Stearns (1879) [8/8]

I intended to speak somewhat fully of the history of our

[ p 53 ]

schools. It is to me an exceedingly interesting one, and highly creditable to the people concerned in it.

It will be recollected that this subject was among the conditions of the charter. The people must “provide a school to instruct their youth in writing and reading.”

The first record which I find of their action is in the year 1732. The town then decided that they would have a school, and appropriated five pounds for the purpose. The next year again, they voted to have one, “but not at the centre.” It was to be what was termed a “moving school,” and four men were appointed to move it, that is, to change the place of holding it, “at their own discretion.”

A committee of three was appointed to provide a master, and ten pounds was appropriated to sustain it. By and by they felt the need of a school-house, and a dwelling-house was purchased and fitted for that purpose. That now became the fixed place for the school. It stood near the west side of the Common and not far from the meeting-house. But there was need of schools in the “Quarters,” and they made provision for one in each, the people furnishing room and fuel. [*1] During all this period, the appropriation ranged from ten to thirteen pounds for the year.

Then the Revolutionary war broke out, and for many years seems to have absorbed everything.

That being over, the subject was again taken up. All the previous action was reconsidered and a new plan adopted. The town was divided into five districts and a plan adopted for the erection of five school-houses, none of them to be placed more than a mile and a half from the meeting-house. Those in the Quarters were first undertaken. A committee of twelve men was appointed, and eighty pounds was appropriated for the purpose.

This work being accomplished and the schools all well

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settled in their respective districts and each provided with a new and suitable school-house, the town proceeded, in the year 1804, to adopt a plan for their permanent management, and for this end a committee of five men were appointed. It consisted of Rev. Samuel Stearns, William Merriam, William Webber, Thompson Bacon, and Col. Timothy Jones. At a subsequent meeting, this committee brought in a full and elaborate report. It contained seven articles: No school master or mistress was to be accepted unless “qualified according to law.” The winter schools were to be opened and closed with prayer. The Bible was to be read in the schools daily. The Assembly’s catechism was to be taught in it. The masters were required to “impress upon the minds of their pupils the principles of virtue and piety, as connected with their respectability and usefulness in life, and also as highly essential to the support and well-being of our free Republican Form of Government.” A school committee was provided for and their duties prescribed. They were to use their endeavors to secure constant attendance on the part of the pupils, and those whose parents were unable to furnish them with books were to be furnished at the expense of the town. They were also to “examine the schools according to law,” and make report of their condition, and all difficulties that might arise in the schools were to be adjusted by the committee, according to their own wisdom and good judgment.

This last provision proved itself, in many a difficult crisis, a most salutary resort. It would often happen that some pretty rough elements would find their way into the schools. Of course complications would arise, requiring no small degree of vigilance, resolution, and decision on the part of the committee. I have in my mind two or three, which came more or less under my own observation, but I will mention but one.

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That admirable old gentleman and admired preacher, the Rev. Dr. Gannett, of Boston, whose sudden death, by rail-road accident, sent sorrow and consternation through the whole community a few years ago, in his early college life came up to Bedford one winter to keep a school in one of our districts. He was young and delicate and refined. The rough, lubberly boys soon saw that he could not stand rough handling: [*2] they put him down, they ran all over him, they did just as they chose; and the hardly less lubberly fathers got up an irregular district meeting, and forthwith voted him out. But passing through the middle of the town, on his way to Cambridge, he called on the chairman of the committee to bid him good-by. [^1] Inquiries were made. The true state of the case was divined. “This is all wrong,” said the chairman. “I will call the committee together, and we will have the matter investigated; [^2] and if you will come up, I will notify you of the time, and you shall have a hearing.” It was done accordingly. The district were invited to be present. The boys and men were questioned, and the men required to bring in all their charges. Mr. Gannett was there. All parties were heard. The committee came unanimously to a decision, exonerating the master from all blame, and reinstating him in his place; and then granting him a dismission on his own request, they gave him a very kind and cordial testimonial. The gentle youth went back cheered to his home, but he never forgot it. You will find, I think, some traces of the case in the admirable memoir of him prepared for the press by his son. [*3]

The schools of Bedford, as far as I have had occasion to know of them, have been in general of a high order. It was only occasionally that serious difficulties arose in them. The admirable regulations of which I have given an abstract were renewed substantially fifteen years later, on the rec-

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comendation of a much larger committee, and with a few changes, adapting them to the changing times, continue, I believe, to be the law of the schools here to the present day.

Bedford has had, I think, no permanent high school or academy. One of the latter order was at one time contemplated, but as there were several such institutions within easy access, it was not thought best to attempt it. How it was and where it was that the early college graduates obtained their preparatory instruction does not appear. Perhaps it was in their minister’s study. Several of them, however, appear on the college catalogues. And one of them, Job Lane, who was graduated at Yale in 1764, attained to high distinction, was a tutor in the college, and his monument, which still remains in New Haven, bears a highly laudatory inscription in Latin. [*4] He died at the age of twenty-seven, Sept. 16, 1768. The whole number of college graduates from the town, as far as I have ascertained, is eighteen, besides those who have received professional degrees.

Private schools, however, from time to time, supplemented the instructions of the town schools. Such a school, for example, was kept for a considerable time for young ladies by Mr. Stearns, in the early part of his ministry, and pupils from Concord, and even from Boston, came and availed themselves of the benefit. Such a school was kept for a time, also, by Miss Phoebe Sprague. Mr. Stearns had also private pupils, fitting for college, or pursuing some branches not ordinarily taught in the common schools. [*5] There was also a singing-school almost every winter in the centre school-house, at which all the young people throughout the town had the privilege to attend.

