Schools and Libraries





One of the highest of the municipal functions is education. This was incumbent upon the founders of Bedford by the act of incorporation:

“Provided that the said town of Bedford do, within the space of three

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years from the publication of this act, erect, build and finish a suitable house of worship, and procure and settle a learned orthodox minister of good conversation, and make provision for his comfortable and honourable support, and likewise provide a school to instruct their youth in writing and reading.” [^1]

Many of the founders of this town knew the worth of education through the want of it. Their parents had enjoyed literary advantages in the mother country, but in seeking religious liberty they had lost secular advantage, and in their struggle to establish homes in the wilderness had often failed to instruct their children in the rudiments of education. The children of the scattered settlers were by far the greater sufferers; situated four or five miles from the village, they could not attend the few weeks of school that were furnished, and doubtless some of the originators of this town never attended a school of any kind. Until 1733 the church was the only school, and during several succeeding years the principal means of education. The minister was the instructor, and he was well supported. In January, 1732–33 the town raised five pounds, equal to about three dollars (according to Shattuck), for public school that year. [*1] This must have been an act of the new town to comply with the incorporation act — “space of three years” — and have been a provision for the winter only, as appears from the following record:

“Of the School Reat that was made by the assessors in 1733, there was committed to Mr. Jacob Kendall, constable, to collect £5 10s. 7d., and to Mr. Richard Wheeler £5 10s. 2d.,”

making a tax of £11 6s. 9d., which, according to the same authority, was equal to about seven dollars in the currency of that time. In December, 1733, it was voted

“to settle a moving school and hire a master,” [^2]

for which purpose an appropriation of ten pounds was made.

For several years one school only was kept and moved about as justice and convenience demanded. The teachers were generally selected from the people of the town, but in one of the early winters, Rev. Ebenezer Hancock, of Lexington, taught the school and boarded with his sister, wife of Rev. Nicholas Bowes. The town bought a dwelling-house of Benjamin Kidder in 1741, for £12, old tenor, and arranged it for a school-house. In 1742 the school moved into the four quarters of the town, and £10 was expended for the teacher’s salary, he “boarding round.” In the following year the centre school was opened and £30 granted for its support. Previous to this but little attention was paid to giving instruction in any branch beyond those required by the ordinance of 1647, viz.: writing and reading. In 1744 a part of the appropriation was allowed for schools in the “quarters” to be taught by “school dames.” In the succeeding fourteen years a school was kept at the Centre a few weeks in the winter and during the remainder of the year a “moving-school” was taught by a lady. Text-books were few and rule and the rod was applied without stint. One may judge of the monetary value of pro-

fessional services by the records of 1754–55, when Rev. Nicholas Bowes, the first minister of the town, dismissed in August 1754, taught the school in the following winter, five months for £9 6s. 8d., and boarded himself. In 1758 a “writing-school” was kept four months in the village and a “woman’s teaching-school” six months in the quarters of the town, although it was years in advance of the legal requirements. The interest in education was not abated during the Revolution, yet in two instances the teachers’ services were gratuitous. Intelligent women gathered the children of the neighborhood in their dwellings and were rewarded by a vote of the town after the war ceased.

The people in the “quarters” were obliged to furnish house and fire-wood without public charge in order to have a school. The district bounds were not arbitrary as yet, and the most ambitious children would follow the school from one quarter to another, which was allowed if they furnished a share of the fire-wood. The consequent attainments and usefulness of some families is evident in succeeding years.

In 1780, when Captain John Moore was chosen the first representative to the “Great and General Court,” the town voted to have three months “writing-school” and six weeks “women’s school” in each quarter of the town. The term “writing-school” was to designate this department of education from the merely fundamental instruction of the “women’s school.” In the former “cyphering” was taught as well as writing, and also the principles of language and “decent behaviour.” [*2] The “sums” were “set” by the teacher and the work done on unruled coarse paper and carefully saved as trophies of victory seldom won by the gentler sex. In teaching writing, the instructor was required to prepare the copies, give advice in the formation of letters and also respond to the oft-repeated calls “Please sir, mend my pen?” In March, 1790, there was a partial awakening to the demands of systematic education. The school-tax was assessed as a distinct rate, and the town voted that

“such school masters as the law required”

should be employed four months in the year, and four months writing-school should be kept at the centre,

“and when the master had a very full school he should attend principally to those that write and cypher.”

In 1789 the Legislature provided for districting the towns, and Bedford undertook the task, which proved to be a difficult one. For sixty years the only accommodations for schools in the “quarters” were in private houses; but in 1792 a long and trying experience resulted in a vote to raise £100 with which to build a school-house in each quarter and made provision for a school to be taught in each. In 1793 the pride of the residents at the “centre” asserted itself in a vote

“not to have any woman’s school.”

The annual appropriation at the close of the century had reached the sum of $300. The closing years of the eighteenth

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[ portrait photo ]
Rev. Jonathan French Stearns, D.D.

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[ house photo ]
Jeremiah Fitch Tavern.

