Awkward growth spurts. Crushes that were somehow more awkward than the growth spurts. Fitting in… or not. Easy classes. Not-quite-as-easy pacer tests in gym with that one kid who always managed to get about 200 laps. Cheetahs on the courts, hopefully not being cheetahs in the classrooms. Four years spent reciting two initials and a last name: the W. L. Chenery Middle School. Whether you liked it or hated it, one thing was for certain: you had absolutely no clue who W. L. Chenery was. If you were a little curious, you might have figured out that the initials stood for Winthrop Louis. But who was he, and why was the school named after him?
Winthrop Louis Chenery was a respected townsman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But to understand the Chenery family, we have to go back. Way back.
The year was 1593, and Lambert Chenery (also spelled Chinery, or Genery—there were no official spelling rules back then) was born to unknown parents somewhere in England. (Records of middle-class Puritans who lived four hundred years ago are understandably a little light on the specifics.) What we do know is that he came to America in 1630, during the Puritan migration, and settled in the new colonial town of Watertown. A few years later, he moved to Dedham, but after signing the town’s first covenant and attending meetings about a tax to provide free school, he changed his mind and moved back to Watertown for the remainder of his days. Lambert’s son John was a soldier who died of his wounds suffered during King Philip’s (Metacom’s?) War; the most notable thing about him was that his wife, Sarah, the widow of doctor Thomas Boylston, was through that prior marriage the great-grandmother of President John Adams. (Small world, right?)
We’re only in 1675, so let’s do a speed round and skip ahead a bit. John Chenery had a son named John Jr., who had a son named Ebeneazar (as in Scrooge). Ebeneazar had a son named John, who had a son named Ebeneazar. The older Ebeneazar had ten children—as one did—and his fourth son, William, had a son named Moses. Moses had a son named Winthrop Ward, and this is where our main story starts. Winthrop Ward was born in 1819 in Watertown (Belmont was not a town, as you remember, until 1859) and as a young man tried to be a teacher, but presumably didn’t like it, because he decided to become a merchant and importer of goods in Boston instead. (There is, perhaps, a joke to be made here about the middle school.) But that’s not what he’s known for. Winthrop Ward devoted his later life to the operation of his Highland Stock Farm; he took pride in his livestock and even coined the name “Holstein” for a breed of cows he imported from Europe. As well as breeding farm animals, he built a race track at nearby Belmont Hill to indulge his passion for horse racing. Winthrop Ward had five sons; his firstborn, born in 1845, he named after himself, with only the middle name changed to avoid confusion: Winthrop Louis Chenery.
Winthrop Louis was probably the least interesting member of his immediate family. He graduated from Harvard in 1867 (hey kids, the college search starts now) and went on to be Belmont’s town treasurer for an impressive thirty-two years, the last twenty-four of which he was also the town clerk. He resigned from those two posts in 1908 to devote his time to a new job which was somehow less interesting than his old one: insurance management. He was also the first treasurer of the Belmont Savings Bank, founded in 1885, a post he held until his death in 1915. Outside of those jobs, Winthrop Louis managed the Highland Stock Farm from his father’s death in 1876 until 1894, when he sold it to a New Hampshire manufacturer. (The land is now Habitat and the Highland Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, up Concord Avenue towards Lexington.) As for the race track, it became clear that nobody in Belmont liked horse racing as much as Winthrop Ward Chenery, so the track was first repurposed as an artillery battery during the Cold War and then torn down to build the Belmont Hill tennis clubs. (Only one wall on Somerset Street remains from the track today.)
Winthrop Louis, like his father, named his firstborn son after himself; ninth-generation Chenery Winthrop Holt was born in 1872. Winthrop Holt was quite the intellectual: he somehow received both a B.S. from MIT and an A.B. and M.A. from Harvard in the space of six years, and later completed a Ph. D. to become Dr. Winthrop Chenery. He worked as a Spanish professor at Michigan and WashU, then as a librarian, and retired to Burbank, California in 1938 (not related to the elementary school, in case you were wondering). While Winthrop Holt never had children, Winthrop Louis nonetheless has many descendants. Most notably, his grandson Henry S. Fitch was a well-known herpetologist (snake scientist) at the University of Kansas, and while Fitch died in 2009, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are living today.
