Paying My Respects

“Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother”
Brain, Child, March 2014; republished in Adoptive Families Magazine, spring 2015.

I had never crashed a wake before. I was so nervous driving to the funeral home that I accidentally drove the wrong direction, down a one-way street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. An oncoming car honked loudly, and I managed to swerve into a nearby driveway before being hit. How ironic would it be, I thought, if I was killed on the way to my son’s birthmother’s wake…

Read the complete essay at Brain, Child.

Transforming Norwood

uphamTransforming Norwood: Architect William G. Upham’s Contribution to Early 20th Century Norwood
By Heather S. Cole
CreateSpace, 2012

William G. Upham (1880-1966) was a Harvard-educated architect who designed or renovated more than 50 public and private buildings throughout New England between 1911 and 1954, gaining recognition as a designer of Colonial, Georgian and Gothic Revival buildings. A Norwood, Massachusetts native and resident, Upham designed some of the most important and prominent buildings in town—including the town hall, post office, theatre and high school—many which remain standing today. Upham’s work in town was contemporary with that of Norwood’s first town planner, George F. Willett, and landscape architect Arthur A. Shurtleff (a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted), and the work of the three men led the transformation of Norwood from a rather haphazardly developed farming village-turned-industrial city into what Willett later described as a “model New England town.

Available from the Norwood Historical Society or on


Digitization in the Real World

“The Mass. Memories Road Show: A State-Wide Scanning Project”
with Joanne Riley in Digitization in the Real World
Edited by Kwong Bor Ng and Jason Kucsma
Metropolitan New York Library Council, 2010

This collection highlights 34 cases of digital collection building in libraries, archives, museums, and cultural heritage institutions throughout North America. Written by practitioners for practitioners focusing on lessons learned from small to medium-sized digitization projects.

Available on

Remembering Norwood

Remembering NorwoodRemembering Norwood: Win Everett’s Tales of Tyot
Edited by Heather S. Cole and Edward J. Sweeney
The History Press, 2008

Long ago, when Norwood was only virgin forests and streams, the Neponset Indian tribe christened the region ‘Tyot’ a place of waters. The name lingered on the tongues of residents long after their home was renamed and the advent of railroads opened up the region once enclosed by rivers and lakes. As rugged farmhouses dotted the plains and Puritan spires rose above the trees, the sleepy ‘Tyot’ blossomed into the bustling community of Norwood. Decades later, journalist Win Everett preserved Norwood’s colorful history in his column ‘Tales of Tyot’. With stories of haunted taverns and superstitious soldiers, influenza and the industrial age, Everett profiles the fascinating people who left their marks on the pages of Norwood history. Available for the first time in a single volume, these articles bring three centuries of history to life through the artful voice of Norwood’s beloved storyteller.

Available from the Norwood Historical Society or on

History of the Norwood Historical Society

History of the Norwood Historical Society by Heather S. Cole, presented to the Norwood Retired Men’s Club on 10 April 2007.

This year the Norwood Historical Society is celebrating our 100th birthday. The society was founded by members of the Norwood Literary Club, an organization formed in 1883 as an early self-governed adult education program. The members read and discussed books, studied the natural world, put on theatrical performances and went on various local excursions. In 1901, as Norwood neared its 30th birthday, the Norwood Literary Club voted to form a historical society to begin to preserve the town’s history. There was a particular concern among the members of collecting the stories from people who had been around in old South Dedham and when Norwood was incorporated as a town.

After the Civil War and around the time of the American centennial, Americans had a renewed interest in local and family history. In some communities, this impetus to remember and preserve the past came from a desire to celebrate local war heroes or colonial settlers; in others it came as a reaction to the influx of outsiders and immigrants and a desire to preserve an idealized past. In many places it was a combination of the two. These trends resulted in the founding of a number of genealogical, historical and preservation organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Hundreds of local historical societies were formed in this period, too. Norwood was actually a little late in jumping on the historical society bandwagon. Dedham had formed a historical society in 1859, Natick in 1870 and Walpole in 1898.

Although the Norwood Literary Society proposed founding a historical society in 1901, it was not until six years later that the Norwood Historical Society was officially incorporated. On February 14, 1907 a charter was granted to the following members: Milton H. Howard, Emily Curtis Fisher, Walter J. Berwick, Frank E. Bartley, Maria E. Colburn, Marcia M. Winslow, Nellie M. Babcock, Charles E. Smith, Clara W. Berwick, David A. Ellis. Some of those names may sound familiar: Milton Howard was a local builder and real estate agent; Walter Berwick was one of the founders of Norwood Press; Marcia Winslow was from the Winslow tannery family and both the Ellis and Fisher families were prominent in South Dedham.

The purpose of the Norwood Historical Society, as described in the charter, was to collect and preserve “historical and antiquarian work and research, the collection and preservation of books, manuscripts, pamphlets, and other articled of historical and antiquarian or kindred subjects.” Many of the first objects donated to the historical society were given by early members and their families. They ranged from clothing to family portraits to miscellaneous objects collected in their travels that may have had little to do with Norwood history. But the objects were dutifully collected and listed in a handwritten catalogue that we still have today.

