Historical Sketch

Indigenous Peoples

Native Americans were the first to settle along the rivers and ponds in the area now known as Winchester. They spoke the Algonquin language and were part of the Massachuset tribe, whose land stretched from Plymouth to Salem and west of Concord. By the time of European migration, their population had been decimated by disease and warfare with the Abenaki tribe of Maine.

European Arrival

Europeans arrived in the area in the 1630s when Charlestown citizens were granted land in the northern ranges of the district, known as Waterfield. It was incorporated in 1642 from Charlestown lands and annexed to Woburn. Present-day Winchester includes lands which were originally part of Woburn, Arlington (West Cambridge), and Medford.

Early History

Early settlement was concentrated along Cambridge Street (the Cambridge-Woburn Road) with some scattered upland farms to the west, and along Richardson’s Row (Washington Street) to the east. Other settlements were located along the Medford-Woburn Road (Main Street). Symmes Corner located at the intersection of Grove, Bacon, and Main Streets, and Black Horse Village, near present-day Black Horse Terrace, had been established before 1800.

Long before 1700, members of the Converse and Richardson families had built the first mills in town along the Aberjona River, and for a hundred more years, the area remained rural in nature.

During the Revolution, the Black Horse Tavern (demolished in 1892) on the Medford-Woburn Road served as an important meeting place for soldiers as well as citizens. When the Committee of Safety and Supplies met at Wetherby’s Tavern in Arlington on April 18, 1775, legend has it that it adjourned with plans to meet the next day at the Black Horse Tavern. Events, however, in Lexington and Concord the next day took precedence. By the end of the 18th century, there were only about 200 persons, and some thirty-five houses stood within the bounds of present-day Winchester.

The 19th Century

The Middlesex Canal, which opened in 1803, and the Boston and Lowell Railroad, which supplanted it in 1835, changed the character of the village. The small mills and tanneries on the Aberjona River along with the isolated farms now had fast and cheap access to Boston markets and beyond. These ties grew stronger over time. The early grist mills gave way to more modern factories. Wool carding, leather splitting, and mahogany sawing, piano cases felt, watch hands, and shoes were now manufactured. Blacksmith and iron shops profited from the proximity of the new railroad. Near the center of town, housing for a new commercial and professional class was constructed, reflecting the popularity of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles.

Forming the Town of Winchester

The thriving village soon began to feel the need to separate from the parent town of Woburn, and it was the South Woburn Congregational Church that initiated the move. In 1840 the South Woburn Congregational Church provided the first house of worship within the village boundaries. By 1850, the town was ready to establish its independence from Woburn. Naturally enough, the public offices of the new town were located near the Church and railroad in the area that rapidly became the commercial, social, and religious center. The new town was nearly named “Columbus,” but the town fathers instead honored a wealthy Boston businessman, Lt. Col. William Parsons Winchester, who was, of course, expected to return the favor. He donated three thousand dollars to the new town, but died suddenly within months of the incorporation on April 30, 1850. He never set foot in the town that bears his name.

Becoming a Suburban Town

Two distinct social groups developed in the new town. In the area near the mills, such as the Canal Street-Salem Street neighborhood and in Baconville (near Grove Street), industrial workers settled near their factories. Simultaneously, Boston businessmen began to settle in Winchester, attracted by the easy commute on the Boston & Lowell railroad. Wealthy Bostonians had previously used Winchester as a summer retreat. Friction between the two groups was played out in stormy town meetings. As the town became increasingly industrialized, “progressive” new citizens now worked to limit industrial growth through control of town offices. By 1893 the tide had turned and a system of town parks replaced the tanneries at the town center. From the 1870s on, suburban developments of great charm were built by the town’s businessmen and professionals. New residents were attracted the handsome architecture in the Mansard, Queen Anne Revival, Colonial, and Shingle styles in such neighborhoods as the Firth development (southwest of Wedge Pond) and the Wildwood area. By 1900, Winchester’s days as a mill town were clearly past.

Traces of Winchester’s farming past remained in working farms in the upland hills on the West Side until development began after World War II. Wright Locke Farm remains to show what the area once looked like, along with early homes on Washington and Main Streets. Nearly all the mills and factories are gone, but the houses of both workers and industrialists remain, as do many of the homes in the town center built for businessmen and professionals. Street after street of suburban homes in the years following the Civil War-and later WWII-survive intact and attest to Winchester’s final evolution into a residential suburb.

Dates in Winchester History

1633 Charlestown is granted territory which includes a wild and unsettled tract of land known as Wildwood.

1638 Waterfield is surveyed, John Harvard is granted 120 acres of land (at the corner of Washington and Forest Streets); Rev. Zachariah Symmes is granted 300 acres (at Main and Bacon Streets).

1640 Waterfield becomes known as Charlestown Village; Edward Converse builds the first house (at the corner of Main Street and Converse Place).

1642 Woburn is incorporated from the area known as Charlestown Village.

1803 Middlesex Canal is completed, connecting the Merrimack River with the Charles River.

1835 The Boston and Lowell Railroad is built, its route paralleling that of the Middlesex Canal.

1840 The South Woburn Church is formed, the first meeting house within the limits of present-day Winchester.

1850 Winchester is incorporated, April 30.

1852 The Middlesex Canal closes to business.

1887 Winchester Town Hall is built.

1894 Manchester Field is laid out as a park in the center of town.

1896 Electric streetcars are introduced in Winchester.

1928  A bill to adopt Representative Town Meeting is passed.

1947  The course of the Aberjona River is altered.

1955 After nearly 75 years of discussion and controversy, construction of the railroad overpass is begun.

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Wright-Locke Farm: A History in Pictures
by Ellen Knight

Look into the history of the Wright-Locke farm in a new 16-page booklet titled Wright-Locke Farm: A History in Pictures. Read More.

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