A.E. Brown’s History of Bedford is Getting a 21st Century Makeover

Abram English Brown, author of the 1891 History of the Town of Bedford

Abram English Brown, whose name is synonymous with Bedford’s early history, had an overflowing agenda in the latter part of the 19th century.  Besides his success as a historian, he was at various times a newspaper columnist, teacher, town official, and library volunteer.

Alethea Yates thinks that what Brown needed was an editor. And he finally has one, albeit 130 years late.

Yates, a former president and director of the Bedford Historical Society, has been working for the past two years on an annotated version of Brown’s 1891 History of the Town of Bedford. She hopes the project will be finished by the end of the year.

“I’m not changing anything he did,” Yates said. She is adding parenthetical marks, footnotes, and headings. “I’m trying to make it flow more coherently.”

She is also writing an addendum, as suggested by a fellow historian, Don Corey, covering the period between 1891 and World War I. “Actually, there was quite a lot going on then,” she said. Brown was 60 when he died in 1909.

Brown’s book is “our only real record of Bedford’s history up to 1891,” Yates said. “He did a prodigious amount of research.” But sometimes, “You just can’t follow it.”

The 1891 work, she said, “has lots of good information about Bedford history. But it has become very hard to read.” Some parts, she added, are “pretty much impenetrable.”

“The text is small and it’s tightly packed,” Yates observed. “And it’s hard to understand because he assumes a lot of knowledge that people no longer have.” She said she is “breaking long passages into small pieces and giving each a heading.”

The project “has been nagging at me for years, every time I looked at the book.” Finally, she dived in as “a wintertime project.” The Historical Society will be the publisher, Yates said.

Brown’s History of the Town of Bedford seems somewhat random in its presentation. Yates said that’s because he wrote the first 20 chapters for someone else’s history of Middlesex County. And the next 15 were separate research papers.

Not only does he refer to several lesser-known Revolutionary-era battles, she said; there’s a chapter on old houses that are identified by residents’ names at the time of publication but not street addresses.

Yates addresses the addresses, and also explains in modern terms the worth of colonial currency. Some of Brown’s citations would make no sense “if you didn’t know that Massachusetts re-evaluated the money in 1750.”

“Thank goodness for Google — I found a whole lot of explanations that would have been harder to find at the library,” said Yates.

Brown, Yates said, never got the level of education he wanted. A relative offered to pay for preparatory school, “but his father said no, claiming that he had headaches from eyestrain.” Brown spent some time driving the meat wagon for his father, who owned a butcher shop and a slaughterhouse. “Eventually he did get away from that,” Yates said of the son.

Ina Mansur, town historian in the 1970s, wrote that Brown “went to work as a country store clerk for Silas Cutler in Burlington. Silas maintained a lending library in the store and he offered the use of his personal collection of books to his eager clerk.”

Brown also at that time spotted an article in The Lowell Weekly Journal “critical of Bedford’s advantages,” Mansur wrote. “Abram wrote to the editor, defending his hometown so well that the Journal hired him to write a column about its local activities.”

Yates said the historian “had a high tone. He liked to show his erudition. In his writing style he liked to show what a smart guy he was.”

Yates said Brown was inspired by the written histories of Billerica and Concord and emulated parts of those books. When he finished his Bedford history, he paid his own printing costs, she noted.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


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