The Rockery

By     John Wall and Nancy Bertrand

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An excerpt, with revisions, from the town’s history book, Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake, published by Wakefield 350 in 1994

Wakefield’s distinctive Rockery was born of the same combination of municipal resolve and private benefaction that brought the town its trademark Bandstand.

The town had established a fund of $20,000 (one half the bequest of Cornelius Sweetser, the other half publicly raised funds) with which to improve its park. In 1883, Town Meeting elected Wakefield’s first Park Commissioners, who were charged with the responsibility of directing the civic improvements.

James H. (“Honest Jim”) Carter, one of the Park Commissioners, lived on the estate at the corner of Main and Crescent Street (the present site of the Crystal Apartments). A tall, lean figure, with a long, grey beard, Jim Carter was a familiar figure at Town Meeting, respected both for his outspoken fervor and for the avidity with which he guarded the town’s purse strings. A well-traveled man for his time, Jim Carter had been to Europe, where fountains and grottos of natural beauty were common. No doubt (in part, at least) tired of the unpromising view across the street from his home, he conceived the idea of piling many large boulders into a pyramid as a sort of an ornament at the intersection.

The area, prior to this time, was something of an eyesore. The present site of the old YMCA Building (present Artichokes restaurant) was the location of the Emerson Shoe Factory, which had previously been Burrage Yale’s tin factory. Much industrial garbage (primarily tin chips) littered the gullies in the present Common. Almost anything would be an improvement.

Nonetheless, “Honest Jim” met considerable opposition to his plan. The construction of the Rockery, often referred to then as the “Grotto,” was a favorite sport for the tongues and pens of town busybodies and sidewalk engineers, who took great joy in belittling the project. So vehement were the Rockery’s detractors that the Citizen and Banner named them “Grotto Grumblers.”

The Citizen and Banner chronicled the criticism, but argued against the critics, imploring the public to give the structure a chance. The ivy had been planted but “the growth of shrubbery and vines must be waited for … in time it will be looked upon as the oasis of Main Street, fair to look upon and not frail to the touch.”

But the criticism went on. The pace of construction was so slow that one citizen claimed that the rocks had actually gathered considerable moss while waiting to be moved.

At length, on July 8, 1884, the Citizen and Banner reported that:

The Fountain Park and Sylvan Grotto is progressing to completion … the pipe for the fountain has been laid, also on up over the rocks which with its numerous small tubes will cause the water to fall in cascades and keeping the stones wet and glistening dark in contrast with the green foliage of the vines and shrubbery surrounding it will cast shadows in the mirror pool beneath, restful and refreshing for the eye on a hot summer’s day. The granite curb of three to four feet deep … will form the basin of the cool pool of water.

The cost of the construction had been $2610.18. “Honest Jim” Carter did not run for re-election to the ranks of Park Commissioners in the following year.

The Rockery actually remained a bit controversial through the nineteenth century, surviving an attempt to remove it in 1898.

Photographs from the 1890s through the 1920s depict a fountain broadcasting a wide spray of water before a large and spreading elm tree which stood just several yards in south of the basin. The size of this tree and its root system may have contributed to the problems that resulted in a new basin, installed in 1916 by Charles Doyle.

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Since 1926, the Rockery has been the home of the bronze Hiker statue, the work of Theodore Alice Ruggles Kitson, the first woman to be admitted to the National Sculpture Society. The Hiker, a memorial to American action in the Spanish American War, the Philippine insurrection and the China Relief expedition, was her most popular statue and can be found in over 50 locations across the United States. In Wakefield, it was dedicated on the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Richardson Light Guard. Colonel Edward Gihon, past commander of the Richardson Light Guard, and chairman of the committee appointed by the town to procure and dedicate the monument, presided at the event. The exercises, held on October 12, 1926, opened with an invocation by Rev. Florence Halloran of St. Joseph Church; the statue was accepted on behalf of the town by Selectman Charles F. Young, a World War I veteran. After further exercises, a “fervent benediction” was delivered by Rev. Austin Rice of the First Parish Congregational Church.

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The original bronze plaques inset into the granite pillars were stolen many years ago and have since been replaced by these scrupulous replicas commissioned by the WCNA and installed on 5/19/17.

The Rockery has been lovingly tended by the Wakefield Center Neighborhood Association since the group rebuilt the Rockery Fountain in 1984.   The careful plantings and irrigated lawn have proven the Citizen and Banner’s words prophetic: it is “the oasis of Main Street,” and a testament to civic pride, just as the ever-vigilant Hiker is a testament to the Town’s esteem for the generations of Wakefield’s citizens who have served in their country’s military.

For more about the Hiker Statue, click here.

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