The Lyman Estate in Waltham, Mass., commemorates one of the greatest China traders of his age, Theodore Lyman.
Few other memorials, written or in stone, remain of the Mainer who amassed a huge fortune and sired generations of prominent soldiers, scientists and politicians.
Unlike Thomas Handasyd Perkins or Samuel Russell, little has been written about Theodore Lyman. Even in his own time, he doesn’t seem to have had much fame beyond his own business and social circles.
If Theodore Lyman has gone unnoticed by historians, his Lyman Estate has not. Much has been written about the magnificent Federal country estate, the gardens and the oldest greenhouse in America.
Perhaps Theodore Lyman was too busy pruning his apricot trees to bother with getting his name in the paper or having his portrait painted.
In 1830, when Theodore Lyman was in his 70s, a British parliamentary committee investigated the East India Company and the China Trade. A merchant ship captain, A. Coffin, was asked, “Are the Boston merchants trading with China generally considered very wealthy persons?
“They are,” replied Coffin.
“Are you acquainted with Colonel Perkins?”
“Is not he one of the principal merchants in Boston?”
“He is the principal,” said Coffin. “Theodore Lyman has been one of the greatest traders.”
He was born in York, Maine, in 1753, the son of a minister. As a young man he went to work as a clerk in a Kennebunk store owned by Waldo Emerson. He went into business with his boss and married his daughter, Sarah, in 1776. She was 14. He was said to have planted elm trees in front of the store on the day he heard about the Battles of Concord and Lexington.
Sarah had four children and died at 21 in 1784. Lyman inherited his father-in-law’s property and went into shipbuilding and merchant shipping, a rare Mainer who owned his own ships.
“He rapidly accumulated property, not having the liberal and generous spirit for which Emerson was distinguished,” wrote one Maine historian.
Theodore Lyman went to Boston to seek a bigger fortune in 1786, just as the American Revolution had ended and the China Trade began. He married Lydia Williams of Salem, Mass., in 1786 and had five more children.
Boston had suffered during the American Revolution; the end of the war brought on tremendous prosperity. Americans were now free to trade with China and the East Indies. Boston merchants took advantage of that freedom, shipping specie, furs, ginseng and opium to China, and bringing back tea, silk, nankeen, porcelain and cassia bark. Their fantastic wealth inspired a building boom that stretched to country estates in the Boston suburbs.
Lyman bought gold bullion from the Spanish and sold it to the Chinese at great profit. He sent his ships to the Pacific Northwest to buy furs, then to China to sell them for another enormous profit.
Lyman forbade his captains to mount cannon on their ship, though the seas swarmed with pirates. Capt. William Sturgis ignored him and secretly brought cannons aboard the Atahualpa. Pirates attacked his ship toward the end of a voyage, and he fought them off. When Lyman found out, he charged Sturgis the cost of freight for carrying the cannons.
In Boston, Lyman gave quietly to charity. Shortly after he died in 1839, he was praised for sending a daily supply of milk to 30 poor widows for two years, for three winters sending blankets to the Seaman’s Aid Society and funding the Children’s Friend Society.
In 1793, Salem architect Samuel McIntire designed the house that anchored the 400-acre Lyman Estate in Waltham, Mass.
The town was home to the Boston Manufacturing Company, which ran a spinning and weaving factory that employed 300. But it was still the country, and there a rich China trader could escape the unhealthy, disease-ridden city.
McIntire designed a beautiful, symmetrical building in the Palladian style with an elegant ballroom. He also designed a summer house for the Lyman Estate. Later generations expanded the house.
The gardens of the Lyman Estate were laid out in 1793 by Theodore Lyman himself and his English gardener, William Bell. Rather than creating stiff formal gardens, Lyman designed a picturesque natural landscape. He dammed a brook to form a lake and grouped trees randomly. No fences for him, no geometric flower beds.
Horticulture was the rage among the wealthy, who loved to grow exotic imported plants. Lyman built a greenhouse, warmed by a wood fire, and grew lemons, camellias, grapes and apricots.
He also collected and planted native American trees in an ornamental woodland; apricot and peach trees. Sometime around 1820 he planted a copper beech from Europe, one of the first in America.
The Lyman Estate sparked a craze among the Boston Brahmins for picturesque English gardens, and was soon followed by others, like the Gore Place nearby.
In 1803, the town of Coxhall, Maine (then Massachusetts), was renamed Lyman after Theodore Lyman. Much of the town was burned in the Maine fires of 1947. Theodore Lyman died and was pretty much forgotten, except as the founder of the Lyman Estate.
Theodore Lyman’s children, like many offspring of the China traders, reinvested money made from furs and ginseng into mills and factories. The Lymans built Lyman Mills in Holyoke, Mass., employing 1200 people by 1900.
The Lyman family produced Democratic governors, judges, congressmen, ambassadors and mayors, mostly Democratic, as well as a physicist for whom a moon crater is named. The Lyman Estate remained in the family for 150 years. It is now owned by Historic New England and a popular spot for weddings.
Historic New England maintains an online collection of historic photographs of the Lyman Estate. Click here to view them.
Image: Lyman Estate by By Daderot at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003268; Lyman Estate greenhouse By Daderot at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003261.