The thick mix of hardwoods and pines that dominate Whitney and Thayer Woods is typical of the history of the region’s terrain since Colonial times: fields and pasturage once plowed by farmers and now re-populated with trees. When known as the “Common Lands of the Hingham Planters” in the mid-17th century, the land was divided into long strips, set off by stone walls and cleared by settlers for wood fuel, logging, and farming. (Many of the walls or their remnants can be spied from the cart paths and foot trails.) Over the next two centuries, most of the trees were cut down, but as present-day visitors immediately realize, Mother Nature steps in when fields are left untended; the woods are back in full.
As New England’s agriculture declined, large properties became prized for their recreational and sporting potential. By 1904, local riding enthusiast Henry Whitney was beginning to assemble parcels to create a private estate in Cohasset for equestrian pursuits; carriage roads for horse-drawn buggies and bridle trails were laid out. The Whitney Woods Association, a horseback-riding group, acquired more than 600 acres from Whitney, and later donated the acreage to The Trustees. In 1943, The Trustees renamed the reservation Whitney and Thayer Woods, in honor of Mrs. Ezra Ripley Thayer, wife of the former dean of Harvard Law School, who donated land west of the original parcel.
Her daughter, renowned 20th-century artist Polly Thayer Starr, left the 75-acre Weir River Farm – a still-active agricultural enterprise – to The Trustees of Reservations in 1999.