Southborough Historical Society

                            Southborough, MA

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(with emphasis on Joseph Burnett & his family)

Revised March 29, 2010

 The Southborough Historical Society welcomes your comments and any updates you may have regarding the Burnett Family History.

The following was taken from a paper written by Kay Allen, SHS in 1987 and from a “Burnett Family History” written in 1977 by Barbara (Burnett) Gratwick, daughter of Edward Burnett.  Other sources are referenced in the footnotes.  Also check out our Chronological History of Joseph Burnett.

Seven generations before Joseph Burnett, Robert Burnap (1595-1688) was living at Hoddesden End, Great Amwell Parish, Standstead Abbots, County of Hertfordshire, England.  He emigrated from England to America in 1638 with his wife, Ann and their four children settling in Reading, Massachusetts (Bay Colony) where it is reported he become a husbandman (farmer) and selectman.

The Burnap-Burnett Genealogy by H.W. Belknap, published in 1925 by the Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts, traces the Burnap name down to John Burnap (1731-1806) when the name seems to have changed to Burnett.  His father, Benjamin, may have changed his name to Burnett as well at this time.

The Burnett name first became known in Southborough when Charles Ripley Burnett married Lovina Mathews in 1783.  Lovina was the great-granddaughter of Mary Johnson who married John Mathews.  Mary (Johnson) Matthews and her brother, William were the earliest settlers of Southborough.  They lived in the west part of town on land granted to their father Jonathon who settled in Marlborough.  From Mary Johnson Mathews descended the Burnett family and from William Johnson descended the Johnson family, which still remains in the town today (1987) some [of which still perform] farming as did their ancestors.

Joseph’s grandfather and father were both rope makers.  When Charles Burnett married Lovina Mathews, the property we now call the garrison house on Gilmore Road passed to him.  They had a son, Charles R., Jr. (b. March 12, 1788) and daughter, Lovina (b. Sept. 28, 1785).  When their son, Charles R, Jr., married Kesiah Pond, they built a small house on a plot of land west of the garrison house given to them by Charles and Lovina.  It was in this small house that Joseph was born on November 11, 1820.  Ironically, today it is known as the Warner Oland house, a movie actor who played detective Charlie Chan and spent his summers here, and not the birthplace of Joseph Burnett.


Mathews House on Gilmore Road (became the home of Charles Ripley Burnett, Joseph Burnett’s Grandfather and it is adjacent to his birthplace).



Home of Charles and Keziah Burnett and the birthplace of Joseph Burnett on Gilmore Road


Joseph’s uncle, Joel had a strong influence on him, as he attended Harvard and was regarded as the family intellectual.  His Uncle Joel fertilized the seed that would grow and spread to become the Burnett Family Dynasty.1  To quote a Burnett family biographer “it fell to the lot of Joseph to raise this line of the family from the comparatively simple life of the small farmers to prosperous Boston merchants”.

Joseph attended the local schools, and at age 15 (1835) went to Worcester where the same family biographer says he attended the Worcester College of Pharmacy.  Some sources claim he attended the English and Latin school instead, but never received a college education.  He studied medicine but never practiced it; however, he acquired the title of Doctor by which he was everywhere known.

In 1837 he associated himself with a Boston druggist [Theodore Metcalf] as a clerk,  later becoming a partner, then owner of his own Pharmacy sharing the same address at 33 Tremont Row, Boston (later renamed Tremont Street).   A woman’s request for vanilla in 1847 started him on his way to international material fame.  He moved in 1854 to start his own business as a manufacturing chemist, selling off his ½ partnership in the Theodore Metcalf Company in 1855. (See the History of Joseph Burnett Company).

On June 20, 1848, he married Josephine Cutter (1830–1906) and they moved into the great stone mansion in Southborough in 1850, which they had built on land acquired for Deerfoot Farm.  (See History of Deerfoot Farms Company)



The Joseph Burnett Estate (buildings in the photo are described below). 

Photo circa. 1900 shortly after the expansion of Stony Brook as part of the Massachusetts District Commission (MDC) Sudbury Reservoir.1a


The Joseph Burnett Estate is located at 84 Main Street.  The great stone mansion was begun in 1849, completed in 1850 and updated in 1860 (at middle left in the photo above). The summer bungalow (at center) was built c.1850 (some sources say as late as c.1870’s).  The stone shop & former Episcopal Chapel built in 1848 (at lower left), and carriage house/stables (only a portion of the roof showing behind the stone shop), built in 1870.

