This article first appeared in the Dorchester Argus-Citizen, May 10, 1990
By Anthony Sammarco, Argus-Citizen Correspondent
The Cedar Grove section of Dorchester represents what is commonly known as “New Dorchester,” as opposed to the northern area of the town.
To understand the settlement of Cedar Grove, it is important to look first at the history of North Dorchester. Dorchester was settled in 1630 by a group of Puritans from Dorsetshire, England, seeking religious freedom. They settled “Allen’s Plain,” a flat marshland that is known as “Five Corners” or Edward Everett Square.
It was in this area that the First Church was erected, and the first free public school in America was established in 1639. The common, an oval of public space, was elliptical with the church, school and first cemetery located on the east end, which today is the area of Pleasant and East Cottage St.
In 1674, the town voted to remove the meetinghouse to an area that became known as “Meeting House Hill.” It was here that the center of 18th and early 19th century Dorchester life existed. The Lyceum, a lecture hall built in 1839, the Mather School and the firehouse all added to the community area that most of Dorchester life revolved around.
However, with the split in the First Parish Church and the founding of the Second Church in Dorchester in 1806, the southward migration began. Codman Square, first known as Baker’s Corners after Dr. James Baker, was established with the building of the church, and the erection of the Town Hall, a simple Greek revival building with a Doric colonnade.
It was the new Codman Square area that established a center south of Meeting House Hill. However, the separation of parishioners from the Second Church led to the formation of the Third Parish in Dorchester at the junction of Dorchester Avenue and Richmond Street.
The area we know as Cedar Grove was a charming area bounded on the south by the Neponset River and on the west by Pierce Square, the junction of Adams and Washington Streets and Dorchester Avenue.
The area was owned by a few of the old Dorchester families such as the Bakers, owners of the Baker Chocolate Mill, the Thayers, who built a house later occupied by Reverend John Codman on Codman Hill, and the Prestons, who were associated with the Baker Chocolate Mill and had extensive dealings with the commercial fisheries on Commercial Point. Others who had property in the area included the Manning Brothers, early settlers from Ireland, the Paysons and Newhalls.
It was quite fashionable to stroll through Cedar Grove in the mid-19th century, as it was considered peaceful and its proximity to the Neponset River made it charming.
Dorchester’s oldest cemetery, the Old North Burying Ground, was laid out in 1634 and was filled beyond capacity by the mid-19th century. In the Dorchester Town Report for 1864, it was reported that “we would call the attention of the Town to the necessity of furnishing additional ground for burial purposes, as the lots in the present cemeteries are nearly all taken up.”
A new cemetery had been considered, but it was not until 1868 that it was finally voted to purchase land in Cedar Grove.
It was reported in that year’s town report that “We have drawn orders up on the town treasurer for $17,648.83 I payment for real estate bought by the Cemetery Committee, on Adams and Milton Sts. We consider the town fortunate in securing so desirable and central a location.” Thus, a large tract of land was purchased by the town from residents who sold off much of their own estates.
Cedar Grove Cemetery was laid out by the noted Dorchester architect Luther Briggs, Jr., who had laid out street grids in Commercial Point, Harrison Square and Port Norfolk. His architectural style might be considered stylized Italianate or a simpler form of Second French Empire as translated to wood. His home was in Port Norfolk, but he built many fantastic mansions throughout Dorchester.
His concept for Cedar Grove Cemetery was the ideal of the Victorians. Since Cedar Grove had always been considered a charming spot, the combination of a garden and cemetery made sense.
After the annexation of the town to the City of Boston on January 3, 1870, the area became more populous and with increased business, a more ethnically mixed community began to develop. The Baker Chocolate Mill was the largest factory to employ local people, but there were many other companies located along the Neponset River.
The Norfolk Cotton Manufactory, Baston Iron and Nail Factory, the Tileston & Hollingsworth Paper Mill, Sumner Sawmill, as well as numerous other factories were established.
It was in this economically viable area that many new settlers from Europe decided to build their homes. Not only were these factories a place to work, but they also offered social contacts and a new beginning.
Many Irish and Canadian immigrants began to populate Cedar Grove; it was becoming somewhat of a village within itself. The railroad was put through in the 1850s, allowing fast travel to the city.
However, it was public transportation from Ashmont Station in Peabody Square to Milton that stimulated the greatest development of Cedar Grove. The area was serviced by its own station, Butler Street Station.
There is a mysterious tale told about the trolley involving Michael Joyce, a night conductor on the Ashmont to Milton line. As the story goes, a man dressed entirely in black would peer out at the trolley as it passed through Cedar Grove Cemetery. Apparently, it was only an occasional sight, but it is recorded that the man in black recited to Joyce the following:
“Remember man, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be.
Prepare thyself to follow me.”
It was later ascertained that the man in black was Frederick L. Safford, who was appointed the first superintendent of Cedar Grove Cemetery. His devotion to the arboretum cemetery was unbounded, and a poem was written to commemorate his work:
“Dead, with his work unfinished,
Dead, with his Life’s harness on,
Dead, with his plough in its furrow,
Dead, ere his daylight was gone,
Dead, with his hand on the lever,
Dead, with his flag at full mast,
With the work that he left unfinished,
Finished by death at last.”
Cedar Grove was developed primarily after World War I, with two-family houses lining the well-kept streets. Playgrounds were laid out, and the trolley enabled people to travel to the city quickly.
This article was submitted by Anthony Sammarco, Dorchester lecturer and historian.