Sunday, December 5, 2010

Park at Oak and Center Streets

Sometimes the smallest or most innocuous parcels of property have a rich history. Such is the case with the small triangular piece of paved ground at the corner of Center and Oak Streets opposite the Sacred Heart Church in Middleborough.

On July 5, 1856, a group of 21 neighborhood residents purchased the sliver of land for $150 from Leander Mayhew of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Their intention was to construct a water cistern on (or more likely below) the property for use during fires. At the time, Middleborough did not have a public waterworks system, nor did it provide for public cisterns. The neighbors, headed by hardware dealer George H. Doane, who resided on Oak Street, accordingly took safety matters into their own hands and purchased the property as a cistern site. Mayhew, probably at the request of the grantees, stipulated that the premises were “to be used and occupied only for a public street, as a highway, and for no other purposes except for such other purposes as shall not be objected to by Jacob B. Shaw, his heirs and assigns.”

The purchasers resided on Oak, Center, High and South Main Streets and each contributed to the $150 acquisition cost according to their own means as follows: George H. Doane ($25), George B. Washburn ($15), William Washburn ($10), George Soule ($12.50), Charles C. Burnett ($5), Isaiah S. Swift ($5), Reverend I. C. Thatcher ($15), Enoch Tinkham ($1), Freelove Rounseville ($5), Abiel Wood ($7), Andrew J. Pickens ($4), James M. Pickens ($4), James A. Leonard ($5), George Vaughan ($5), Joshua Sherman ($12.50), Lothrop Thomas ($5), Milton Alden ($5), Jane King ($5), Peter Washburn ($2), George F. Hartwell ($1) and George W. Johnson ($1).

While the property was intended for a cistern, there is no record of one having been constructed on the property, however, until November, 1872, when a 600-barrel (18,900 gallon) cistern was built underneath the park. “More wise than the property owners at the [Four] corners” sniffed the Gazette at the time, critical of the failure of other residents to properly provide for their own protection from fire.

In the meantime, the surface had been landscaped to create a small park, the first recorded efforts at doing so being noted in 1869. With the advent of municipal water in 1885, the cistern was abandoned and filled, and the park was recreated on the surface: “At one time the area was a sort of little park with maple trees growing at its edges, and was a really attractive site,” noted one account from 1948. The home of Josiah H. Cushing which was later built on Center Street adjoining the park, in fact took its name, “The Maples”, from these trees. Eventually, a gravelled walk was constructed along the eastern edge of the property, creating a more direct pedestrian path between Oak and Center Streets. This walk was reported in 1948 as having “been used for many long years” and it may have been laid out at the time the cistern was filled in the 1880s.

Eventually, however, this sidewalk created problems. By 1942, the Middleboro Chamber of Commerce (which had occupied “The Maples” for several years) was having an on-going problem with the poorly-maintained condition of the sidewalk which had been concreted in the meantime. The walk was impassable in wet weather and water seeped from it into the chamber’s basement. The question arose as to whether the walk was on private or public property and, if on private, whether it had been illegally laid out. It was an important question, for at the time, the lot was being used for parking by Sacred Heart Church parishioners on Sundays, by Plymouth Shoe Company workers during weekdays, and by the Chamber of Commerce and the Knights of Columbus (which occupied the second floor of the chamber building) on weeknights. “So it is a busy little spot and a handy one.”

Given the uncertainty regarding title to the property, the suggestion was made that the town to assess the taxes upon the heirs of the original 21 grantees and if these were not paid the town then could properly take possession of the land. The town did so, but no decision was made regarding a use for the land and concerns were raised regarding the limitation placed on the land’s use by Mayhew in 1856.

Though discussed periodically by the Middleborough Selectmen, the matter was not definitely resolved until 1948. “It looks as though the status of the triangle of land on Oak street at Center street … which has been mulled over by boards of selectmen from time to time, might now be settled permanently,” reported the Middleboro Gazette in April of that year. Town Counsel, Judge L. Francis Callan, Jr., offered a report and opinion that the town as the new owner of the property was bound by the original restriction incorporated in the deed. And while the state in 1887 had limited the period of such restrictions to 30 years, the statute did not apply to restrictions which existed at the time the statute was passed, July 16, 1887. “It is apparent that the deed in question, being given in 1856, and the restriction on the use of the land being unlimited as regards time, it is my opinion that the restriction is still in force…”, opined Callan.

Since 1948, the parcel has been limited to “highway use” and has continued to be used for parking.

For a view of the park, including the "maple trees growing at its edges", click here.  The house behind the trees is "The Maples".  Oak Street is just out of view at the far right.

Brockton Enterprise, “Middleboro Land Bought By ’22 Neighbors’ is a Problem”, September 15, 1942, and “Ruling on Plot Title”, April 14, 1948.
Middleboro Gazette, “’Triangle’ Can Be Used Only for Highway”, April 16, 1948.
Old Colony Memorial, “The Old Colony”, May 28, 1869, page 2.
Plymouth County Registry of Deeds, 1247:149.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Very interesting post. I live at the Doane house and had always wondered about that parcel. I would love to see it turned back to park land.

Dan D.

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