3. There is one more department of my subject which I must not leave altogether unnoticed. It is the relations which our town of Bedford has sustained to the general welfare and improvement of its own citizens and of the community around it.
One of the first things that engaged its attention was the condition of the roads. It must be remembered that the territory which Bedford occupied was composed of the outmost wings of two contiguous towns. Of course it had really no centre, and no suitable system of intercommunication. The roads, if such they might be called, were like those old streets of New Amsterdam, described by Washington Irving in his “Knickerbocker,” where, the magistrates not being up to their duty, the cows took up the matter and trod them out as they went to and fro between barn and pasture, according to their own sweet will.
During the first twenty-four years of its corporate existence this town was chiefly occupied with this matter. “Hearing the reports of committees, laying out new highways, widening paths into comfortable roads, changing the position of roads, chiefly engrossed the attention of every town meeting.” [*1] At the first settlement of the town, there seems to have been no direct road to Lexington, except through
[ p 47 ]
”gates and bars.” So with the road to Concord. These beautiful streets, with their fine shade trees and smooth carriage-paths and sidewalks and the well-built thoroughfares, leading in every direction to the adjacent towns, and through them to every part of the country, have been the result of years of hard labor, perseverance, and expense. It is indeed exceedingly difficult, even for the local antiquarian, to find out where the first paths ran. They went straggling hither and thither, and most of them were hardly better than foot or bridle paths. The people had then no vehicles except carts, horse-sleds, and the like. They came to meeting, for the most part, either on foot or on horseback, the husband sitting on the saddle, the wife on the pillion behind him, and the children tucked in here and there, wherever there was a place to bestow them.
One of the two old horse-blocks which were conspicuous at the two ends of the old meeting-house, I understand, is still in existence. [*2] That tells the story. It ought, I think, if it were possible, to be brought out of its hiding-place, and exhibited here to-day as one of our most significant antiquities.
Gradually, however, the routes becoming fixed and the paths straightened, the whole became consolidated into a very comfortable, if not a very direct system of carriage-roads. Most of these remain to the present day, and winding sweetly over hill and through hollow, affording some of the most charming glimpses and surprises of natural scenery, far away to the Monadnock and Wachusett Mountains, being kept in good condition, as they have been and no doubt can be at a moderate expense by the town, still constitute and will continue to constitute, by the pleasant drives which they afford, one of the most charming and attractive features of the place.
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But the advance of business and the opening up of the interior country at length began to require facilities for more distant intercommunication. In the year 1791, a project was started for a new road with a new bridge over Concord River to Carlisle. Bedford shrunk from it at first: very little of the advantages and a large share of the expense, she perceived, was to come upon her. When, however, it was proposed, four years later, to carry it through and make it a thoroughfare, she took hold of it in good earnest and performed her part liberally and energetically. She gave orders that the town should be divided into eight districts or wards for the raising of the means, and clothed her large committee with ample powers to build and complete the road on her side of the river, [*3] award damages to the parties who should suffer from it, and assess the inhabitants for the expense.
It has proved, I believe, ever since, a very valuable avenue of communication, and contributed an important part towards the convenience and prosperity of the town.
Many years later, about the year 1823, another enterprise of a similar character engaged the attention of the people. I refer to what was known at the time as the Chelmsford road. It was designed to open a new channel of communication between Boston and the northwestern portion of New England, the southeastern terminus being in Bedford. It was a county road, and the county commissioners of course took the responsibility; but the wishes of the towns lying along the route had an influence with them, and those towns, in turn, had to bear each their part in the expense. The project met, in some quarters, with a very determined opposition; in one case, the bridge by which it was to pass the Concord River was demolished by a lawless mob; but it was carried through. I well remember the demonstrations
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of delight with which its friends hailed its completion, the great sleigh-ride with which they celebrated it, and the flaunting guide-board with which they marked the corner, at which it terminated at the Bedford end, “Free Road, Free Trade, and Teamsters‘ Rights.”
The expectation and completion of this road again gave a new spring to the activities of the town. New houses were erected, new stores and places of public entertainment opened. Those whose memory extends to that time will readily recall the large, spreading wagons, loaded with barrels, that passed through our street in the summer, and the long train of pungs, that peculiar species of sleigh, laden with produce from New Hampshire and Vermont, some of them having passed through the Notch of the White Mountains, and every one of them made picturesque if not ghastly by one, two, or three large hogs’ carcasses with snouts projecting, on their way to the Boston market; and how dolefully, when they got caught in a thaw, the clumsy vehicles grinded their way back through the mud (every man walking by the side of his team and sometimes lending it a lift), bringing up loads of merchandise of various sorts, adapted to country use and for the supply of the country trade.
That was a hard way of transportation, no doubt, but it displayed a merry scene to the lookers-on, when, on a fine day, the long trains, sometimes a hundred or more in a train, came coursing down the road and drew up in front of one of the taverns, seeking refreshment for man and beast, or perhaps lodging for the night.
