Partner Marion Blanchard Farnsworth
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Exmoor Farm, 751 Boston Post Rd, Weston, MA 02493
House on the Old Foundation, 745 Boston Post Rd, Weston, MA 02493
Linwood Cemetery, Weston, MA 02493
Gentlewomen farmers, business women, social workers, world travelers, foster parents, animal lovers, and philanthropists, Marion Farnsworth and Helen Stanley Johnson (1883 - April 28, 1972) left a large legacy of generosity and service in Weston and in greater Boston. For over three decades, they occupied an enchanting enclave they called Exmoor Farm where they became known as “the Aunts,” two single ladies who took it upon themselves to shelter, nurture, and educate over a dozen children during their time there from 1922 to 1954.
Helen Stanley Johnson, a 1907 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, was originally from Wayne, Pennsylvania. She had been at Verdun with the Red Cross American Field Service and had seen the horrors of World War I. Upon her return, she traveled to Cuba where her father, Richard H. Johnson, was living with his young second wife and children, before coming to Boston.
Marion met Helen in Boston in 1920 while working for the Red Cross. The two young, well-educated women had both lost their mothers, and each of their fa - thers had remarried. Both were deeply involved in social work and interested in social change.
In 1921, Marion and Helen quit their jobs to travel to Europe together. They spent several months in Exmoor, England, exploring the countryside on horse - back. They were especially fond of the Exmoor ponies, a small but rugged native breed. Finally Charles Farnsworth inquired when his daughter and her friend were coming home. Marion replied “We’ll come home when you buy us a farm!” Mr. Farnsworth was quick to oblige.
On May 5, 1922 Marion became the new owner of the old Harrington Farm (also spelled Herrington) on what was then called Central Avenue. It consisted of a historic house, barn, outbui ldings, and 48 acr es of land with meadows, pine for - est, and an apple orchard. The plan was to raise chickens and horses and to start an egg business.
Because the young women had loved Exmoor in Devonshire so much, they de - cided to call their new home Exmoor Farm. They arranged to ship the two horses they had been riding in England. These were believed to be the first Exmoor po - nies to arrive in America. In addition, Marion asked the groom, a widower named Walter Hurd, if he and his four-year-old daughter, May, would follow Starlight and her mate Ginger Nut to Weston.
Hurd agreed, becoming the first superintendent of Exmoor Farm. In addition to caring for the animals, which also included cows, pigs, and numerous dogs, he also supervised the running of the farm.
Jenny Kroll recalls the delight with which little May Hurd was received at Ex - moor. She was “a darling little curly haired person, knowing a lot about horses already, she lived in the big house with Marion and Helen.” May Hurd was the first of many children that Marion and Helen took in and cared for at Exmoor.
Soon there were two more, Jean Melville and Thelma K. Stevens. Jean, the daughter of Howard A. Melville, a professor from Montreal, lost her father in 1926, when she was just 10 years old. Her mother, a New York City ballerina, needed to keep working and could not take care of Jean herself, so consented to her daughter moving in with Marion and Helen. Jean had been staying with Helen’s relatives in Florida when the Aunts met her there on one of their trips south. She became such an outstanding equestrian that she competed in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.
Thelma Stevens came to stay at Exmoor in 1928 at age 10. Marion’s late mother, Henrietta Blanchard Farnsworth, was from St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Marion, who had no brothers or sisters of her own, was close to her many Stevens cousins on her mother’s side. After Marion and Helen acquired Exmoor Farm, the cousins from Vermont and their children often came to visit. On one such visit, it was decided that Thelma would come to stay with the Aunts and be company for Jean. Thelma’s younger sister Martha was a frequent visitor. Both sisters became accomplished horsewomen.
The next young woman to move in was Elizabeth Dean Francis, known as “Lee.” Lee was the daughter of New York attorney George Blinn Francis, a former Con - gressman. Three years after the death of Lee’s mother, her father remarried and had more children. Lee was not happy living with with her new stepmother. Her late mother was one of Marion’s best friends at Radcliffe, and Lee’s visits to the Aunts continued after her mother’s death. In 1932, at age 14, Lee joined their growing family and, like the other children, thrived there.
The children called Marion “Embie” (for her initials M. B.) and Helen “Honey” or “Yonnie,” apparent references to her sweet nature and her last name, Johnson.