When it was founded, the Norwood Historical Society did not have a permanent home. Meetings were held at the Morrill Memorial Library or in members’ homes. But it soon became evident that they needed a regular place to meet and somewhere to store the objects of Norwood’s history that they had said they wanted to collect. Not much progress was made until the death of a local resident, Fred Holland Day who left a very generous legacy to the Norwood Historical Society in his will. It had, however, one substantial condition.

Fred Holland Day was an internationally renowned photographer, publisher and literary historian. He was born in Norwood in 1864 and was the only son of Lewis Day and Anna Smith Day, both from wealthy families prominent in Norwood’s early tanning industries. He became famous around the turn of the century for both his publishing and his photography. He published two well-known Victorian literary magazines and co-founded a publishing company—Copeland & Day – which published Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and other Victorian poets, as well as beautifully-illustrated children’s books. Around the turn of the century he also became an influential photographer, one of a small group that first promoted photography as a fine art. Fred Day is best known for his religious photography, including a controversial series of self-portraits reenacting the crucifixion of Christ. And locally, he became known for his research on Dedham history.

Fred Holland Day was born and raised in a house located at the corner of Day and Bullard Streets in Norwood. The Day House belonged to Fred’s mother, Anna Day. When she died, she left the house to be used by Fred in his lifetime, then to be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. Fred Day was an only child and never married. When he died in 1933, he left in his will a bequest to the Norwood Historical Society (and much of his collection of local history and genealogy) provided they could maintain a headquarters for one year. Despite being in the midst of the Great Depression, a group of local businessmen pooled their resources and bought the Day House, with a mortgage, from the estate of Anna Day as a permanent home for the Norwood Historical Society.

The following year, Fred Day’s collections and bequest came to the Norwood Historical Society and the society was able to pay off its mortgage. On December 18, 1935 the mortgage was burned and the historic Day House has been in the care of the society ever since.

The Day House had been built in 1859, but extensively renovated in 1890-93 by Fred Day. It was renovated to resemble an English Tudor Manor House, with a 3-story Great Hall and mahogany paneled dining room. Also leaded glass windows, beautiful stained glass windows, and seven fireplaces. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t yet visited, please do.


Over the past 100 years, the purpose of the Norwood Historical Society has remained much the same. Our mission today is to preserve our home, the Fred Holland Day House, and to “preserve and share Norwood’s history for present and future generations.” We have, however, expanded our collections, exhibits and programs to include representation from newer residents to Norwood, including the many contributions from immigrants to town. And we have also expended our efforts to include education about local history and historic preservation in general.

Among the highlights of our collection today is Fred Day’s extensive library of more than 800 volumes on local history and genealogy. We also have several of Fred Day’s photographs. Among the artifacts we have from early South Dedham is the blue painted cabinet that was owned by Norwood’s Rev. Thomas Balch and 95 books that once were part of Norwood’s first library. We also have the revolving drum that was Norwood’s first post office. In our archives we have hundreds of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and other material documenting the history of Norwood’s local government, businesses, churches and ethnic groups. And we continue to accept donations relating to Norwood history, pending the approval of our board of directors.

Part of our mission is to educate Norwood residents about local history, so we organize exhibits, programs and lectures such as this one on various topics relating to local history. In recent years we’ve organized exhibits on Norwood’s immigrant history, sports in Norwood, Norwood veterans and weddings in Norwood. This year, in honor of our centennial, we’re putting together an exhibit a few people from Norwood who have helped shape the town we live in today. They include some names you may be familiar with: architect William Upham, philanthropist F.O. Winslow, the Morse Family, Father William Wolkovich of St. George’s Church in South Norwood. I have a postcard with some information on the exhibit, which will be opening in May, and I invite all of you out for a visit.


When you visit the Day House this summer you can see our centennial exhibit and take a tour of the house and see lots and lots of objects from various periods in Norwood’s history. But we also have things in our collections or our archives that, because of space, are not always on display. I thought I’d spend the rest of my time here sharing with you a few of my favorite things from the collections of the Norwood Historical Society. A few of these things I can pass around. The others are too fragile, so I’ll just ask that you come up afterwards and take a look.

Norwood High School Yearbooks

These don’t need much explanation. The Norwood Historical Society has a nearly complete collection of old town reports, yearbooks, the high school literary magazine, etc. But we are always looking for more copies in good condition. I thought I’d send these around for you to look through.

Ballot Box

Does anyone know what this is? This is an old-fashioned ballot box. Through the 1930s, people who wanted to be members of the Norwood Historical Society had to be elected. In order to become a member, prospective members needed to be elected to the Society by a 2/3 vote, using Indian corn and beans. This was done by ballot—and members would drop either a piece of corn or a bean in the box to signify their vote. The corn vote was a yes; the bean vote was a no. In 1934, membership dues were $1 per year. New members were required to pay a one-time admission fee of $2. Now, anyone who pays their annual fee (currently $20) can be a member.