The stone house was a large Victorian style mansion with sumptuous interior.  Joseph was a prosperous merchant and farmer and the great house & estate reflected his prestige among the other prominent family properties in Southborough; the Choate, Sears (owners of Wolfpen Farm), and Kidder estates. The large house would later prove to be essential for raising a family of 12 children.

“One of my most vivid memories (of the stone house) is the enormous dining room, and the wonderful meals that were served at the huge table.  We children were quite often invited.  Especially memorable where the first days on which some particular popular foods were served, about which there was sort of a ritual.  Grandpa (Joseph) would ask, “Why is corn like a caterpillar?”  The chorus would reply, “because it’s the grub that makes the butter fly.”  The first strawberries were greeted with the announcement, “God, being omnipotent, could have invented a better berry than the strawberry, the fact remains He never did!”  One of the most delicious and, in its way, characteristic articles of food was when Uncle Ned (Edward), the eldest son, and no longer living at home, visited.  Then a very special item was served, made and named by Ned himself, “Pommes de terre de Smash”.  A glorified mashed potato, beaten so long and vigorous by Uncle Ned himself.  It was better than any mashed potato (I have had) before or since.  Another notable treat was blueberry muffins, the recipe for which was, to put in as many blueberries you think the dough will hold, and then add a cupful.  They were unbelievable!”2 

The stone house was inherited by the trustees of Joseph Burnett’s will; Robert M. Burnett, John T. Burnett and William W. Vaughan.  George H. Burnett took ownership in 1928.  “The stone house still stands, though with some changes, and is no longer in Burnett hands, being sold in 1947.”3

 During their long marriage, they had 12 children who can be seen in the photo below:

Burnett Family (c. 1890’s.)  Top Row: L to R: Harry, John, Robert, Josephine (Kidder), Edward, Rev. Waldo, and Charles.  Front Row: L to R: Louise (Choate), Ester Gardner, Joseph (Father), Elinor (Bishop), Josephine (Cutter) Burnett (Mother), and Ruth. 

Below is a brief biography of each of the Burnett sons & daughters.  The girls received their elementary education from Harriet Marcella Burnett (a cousin) in the early 1860’s. Elize Belle Burnett Fay and her sister, Harriet Marcella Burnett (daughters of Joel Burnett), established a day school for boys and girls.  The school received financial support from both Joseph Burnett and Sylvester Fay (husband of Eliza Belle Burnett).  In 1866, the sisters officially founded Fay School.

The Burnett boys attended St. Mark’s School, which Joseph Burnett had founded in 1865.  Edward was sent back from St. Paul’s School, which he was attending, so he could graduate from St. Mark’s, his father’s new school.

Edward (1849-1925) Also known as Ned.  He graduated from St. Mark’s School (founded by his father) and Harvard University in 1871 (Edward was sent back from St. Paul’s School, which he was attending, so he could graduate from St. Mark’s, as it was his father’s new school).

He became president of Deerfoot Farms in 1871, introducing innovations like the use of glass bottles for milk around 1880, the use of one of the first commercial centrifugal cream separators and the importation of Guernsey and cattle in 1883.  He became an authority on both Guernsey and Jersey cattle.  Edward received a patent for a bottle stopper on July 17, 1883 and one for a “truck” with springs to keep milk cans from being jostled when transported to market.

He also introduced his father’s famous recipe for sausage commercially in 1872, eventually expanding it to international fame.  It is said Edward didn’t like the slaughtering side of the business as he did not like the squealing of the little pigs. 

Edward was married to Mabel Lowell (daughter of poet James Russell Lowell) and they had 5 children.  After her death, he married his brother Charles’ widow, Ethel Raymond Mason Burnett, and had 5 children from this marriage.