Helen’s niece Anna Jane DeCanizares, known as “Nancy,” had been a frequent visitor to Exmoor with her mother Jane, Helen’s older sister, who still lived in Wayne, Pennsylvania. In 1932 Nancy decided to move in with her Aunt Helen and “Aunt Marion.” Also in 1932 Corita Arche, “Tiqui” came to Weston to attend Regis College. She was the niece of Helen’s stepmother and had met the Aunts on their trips to Cuba. Soon Corita, who often visited Exmoor, asked for permission to move in.
During the summers, a skeletal crew remained at Exmoor to care for the property and farm animals and to keep the egg business going. By that time the Aunts were shipping eggs throughout the region and were no longer “hands on.” For the 1941 “Exmoor Chronicle” Thelma Stevens repeats Helen’s story of the day a thief grabbed one of their suitcases from an unlocked car. When Helen and Marion appeared, the thief dropped it and ran. The suitcase flew open and there were eggs all over Boylston Street.
In May 1940, Marion Farnsworth legally adopted a baby girl whom she called Sarah Anne Farnsworth, known as Sally. She was able to do this with the help of her old friend Dr. Thom, with whom she had started the Habit Clinic at the South End Settlement House back in the 1920s. When Marion and Helen decided they would like to adopt a little girl, Dr. Thom found them a lovely newborn baby whose parents were living in Boston and were unable to care for her.
A few months earlier, in January 1940, Cousin Lottie had passed away. Her nurse Mary McDermott stayed on to care for Sally, first at Exmoor, then at “Blue Gates” a small house the Aunts purchased in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, in anticipation of the arrival of the English children.
Sally Farnsworth was especially attached to her Aunt Helen, who was sweet, lov - ing, and fun to be with. Later there was also a live-in nanny, a rigid disciplinar - ian, of whom she was not at all fond.
In 1954, Marion sold most of Exmoor Farm to Frank B. Carter Jr. of Weston, owner of Coombs Motor Company in Watertown. Marion and Helen both moved to Boston, each to her own apartment in the Back Bay. Marion took a large apartment on Beacon Street overlooking the Charles River and brought Irene Fortune with her. Helen took an apartment in the same neighborhood. She took Elizabeth Wallace with her, also for what turned out to be a long time.
In 1958 Marion gave Helen Johnson a life estate at 745 Boston Post Road, where death had recently ended Mary Field’s long and happy tenancy. Helen made a few improvements and moved in with Elizabeth Wallace as her housekeeper. According to her adopted daughter, Sally Farnsworth Blackett, “No one had ever made love to Mother before. When he stayed overnight, he used to sleep in her bed. Helen did not care for that at all.”
They shared a wonderful life for 38 years and cared for over a dozen children together. Their long and intimate friendship seemed to be the very definition of a “Boston marriage.” Yet both Marion’s daughter Sally and her daughter-in-law Kay Boynton expressed doubt that they were ever lovers.
One friend of the family recalled that, for some forgotten reason, Marion and Helen had a falling out. “This is when Marion made the decision to marry— a big mistake.” Although she said little about it, “Helen took it pretty hard.”
In any event, when Helen returned to Weston she became more active in town affairs. She had previously joined the “Cracker Barrel” a private, civic-minded group that started meeting shortly after a student torched the high school in 1948, leading to much discussion about a new school. She enjoyed hosting her Weston neighbors in her new home. Helen became the first woman on the vestry at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, where she and Marion had worshipped for many years.
In the early 1970’s, Helen Johnson had a stroke that left her incapacitated. Elizabeth Wallace continued to care for her until her passing at age 89 on April 28, 1972. Helen is buried with four friends at Linwood Cemetery on a hillside lot marked by a granite boulder from the Weston farm. One word “EXMOOR” is chiseled into the rock.
Helen was vice-president of the Family Service Association of Greater Boston, chairman of Home Services for the American Red Cross in Boston, and treasurer of the Boston YWCA. In 1962, Helen Johnson was cited by the Red Cross for her distinguished service; and in 1963, she received the Charles M. Rogerson Award from United Community Services of Greater Boston “for many years of distinguished service to the citi - zens of metropolitan Boston.”