Map of Norwood

This one is pretty self-explanatory. But it is one of my favorite things in our collection. I love maps. And this map is beautiful both for its design–it has fairly accurate renderings of some of the more significant buildings in Norwood—and because it captures Norwood just on the cusp of a transformation. On this map you can see the tanneries, the railroad car shops. [Describe South Norwood]. Within the next ten years, Norwood will experience a population explosion. The Norwood Press will come to Norwood in 1894. Plimpton Press opened in 1897. Bird and Son will build their first Norwood factory in 1904. At the same time, Norwood will see a flood of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who come to work in the factories, and build triple deckers and all sorts of stores in South Norwood. We actually have a similar map of Norwood made in the 1890s hanging in the Day House, and it is remarkable to contrast the two.

Design of Norwood Square

Is anyone familiar with the name George Willett? What did he do? Why is he important to the history of Norwood? George Willett is best known for founding the Norwood Civic Association, founding Norwood Hospital and helping introduce the town manager form of government to Norwood. But he also was very active in shaping the physical layout of Norwood in the early 20th century. Many of the business blocks along Washington Street were commissioned by George Willett, who also arranged to move several of the large mid-19th century Victorian homes off of Washington Street and onto side streets. He founded the Norwood Planning Board in 1912 and served as its chair for 12 years. In 1915 he advocated for the widening and paving of Washington Street, and the installation of sidewalks for the first time. One of his biggest projects was planning out Norwood Square and the new town hall. At the time, Norwood’s municipal offices were housed in an old fire station and were completely inadequate. George Willett advocated for a new town hall built on a new town green that would anchor the northern end of the business district he was building along Washington Street. At the time, Market Street crisscrossed the land George Willett wanted for Norwood Square, and there were several houses built along Washington Street on the land. So he proceeded to buy the land, redirect Market Street, and then gave the land for Norwood Square and the town hall to the town of Norwood. World War I hit, so it would be several years before town hall would finally be built in 1928.

Can any of you tell me anything you notice about this map? Yes, George Willett’s original vision was to have town hall located where Norwood Theater is today. These plans were drawn up for the Planning Board in the 1920s. Norwood would reject these plans, in favor of building the town hall where it is today. One more thing to notice: the plans were drawn up by Arthur Shurtcliff, who was a student of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect best known for designing Central Park in NYC and the Emerald Necklace of parks around Boston.

Norwood’s Original Town Seal Designs

These drawings here were among my favorite discoveries in the archives of the Norwood Historical Society. Remember a few months ago when there was all the bru-ha-ha about the color of Aaron Guild’s coat on Norwood’s town seal? Well, just before that story broke in the local newspaper, I was doing research in the Historical Society archives for a talk I was giving at a historic preservation conference on Old Home Week celebrations in Norwood. I was thrilled to come across these drawings and a collection of glass plate negatives of additional drawings. Here is their story:

In the fall of 1901, the Norwood Business Association (an organization of local businessmen and industrialists – a predecessor to today’s Chamber of Commerce) proposed that the town of Norwood needed to have a town seal. They invited local school children to submit designs for the seal. About 80 students (and a few adults) responded. Several of the propose seals included eagles, flags and other patriotic symbols. Two portrayed Wampanoag chief King Phillip. A few more were drawings of buildings or streetscapes in town. But the most popular symbols included in the town seals were of Norwood’s industries and included imagery of books, printing presses, ink wells, smokestacks, even pieces of flayed and hung leather. This was Norwood as the children saw it. It was apparently not the Norwood that the Norwood Business Association wanted to portray.

At a meeting in April 1902, the Norwood Business Association thanked the schoolchildren for their efforts, but decided to postpone the selection of a seal until a future meeting. It wasn’t until more than a year later that the Norwood Business Association revisited the town seal proposals. In the summer of 1903, the town hosted its second Old Home Day celebration. These celebrations were becoming popular across New England and were generally a weekend of festivities showcasing local businesses and celebrating local history. The organizers decided to showcase the students’ town seal proposals at Old Home Day. Shortly thereafter, the Norwood Business Association awarded first prize to Norwood high school student Ethel Hubbard for her drawing of Norwood’s downtown area, known as “The Hook.” But Ethel’s design never made it onto the town seal. We do not know why. There are no accounts in Norwood’s town reports, the minutes of the Norwood Business Association or to local newspaper to tell us what happened. But two years later, the issue of a town seal came up at Norwood’s annual Town Meeting. A committee was appointed to propose a seal, and the following spring Town Meeting accepted the recommendations of the seal they proposed. But the seal that was finally accepted by Town Meeting in 1906 was not Ethel Hubbard’s design. Instead, the seal that was selected, and that is our town seal today, was the drawing made by the second place winner, high school student George Boyden.

