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By Katrina Margolis
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Needham has a rich and varied history, much of which even those who grew up here don’t know much about. One of the most unusual and interesting pieces of this history is the story of William Emerson Baker and his estate at Ridge Hill. One hundred and twenty years ago, Baker purchased 800 acres of land in the southwest corner of Needham, specifically Charles River and Grove Streets. Over the next twenty years, Baker filled the estate with over 100 amusements, attractions and exhibits.
The Needham Historical Society made a documentary about Baker, titled “Beautiful and Bizarre: William Baker’s Ridge Hill Farms.”
“We had two great ideas about 14 or 15 years ago,” Gloria Greis, Executive Director began. “Someday, we’re going to get together and we’re going to do some films. We’re going to do a history of Needham and do one about Baker’s estate. And it took us a few years, but finally in 2011 we were able to complete our Needham History, and last spring, we finished our Baker estate film.” About an hour long, the film has been shown on Needham Public Television, around town a few times, and is available for purchase at the Historical Society.
The movie documents all that was beautiful and bizarre at the Baker estate. On the land was included a museum of industry, two bear pits for his pets, an underground crystal grotto featuring the Forty Thieves, a pleasure lake, saloons and restaurants, and a 225-room luxury hotel. Many believed it was an amusement park, but it was really the “physical embodiment of Baker’s opinions, often radical and always provocative, on American politics and society.” His sense of humor was not always appreciated and made its way into much of his estate. One example included a table full of food with a sign above that read, “For Hungry People.” However, once people began to reach for the food, it was then they discovered that it was all painted and cemented down to the table.
One of Baker’s main passions was public health. Several of his attractions were devoted to promoting practice of hygienic farming. Despite his oddities, Needham was keen to keep him around, as his estate amounted to nearly six percent of the town’s taxable acreage. They may not have understood him as he would have liked, but he was appreciated in at least some way.
“I’m very pleased that we were able to do this as an all Needham production,” Greis stated. “Our production team was all from Needham, our on-air talent is all from Needham, our narrators were all from Needham, our filmmaker Derick Risner - who is working on special projects right now at the Needham Channel.” The film preserves and demonstrates the estate wonderfully. After Baker’s death, the estate was sold, and due to lack of funds and fires, it eventually was sold into residential lots, where much of Baker’s original wonder was lost.
It is once again brought to life in this fascinating documentary.