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[p. 82]

Some notes of the history of Medford from 1801 to 1851.1

by Hon. Thomas S. Harlow.
I have been requested to speak of the history of Medford during the first half of the present century. An old writer once said, ‘Happy are the people who have no history.’ This is only another mode of expressing the quiet happiness of the calm, contented life in which so many of our New England towns moved on, with little to record and little to disturb them. Not being a native of Medford, and not yet a centenarian, I can hardly be expected to have any personal recollection of the early portion of the half-century. My sources of information are the same that are accessible to most of you, the town records, the history of Medford so carefully prepared by Rev. Charles Brooks, and the traditions and recollections of the few survivors of that early time. Alas, they are but few! Of the few with whom I became acquainted on my first visit to Medford, more than sixty-five years ago, not one survives; and of those whom I knew when I became a permanent resident in 1843, scarcely one remains, and some entire families have disappeared.

There were really but two events of importance which marked the first half of the century. The first was the war of 1812. At that time Dr. (afterwards Governor) John Brooks, a native of Medford, had at the conclusion of the Revolutionary war returned to the home of his childhood and resumed the practice of his profession, living in the old house which was taken down a few years ago and replaced by the building of the Savings Bank. His second son, John Brooks, adopted his father's profession, but on the outbreak of the war joined the army, with the rank of lieutenant, and fell on shipboard in the great naval battle of Lake [p. 83] Erie, which gave to our fleet the control of the lakes. In this war eighteen Medford citizens enlisted, two of whom, Edmund Gates and Abiel R. Shed, were killed in battle.

Another distinguished son of Medford, Alexander Scammell Brooks, eldest son of Governor Brooks, made a good reputation in this war. Born in Medford in 1777, he entered Harvard College in 1801, and leaving it in 1804 entered the merchant service as a mariner. But the Embargo of 1808, so destructive to the mercantile prosperity of New England, closed that career for a time, but it was renewed soon after, and he returned to his chosen profession.

But when the war broke out he received a commission as captain in the army, and remained and did good service in the army as long as he lived. He was brevetted major for gallant conduct at the battle of Plattsburg, and afterwards received a commission as lieutenant-colonel. He once told me a little incident of his experience during the war. A company of sailors had been drafted for service in the fleet on the lakes, and were to march under his command from the North End of Boston to go into camp at Roxbury. They marched through Hanover and down Court streets, and on reaching Washington street he gave the order, ‘Right wheel.’ Whether as sailors they did not understand the order, or the strong breeze coming up State street with its familiar smell of the sea attracted them, the order shouted out with all his strength was disregarded, and they continued to head straight for Long wharf. His old instincts as a sailor prompted him, and with a yell as from a speaking-trumpet came the order, ‘Luff, d—n you, luff!’ This they understood, and coming up handsomely into the wind's eye took the road for Roxbury. The incident was a source of amusement in the papers at the time, and caricatures of it were printed.

Colonel Brooks, though stationed from time to time [p. 84] in various parts of the country with his command, made Medford his home when permitted, as long as he lived, occupying the old house of his father before mentioned, where in the old time I had many a game of whist with him.

His fate was a singular one. He had always a great horror of steamboats, and would never voluntarily travel on one. But in December, 1836, he was ordered to proceed from Fort Moultrie, S. C., to Florida, to take command of his regiment in the Florida war. He embarked on the steamer Dolphin; the boilers, as he had always anticipated, blew up, and he was killed.