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century mark a very important epoch in the interests of education in Bedford. Rev. Samuel Stearns came, as the fourth minister to the town. He was an eminent scholar, young and energetic, and possessed of rare qualities for leadership, which he judiciously used. For more than thirty years every progressive step in education bears the impress of his cultured mind and careful hand. The limited advantages for education were not urged upon girls, and when one of the sex manifested a desire to push beyond the fundamental principles she was subject to ridicule. The evil, not confined to this town, received early correction here. In 1797 Rev. Mr. Stearns inaugurated a female seminary, which was one of the very early institutions of the kind in New England. Young ladies from this and neighboring towns were instructed by him in the higher branches, many of whom were fitted for teachers and made most commendable records in the profession. [^3] The vote of 1790

“To employ only such masters as the law requires,”

cut off many ignorant aspirants for the office, but it did not reach the question of methods, and Rev. Mr. Stearns soon began to exert an influence in that direction. Rev. William A. Stearns, D.D., of Amherst College, records the following method for teaching the alphabet in the opening years of the present century, as practiced upon himself: [^4]

“The master pointed with his pen-knife to the first three letters and said: ‘That’s A, that’s B, that’s C; now take your seat and I will call you by and by, and if you can’t tell them I will cut your ears right off with this knife.'”

This was doubtless an extreme case, but the reform movement of the nineteenth century was well advanced before the youth were exempt from the caprices of teachers. In 1798 the town appropriated twenty dollars for a singing-school.

In 1804 the first system of by-laws for the government of the schools was adopted and put in force. Ignorance of teachers was guarded against. The winter school was regularly opened and closed with prayer. The Bible was read in all of the schools as often as once a day. The Assembly’s Shorter Catechism was taught weekly, and every member under the age of fifteen years was obliged to carefully attend to such instruction. It was expected of all male teachers

“that they frequently and carefully impress upon the minds of the youth the principles of virtue and piety, as connected with their responsibility and usefulness in life, and also highly essential to the support and well-being of our free Republican form of government, as required by law.”

For more than thirty years the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism was one of the required text-books. Another text-book was Morse‘s Geography, the first book on the science published in America. [*3] In the scarcity of text-books the “School Fathers” required it to be used by the “first class” as a “reader.” In 1806 a school-house was built at the centre, in place of the old building that had been remodeled for school purposes seventy-three years

before. The annual appropriation then reached six hundred dollars and sixteen weeks of schooling were provided; only two schools were in session at any one time, and pupils were not confined to district limits. This led at length to a bitter quarrel in the East District. The master lost all authority, and the committee failed to restore order or peace. The several sections were arrayed violently against one another. The east quarter boys were on one side called by their enemies “Shaberkins and Sharks.” [*4] The boys from the centre and north were united as an opposing force and named, from their locality, “North-quarter hogs and city pigs.” No day was without its battle. Many parents sided with their children and things grew worse and worse, until the town took it in hand and voted, April 5, 1813,

“To set off the East part of the town as a school district, according to law, and that they draw their proportion of the school money according to the valuation of estates in that section.”

A town library, chartered by the General Court, was now in a flourishing condition. Each school district had a “prudential committee” to attend to the local interests of the school, and the town annually chose a committee of inspection whose duty it was to regulate the text-books, to provide supplies for poor children and adjust all difficulties. An examination of all teachers was required as to moral and literary qualifications. The by-laws were remodeled in 1819, and “master’s schools” were required to be opened and closed with prayer, and the record further says,

“which practice also is particularly recommended to the serious consideration of female instructors, who will be permitted to use an approved written form of prayer.”

It was found difficult to enforce rules and secure uniformity in text-books until 1827, when an agent was appointed to furnish supplies at cost, and was paid for his services, by the towns. This custom prevailed until 1884, when the State passed the law requiring towns to furnish all school supplies and made the schools literally free.

The people were now beginning to receive the benefit of the “Page and Hartwell Fund.” A certain proportion of the income was required to be expended for teaching sacred music. A singing-school was inaugurated in 1827, and held annual sessions at the centre for the benefit of the whole town. In 1829 a two-story brick school-house was built at the cost of $2216.43. This furnished ample accommodation for the schools and for town business. The annual session of the singing-school for the benefit of the whole town was held in the “commodious” building until 1837, when the income for teaching sacred music became a denominational benefit. The apparatus of the school-room was meagre, indeed, until 1841. The open fire-place had given way to a close stove which necessitated the cutting of cord-wood sticks once in two, but this, with the “master’s desk” and “battered seats” constituted the entire furnishings. A primitive volume called “The School-Book”

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was furnished each town by the State in 1806, in numbers equal to the districts. This town sold the volumes at “vendue.” [*5] In 1840 the School Committee filed the first school report. In 1841 the sum of one hundred dollars was appropriated for maps and philosophical apparatus. Efforts were made in 1841 and 1850 to establish a High School, but without success. The first printed report of the School Committee was circulated in 1847, and in the following year each district was furnished with “Webster’s Dictionary.” The annual appropriation for schools reached $800 in 1847, and $1000 in 1856. This amount had been annually increased by the income of the “surplus revenue fund.” An unsuccessful effort was made about 1850 to establish a free public library, but an association was formed and a library started, by which superior advantages were furnished for a small compensation.

