WINCHESTER HISTORY ONLINE
This site will introduce you to the history of Winchester, Massachusetts. It includes:
- A quick summary of key events below,
- Overview histories of the broad subject areas listed in the box to the left, including links to an assortment of articles on specific subjects, and
- A variety of in-depth articles about specific topics, linked to the themes and also accessible through the subject index.
The majority of the articles included here were previously published as newspaper articles but have been updated and illustrated from the collections of the Winchester Archival Center and Winchester Historical Society. Further new and updated material may be added over time.
The overarching theme of this site is Shaping Winchester’s Future by Understanding its Past. Prepared by Archivist Ellen Knight with funding from the Cummings Foundation, this program is supported in part by grants from the Winchester Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency, and is hosted by the Town of Winchester.* For questions and comments, contact the Archivist. (Foreign correspondents may need to contact the Archivist via LinkedIn.) [Read more: About the Author and the Project]
WINCHESTER: A SKETCH OF ITS DEVELOPMENT
When the artist Edmund Garrett designed a town seal for Winchester, adopted in 1896, he included two names and two dates for the town. Within a wreath of American lilies and English daisies, he placed the name Waterfield and the date of settlement, 1638, plus the name Winchester and the date of its incorporation, 1850.
1638 - The area which became the town of Winchester, part of the lands once inhabited by the Massachusett tribes, was colonized by Puritan citizens of Charlestown. The original land grants (along with those of other towns) were recorded in the Book of Possessions of 1638. In that document, which defined areas by terms denoting prominent natural features, the area which is now central Winchester was designated a waterfield, leading to Waterfield being considered the first name for the village (though not officially adopted as such).
1640 - The first house was built alongside the Aberjona River. It was the home of Edward Converse who also had the first business, a grist mill. 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). Other areas settled before 1800 were located along the Medford-Woburn road: Symmes Corner (at the intersection of Main, Bacon and Grove Streets) and Black Horse Village (near present day Black Horse Terrace on Main Street). 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 purely rural in nature.
1642 - To govern the scattered farms in this area, Woburn was incorporated, its land including about two-thirds of what is now Winchester, then called South Woburn. The southeast portion of what became Winchester’s territory (including the Brooks House, pictured left) was taken from Charlestown and annexed to Medford in 1753, and the southwest portion (south of Church Street) was annexed to West Cambridge just eight years before Winchester’s incorporation. Thus, when Winchester was incorporated, the land was taken from Woburn, Medford, and West Cambridge (later renamed Arlington).
1798 - A survey of real estate this year indicated that some thirty-five houses stood within the bounds of present-day Winchester. The population was only about 200 persons. The village’s most notable building was the Black Horse Tavern (demolished in 1892) on the Medford-Woburn road. A meeting place for citizens, during the Revolution it also served as an important meeting place for soldiers. Due to being a stop on stage coach routes, the name Black Horse Village was used for the community for a time.
1803 - The Middlesex Canal, which opened in 1803, and the Boston and Lowell Railroad which supplanted it in 1835, worked to change the character of the village. The small mills on the Aberjona and isolated farms now had fast and cheap access to the Boston market and beyond, and these ties to the city grew stronger over time. The early gristmills gave way to factories (such as the Bacon Mill pictured left) for manufacturing felt , machinery, watch hands, blinds, piano cases, furniture, leather, and many other items. 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 Greek Revival and Italianate styles.
1835 - The Boston and Maine railroad opened, providing transportation for freight and for passengers, spurring the growth of a village center and of the population.
1840 - The thriving village began to feel the need to separate from its parent towns (Woburn, Medford, and West Cambridge). The creation of the South Woburn Congregational Society, which provided the first house of worship within the village boundaries, initiated the movement toward independence.
1850 - The Town of Winchester was incorporated. Naturally enough, the public offices of the new town were located near the church and railroad in the area around Mill Pond that rapidly became the town’s commercial, social, and religious center.
The new town was very nearly named Columbus, but instead the town fathers honored a wealthy businessman, Lt. Colonel William P. Winchester, who was expected to return the favor in a tangible fashion. Indeed, Col. Winchester did donate $3,000 to the new town but died suddenly within months of the incorporation of the town bearing his name, never having set foot in the town.
Nineteenth-century growth - The new community grew steadily. Immediately four new schools were built. The area around Converse’s mill pond became a business center. In 1851, the Lyceum Building was constructed to contain a hall large enough for Town Meetings. In 1859, the Winchester Library Association gave its collection of about 1,100 books to the Town to form the nucleus of a public library, first housed in business buildings on Main Street. The first bank, the Winchester Savings Bank, was established in 1871. The large and solid Brown & Stanton Building (pictured left) was built in 1886. An impressive Town Hall was built in 1887. Land which the Town purchased in 1867 for a Common was improved in the 1880s as a public amenity.
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 settling in Winchester, attracted by the railroad which made commuting possible. Wealthy Bostonians who had previously used Winchester as a summer residence now built mansions (such as the George Henry house, right, now the home of the Winchester Community Music School).
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 election of their candidates to town offices.
1890s - The creation of Mystic Valley Parkway and Manchester Field began a parks movement along the river that stretched into the 1930s. Parks began to replace the tanneries at the town center. (The Waldmyer Tannery, left, made way for Manchester Field.)
From the 1870s on, suburban developments of great charm were built by the town’s businessmen and professionals, and new residents were attracted in large numbers. Mansard, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Shingle-Style homes are found throughout the town. By 1900, Winchester’s days as a mill town were clearly past.
Twentieth-century growth - Through the twentieth century, Winchester developed further as a bedroom community. From the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries, former farm lands were bought for housing developments. Agriculture in Winchester survived longest on the west side hills, but following World War II most of those were broken up and converted into house lots.
Twentieth-century Winchester witnessed many social and political changes, along with physical ones.
1915 - To provide control and guidance for the building boom in town, a Planning Board was established and Town Meeting approved a Zoning Bylaw in 1924.
1917 - After five years as a cottage hospital, the first phase of Winchester Hospital was built and immediately faced two challenges, the loss of staff to the armed services during World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic.
1920 - The passage of the 19th Amendment opened the door to women candidates for elected offices. It also swelled the number of residents eligible to vote at Town Meeting beyond the capacity of the hall, thus prompting a change to Representative Town Meeting in 1928. Thirty-four women were among those first elected as Town Meeting members. Gradually women joined elected Town boards, though the first woman selectman was not elected until 1975.
1929 - Black Friday plunged the country into the Great Depression. To help people out of work, the Town formed an Unemployment Relief Committee and, with the assistance of the Works Project Administration, undertook various parks and river improvement projects. Despite the hardships, Town Meeting supported two new construction projects which opened in 1931, a new Public Library and new Junior High School.
1930 - The Town, whose roots went back to Puritan Charlestown, joined in the state’s tercentenary celebration of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and welcomed the mayor and mayoress of Winchester, England, as its honored guests.
1932 - The first En Ka Fair was held, to benefit the hospital’s Nurses’ Home. Throughout the town’s history, many clubs and organizations have been active in social, educational, cultural, political, and charitable works.
1940s - Thousands of residents entered the armed services, while townspeople at home served in the Civilian Defense organization and other support or relief groups during World War II. At the end of the war, the town experienced another building boom.
1956 - After discussion and controversy which began in the 19th century over the dangerous grade crossing in the town center, a railroad overpass was completed in 1956. The proliferation of automobiles spawned other challenges which have carried through into the 21st century.
1958 - The vacant Beggs & Cobb tannery burned, to be replaced by a housing development, representative of the direction the town had been taking away from heavy industry.
1960 - John Volpe was elected governor, becoming the town’s second governor in residence, following Samuel W. McCall, governor during WWI. In the same election that took JFK into the White House, Volpe got about 80% of the local vote. This was a significant step for Yankee Winchester which did not elect an Italian to the Board of Selectmen until 1950.
1968 - Town government entered the digital age with the first purchase of a computer for Town Hall.
1972 - A new high school opened. Due to diminishing open land, locating it centrally required sacrificing a field for the school building, channeling a section of the Aberjona River into culverts to create a new field over it, and carving a tunnel under the railroad to connect the school and field.
1975 - Winchester adopted a home rule charter and provided for a town manager.
1987 - Town Hall was renovated during a decade which also saw a downtown revitalization program laid out.
1990 - Winchester entered into a Jumelage with St. Germain-en-Laye. At the turn of the century, the native nationalities of its own citizenry began to multiply.
1991 - With a mix of nationalities as well as faiths living in town, the Multi-Cultural Network was founded to help build an inclusive community.
1999 - A multi-million, 20+-year Flood Mitigation Improvement Program was launched with an engineering report recommending a series of projects. After the first two projects were completed in 2002, the program was redesigned, approved by the State, and construction began again.
2000 - Temple Shir Tikvah opened a synagogue on Vine Street, a significant step in a long history of the gradual integration of a diversity of cultures into what was originally a Protestant, Yankee town.
2007 - The Town purchased the Locke Farm, the last remnant of Winchester’s agricultural past. The Wright-Locke Conservancy has established it not only as a thriving small farm with certified organic produce but also as a vital and well loved educational center.
2010 - The Planning Board issued Phase I of its new master plan. A key element, also an active interest of the Board of Selectmen, has been the economic vitality of the downtown. The Planning Board subsequently addressed the need for more housing downtown near public transportation, while preserving the Center’s historic character, through rezoning measures. Town Meeting approved funding for a new Master Plan in 2017.
2017 - A rebuild of the high school was completed. Along with new Ambrose and Vinson-Owen elementary schools and an addition at the McCall Middle School, this project was part of the 2007 School Facilities Master Plan. A new Master Plan was completed in 2017.
2018 - The Select Board voted for its first woman, also first Asian-American, town manager when it named Lisa Wong as town manager . After Wong's departure, Town Engineer Beth Rudolph became the next town manager.
2020 - The town met the challenge of adjusting to pandemic conditions when COVID-19 struck. Town agencies distributed emergency supplies and instituted protective measures. Town departments learned new ways to carry on the business of government despite the temporary closure of town facilities, and the schools adjusted to remote teaching, all with the use of additional technology.
Today - Although there are several light industries within its boundaries, Winchester remains primarily a residential town. Its location, just eight miles northwest of the state capital, enables its inhabitants to take advantage of the cultural opportunities offered by Boston’s museums, concert halls, theaters, and universities. Many residents commute by train, bus, or car to work in the commercial and industrial centers or at one of the many educational institutions of Greater Boston.
The town is a prosperous one. The changing history of Winchester’s population is reflected in its surviving architecture. The houses of farmers, workers, and industrialists remain, as do many of the homes built around the town center for businessmen and professionals in the mid-19th century. Street after street of suburban homes built in the years following the Civil War survive intact as a testament to Winchester’s final evolution to a diverse, residential suburb.
*Though hosted by the Town, the site and its contents do not present any official Town positions or views. Inadvertent errors or oversights may occur. For concerns, contact firstname.lastname@example.org