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The Perkins Pond

While much of the history of the pond on Perkins' campus is well-documented, other parts remain a mystery, like the source of the name "Dead Horse Pond.

View of Perkins Institution campus from across the Perkins Pond. A boat with two instructors and about seven boys is at the center of the pond. Two of the boys, one in the bow and one in the stern, have their arms over the side of the boat with their fingers in the water. Another group of students sit on the grassy banks. Circa 1914.

Introduction

The Perkins Pond has been a part of campus life since the school moved to Watertown in 1912. Over the years it has been used for boating, ice skating, science experiments, and as the backdrop for a vast number of picnics. In the photograph above, such uses are demonstrated as Perkins students rowed to the center of the pond with their teachers while another group of students sat on the grassy banks, circa 1914. While much of the pond’s history is well-documented, other parts remain a mystery,  like the source of the name “Dead Horse Pond.”

A brief history of the property

A 1912 article by R. Clipston Sturgis in The Brickbuilder, an architectural journal, talks about the campus as part of the architectural plan, and says “An attractive feature is a small natural pond near the middle of the property.” Sturgis was the architect for the school’s buildings. 

Cited references to the pond are not documented until 1889 on a map of Watertown, labeled as “Stickney Est.” At this point, Josiah Stickney owned the entire property that Perkins is built on. His main house was where May Cottage now is, in the West Close. He was passionate about horticulture, and his estate was a showplace for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It’s possible Stickney might have expanded an existing pond during this time. 

There are also photos from 1894 which show a substantial pond with trees around it. This suggests that the pond was at least in place for at least a few years at that point, given their size. The property also included a barn (near where the current Grousbeck Center is), a house for the caretakers, the Crawfords, and various outbuildings. There were three orchards (including prize-winning pear trees), and significant gardens. Stickney is especially known for introducing the dahlia to Massachusetts. 

The school bought the property from Stickney’s heirs in 1910, and then built the original campus buildings before the school moved to Watertown in 1912. The original buildings included the Howe Building, the East and West Close cottages, the health building, and the original four cottages of the Lower School. The northern area of the campus closer to North Beacon Street  (including the pond) was left undeveloped and used for the school’s gardens. 

The pond

Edward E. Allen, third director of Perkins, felt strongly that the campus should be a place of beauty. He was committed to Perkins students being in surroundings that encouraged them to engage with the world around them. An avid naturalist himself, the trees and the pond were very much a part of his plan. The fact the campus had already been nurtured as a space for growing plants and trees made the location very attractive to the school. Because of this, the pond became a central part of campus life. 

Those familiar with the campus today will know that the pond is now fenced off and has been since the 1980s, due to safety considerations. Hallowell House, the building closest to the pond, was opened in 1954 as the Director’s House, and now is home to Perkins International. This means that for the first forty years of the school’s time in Watertown, the pond was at the center of campus, accessible from every direction and part of the school.

The pond is about nine feet deep, and has a small island in it. The island appears on some older maps, and not on others, so either it was a later addition or it was not included on the maps. Photographs from the first years of the school’s time on campus show some substantial trees, as well bushes and other plants around the banks. 

Over the years, Allen describes the pond in various sources. In 1917, he presented a paper at a conference talking about the key aspects of the design of the school. He speaks about the pond, saying, “The boys have their boat on the Charles River, nearby; the girls, theirs on the institution pond. On this pond all hands may skate in winter; but they may enjoy skating in summer weather too, using roller skates on the gymnasium roof” (Allen, 34).

Wildlife

The school quickly became known as a haven for a range of wildlife. “The thicket that now encloses the pond has become a bird sanctuary. The pond furnishes water lilies and cat-tails and frog life, and bears geese and duck families” (1929 Annual Report). Visitors today can find turtles sunning themselves on logs, fish in the pond, and birds in the trees and bushes around the pond’s perimeter.  

Using the pond

Having such an attractive pond at the school also made for some challenges. In the 1923 Annual Report, Allen talks about the need for socialization skills, and the need for students to have spaces to learn those skills that can be overseen by Perkins. “When the town boys have come to skate on the institution pond, they have brought hockey sticks and unless restrained have rendered skating simply impossible for blind boys of any age.” 

The pond also presented an opportunity for both projects and gatherings. The 1940 Annual Report says “The Boy Scouts have been busy this year building a very useful and attractive lean-to near our pond which will be used for picnics, campfire meetings, and a shelter for getting our skates on in winter.” Other mentions of the pond include discussion of managing flooding (particularly due to Hurricane Diane in 1955) (1955 Annual Report). 

As the student population at Perkins has changed, the pond has gotten less use for skating and active play, but students still visit the pond to learn about the natural world, to do experiments in measuring and evaluating the pond, and just for the pleasure of hearing the fountain and birds and enjoying the space. In 1985, there was some discussion of a plan to fill in the pond, but responses from many people in the community kept the pond intact. 

“Dead Horse Pond”

There is one great mystery about the pond – and that’s its name. The name “Dead Horse Pond” was in use during Allen’s time as director (1907 through 1931), but it’s not clear either where or exactly when the name originated. 

There are mentions of two stories. One is about a carriage breaking through the ice, with the horse drowning. Another refers to Paul Revere riding across the pond and his horse breaking through the ice. While Paul Revere did briefly live in Watertown, both these stories seem more than a little improbable. As described in the history, the pond has been on private property for a long time, and it is unlikely strangers would have cut across the pond. The pond has banks, both currently and in older photographs. 

A letter in the Archives

A favorite item in the Perkins Archives has another take on the story, though. In an undated letter, which has been digitized on Flickr, sent during Allen’s time as director (so sometime between 1912 and 1931), a student writes to say: 

“Mr. Allen, you told us in chapel a long time ago that there was no horse in the pond. I have been waiting a long time to prove that there is one. One Saturday night while I was skating swiftly along the edges, I stumbled and fell over a small hole. I put my hand into the hole and felt of an iron thing. I pulled the thing out and saw that it was a horse shoe. Now you can not convince me that there is no horse in the pond. I have the shoe in my room. It is a large shoe. This shows that the horse was too heavy and fell in.”

While the theory is appealing, there are other explanations for the horseshoe. The barn on the property (removed when the school was built) was very near the pond, near  the campus entrance to the Grousbeck Center. A number of items from the barn were discovered during the excavations for the foundations of that building, including horseshoes, bottles, and other items from the barn. It’s entirely possible that some of them might have migrated into the pond itself over the years.  

Into the future

We know that many alums and staff members have wonderful memories of the pond, and the Perkins Archives does include some of these as part of our oral histories and other materials. Today, staff and students continue to enjoy the pond as it is used for science lessons and is part of the annual White Cane Day parade route. The sound of the fountain (a later addition to the pond) also echoes pleasantly through campus, adding a helpful tool for navigation. 

Works cited

Suggested Citation

Arnott, Jennifer. “The Perkins Pond.” Perkins Archives Blog. Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. June 20, 2023.

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Kindergarten boys kneel next to white geese at the edge of Perkins Pond in November 1936.
Story

A pond for study and fun

Examples of digitized materials on Flickr
Guide

Digital collections on the Perkins Archives Flickr site

Pages from the 1899-1903 Kindergarten scrapbook.
Guide

Digitized Perkins Kindergarten scrapbooks