School Bell and Photos from the Everett School

Does anyone know what this is? The Everett School was the first school in Norwood. It was located at Washington and Guild streets at the present location of Post Office. It was built ca. 1850 and named after Israel Everett, a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill who came from South Dedham. The Everett School was originally used as an elementary school, then later as a high school. The original building had 6 classrooms, three on each floor, and held up to 20 students. North and south wings were added to the school during the Civil War. At that time, the second floor became a public hall known as Union Hall. Teachers at the Everett School were almost always female, and they were paid between $300 and $400 per year. Parents were responsible for purchasing the books, slates and pencils for their children to use in school.

The Everett School was torn down in 1931 in the midst of a debate that may sound familiar. In 1923, a State Building Inspector visited Everett School and gave a report to the school board that “the building is in extremely dangerous condition and a grave fire hazard.” At the time, only the 7th grade was taught at Everett School. There was a great deal of debate in the local newspaper as to whether the Everett School was worth saving, or whether it was cheaper to tear it down and build a new school. In 1929, it was decided to tear down the school and transfer the students to the new High School on Nichols Street. In order to accommodate the students, the High School ran two school sessions per day: one from 8am-noon, and another from one to five p.m.

Bell was purchased from the estate of Dr. Ralph M Fogg and donated to the society in 1936 by Jane A. Hewett. In addition to the bell and these photos, we also have several photos of classes at the Everett School and an attendance sheet from 1872.


Industrial History of Norwood (MA)

The industrialization of Norwood is the most significant and distinctive feature of its history. Beginning in the mid-19th century, local tanneries, printing presses, ink manufacturers and other industries helped transform Norwood into a booming and ethnically-diverse industrial town.

The story of Norwood’s industrialization and its impact on local residents can be seen in this selection of primary sources from the archives of the Norwood Historical Society.

Click here for a link to the website.

The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburban Municipality in New England

GFW talk.001By Heather S. Cole, presented at the Morrill Memorial Library in October 2006.

At the beginning of the 20th century, local industrialist and philanthropist George F. Willett nearly single-handedly reshaped the civic and physical landscape of Norwood. His vision was to transform what was then a small, industrial town into what he described as “the biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England,” and a model for other cities and towns. Between 1908 and 1918, George Willett led the reformation of Norwood’s municipal government, established the Norwood Civic Association, founded the town’s first public hospital, served as the first chair of Norwood’s Planning Board, crafted a master plan for the future development of the town and came up with an innovative scheme to finance all of these things without raising taxes. This evening I’ll be talking about George Willett, his vision and the changes he brought about in Norwood, many which continue to exist today.

GFW talk.003In order to understand the changes George Willett brought about in Norwood in the early 20th century, it is useful to first get a picture of what the town was like before.  The land that now comprises Norwood had originally been part of the town of Dedham. Primarily agricultural until the mid-19th century, Norwood didn’t become an independent municipality until 1872. During the first few decades of independence, Norwood went through huge changes as a number of new industries—including the Norwood Press, Plimpton Press and Bird & Son—set up shop in Norwood and established industries—including the tanneries and the Morrill Ink Works—expanded their factories.

GFW talk.004Norwood welcomed many of these changes: the town founded the Norwood Business Association in 1892 for the express purpose of promoting industrial development in town. The Norwood Business Association was generally successful and by the turn of the 20th century, Norwood was home to two tanneries, two printing conglomerates, a lumber mill, a paper mill, an ink factory and railroad car shops. But Norwood had not had the time to develop some of the infrastructure needed to support such rapid changes. As a result, parts of town had been haphazardly developed with hastily-built housing and poor roads, isolated from the rest of town. Norwood also had few public services, understaffed police and fire departments, no recreational facilities and only a small private hospital in town.

GFW talk.005Along with the expanding industry, Norwood also saw a rapid increase in her population from just 1,800 residents in 1872 to nearly 5,500 residents in 1900 to more than 8,000 residents by 1910 and 12,000 residents by 1920. Many of these new residents were immigrants, their children and grandchildren. Foreign residents were not new to Norwood; the town had seen a steady stream of Irish immigration since the 1840s. In fact, by 1905, 40 percent of the residents of Norwood were Irish or the children of Irish immigrants. But the new immigrants who came to Norwood in the early 1900s were different: they came from the politically tumultuous countries in southern and eastern Europe including Lithuania, Syria, Italy, Poland and Portugal. The foreign-born population of Norwood would reach a high of 40 percent by 1913. Many of these immigrants left their home countries with limited education, limited resources and without speaking or reading English. They also tended to settle (by choice or because they were restricted from other parts of town), in hastily-built, overcrowded triple-deckers in what came to be known as The Flats, or South Norwood. Electricity, sewer systems and trash removal were slower to reach the southern part of town, and some residents were concerned about the impact that the conditions in South Norwood would have on the rest of the town and feared that an outbreak of typhoid or other diseases in The Flats would spread to the rest of town.

