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 aristocracy, the family immortalized in a place that lives in the memory of everyone who went through it—the Chenery.
Baldwin, Frances. From Pequossette Plantation to the Town of Belmont, Massachusetts: 1630-1953. 1954.
Belmont Historical Society. Images of America: Belmont. Arcadia Publishing Inc. 2000.
Betts, Richard B. The Streets of Belmont and How They Were Named. Arcadia Publishing Inc. 2004.
Cook, Sheila G. The Great Swamp of Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge. Stephen Surette Graphic Services. 2002.
Fitch, Henry S.; Echelle, Alice Fitch; Stewart, Margaret M. (2000). "Historical Perspective: Henry S. Fitch". Copeia. 2000 (3): 891–900.
Robbins, Samuel. Who’s Who in Belmont: Biographical and Autobiographical Sketches of Residents of Belmont, Massachusetts. 1972.
“Lambert Chenery.” The Belmont Citizen, May 31, 1930.