WorcesterThen: latter 19th century
The Agricultural Grounds and the Race Track
For most of the second half of the 19th century, the Worcester Agricultural Grounds were located between Highland and Cedar Streets, where Russell, Somerset, Roxbury, and the west side of Sever Street are today. The Worcester Agricultural Society, an organization which included some of the social and financial leaders of the community, with strong representation of the Lincoln family, was founded in 1818. The society acquired the property of about twenty acres in 1853, and began holding its annual fairs there. Horses quickly became a focal point of attention and the half-mile race track was built in 1855, along with a grandstand and viewing stand, and the appearance of the track in the atlases of 1870, 1886, and 1896 suggests that it was generally successful. Here it is referred to as a “trotting park,” but traditional racing occurred as well. The first stake races (for a posted sum of money) were held in 1875. A new grandstand was built in 1892, seating over 5,000 people. Source: Kingsley and Knab, pages 35-39.
After 1878, most of the fairs of the New England Agricultural Society were held in Worcester. Below is a view from Kingsley and Knab, p. 55, over the caption “Scene on the New England Society’s Fair Grounds.” It was a joint fair with the New England Society, held at the Worcester Agricultural Grounds in 1894.
Note the lineup of buggies on either side of the track, with a concourse on the near side, and the tower in the infield. “Excuse me, madam, is that your son on the left side of the middle section, leaning back, hanging onto the post?” At least two of the four at the top appear to be youngsters. An estimate of the height of the tower would be about thirty feet, and the lights at the tops of the poles about fifty feet.
In 1899 the land of the Agricultural Grounds was sold by the society for real estate development purposes, for the sum of $185,000. The area was expected to become an extension of the city’s most prestigious residential district, that of the old Lincoln land along Cedar, William, Sever and other streets. It was the presumption of the development venture that house lots in this area would sell quickly and easily. However, as Nutt explained (in 1919), the developers did not prosper on the plan:
“… the purchasers met with heavy losses, as it was about this time electric railways came in, and so the idea of building a home within walking and driving distance with a horse, was given up, and the result is that the old grounds have failed and have very few residences on them.” (v. 2, p.1050)
Actually, the streetcar lines had been there for a while already. The atlas of 1896 (below, left) shows them running along Agricultural Street (now Russell) from Highland, then turning at Cedar, and again at Sever to Pleasant Street. This line must have helped people get to the fairs or the races – early and often.
In support of Mr. Nutt’s contention about the general failure of the development, the 1911 atlas showed a total of only nineteen houses in the area, where several times that number might have been. At some time between then and now, the area did build out, and it is now an attractive and well-kept area. But why was it so slow to develop? Did Nutt have it right, or was there more to it than that?
These maps are a bit fuzzy and too small for reading the detail, but they show the basic change from fair grounds to a residential district, one that after a decade was still very under-developed.
The story of this land, from its agricultural society days, through its slow real estate development saga, and through its eventual growth and surviving to today, could serve as a good subject for the work of a local researcher interested in Worcester’s residential development.
Charles Nutt, History of Worcester and its People, 1919.
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Don Chamberlayne, 2016