When the drumbeats of revolutionary militias began to sound, Commodore Joshua Loring, a Jamaica Plain resident, knew he was on the wrong side of history. He was a loyalist, a Tory. Before he abandoned his home and fled to Canada in 1774, the story goes, Loring buried the family silver somewhere on his estate.
How could the red-haired naval officer afford fancy silver and a stately home when he was a leather tanner by trade?
"Rumor has it that he was a pirate," said Carolyn Artin, 39, during a tour of the Loring-Greenough House. "But it's all word of mouth, of course, oral history."
The silver was never found, but the more obvious item Loring left behind, his Georgian house, is the first stop on any historical tour of Jamaica Plain. During an 11-year stint as caretaker, Artin lived in the servants' quarters on the third floor. Now she is one of a cadre of Tuesday Club members who run concerts, lectures, and tours of the house, furnished in a jumble of styles. The pièce de résistance is a Colonial-era whale oil lamp in the front hall that must have smelled truly awful when lighted.
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society runs free tours in the summer highlighting various parts of this corner of Boston. But with good weather and a little imagination it is possible to do a self-guided tour any time of year.
Jamaica Plain wasn't annexed to Boston until 1874; when Loring built his house in 1760, it was merely a collection of farms. After the Revolution, well-to-do Bostonians including John Hancock built summer homes around Jamaica Pond, an attractive basin carved by glaciers.
The Boston Brahmin lifestyle is still in evidence pondside. Enormous homes are visible in winter through the branches of skinny trees. A half-timber boathouse has an inscription describing skating parties on the ice. "Skating on Jamaica Pond," a 1859 sketch by Winslow Homer, depicts women in hoop skirts and bonnets cutting figures on the pond's surface.
Jamaica Pond was also used for baptisms, including that of native daughter Harriet Manning Whitcomb, who went on to write a classic of local history, "Annals and Reminiscences of Jamaica Plain" (1897). Her account is populated with a network of free thinkers. Feminist Margaret Fuller held forth in literary salons, which were hosted by polymath Elizabeth Peabody, who published the short-lived Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, contributed to by philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitcomb makes it sound like an exciting, genteel time.
Joggers in neon spandex make the scene at the pond rather obviously modern now. But there are other nearby parks better suited to contemplating the past. Most were founded in the 19th century, when JP was nicknamed "Eden of America."
Just over the Jamaicaway across from the pond is the Arnold Arboretum, donated to Harvard University in 1872. The naturalist design of the arboretum was a collaboration between botanist Charles Sprague Sargent and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who was eager to acquire green spaces to string together the Emerald Necklace, the chain of parks that stretches from Boston Common to the Back Bay to the arboretum, ending in Franklin Park. That century's mania for travel, collection, and scientific classification is visible both in the arboretum's visitors center and on the paths. Tiny brown tags hang from magnolias, horse chestnuts, lilacs, cork trees - more than 15,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, and vines.
Another link in the Emerald Necklace worth a stop is Franklin Park. Emerson lore centers around Concord but the young poet lived in a farmhouse in Jamaica Plain from 1823-25, before he achieved notoriety. Devastated by the death of his first wife, the schoolmaster used to stroll through the wilderness of the park, composing poetry or traveling on foot to his various assignments as a tutor.
A large stone at the end of a granite walkway in the park marks where Emerson's farmhouse once stood. The embankment is still a quiet spot, with geese splashing around under pine trees. A brass plaque quotes a poem written during the poet's time in Franklin Park: ". . . And when I am stretched beneath the pines, / Where the evening star so holy shines, / I laugh at the lore and pride of man. . ."
Emerson was by no means the only poet to live in Jamaica Plain. Sylvia Plath, born in JP, rarely referred to her hometown. Anne Sexton is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, as are E.E. Cummings and playwright Eugene O'Neill.
Forest Hills is worth seeing if only for the ornate Gothic Revival entrance, a stone structure that replaced the cemetery's original 1848 wooden Egyptian-style gate. Apparently faux Egyptian mode went out of style after the Civil War.
Still bigger changes were afoot even before the war. Electric trolley cars replaced carriages along the main drag in 1857, linking JP more closely to downtown Boston and creating one of the first "streetcar suburbs" in the country. The area was commercialized in the 1870s, with the construction of its first row of shops, a brick firehouse, and the Haffenreffer Brewery, which hired from a rising population of German and Irish immigrants.
To cater to an audience arriving from Boston by electric trolley, the longest running community theater in the United States opened its first show in 1877. "Would ladies kindly remove their bonnets," read tickets, in a pragmatic nod to visibility. The Footlight Club still performs amateur shows in the same building on Eliot Street, providing one way to wrap up a historical tour.
Another is to continue to the former Haffenreffer Brewery, a complex now called simply The Brewery, and recognizable by its enormous yellow brick smokestack. On the way there, it would be impossible to miss the influx of students, artists, and Latino families to the neighborhood. Walking along Centre Street can sound like flicking through the radio in some Latin American country, as cars drive by blasting salsa and cumbia. Live mariachis at Tacos el Charro, a good choice for authentic Mexican food, add to the cacophony at night. The Brewery itself contains some two dozen businesses, many owned by women and minorities.
Rudolf Haffenreffer's business was the only JP brewery to survive Prohibition, and The Brewery has since become home to the
On a recent Saturday a tall girl with a camp counselor voice hustled a group into the brewery. "I know you want that free beer!" said guide Abby Schrader, 24. The tour was more about the samples than about the Haffenreffers, but Schrader did include a historical tidbit in her spiel.
Boston Beer's most popular brand is brewed according to a principle older even than the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, she said, called the German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) of 1516. Sam Adams Boston Lager contains only the four ingredients allowed: water, barley, yeast, and hops. It's still a good mix.
Rachel Nolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.