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.
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).
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).
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.