A Cucumber Tree Magnolia, the Stetson Estate and Downton Abbey

By Steven Froias

Contributing Writer

When we think about a grand estate being broken apart these days, we are more likely to think “Downton Abbey” than any place in New Bedford.  The travails of the Crawley clan trying to keep the ancestral home safe from the modern age was the backdrop of the popular drama – in addition to Mary Crawley’s romantic life.

Yet, even without the British accents and Edwardian manners, this city’s history also comprises once grand estates as well as the compelling characters and narratives that recently enthralled so many who followed that acclaimed series on WGBH. 

A great example is the former estate where we find this month’s entry in the Trees of New Bedford series, and the distinguished gentleman who once owned the property before it was divided to form the graceful neighborhood we know today. 

Our Cucumber Tree Magnolia on Meriam Street sits on what was once the Stetson Estate – and Thomas M. Stetson is a personage that sounds as if he could hold his own in verbal acrobatics with the dowager countess of Downton Abbey, Violet Crawley, as portrayed by Maggie Smith! 

Thomas Stetson is described in this way in a profile published in the book “Lawyers of the Past,” brought to our attention by Out on a Limb’s own Gig Lang:

“Endowed with an impressive physique and a voice of marvelous power and resonance, Mr. Stetson was highly effective before a jury.”  A contemporary noted, “His arguments were examples of strong and beautiful language, graced by apposite quotations and the keenest wit.” 

Mr. Stetson was City Solicitor in 1871, 1872, and 1874.  He had previously been a member of the Common Council for two years.  While these were his only public offices, he served as a director of many local corporations, including an amazing 52 years in that capacity for Morse Twist Drill and Machine Company. 

Born in Medford, MA in 1830, his father was the Rev. Caleb Stetson, a Unitarian minister.  His mother was Julia Ann Meriam – a clue to where the street name came from.  This union bestowed upon Thomas Stetson a pedigree that included Mayflower descendants as well as Revolutionary war families of Lexington, MA. 

Thomas graduated from Harvard in 1849.  He came to New Bedford in 1854 as part of the law firm Eliot, Pitman and Stetson.  He married Caroline Dawes Eliot in 1856.  As the years went by, the partners gave way to a family firm and Stetson and Stetson reflected the practice with not one but two sons, Eliot D. and Frederick D. Stetson. 

For a number of years, the family lived at the corner of Cottage and Grove Streets in New Bedford.  But soon, Stetson bought a large tract of land extending – what was then – far west of Ash Street running from present-day Moreland Terrace to Bedford Street. 

It’s there that, according to “Lawyers of the Past,” he completed a “large and pretentious residence” which he completed in 1889 when he was 60 years old.  The Stetson Estate – our own Downton Abbey – was founded.

An article in The Standard newspaper noted, “The grounds were laid out by Charles Eliot, the son of the president of Harvard College, who was then forming the most famous firm of landscape architects this country has ever known – Olmsted & Eliot.”  

Like so many of his peers in 19th century New Bedford, Stetson was a cultivated person who took great care cultivating his landscape. “In his greenhouses he took great delight in the culture of plants and shrubs and flowers, and handsome trees ornamented the grounds,” Lawyers of the Past” states. 

This anecdote by the author reveals a bit about the character of the man:

“One of the pleasantest afternoons I ever spent, was when, as a newspaper reporter, I called upon him to obtain some information for a feature article I was writing. 

“He took me through his greenhouses and showed me many strange and curious and beautiful forms of plant and fruit life, as well as more familiar growths, including oranges, figs, bananas, century plants, lovely orchids from the far corners of the world, and lordly palms. 

“All the while he told me, most entertainingly, everything, it seemed to me, it was possible to know about the products of nature which he cherished, and which he had thoroughly studied, until I gazed upon him as a marvel.”

Thomas M. Stetson died on Feb. 10, 1916, in his 86th year.  He lies in Rural Cemetery, the site of the American Holly recently included in the Trees of New Bedford.  Soon after his wife died in 1921, the estate was sold.

And, around 1923, a new vision for the property began to take shape. 

According to The Standard, “The development of the 12-acre estate of the late Thomas M. Stetson,” was well underway.  Bedford, Meriam and Stetson Streets had been opened – and five homes built on the land.  Each with a “double garage and attractive landscaping much the latter having already been established while Stetson was alive.” 

Standard journalist William Emery wrote, “Occasionally in the history of our cities comes unexpectedly the breakup of a beautiful estate which we have admired as one of our stately homes, with ample grounds, stables, greenhouses.  We deplore the fact that it has been advisable to give up such an estate originally built in the suburbs but gradually overtaken and surrounded by the growth of the city.”

“But there is the great opportunity of the modern home-seeker to find house lots centrally placed and where the character of the neighborhood and buildings has already been determined.”

Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, managed to hang on at Downton Abbey through a six-season television series and one feature film.  Other estates of the time, like the Stetson Estate, gave way to modernity. 

