Until 1872, Norwood was parish of Dedham. Originally, Dedham was a huge land grant that stretched westerly to the Wellesley/Natick area, easterly to Norwood/Walpole and to the south all the way to the Rhode Island border. Governor John Winthrop acquired the land around 1636 from the Algonquin sachem, Chickataubet. However, it is interesting to note that a section of Norwood, the Fowle Meadow/Neponset River area, has contained evidence of a Native American presence here. However, it seems to be more due to the area’s rivers and streams and abundant wildlife population, that the area was a hunting ground for local nomadic Indigenous people versus a permanent Indigenous community.
As the population of Dedham increased, many villages had been established, especially in further areas, and so they petitioned the Great Court of Massachusetts to form their own towns. This was due in part to the fact that all Dedham residents had to pay taxes to support the minister, and were also expected to attend services at the main Church of Christ Meeting House Parish no matter how far out of town they lived. Wrentham was set off as a town in 1673 and Walpole in 1724. However, Norwood was still considered a parish of Dedham.
Around 1678 Ezra Morse, wanting to build a sawmill, petitioned for land on the Hawes Brook in today’s Norwood/Walpole area because other choice sites had already been taken or granted. Morse was the first known settler in Norwood. His original mill was located on the Hawes Brook back by the railroad tracks, and he used it initially to saw wood to build his house, which was located close to the present George H Morse house. This section became known as Morse Hill, which it is still called to this day. He then increased the size of his sawmill and moved it to Water Street in Walpole (South) on the Neponset River. It remained there for many years and was a successful family business. By 1865 a small group of farmers had come to the area and was a self-contained settlement calling itself TIOT with a small wooden school called the Balch after the first pastor of the South Dedham Church, and a small grocery/dry goods store. The meetinghouse was located near the split at Chapel and Washington Streets. Even after Norwood was incorporated in 1872 this area of Norwood remained relatively flat farmland and unsettled. There were about 14 permanent buildings by 1900. Around this time immigrants, were already populating the main town of Norwood with Irish, Italian, Germans, Swedes and Finns, came to South Norwood/TIOT. The Lithuanians were the first immigrants to settle in South Norwood in the 1890s. Because of chain migration, by 1915 over 500 Lithuanians lived in this area and worked in the various mills, presses and factories in Norwood and South Walpole. Also in the late 1890s Polish and Syrian immigrants began settling in the area. John Howard was the first of the Syrians to move his family from Boston at this time and soon another wave of chain migration brought the South Norwood a diverse and almost self-contained community. Each ethnicity had their own markets and shops. Triple-decker housing units were quickly erected to accommodate the rising population.
At one time, Washington Street was a toll road – the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike. It ran straight through South Norwood, was laid out around 1802 and was completed in South Dedham in 1806. It became the main road between Providence and Boston and was well traveled. Initially named Centre Street, it was renamed in 1876, to Washington Street, and was a main thoroughfare through Norwood. Many shops sprung up along it that provided services to those that lived in the neighborhood, as well as those lived in other areas of Norwood.
When Norwood was established, as maps of the town illustrate, land on Washington Street was largely uninhabited; the area was mostly agricultural. As the need for housing grew after 1900, new streets were paved that radiated off of Washington Street and apartments were constructed. Census records also reflect the growing number of people living in this area. The population grew so fast that a new school had to be built to accommodate all the children who had moved into South Norwood.
Locals refer to South Norwood as “The Flats.” Some have attributed this to the topography of the area…flat. Others note that apartments are often called flats, and South Norwood has a lot of triple-decker apartment buildings…or flats. A notion that has even been floated is that the roofs of the triple-deckers are flat. It should be noted that between 1913 and 1917 approximately 400 multi-family apartment buildings had been constructed in South Norwood. These building had anywhere from 3 to 12 individual apartments in them. For the most part, triple-deckers in Norwood are unique to South Norwood. During the pandemic the Norwood Historical Society posed an online question regarding the original of the nickname “The Flats” for South Norwood. Many people responded, and they overwhelming answered was it a reference to all the many apartments – or flats, in the neighborhood.
It was said, that people who invested in South Norwood before the 1910s, when the building boom hit. Saw their investment appreciate five-fold. But it was not until after the influenza epidemic on 1918 that utilities came to the neighborhood. Historian Bryant Tolles wrote in his Norwood centennial book, “this district remained a shabby, unsanitary, and poorly provided to live until municipal government officers and well meaning citizens upgraded conditions to the pleasant level of the present day.”