He was a prominent breeder of Boston Terrier canines.  For more on this subject see:

He was a Congressman during the Cleveland Administration.  He had been a member of the Republican Party, but had leanings to the ideals of the Democratic Party of Grover Cleveland.  During Cleveland’s Presidential campaign of 1892, Deerfoot Farm was made his campaign headquarters for New England.  The Clevelands even came to Southborough and stayed at Edward’s home for two days and one night.  He was elected as a Democrat to the Fiftieth Congress (March 4, 1887-March 3, 1889) and turned over the running of the farm to his brother Robert.  He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1888 to the Fifty-first Congress.   Having lost his bid for another term as a U.S. Congressman and pursuing his interests in farm architecture and design, Edward left the farm around 1892 to become an advisor and architect, primarily designing barns for the superior Guernsey cattle he brought in for gentlemen farmers, and became a general manager of Flosham Farms, Madison, N.J. from 1892-1900, and was engaged as a farm architect in New York City from 1900 to 1925.4  

According to (Biltmore Estate:  the Most Distinguished Place by Dr. John Bryan, Rizzoli Press, NY, 1995, p. 89):  “Edward Burnett served as purchasing agent and agricultural advisor to George Vanderbilt. He was the son of Boston spice merchant Joseph Burnett, who established Deerfoot Farm and had become well known for introducing blooded Jersey cattle to the American dairy industry. Edward Burnett became an agricultural consultant after he failed to be re-elected to the US House of Representatives.  Burnett personified the agrarian expertise many great estates were meant to project and played an important early role at Biltmore.... Burnett came to Vanderbilt through family associations: he worked for Seward Webb at Shelburne Farms [in Vermont] and Hamilton Twombly at Florham [both Vanderbilt's brother-in-laws], he purchased horses for William K. Vanderbilt, and, when Biltmore began, he was already working for George Vanderbilt at both Staten Island [at the family farm] and Bar Harbor [at Pointe d'Acadie, George Vanderbilt’s summer home].  The Jersey dairy herd he had established at Homestead was moved to Biltmore in 1896 and gained a national reputation, much like that of Deerfoot Farm.  Burnett also headed Vanderbilt's new Agricultural Department and functioned as purchasing agent, with a salary of $2,000 a year, plus a commission. He also helped established the Market Garden and Dairy at Biltmore Farms N. C., and designed some farm structures.”5

Harry (1850-1927) Attended St. Mark’s School and Harvard, graduating in 1873.  Harry was crippled from a childhood accident, when as a baby he rolled off his bed.  He worked at Joseph Burnett Company in Boston beginning in 1889, and became its treasurer and director until his death in 1927.  He was also vice president of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. He later moved to his father’s Boston residence at 133 Beacon Street.  The Beacon Street residence was sold in 1907 or 1908, not long after his mother’s death. He moved back to the stone house in Southborough and commuted to Boston daily by train.  Harry lived here until his death in 1927. 

Robert Manton (1852-1929) helped his brother Edward run the farm operation, serving as treasurer.  After Edward’s election to Congress in 1886, Robert took over his duties.   Robert Burnett became its president, sometime between 1886 and 1892 (it is uncertain as Edward is listed as president, in some publications as late as 1891) remaining in this capacity until his death in 1929.  Robert was also involved in the Joseph Burnett Company with brother Harry serving as its president after his father’s death until 1906. He also served on the boards of several other companies.  Along with his brother Edward, he helped make the dairy and meat processing businesses become known nationally and around the world.  Robert designed a “bowling pin shaped” milk bottle in 1898, receiving a patent for it in 1899.  The Manton/Gaulin Machine, the first machine for the breaking down of milk globules for making ice cream, was developed with the resources of Robert Manton Burnett (the machine bearing his middle name).  In 1899 he was the Massachusetts’ Governor’s first choice to serve as Boston’s Police Commissioner.  He refused saying he was not a Boston resident and had too many business commitments.5a Robert married Margaret Hall (1856–1914) and they had 3 children.  After her death he married Helen Haynes (1880–1965) and there were no children from this marriage.

Waldo (1855-1935) –After graduating from the Episcopal Seminary, he became rector of St. Mark’s Church (1883–1900).  Rev. Waldo had also studied in England and loved that Country, even speaking with a pronounced Oxford accent.  In 1900 he left St. Mark’s and moved to Heddington, Wilshire, England, serving under the Bishop of Salisbury.  He would come to Southborough often during the summer, and stay at the stone house with his bachelor brother, Harry.