GFW talk.006Norwood was not alone in facing these problems. Many industrial cities and towns experienced post-Civil War industrialization, urbanization and immigration. These municipalities, like Norwood, struggled to find ways to facilitate industrial and residential development while mitigating the problems that often came with it: overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, additional demands for public services, shoddy building construction, and exploitation of workers. In places like Boston and New York City, muckraking journalists like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine documented the negative aspects of urbanization and industrialization, inspiring reformers to advocate for government intervention. By the 1920s and 30s, these reformers would succeed in getting federal regulations passed on things like child labor laws, and building codes. But before then, hundreds of local reformers across the country experimented with ways to improve their own cities and towns through civic and municipal government reform. In Norwood, the leading reformer was a man by the name of George F. Willett.

GFW talk.007

George Willett was born in Walpole in 1870, the only son of a laborer at a local twine factory and the grandson of a Walpole farmer. Although from modest means, his parents had instilled in him both aspirations for a grander future and a sense of civic obligation. After high school, George Willett won a scholarship to study industrial chemistry at Boston University. But he dropped out after his junior year in order to go to work—first at a bank in Boston and then selling wool for the Winslow Brothers tannery in Norwood.

GFW talk.008In 1891, when George Willett went to work there, Winslow Brothers was one of two tanneries in Norwood and one of the largest employers in town. The sounds and smells of the tanneries dominated the town, and had done so for more than a century. But by the 1890s, the Winslow Brothers tannery was struggling to keep up with the changes in technology and business development. George Willett advised the family on the reorganization of the tannery and helped modernize and streamline factory operations.

GFW talk.009In 1893, George Willett married Francis Winslow’s youngest daughter, Edith, and built a house on Walpole Street in Norwood. Two years later, George Willett bought the Winslow Brothers tannery from the family. Over the next decade, George Willett bought the other tannery in town, consolidated and modernized both of them and began investing in other industries throughout New England. George Willett was very successful as a businessman and became a millionaire by the age of 35. 

GFW talk.010Like other successful businessmen of his era, George Willett believed there was an opportunity to take some of the business management skills he had developed in the corporate world and apply them to the world of public affairs. Beginning around 1908, George Willett began spending large amounts of his own time and money investing in the improvement of his adopted home town, Norwood.

GFW talk.011Then, as today, one of the biggest complaints of Norwood’s residents was taxes. And then, also as now, people did their best to try to find ways to pay as little in taxes as possible. But the result was tax inflation and by 1908, Norwood’s tax rate was the highest in the state: $25 in taxes for each $1000 worth of real estate or personal property. There was a general feeling in town that some wealthy individuals and businesses weren’t paying their fare share of taxes. Town meeting had just voted to build a new fire station, a town-wide sewer system and were working on the town’s first electric light plant. In this time, prior to the introduction of federal income tax or sales tax, almost all the money in municipal budgets came from property tax. Norwood needed all the tax revenue she could get.

GFW talk.012In 1908, George Willett chaired a Committee on Taxation that reformed Norwood’s tax system and reassessed all the property in town, resulting in a rise in the valuation of property by a reduction in the tax rate. For the first time property was valued based on its potential use, rather than its actual use. In this way, undeveloped land near the railroad or along main streets in town was taxed at a higher rate, in effect encouraging the property owners to develop real estate in prime locations for business or residential use. Norwood’s tax rate dropped 67 percent in 1909, but within a few short years it began to creep up again, and George Willett came to believe that more drastic measures needed to be taken.

GFW talk.013Beginning in 1911, George Willett joined a group of local businessmen (known as the Committee of Five) in advocating for a new form of municipal government in Norwood. From its incorporation in 1872, Norwood had been run by a salaried Board of Selectmen and a battery of elected committees that handled everything from property assessment to licensing to budgeting in between Town Meetings. The Committee of Five believed that Norwood’s local government could be run more efficiently, saving money, increasing public services and keeping taxes low. Initially the Committee of Five advocated for Norwood to adopt a new city charter, eliminating Town Meeting and placing a mayor at the head of local government. Under state law, however, Norwood had too small of a population. So their alternative was a new form of town government that had been introduced in just a few other towns in the country: the town manager. Under this system, Norwood retained Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen, but reduced the number of other committees, gave increased power to the town Finance Committee and placed the day-to-day management of the town in the hands of a paid professional manager. It also eliminated the salaries for elected officials.

GFW talk.014It took three years of advocacy before the new government system came before Norwood’s voters. In October 1914, it passed by a narrow margin of 660 to 403 voters. Clarence Bingham, a civil engineer from Elisabeth, New Jersey, became Norwood’s first Town Manager in 1915.

Supporters of the town manager system (generally industrial leaders and local businessmen) said that the changes saved the town money and reduced taxes. Those in opposition (generally local workers) said that the new system made it more difficult for the average person to get involved in local government and reduced the number of municipal jobs. Historical evidence suggests that both sides were correct.

Whereas most of Norwood’s business community was satisfied with lower taxes and a more efficient local government, George Willett had much larger aspirations for Norwood. He believed that the town could serve as a model community for clean, efficient, neighborly 20th century living. And his approach was to focus on the physical layout of the town.

GFW talk.015Until this point, development in town had happened rather haphazardly, with local developers subdividing land and building roads with no real master plan. As a result, many of the roads were poorly laid-out, with no sidewalks and ineffective drainage. The town had developed into disconnected ethnic neighborhoods, and Norwood’s historic town center, known as “The Hook,” had become run down. George Willett wanted to change all that.

