Monday May 21, 2007

The Baker Estate

Pamela W. Fox writer

The Ridge Hill Farms, popularly known as the Baker Estate, was developed by retired sewing machine manufacturer William Emerson Baker beginning in 1868. Located around the junction of Charles River Street and Grove Street, the property eventually included 755 acres in what is now Needham and Wellesley.
Baker was a self-made man who has been described as friendly, brilliant, generous, eccentric, and whimsical. Thanks to a fortune reputed to be in the millions, Baker continually added to his estate, which boasted underground grottos and caverns, live animal exhibits, bear pits, formal gardens and fountains, a museum, a saloon, and a private chapel. A steamboat plied two artificial lakes, that were stocked with bass and trout.
The Farms was open only in the summer, and the public was admitted to the grounds free of charge two days a week. After the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the “Great American Restaurant” building was shipped to Needham in sections and re-erected about 300 yards southeast of the Grove Street-Charles River Street junction. Renamed the “Hotel Wellesley,” the fashionable three-story hotel had 160 guest rooms and operated every summer from June 15 to October 15 until a disastrous 1891 fire.
Baker died in 1888 and his estate was acquired by George Alden, Arthur Pope and Irving Evans. Alden continued the operation, but without Baker’s flamboyant spirit and financial resources, the former showplace lost its charm. The estate closed by 1900 and over the next three decades, most of the remaining buildings were demolished to make way for residential development. The two artificial lakes, which Baker called “Sabrina Lake” and “The Artificial Fish Pond” still remain, along with the occasional gatepost and gravel path. Wellesley’s Guernsey Sanctuary on Sabrina Lake was once part of the fabled estate, which has been well-documented in Leslie G. Crumbaker’s 1975 book The Baker Estate or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham (Needham Historical Society).



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