Meet Me in Medford | Time Travel with Dee Morris
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
by 4Squares Residential Group in Partnership with Judi 411
You may remember the joke, "April showers bring May flowers. What do May flowers bring? Pilgrims!" Well, this month, we're talking about a different chapter of Massachusetts' long history with one of Medford's resident historians, Dee Morris. Dee has led walking tours of Medford for years and serves our community as a treasure trove of stories about our fair city.
Dee is quick to clarify that she is but one of many of Medford's historians, “including John Anderson, Heather Champigny, Susan and David Fedo, Kyna Hamill, and Sue Gerould.”
"History is filled with very different stories and serves people in very different ways. History tells us we are not alone. We are coming from something and heading somewhere else. We are part of a continuum." So, without further ado, sit back and enjoy the time travel ride with Dee navigating the ship!
What brought you to Medford? Or did you grow up here?
Oh, I get that a lot. "Dee: you know a lot about Medford; you must be a local."
I discovered Medford in the 1990s. I had been living in Somerville and came to visit a friend living in South Medford. I said, "Oh, oh, very interesting over here. I like the scale itself; houses close together, stores nearby. I enjoyed the diversity of the people, the friendliness. Everybody was going about his or her own business. I thought, oh, you could be an individual here, and you're not questioned every single way of doing that.
An apartment was available in the same building as my friend. For the same price as I was paying in Somerville, I could have more space. I was near a bus line, an easy commute to the city. Working in the city and then coming back home to the bucolic environment of "the country" was very appealing.
What ignited your interest in history? Was it a childhood interest or something that developed in adulthood?
Oh, a childhood interest; our parents always looked up places before we went to any location. We'd look up old houses and things like that. So I was already predisposed, if you will, to have an interest in history.
When I was living in Cambridge, back in the late 1980s, a community garden was at risk of being paved over by the local hospital that owned the land. I was naïve back then and thought that I could dissuade the hospital from developing the land by sharing the stories behind the garden, particularly the history of Charles M. Hovey.
My research led me to Mount Auburn Cemetery, where the tale of Hovey's struggle came to life for me, and I knew it needed telling - he managed to make it possible for locals to buy strawberries and other native berries by cultivating them in his extensive Cambridge nursery.
While the hospital ultimately decided to pave over the garden, I learned an important lesson: If something is worth saving, people have to know why. That moment ignited my passion and mission to learn more about real people, not just the rich, white men we learn in history books. Everyone's story deserves telling.
Speaking of stories worth telling, tell me more about your current neighborhood, Fulton Heights, which was once known as "Tar Paper Village."
Yes, about 18 years ago, I moved into a single-family home in Fulton Heights, not far from Wright's Pond and the Middlesex Fells. Fulton Heights was at one time a summertime refuge for city-dwellers and grew into the residential neighborhood we know today.
The McCormack brothers had a lot to do with development in the Heights in the early 20th century. They owned a good portion of the land up here and began selling small lots "on time" to working-class folks who wanted an urban escape and didn't require an oversized parcel of land. As owners paid off the land, they would also begin building houses, with the near-final step being "tar papering" the outside of the home. Tar paper served the purpose of seasonal homes, and eventually, folks added shingles. Gradually, owners began occupying the homes year-round.
For the lower-to-middle class working family in Boston, a nearby refuge was enough of a vacation. Medford felt like "the countryside." The McCormack Brothers made it possible for the working-class to own a suburban home.
What do you love about living in the Heights and your neighborhood?
We like to say, "It's amazing in the Heights, but can anybody find it?" The first time I came here, it took me 45 minutes to get to my friend's house! I kept taking wrong turns in different driveways. People know Fulton Street, of course. But then there are all these nooks and crannies among the winding roads up here, that make it beautiful. Sure, it's confusing, but it's also intricate.
The homes are attractive, too; no two are alike. Many don't have cellars due to the rocky terrain, and those with cellars have ledge in the basement. I have a few rocks sticking out from the foundation in my home. My neighbor, next door's cellar, is impressive! He incorporated the ledge into a sort of lounge area where you can sit and have a drink!
My neighbors on Russell Street are a close-knit group. Everyone helps one another out, and there's a true sense of community. We check in on each other. "Is so-and-so okay? Can we help her out?" We all know each other's dogs and cats and families. I love that about living here.
Speaking of COVID, you led walking tours of Medford in conjunction with the Medford Public Library before the pandemic. Do you plan to revive tours as we emerge from quarantine?
Oh yes! I'm working with Barbara Kerr from the Library to create a walking tour of Oak Grove Cemetery, out in the open and socially distanced, where people will feel safe. Stay tuned for more on that!
Meanwhile, local artist, photographer, designer Will Tenney and I are working on a four-part video series focused on the Medford Hillside neighborhood. The Library is the sponsor, and Medford Community Media shoots the videography.
Did you know that 200 Boston Avenue, the temporary location of the Library, holds a fascinating commercial-industrial history? Or that the side roads around Tufts are chock-full of artists, inventors, and musicians? Take Edward Perkins Adams, for instance. He was a landscape architect based in Medford and our Superintendent of Parks. He made us aware that land was intended to be cherished and deserved to be attractive, much like Frederick Law Olmsted did with Boston's landscape architecture. There is so much history to cover!
For newcomers to Medford, what are some of the must-see historical sights?
First and foremost, locate the Mystic River. There are many areas where it is quite visible. Realize that the Mystic River was vital in the development of Medford and the shipbuilding industry.
Your next stop should be the Salem Street Burying Ground, a cemetery, and a thought-provoking art gallery. Consider the artwork – faces with wings, weeping willows – and the symbolism of it all, for starters. I've led school groups to the Burying Ground, and the children often wonder, "Why come in here? It's creepy!" I encourage them to look for skull designs – the boys especially love that – and figure out people's age when they passed. Students are often shocked to see how young people were when they died, which leads us to talk about diseases and shorter life spans, and suddenly, the cemetery becomes a classroom.
Be sure to seek out the Burying Ground's Medford Slavery Memorial, a tribute organized by Medford Public Schools students in the Center For Citizenship & Social Responsibility. The slate marker honors about 50 slaves believed to be buried in unmarked graves to recognize people who had not been recognized at all.
Another way to create a connection to the past is by visiting (or at least walking by) the Royall House and the Slave Quarters at the corner of George and Main Streets, which is one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England. The Royals were the most prominent slaveholding family in Massachusetts, and The Slave Quarters is the only remaining such structure in the northern United States. Particularly in the times we live in, The Royall House serves as a clear example of privileged people vs. the people who served them and made their lifestyle possible.
You have plenty of stories to share and hold a deep, abiding love for the community. If your best friend were to ask about moving to Medford, what would you say?
Well, first, I'd bring her to the different neighborhoods around town and show her the hidden jewels. But no matter where she chose within Medford, I would emphasize the sense of community she would feel here. Some people come and go from Medford, but the people who stay make this place a home. For someone aligned with fostering community, a sense of belonging, in an area that's quirky but friendly, Medford is the place to be.
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