One of Needham’s oldest residents, Marjorie Walden, died in September of 2008 at the age of 103. The Walden family made their mark in Needham by selling flowers and vegetables from their farm at the corner of Great Plain Avenue and Greendale. I was privileged to grow up as a neighbor to the Waldens, and would like to share a few memories about this remarkable family and their beautiful home that was such a part of our lives.
Marjorie Walden was born in 1905 and moved with her family to Needham in 1933, when Great Plain Avenue was a country road with few houses and fewer sidewalks. Her parents, Clarence and Jennie Walden, opened a small farm stand and began a family tradition that would last sixty years. Marjorie and her younger sister Carol, both graduates from Radcliff, helped with the garden while pursuing professional careers, Marjorie as a legal secretary and Carol as a music librarian. Their younger brother Donald, an MIT graduate, moved down the road to raise a family, and became a prize-winning gardener of Gladioluses. He also helped out at the family farm — and what a farm it was.
The house, known historically as the Mary Walker House, was built in 1836. A white picket fence stretched around the corner, draped with rambling pink and white roses. Inside the fence were perennial gardens, featuring lilies, iris, azalea, phlox and daisies, crossed by grassy paths and low stone walls. As a child, I remember following these paths to discover a cement pond beneath a tree, filled with goldfish and water lilies. A silver ball sat on a pedestal among the flowers, near a birdbath shaped like a giant shell. It was a magical place.
The bustling center of activity was a beautiful old barn with a pitched roof, window-boxes, and cupola on top. It was solidly built, with interlocking boards seamlessly hiding the square nails, and cedar shingles that never needed painting. Ivy wrapped around it like a storybook cottage. Inside, the flowers were cut and arranged at a long wooden workbench. As children, we were allowed to rummage through the cast-off blossoms in a box beneath the workbench, which were like treasures to us. There was an empty horse stall in the corner, and barn swallows nested in the rafters. Beside the barn were two towering pine trees, beneath which you could sit and look out over the garden. Even on the hottest summer days, there was always a cool breeze beneath those pines.
A grape arbor stretched from the house to the garage, yielding grapes made into jam by Carol Walden. Sprouting among the driveway stones were violets and Johnny-jump-ups, which came back each year as though they could think of no better place to spend the summer. The driveway on Greendale Avenue was flanked by purple lilacs and large hand-painted signs declaring Flowers and Vegetables For Sale. Visitors knew the offerings were freshly cut, and nurtured with loving care.
After their parents passed away, Marjorie and Carol continued to live in the house and maintain the gardens year after year, especially Marjorie. Her gardening year began in coldest winter, when the seed catalogs arrived. She always started from seed, using the sunny spare bedroom upstairs. The sprouts were then divided into smaller trays, and later moved out to the greenhouse. When the spring crocus and daffodils had gone by and summer drew near, it was time to plant the big annual garden behind the barn. The array of flora was extraordinary – marigolds, zinnias, snapdragons, dahlias, petunias, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, and dozens more. Joined by the perennial lupines, sweat peas, lilies and poppies, it was a cornucopia of color and fragrance all summer long.
In the off-season, Marjorie and Carol often traveled. Marjorie was an avid photographer, and they crafted beautiful scrapbooks of their journeys to Mexico, Japan and Germany. But they always returned to the family homestead, which remained a cozy place all winter — the fireplace warming the grandfather clock and hand-sewn rugs, a jigsaw puzzle always in progress on the dining room table. Candles lit the windows on snowy evenings, as the garden slept quietly until spring.
But sadly, nothing lasts forever. Carol Walden died in 1994, and Donald in 2000. Marjorie continued to maintain the house and gardens by herself until the age of ninety-two when she moved to North Hill. She remained active and alert for the rest of her days.
The old homestead looks a lot different now. It was bought by a private school, who proceeded to bulldoze the gardens and tear down the barn, the greenhouse and the fence. A beautiful piece of history is gone forever. But the house still remains, a beloved landmark and proud symbol of Needham’s long and rich past. We will always be grateful to the Waldens for their quiet contribution to the beauty of our town. Their memory, like their beautiful garden, will live on in our hearts.
(This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the Needham Times.)