In the early part of the century all male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were compelled to do military duty, unless excused by physical disability or by the holding of certain offices. They formed the militia of the State, and were usually called out three times a year: in the spring for inspection of arms and equipments, the absence of which, as well as non-appearance, was punished by a fine; again, in the summer, for drill; and in the autumn by regiments or brigades, at what was called general muster, for review. This last was a great occasion, in which all the high officials of the military, with their glittering uniforms, and frequently the governor, paraded in all their glory. The plain in the easterly part of Medford, now covered with streets and houses, was frequently the muster-field. Such a company existed in Medford as early as 1781. Until 1804 this company belonged to the First Regiment, First Brigade, and Third Division; then a new regiment was formed, the Fifth, and the company was transferred to it, and from that time I believe that every company formed in Medford, with possibly the exception of one of those raised during the war, has formed a part of the same Fifth Regiment. I would also except the Independent Company organized under the same law of 1785, and [p. 85] with the same standing and liberties as the Boston and the Salem Cadets, belonging to no regiment and having the right of the line at reviews. This company resigned its charter in 1828. You all know the little brick powder-house standing near the top of the hill, just above the house of Mr. A. F. Sise. Within my recollection it was used for the storage of powder and was protected by a lightning-rod. During the war of 1812 the company last mentioned kept guard over it for some weeks. Upon the dissolution of this company the members were, under the existing law, enrolled in the militia company under the command of Capt. John Sparrell, whom some of my elder hearers may remember, and who appeared at the muster that autumn at the head of a company of one hundred and ninety-six rank and file. Medford, I think, has never mustered so large a company since, for the duty was considered irksome and was evaded when possible.

This company was succeeded by the Brooks Phalanx in 1841, which was dissolved in 1849, and was succeeded by the Lawrence Light Guard in 1854. This company was well organized and in a good state of discipline at the time of the breaking out of the war of the Rebellion, in which, under its commander, Capt. John Hutchins, it took an active part; but the period at which its brave and patriotic services were performed covers a later date than that assigned to me to record. I can only say that their valor, their devotion, the patience and the courage with which they underwent the hardships and encountered the dangers of the war, were beyond all praise, and will ever be held in grateful remembrance by their townsmen and their country.

I have spoken of Governor Brooks. It was once my good fortune to see him. In 1819, when he was governor and the district (now State) of Maine was a part of Massachusetts, he came down among us to attend, in his capacity of commander-in-chief, the annual militia musters. My father then lived at Castine, [p. 86] and the muster-field was about three miles from the village. He took me, then a lad of hardly seven years, with him, and we walked to the muster. He pointed out to me the governor as he galloped across the field at full speed—alone—to rectify some irregularity, upon a black horse, wearing a three-cornered cocked hat, and a powdered cue hanging down his back. So much for the military history of Medford.

The next matter of special interest in the history of the first half of the century relates to theological and parochial affairs. All religious and parochial matters were the affair of the State and the town. Until 1833 the law required every citizen to pay his portion of the expense of maintaining public worship according to his ability. So long as there was but one religious society in the town, the town and the parish were one—there was no distinction. The town at its annual meetings voted the appropriations for the minister's salary and the other expenses for support of public worship, and every man was taxed for this purpose according to his means. Religion was an affair of the State. The prevailing doctrine of the churches was the old orthodox Calvinistic creed, but in the early part of the century, perhaps about 1815, this doctrine began to be held with a certain laxity of interpretation by many of the people and not a few of the ministers. Those who wavered were frequently styled Arminians, which seemed to indicate a rejection of the stricter doctrines of predestination. The change was gradual, and at first almost imperceptible. Some of the older ministers were observed to dwell less in their sermons upon the five points of Calvinism and more upon religion as a life rather than a mode of belief, and a greater liberality of thought was allowed. The stricter orthodox became uneasy, and in many of the older churches the division began.

Dr. David Osgood was settled in 1774 over what was then the only church in Medford, and continued to be [p. 87] the pastor till his decease, in December, 1822. Undoubtedly, at the time of his settlement, his creed was what was then deemed strictly orthodox, and in a written statement containing his doctrinal views, on accepting the call, he acknowledged his belief ‘in the doctrines specified in the assembly's catechism,’ ‘which doctrines,’ said he, ‘I am bound to profess, and as a preacher to teach and inculcate.’ The opposition to his settlement was very small, and seemed to come from those who were called Arminians, and was founded upon his belief in those doctrines ‘which,’ said they in their written protest, ‘represented an infinitely holy God as the cause of all sin in his children.’ But his opposers soon became reconciled and gave him their hearty support, and during his life there was no interruption to the harmony of the church.

