Thanks to Town Archivist Ashley Large there is a new treasure on the Town Clerk’s website. While the Town Hall has been closed due to the pandemic, Large, with the help of Maryann McGrath, scanned Town Reports from the 19th and 20th centuries and they are now available in the Archive section of the Clerk’s website. Click this link to visit the Town Reports archive.
Large is very enthusiastic about the project and stresses its importance today.
“I was frustrated when Covid-19 precautions meant I had to work from home, away from my collections,” she explained, “I wanted “to bulk up the online presence of the archives on the website. Preserving that information supports the democratic process. It was in 1729 with the first election and Town meeting that Bedford became a town.” This year’s March election will mark 292 years of Bedford Town elections.
Old Town Reports are a fascinating portal into the past. We see a Bedford that in many ways is very different from the Town today, but in other ways, Bedford is very much the same. The same issues that the town has faced in recent years were top of mind one hundred years ago. Local pride in Bedford’s schools, the need for classroom space, the maintenance of Shawsheen Cemetery, local health services, and, of course, a life-threatening epidemic, the 1918 “Spanish” flu.
Just like today, the cooperation of the public was sought to curb the pandemic. In 1918 the Chair of the Board of Health wrote:
“The last year has been a very trying one and while we show a large increase…in sickness within the borders of our town, it is accounted for by the Influenza Epidemic. We have maintained a high level of health as compared to other towns. It was deemed advisable to close all places of public meetings as well as the schools and the Board wishes to express their appreciation of the hearty cooperation of the Town people.
BOARD of HEALTH
W.J. Balfour, Clerk”
One hundred years ago more health services began to be offered. In 1919 the Town appointed a public health nurse and there were plans to start a dental clinic. This was delayed due to the pandemic until the next year when $200 was appropriated for the dental clinic.
In 1920 the Board of Health reported 37 cases of flu, 26 of measles, and 28 of whooping cough along with an admonition to observe the quarantine and a reminder that violation is an offense.
The quality of Bedford schools was a point of pride, just as it is today.
“Certainly no town of her size and means can boast better school advantages than she has provided for her children. With a modern schoolhouse well nigh perfect in its internal arrangement, with the children from the distant parts of the town conveyed daily, at the town’s expense, to and: from the school, with teachers up in all that is best and most modern in knowledge and modes of instruction, with an expert Superintendent to see that these teachers are spurred on to do their very best for their pupils.” (Annual Report 1893-94 p.126)
However, in 1900-1901 the Town decided to send high school students to Concord High School rather than make the necessary improvements locally. This was in response to the state Law of 1898 that set new standards for schools.
“The liberal terms of the Concord School Committee fixing the price per pupil at the low sum of $48 per pupil per year for 20 [students] for $960. Transportation cost would be an additional $15 dollars per student per year.” (Annual Report 1900-1901, p. 15-18) The minority report that follows spells out the disagreements with that recommendation.
The Human Side of the Town Reports
There are some unique and moving stories: From the 1901 Town Report:
“Mr. Charles A. Corey—The report notes the death of Charles A. Corey, the Town Clerk, who “had always taken pride in having his books correct, and willing to assist the other town officers upon their books; he will be missed for some time to come. He made his residence the town clerk’s office, as that was more convenient for him, and one almost always found him at home, ready to give advice or assistance. “ (Town Report 1901, Selectmen’s Report, p.39)
Anyone who has not dived into old Town Reports may be surprised to find reports from “Overseers of the Poor. “ Each town bore responsibility for its own poor. Bedford had a Poor Farm where the indigent worked and lists of what they produced and its value were often reported. If an individual relocated, more than one town might bear responsibility. It appears that towns took care not to bear responsibility when they could. Each person was listed by name along with the cost to the town of their maintenance.
“April, 14. Notice was received from the City of Waltham that Mrs. William Francis Haynes, better known as Maud Jenness, was in destitute circumstances. We removed her to the Town Farm, and afterward found she belonged to the Town of Sudbury. Charged the expense which was $16.40 to said town.” (1899, p. 21)
Details can often provide insight into Bedford’s life that year. In 1899 three pages of payments for snow removal were recorded. That same year $100.00 was appropriated “to suppress the sale of liquor,” but it was not spent.
Another concern echoed in current town affairs is the care of Shawsheen Cemetery The 1899 report complained that plots of “once-influential families are utterly abandoned. Some plan should be developed whereby this evil can be remedied.” It was decided to restrict the sale of plots to Bedford residents and to provide a water source. (1899, p.115-18)
One page at the beginning of the 1889-1900 report, but not included in it, hints at an intriguing local political story. On the very first page, standing alone is this statement:
TOWNSMEN OF BEDFORD:
We, the undersigned, feel it our right to correct, if possible, a false rumor now in circulation in our town, i. e., that we are seeking the office of Selectmen for the purpose (should we be elected) of placing obstacles in the way of any company’s laying tracks and running electric cars through this town.
W e will state most emphatically that no such policy is prompting us when we offer ourselves for the above office. Our reason is simply that we wish to serve the town as a body, feeling strongly that together we are fully competent to fill such office, and look after the best interests of the town of Bedford. “
(Signed) EDWIN H. BLAKE, FREDERIC PARKER, ARTHUR H. PARKER
All three were elected to be Selectmen and Fence Viewers on March 6, 1899. In their report at the end of that year, the Selectmen wrote:
“We said at the beginning of the year we would work for what we thought would be for the interest of the town, and we have endeavored to do so. The Electric Railroad being constructed through the town has given us more to look after than usual.”