The following article was written by Bob Bloomberg, a member of the Board of the Historical Society of Watertown. It originally appeared in the Historical Society’s newsletter, “The Town Crier” in January 2020.
The house is owned by the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and the land it sits on. A sale has to Buckingham Browne & Nichols School has been proposed with the plan to build two athletic fields on the land on the site. The house will be torn down unless it is moved to another location.
A letter from the Historical Society about the Shick House will be discussed by the Watertown Historical Commission on Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. (See the agenda here).
In 1905, Jacob Shick arrived in America from Eastern Europe. Like so many thousands of his countrymen, including this writer’s grandparents, he settled in Boston’s West End. But unlike almost all Jewish immigrants of the time, who remained in the city, he became a dairy farmer in then rural Watertown. This is his story.
Jacob was born in 1877 in a village near what were then the borders of Poland and Lithuania. Mary Gordon, his wife, who was from the same village, was about eight years younger. They met in Vilnius, Lithuania, and married in 1903. But very soon thereafter, Jacob fled to France to avoid being conscripted into the Russian Tsar’s army. He then emigrated to Boston, where he found work as a coppersmith in a factory. Mary’s father refused to allow her to leave home to join Jacob. However, as Mary relates in her autobiography, “The Burden and the Trophy,” written in the 1950’s (originally in Yiddish, the language she said she was most comfortable with), their Rabbi told her father that it was a sin to keep a wife away from her husband. That, plus her strong will, dogged determination, and adventurous spirit, convinced her father. Mary and their daughter Sarah Rose, four years old, joined Jacob in August, 1908.
Their first apartment was a third floor, three- room cold-water flat on Billerica St. in Boston’s West End. The rent was $15 a month. Jacob earned $14.28 a week in 1910. Their second daughter, Bessie, was born that same year. The following year they moved to Minot St next to a cousin who had a milk route in Chelsea. Jacob decided to start a milk route in the West End. He purchased his cows in Brighton, and rented a stable in Watertown for $12 a month. He may have chosen Watertown because of its easy access and relatively inexpensive (ten cents) availability by street car.
There were already at least two established companies selling milk in the West End: Hood and Whiting. But Jacob believed he had an advantage among his fellow Jewish immigrants. He spoke their language (Yiddish), shared their religion, and came from the same “Pale of Settlement,” the territories of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to permanently settle.
Jacob proved correct. His business grew one customer at a time, through his grindingly hard work (he kept his full-time job as a coppersmith,) and Mary’s business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. By 1914, they had become too busy to rent a stable in Watertown and live in Boston. Because the first landlord they approached in Watertown refused to rent to Jews, they ended up in a house at 93 California St. Relying upon Mary’s autobiography for this detailed information, the house was no more than a shack, with no stove, an indoor rusty pump for water, and an outdoor privy. They used public baths for washing.
Jacob was now working full time at both the dairy and the factory. The family was growing. Hyman was born in 1913, and Abraham in 1918. Based on US Census reports, we know that in 1910 Jacob spoke English, and Mary did not. But the 1920 Census reported that the family spoke Polish. From Jacob’s WWI draft registration card, he self- described as of medium height and build, with brown eyes and black hair. In his Declaration of Intent to become a citizen in 1926, Jacob said he was 5’2” tall, and weighed 145 pounds. In her Declaration of Intent, Mary described herself as a “housewife.” However, her role was much broader.
To put the Shicks’ business venture into a larger context, in 1914, when the Shicks were building their business, it was estimated that about 3.5 million Jews lived in the United States. Of these, only 5,000 were farmers. Most of these were in New Jersey and California, settled by organizations interested in increasing the number of Jewish farmers in America. The individual Jewish farmer was indeed a rarity.
Shortly after moving to the California St. home, the neighbors began to complain about the noise of the cows. The Board of Health apparently felt that the cows created a health hazard, and issued the Shicks a notice to vacate. So, circa 1914, they moved to 183 Grove St. in Watertown, where they began a new era in their lives.
Their new home, which came to be known as the “Shick House,” was built in the 1850s. Its first owner was Abner French, a broker who dealt in foreign and domestic fruits. In 1880 the property was purchased by Joshua Stone, a market gardener, who owned it until at least 1905. It was then likely rented out for about 10 years until Jacob Shick bought it. He paid $5,000, with the down payment borrowed from cousins. The house had stables, and room for 25 cows. They expanded their holdings, and in 1982 the Watertown Historic Resource Inventory noted that the property consisted of about five acres.
