The Wellesley Club Story
(How for 125 years the Club has shaped the town)
By: Beth Hinchliffe
In the late 1880s, Wellesley was beautiful, a precisely planned town of untouched woods, shady and green, and some magnificent homes. It was a town obviously touched with care.
The infant Wellesley was also being dubbed “the town that gets what it wants.”
Eight years before, when it wanted independence, it got independence. Under the skillful and determined leadership of the crafty political veteran Joseph Fiske, in 1881 Wellesley had triumphed over its mother town of Needham to become a separate town. The victory had resulted from confrontational meetings marked with jostling elbows, hot tempers, and threats of fights. But it was an outcome, and a new town, of which its residents were proud.
“The town that gets what it wants.” It wanted distinction in its appearance, so by 1885 benefactor Horatio Hollis Hunnewell had built and given a new Town Hall (to replace the poor farm, where town meetings had been held and which later became the Wellesley Country Club) and library. Proud solid symbols of Wellesley’s new status, they were situated on the hill that dominated the center of town.
Indeed, Wellesley was “the town that gets what it wants.” And now its residents wanted two more things: the latest, most modern innovations to make Wellesley a model suburb and envy of the area; and, perhaps most importantly, they wanted a spirit of cooperation and unity.
So, they went about making both become reality.
Town leaders saw the hard lessons of bitterness and dissension that had led to their fight for separation from Needham. They were determined that the new town of which they were so proud should not suffer a similar fate.
Yet the town was divided into three sections: the Village, the Hills, and the Lower Falls. They were distinct geographically and socially, and sometimes residents clashed vehemently when their interests differed. An observer wrote that at Town Meetings “decisions sometimes were reached more on sectional prejudices than from mature consideration.”
It was a local banker, George Richardson, who first proposed the idea for a social club which could bring together men from all sections of the town. It would be a place to enjoy “the broad and liberal spirit of Wellesley” but, more importantly, would encourage respectful and courteous relations. That goal of civility, he felt, was essential as the base on which to build as the town grew.
His notion struck a chord among the other concerned town leaders (many of whom had also worked together to set the agenda for the separation movement a few years earlier), who met for dinner at Joseph Fiske’s house to talk further. Yes, they agreed, “there was a place for an organization where discussions and debates on town affairs might follow social hour at the dining table.”
And so men from across town were invited to meet at the United States Hotel in Boston to discuss this proposed solution for bringing a sense of shared community to their town. They liked the idea, and so on November 18, 1889, 57 charter members came to another dinner and, after adopting a constitution and by-laws, formed the Wellesley Club, just eight years after the birth of the town, making it the first and oldest civic organization in town. Its purpose was declared: “to promote literary and social culture among the members and especially to consider and discuss questions relating to the welfare of the Town of Wellesley.”
Literary and social culture may indeed have been of interest, but more to the point was a comment recorded in the club notes, saying that it was the feeling of those present that “the interests of the Town could be talked over by the proposed body of men with deliberation and a course of action mapped out before attending Town Meeting.”
Under the first president, Colonel Albert Clarke (a Civil War veteran and elected member of the Massachusetts House), the club met monthly as it worked to heal the gulfs and divisions, and to bring residents together in an appreciation of the town they all shared and in mutual respect for one another. Now, for the first time, there was a club that gave a sense of unity and neighborliness. And a sense of purpose.
Town Meetings (open to all adult male residents) were held frequently (considered a benefit back then), but the essential debates and decisions took place at the Wellesley Club. The actual Town Meetings were basically just a rubber stamp for what had been worked out the previous night over roast beef at the Copley Square or Westminster Hotels.
“The town that gets what it wants” more accurately became “the club that gets what it wants.” In a few years, the members of the Club discussed and approved money for schools, sidewalks, bridges, the poor, and even snow removal. The Club members wanted the most modern conveniences of any town in the country, so they quickly worked to set up a water commission to oversee the installation of the public water system; installed municipal street lights every 125 feet; incorporated the Woodlawn Cemetery; began a park commission; poured concrete sidewalks; built new schools, and replaced horse-drawn carts of volunteers with a real fire department that was the talk of the area, consisting of 3 hose companies with 5 hydrants scattered throughout the town.
