By Jill Bryant
I have been visiting Boston for many years but Dorchester, Massachusetts has always been considered a difficult place to visit.
This year I found two Dorchester residents who were happy to take me there and I am indebted to them. Thank you Marc LaFrance and Pamela Pearce – I think you enjoyed the day as much as I did!
Founded by Puritans from Dorset and named after our county town, Dorchester covers more than six square miles. It was originally a separate quite rural town, but was annexed to Boston in 1870. Its current population, in excess of 134,000, is diverse – comprising African Americans, Europeans, Irish, Caribbeans, Latinos and East and South-East Asian Americans.
John White enabled Puritans to travel to the New World on a ship called the Mary & John. These first settlers built a church called the First Parish Church of Dorchester in 1631. It was rebuilt four times on the site on Meeting House Hill.
In 1896 a fire destroyed the fifth building, but a new church was built in 1897 in the same style and is now a Unitarian Universalist Church – a spiritual home for all those who seek theological and cultural diversity, fellowship, justice and service.
When I visited there a Pentecostal service was taking place. There was a group playing, and the congregation was large and enthusiastic and included all ages, races and creeds. I am sure it was not the sort of service John White envisaged, but he would have been happy to witness the joy and harmony in a church set in an area which at times is beset with racial tension.
I was given a warm welcome when they discovered where I came from.
To learn the history and development of Dorchester we visited the William Clapp House which now houses the Dorchester Historical Society. Roger Clapp (born in Salcombe Regis, Devon) had arrived from Dorchester, Dorset in 1630 on the Mary & John with the original Puritans.
Other Clapps followed and the family became prominent members of society – and still are. They were farmers and developed the Clapp’s Favourite Pear – still widely available in America and grown in the northern UK, it is celebrated by a large bronze pear in the centre of Dorchester.
Dorchester’s most famous industry began in 1765 when a chocolate mill was built on the Neponset River. In 1780 James Baker went into the chocolate business and in 1804 passed ‘Baker’s Chocolate’ to his son Walter. Walter Baker & Co continued trading under this name, and in 1889 five tons of chocolate a day was produced at the height of Baker’s production.
In the 1960s Baker’s operations moved to Delaware and the building stood empty, but has now been developed into apartments. Several items from the Baker collection are on display in the William Clapp House.
Other Dorchester industries also displayed are examples of pewter, pottery and the unusual Edward A. Heubener Brick Collection. Heubener had collected one brick from Dorchester houses being demolished and had local artists paint an image of the house on the brick. There is also an exhibition about Dorchester resident Lucy Stone, an early advocate for women’s rights.
The historical society cares for landmark houses in Dorchester, the oldest being the James Blake House (1661) which was built by James Blake and his wife Elizabeth Clap and is the oldest house in Boston.
It was moved from its original position in 1895 because the land was required for municipal greenhouses. The house is now in a safe place and gives an insight into the life of the early settlers in the 17th century. The window panes are exquisite, in subtle pastel colours typical of hand-made glass.
The society also cares for three Clapp properties. You can’t go far in Dorchester without realising the great influence this family had on the development of the city. There is the Lemeul Clap House (1765), the William Clapp House (1806), and the Clapp Family Barn (mid-19th century).
I was lucky enough to meet Earl Taylor, president of the society (pictured left with me). He and his staff gave us the warmest of welcomes. They are always interested in the town which gave them their name and Earl sent good wishes to Dorchester Voice readers – I have promised to send him copies of the magazine.
Dorchester is a city of surprising contrasts from the coastline which is a setting for the John F Kennedy Library and the more recent Edward Kennedy Learning Centre and a gentle beach surrounded by exquisite houses, built to take advantage of the beautiful coastal views. At the other extreme are areas of scruffy shops frequented by people facing obvious hardships, unemployment and the problems that brings. This is where the gangs hang out and is an area probably best avoided by the lone traveller.
Between these two extremes are houses of immense beauty and style. Many triple-decker apartment buildings were built when the city was rapidly expanding in the early 20th century.
Because of its position on the coast Dorchester has been a natural first stop for immigrants. Many of the apartment buildings have been restored and new buildings are following the same style.
Some of the old houses were opened for the Dorchester House Tour and we visited one – a gloriously arts and crafts-style building with stunningly beautiful stained glass, rich carved woodwork and a hand-painted sink which I shall never forget!
Dorchester has a nickname – ‘Dot’. The town has an annual Dorchester Day on the first Sunday in June when the residents wear T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Dorchester – no place like it on earth’ and ‘Dot Day’. They commemorate their founding in 1630 and celebrate all things Dorchester. Could ‘Dot’, Dorset learn something from this? v