In 1850 the town received an unexpected benefit through the will of Zadock Howe, of Billerica, by which a seminary was founded and endowed for the benefit of this as well as other towns. The public gratitude was manifested by spreading a copy of the will upon the town records, and individual appreciation was manifested by turning to the Howe School for higher instruction.

In 1852 the demand for a high school was gratified, and of $885, the school appropriation for that year, $285 was apportioned for the trial of the experiment. It was abandoned after a trial of two years. The school-house in each “quarter” of the town stood as “a ragged beggar sunning” after sixty years of hard service, and in 1854 new houses were built at the east and north, and the west was thoroughly repaired, and a new one was soon erected at the south. [*6] In 1856 the brick house at the Centre was torn down and the present building, combining two school-rooms with a town hall, was erected at a cost of $8524. [*7] Mr. Charles Lane, of Boston, presented a valuable clock to the town for its use in the new hall. He was the same person who fell some years later, at his own threshold in Dorchester, by the assassin’s bullet. [*8]

The dedication of the new building was an event of much importance, as the principal parts in the exercises were taken by sons of the town. Mr. Josiah A. Stearns gave the dedicatory address and Mr. John F. Gleason a poem; [!!] among other speakers was Mr. Charles Lane, the donor of the clock.

The efforts put forth in the erection of the new town building had a stimulating effect upon education among all classes of society. The youth were inspired with commendable ambition in school work and their elders sought improvement through the lyceum. The town appropriation now reached $1000. This was increased to about $1200 by the income of the surplus revenue, and the State School Fund, which was established in 1834. The town expended the “surplus revenue,” and increased the annual appropriations to $1100 in 1861. The half-day session of Saturday was

discontinued by the vote of the town in 1863. In 1872 an attempt was made to concentrate the directing power and to employ a superintendent, but this unfortunately resulted in an increase of the board of committee from three to six members. The results were not satisfactory, and a return was made to the original number as soon as the State law would admit. Women were first elected as School Committee in 1872, and have proved wise and efficient workers in the department of education.

At the annual meeting of the town, in 1885, it was voted that the schools should be graded, that an English high school course of two years should be adopted, and that the school year should begin with the opening of the fall term. This plan, put in operation September, 1885, had a most stimulating effect upon the students in the several departments, and led the parents to indorse a growing sentiment for consolidation.

In June, 1886, the first graduates were presented with diplomas. The course of study was altered and amended in 1889, so as to include three years of High School study, in which is the Latin language. The appropriation gradually increased until it reached $2800, for ordinary expenses, to which is added the town’s portion of the income of the “State School Fund.” An annual appropriation is made for schoolbooks and supplies.

After thirty-three years of service, the combined town hall and school building was declared inadequate to the pressing demands of the evening of the nineteenth century, and preliminary steps have been taken, 1890, towards the erection of a modern structure. [*9] In the schools of Bedford, thus briefly described, have been laid the foundations of some grand literary structures.

As the date is comparatively recent when progress has unbolted the doors of colleges to women, the list of those who have received a public education is confined to men.

In 1876 the Bedford Free Public Library Corporation was chartered for the benefit of the inhabitants of the town.

The property of the Bedford Library Association was donated and became the nucleus of a valuable collection of books and other publications. Every resident of the town having reached the age of twelve years has the right to draw books from the library without payment of fee. Appropriations by the town and private contributions have enabled the trustees to make frequent additions until in 1890 there are nearly 3000 volumes for circulation, besides many valuable works for reference, and a collection of antiquities, relics and articles of historic interest. The town has an annually increasing fund for the erection of a library building, much needed at present.

A local weekly paper, Bedford Bulletin, is published in connection with other towns, under the editorial care of Abram E. Brown. It is now in its thirty-

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Rev. Eben Sperry Stearns, D.D., LL.D.

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third volume. It has an extensive circulation in the town and in various sections of the United States where natives of Bedford are located.



  1. reading.’ ∨ reading,’
  2. master,” ∨ master,
  3. neighboring ∨ neigboring
  4. William A. ∨ William F.



  1. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 270
  2. “cyphering” (i.e., “ciphering”): arithmetic
  3. cf. Morse’s The American geography (1789)
  4. cf. Josiah A. Stearns’ “Bedford” (1880)
    in Drake’s History of Middlesex County: Vol I p 248
    Seemingly, no other recorded instances of “shaberkins” exist–
    save for instances in later works that quote this very passage.
  5. “vendue”: public auction
  6. cf. Whittier‘s “In school-days” in Miriam (1871) pp 57-60
  7. “the present building”: now Old Town Hall: 16 South Road
  8. “Mr. Charles Lane, living on Hancock Street, Ward 16, was shot and killed in his own doorway by some unknown assassin.” (Police) p 106 i
  9. cf. (in this volume) Brown’s “Supplementary” (pp 109-110)
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