They wanted their town to present a beautiful face to visitors, so they voted to replace the unattractive railroad stations surrounded by coal sheds and stacks of stove wood were with ones designed by Trinity Church architect H.H. Richardson, and landscaped by America’s legendary Frederick Law Olmsted. (He was direct from his successes with New York’s Central Park, the area around the U.S. Capitol, the greenway along Commonwealth Avenue and through the Fenway in Boston, and the Arnold Arboretum.)
The Club tackled such topics as: “Is it desirable that the Town inaugurate such improvements as are likely to result in an increase in the tax rate?” (1890); sewerage systems (1891); widening Washington Street (1894, and numerous other times through the next decade until it was finally approved); and “Ought Wellesley to own and operate a complete electric lighting plant?” (1897).
So popular was the Club that soon the capacity of 100 members was reached and a waiting list — and then the infamous waiting list for the waiting list — was formed. (In 1956, The New Yorker magazine, using the headline “Anticlimax Department,” re-published an excerpt from a Townsman profile, describing resident Robert McMillan as being “a member of the Waiting List for the Waiting List of the Wellesley Club.”) The railroad was even prevailed upon to add a special car on the 9:25 p.m. train from Boston on the nights that the Wellesley Club met, allowing members to travel home together.
A number of remarkable contributions to the quality of life in town had their start at the Wellesley Club. For instance, members devoted the January 1894 meeting to a discussion of hospital facilities. After another meeting in 1904, a committee was appointed “to raise funds for the benefit of the sick poor.” At first this money (from the Club’s treasury and members’ donations) helped to sponsor a district nurse, through the Friendly Aid Society; later it went to the Newton Cottage Hospital as reimbursement for care given to Wellesley patients who were unable to pay. Before the fund was eventually merged into the hospital’s endowment, it had donated thousands of dollars as Wellesley’s annual share, in 1946 had provided $100,000, and given its final gift of $50,000 in 1960 for the building’s addition. The hospital changed its name to Newton-Wellesley to recognize these decades of support.
The Town Improvement Societies, which early last century were the most active groups in Wellesley and which created a precedent of careful attention to the appearance and activities of neighborhoods, were born in 1902 when the Wellesley Club elected a Town Improvement Board. After years of inspiring such communal activities as the Village Christmas Tree, care for vacant lots, and area clean-ups, the Board formed smaller neighborhood societies, which took over and continued for years. The Club also voted to set up a committee to investigate incorporating a Wellesley Historical Society.
Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Wellesley Club had its roots in 1903, when the topic of one club meeting was discussion on the advisability of having a town newspaper. Club members decided that one was needed. It must be a serious, impartial vehicle for examining town government, they said; it must also be a central publication, to unite further the disparate neighborhoods and interests of the town.
Soon the Club oversaw the creation of the Wellesley Publishing Company and on April 6, 1906, a date of significance selected by the members (the Town of Wellesley’s 25th birthday), a new newspaper named “The Townsman” appeared in town with the following comment on page one:
“With this, the initial number of The Townsman, is launched an enterprise which ought to benefit the town in many ways … there has been no proper medium through which our people could make known their views on matters of public interest, and it has often been the case, because of a lack of such a medium, that proper attention has not been given to important affairs of the town.”
In the 1930s, the Club sponsored discussions about the idea of switching from an Open to a Limited (e.g. elected) Town Meeting. After the idea was favorably presented to the club in 1936, Wellesley adopted the idea, and the town’s first Limited Town Meeting (consisting almost exclusively of Wellesley Club members) was held in March 1938.
While still devoted to discussions about Wellesley, by the 1930s the scope of lectures had started to broaden to occasionally include topics of international concern, as they still do today. One of the most important was the one held on December 21, 1936, when, well before the average American, the members heard an insider’s analysis of “Conditions in Germany.”
