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.

The Cliff Building and The Cliff


The Cliff Building and the Cliff, two apartment blocks with nearly the same name, sit facing each other at the corner of Broadway and Curtis Street. They are just two of the many properties developed by Zebedee E. Cliff: a carpenter, real estate developer and politician who made his mark on the city of Somerville near the start of the 20th century.

Cliff was born on September 23rd, 1964 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where his father William worked as a lumber operator. At the age of eighteen, Zebedee came south to Boston when he apprenticed as a carpenter and enrolled in night school. In 1890, he married and settled down in Somerville with his new wife, the former Ada Kincaid. He continued to work as a builder and carpenter in Boston for the next four years until 1894 when he went into business for himself. As a developer, Cliff transformed the city of Somerville. He was responsible for more than $2,000,000 worth of construction throughout the city and built more than 300 homes, including most of those along Powderhouse Boulevard and Powder House Terrace. He himself lived at 29 Powder House Terrace, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The Cliff Building, completed in 1905, and the Cliff, in 1912, were some of the first to go up in Teele Square. Across the street, at 1150 Broadway, is a third Cliff property in the square. Cliff developed several other business blocks and multi-unit dwellings throughout Somerville and Greater Boston, including Bryant Chambers, considered West Somerville’s first “modern” apartment building, on College Avenue.

Cliff quickly became a recognized leader within Somerville’s business community and served as President of the West Somerville Board of Trade from 1902-03. He parlayed this visibility and success into a lengthy career in local politics. In 1905, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen as a representative of Somerville’s 7th Ward, where much of the electorate lived in Cliff-built homes. He followed this stint with three years of service on the Somerville Board of Health. Cliff successfully ran for Somerville’s seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and served from 1910-12. While in the state legislature, he was described in The Boston Globe as being “one of the most punctual in attendance at committee meetings and sessions of the House.”

Mayors of Somerville. Photo taken to celebrate the city’s 50th anniversary. Zebedee E. Cliff is standing second from the left.

In December 1913, Cliff was the Republican nominee for Mayor of Somerville. His opponent, John Herbert, was a lawyer, minister and newspaper publisher who had previously run an unsuccessful campaign for Congress as a Progressive, a short-lived political party split off from the Republicans in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt. Frederick J. White, the Democratic mayoral candidate, withdrew his bid in favor of Herbert, who had been selected by a nominally nonpartisan convention made up of delegates from the city’s Democratic and Progressive Parties and a number of independent Republicans. Somerville’s Republican leaders alleged that this nonpartisan group was in actuality a Democratic and Progressive party maneuver to unseat the long dominant Republican Party – which had held the mayoralty since 1885 and controlled 17 of 21 aldermen positions. Some Progressives also balked at Herbert’s nomination and, upset with their party’s decision to join with the Democrats, endorsed Cliff. The close election came down to a little more than 300 votes, in a city of nearly 13,000 registered voters, with Cliff victorious. He would go on to win three more terms as mayor, becoming only the second person to serve four terms and the first to do so since William H. Hodgkins in 1895.

After the election, The Boston Globe interviewed the new mayor of Somerville. Central to Cliff’s vision for the city was a “clean, businesslike administration” that would be “free from partisan politics” and he “asked the members of the City Government as far as possible to ignore party affiliations.” Among his positions was a promise to “keep down [Somerville’s] cost of administration” and scrutinize every expenditure.” He likened the city’s budgets to those of its citizens and called for a fiscally conservative approach and surety that each “intended purchase is a necessity.” In this regard, he echoed the national Republican Party which stated in its 1912 presidential platform that “extravagant appropriations and the creation of unnecessary offices are an injustice to the taxpayer and a bad example to the citizen.” As part of his plan for a reduced government presence, he “[hoped] to see annual elections done away with in Somerville” and felt that Somerville had “too many elections and too many laws regulating persons and communities” and that “what we want is less politics, fewer laws and more business and greater prosperity.” Cliff described “the inequality of taxation” as “one of the problems which every community is confronted with” and, as a real estate developer, he had strong opinions on taxes and land valuation – he opposed “the policy of assessing vacant land lower than that occupied by buildings,” which he felt “puts a burden on the homeowner and the man who builds a business block.”


The Cliff

As mayor, Cliff seems to have been widely popular. In 1914, Cliff won re-election in a “striking triumph.” He defeated his opponents – independent candidate Robert R. Perry, a former police captain, and Democrat W. M. Smith – by a majority of 1870 votes, more than six times his 1913 majority. The next year he won re-election by the largest majority ever seen in a Somerville mayoral race. In 1916, running for his fourth consecutive term, Cliff was unopposed. The Democratic Party failed to nominate a candidate during the primaries and no independents chose to run. No mayor had run unopposed since George O. Proctor, running for his second term in 1899. In describing this honor, “the highest compliment the city pay him,” The Somerville Journal lauded a few accomplishments of the Cliff administration, including: “extensive highway improvements,” “increased school accommodations,” and a soon-to-be-constructed high school in West Somerville.

On June 13th, 1934, Zebedee E. Cliff was taken to Baker Memorial Hospital in Boston for a case of appendicitis. While on the operating table, Cliff died at age 70. He had been living with his sons Percy and Stanley Cliff in Lexington. His wife, Ada, had died five years earlier in 1929. Befitting a man of his stature, the pallbearers at his funeral included several political elites – Somerville’s mayor James E. Hagan (D), former mayors Charles W. Eldridge (R), John M. Webster (R), Leon M. Conwell (R) and John J. Murphy (D) and Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth Frederic W. Cook (R), who had been a member of Cliff’s administration. The service was held at the West Somerville Baptist Church where Cliff and his wife had been members. He was buried in Medford’s Oak Grove Cemetery. In addition to Percy and Stanley, Cliff was survived by his son Fred J. Cliff and brothers Moses and Cooke.