Bedford Revisited: 125 years ago in Bedford,via the 1893 Annual Town Report

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By Bob Dorer

In 1893 Bedford town officials were using phrases like “at this late day, the last decade of the nineteenth century” to preface comments on the general state of affairs in their (our) town.   It was clearly a time of both reflection and change for town folks.    Just looking at the list of town officials and positions gives one a better sense of the times: Overseers of the Poor, Janitor of Town Hall (now our “old Town Hall”) & the Piano Committee (more on this later), Surveyors of Lumber, Wood & Bark, and Weighers of Grain and Coal, and a Superintendent and Matron of the Town Farm, in addition to positions we are more familiar with such as Selectmen and School Committee.

And if we thought our present-day town meetings were interesting, here are a few results from the annual and fall town meetings of 1892 documented in the 1893 annual town report.

  • A ballot question, “shall licenses be granted for the sale of intoxicating liquors in the town of Bedford?” went down to defeat 0-107!
  • Dog license funds collected would be appropriated for the support of the library.
  • The new school building was named “Union School-house” (now repurposed as our Town Center facility).
  • Voters decided it was best to have the town hall janitor be in charge of piano maintenance (and of course report on same on an annual basis) and thus the Piano Committee was dissolved but town meeting also decided NOT to give up their role in choosing said janitor.
  • It was decided to make it legal to adopt the Australian ballot system – this is a fun one to read up on – check out the information under “United States” in this link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_ballot#History
  • And a very interesting resolution was passed: “that it is the sense of this meeting that counsel be employed on the part of the town to co-operate with the city of Cambridge in opposing the petition for the annexation of the city of Cambridge to Boston.”
  • And on the more mundane side of things the moving and repurposing of the Town Hall privy as the town tool shed was approved, apparently going to and fro from the town farm for tools was proving troublesome

The various reports in the annual town report add some additional flavor of the times.

  • The Selectmen’s report noted the repurposing of the privy and other Town Hall interior updates, such as “a lockup, where a person, if shut up in it during some of the weather this winter, would wish he might be excused.” The Selectmen also noted “the question of a change in the management of the repairs of roads is now agitating the people of the state” and that they believed in “broken stone” and recommended that the next town meeting “direct the purchase of a goodly amount.”
  • The Committee on the Alteration of the Town Hall noted they “cannot too strongly urge the advisability of furnishing steam heat for the entire building.”
  • Relative to a major donation to the town the report notes that Benjamin J. Davis, moved by the spirit of the previous Bedford Flag presentation to the town, donated other “relics” to be with the flag. Davis donated Eleazer Davis’s “sword or sabre” used during the battle in Concord, his commission as Lieutenant, and his musket used in the later years of the revolution. Davis’s only condition being that these three relics “shall be forever in the custody of the Trustees of the Bedford Free Public Library.”

Probably some of the most interesting language can be found in the School Committee and School Superintendent Reports

  • Referencing how “her towns (Massachusetts) have always done much for their schools” it is also noted that “the history of Bedford shows she has not been one of the laggards in this regard.”
  • Noting measures such as “erecting a commodious building in the centre of the town “with all the modern improvements.”
  • Reporting that “there has been no rudeness in or about the building by pupils; there has been no marring of furniture; and each boy and girl has been taught and has easily learned to respect each other’s rights, and to appreciate the fact that a school is a kind of republic in which each must work, both for his own good and the good of all.”
  • Further fawning on the new school “its (the new school) cleanliness at all times, would have seemed like a palace of fairyland to some of us in our childhood, to most of the fathers and grandfathers of these favored Bedford children.“

In reading the rest of the school reports it becomes clear not all was fair skies and harmony as discontent and criticism of the schools is also addressed.  For example, it is noted that:

  • “Some people never discover that they were wrong, and never acknowledge that they have been mistaken. Even occular demonstration is no proof to such.   The very slightest flaw in anything accomplished they were opposed to is proof to them that it ought never to have been done.  Horace Mann used to say that there are some people so old-fogyish that, if they had happened to have been born during the flood, they would have objected to the subsidence of the waters.”

This old town document also raises a few questions such as: were the women in town allowed to vote in (and only in) the school committee elections?  It appears so but more research is definitely needed.  Also, one comes away from the document wanting a better understanding of the “town farm/almshouse (poor farm)” and its origins, history, and ultimate fate.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series about Bedford Town History


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