From 1830 to 1836, the 1 ½-story cape house at 123 Main Street in Hopkinton played a major role in the old Central Turnpike, which connected Wellesley and the Connecticut border. A toll collector lived at the house, and horses and carriages traveling on the turnpike would stop there to pay for using the road.
The toll system lasted only six years and the Central Turnpike eventually became Rt. 135, but the house has survived. Long uninhabited, and shrouded by dense shrubs and trees that make it nearly impossible to see from the road, the toll house is a relic from a unique period in U.S. transportation and architecture.
But its future is uncertain. Weston Nurseries, which owns 123 Main Street, needs the property for its landscaping vehicles, because its current parking area is on land now owned by Legacy Farms. The Hopkinton Historical Commission, which four months ago asked for a six-month delay on demolishing the house, has been working with the Mezitt family, Weston Nurseries’ owners, on possible ways to save it. The demolition delay expires in August.
“Right now we need to figure out the best possible outcome for the house,” said Jennifer Doherty, a historic preservation consultant who is working closely with the commission. “We could try to save the house and keep it where it is, or move it to another location.”
Doherty has prepared a report about the home’s history, which drew on archived documents, old Hopkinton maps, old books and newspaper articles and other sources. The report points out that the home is a living example of period architecture, and that its positioning – close to the road to allow the toll-taker to do his job easily – makes it unique.
“The building is important as a small house from the 1830s that retains much of its historic trim and finishes,” the report notes. “However, a large part of the building’s history and importance is tied to its location…Moving the toll house away from its site would disassociate the building from an important part of its history, and would detract from the history of Route 135/East Main Street.”
The house was one of four toll collection sites along the Central Turnpike, which began in Wellesley and traveled through Natick, Framingham, Ashland, Hopkinton, Upton, Northbridge, Sutton, Oxford, Webster and Dudley before crossing into Connecticut. Planning for the turnpike began in 1824, a period that historians have called “the Transportation Revolution.” While steamboats were beginning to allow for faster travel on waterways and a new railroad system was being built, roadways were still primitive.
According to the website teachushistory.org, this began to change around the turn of the 1800s:
“Americans—and New Englanders in particular—rebuilt and vastly extended their roads. More than 3,700 miles of turnpikes, or toll roads, were built in New England between 1790 and 1820. Continuing through the 1840s, many thousands of miles of improved county and town roads were constructed as well.
“The new roads were far better constructed and maintained, and allowed for much faster travel. In response, the number of vehicles on the roads increased rapidly, far faster than the population.” Between 1790 and 1830, stagecoach lines had expanded across the Northeast, with stations every 40 miles that allowed the coaches to get fresh horses. “They made travel, if not enjoyable, at least faster, less expensive, and less perilous than it had ever been. The 1830s had reduced the travel time between Boston and New York to a day and a half.”
The Central Turnpike was part of that era’s burgeoning network of roads. The Central Turnpike Corporation was granted permission to construct the toll road in 1924, and according to records four toll houses were constructed close to the roadway, including the one in Hopkinton. The tolls were discontinued in Middlesex County in 1836 and along the towns further west in 1838 and 1839.
While 123 Main Street no longer housed a toll collector after 1836, the home continued to have an interesting history. Old Hopkinton maps showed that it was owned by “N. Smith” in 1856. While it has not been proven, this Smith was likely the son or grandson of Nathaniel “God” Smith, an eccentric Hopkinton preacher who during the late 1700s declared himself to be God. Old records and maps show that “God” Smith owned a large swath of land nearby.
A 1915 book, “A Brief History of Hopkinton” by Frances Safford, told stories about this unusual man of the cloth. According to the book, he “always wore a band on his hat with the words: ‘I am God.’ Once a week, with God Smith at the head, the tribe marched around the church seven times, blowing trumpets and shouting: ‘Glory to Gideon.’”
Doherty’s report on 123 Main Street cited archives and maps that showed the Smith family owned the property next to the toll house, and the house itself by 1856. Daniel C. Sheffield inherited the property after his wife, a member of the Smith family, died in 1861. The Raftery family purchased the property in 1887 and kept it for nearly 100 years, until Weston Nurseries purchased it in 1985.
Today the house is crumbling inside, but its façade still includes period moldings and a carved fan light. The old kitchen includes a baking oven and a mantel that dates from the Federal and Greek Revival period. An addition dating from the late 19th century includes a newer but still outdated kitchen.
Anyone who is interested in saving the house is encouraged to contact Jennifer Doherty at 508-259-0578 or email@example.com, or Michaelyn Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.