The house still stands. It is an excellent example of the Italianate style of architecture. Its major characteristics are its block-like massing, wide projecting cornices with heavy brackets in the eaves, and richly ornamented windows, doorways and porches. The Shick House also has added elements that enhance its historic significance, including detailed plasterwork, and detailed fireplaces. Its two rounded windows on the second level are also noteworthy.
After the Shicks fixed the house up, the Napoleons, their neighbors from the West End, moved in with them. Mrs. Napoleon, as she was in the West End, continued as a baby sitter for the Shick children. To supplement their income, and to keep their ties to their friends, the Shicks rented rooms in the house to West Enders as a summer vacation retreat, at $50 for the season. They also took in boarders. In 1916, they had ten.
Sigrid Reddy Watson, in her 2000 book, “Watertown Echoes,” related Emma Neiberg Taylor’s memories of the Jewish community of Watertown from the early 20th century. Taylor’s best friend was Bessie Shick. Taylor said that the Shicks were observant Jews, who walked to the East End fire station where Sabbath services were held. Later, they moved their services to a building at the corner of Lexington and Belmont Sts.
By the end of WWI, the milk business had evolved. It was being modernized. Now milk had to be pasteurized. As usual, Mary took the lead, again reaching out to relatives and friends to borrow money for the expensive new machinery. They added steam heat, electricity, and refrigeration. As the business grew, they bought more cows, grazing them on Mt. Auburn Cemetery land, and along the shores of the Charles River. They expanded their routes to Roxbury and Dorchester, areas to which their West End customers were moving. They also sold milk to the Town of Watertown.
The Shicks believed they needed a brand, similar to the large milk companies, to be competitive. So, in 1937, they incorporated as the “Watertown Dairy.” They hired farm hands, who often lived in their house.
Their children assumed increasingly important roles in the business. Hyman left school before graduating to work full time on the farm. He established their first milk route in Watertown in 1934. He married Celia Miller. Sarah became the bill collector. Her Declaration of Intent to become a citizen, in 1928, stated that she had a light complexion, brown hair, blue eyes and weighed 110 pounds at 5’3” in height. She graduated from Watertown High School in 1924, the only Jewish student in her class. In 1929, she married Ruben Garber, a Boston lawyer, and they too lived with the family on Grove St.
Bessie also graduated from high school. The 1927 Annual, Watertown High School’s yearbook, contains the following description of Bessie:
“Bessie’s sunny disposition has won her many friends. All during high school she has specialized in the Commercial Course, and this Spring has done an excellent job as one of the regular typists on the “Annual.” As Bessie is always a most willing and helpful worker, we are sure she will become a success in Business.”
After graduating, she took a job as a bookkeeper for the business at $10/week.
Mary believed a woman who earned an independent income was in a better position compared to a wife who had to rely solely on her husband’s income. So, she set up her daughters in a dry goods store on Mt. Auburn St. in 1927. Unfortunately, the depression put an end to this venture in 1930.
The 1930 U.S. Census gives an excellent snapshot of the house at 183 Grove St. and its residents. No less than 15 people lived there. In addition to Jacob and Mary, there were Hyman and Abraham; Sarah and her husband Ruben; Cecilia and Leo Gordon (who delivered milk for the company), Mary’s siblings; and seven lodgers. The house was valued at $6,000.
In the early 1930s, the property on Grove St. had become too small to accommodate what was now a major dairy concern. Hyman negotiated the rental of a barn on an estate in Wayland for $50/month. A second barn was quickly added at the same rate. When this proved inadequate, he purchased the estate for $40,000, and became the owner of the Wayland branch of Watertown Dairy. This set the stage for the next era of the Shick dairy.
By 1940, the Watertown Dairy was a formidable part of the Greater Boston milk business. Nearly the entire family was participating in the endeavor. Jacob was wholesaling milk to grocery stores and other smaller milk companies. Mary was the Treasurer. Bessie, the bookkeeper, earned $1,500 in 1939. Abraham was their milk pasteurizer; he earned $1,000 that year. Hyman delivered milk and ran the Wayland operation; he earned $3,000. There were now four grandchildren living at the Grove St. home, as well as four farmhands (out of about 10 to 22, depending on the season.) Bessie Shick married Earl Cohen, who helped out on the farm.
