Harriet F.B. Nevins

Harriette F.B. Nevins and Nevins Farm
by Dan Gagnon

The Nevins family was one of three prominent wealthy families associated with late 19th and early 20th century Methuen. Their names appear on many community institutions. While most institutions honor the two generations of male leaders, one honors a woman, Harriet F. (Blackburn) Nevins. The MSPCA’s Nevins farm, on Broadway in Methuen, is a living memorial to her interest and commitment to the well being of animals.

Harriet F. Blackburn was born in 1841 in Roxbury, MA to George and Nancy Blackburn. Her father was an English-born machinist who came to the United States in the early 1800s. By 1861, he had accumulated some wealth in the textile industry and partnered with David Nevins Sr. to rebuild the recently destroyed Pemberton Mill in Lawrence.

Harriet must have met Nevins’ oldest son during this time because in April, 1862, 18 year-old Harriet married 22 year-old David Nevins, Jr. The couple lived in South Framingham, and according to Methuen historian Richard Fremmer, David and Harriet “had several children.” Unfortunately for the couple, none of the children survived to adulthood. It must have been devastating to the kindhearted and caring Harriett. The couple did find comfort in acting as guardians to a boy named Hiran Appleman, who later became a minister, and adopting a young girl named Elise.

After Harriet Nevins’ father-in-law died in 1881, she and her husband spent summers in the three-story brick home in Nantucket they inherited from upon his death. The Nantucket home was built in 1845 and was located near the settled area of town. In time, the couple looked for more privacy and a home more suited to their increasing wealth. They eventually built an elegant colonial revival shingle–style home in 1894 on the island for their summer retreat.

Harriet Nevins’ brother-in-law, Henry, and his wife spent their summers in the remodeled ancestral farm in Methuen. The farm building, which dated back to the late 1600s, was located where the Quinn Safety Building now stands. It is not recorded when Harriet became interested in animals, but she would have been delighted with what she found when visiting her sister-in-law Julie at the Methuen farm. Fremmer wrote that, “It looked like a zoo.” He added, “The loud screeching of the foreign birds could be heard in the center of town. Horses and birds of all kinds would be seen on the landscaped grounds. Peacocks often crossed the Spicket River ending up as far away as Pelham Street.”

By 1890, Harriet and her husband decided to move to Boston to live with his mother. Two years earlier, Eliza Nevins moved to Suite 5 of the Tudor building on Beacon Street, leaving the Brighton estate she had shared with her husband David. For five years, Harriet and David Jr. took care of his mother, but in 1895 the 78-year-old Eliza died. David and Harriet’s time together after Eliza’s death was short lived. In 1898 David Jr. died while on a trip to Europe.

At the age of 57, and widowed, Mrs. Nevins decided to move one last time. She must have had fond memories of her time in Methuen, because shortly after her husband’s death, she moved to the ancestral farm that Julie Nevins had left since her husband Henry’s death in 1892.

Harriet became active with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and eventually sat on the board of directors. Her love of animals included owning many dogs and horses. The Methuen farm was the perfect place to indulge her passion. The Lawrence evening Tribune wrote, “The MSPCA found in her one of its greatest and outspoken benefactors.” One donation was for an animal ambulance to transport sick or injured animals to Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston for care.

Her most newsworthy donation happened in 1917. She donated nearly 160 acres of land near her Methuen home to the MSPCA as a “rest and convalescent home for animals.” According to the Methuen Transcript, “Mrs. Nevins [gave], in addition to the farm land and machinery, a generous gift of money [for] erecting the necessary buildings.” The president of the MSPCA even moved Methuen to oversee the operation of the new animal rest home.

Among the conveniences added for the animals were shelters and piped water stations distributed about the fields for animals seeking shade or to quench a thirst. Street railway companies and even the Boston mounted police began sending their horses to the Methuen farm for rest. All Harriet had to do now to be near animals was to walk next door.

Harriet also took an interest in her employees. She had gardeners, house-servants, a masseuse and chauffer. She provided a place for many of them to stay on the farm estate.
Her driver John Kilmurray was well known to her because she spent many hours being driven around. The Lawrence Evening Tribune wrote, “almost daily she rode through the business district of the city accompanied by intimate women friends.”

In December 1928 tragedy stuck Harriet’s employee family when a drunk driver killed her driver. John Kilmurray was delivering Christmas gifts to Harriet’s friends when he was killed. This tragedy had a particularly hard effect on the aging Harriet Nevins. A friend believed that sight of the Kilmurray’s accident actually hastened her decline. Nearly a year later, on November 14, 1929, the 88 year-old Harriet Nevins quietly passed away in her Methuen home near the beloved animals she cared so much about.

Even in death Harriet continued to show her kindness for those she held dear, and her concern for those less fortunate. In her will, friends, relatives and loyal employees were remembered. John Kilmurray’s family was provided for until his children became adults. Money was given to hospitals, libraries and the rest farm she helped establish. The most unusual bequest was to the towns of Walpole and Methuen to erect, “a fountain for the use of horses and dogs.”

Harriet F. Blackburn Nevins’ life was one of kindness and caring. She showed concern for those less fortunate, and compassion for the well-being of animals. The Nevins Farm is a fitting and tangible reminder of Mrs’ Nevins’ dedication and commitment to the animals she so loved.

Nevins Farm and Equine Center on Wikipedia

• Noble Family Animal Care and Adoption Center at Nevins Farm at MSPCA.

Hillside Acre Animal Cemetary

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