Because of Winthrop Louis’s decades of service, when the town built a new middle school in 1923, eight years after his death, it was a no-brainer to name it after him. Yet while Chenery Middle School is the most obvious homage to the family, it isn’t the only thing in Belmont named after the Chenerys: historian Richard Betts counted no less than thirteen different streets named for people and places from their lineage.
And there you have it. Who was W. L. Chenery? A man who would’ve been a model student—respectful of his father’s property, responsible with the town’s treasury, and always ready to learn more about money. But there’s so much more history behind that name. So when you think back on your “W”s and “L”s from middle school, don’t forget about that proud family: the family of soldiers, cattle breeders and intellectuals, the family that can only be called Belmont aristocrats, the family immortalized in a place that everyone who went through it remembers—the Chenery.
As we near the end of a decade, and the end of the old Belmont High School, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the more infamous places on its grounds. Better-known than the asbestos-filled hallway behind the little theater, less often cursed than the absurd amount of water fountains that have ceased function at some point within the last few years, and brought into the forefront of our consciousness by the audacity (recklessness?) of Merrill Barnes, Clay Pit Pond is the subject of many a Belmont High rumor, myth and legend. It’s full of toxic chemicals. There’s an old shovel at the bottom. It used to be a landfill. But how much of that is true, and how much is just exaggeration?
The area that is now Clay Pit Pond has not always been underwater—in fact, it’s only been a pond for a little under a century. The story starts in 1888, when the Parry Brothers, a local brick-making firm, opened a brickyard on the land to mine the high-quality clay deposits there. (The yard produced bluish clay which turned a pretty red color when it was fired.) A decade later, in 1900, the much larger New England Brick Company bought up the Parry Brothers and increased production significantly at the clay pit, eventually producing a million bricks per year at its peak. By the mid-1920s, however, most of the good clay had been extracted from the quarry, and the site was abandoned. Though production had ceased, the company apparently forgot (or didn’t care enough) to remove their power shovel from the bottom of the pit. When the town of Belmont bought the property in 1927, the town government was concerned that the shovel remained there, and suggested fairly drastic measures to get rid of it. According to Michael Chesson of the Belmont Citizens Forum, “the selectmen asked Bill Tompson, street superintendent in 1927, how the machine could be destroyed. He replied that Ed Looney, head of the water department, would blow it up with his dynamite.” It’s pretty obvious that this did not happen (just to start, why would a town official have dynamite readily available to use on something that was not harming anyone?) so the shovel remained, and is still at the bottom of the pond to this day.
Marion Power Shovel (1884 model) in Clay Pit Pond, 1926
Once they moved past the issue of the shovel, the town used the site as a dump for six years. In 1933, though, Belmont officials decided to reroute the Wellington Brook (the namesake of Wellington Elementary, if you’re wondering) into the former clay pit to create a better drainage system for the town. The trash was relocated a few feet over—onto the plot of land which now lies under Belmont High School. (Thus the common allegation that Clay Pit Pond was a landfill is half true, and one could also say correctly that our high school was literally built on trash.) Wellington Brook flows underground for most of its path, but it’s visible in a few places, most notably behind the Unitarian Universalist church on Concord Avenue. To reroute the brook, engineers built culverts (underground pipes) to make it flow into Clay Pit Pond, and connected Clay Pit to Blair Pond (the pond behind the Loading Dock) the same way. Over time, the old pit filled up with water and became the pond we know today.
But what about all the gross stuff in the pond? Didn’t Merrill have to go to the hospital after he swam through it?
Ah, yes. Remember that the Wellington Brook runs through a good portion of Belmont, above ground and underground—which means that everything that people dump in the brook flows into Clay Pit Pond. Since people don’t tend to be particularly conscientious about what goes down their drain, this means that hosts of icky things have ended up in the pond, including pesticides, oil, raw sewage, and E. coli, to name a few. In fact, it got so disgusting that in 1980, thirty ducks living in the pond died of the bacterial disease botulism from exposure to the water. In recent years, however, there have been efforts to clean up the pond due to the adverse effects of its pollutants on the water supplies of the nearby towns that it flows into (read: Cambridge doesn’t like that junk from Clay Pit is ending up in their drinking water). In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency forced the town of Belmont to sign an order promising that the pond would meet national sanitation standards by 2022—if it fails to meet these standards, it will invoke an extremely large fine.
