acres along the river, with extensive cleared pasture, and woodlots on the river bank. The property’s owner, a Mr Windram, was in serious debt and about to default, so Foster arranged to trade properties. Foster would take over Windram’s property and pay off his debts and mortgages, and Windram would get Foster’s smaller farm free and clear. The new property was given the name Castle Farm. Windram’s cow barns were bigger than Foster’s former barns, so he was able to maintain a herd of forty cows and expand his milk production at Castle Farm. The dairy operation lasted until around 1905, when an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease struck the farms on Charles River Street, and the herds had to be destroyed.
In the meantime, Foster was building a new house for his estate. The architects were the Boston firm of George Russell Shaw and Henry Sargent Hunnewell. Shaw and Hunnewell were also the architects who designed (among many others) the Boston Free Hospital for Women, the Watertown Free Library, and the Wellesley Town Hall (Henry Hunnewell was the son of Wellesley’s Horatio Hollis Hunnewell). In 1901, the family moved into their large new house, with 12 bedrooms to accommodate Charles and Mabel, seven children (one had died in infancy, and the ninth was not born yet), a governess, a cook, two nursemaids, a waitress, and a chambermaid. The Windram farm and its many outbuildings were maintained on the property for use by the farm superintendent, three cowmen, two stable hands, another cook, and two laundresses.
The property descended in the Foster family following Charles HW Foster’s death. The most recent owner was Foster’s grandson, Charles Henry Wheelwright Foster II, known as Henry (or Hank). Henry Foster was one of the country’s leading environmental policy experts. He held degrees from Harvard, University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins. He was a faculty member at several universities, a former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, a President of the Nature Conservancy, and held several positions in environmental policy in the MA government. After the recent passing of Henry’s widow, Barbara, the property was put up for sale.
In the years around 1900, it was not uncommon for wealthy Bostonians to purchase large estates in the Charles River Street/South Street area of Needham. The trains made the journey relatively easy, and the “country” had great advantages over the crowded confines of Boston. True, most did not come out to raise cattle; but large stretches of open land became available as Needham’s economy turned from farming to retail and residential. In its day, Castle Farm was just one of several large estate properties along the Charles River. Over time, many have been subdivided, and the Foster place is one of very few that retain such significant acreage. It looks like subdivision is now in its future as well. The future of the house itself has not yet been discussed, and I am hoping that it has a place in the new development. It is an architectural gem – a large and elegant mansion from a more gracious age (for an excellent slideshow of the house and grounds, see the Zillow listing at https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/484-Charles-River-St-Needham-MA-02492/57481402_zpid/). Even so, the proposed plan will protect large parcels of the open land and woodland from future development and make them available for community use.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum