True Tales from Canton’s Past: Stroll Through History

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On a beautiful day in May in 1930, the ladies gathered at the home of Mrs. Dean S. Luce. There were dainty tea sandwiches on beautiful china plates. The ladies were dressed in their finest, with short daytime gloves and calf length dresses — accented by their Hollywood-inspired purses. Each of the women had taken great pains to complete their look with glossy curls and wine-hued lipstick. These were Canton’s society women who were gathering to make a difference. That said, they still had to look fabulous — especially when getting together for an afternoon tea.

The John Howard Draper House on Pleasant Street

The John Howard Draper House on Pleasant Street

The topic of discussion centered upon finding ways to beautify the town of Canton. With the election of Mrs. Winthrop Packard as club president, the Canton Garden Club was formed. Through the years, as you look across our town, these ladies and their successors have made Canton burst with blooms for over 85 years. What marks the Canton Garden Club as special is the energy, passion, creativity, and knowledge of these women, who have inspired ideas that publicly beautify our most gracious spaces.

In their 85th year, the club is still making strides, even as membership poses challenges in this modern era. Diann Silvia recalls coming to Canton in the 1970s, and at that time there were over 150 members of the organization. “It was a two-year waiting list at that time,” explains Silvia, and “when your children went into kindergarten, you signed up, hoping to be accepted by the time they finished the first grade.” Today, there is no need for a waiting list, yet the club is still strong with over 90 members. Challenges today are chalked up to the fact that younger folks are busy with their own yards and would rather hike or be involved in sports than beautify the town.

And so it falls to the longstanding members of the current Garden Club to continue the traditions and press their spouses into the heavy lifting. Case in point is this weekend’s “Pleasant Christmas Stroll.” The fact that it features three historic homes on Pleasant Street creates one of the best historic tours to share with the entire family. More than 700 people will tour the houses, making this one of Canton’s largest and preeminent holiday events.

Carol Munson, Marie Duffy, and more than 50 volunteers have been key to the success of this year’s event. They have chosen three wonderful historic homes to showcase not only their creativity, but also homes that we all want to sneak inside. That is the draw; we get a chance to go into wonderful and historic homes that magnify our understanding of Canton. These are gracious architectural masterpieces, and it is no mistake that all of them are in the Canton Corner National Historic District.

The home at 33 Pleasant Street is the John Howard Draper House. John was the third child born to Charles Norris and Martha Howard Gill Draper. Family tradition tells us the house was built in 1904. This Georgian Revival has long been known as Ed and Tara Lynch’s house, which they acquired from the Draper family in 1972 for $68,000. In 2012, the house sold to a pair of wonderful Canton newcomers for $600,000. A bargain, where today’s houses of far less historic and architectural import fetch much more yet lack the fabric and tradition of this wonderful home. The gracefully curving entranceway is crowned with a balcony, which is likely to be a focal point for holiday adornment. Historically speaking, it is a suburban estate on over an acre and a half of land.

Munson shares a preview of the tour by explaining that a piano will fill the house with joyful music, while the fireplaces roar, and antique pickle jars become flickering luminaria, giving way to dozens upon dozens of hand-punched recycled tin cans guiding the way to a second house on the tour.

Just a few hundred yards away is the equally elegant Joseph Porter Draper House. Joseph was the brother of John, and the second child of Charles and Martha. This house was designed by Maurice Hosmer, and it too is an astounding and gracious home. One thing to note is that it was built in 1934 and completed during the Great Depression. Every indication is that despite difficult financial times, Draper, then treasurer of Draper Woolen Mills, was doing quite well.

As you enter, look at the French styling on this Georgian Revival estate house, and in keeping with the theme, the Garden Club has adorned this estate as if it were a romantic French country estate. A majestic staircase with fresh cut greens twinkles with lights, wreaths abound, and in true showpiece fashion the Christmas trees would make Santa blush with envy. And in the kitchen, do not fail to gaze through the windows at the grand 300-year-old Silver Maple tree, highlighted to proudly display his “girth.” One of Canton’s hidden giants, this tree has seen three centuries of change on these estate properties.

Perhaps the finest of the historic homes is the Reverend William Ritchie House, which the Garden Club lists as the Charles Norris Draper House. Both names are correct, yet the Ritchie House is more accurate historically and architecturally speaking. Built in 1809 for the fourth pastor of the First Parish Church, the land was bought by Ritchie from Martha Crafts Howard, the widow of the third pastor, Zachariah Howard. The widow continued to live in the David Tilden House, and Ritchie built the Federal-style home. It is a unique house in that several of the details foreshadow the Greek Revival-style and can still be seen in the house.

In the early 1820s the next owner was the Reverend Benjamin Huntoon, the fifth pastor of the First Congregational Church — and the man who presided over the decision to declare the church Unitarian. Huntoon was one of Canton’s most influential men of his day, and his son would write the first history of Canton.

After Huntoon came a succession of owners, all prominent in their own right. Harvard graduate and physician Phineas Crane, Neponset Bank President James Dunbar, and financier Thomas Ward all called this their home. It was Ward who, after acquiring the property in 1854, doubled it to almost 39 acres and created a masterful landscape plan for one of America’s finest New England estates. Ward was a descendant of Miles Ward, who had come to Salem in 1639. As the resident agent for Baring Brothers, Ward was extremely wealthy, and the house today retains much of the design and prosperity of this owner. When Ward died in 1858 his estate was worth over $650,000 — the equivalent of $260 million today. From 1885 to 1971 the property was in the hands of the Draper family, who continued to maintain this historic site. In 1971, the town of Canton purchased the estate for $260,000 with a vote of 1219-19 in favor of acquiring Pequitside Farm.

Each of the homes on this tour are special, representing the history of Canton in unique ways, and are treasured parts of our National Historic District. Yet it is the Garden Club that we must thank for opening up our eyes to the magic of the holidays and their creativity in beautifying this historic community.

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