Still, the foundation Thomas M. Stetson laid with his eye for horticulture has proved the basis for one of New Bedford’s most pleasant neighborhoods – not to mention a home for our Cucumber Tree Magnolia. 

As William Emery summed up, “Such changes are inevitable in a prosperous growing city like New Bedford but when they occur we like to give a regretful look backward at the old centers of the city’s social life which are thus passing away…”

And this has been your look back. 

 

Cucumber Magnolia on Meriam Street. Photo by Paul Pawlowski.

Meriam Street Cucumber Tree Magnolia

By J.E. Ingoldsby, ASLA

  • Common Name:  Cucumber Tree Magnolia 
  • Botanical Name:  Magnolia acuminata

Location of this month’s Tree of New Bedford:  Meriam Street, New Bedford – on the West side of the street between Bedford Street and Moreland Terrace.  

 

  • w3w address:  wisdom.gear.regime
  • Circumference at chest height:  approximately 25’
  • Diameter at chest height:  approximately 8’

 

    • Height:  approximately 60’ tall

 

  • Age:  At least 130 years old since it must have been planted by Thomas Stetson’s gardeners.

 

  • Distinguishing features:  The deciduous, May-flowering Cucumber magnolia tree can reach a height of 60-70’ with a comparable spread on massive outreaching branches.  The multi-petaled 3” flowers color from green to cream to yellow with the <10” oblong, ovate leaves.  Small cucumber-like fruits filled with red seeds follow the flowering on this ancient, native tree.
  • Spring features:  The silver, silky pubescent buds open to reveal small green petaled flowers that mature to cream color in May to early June.  Leaves unfurl with a silver green pubescence beneath to a deeper green above on smooth gray-barked branches. 
  • Summer features:  The flowering fades in June and seed formation begins.  The leaves are darkening and elongating to reach up to 10 inches in length on this fast-growing tree. 
  •  Fall features:  By October, the seedpods enlarge to 3” in length and widen with aggregate clusters of pink to red fleshed seeds.  The deciduous leaves turn from deep green to brown to an ashen brown color before they drop in autumn. 
  • Winter features:  A mature Cucumber magnolia tree has great size and character with wide spreading silver-gray massive branches and a width equal to their height. 
  • Crown:  The outline of the Magnolia acuminata varies from a pyramidal shape in youth to a wide spreading, picturesque habit in old age.  Cucumber tree Magnolias can reach 70’ by 70’ in protected locations over the centuries.  The National Champion is found in Waukon, IA and is 75’ by 83’. 1
  • Use:  Magnolia acuminata is best used in parks, estates, or protected in the wild where their great height and spread can be appreciated.  The tree will not tolerate drought or wetland soils, nor will it tolerate pollution.   The Cucumber tree Magnolia has been extensively hybridized to create more substantial yellow flowers.  Superior cultivars include ‘Butterflies’, ‘Sundance’ with 8” yellow blooms, and ‘Yellow Fever’ with 8” lemon yellow, fragrant flowers tinged pink.  The opening and fallen cucumber-like pods filled with fleshy seeds are relished by songbirds and ground birds as the towhee, grouse, and wild turkeys, as well as squirrels and other mammals.  Historically, the flower buds and flowers were used as a food source for the First Nation people and the bark extract was used as a medicinal analgesic, cold, and toothache remedy.2
  • History in the USA:  Magnolia as a species is prehistoric according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center in Texas.  The Magnolia acuminata has been found in the fossil record.  Cucumber tree magnolia is native to western New York, southern Ontario, southern Indiana, and southern Missouri south to Florida and Louisiana. Magnolia acuminata native habitat includes rich, wooded slopes, stream banks, and uplands.2 
  1. Michael Dirr, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, LLC, 1998
  2. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas, Magnolia acuminata

Magnolia trees – thoughts on caring for them

By Chancery Perks, Certified Arborist

Magnolias will become more popular and widespread as our regional climate warms.  With that said, the Cucumber Magnolia is the most cold-tolerant of the Magnolias used in landscape design.  

Young Magnolias of any kind will benefit by having their trunks protected from the freeze/ thaw that creates frost cracking.  This can be done by either whitewash painting the young trunks or wrapping them for the winter with a natural wrap like burlap.  

Trees placed close to reflective surfaces like certain man-made house sidings, parked cars, etc. receive warm reflective light during the sunny late-winter days.  This daily warmth thaws the subdermal fluids that then rapidly freezes as soon as the sun goes down.  This freezing can then expand those fluids and rupture the thin bark of young trunks.  Though frost cracks typically do not kill specimens, it may disfigure them for life and hinder important summer growth.

Most Magnolias like acidic soils and they appreciate it when you mix dried pine needles in the mulch used around them.  Many cultivars exist out of the dozen or so Magnolias available so do your homework beforehand and enjoy your new Magnolia additions to your landscape.