Josephine (1857-1935) – married Charles Archbald Kidder, son of a millionaire banker and member of a prominent Southborough family.  Charles and Josephine had 2 children.

Esther (1859-1954) – married George Peabody Gardner of Boston.  He donated a 60 acre parcel of land (a 9 hole golf course) to St. Mark’s School in 1923.  George and Esther had 2 children.

Ruth (1862-1942) – was a great belle who had many suitors, but preferred to follow the religious life.  She was converted to Roman Catholicism in her mid-twenties by a friend.  She entered the Convent of the Sacred Heart, becoming a nun and later Mother Superior of the Convent.  It was said no one took life with more joy and humor than she.  She was a formidable woman who gained the respect of those who knew her.  “Brother Waldo, who was a highly opinionated man, could only lose an argument to two people; his father, Joseph, and his sister, Ruth.  She was also quite an athlete and was proficient at baseball and horsemanship.  Ruth started the girl’s sports program at the School of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Manhattanville, N. Y., teaching them to play baseball.  In her old age she returned to Massachusetts where she….played a prominent role in establishing the Newton Country Day School” 6

Charles Cutter (1864-1900) – Attended Harvard, graduating in 1886.  He went into the railroad business, getting his training from Charles Perkins of the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe RR out of Chicago.  He had just turned 30 when he came back East to Providence as superintendent of the old Boston and Worcester Railroad.   A Typhoid epidemic broke out among workers living in tents in the rail yards, and when going down and checking the condition of his men, he contracted the disease, and died at age 36.  Charles married Ethel Raymond Mason (who would marry brother Edward after Charles’ death) and they had 2 children.

Richard (1866-1867) – died at age 5 months.

John Torrey (1868-1929) – the youngest son, spent most of business life with the Joseph Burnett Company and became its president and director in 1907.  He also served on the boards of several other companies.  He attended Harvard University. He was active in politics on the state and national level as a member of the Democratic Party.  In a newspaper account of his father’s death, one reads that John was assistant postmaster at Boston at this time.  The Boston directories also list a John T. Burnett Extract Company (c.1894?-1905)7 which seems to have been part of the Joseph Burnett Company.  His son Joe Burnett wrote; “He was a trustee of St. Mark’s School when I was going there.  I know this because he came into my class one day to see me perform, and I hadn’t done my homework!”  John married Phyllis Abbott (1889–1983) and had 2 children.

Louise (1869-1929) – married Charles Francis Choate, Jr., principal counsel of Old Colony Railroad and member of the prominent Southborough family.  They had 6 children.

Elinor (1872-1953) - youngest child who married retired minister, Ellis Bishop, and moved to California.  They had 2 children.

“My grandparents were very much church people (Joseph Burnett, originally a Congregationalist became an Episcopalian after being influenced by his years spent in Boston).  St. Mark’s School (founded in 1865 and completed in 1890)7a was built to take care of the sons of the Burnett family and their adjacent families.   St.  Mark’s Church (opened in 1863) had a strong connection to the school, though it was very much a neighborhood church.  One of my most delightful memories was at the “Harvest Home” Service where farmers from Southborough and vicinity would bring items of produce from the farms to deck the Church.  It was such fun setting it up for the service, and the Church smelled delightfully of the fruits and vegetables they brought.”8 See Historical Pictures of St. Mark’s Church and St. Mark’s School.

“The Roman Catholic Colony was on the other side of the tracks.” This probably referred to the Cordaville, Fayville, and Southville areas of the town were Irish immigrants had begun settling before the Civil War.  By 1850, “In addition to farms, butchers, and blacksmiths… Southborough boasted six grist mills, three saw mills, six boot and shoe factories, three cotton and wool factories, three tanneries, two brick kilns, a brush factory, a wire factory, a peg mill, a flour mill, one currier shop, a bonnet factory, a carriage factory, and a cordage factory, within its boundaries.  ….many of the workers were Irish…..”10

 “A number of Irish worked for Burnett in Southborough, but unlike the Irish workers in Southville, Fayville, and Cordaville who were for the most part Roman Catholics and worshiped in neighboring communities – Burnett’s employees were members of the Church of England (Episcopalian).  Indeed, he made sure of it….”11

Although Joseph Burnett did not aspire to public office, he served when asked to by his friends.  He served as president of the Middlesex South Agricultural Society (1865-1866) and president of the Boston Druggists’ Association (1878-1879).  He remained president of the Joseph Burnett Company and was involved with the Deerfoot Farm operation and St. Mark’s Church and School.  He was a vestryman of St. John’s Church, Framingham, and of St. Paul’s Church, Hopkinton.  He was also one of the original founders of the Church of the Advent in Boston. 