So that’s the truth about Clay Pit Pond. It was in fact a clay pit, it was briefly a landfill, and even though it’s being cleaned up, it’s still full of ninety years’ worth of sewage. All in all, the rumors are mostly based in fact, as rumors tend to be. No, we shouldn’t swim in it, drink from it, or fish in it, but Clay Pit Pond certainly deserves its place in the hearts and collective memories of all of us who still go to this broken-down old high school next to John Cushing’s beautiful mountain.
If you go to Belmont High School, you almost certainly hear the names Harvard and Yale a little more than you’d like to. Everyone’s worried about whether or not they’re going to get into these prestigious universities—but have you ever thought about who the people behind the names were?
William Shakespeare lived in the small town of Surrey, England around the turn of the seventeenth century, and worshipped at a local church, St. Saviour’s, which means that he very likely knew another man who worshipped there at that time: a butcher by the name of Robert Harvard. Robert was a more eminent citizen than you would think a butcher would be: he held local government positions and was a trustee of the local grammar school. His son John, born in 1607, likely went to that school, but upon graduating his schooling was put on hold for a few years because the family was too poor and too large to find funds for him to attend university. However, due to a few cases of the plague, John’s inheritance grew enough to afford an education at Emmanuel College, a relatively new institution founded by the Puritans to educate their clergy. When the Puritans started settling Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century (remember the first chapter of any American History textbook), John Harvard went with them. In Massachusetts, Harvard was a passionate, well-liked preacher who cared deeply about theological education—thus he was committed to the progress of a new college in Newtowne (now Cambridge, after the English university). Unfortunately, when he came to America, he was already ill with consumption, a slow-burning but fatal disease. When he died in 1638, only a year after leaving England, he bequeathed half his inheritance and his entire 400-volume library (an impressive collection for the time) to the new college, and this gift was enough to rechristen the school in his honor. Harvard College it became, and Harvard College it stayed.
A decade after Harvard’s death and just a few miles away from where he lived, Elihu Yale was born into a family of wealthy merchants (a family which included the then-governor of the admittedly short-lived New Haven Colony). However, Yale’s parents moved to London when he was three years old and never came back. At the age of twenty-one, Yale started working for the East India Company, an powerful English mercantilist trading company. He worked his way up, reaching the position of governor of a company outpost in India, but in 1692 he was removed from that post (and the company) for corruption, embezzling and improper use of power. Yale moved back to London and tried his hand at the diamond trade, but at this point his primary occupation was philanthropy—he had amassed sufficient funds from his work and his family inheritance to be able to donate money and not worry about it.
In 1701, across the Atlantic Ocean, Puritan dissenters in America founded a college in the town of Saybrook (on the coast of their new Connecticut Colony) to educate preachers in their new faith. They called it the “Collegiate School at Saybrook”—not a particularly catchy name, to be honest—and it was this school that was the primary benefactor of Elihu Yale’s late-life philanthropy. After Yale donated books in 1713, his friend, the prolific New England minister Cotton Mather, suggested to him that if he were to make another significant donation, the college could be renamed in recognition of the gift. Accordingly, Yale donated more books, some textiles and a portrait of the English king George I. The school, planning a move to New Haven, sold the goods for about eight hundred pounds (a significant sum of money) and used the funds to construct a new building there which was named after its benefactor. Eventually, the name was applied to the whole institution, and the Collegiate School of Saybrook officially became Yale University. By this time, Elihu was reaching old age; he died in 1721 at the age of seventy-two, and was buried in Wrexham in North Wales.