GFW talk.016Willett had a very particular vision for the physical layout he wanted for a 20th century Norwood: modern roads, a retail district, a “traditional” town square, a new town hall and schools, parks and playgrounds. But his plan was not just beautification for its intrinsic value. Ever the businessman, Willett believed that formal planning and beautification of the town would attract new residents to town, bringing in additional tax dollars that would more than pay for the improvements. Willett wanted Norwood to be “so beautiful and attractive that it would come to be recognized throughout Metropolitan Boston as a suburb which offered unusual attractions as a place in which to live and bring up one’s family.”

GFW talk.017This focus on transforming Norwood into a suburb is particularly interesting. Willett was not interested in having Norwood grow into a large industrial city like Waltham, Lowell or Lynn. Instead, George Willett saw Norwood’s future as a bedroom community for middle class businessmen and professionals.

Thus, George Willett’s focus was on developing middle-class residential housing and the various public services that would support such residents. He wanted the immigrants crowded into multifamily homes to instead become property owners. And he wanted new residents who would commute into Boston on the new parkways he was arranging to be built to connect with surrounding towns. In order to attract these residents, George Willett believed Norwood needed to transform itself into the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England.”

GFW talk.020On the top of George Willett’s agenda for town planning in Norwood was improving the condition and layout of the town’s roads. George Willett believed that for the wealthy and middle-class, the automobile would replace the streetcar and trains, Norwood’s main roads needed to be redesigned to facilitate auto traffic. Washington Street was the main north-south thoroughfare through town and, until 1915, was still a dirt road, often muddy and potholed, with trolley tracks running down the center. In 1915, Washington Street was widened, paved and sidewalks were installed. Other roads in town were straightened, widened and paved in order to better manage the growing traffic through Norwood.

George Willett and the Planning Board also gave a great deal of attention to the growing retail business district in the center of town. Several brick and concrete business blocks had been constructed along Washington Street between 1900 and 1913. The business blocks had retail stores on the ground floor and apartments or offices upstairs. The Planning Board wanted to replace the remaining 19th century residential housing with more business buildings. George Willett bought and tore down several wooden buildings on Washington Street that he thought were eyesores. George Willett paid to have four large Victorian homes moved from Washington Street onto side streets, completing the transformation of Washington Street.

GFW talk.021But George Willett had much bigger plans than improving just one road in Norwood. By 1917, George Willett had recruited noted landscape designer Arthur Shurtcliff, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead, to draw up formal plans for the town. The “Plan for Vicinity of Center of Town” showed a tree-lined Washington Street connecting the downtown business district to a new hospital, community center and high school complexes. Along Washington and nearby Walpole Streets were churches, banks and the Morrill Memorial Library, donated to the town by the Morrill Ink Works family. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, with two Norwood stations, ran parallel to Washington Street to the east. The rest of the streets from there east to the railroad would be used for business or factory sites. It was a grand plan and although George Willett expected (and at first received) town support, he knew taxes along could not pay for the changes he envisioned. Thus entered George Willett’s plan for the Norwood Housing Association.

GFW talk.023In 1913, George Willett created the Norwood Housing Association, a public real estate holding company. The purpose of the Norwood Housing Association was to purchase land throughout Norwood—both undeveloped land on the outskirts of town and developed lots in the residential and business parts of town—and hold it for future development. The idea was that the Norwood Housing Association would sell the land only to those who would develop the land along the lines laid out by George Willett and the Planning Board. He also developed plans for the Norwood Housing Association to get involved in building new houses, with the idea being that they would purchase supplies in bulk and build houses at a cost that was affordable to the working man.

The NHA, however, was neither a non-profit nor a government agency. The NHA was like any other real estate holding corporation, except that all the real estate was located in Norwood. George Willett turned over personal real estate he had in town to the Norwood Housing Association, taking stock in return. The Norwood Housing Association issued stock in order to fund the purchase of other parcels of land in town, identified by George Willett and the Planning Board as essential to their plans for Norwood. George Willett believed that as the town continued to develop businesses, schools, recreational facilities, etc. that the value of the property would continue to grow.

George Willett deflected some of the criticism that he was reaping personal benefit from his position on the Planning Board (as well as his position as president of the Norwood Trust Company, which worked in cooperation with the NHA to issue mortgages), by explaining that he was doing this work to benefit the town. Like single tax advocate Henry George, George Willett believed the capital gains on property should benefit the entire municipality, rather than individual property holders. But instead of a tax on property that would go into the town’s general operating fund, George Willett wanted to control the development and the spending.

With the town government reform and the town planning well underway, George Willett decided that the stock proceeds from the NHA would be deposited in an account to fund the third piece of his reform efforts in Norwood: the Norwood Civic Association.

