Though not a native Somervillian, John C. Magoun was joined through marriage with one of the city’s most influential and historically prominent families. The house he lived in, which was continuously occupied by his wife’s ancestors and descendants for over 175 years, remains one of the oldest structures in Somerville and, of its era, the best preserved. He enjoyed longevity too as a civil servant, holding several positions in the local government, and left his name in the Magoun Square neighborhood of his adoptive home.
John Calvin Magoun was born on December 11th, 1797 in New Hampton, N. H. to Rev. Josiah Magoun (1759-1841), whose family descended from Scottish immigrants, and Anne Sleeper Magoun, whose father Stephen was a church Deacon in her native Acton, Maine. Josiah was a veteran of the Revolutionary War – he joined the continental soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill and served for three years at Plattsburgh, Ticonderoga and Crown Point before returning to civilian life. Josiah settled first in Acton, Maine before moving his family to New Hampton where the Magouns raised eight children (seven boys, including John, and a daughter). John was educated in New Hampton and at Atkinson Academy in southern New Hampshire before migrating to Somerville at age eighteen.
In Somerville, John met his wife Sarah Ann Adams Magoun, a relative of the Presidents Adams and the Tufts family. Sarah was born in 1802 to Joseph and Sarah Tufts Adams and married John on Dec. 30th, 1824. She lived nearly her entire life in the same home and was born and died in the same room. Her father, like John’s, was a military veteran, having aided in the fortification of Dorchester Heights and having stood guard at the Winter Hill encampment where British and Hessian troops were held prisoner. Through her mother, Sarah was a member of the Tufts family, for which Tufts University and Nathan Tufts Park were named. Sarah’s grandmother, Anne Adams Tufts, also joined in the war effort, first nursing wounded soldiers in her home after the Battle of Bunker Hill and later offering comfort to the dying wife of an enemy soldier imprisoned at the Winter Hill camp. Long after her death, Anne Adams Tufts’ name was given to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Their founding charter was framed in the wood of an apple tree grown on the Adams-Magoun estate, which was also used to make the chapter’s presiding gavel. John and Sarah Magoun’s daughter Helen Magoun Heald served as the chapter’s founding Regent.
John and Sarah lived in the Adams-Magoun House, located at 438 Broadway. It was built in 1783 by Joseph Adams and is one of the oldest extant buildings in Somerville. Colonial American history is imbued in the fabric of the house – timbers taken from the fort at Winter Hill were reused in its construction. Much of what is now the Magoun Square neighborhood was then part of the family farm – their 71 acres stretched from Broadway to the southern slope of Winter Hill, along the Boston and Maine Railroad, and from Hinckley St. to Central St. On this land, John ran a dairy farm as well as the Winter Hill Nursery, where he raised a wide variety of fruit and ornamental trees for sale.
John held several esteemed civic positions. He was a founding member of the First Unitarian Society of Somerville. He also captained a local militia and was present for the reception of Gen. Lafayette on the Boston Common during the general’s tour of the United States in 1825. John and his men were also in attendance for the laying of the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, over which Gen. Lafayette presided and where Representative (later Senator) Daniel Webster gave an oration. John served Somerville for 34 years as town Assessor and for 22 years as an Overseer of the Poor, collecting poor taxes from the city’s more fortunate and administering relief money to the poor. In addition, he was a member of the School Committee and Sealer of Weights and Measures.
John and Sarah had nine children, at least one of which died in infancy. Of the seven which survived their father, sons John A. Magoun and Charles Magoun moved away to Sioux City, IA and Chicago, IL respectively. Two more daughters, Amelia and Lucy relocated within Massachusetts. After Sarah’s death on March 6th, 1876 and John’s on Jan. 8th, 1882, their children continued to occupy the Adams-Magoun house. In 1943, John’s granddaughter Cora Butman died, leaving the house to her daughter Helen. Helen Butman, an artist, continued to own the house until her death in 1960.
The intersection of Broadway and Medford St. has not always been known as Magoun Square. For a while, it was called simply “The Corner,” as the bars and water troughs made it a popular crossroads for thirsty travellers. While his name is largely forgotten today, Darius W. Pollard was nearly immortalized in “Pollard Square.” Pollard was a druggist and operated the Pollard Square Pharmacy. John Magoun’s legacy won out, however, after his son-in-law Henry Woods, an official with the West End Street Railway Company, had the Magoun name placed on streetcar signs.