By the second half of the nineteenth century a growing number of Americans were commuting to work from communities outside the big cities. Before long these suburban residents started forming local improvement societies as the most effective way of securing services and amenities they perceived to be lacking. Among the first, if not the very first of these organizations was the Newton Centre Tree Club.
On September 6, 1852, the following notice was posted (probably in the Newton Centre Post office; there was as yet no local newspaper):
"The citizens of Newton Centre and vicinity, who are fond of cooling shade in sultry days, and who are in favor of forming a tree association, are invited to meet in Lyceum Hall in said village Thursday evening September 16 at 7 o'clock to take into consideration the above named subject. A general attendance is requested."
(Lyceum Hall, the former town house had been moved onto the common facing Centre Street when the town administration was transferred to West Newton.)
The notice was signed by Marshall Rice, who lived on Centre Street between Marshall and Rice streets, Luther Paul and James F. C. Hyde. At the appointed time, the citizens of Newton Centre and vicinity met "to take into consideration the organizing of an Ornamental Tree Association for the purpose of improving and beautifying our roads and commons.
The meeting was called to order by Dea. Luther Paul, when Mr. Marshall Rice was chosen chairman; Mr. Rice on taking the chair briefly stated the subject; after which followed quite a lengthy and spirited discussion in which nearly all present took part". A committee of three, Rice, Hyde and Dr. William Henry Thayer, was appointed to take the matter in charge. (Marshall Rice, surveyor, teacher, Town Clerk, lived on Centre Street between Marshall and Rice streets, Luther Paul lived on Paul Street near Crystal Lake, Hyde, the future Mayor, owned a nursery on Hyde Street.)
At the next meeting two weeks later "the committee appointed at a meeting citizens of Newton Centre ...to report a plan of organization of a Forest Tree Society in the village report: that having given the subject careful consideration, they believe it to be very important to all the present and future interests of this village, to adopt a systematic plan of operation for beautifying our Roads and Greens, by the planting and rearing of trees....That the reclaiming of our principal green from its present waste condition and the grading of the back at the edge of Powder House Hill are among the objects of this nature which call for the first attention, especially as the Town of Newton is not likely to take any action to preserve these spots;- that an Association formed and under successful operation, would undoubtedly command with more certainty the attention of the Town than any individual applications; and could probably take full authority to prosecute the objects which we propose...." (The Powder House had been located on the corner of Centre and Lyman streets; the Common was also the Training Field).
A vote to form such an association was taken and a set of by-laws was adopted. Included were the following:
"The name of the Association shall be the Newton Centre Tree Club. The object of the Club shall be the ornamenting of Roads, Lanes, and Public Places, by planting trees, and shrubs, and preserving those already in existence and the encouraging of Landholders to lay out their roads in a manner according with the general convenience and taste."
"The Supervisors shall exercise the exclusive control of all the public greens which the Town may grant for such purposes, with full power to lay out, grade and plant with trees and grass or otherwise ornament them at the expense of the club...."
"Every member shall pay annually the sum of two dollars into the Treasury, or plant in some road or Public Place in Newton Centre, five healthy forest trees of a suitable size...If the trees die within a year from the planting, he shall replace them on the same conditions."
Marshall Rice was elected president, Luther Paul vice-president and Hyde secretary. One of the Supervisors was Roswell Turner, a developer responsible for some of the earliest houses on Homer Street.
Finally it was voted that "the Board of Supervisors be instructed to petition the town for authority to take possession of the Public Ground in Newton Center for the purpose specified in our by-laws."
At the Annual Town Meeting held the following March it was "voted to allow the Newton Centre Tree Club to grade and ornament the common or green at Newton Centre under the direction of the Selectmen..."
When the Club met again a few days later, two committees were appointed. One to confer with the Selectmen, another to recommend a plan for raising funds. Within a week, the latter could report that "a committee of [nameless] Ladies had been appointed to solicit subscriptions and had been successful in raising all that is wanted."
The Ladies report read, in part: "The importance of the Object having been noticed, various methods of procuring money were discussed, of which soliciting subscriptions receive the most favor. Without delay a paper was circulated, and more than four hundred dollars have been subscribed, by further effort we think the sum may be increased to five hundred dollars...." The secretary was instructed "to return the thanks of the Association for their great exertions...."
The committee appointed to confer with the selectmen presumably did so, for, possible as a result of their deliberations the Supervisors were requested to employ to employ D. H. Mason, Esq., to "give us all the information concerning the title to the Common that is possible to obtain." Did the Club object to being "under the direction of the Selectmen"? Did members consider buying the common? Perhaps. For reasons that are not stated the selectmen modified their position and the following month the Town voted to "grant to the Newton Centre Tree Club, so-called, the rights and privilege to grade and ornament the Common, so-called at Newton Centre, and that they have the control of same for that purpose....provided that they shall not obstruct or impair the highways leading by or through the said common...." and within days the Club instructed the Supervisors to "perfect their plan for grading that part of the Common between Lyman Street and the brook" (now underground), to obtain estimates and to proceed to do the work. The secretary reported that he was ready to receive subscriptions.
Was the work ever done? A report filed by the Supervisors in March 1854 has not survived. A year later a committee was appointed to "see what can be done to forward the favored object of the Club." Once again, no report survives. The last recorded meeting was held a month later, in April 1855. The meeting was adjourned to the call of the Supervisors. The call never came.
The Minutes of the Newton Centre Tree Club, with those of its successor organization, the Newton Centre Improvement Association, are part of the Document Collection at The Jackson Homestead. The Town Meeting Records are housed in the City Archives.