Davis Square


Most Somervillians are familiar with Davis Square, home to the Somerville Theater, Rosebud Diner and many other historic Somerville landmarks. But, how many know the history of its namesake, Person Davis, who made his home there at a time when West Somerville was only sparsely inhabited farmland.

Person was born into a military family on June 1st, 1819 in Princeton, Mass. His grandfather was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who served for its entire duration and fought in the Battles of Bunker Hill, Bennington and White Plains. Person’s father and uncle, Captain Austin Davis and General Thomas Davis were members of the local militias, with General Davis captaining the National Lancers, a ceremonial, volunteer outfit that served as escorts and bodyguards to Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett. When Person was five years old, Captain Davis moved the family to Lancaster, Mass. where Person spent has childhood as one of seven children (four boys, three girls). As a young man he worked on the family farm and later as a wagon driver, transporting guests and baggage from Boston to his father’s hotel in Lancaster.

In 1845, Person moved to North Cambridge and married Lydia Hanscom the next year. Lydia (1826-1881) was a Mainer, originally from Danville and later living in Auburn. She would become heavily involved with the religious life of her new community once the Davises settled in Somerville, helping to establish the Willow Bridge Mission chapel and later the West Somerville Baptist Church, which grew out of the mission community (Deacon Warren Teele, whose father Jonathan was the namesake of nearby Teele Square, was also a charter member of the church). Lydia was the first President of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter, founded in 1879, and worked to make Somerville a dry community. When she died, relatively young at age 55 from a paralytic stroke, her obituary ran on the first page of the Somerville Journal newspaper with many kind words from a local reverend.

West Somerville Baptist Church, c. 1909

When Person and his wife moved to West Somerville in 1850, there were less than a half dozen other homes standing in that part of the city. The Davises built their home near the intersection of Elm St. and Grove St. and their land stretched as far west as the present-day Davis Square and as far north as Morrison Ave. What is today a bricked-over city square was then Person’s garden while his pear orchards grew near Kenney Park. Soon after the Davis family moved in, new roads and methods of transportation brought more people to the area. In 1856, horsecar railway lines were extended along Massachusetts Ave. from Harvard to Arlington. Within a decade, Elm St. was widened, allowing more traffic to flow through the square. The area became a crossroads when Holland St. and Highland Ave. were laid out from the square in 1870 and 1871. At the same time, the Lexington and Arlington Railroad extended service to the square, laying tracks over the Davises land (what is today part of the Community Path).

Davis Square, c. 1892

In parallel with the neighborhood’s development, Person Davis’ years in Somerville were met with increasing success and notoriety. Upon arrival in Somerville, Person established himself in the grain business. He and his business partner T. Albert Taylor, formed the Davis and Taylor Co., which produced cornmeal and flour at their mills in Lawrence, Mass. and kept offices in Boston. Person did well in the business. He worked for 25 years and was at one point considered “the wealthiest man in West Somerville.” After the Civil War, he bought up land formerly occupied by Union forces at Camp Cameron. He, Taylor and a third partner were also involved with a planned subdivision along Huron Ave. in Cambridge in 1871 (between Lexington and Lakeview Aves.) It appears that some of Person’s land dealings went sour, as one obituary describes him losing a great deal of money “through the speculation of his partner.” Despite these financial setbacks experienced as a real estate investor, Person’s business acumen and longevity in the community translated well to a successful political career. He served on Somerville’s last Board of Selectmen in 1871 and was elected to its first Board of Aldermen in 1872 (reelected to a second term in 1873). Nearly ten year later, he was elected to two consecutive terms in the Massachusetts State House of Representatives (R, Middlesex 6th District).

Davis Square, c. 1909

In 1883, Davis Square was named in honor of its longtime resident, who died some years later in 1894 at age 75. The square continued to develop and grow without its namesake and the area that was once part of Person’s garden was paved with brick in 1900. The Davis mansion on Elm St. would serve in several capacities, as headquarters for a fraternal organization, as a private residence and finally as a business block before being demolished in 1926. Some years later, Person’s son Charles oversaw the removal of the family’s stables, by then remodeled into residential units, to Winslow Ave., leaving the square’s name as the only remaining memento of Person Davis’ life there.


