Object of the Month

Celebrating the Bunker Hill Centennial (and a New Piggery!) at Ridge Hill Farms, 20 June 1875

Bunker Hill centennial badge White metal, grosgrain ribbon

Bunker Hill centennial badge

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[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

This medal was probably worn by one of the marshals at William Emerson Baker’s dual celebration of the centennial of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the laying of the cornerstone for his new “sanitary piggery” at Ridge Hill Farms, Baker’s fantastical summer estate.

A Jolly Day at Wellesley

Beneath this headline, the 21 June 1875 issue of the Boston Journal carried a description of a celebration that must have seemed totally off the wall to those not on the invitation list.

Several hundred fortunate ladies and gentlemen within the past two or three weeks have received a formidable looking document of about the usual dimensions of a Declaration of Independence of a size for framing, tastefully prepared and ornamented with queer and well executed wood cuts of gay and festive hogs dancing upon their hind legs, each holding a jovial glass in a fore paw, also an illustration of the event in the history of Massachusetts, which is fully recited, whereby a stray hog found in the streets of Boston caused litigation to an extent that it was necessary to create a Senate which had never before existed, before the matter could be settled.

The day began at the Albany Railroad Depot in Boston where invited guests, including the 5th Maryland Regiment, the Washington Light Infantry of Charleston, S.C., the Marine Band of Washington, and state and local dignitaries including Governor William Gaston, gathered to take the train to Ridge Hill Farms in Wellesley. Upon arriving at the depot, the Governor and his party were transported to the farm in the carriage in which Lafayette travelled when visiting the state in 1824, where they were greeted by Chief Marshal George Sanford, “who was attired in a rich dark velvet suit of the style of 1775, trimmed with gold lace, and a bag wig” and “Old Father Time … circulating about in gray hair, long gray beard, a dark purple velvet robe, and carrying the conventional scythe.”

The “two or three thousand” guests in attendance were treated to refreshments (and presumably wandered the 830 acre grounds in bemused amazement) until the 2 o’clock laying of the cornerstone of Baker’s new “sanitary piggery.”

"A Pig Presentation"

Prior to the setting of the cornerstone by Governor Gaston, the audience was treated to speeches and musical selections, as well as a special surprise for the honored speaker, Colonel J. Stricker Jenkins of the 5th Maryland Regiment:

Col. Jenkins, commander of the 5th, was called upon, and commenced a patriotic speech when he was interrupted by Mr. Baker, who took from a box a live white pig, some six weeks old, and presented it to the Colonel for a “Child of the Regiment.”

Amid shouts of laughter, the gallant Colonel in his rich dress, went on, dealing out patriotism with one arm and holding the pig in the other, where it quietly reposed looking for all the world like a quiet babe just from the bath. The effect was irrepressibly ludicrous.

Soon afterward Mr. Baker produced a black pig, some three months old, but the officer having his arms already full handed it to one of his men who threw it upon his back, and only its head and fore paws were visible over the shoulders of the soldier.

The rueful look of piggy as he contemplated society from this novel position, and his squeals of wonder and fright sent off the whole audience again into laughter and the Maryland boys cheered for their adopted swine.

After the official ceremony, guests were treated to more refreshments and the troops engaged in a rousing game of football. As the crowd gathered to leave, “several hundred red, white, and blue toy balloons were cut loose and the air was filled with flocks of them.” That was not the end of the celebration, however. On 5 July, Baker’s guests returned for more “follies, fancies and frivolities” in connection with the new piggery described in detail in the 8 July issue of the Boston Daily Advertiser:

But all cannot be enumerated. The caves all glistening with tin-foil and lit with fires, Minehaha’s bower with its spring trap floor; the “Gallery Olympic,” for the development of art and muscle, where bowling alleys are laid between rows of pictures and under mementos of other celebrations; of the curiously illuminated flower-beds and handsome greenhouses; of the statutes [sic] of revolutionary heroes in long rows under the pines, of the cartoons of historic places in this city procured from the Boston tea party; of the pavilion beautifully trimmed with prisms and mosquito netting; of the house itself and its decorative beauties; of the stock farm where elk and buffalo roamed at will; of the 300,000 trout fry in the lake; of the monument composed of the chipped columns of the new post-office injured in the great fire; and the thousand and one curious objects that met the wistful wanderer at each step, fays and elves in terra-cotta, stuffed alligators with gaping jaws, stuffed pigs and dogs, repeated in stone and glass and wood …

Who was William Emerson Baker?

William Emerson Baker was born in 1828 to Sarah Reed and Abel Baker. He began his career as a dry-goods merchant, but gained vast wealth as the partner of William O. Grover, the inventor of an early sewing machine. From about 1851-1875, Grover & Baker sewing machines dominated the market and by 1865, the company was producing 1000 machines a week. A fire in 1867 and the financial panic of 1873, combined with the obsolescence of their technology led to the decline of the company and its merger with the Domestic Sewing Machine Company in 1875. By that time, however, Baker had left the company and spent his vast wealth in creating the extensive pleasure ground that was Ridge Hill Farms. On his death in 1888, most obituaries highlighted his many eccentricities, characterizations that were rebutted in a letter to the editor in the 27 January 1881 Boston Herald:

It is true he had a love of humor and a passion for the grotesque, at times so prodigal and unreserved in their manifestations as not unnaturally to mislead those who could judge only by their appearances. But behind all this there was in him the stuff of which noble hearts and true men are made. If he had a passion for some trifles, he also had a passion for many great and good things.

He was one of the most public spirited of men. He had a desire, almost impetuous, to improve the condition of the poor, especially in reference to food and dwellings, and he expended time, money and superabundant labor in endeavoring to perfect and carry out schemes to ameliorate their condition. Not only in these particulars, but in others, which many will recall, he strove to make the life of the poor smoother and better, and to establish institutions of philanthropy and learning. He was one of the first, if not the very first, to suggest the Institute of Technology, and was one of its most ardent friends. There was hardly any limit either to his charitable projects or efforts.

Baker was survived by his wife, Charlotte Augusta (Farnsworth) Baker (1831-1907) and two sons, Edward (1865-1934) and Walter (1870-1907). Few traces remain of Ridge Hill farms among the suburban homes on the border of Needham and Wellesley.

For Further Reading

Crumbaker, Leslie G. The Baker Estate, or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham Needham, Mass.: Needham Historical Society, 1975.

Greenway, H.D.S. “A Lost Estate,” Boston Globe, 8 April 2010.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds several items related to the celebration of the new piggery including an invitation, program, and Baker’s bizarre map of the United States, the “Porcineograph.”

Information about Grover & Baker’s first sewing machine can be found at the National Museum of American History.

Information about the history of the Grover & Baker Company can be found on Fiddlebase.