Bedford schools come up in vivid remembrance to some of us as we gather here on an occasion like this, — the spelling-

[ p 57 ]

matches and the examination days, the snow-ballings and the wrestlings, the competition and the successes or failures, the merry shouts that made the “welkin ring,” and the chasing of one another over the benches when the magic words were uttered, “The school is dismissed.” The dear old teachers, some of them, however, not much older than some of their scholars, who indeed “corrected us,” some of us, “and we gave them reverence,” at least after a while, [*6] — Master Chandler, Master Wheeler, Master Simonds, Joel Fitch, Philo Litchfield, Jesse Robinson, Miss Lucy Porter, Miss Betsy Sprague, Miss Patty Stearns, Miss Sarah Gragg, — how they come gleaming in upon the memories. These are all gone now! But there is one left, and in “my heart’s just estimation, prized above” them all, [*7] whose prolonged life still leaves her among us at the ripe old age of ninety-two. Yes, yes! I shall not easily forget the tender care, the gentle correction and encouragement, which, at the tenderest age, I received, the first summer after her marriage, from Ruhamah Lane. [*8]

But most are gone, and the dear companions of our boyhood and girlhood, they too are getting fewer and fewer. Soon shall we all be “dismissed.” May we get safely home!

But I must leave this subject, tempted as I am to pursue it. Our hour is more than out. I have come hither, fellow-townsmen and friends, to enjoy with you this gladsome anniversary. [*9] I have felt myself highly honored by your choice of me for this service; but many a time since I undertook to perform it have I wished most profoundly it had fallen into some more able and readier hands.

And now what have we to do? We have glanced over the past, and have been proud to see that our predecessors have proved themselves so worthy of their trust and privileges. Well it is that we should keep their memories fresh, and

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teach our children and our children’s children to emulate their virtues.

Bedford has within her borders one memorial of the past which is of great interest. I refer to what is known both in our topographical and our civil history as “Brother Rocks,” two large masses of granite, standing face to face with each other near the banks of our beautiful Concord River. [*10]

John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley were two of our first men in the early colonial days, the one the governor and the other the deputy governor of what is now our goodly Commonwealth. They had differed with each other, and the contest at one time became sharp. But they came up here to look after their lands. “They went to Concord,” we are told, “to view some lands for farms, and going down the river about four miles, made a choice of a place of one thousand acres for each of them.” There they halted. The contest between them was now for precedence in concession, and each “offered the other the first choice.” Finally Winthrop prevailed, and the first choice was accepted by Dudley. “So,” the story proceeds, “at the place where the deputy’s land was to begin, there were two great stones, which they called the two brothers, in remembrance that they were brothers by their children’s marriage, and did so brotherly agree.” [*11]

The General Court, we are told, in adding shortly after to the governor’s land, “adopted the name of the rocks,” in the act making the grant.

Now what I wish to suggest is, if the intrusion may be pardoned, that this most interesting memorial, standing as it does on our own soil, in that part of Bedford known of old as Winthrop Farms, ought to be carefully preserved and made as attractive and accessible as may be. We have many monuments all over the land to victories in war, and

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the heroic men that achieved them. But here is one perfectly unique. It is to victory over self, to brotherly love and mutual deference, to peace and good-will! Bedford Town, it seems to me, ought to secure the custody and management of it. And an immediate movement to that effect, pardon the suggestion, would be a most fitting sequel to this our sesqui-centennial anniversary.

The past has its claims, but the past itself is in order to the future. [*12] The old, even of the now present generation, are fast passing from the stage; but the young, full of vigor and hope, are pressing on. Let young and old to-day clasp hands in mutual covenant, that, come what will, we will never show ourselves unworthy of our birthright!

We, who return now from this venerable spot to our respective fields of labor and responsibility elsewhere, shall carry with us a profounder sentiment of respect and honor, and warmer filial affection for this, our own mother town, than we have ever cherished before.

And let those who still enjoy the privileges of residents and citizens resolve with all their hearts to do the best in their power to make this beautiful and salubrious spot one of the most desirable, and that morally and religiously, as well as physically, in all the land, [*13] this goodly town a very jewel in the crown of her country and a source of blessings to all coming generations.



  1. good-by ∨ good by
  2. investigated; ∨ investigated,


  1. “Quarters”: North, South, East, and West
  2. “lubberly”: loutish
  3. cf. William C. Gannett’s Ezra Stiles Gannett (1875) pp 23-24
  4. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) pp 271-272
  5. “fitting”: preparing
  6. cf. KJV’s Hebrews 12:9
  7. cf. William Cowper’s “The Timepiece” (1785),
    which is Book II of his epic poem “The Task”
  8. “Ruhamah Lane”: b. 1788 – d. 1882 (BHB) II: pp 22 and 27
  9. “gladsome”: joyful
  10. These boulders lie on the eastern bank of the Concord River, due west of Chestnut Lane, which stems from (the fittingly-named) Dudley Road.
  11. cf. Winthrop’s journal entry (24 April 1638), as published
    in his History of New England: Volume I (1825) p 264
  12. “is in order to”: exists for the sake of
  13. “salubrious”: healthful

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