GFW talk.024In 1905, George Willett bought a five-acre plot of land at a prime location between the railroad and Washington Street. At the request of a local minister, George Willett converted an old barn on the property into a basketball court for local boys to use. After an article in the local newspaper bemoaned the fact that there was no place that teenagers could go for recreation so they were getting into trouble on the streets, George Willett realized that there was an opportunity to build a larger facility that could meet the recreational needs of more of Norwood’s residents.

GFW talk.025The Norwood Civic Association officially opened in 1911 and was described by The Sunday (Boston) Herald as the “finest civic plant in the world.” George Willett poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the Civic and by 1915 the Civic was a 30,000-square-foot complex with an auditorium that sat 700, a clubhouse, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard room, social hall and meeting rooms for government and town organizations. On the land surrounding the Civic were athletic fields, tennis courts and a grandstand. The Civic regularly hosted lectures, concerts and socials; gymnasium classes and athletic demonstrations; Civic-sponsored sports teams and military drilling brigades. The Civic also had meeting rooms that could be rented by town organizations.

Attached to the Civic was a Model House which was “modestly furnished as an example and illustration of an attractive home” where lessons were offered in sewing, millinery, cooking and housekeeping.

GFW talk.027In 1913, on land adjacent to the Civic, George Willett opened the Corner House Hospital with 23 beds, an operating room, dental clinic and eye clinic. The Corner House was Norwood’s first public hospital and served as the housing and headquarters for local and school nurses. Prior to participation in any of the sports or gymnasium activities at the Civic, children and young adults underwent a physical examination by an on-site nurse. Young people needing dental or other work were referred to the Corner House for free or reduced-cost treatment. The hospital included a state-of-the-art operating room and a maternity wing, which were utilized by the entire community

George Willett had promised that his Civic would not be a drain on the town’s resources. Once the Civic was running, George Willett continued to finance many of its activities, but wanted to find a way to insure long-term viability of the organization. He solicited donations from local industrialists, but when that was not as successful as he had hoped, George Willett looked to the Norwood Housing Association. His plan was to have the stock proceeds from the Norwood Housing Association support the activities at the Civic.

GFW talk.028George Willett believed that all these various entities—the Civic, the Corner House Hospital, the Norwood Housing Association and the Planning Board—needed to work together for a comprehensive civic program for the town. Each was to support the other, and he argued that they needed to have centralized and coordinated control. George Willett drew a map of how the various boards of directors would work in cooperation with town officials and community groups, including the NBA. Not everyone agreed with his vision of a centralized civic program, but George Willett spoke publicly and frequently about it, both in Norwood and elsewhere.

George Willett believed he could teach current and aspiring municipal managers how to bring about civic reform like he was doing in Norwood. In 1916, George Willett partnered with his alma mater Boston University to begin plans for a School of Social and Political Sciences to train students in civic leadership and municipal management. George Willett, a university trustee from 1911-1933, spent $60,000 to renovate a building at 525 Boylston Street for what Boston University termed a “College for Mayors.” Although the College for Mayors never came to pass, the building was used by Boston University’s newly-formed business school and a history of the university credited George Willett’s financial contributions as “a vital factor in the early days of the college.”

On January 27, 1918, the Providence Journal published a glowing full-page spread congratulating George Willett on the civic reforms he was bringing about in Norwood: “The Norwood idea is undoubtedly the most progressive of its kind in New England.”  Yet just as Norwood’s reforms seemed to be at their height, the financial basis of the Civic Association, the Corner House Hospital and the Norwood Housing Association began to crumble.

GFW talk.029When America entered World War I, life in Norwood changed abruptly. There was less interest in civic and municipal activities and more focus on military preparedness. In early 1918, George Willett was asked to come to Washington, D.C. to advise the Quartermaster General of the Army on the reorganization of the War Department.  Unfortunately, while he was away his business interests suffered some serious setbacks and by September 1918, George Willett had lost controlling interest of the Norwood Housing Association to his creditors and understood that he no longer had the funds to support either the Civic Association or the Corner House Hospital. He would later file a $10 million lawsuit against a group of Boston banks for allegedly conspiring to take over his businesses. He won the lawsuit, but it was reversed on a technicality and George Willett was never able to regain the money and business success he lost.

After the crisis had passed, in January 1919, a group of local businessmen purchased the Corner House Hospital from George Willett and applied for a state charter of incorporation for a new hospital in Norwood, renamed the Norwood Hospital. Norwood Hospital was eventually able to overcome its financial difficulties, with a few injections of capital from wealthy trustees and fundraising canvasses in Norwood and surrounding towns that made use of the hospital facilities. Norwood Hospital still exists today as part of the Caritas Christi Health Care system.

GFW talk.031After George Willett’s creditors gained control of the Norwood Housing Association and the hospital was incorporated as a separate entity, George Willett and a few remaining supporters made several gallant efforts to keep the Civic up and running. But the financial troubles of the Civic were complicated by two fires at the complex in February 1924 and November 1927. After a third fire in April 1930 destroyed the Civic buildings beyond repair, George Willett reluctantly sold the Civic property to the town, which decades later sold it to the Norwood Hospital for the expansion of their physical plant.

