Fowler-Clark farm, possibly the oldest remaining farmhouse in the city, was once one of many dotting a fertile Boston countryside, a rich ecosystem of arable land, orchards, and livestock. The area was, by one 17th-century account, a place of “fair cornfields and pleasant gardens,” overflowing with pigs, goats, and cattle.
Now, sitting on a busy residential corner of Mattapan, near streets that have all too often seen gunfire and violence, the farm has fallen into disrepair. Weeds, tangled and haphazard, grow in the yard. Paper plates, candy wrappers, and half-eaten food accumulate by the fence. Inside, dust blemishes what remains of the house’s ornate woodwork, and broken windows suggest intruders have entered.
It was time, city officials said, for something to be done.
So on Saturday, the city seized control of the farm, and contractors boarded up windows, repaired fencing, cut weeds, and hauled away trash. The farm, which once covered more than 11 acres on Norfolk Street, was designated a city landmark in 2006, though, until Saturday, little had been done to maintain or improve the house.
“This is not only a historically significant property, but it is also part of a neighborhood where people live,” said Lisa Pollack, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development. “We wanted to clean the brush, clear the debris, and make it a more attractive place for people to see when they open their doors.”
City officials said they hope eventually to find an owner interested in preserving this small piece of Boston’s agricultural and architectural history at 487 Norfolk St., whether as a private residence or neighborhood museum.
The farmhouse appeared on Norfolk Street between 1786 and 1806, according to probate records, just a few decades into the country’s founding. Historians speculate the house was built earlier, however, and moved to Mattapan from another location. In any case, city officials say the Fowler-Clark residence is one of only four farmhouses built in the city prior to 1806; its central chimney, wood sash, and pedimented entry porch make it emblamatic of late 18th-century Massachusetts architecture.
‘Six miles beyond Braintree lieth Dorchester, a frontier town pleasantly seated ... beautified with fair orchards and gardens, having also plenty of corn-land and store of cattle counted the greatest town heretofore in New England.’ —Description of Dorchester, circa 1630
For this history, if nothing else, city officials hope the farm will be restored.
Upon securing the house and clearing the brush, contractors found several slabs of slate and wood, which will be kept and analyzed for historical significance. Brian Swett, the city’s chief of environment and energy, said the building has remained structurally intact, and much of the reworking will be largely superficial.
It is imperative, he said, that the house be preserved.
“The site must be protected from the elements and from illegal dwellers,” he said. “The decay here is not tolerable for the city and is a blight on the neighborhood.”
Inside the home, a few original architectural touches have been preserved: a wood fireplace, a patch of ornate molding, and a wall mural depicting the farm in its heyday.
In the mural, the house is surrounded by a wide expanse of fields and trees — a reminder that, prior to its annexation by Boston in 1870, Dorchester was an agricultural center.
“The soil of Dorchester is rocky, but very fertile and under a high state of cultivation,” wrote one observer in the 1839 New England Gazetteer. At the time, Mattapan was a village in Dorchester. “It is exceedingly productive, particularly of vegetables, fruits and flowers . . . Its hilltops and valleys are decked with farm houses and tasteful villas, and nowhere can be found the union of town and country enjoyments more complete.”
From an earlier account, from circa 1630: “Six miles beyond Braintree lieth Dorchester, a frontier town pleasantly seated . . . beautified with fair orchards and gardens, having also plenty of corn-land and store of cattle counted the greatest town heretofore in New England.”
At the time of his death, Samuel Fowler, the Dorchester yeoman who was the farm’s first owner, had these items in his possession: farming utensils, an ox yoke, hay, potatoes, turnips, a cow, a pig, and four bushels of corn. Along with other members of his family, Fowler had inherited land from his grandfather, Stephen Fowler, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
As the years went by, the countryside began, bit by bit, to shrink. By the mid- and late 19th century, significant improvements in transportation transformed Dorchester into a street-car suburb, where land was subdivided and developed, though the plots near the Fowler-Clark farm remained largely untouched. By the 20th century, the farmhouse would be one of the only remnants of a bygone era, passing through a series of five families before the city seized control.
Saturday morning, as contractors cleared the yard, Emmanuela Bernard, 32, sat on the steps to her house next door. From where she was, the farm’s backyard was just visible, and she said she had always wanted to know what the house looked like inside.
“It’s our very own haunted house in Mattapan. My brother and I joke that we would love to own it someday,” she said. “There’s so much history there, it’s just amazing.”