170 Claybrook Road/The Benjamin Sawin House, currently owned by The Litle Family.
By Jane Johnstone
Dover Historical Society Board
The first in a series of occasional articles highlighting notable Dover homes and their inhabitants past and present.
Benjamin Sawin grew up on the Captain Morse farm on Claybrook Road, one of the oldest streets in Dover. The farm consisted of 36 acres on both sides of Main Street around Wakeland Road and the Heinlein field across Main. Ben took over the family farm in 1847 and in 1858 built the house at 170 Claybrook Road. He used the latest scientific methods to make his farm a successful business, yet was not afraid to get his hands dirty. His detailed work diary (kept for 50 years) vividly illustrates the variety of his tasks: he “shod the shed”, “drawed off vinegar”, “tryed [sic] out lard and made sausages”, “opened and cocked up hay”, “got some loan for hog guts”, and “buried up cider in the sand in the cellar.”
While literally up to his elbows in farm work, Ben also found time to serve as selectman, assessor and school committee member as well as park and cemetery commissioner (no ceremonial position: Ben had to dig graves himself). On top of these commitments, Ben ran an insurance agency and an ice business. But his passion project, the one that would go on to consume so much of his time and energy for decades and would sustain him through familial tragedy, was “Sawin’s Grove.” Just down the street from his home (at what is now the land at 133 and 141 Claybrook), Ben developed and ran what was modestly referred to as a “picnic grove.” In modern day parlance, it was an ambitious entertainment and recreation destination. The entrance and ticketbooth were located where the stone wall opens at the bend in the river on Claybrook (the opening is still there today, which is sort of exciting for us history nerds).
Revelers enjoyed listening to live music and dancing in the pavilion built by Sawin himself, picnicking along the banks of the Charles River, renting boats to drift along the river, and playing horseshoes, baseball and other games. Some folks even pitched tents and stayed overnight. In his typical hands-on manner, Ben cooked and served food and cleaned up at the end of the day. Patrons came from as far away as Newton, Watertown, Brookline, Roxbury and Boston, most by foot or horse and buggy. Some took the street car that the Natick and Needham Street Railway was operating along Dover Road and Charles River Street to the stop at the end of Turtle Lane. True to his nature, Ben kept a record of every group that came, including Unitarians and Catholics, Gold Templars and Temperance Groups, Irish, Germans, farmers, families, and even a group he described as “some roughs from Natick.” But by 1895, when the first enclosed amusement park was opening in Coney Island in Brooklyn, Ben’s one-man show was in its final act.
It’s hard to imagine where Ben found the energy to carry on such an endeavor, but perhaps it can be explained by his family situation. Ben married Mary Bacon at age 40, then had two children: Nellie and Georgie, born five years apart. Tragically, both children caught diphtheria and died within three days of each other in 1874. Ben and Mary had fourteen years together after the death of their children, until Mary passed away in 1888. It comes as no surprise that Ben threw himself into the Grove, using hard work to cope with his grief and at the same time create an idyllic spot for others. Sawin’s Grove was his gift to Bostonians, and the result of the combination of Ben’s finest qualities: his extraordinary work ethic and his civic-mindedness.
Ben married 52-year old Dover neighbor Eudora Shumway in 1893 and the two were leaders in establishing the Dover Historical and Natural History Society. Upon Ben’s death in 1905, he bequeathed his home, farm and personal effects to the Society on the condition that it erect a museum and name it “The Sawin Memorial Building.” The Sawin Museum still presides over Dover atop its perch in the center of town, a repository of all things Dover. Ben, his two children Nellie and Georgie, his first wife Mary, and Eudora Shumway all rest at Highland Cemetery. (You can say hello to Ben and Eudora at the Sawin Museum, where their portraits grace the main room).
The latest caretakers of the Sawin House, the Litle Family, moved to the house in 2001 when the family of six had outgrown their Wellesley home. Julie and Bob Litle love old homes and their special character and detail. They were drawn to the Dover town setting as well as the big yard and square footage ample enough for four boys. The home is divided into separate rooms on the first floor, a layout typically found in older homes, and which makes for cozy living during cold New England winters. The design has also worked particularly well during the past few months of COVID-19 stay-at-home, which saw all six Litles reunited under the same roof yet still able to retain some measure of individual privacy. The Litles removed a previous addition and replaced it with one at the rear of the house that allowed for a larger kitchen. The grounds are lovely, with a pool, historic barn that most likely dates back to the 1800s, and beautifully designed and maintained gardens. How appropriate that the house of a man so dedicated to preserving Dover’s history is still standing, and how perfect that it continues to shelter and support an appreciative family more than a century later.
The author gratefully acknowledges her sources: Dover Days Gone By, by Richard Hart Vara, Electa Kane Tritsch, Editor, final edition published 2010 by the Dover Historical Society, Dover Farms, by Frank Smith, originally published in 1914 by the Dover Historical and Natural History Society and reprinted from the Collection of the University of California Libraries, as well as the collections of the Dover Historical Society.