This fall the Kimball Farmer House at 1173 Massachusetts Avenue, recently renovated to create three affordable-housing units by the Housing Corporation of Arlington, welcomed all of its tenants to their new homes. This event provides a welcome opportunity to broadly share the history of the house and the Farmer family, featuring photographs from the Society’s collection.
The Kimball Farmer House is one of Arlington’s most architecturally and historically significant properties and is listed both in the Massachusetts Historical Commission Inventory and the National Register of Historic Places. It is a rare survivor of early 19th-century Federal style architecture, and has exceptionally strong associations with multiple generations of persons prominent in the civic, charitable, commercial, religious and cultural history of Arlington (previously the town of West Cambridge).
The original owner of the house was Kimball Farmer (1790-1841), a native of Tewksbury who married Rhoda Cutter of West Cambridge. Their prominent home was built in 1826, located at the corner of what today is called Forest Street, which for the next 75 years would be the only road leading northwest to the section of Woburn that is now Winchester. Kimball Farmer purchased and ground grain at one of the Cutter family’s historic privileges on Mill Brook, which he then sold at the Boston market. In addition, he farmed 60 acres of crops adjacent to his homestead.
Kimball Farmer served as town assessor in West Cambridge (1832-1834), contributed generously to improving local firefighting services, and in 1840 he became one of the founding leaders and benefactors of the First Universalist Church.
Maria Cutter Farmer (1822-1891), only daughter of Kimball Farmer, lived in the home until her marriage in 1845 to Eli Robbins (1821-1883), who established the family’s large-scale poultry business in Brooklyn, New York. Maria Farmer Robbins donated the funds to construct Robbins Library in memory of her late husband.
Kimball Farmer’s eldest son, Elbridge Farmer (1819-1894), took over his father’s farm shortly after turning 22 years old, due to Kimball Farmer’s sudden death. Elbridge Farmer adopted the latest scientific methods of agriculture that contributed to Arlington’s fame as a center of market gardening for Boston, and this brought him great wealth, which he shared generously in his own endowment of Robbins Library, among other causes. In addition, he built “Idahurst,” in 1894, one of the most significant properties in Arlington, still standing at 53 Appleton Street.
The third and last generation of the Farmer family to live in the homestead was Elbridge’s son, Edwin Smith Farmer born in 1850. He married Abbie Francena Locke in 1875. Edwin Farmer carried on the family’s successful market garden in partnership with Walter Peirce—their enterprise known as “Foot of the Rocks Farm”—until he retired from agriculture and leased the farmlands to be worked by other market gardeners. He was twice elected selectman (1895 and 1904), during a particularly dynamic period in Arlington’s growth as a streetcar suburb. As he was preparing to exit agriculture, Edwin Farmer moved into the financial sphere starting in 1903, as a trustee of the Arlington Five Cents Savings Bank, and as a director of the First National Bank of Arlington.
Edwin S. Farmer was one of Arlington’s early automobile owners, and his 16-horsepower Knox “tonneau” model made 1173 Massachusetts Avenue an attraction in Arlington of the most modern nature. He was a renowned hunter, and undertook expeditions to the Arctic regions. He died unexpectedly in 1912 in the home where he was born. The house passed out of the family after his widow died, their only son having predeceased them. To the present day, the Edwin S. Farmer trusts he endowed as death bequests continue to provide financial relief to needy widows, indigent women, and married couples, through a private trust bearing his name, and through another that is administered by the Department of Human Services of the Town of Arlington.
The Kimball Farmer House, along with the adjacent Greek Revival home of Theodore Schwamb (today serving as law offices), are set amidst industrial and commercial development. This pair of historic structures stand as rare and fortunate survivors of the 1920s’ building boom that destroyed many 18th and early-19th century dwellings in Arlington.
The Housing Corporation of Arlington’s historic rehabilitation and re-use as affordable housing units corrected many of the unsympathetic changes to the Kimball Farmer House that occurred over the decades and restored its principal façade to historical accuracy. The high visibility of the Kimball Farmer House and its transformation have resulted in a “double win” for Arlington by providing both much-needed affordable housing and increased opportunities for highlighting the dwelling’s connection to important dimensions of Arlington’s history.