Throughout the 1930s, even as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and George Willett’s pocketbook was “even flatter than the day he started,” as one newspaper reporter described it, George Willett continued to work at his plans for Norwood. If he couldn’t persuade town officials to support his plan for turning Norwood into a model community, then he would create a model community within Norwood.

GFW talk.032George Willett still owned several hundred acres of undeveloped land around a manmade pond on the outskirts of Norwood—property that George Willett purchased back from the creditors of the Norwood Housing Association in the early 1920s. George Willett refocused his plans on developing this area into a new residential housing development, modeled after garden villages he saw on a trip to England in 1906, but built using the latest scientific methods. Westover, as he named it, was to be a middle-class residential neighborhood with high-quality, mass-produced housing, surrounded by beautiful scenery and landscaping and within a short driving distance of all the advantages of downtown Norwood and Boston.

George Willett spent the next 20 years trying to find investors for Westover, trying to persuade town officials to support new roads that would connect Westover to the rest of town and batting with the Board of Selectman over taxes on his Westover properties. But b1953, Westover was in bankruptcy and the following year outside developers purchased the property. George Willett died on April 13, 1962 at the age of 91, never having seen his plans for Westover come to fruition.

In 1936, a local newspaper reporter described what may have been the general consensus in Norwood towards George Willett’s master plan for the town: “[it is] an ideal so vast and daring that many in our midst have merely shrugged it off as a dream—‘George Willett’s Dream.’”

When people in surrounding towns think of Norwood today, what likely comes to mind is Ernie Boch, Jr. and the Route One auto mile that greets visitors with car showrooms, gas stations, fast food and an assortment of chain and big box stores. Yet one need only take a short walk across town to the historic downtown district to see the lasting impact of George Willett’s reform efforts in town.

GFW talk.034Today the Washington Street business district remains the center of social, recreational and cultural life in Norwood. The downtown business district, anchored at one end by Norwood’s Town Hall, conceptualized by George Willett and finally completed in 1928, and at the other end by the Morrill Memorial Library, celebrating its 108th anniversary this year, is much as it was in George Willett’s time.

GFW talk.036Most of the brick, stone and concrete business blocks remain, now with restaurants, bars and small, independently-owned stores on the ground floor and offices in the rooms above. For the past three years the Norwood Planning Board, organized more than 90 years ago under George Willett’s direction, has been working with the town Historical Commission to restore and rehabilitate several of these early 20th century storefronts.

GFW talk.037Although the original Civic Association buildings are long gone, the insurance settlement from the 1930 fire that destroyed it was placed in a fund “to be used for the benefit of the people of Norwood.” Part of that money eventually found its way to the town’s Recreation Department, established in the 1940s, and helped fund the renovation of department facilities. The Norwood Recreation Department, which serves hundreds of residents a year with sports and athletic programs, is now housed at a former state armory in town, affectionately known as the new “Civic.”

GFW talk.038The land where the original Civic Association once sat is now the heart of the complex of brick and concrete comprising Norwood Hospital, also founded by George Willett and now serving more than a dozen towns south of Boston.

George Willett’s great unfinished planned community in Norwood, Westover, never came to pass. Westover’s twisting streets laid undeveloped for several years after George Willett’s death. The beach on Willett Pond that was once part of the Civic Association was sold to the Boston Archdiocese and is now the parking lot for St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church, established in 1964. The rest of the Westover land was eventually sold in the 1950s and has been developed. There is no longer any public access to Willett Pond.

GFW talk.039As for George Willett himself… Remembered both for his grand vision and his dynamic personality, more than 40 years after his death, George Willett is now generally recognized as one of the town’s greatest philanthropists and credited for the founding of the hospital and the Civic, if not for the Washington Street business district. In January 1969, the town dedicated the Willett Elementary School in his memory. There is also a Willett Parkway and an auditorium in the Recreation Department named in his honor. Histories about the town published in 1972 and 2002 devoted entire chapters to detailing George Willett’s contributions to Norwood.

Yet the model George Willett created for a comprehensive civic program including recreation, education, health care and town planning could still serve as a model for planning communities today. As Americans seem to be further and further removed from a sense of place and have less commitment to community and neighborhood, a central community center—a place for recreational, educational and social programs as well as a place to encourage involvement in civic affairs—would be a welcome addition to Norwood or other cities and towns.


This talk is based on research that I did for my Masters thesis in history, a copy of which is available here at the library. I’d like to take a moment to thank some of the Norwood people who helped me with my research. First, thank you to Margo Sullivan, Judith Kontz, Mary Finney and the reference staff here at Morrill Memorial Library. Thank you to Patti Fanning, John Grove, Elisabeth McGregor and Ed Sweeney at the Norwood Historical Society. And thank you to Town Planner Steve Costello, Civil Engineer Sara Winthrop and Town Assessor Paul Waseck who helped me locate and interpret Norwood’s early 20th century municipal records. Photographs and other images in this presentation are from the collections of the Morrill Memorial Library, the Norwood Historical Society and the personal papers of the Willett Family.