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The development of the public School of Medford.

by Charles H. Morss.
‘Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any commonwealth, and whereas many parents and masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kind’ the selectmen of every town were directed by the law of 1642 to have ‘a vigilant eye’ over their neighbors, to see to it that the education of the children be not neglected. The law of 1647 made it obligatory on towns of fifty families to maintain elementary schools, where children should be taught to read and write, and those of one hundred families should also have a grammar school, ‘the masters thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university.’

Good citizenship was then as now one of the great aims of the public school. The idea of what constituted this was explained by our ancestors in the preamble just quoted, and the law of 1647 adds a further explanation, as follows: ‘It being one chief project of Satan to keep men from the knowledge of the Scripture, as in former times keeping them in unknown tongues, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of deceivers; to the end that learning may not be buried in the graves of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors: It is therefore ordered by the court and authority [p. 2] thereof,’ etc. The penalty on the towns for nonful-filment of the law requiring an elementary school in towns of fifty families and a grammar school in those having one hundred was placed at £ 5 in 1647, but increased to £ 10 in 1692, and again to £ 20 in 1702. The grammar school thus established must not be confounded with our present application of the term, but it is the use still prevailing in England and was the one contemplated by the law, that is, it is what we know as a Latin School or a High School that prepares pupils for the university. Upon the list of Medford taxpayers for the Province rate of £ 12-16s levied 21st Oct., 1719, while the inhabitants were agitating the question of the first school, were the names of seventy taxpayers, so that we may fairly infer that if Medford was not actually compelled to support an elementary school at this time she had about reached that limit.

The establishment of that first school is so important, so interesting, as well as so characteristic of the way town business was transacted in those early days, that the whole evidence regarding it is here presented, even though some of it has been given before.

The people of 1719 did not suddenly rouse themselves to the idea of teaching their children. Probably most of them could read and write already, receiving the instruction either in the home or in the neighboring town of Charlestown.

That such a proposition as establishing a school in the town was not an entirely new thought to the people is evident from one of the votes about building a meeting-house, passed at a town-meeting held Nov. 30, 1691, which reads: ‘At A meeting of the Inhabitants of Medford voted that Mr. John Hall, Sen. and Capt. Peter Tufts shall intreat Mada Wade and the overseer of maior Jonathan Wades farme for one quarter of an acre of land for the erecting and setting a meeting house near or upon the Land that sd maior formerly appointed for a Schoole house that sd meadford may injoy for their [p. 3] publick house.’ Thus one citizen, at least, had previous to the year 1691 given some thought to the establishment of a school, though there is no evidence that the town ever took any action upon the matter.

There were at this time only twenty eight names on the tax list, so a school was not compulsory. Nothing further appears about a school for nearly eighteen years, the meeting-house question probably filling the minds and emptying the pockets of the people so that there was no chance for school or school-house. The meeting-house, the agitation for which was here begun, was completed in 1696; but no mention is made of a school till 1719, when, as before mentioned, the number of householders probably necessitated action.

July 10, 1719, in the warrant calling a town meeting for the 15th was an article ‘to consider what may be proper to be Don in order to Setting up a writing school in Sd Town.’ The voters assembled on the 15th and adjourned to the 20th, without coming to a vote on the matter, though we can scarcely believe that so important and really revolutionary a matter did not receive full discussion on the 15th. But on the 20th it was ‘put to vote whether the Town will have some meet person to keep a writing school in ye Town for three or four months in ye winter season,’ and passed; and next, ‘Att sd meeting putt to vote whether the Town will choose a Commity of five men to treet with some meet person or persons to keep a writing school in the town as aformentioned.’ Capt Tufts, Capt Ebenezer Brooks, Lieut. Stephen Hall, Ensign Stephen Francis, and Mr. John Willis were chosen, and two more, Deacon Whitmore and Jonathan Tufts, were afterward added, making this first school committee seven in number. The committee took time enough to give the subject careful consideration, for not until November 13 was the warrant issued for a town-meeting to hear the report of this committee. The voters assembled Nov. 30, 1719, but the committee had evidently come to no agreement, [p. 4] for no ‘meet person’ was brought forward for the school. But the inhabitants voted to have the school kept the ensuing winter at the house of Thomas Willis, Jr., which was probably situated not far from the first meeting-house, near the junction of Woburn and High streets. A committee of three, Ensign John Bradshaw, Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, and John Willis, was appointed to secure a teacher. In considering the location of this first school, and also of the first school-house, we must bear in mind that that part of Winchester known as Symmes Corner belonged to Medford, that there were families residing there, and on Grove street, and that east of the Square there were very few residents, so that this location for the first school was undoubtedly near the centre of population. The Wade property, and the lot of land that the major had ‘appointed for a school house,’ was probably too far to the east to suit the majority of the voters. As we read farther in the records we see stronger and stronger evidence of the tendency of the east and west ends of the town to pull in opposite directions.