Yet but few reasoning, thinking men can maintain to old age either the philosophical or the theological opinions they held in youth. Though Dr. Osgood never called himself a Unitarian, and never distinctly and publicly avowed a change in his belief, there can be no doubts, from many remarks dropped as if casually, and various little incidents which occurred, that for the latter part of his life the assembly's catechism ceased to be held in reverence, and that he was much more in accord with Dr. Channing than with John Calvin.

A little anecdote told me more than fifty years ago, by a gentleman who had means of knowing of what he spoke, indicates something of the gradual change in his opinions. He was one of the ordaining council at the settlement of Rev. B. B. Wisner over the Old South Church. He took no active part in the long examination of the candidate, but when the others had finished he said to the candidate, ‘Young man, do you really believe in all this that you have stated?’ The answer was of course in the affirmative. ‘Well, well,’ said the doctor, ‘if you live to be as old as I am you won't believe more than half of it.’ [p. 88]

But the sleeping embers of dissent and disunion were soon kindled after his death. Early in 1823 a call was made upon the Rev. Andrew Bigelow to become the pastor. This call of course was made by the town, the primary authority, as has been shown, but was far from unanimous, the vote being ninety-five to seventy, and the call was concurred in by the church. There is no record of the ground of the opposition, though it was undoubtedly made by Trinitarians as against Unitarians. The salary offered was $800. Dr. Osgood never received over $533.33, viz., £ 100, lawful money ($333.33), and an allowance of $200 a year for wood.

At that time it was understood to be both the law and the practice that a minister once settled was settled for life—unless he became morally disqualified or they separated by mutual consent. The minister was considered, like the parson under the English law, to have a freehold. It was his property, in the enjoyment of which he could not be disturbed. But in the settlement of Mr. Bigelow a novel clause was for the first time in the history of Medford, and perhaps of Massachusetts, introduced, providing that the relation between them might be terminated by either party, upon six months written notice. Mr. Bigelow availed himself of this provision in November, 1825.

My first visit to Medford was to my uncle, the Rev. Caleb Stetson, who then lived in the house in West Medford afterwards occupied by Jonathan Brooks, where Miss Lucy Ann Brooks, the last of his descendants, lately deceased. In June, 1833, before going to college, I came here and took charge for one year of the grammar school kept in the west end of the little one-story whitewashed brick school-house standing in the rear of the church and west of the horse sheds. In the other end of the building was a school for little children, taught by Miss Jane Symmes (afterwards Mrs. Hunt), whom many of you doubtless remember. The only other grammar school in town was kept by Alexander [p. 89] Gregg, afterwards a coal dealer, in a one-story brick building on Cross street, within the grounds of the present cemetery. Who could then have imagined the change which sixty years have made, or dreamed of the magnificent palaces in which our children now are taught?

There were, a little before and for many years afterwards, two or three private schools of wide reputation. The first of these was kept by Hannah Swan, sister of Dr. Swan, in the large house on Forest street removed a few years ago to make room for the house occupied by J. Manning. After she left, the house was taken by Mr. John Angier, who kept a boarding-school there for many years, and had scholars from other States and from the West Indies. The Misses Bradbury kept an excellent school for young ladies, boarders and others, on South street. Mrs. Russell, mother of the late Governor Russell, told me she attended school there.

During the first half of the century, and until the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution in 1855, a majority of voters, instead of a plurality as now, was required for the election of any public officer. The consequence often was that for many public offices there was a failure to elect. For the governor and senators a mode was prescribed for filling the vacancy, but for representatives, if the people failed to make a choice, they were left unrepresented. As the law then stood, if they failed to elect on the first day they could adjourn to the next day. Upon a second failure they could adjourn for one week. If there was then no choice they had to go unrepresented. I recollect at least one failure to elect.

I think there was much less interest taken in politics then than now. I have more than once attended a caucus for the nomination of representative in the selectmen's room when not more than eight or ten were present.

