By James Kinneen,
Hometown Weekly Reporter
While the Dwight-Derby House was open for nearly two hundred visitors earlier this year for Medfield Day, on Saturday it returned to its normal visitation schedule. One of the oldest homes in the United States, analysis of samples from the house’s wooden frame determined that it was built in the mid 1600s. The home was lived in until the mid-1980s and purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996.
But while the house dates back to nearly four decades before the Salem Witch Trials, it’s the new work the Friends of the Dwight-Derby House Board has done that is really paying dividends.
The house had a terrible flooding problem in the basement, which the board finally solved by repairing the sub pump. They also reseeded the lawn, restored a gravel path, painted three sides of the house, redid the Victorian kitchen, put in an alarm system, replaced the spotlights out front, and made a new website.
All this work, combined with some general cleaning and decluttering, created an interesting and fun look at life in Medfield nearly five centuries ago. Named the Dwight-Derby House because the Dwight family lived there until around 1776, while the Derby family lived there until the 1930s, entering from the home’s side door, you are greeted by a case full of artifacts from explorer, West Point graduate and satirical writer George Horatio Derby, including his US Army topographical sword. Of all the people who lived in the house, George Horatio Derby was likely the most accomplished. He’s believed to be America’s first satirical writer, and apparently was a big inspiration to Mark Twain.
Walking through the home’s original door, visitors are greeted by a giant beehive oven. President of the Friends of the Dwight-Derby House Laurel Scotti explained we know this oven is from before 1720, because after that year, the beehive oven was placed on the side so women stopped catching on fire while trying to cook with it.
Just aside of that room, there is a more modern kitchen with a regular oven and refrigerator, so that a caterer could keep food warm or cold. The house recently hosted an art exhibit from Phoebe Hemenway Legere called “Journey to the Heart of Medfield” in September 2021, and a Christmas event this year; it would certainly be a fun place to hold even more events.
A dining room holds some chairs from the early 1900s, before visitors are led to a room with a desk facing the window, as “working from home is not just a 21st century concept.” A cutout in the wall, meanwhile, shows visitors what horsehair plastering looks like. There’s also a window that holds the signature of the man who cut the glass -- though it’s a bit faint.
The next room is hopefully coming in the future. Scotti noted that many old-houses-turned-museums have little shops in them, so she’d like to see a currently-empty room turned into “the buttery”, where they could sell some items and end the tour in a big circle, instead of having to walk back through the same place you entered.
While the original families climbed a ladder to get upstairs, after walking up the steps, there was a rope bed dating back to the mid 1600’s. Perhaps more interestingly, there was a brick wall that Scotti said they cannot find the other end of (in other words, there’s no brick on the outside of the house, where the wall should end).
Scotti noted it’s very likely the wall was either built to keep in warmth, or to protect from the local Native American population. Since they won’t knock it down or drill through it, however, there’s no way to know for sure what’s on the other side. Seeing it, it’s hard not to let your mind wander to the idea that perhaps there’s hidden treasure behind all that brick.
Less mysterious but just as interesting, the house has a collection of straw hats made in Medfield’s old hat factories.
In the barn, there’s are quite a few old farming tools, an oven, and a giant toboggan that looks like it could hold over ten people. Scotti joked that she’d like to bring it to the hills outside Medfield State Hospital, which would certainly attract a crowd -- it’s well over seven feet long.
Since that would be an incredibly dangerous publicity stunt, though, just take my word for it instead and check out one of the oldest houses in America, here in Medfield, on the first and third Saturdays of every month from 10 a.m. to noon.