Ball Square


When John N. Ball moved to Somerville, his neighborhood, which today is named in his honor, had only recently begun to develop. Bordered on the west by Quarry Hill (now Nathan Tufts Park) and on the east by the Boston and Lowell Railroad, the Ball Square strip along Broadway was predominately farmland until the 1880s.

John N. Ball was born in 1835 in Antrim, N.H. The Ball family had resided along the side of Antrim’s Robb Mountain since 1787 when John’s grandfather James Ball (1764-1850) took refuge there following Daniel Shays’ armed rebellion against the US government (one of the rebel leaders in that conflict, Job Shattuck, was a distant cousin of James’ wife and organized protests in and around Groton, Mass., near James’ native Townsend, Mass). Soon after John’s birth, his parents moved the family to Marlow, N.H., a few towns over. John stayed in Marlow for his boyhood, striking out at his own at age seventeen and moving to Nashua, N.H. to manage a hotel. He made his life in Nashua for eight years before heading out to see the country: living first in Wisconsin and then in New Orleans under the employ of the US Custom Service. Around 1875, John returned home to New England, settling in Somerville, where he would find success in business and politics and spend the remainder of his life.

John Nichols Ball

In those days, John boarded with his uncle Alden Nichols who owned an insole factory, Nichols, Lovejoy and Co., in Boston.  Following the path of his uncle, John found employment in the sole manufacturing business, working first as a factory foreman before starting his own company. In 1879, he married Emma Thrasher and by 1881 the couple was boarding with Emma’s widowed mother Hannah. Both the Nichols and Thrasher homes were located on Broadway, and in 1883, John opened his insole factory along that same road, at 686 Broadway, between Josephine and Rogers Aves. He, Emma and their three children: Gertrude, Edwin and Ethel, made their home next door at 694 Broadway.

Now a notable area businessman, John took up politics in 1895. That year, he began his term as a member of Somerville’s Common Council. In 1897 he was elected to the Somerville Board of Aldermen and by the next year served as Board President. John was discussed as a potential Republican candidate for mayor. Instead, he chose to enter state politics, running successfully as Representative for the 7th Middlesex District in 1900. John was well liked enough in his first term that he was reelected to the House in 1901. His burgeoning political career was cut short, however, by his death that October at age 56.

Ball Square in 1910

John had been ill for several months leading up to his death and took a vacation to Maine and New Hampshire in hopes of recovery. Returning to Massachusetts, his health declined again and he was taken to either Massachusetts General Hospital or the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital (accounts vary) for a kidney operation and died while under ether. The funeral, held at the West Somerville Baptist Church, was attended by several prominent individuals, including the Speaker and Sergeant-at-Arms of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mayor Edward Glines, former mayor Zebedee E. Cliff, state Representatives from Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Marlborough, Medford , Winchester and Woburn, several city Aldermen and members of the town’s business community. Somerville’s flags flew at half-mast that day as a show of respect to the much-liked politician. The House of Representatives passed an official resolution that declared “[John] won the confidence and respect of all those who had the opportunity to observe the uprightness of his character, the sagacity of his judgement, and the faithfulness of his work.” Likewise, the local Republican Club issued a statement that “those bound to him by family thus suffer a loss which we are well aware our sympathy cannot assuage. Yet we would have them know that this man was appreciated and beloved by his fellowmen, and that in their grief they are not alone.” Their condolences perhaps acknowledge how young John’s family was: his son had only graduated from grade school a few years earlier, as well as the esteemed position he held in the community.

Ball Square today

Shortly before his death, John relocated his insole business to South Boston. His wife remained in their Broadway house until 1909. In 1911, the former Ball properties were torn down and the Ball Block, which stands today, was opened in its place. By taking the Ball name, the new development helped preserve John’s legacy in the square. In 1922, the Board of Aldermen received a petition to rename Ball Square. Had the proposal succeeded, the neighborhood would have been called Judson G. Martell Square, in honor of a Somerville-born Army Lieutenant who was killed in action during World War I near Cunel, France on Oct. 14th, 1918.