The influence of the club in the 1950s was described by former president David Sargent:
“There were some 13 million of us (WWII veterans) let loose on society all at once … and it seemed for a while that we all wanted to move to Wellesley. The Wellesley Club contributed mightily to keeping our explosive growth under control. It did so by allowing those who were running the town to meet together unofficially and socially where they could discover that Town politics can be kept civil and cooperative, and that reasonable people can reasonably disagree.”
Throughout the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st, lectures by national and international speakers, most with Wellesley roots, replaced debates, and monthly meetings were reduced to four each year. The speakers have ranged from governors, senators, and mayors to prominent White House leaders and economists; from local and national news celebrities to Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, and professors and presidents from the town’s three colleges.
The Club continues to serve the town as it remembers the past and anticipates the future. In 1981, it was the force behind the Centennial Time Capsule, organizing a comprehensive collection of items that told Wellesley’s story. The capsule resides at the town library behind a bronze plaque honoring the Club, waiting to be opened in 2081.
By 1988, 46% of Wellesley Town Meeting Members were women, and given the mission of the Club (“to consider and discuss questions relating to the welfare of the Town of Wellesley”), on October 3rd of that year (by three votes) more than two-thirds of the members voted to admit women. (This despite a long-time club officer who was quoted in a 1986 Townsman article as saying “Women (in the club) would be the end of it.”) The first woman admitted was Katherine (Gig) Babson, daughter of President David Babson (1950-51); the first woman President was Pat Palmer, 1997-8. In 1999, the club created a special category of membership to include the presidents of Babson, Wellesley, and MassBay Community Colleges.
In the 125 years since the club’s founding, the population of the town has grown eight-fold, from 3600 to over 28,000, yet the purpose of the Wellesley Club stays still familiar. In a tribute to the club’s importance, the Board of Selectmen, which traditionally meets on Mondays as does the Wellesley Club, defers to the club when their meetings coincide.
And as its membership has increased to 300 (plus 100 on the waiting list, which is 4-5 years long), its meeting place has changed from the early site of the U.S. Hotel to the Westminster Hotel (and others) in Copley Square; the Boston Chamber of Commerce dining room (1927-1947); Schrafft’s Restaurant on West Street (1947-1964); and the Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue (1964- present, the Wellesley Club’s informal “clubhouse”). But, in recognition of the fact that fewer members commute to Boston, in recent years three out of the four meetings have been held in or near Wellesley, including at Wellesley College, Babson College, the Crowne Plaza, and the Wellesley Country Club. Further evidence of how 21st century changes influence the Club is found in the fact that now notifications, dues, and reservations are handled online, and the Club now has a website: www.wellesleyclub.org.
In 1900, founder George Richardson was called upon to answer the question, “Of what good is the Wellesley Club, meeting as it does in Boston and never taking an active part in politics?” His answer stands today:
“(At Town Meeting since the founding of the club) has there not been a distinct advance in their action and general morals? I claim that the improvement is already due to the unconscious influence of our club, bringing as it does many of the citizens to one social center at least once a month, making them acquainted with each other, and as a result of that acquaintance showing them that they are members of one community, and that forbearance, generosity, public spirit, and good judgment are really what all should practice.
“The Club has never recommended action to the Town on any subject; it never will. As long as it maintains its present standard, so long will there be a place for it and so long will its quiet influence permeate the whole community.”
Even while 125 years have transformed Club meetings into something that would be almost unrecognizable to those first 57 members, at heart the Wellesley Club would still feel the same to them. Morris (Rusty) Kellogg, President during this anniversary year (and the Club’s 100th president), says:
“I think one of the best, and most unique, aspects of the Club is that its purpose has always had a very explicit focus on Wellesley. Most of the members are Town Meeting Members, or elected or volunteer members serving town boards or committees. This unique connection, most powerfully shown at the Club’s annual Town Affairs night, continues today and will always continue the far-sighted legacy of the club’s founding — devoted to the central and best interest of the town.”
About the author: Beth Hinchliffe is the official Wellesley Town Historian, former Townsman editor, lifelong resident, and one of the first women admitted to the Wellesley Club.