Skip to content

100,000 Violets

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, July 8, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 055)

jef055a.jpg

At the turn of this century one of the finest houses standing in this town was the home Charles A. Raymond built for himself in 1895 on Terrace Hall Avenue. The beautiful interior woodwork alone, it was estimated, must have cost him almost $30,000, a fantastic sum in those days. The house did not look that impressive outwardly although it stood on a rise of land overlooking the road and the lowland beyond. The Francis Wyman Middle School now occupies the site.

Raymond was a large taxpayer in Burlington, being assessed for 44 other pieces of land and buildings including the old Simonds farmhouse on Terrace Hall in which Marshall Simonds was born.

The lawns about the main house were terraced and kept immaculate by one or more gardeners. On that side of the road were a large barn, an engine house and a tank house (so that water under pressure was on hand,) the Simonds house and, near Vine Brook, a small Cape cottage. On the other side opposite the main house was a veritable park with a duck pond and island, a huge barn for horses, and a boarding house for the hired hands.

For whatever reason, Raymond sold his Terrace Hall property to a Harvey C. Wheeler in 1909, a property which extended on both sides of the road from what is now Raymond Road to the Turnpike. Beyond the Simonds place and bordering on Vine Brook, Wheeler erected a series of 23 greenhouses. He had the notion that he could raise gapes under glass the year round and so he filled his greenhouses with grape vines.

Wheeler also had definite ideas about building greenhouses. He tied all 23 greenhouses together, each unit abutting its neighbor lengthwise with the thought in mind of saving erection costs and also heating costs. The whole undertaking was a disaster. The power plant used a wagonload of coal a day in the winter, coal which had to be hauled from the rail yards in Woburn. And snow lodged solidly between the sloping roofs, melting from the heat within and freezing from the cold without, breaking one pane of glass after another. The venture failed and Wheeler went back to his Boston clean towel business.

Thus in 1912 the entire Terrace Hall property changed hands once more, this time to a Norris F. Comley, a fellow from Lexington who knew his gardening and his greenhouses. He began by tearing down every other greenhouse, building new ones, even trucking in new loam and fertilizer, until he had the largest greenhouse plant in New England, the Terrace Hall Conservatories.

Norris Comley was a noted horticulturist and, although he raised some vegetables for the Boston market such as tomatoes and cucumbers, his primary interest was flowers. His daughter, Mrs. W. T. Peirce, writing from New Hampshire, gives a little of the family background: “The Mass. Horticultural Society was established in the early 1800s. Norris Comley’s father James H. Comley was a large exhibitor. When “Oakhurst” was built in Lexington by F.B. Hayes (Hayes gave the Minuteman statue to the town) J.H. Comley came in charge of his extensive gardens with 40 and 50 workmen.

“J.H. Comley was born in England and had the advantage of an apprenticeship under John Spencer on the estate of the Marquis of Lansdowne in England. He trained his son Norris who took over for him in 1892 when J.H. Comley accompanied F.B. Hayes to Japan where they imported much Japanese flora. They brought back the first Japanese cut-leaf red maple, iris, many varieties of chrysanthemums as well as many varieties of rhododendrons, etc.”

Once in business here, Norris soon won several medals at the Mass. Horticultural Show such as a silver medal for a new tomato which he named “Terrace Hall” and another for a new pompom chrysanthemum which he also labelled “Terrace Hall”. He once won a large cut-glass punch bowl for the “largest number of first prizes.” He raised a variety of flowers here: snapdragon, antheridiums, carnations, violets; double violets white daisies, sweet peas, baby’s breath, bachelor buttons, etc. The Boston Post ran an article with pictures in 1922 which said in part, “A large portion of the violets which will flood Greater Boston and, in fact all New England today, will come from the greenhouses of Norris F. Comley of Burlington who has cultivated more than 100,000 bunches for the 1922 Valentine trade.” Another article later in the year said, “Don’t overlook the value of flowers in the home on Christmas… Norris F. Comley, who has grown 20,000 cyclamen plants this year, and has already sold 15,000 of them to dealers, is offering the remaining 5,000 to the public direct at the store at 709 Boylston Street.”

When Norris moved to Burlington he turned Raymond’s garden park across the road into a Japanese Garden. Tiled walks were laid out among the plants, exotic shrubs and flowering trees were planted, and an arched wooden bridge built to connect the small island in the pond. That island now held a wooden pagoda. A 3-legged Japanese ceremonial lantern three feet in diameter stood as a point of interest among the Scotch pines. The Comley gardens became the showplace of Burlington.

During World War I the government cut off all coal supplies to nonessential users and suddenly Comley had no coal to heat his greenhouses. Faced with the potential loss of thousands of dollars worth of growing plants, the energetic and resourceful Comley bought 100 acres of woodland not too far away off the Turnpike in Bedford, hired a crew of men to cut and haul logs to his boiler house and thus kept the fires burning. He did lose some of his flowers however.

Several years later, during a particularly severe winter when the hauling of a sufficient supply of coal became almost impossible because of heavily drifted snow, that wood lot came in handy once more. To help combat the snow drifts Comley contracted a crew to break open the roads. They quit when they reached Center Street hill. Comley then tried to bring his trucks through by way of Sears Street. Maitland Pearsons who lived on Sears Street can remember Comley’s trucks stuck first in snow; then in slush and finally bogged down in mud needing the help of horses to pull them free. Comley lost whole greenhouses full of specially developed roses that year.

Norris Fines Comley was born in Lexington, the youngest of six children born to James Henry and Harriet Ridgeway Comley, in 1870. He married the girl who nursed him through an almost fatal illness, Alice S. Smith. The couple had two children, James Henry Comley II and Alice Violet Comley. James married Helen Perry of Greenwich, Conn in 1924. Norris died that same year. Alice married Walter Peirce of Worcester in 1925. Mrs. Comley carried on the business for several more years but it was finally phased out.

About 1928 the big house was sold to an Al Mello who ran what was supposed to be a rest home but was actually a roadhouse. It burned down in 1940. The big barn in the meadow was sold to the Harvard University Riding Club and used by them until it too burned down. The last of the 23 greenhouses blew away in the hurricane of 1938. And the splendid Japanese Garden reverted to underbrush.