Cattle grazing in a meadow on Dedham Ave near South Street, c1895. / Credit: Gloria Greis, Needham History Center and Museum

The proverbial long wait for the cows to come home may be nigh in Needham. If Town Meeting approves, a ban on “grazing of animals” that may extend as far back as the 1700s will no longer be on the books, part of a proposed overall revision of town bylaws.

“There isn’t dating in all sections of the bylaw as to when [a bylaw] was put in,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick. “I have to assume it was a very long time ago.”

Gloria Greis, longtime executive director of the Needham History Center & Museum, theorizes the ban could date to the 1700s. “There were all sorts of laws in the 18th and 19th centuries restricting the movement of livestock because of the damage they could cause to others’ property,” she said.

“There were also a bunch of town officers designated to impound wandering livestock and assess fines for damage — hog-reeves, field drivers, pound keepers, etc. There was a town pound for keeping them until claimed It was on Great Plain Avenue in the general location of Olin College.”

Greis noted that raising cattle was once the main agricultural enterprise in Needham. “There was a significant dairy industry in Needham through the mid-20th century.”

Kevin Keane, Select Board member and history buff, said he certainly does not expect the removal of the ban on grazing to rejuvenate the agricultural economy of Needham. But it “does show the full arc of local history.”

“This was important enough in its day to be a bylaw,” Keane noted of the grazing ban. “At the time, forbidding [grazing] was a huge break with history. Now we really don’t even have to say it.”

He sees a lesson to be learned about “historic character,” a value often employed to buttress opposition to change of any sort in town. 

“Needham was a farming town. Then it was a revolutionary town. It was a mill town. A rust belt town. A Levittown. A technology town — thanks to 128. It is also a bedroom town. Yet, it’s always just been itself.”

“I’m not sure people will stand up and say, ‘No, we really do need a ban on livestock.’ I’m not sure that’s critical, but I do not predict what Town Meeting will do.”

What about horse owners? 

“Horse owners? They would vote ‘Neigh.’”

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