I had intended to enlarge a little upon the shiping [p. 90] interest of Medford, but looking over the programme of exercises for the season I see that that matter has already been made the subject of one address, and I will gladly spare you repetition of an old story.

The Middlesex Canal I see has already been treated, and I will not dwell upon that; yet I have some very pleasant recollections connected with it, of which you will permit me to say a word, as it relates rather to the poetic than to the business uses of the canal. When I was here as a young man—I am afraid the custom is not so faithfully kept up now—it was customary to make walking parties of young men and ladies. One of our favorite walks was to Rockhill, on the land of Mr. Hastings, to see the sun set. Another, and perhaps the best, was up the banks of the canal, and through the grounds of Mr. P. C. Brooks, to the parting of the ponds —the spot where the dam of the Mystic Water Works now stands. As the canal boats came along, as they constantly did, they were always ready, when asked, to sheer up to the bank and take us on board, and so we passed on, through the beautiful single-arched stone bridge in the grounds of Mr. Brooks, and then, leaving the boat, made our way to the pond. Mr. Brooks was always kindly disposed, and took pleasure in allowing his friends to visit his beautiful garden and grounds.

We had no steam railroad till 1835, when the Boston & Lowell Railroad was laid out. So little foresight had its projectors as to its future uses and values that it was thought desirable to avoid the towns between the termini and have no way stations. So the road, instead of its natural course through the Mystic valley, was carried at great additional expense through Winter and Walnut hills and away from the centre of the town. When the road was opened, in the spring of 1835, Mr. P. C. Brooks, desirous of giving his townsmen the novelty of riding for the first time on a railroad, arranged with the managers to have the train stop one morning at West Medford and take a party to Lowell [p. 91] and return. I happened to be here on a visit at the time and joined the party of about forty or fifty, not more than two or three of whom had ever travelled by railroad before.

Though at the risk of trying your patience too long, I should like to say a few words of some of my old Medford friends who have passed away—some of whom I hope may still be kindly remembered by some of you. Let me mention Mr. P. C. Brooks, then probably the richest man in New England, Rev. Caleb Stetson, well esteemed even among those who differed most widely from his religious views, the elder E. F. Hastings, D. Hall, Captain King, father of Mrs. D. C. Hall, Rev. C. Brooks and T. Cotting, with both the latter of whom I was associated many years on the school committee, and Mary and Lucy Osgood, who had a celebrity in the scholarly society of the vicinity not limited to Medford. They were intelligent, highly cultivated, well versed in ancient and modern languages and literature, taking up the study of German after reaching the age of fifty. Mary, the elder, was bright, quick in forming her opinions or prejudices, and blunt and honest in the expression of them, with an enjoyment of wit and humor which was denied to her sister. Miss Lucy, the younger, was a woman of larger intelligence and superior mental power, and much more conservative in her opinions, often acting as a wholesome check upon the exuberance of her sister. Let me mention an incident which will give you some idea of Miss Mary's —shall I say character? One morning as I passed her window on my way to school she called to me— ‘Mr. Harlow, are you a sinner?’ I pleaded guilty, quoting the assembly's catechism as evidence. ‘Well,’ said she, ‘if you are a sinner, come and take tea with us to-night; a few of our friends will be here to pass the evening, and they will all be saints but you; and as I think a party is pleasanter for being a little mixed, I want a sinner or two to make it more agreeable.’ Of course [p. 92] I accepted, and with only one layman but myself met half a dozen ministers and theologues of the best the neighborhood afforded, among them Rev. Dr. Furness, Mr. Stetson, I think Dr. Francis, Joseph Angier, Nathaniel Hall, and George I. Briggs; and the cheerfulness and spirit of the evening justified her prediction.

I have endeavored to comply with the limited task assigned me. If I have trespassed too long on your patience consider that I had you at my mercy and could have detained you much longer; and remember with the poet Burns,

What's done we partly can compute,
But know not what's resisted.

1 read before the Medford Historical Society.

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