It was in close connection with the opening of this road, and over its track, that our first stage-coach, running from Concord, N. H., to Boston, made its regular trip through Bedford; and when that failed, the Carlisle road afforded the requisite facilities, and for many years there was a stage
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passing through the town over Carlisle Bridge, between Groton and Boston. Now, the introduction of railroads has superseded all that sort of transportation, and after a long course of efforts, with many discouragements on the part of the people here, the Middlesex Central, with a station within ten minutes’ walk of the centre of the village, and with eight trains each way in a day, making connection with the great lines of transportation to all parts of the country, has left little to be desired in that department. Till about 1825, Bedford had no post-office. Now, the telegraph conveys our messages to the remotest regions, and the wires of the telephone, already stretched through our streets, will soon enable us to talk lip to lip across the breadth and length of the continent.
But the industrial interests of our community are of even more importance to it than its communications. Bedford was, in the beginning, almost exclusively a farming town. I dare say the mothers and sisters of the olden time spun as good thread and yarn, and wove it into as good homespun cloth, as most of their neighbors. But manufacturing as a business had not been tried here. Mr. Shattuck says of it, “Bedford is not very well situated for an agricultural town. About half of it is meadow land, unimproved and partly incapable of improvement.” [*4] No doubt such was the case, and more even might have been said. Our fathers had a pretty hard task set them to perform. But how have they fulfilled it? Look over these beautiful, smooth fields, with their rich burden of sweet hay which has but just now been removed into the barns, [*5] or those green corn-fields, where every stalk looks as if it might be a vast cluster or sheaf of living emerald, or those orchards, loaded with red apples and luscious pears. How came they to be what they are? Look back a few years. Tangled swamps, wet mead-
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ows, producing nothing but the coarsest of wild grass, rocky pastures, where the huge stones lay so thick together that the cows and even the sheep could scarcely get their noses between them! Look at those heavy stone-walls! Who piled those huge stones? Who dug them out? Who was bold enough to put a plough between them as they lay in their original places? Depend upon it: there has been hard work done here with brawny arm and back and sweating brow, and there has been much wise, prudent, and enterprising management. [^1] I honor the men who can grapple with the forces of nature and reduce them to submission, and so make of the tangled wilderness a fruitful field and a garden of beauty! And there has been a great deal of this laborious transforming work done here. Witness, for example, the beautiful grounds and picturesque lakelet and commodious hotel at Bedford Springs. Who that remembers that spot as it was forty years ago could have supposed such a transformation possible?
But the activities of the people of the town have not been always and exclusively confined either to the cultivation or improvement of the soil. If tradition tells true, most or all of these little streams, some of which at the present day hardly do more than trickle through their obscure channels, were once the source of a very considerable degree of mill power which did not fail to be utilized by the people. Here, it is said, there was a fulling mill, and there a gun factory, and there again a carding mill, a saw mill, and a grist mill.
Some of these have been in active operation within a few years. One of them, it is said, was so before the time of King Philip’s war. [*6] At one of them was established, not long since, a very thriving manufacturing enterprise, which bade fair to be permanently successful. But in the full tide of its activity, a disastrous fire destroyed both the building
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and the machinery, and the workmen were dispersed and the undertaking abandoned. [*7]
The town was also, at one time, the seat of a very successful manufacture of what were called “sale shoes,” that is, such as were designed for the general market. It was introduced here by Messrs. John Hosmer and Jonathan Bacon as early as 1805, and is believed to have been one of the first of the kind in the country. It was pursued afterwards by the Messrs. Bacon, Simonds, Chamberlin, Billings, and others. About 90,000 pairs are said at one time to have been made in the town annually. The numerous workmen employed increased its population, the crowds of young apprentices filled its schools, and the shops where hands were busily employed, and wits and tongues perfectly at liberty, were the scene of a social as well as industrial activity which reminded one of the hum of a beehive.
It may be thought this department of the activities of the town belongs rather to the enterprise of individuals than to the agency of the body politic, and so it does. But the two agencies cannot be separated. They act and react constantly on each other. The town itself acquires a character which reappears in that of individuals, and the individuals have a character which they impart to the town as a body. It is through the peace, order, and security which the town government insures to all the inhabitants, and in which they all partake, that the energies of individuals are best stimulated and their true manhood and sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance called forth. The industrial interests of our town have had their fluctuations, their successes, and reverses; but few towns, I think, in proportion to their numbers and facilities, can show, on the whole, a better record.
- Jonathan F. Stearns’ “Historical discourse” (1879)
in Bedford sesqui-centennial celebration (pp 46-52)
- upon it: ∨ upon it,
- Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891)
- cf. Josiah A. Stearns’ “Bedford” (1880)
in Drake’s History of Middlesex County: Vol I (p 243)
- “horse-blocks”: platforms (or steps) for getting on (or off) horses
- “clothed”: invested
- cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 269
- “burden”: produce
- “one of them”: Michael Bacon’s mill (BHB) p 50
- “one of them”: John Wilson’s mill (BHB) p 40