A Parliament of Owls: Norumbega Tower

Did you know a group of owls is called a “parliament”? In the case of the Weston Owl, a Parliament of Owls is a guest post on this page. Today’s story is written by Joel Angiolillo with an intro from an owl.

A few weeks ago, the Owl took a lovely walk along Norumbega Road in Weston to determine if a walking trail could be developed along the Charles River there. The Owl was invited by a fun group of conservation and open space minded people including folks from Waltham Land Trust, Weston Forest & Trail Association, Weston Conservation, and others who will get a cameo in a future Owl post.

Norumbega Road in Weston is owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is plowed by Mass DOT though it seems we might be done with snow for a little while (and yet, this is New England). Parking is not easy but we lined up our cars in the shadow of a forgotten stone tower in a forgotten little park that is the site of the mysterious and fun Norumbega Tower. Yes, it was built by Vikings. No, it was not, but I seriously do love the crazy story of a man obsessed. And here to tell it is Joel Angiolillo, president of Weston Forest & Trail Association and super volunteer for the town of Weston.

Enjoy!

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According to the ancient Northmen sagas, Leif Ericson sailed west from Greenland sometime around 1000 CE to find timber and fish. From the sagas, he landed on forested shores where grapes grew wild and a freshwater river flowed from the interior to the sea. He named the land Vinland, the land of the grapevines. Today, no one questions that the Vikings made it to North America in their longboats, but where was Vinland? Amateur and professional archaeologists have argued about the location for generations, based on small tantalizing bits of information. There have been proponents for just about every river from the Saint Lawrence to the Potomac. 

Enter Eben Norton Horsford, a professor of “agricultural chemistry” at Harvard from 1847 to 1863. (Yes, Harvard had an ag school in the mid-19th century. Maybe they should again.) After studying the ancient records and examining the coastline of North America, he became convinced that the Vikings landed just a few blocks from his house in Cambridge, the first landing of Europeans in North America. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence. Furthermore, Professor Horsford believed that the Vikings built a trading fort and town along the banks of the Charles River in Weston.

What was the evidence? Professor Horsford built his case around a few artifacts he found and the fact that the local Algonquian name for the area was “Norumbega” which he thought was a sound-sister to “Norvega”, or Norway. (Turns out that Norumbega means something like “place of the quiet waters” in Algonquian.)

Professor Horsford was very convinced. He was also very rich, having made a fortune patenting the formula for baking powder. In 1889 he built a tower in Weston to commemorate the supposed location of the Viking fort. Miraculously, the stone tower after 133 years still stands. Equally miraculous is that this place of the quiet waters, at the confluence of the Stony Brook and the Charles Rivers, is still a park, with a half-mile of accessible shoreline with sweeping views of the river. (Although both the tower and park need a little TLC.)

So did the Vikings set up shop in Weston? The only confirmed landing site is L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, first excavated in the 1960s long after Professor Horsford built his tower. According to the sagas, and the modern archaeological evidence, about 300 Norsemen lived on the shores of Newfoundland for only 30 years, before returning to Greenland. But grapes have never grown as far north Newfoundland. So, I’m still putting my money on Weston.

Professor Horsford was interested in more than Vikings and baking powder. Most notably, he was an early and energetic proponent of women’s education. He donated generously to Wellesley College, including providing a building named, you guessed it, Norumbega Hall [Ed.: for sister alums, that building no longer exists–it was once where Jewett now stands].

A short interesting read if you care to follow along more: https://www.straightdope.com/21343139/did-leif-erikson-once-live-in-cambridge-massachusetts

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