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The life and times of Fiske Warren

First in a 2-part series

By M.E. Jones


HARVARD — The apse of the antique church that houses the Harvard Historical Society in Still River was filled to capacity for an event held there last Thursday night.

With every pew occupied and folding chairs set out in the aisles, people continued to stream in until, for even the earliest late-comers, it was standing-room only.

The big draw on that sultry spring evening was a talk by historian and former HHS President Dianne Newton, author of “The Harvard Album,” whose show-and-tell presentation on the life and times of Fiske Warren was as overflowing with fascinating facts, famous names and vintage photos as the old church was packed with people.

Blessed with an abundance of material and an avid interest in New England’s storied past, particularly its houses, Newton spotlighted the people, places and innovative ideas that made Fiske Warren a prominent figure in his time and part of Harvard history.

Purposefully painting with a broad stroke as she cited accomplishments others in Fiske Warren’s family were noted for, Newton expertly framed her subject while savoring the sidelights her research turned up.

Warren’s wife Gretchen, for example, came from a prominent “Boston Brahmin” clan and was famous in her own right as an opera singer. They married in 1891.

Later, Gretchen and daughter Rachel, the Warren’s first child, would have their portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, in the legendary artist’s home. The event was recorded on camera and the photo is now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Newton said.

She thanked others who worked on the project. Fellow researches included Sheila Simollardes, who traced the Warren family tree and Susan Lee, whose Internet searches led to a plethora of newspaper stories about Warren and the Single Tax movement

“Fiske Warren and the One Tax Estate”

Fiske Warren was a very wealthy, Harvard College-educated, world-traveled and socially-connected man who put his out-of-the-box ideas into action, including the single tax communities he established after moving to the town of Harvard in 1891.

Warren wasn’t born rich, Newton said. His money came from the paper mill he owned and operated with his brother in Warren, MA, reportedly the first to use pulp instead of rags in the manufacturing process.

In an era and an area noted for “utopian” communes that ranged from the industrious Shakers to the dreamy Transcendentalists, Warren was among a handful of influential “single taxers” in his lifetime and used his great wealth to make his community-building dream come true.

Warren’s holdings in Harvard once totaled over 600 acres, including all the land around Bare Hill Pond. A newspaper that year ran a crotchety piece lamenting his land-grabbing ways when he bought 334 acres atop Bare Hill, with its spectacular views, Newton said.

Warren’s estate boundaries once stretched from Bolton Road to the pond, up Scott Road to the town line, back to the Town Center into Still River and beyond, Newton said. “It goes on and on…”

Warren acquired large land tracts outside Harvard, too and even bought out a tiny town in the Pyrenees Mountains to establish a colony there. Of the town’s 3000 inhabitants, 11 tenants signed up but the entire enterprise was stopped in its tracks when WWI began.

Warren wasn’t stockpiling land just to own it. He had a grand scheme and global aspirations, envisioning a growing network of “single-tax” communities of like-minded people who shared his economic, philosophical, social and spiritual ideas and ideals.

But to begin with, the lure was “free land.”

Fiske offered “free” land (via no-cost, 99-year leases) to people who wanted to build homes or businesses on the property, at their own expense. Ideally, they would also become active members of the community whose ties to it were social, philosophical and spiritual as well as economic.

Community members would own the buildings and other improvements they made on the property and could sell those structures if they wanted to, but not the land itself, which still belonged to Warren and later passed to his heirs.

For all practical purposes, though, the land under each member’s home (and in some cases, non- members who bought in later) was theirs for a lifetime and then some.

When an owner sold a property in one of Fiske Warren’s communities (there were others besides Harvard’s but it hosted the largest) the lease transferred with the sale, deed intact.

Each member paid a single fee to the association Warren had created, which in turn paid local, state and Federal property taxes for the community. The assessment for each property included an amount added for communal expenses, like an association fee.

Similar to today’s condo associations in terms of privately owned buildings, common land, shared services and communal caretaking, it was an outlandish proposal in its day, Newton said.