He came to an untimely death when he was thrown from his carriage at age 73, on August 11, 1894.  The accident occurred on Maple Street in nearby Marlborough.  His horse was spooked12 causing it to rear up and toss him from the carriage where he struck his head on a rock and died instantly. 

“His funeral took place at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Southborough, on August 15th.  The simple and impressive service was conducted by Bishop Laurence, assisted by Archdeacon Converse of Boston and Archdeacon Chambre of Lowell.  Music was furnished by the choir of Holy Trinity Church.  The bearers where, Hon. Edward Burnett, Rev. Waldo Burnett, Robert M. Burnett, John T. Burnett, Charles Burnett (sons of the deceased), and Joseph Burnett (grandson).”13   Grandson Joseph stood in for his Uncle Harry who was unable to be a bearer due to his disability.

“A special train from Boston carried many prominent friends of the deceased.   Among the mourners were members of the Boston Druggists’ Association who resolved “That we are sensible to the great loss sustained by the decease of Joseph Burnett.  That his ever constant help and advice has been a great factor in the development of the College of Pharmacy, and that his memory will be permanently associated with its success.  That his kind gentlemanly, cheerful and generous qualities are cherished as a living fountain to his memory.”14


Obituary from the New York Times giving the date and time of the accident and Joseph Burnett’s death.



1The Burnap-Burnett Genealogy by H.W. Belknap, published in 1925 by the Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts,

1a Photo of the Stone House and Estate, courtesy of the MDC and text from The Extension of the Sudbury Reservoir Recreation Trail,, Southborough Recreation Dept. and Samantha Burgess, Girl Scout Gold Award Project 2005, with our thanks.

3 Ibid., Page 4.

4 Biographical Directory of the U. S. Congress.

5 Our thanks to Ms. Susan M. McKendree.  Associate Curator, The Biltmore Company, One North Pack Square, Asheville, NC 28801, (828) 225-6317. Visit .

5a American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record. 1899, Page 246.

6 Our thanks to, Richard E. Noble, Fences of Stone, A History of Southborough, Massachusetts, Peter E. Randall, publisher, 1990 (the quote is from pages 220/221).  His book was also referenced for other parts of this article. This fine book of Southborough history is available from our Museum Store (see our Home page).

7 The Boston Directories show his company at this address from 1900-1905.  The “questioned” 1894 date is simply an assumption on our part that the John T. Burnett Extract Company occupied the 27 Central Street address after the Joseph Burnett Company moved to 36 India Street.

7a As with most fine educational institutions, St. Mark’s is constantly growing and, and in reality, never completed.

8 The Story of Joseph Burnett by Catherine Gardner Mayes, Page 2.

9 Ibid., Pages 3 & 4.

10 Richard E. Noble, Fences of Stone, A History of Southborough, Massachusetts, Peter E. Randall, publisher, 1990, Page 153.

11 Ibid., Page 151.

12 His horse was startled by a trolley which ran along Maple Street in Marlborough, just over 5 years after the line began operations.  According to Mr. Know-It-All, The Milford Daily News, “Sunday Insight Section”, Oct. 1, 2006.” The Marlboro Electric Street Railway Co. was charted by the General Court of Massachusetts (The Legislature) in 1888.  The road was completed and operations commenced on June 19, 1889.”  Maple Street ended at the southern terminus of the line.  Marlborough claims to have been the site of the first electric trolley system in the country, however, there are other communities which also claim this distinction.

13/14 Are from an unidentified newspaper article, August, 1894.

Other photos are from Old Southborough, A Photographic Essay, by the Southborough Historical Society, Published by Yankee Colour Corporation, Southborough, 1981.  It contains dozens of black & white photos of the town during its earlier years (available from our Museum Store).


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