The Whitney Farm

Special to the Dover-Sherborn Press

For more than two centuries, the Whitney Farm at 59 Whitney Street has been a working farm. Through the 1980s, the Schiavi family's dairy cows grazed in the fields around the barn. Until recently, the fields were planted each year with corn and hay in the summer. The crops were harvested in the fall and stored in the old silo and barn. Even today passers-by on Whitney Street can view a scenic vista that offers them a glimpse of Sherborn's past. This opportunity may be short-lived, however, since the current owner, Rising Tide, now proposes to convert this farm landscape into a housing development. As many as 52 housing units could be built on this site, if the developer's plans are approved by the state.

A recent update to the town's Historical Resources Survey found that the landscape and farm buildings at 59 Whitney Street are eligible to be nominated as a landscape to the National Register of Historic Places. The Warren and James R. Whitney Farm is typical of large farmsteads established throughout Sherborn in the mid-nineteenth-century. Set on about 35 acres, the buildings exemplify the significant architectural elements of their mid-nineteenth-century design. According to the Historical Resources Survey: "The building and landscape retain the design, materials, and workmanship of a farm built during this period."

Members of the Whitney family first occupied this part of Sherborn in the mid-1700s. The first Whitney to own the land was James Whitney, a great-great-grandson of Jonathan Whitney, a town founder who settled Sherborn in 1679 and lived at 41 North Main Street. Born in 1755, James Whitney acquired the land by two deeds in 1779 and 1785 from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Lealand. By 1755 a farmhouse stood on this land. According to a descendant's account, both James and his son, Isaac Whitney (1782-1844), were born in the house. Isaac married twice and raised his large family of eight children there.

Isaac Whitney served as selectman in the years 1816, 1819, 1820 and 1823. As early as 1830, he operated a quarry west of the farm in present-day Ashland and a smaller quarry on the eastern side of his land. According to Leland family lore, the eastern Whitney quarry provided the granite posts supporting the barn at 46 Pleasant Street, built in 1835 for William "Bill Gun" Leland.

In the mid-nineteenth century, with a population of only about 1000, Sherborn was a farming town dotted with cottage industries. Apple orchards and dairy farms were commonplace. Local cottage industries included smithing guns, blacksmithing, making willow furniture, milling lumber, fulling cloth, and making leather goods such as carriage whips and work shoes.

Almost every farm made its own cider, but the finest cider was sold commercially. The Holbrook Cider Mill on Forest Street was the largest maker in town, billing its product as the "Champagne of Ciders." It filtered its cider through beds of clean, white sand, attaining such purity that barrels were shipped by sea to England without risk of exploding. In 1888, the mill pressed more than 1.25 million gallons of cider, perhaps earning its boast to be the "largest refined cider mill in the world."

In 1856, a map of Middlesex County shows that brothers Warren and James R.Whitney owned the farm, the sons of Isaac and his second wife, Sally Thayer Whitney. By 1880, they owned the house, two barns (one of which is probably the existing main barn), three store houses and a secondary "railroad" dwelling. They had six cows, two horses and six swine. They probably also grew corn and other crops, and continued the quarry business.

Their sister, Sally Ann Whitney, the eighth child born to Colonel Isaac Whitney on the old farmstead in 1829, taught school in the West School on Western Avenue opposite Pleasant Street, a wooden, one-room schoolhouse. One winter day, in about 1867, snow began to fall and the teacher realized that a severe blizzard had come up, making it hazardous for the children to walk home. She organized them into groups. The biggest boys brought in wood and filled the water pails. All the children turned in the food they had left from their noontime dinner to be pooled and rationed. Sally Ann told the children stories and they sang songs. The next morning, when the first parents made their way to the little one-room schoolhouse, they found their children all snug and warm. Sally Ann was the heroine of this story, which was passed down through the generations and recalled by Peg Buntin in 1991.

Other members of the Whitney family had inherited large parcels of land nearby. An 1874 map of Sherborn shows a cousin, Lyman Whitney, living at 190 Maple Street near Western Avenue in a house built by his father or grandfather. Lyman's brother, Sylvester Whitney, lived a bit further south at 180 Western Avenue. One of Lyman's sons, Daniel Leland Whitney, acquired 246 and 255 Western Avenue in the mid-19th-century. At that time, the cluster of houses and farms near Western Avenue and Maple Street made up their own little hamlet. The extended Whitney family lived within walking distance of one another there, as did their cousins, the Lelands, whose land reached further down Western Avenue. In fact, during this period of Sherborn history, many of the families in town were related to one another by birth or marriage.

There were several railroad stops in town, one of them on the Whitney Farm. The Milford Branch Railroad was built between Milford and Framingham in 1845 to connect Milford's thriving shoe factories with the Boston and Worcester Railroad at Framingham, a growing rail hub. The railroad right-of-way passed east of the Whitney farmhouse and across the family's property. Passengers alighted at the Whitney platform, a flag-stop station that served West Sherborn. Just west of the railroad was another old Whitney House, later called the Red Inn, which was probably also built in the 18th century and demolished sometime around the 1960s. Passengers could even buy shoes there during this time.

By 1889, James R.'s son, Frank Whitney, had inherited the property and expanded the dairy herd. In 1900, he had three hen houses for 200 fowl in addition to the other five outbuildings he inherited on the farm. By 1922, his flock had doubled, reflecting an increase in poultry farming that was common at the time.

About 1910, fire destroyed the 18th-century homestead on the Whitney Farm and the house was rebuilt in Victorian Eclectic style. House and barn fires were common in those days, when all heating and light came from fire. Fire equipment was primitive and, in winter, when ponds froze over, it was sometimes useless. In the early twentieth century, all of the original Whitney houses in West Sherborn, at 59 Whitney, 190 Maple, 180 Western and 246 Western, were destroyed by fire. Only the old Red Inn on the north side of Whitney Street remained.

A photo from 1907 indicates that the farm today continues to resemble its historic appearance. The farm buildings and surrounding landscape look much as they did in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when most of Sherborn's landscape resembled the Whitney Farm. The farm passed out of the Whitney family in 1928 and eventually came under the ownership of Leopold Schiavi, whose sons continued to farm the land until it was recently sold to Rising Tide.

Like many farms in Sherborn, the Whitney Farm remained intact in large part because it passed from generation to generation in a single family who continued farming well into this century. The historic farm landscape at Whitney Farm exemplifies the rural character and history of Sherborn. It is worthy of protection and preservation.

By Carol McGarry based on research by Betsy Johnson. Carol McGarry is a member of Sherborn's Historical Commission. Betsy Johnson is curator of the Sherborn Historical Society and Town Historian.