At the next meeting of the town, Dec. 11, 1719, the voters chose, undoubtedly on the recommendation of this committee of three, ‘Mr. Henery Davison, to keep a school in said Town for one qr of a year next ensuing.’ The whole record of this meeting of Dec. 11, 1719, is interesting and valuable, showing how minutely the voters scrutinized every act and how cautiously they took each step. After the first school-master had been chosen, ‘Att said meeting put to vote whether ye town will alow Mr. Davison ye sume of Three Pound money for keepin school the time above sd and also to diet him for ye term above said,’ ‘Voted for ye afft.’ ‘Att said meeting put to vote whether ye Town will raise eight pounds money for defraying the charges of said school forthwith to be levied and collected of ye inhabitants of said town in case said money be not raised by a subscription of ye inhabitants of said town.’ [p. 5]

‘Att said meeting put to vote whether ye Town will choose a committy of six men to inform Mr. Davison of ye Towns proceedings att this present meeting, and in case Mr. Davison do not except then said commity are hereby inpowred to treet and agree with some other sutable person on ye Terms afforsd,’ ‘voted in ye afftive.’

With due formality Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, Ensign John Bradshaw, Capt. Samuel Brooks, Mr. John Willis, Mr. John Whitmore, and Mr. Thomas Oaks were chosen to wait on Mr. Davison and inform him of the action of the town; so our first school-master was thus inaugurated with becoming dignity, and as it had been the main topic through four successive town meetings, we can assume that it was considered a great step for Medford to take. The meeting then proceeded to appoint Mr. Thomas Tufts and Capt. Ebenezer Brooks (one from each end of the town, as was very fitting) to collect the subscription in accordance with their previous vote. Whether this first school was thus paid for can be simply a matter of inference, but the absence of any tax levy for this purpose leads us to suppose that the subscription was successful. Whenever the town found it necessary to raise money for the minister's salary, for the province tax, or for any other purpose, it was made out in a separate rate. This eight-pound levy that was voted appears nowhere on the record, so that the inference seems fair that Mr. Tufts and Capt. Brooks were sufficiently persuasive to render it unnecessary.

Thus was our first school established, called in the vote of the town a ‘writing school.’ But the name signified little, for it was probably one of those elementary schools of the olden time which aimed to teach simply the ‘three R's.’ In the later votes of the town it is mentioned as a ‘writing school,’ as a ‘writing and reading school,’ as a ‘reading school,’ and also as a ‘reading, writing and ciphering school,’ the only reason so far as I can see for giving it any name at all being to [p. 6] indicate its elementary nature and to differentiate it from a grammar school as understood in those days.

When this first step had been taken and the school launched, the people began to agitate the school-house question. Brooks in his ‘History of Medford’ says: ‘Heretofore schools had been kept in private houses, but Feb. 22, 1720, it was voted to build a school house,’ and also ‘where the first school-house stood is not known, but it was probably near the meeting-house at the West End.’ Both of these statements need only a cursory glance to show their incorrectness. The first school, in the house of Thomas Willis, Jr., was not opened till after Dec. 11, 1719, and at the townmeet-ing Feb. 22, 1720, had kept only about one-half of its first term, but the inhabitants were sufficiently impressed with its importance to call a town meeting for Feb. 22, 1720, ‘to know ye minde of ye Town whether ye will state a place for a school house and also to know whether the Town will build a new scholl house.’ ‘Att said meeting put to vote whether ye Town will choose a committee of five men to consider of a convenient place for setting of a schoolhouse in said town which may best acomodate ye whole Towne and to make report of ye Doings herein att our generall March meeting next ensuing for ye Towns concurrence,’ and it was thus ordered, the committee being Capt. Peter Tufts, Deacon John Whitmore, Capt. Ebenezer Brooks, Mr. John Willis, Mr. John Richardson. At this time the old meeting-house was outgrown, and needed repairs as well as enlargement. So again the school-house question was buried under this more weighty one of a meeting-house, and no report of this committee was ever made so far as recorded evidence directly shows. But all the indirect evidence at our command points decidedly to the fact that the town did not possess a school-building of its own till the expiration of thirteen years from the establishment of its first school. On Aug. 17, 1722, it was voted to have a ‘Scool keept,’ and Thomas Tufts, Esq., Capt. [p. 7] Ebenezer Brooks, and Mr. John Bradshaw were chosen a committee to provide a teacher, and at the adjourned meeting October 15 this same committee was empowered ‘to agree with some person or persons for a sutable Room or rooms for ye said scoole to be kept in and make report to ye town of their Doings att ye next adjournment.’ There is no record of the adjourned meeting, which was set for October 22, and the next town meeting held December 14 had nothing about schools. But if the town had possessed a house of its own at this time it would not be likely to hire a place or places for the school to be kept in. Likewise in December, 1726, we find the town voted to have a ‘Writting’ School for three months and the committee were instructed to ‘Hire a School House for the time above said.’ And again, Nov. 25. 1728, the committee were chosen to ‘select a teacher and appoint a place.’ The same vote was passed Nov. 17, 1729. Beginning with 1729, we have another source of evidence added in the Treasurer's Book. On the very first page of his account we find the entry:


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