This Old Town: The Baxter family of Medfield

The 17th century Baxter Homestead on Main Street, demolished in 1891; current site of CVS. (Photo courtesy of the Medfield Historical Society)

By Richard DeSorgher
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

Rev. Joseph Baxter was Medfield’s second minister. He was the son of Lieutenant John Baxter of Braintree and was born in 1676. He graduated from Harvard College in 1693, at the age of 17.

He first preached in Medfield when he was 18 years old and although well liked, the people thought it best to wait until he was a little older before calling him as their minister. He was ordained at the age of 21 and started preaching at Medfield’s First Parish Church (Today’s Unitarian-Universalist Church on 26 North St.).

In 1696 he bought the homestead of Joseph Bullard on Main Street, opposite the head of Spring Street (site of today’s CVS building). Baxter’s land contained 10 acres and extended across the street to what is today Baxter Park.

Rev. Baxter married Mary Fisk of Braintree in 1701; she died about 1710. Two years later he married Rebecca Saffin of Bristol, R.I. who tragically died the following year. His third wife was Mercy Brigham. Baxter, along with many wealthy citizens of the time, owned slaves. In 1714 town records show that, “Mr. Baxter’s man Tony was paid for ringing the bell at the church.”

In 1731 he received a grant from the town of “half an acre of land on the east side of the Meetinghouse to build a house on.” This is where the Montrose School is located today.

He, however, did not build upon it, instead giving a quit-claim to the town. Baxter was minister here for 48 years before dying of dropsy on May 2, 1745 at the age of 69.

His will showed he owned rights to an iron works in Foxboro, iron works in Walpole, half a farm in the Township of Georgetown in the eastward in Maine and an island, commonly called Baxter Island, in Maine. In the will he also left his wife Mercy 20 pounds per year to pay bills for as long as she may live.

Mercy was given “his Negro slave, Nanny,” and told that Nanny would gain her freedom at Mercy’s death. But then added into the will “that if Nanny did not, in all things, carry and behave herself dutifully then she shall not have her freedom upon Mercy’s death;” such a decision was given to Mercy, to be made before Mercy’s death.

Rev. Baxter’s daughter Hannah married Oliver Peabody, who was one of the ministers serving the Praying Indians at Natick. Rev. Baxter’s son Joseph graduated from Harvard College, taught school in Medfield and tragically died of small pox in 1732.

Rev. Baxter’s son John inherited the homestead on Main Street. He was a very prominent man in town affairs and a surveyor of land. He served many years as a town selectmen, town clerk and town treasure.

John’s son, also named John, inherited the house. He too was often elected to town office including selectmen for eight years, town clerk for 14 years, treasurer for 13 years and state representative for six years. He died in 1832.

Nephew Stephen Baxter graduated from Harvard College in 1788. He was a school teacher here in 1788 and also taught a singing school with greater success. The school was said to be one of the greatest local musical affairs of the times with people coming from miles away to hear. He became a minister in Warren, Massachusetts. Later in life he was declared insane.

The homestead and property remained in the Baxter family for 220 years. Willard Harwood married into the Baxter family and in 1891 he had the historic house, seen in the photo, torn down and in its place had built a sizable mansion (also later demolished to make way for the building now housing CVS).

In 1916, after the death of his wife, the current park property across from the house on Main Street was donated by Harwood to the Town of Medfield in honor of the Baxter family; today’s Baxter Park.

Richard DeSorgher is a Hometown Weekly Correspondent. To reach Richard, email news@hometownweekly.net. 

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