The Wayland farm was on Moore St., bordered by the Concord and Sudbury Rivers. It initially consisted of 250 acres, with 260 pure-bred Holstein cows, and produced four tons of milk a day. The farm had all the modern apparatuses. For example, it had a device that pumped milk from the cow to a milk cooler through glass tubes, so that the milk was never exposed to the air until it reached the bottling plant in Charlestown. Hyman expanded the farm to nearly 300 acres, and by the 1950s he was New England’s largest grower of sweet corn.
Some insight into Jacob and Mary’s approach to business can be gleaned from the Wayland Historical Society. In 2017, their website related Denise Duncan’s memories of the Shicks. Her father Robert worked on the Shick farm for over 35 years. He began as a farmhand, and ended up as the chef. She said:
“Hymie and Mona [Celia] were very special people. They gave many people jobs, places to live and pay to sustain themselves. They lengthened and saved many lives. THEY accepted them AS THEY WERE. THEY GAVE THEM RESPECT.” I STILL love them very much. I bless the ground Hymie walked on and his wife Mona. They adored my dad and loved him deeply. My dad loved them too… Our family would visit the farm… What a great time it always was. I know Hymie is gone but he remains in my heart forever. I still own a WATERTOWN DAIRY farm jacket my dad wore from the 50’s or 60’s. [capitals in original]
At first, the business was a success. But there had been signs of financial problems. As early as 1918, and continuing into the 1940’s, the Shicks were consistently delinquent in paying their taxes in Watertown. Whether this was a cash flow problem or the result of overexpansion is not clear. The value of their home in 1940 had decreased to $5,000. There was a brief, evidently unsuccessful, experiment in managing a separate farm in Canton in 1934. There were numerous mortgages taken out on both the Watertown and Wayland properties.
A potential contributor to the growing problems may have been the dispersal of the family. The business had always been a quintessential family operation. But by the late 1930s Rubin and Sarah had moved away. Bessie and Earl still lived on Grove St., but Earl no longer worked on the farm. Abraham was in the army in WWII, and when he returned, he married out of his faith. According to Mary’s autobiography, no one in the family attended the wedding. Although they later reconciled, she suggested that he was essentially disinherited. Nevertheless, Abraham’s name appeared on many of the mortgages that the Shicks took out from 1974 onward, and he lived at the Grove St. home until his death in 1991. His wife remained there until her death in 2002. Jacob died in 1950, and Mary semi-retired, remaining as Treasurer, but devoting herself to charitable work. In 1951, Hyman and his wife, who now lived in Wayland, sold off a portion of his land that bordered Glezen Rd. in that town. By the late 1950s, Hyman was trying, unsuccessfully, to get approval from the town of Wayland to divide up part of his land into residential subdivisions. The Town of Wayland assessed the value of the Shick property in 1964. Despite the lean years, it was still considerable. There were 160 acres of land, three homes, a garage, and three barns, with a total value of nearly $82,000. In 1979, the Water Commission of Wayland purchased about 15 acres of Shick’s land for $15,000.
It is unclear what caused the final collapse in 1980-81. The US Department of Agriculture foreclosed on the Shicks’ second mortgage. The land was bought at auction by the Farm Home Administration (FHA) for $1.9 million. The farm equipment and cattle brought in another $103,000. The FHA then tried to sell the property by auction, but rejected all bids. The Watertown Dairy Company was involuntarily dissolved two years later.
The Shicks did not go down without a fight. They sued the FHA in 1980 to recover their farm and sought damages, on the grounds that the farm was illegally taken from them. In 1978-80, the Shicks had borrowed $1.75 million using their 292- acre farm as collateral. After four years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed their claims.
The New England Archaeology Newsletter in 1983 reported on a reconnaissance survey that included the Shick property in Wayland. The survey verified the location of three previously identified prehistoric sites, and identified five others. The historic periods included two 18th/19th century houses and the probable route of a mid-17th century road associated with the first period of settlement in Sudbury.
The Shick family no longer lives in Watertown, and the dairy is long gone. But their historical importance remains. They were one of the first Jewish families in the town, and the only Jewish farmers and dairy. The last reminder of their legacy is the house at 183 Grove St. After the dairy moved to Wayland, the property remained the home of the Shicks until 2003. The property was also used as an auto parts business and a junk dealership. The building is intrinsically important architecturally and historically. When the story of the role that the Shicks played in Watertown’s history is added, it is clear that the house deserves to be preserved.