John Harvard and Elihu Yale were not particularly famous in their day. Neither of them led incredible lives; neither of them had particularly significant achievements. They were, quite simply, normal people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, people who took the opportunity when it was given to them to leave their mark on some of the first colleges in the New World. There are two lessons here, I suppose. One is pessimistic, the thing Malcolm Gladwell argues time and time again in Outliers: that luck is by far the biggest contributor to success, both personal and historical. But it’s a different lesson that I prefer to take from these stories, a more hopeful lesson, one that applies just as much now as it did in the seventeenth century. Harvard and Yale did one thing that set them apart: they sacrificed some of their short-term wealth for an ideal—education—that would never personally benefit them. And that’s exactly what we need to do now, when it seems for all the world that there’s an impending global crisis: pay attention to the long-term effects of our actions, even if they don’t have any impact on our lives right now.
So when you think of Harvard, when you think of Yale, think of the people behind those names. Because they were just people who recognized, if only for a moment, how crucial it is that we value the future.
Belmont, Massachusetts. You’ve written it so many times on tests that it’s become automatic. It’s on your drivers’ license. It’s in your Instagram bio. But have you ever thought about what it means?
You may have learned in elementary school that the town of Belmont was founded in 1859. That’s true, yet somewhat misleading; the area was settled significantly earlier, but it didn’t have a high enough population density to warrant its own government. In the mid-1800s, however, a new railroad made it easy for wealthy Bostonians to access estates in the area. The now-increased population got tired of traveling on horseback to Watertown, Waltham and West Cambridge (now Arlington) for official meetings and decided to form their own town.
Of course, Watertown, Waltham and West Cambridge didn’t care for that idea because it meant that they would lose land and taxpayer money, but they eventually gave up, largely due to the efforts of businessman John Perkins Cushing. Cushing ardently supported the new town and promised to pay its entire incorporation fee provided it was named after his estate, Bellmont. On March 18, 1859, the town of Belmont was formed out of lands taken from all three of its neighbors. (Why its name lost an “L” appears to be lost to history.)
Cushing was Belmont’s most influential citizen at the time of its founding. He was a skilled merchant and businessman who spent his career managing Boston’s trade with China (mainly fur and opium). In 1830, he returned from China and in the following decade settled down on a 200-acre estate, building himself a beautiful Greek Revival-style house and surrounding it with beautiful natural scenery. The mansion was finished in 1855, and Cushing lived there until his death in 1862. (If you’re guessing that he was the namesake of Cushing Square, you’re correct: around the turn of the twentieth century, as the square grew due to its convenient location on the border of Belmont and Watertown, it was named for Cushing, whose mansion still stood just down the street.)
That’s why the town is called Belmont, but the name itself has a much longer history. If you have knowledge of a Romance language, you can probably guess what it means—it comes from the Old French beu mont, meaning “beautiful mountain.” The name came to England after William of Normandy’s 1066 conquest, and was first used as a last name by Robert de Beaumont, who adopted it from his grandfather’s estate in Normandy (in that era, last names were mainly used to identify the place that someone came from). The Belmont family (including many spelling variations) has had a rich history in England since the eleventh century, including no less than twenty-three different coats of arms. (John Perkins Cushing chose the name in reference to a hill in the middle of his property that offered scenic views of the surrounding area.
During the years when Cushing lived at Bellmont, he rarely left, traveling only briefly for official meetings and events in nearby towns. He invited many visitors to his property, both to his house and to the impressive collection of plants on his property, which ranged from large fruit trees and shrubs to full flower gardens and no less than five greenhouses. (The greenhouses were actually open to the public, and they became something of a local attraction.) However, in the years after his death, his four children sold the property, which was soon divided up into smaller plots. Cushing’s mansion was eventually demolished in 1929, after having been repurposed several times. (At one point it was a dormitory for a boys’ school!) The land is now residential neighborhoods, located near Chenery Middle School, Cambridge Reservoir and Payson Park.
Everything in the present has its roots in the past, often well into the past, and the things we take for granted are no exception. The name of the place we live might not be eye-catching or unique, but knowing its past means understanding its present just a little bit more—and I think that’s worth something. So next time you hear “Belmont” or “Cushing Square,” take a moment and remember the man, the townspeople and the house that made our town into what it is today.