The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed an Act in 1647 requiring each town having as many as 50 families to maintain a school for teaching reading and writing, and to this later was added “the casting of accounts”, all together adding up to the three R’s. The court also required towns of 100 families to provide a “grammar school” where boys (not girls) could be taught Greek and Latin and other subjects necessary to college entrance. Throughout the years the General Court and the State Legislature have revised and added to the basic law of 1647, so that school education is now compulsory for all
between the ages of 6-16.
Schools in Marlborough were not established until late in 1600’s, owing to time consumed in getting 50 families settled, and to the dangers of Indian attack, which made the assembling of children a risky thing. Children during the first years of the plantation were taught at home by parents and grandparents, as most of the settlers had had at least some schooling. Illiteracy was kept at arm’s length at least.
Some Marlborough records have been lost, but from those available it would seem that the first one engaged to teach school in Marlborough bore the familiar name of Benjamin Franklin, and resided here with his family in 1690. He would appear to be an uncle of the famous Dr. Benjamin Franklin, patriot, printer and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac who lived in Boston and Philadelphia. If he were the famous man’s uncle he had a high reputation for learning in England, and made more than one round trip between Old England and New England. He kept school at different sections of the town in rotation, and as there had been no schoolhouses built he taught in private homes.
In December of 1698 Jonathan Johnson, the blacksmith, then getting into old age, kept school in his own house opposite the Meeting House, and the next year the Town built the first schoolhouse on what is now Monument Square. In 1702, John Holman from Milton, Mass., who had graduated at Harvard College in 1700 commenced teaching reading writing and “casting accounts” for the younger pupils, and also taught Latin to the older boys.
Next William Thomas took residence here and taught for 12 or 15 years, succeeded by his son William, Jr., who was born in Marlborough and taught for 40 winter terms in schoolhouses that had by then been built. His son, Robert Bailey Thomas, born here in 1766, taught for a short period and then moved to the town of Boylston where he died in 1866. For 50 years Robert B. Thomas published “The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and this little book of calendar, forecasts and advice to all, has been continued in annual publication without omission unto and including 1960.
As the population of Marlborough grew, the town was divided into school districts; each district had its own one-room schoolhouse, and all ages were taught by one teacher. Children under three years old were not permitted at school. Those under 16 had to attend school a minimum of 60 days each year. As time went on the entrance age was raised to 4 and then to 5, and the compulsory top age was reduced to 14, and then raised to 15 and again to 16. The length of the school year was increased to 16 weeks, and then to 24 weeks and even more depending upon the numbers of students in attendance in any district, since the greater the number assembled before one teacher, the longer it took to instruct them.
The first schoolhouses were heated by fireplaces, but in 1815 cast iron stoves were introduced. Furniture consisted of benches and later bench desks were provided. Blackboards were an invention of the 1820s. Slates were used in preference to writing paper. Some books were furnished by the town, but most had to be bought by the scholars. Copybooks for penmanship exercises were made by the pupils, and these often were used for arithmetic also, thereby serving the dual purpose of writing practice and the recording of rules for mathematics. Goose quill pens were used and the best men teachers were proficient in sharpening the pens with a pocketknife, hence the word “pen-knife”. Ink was also concocted by the teachers, and in the winters writing with ink could not be
attempted until the frozen ink had been thawed.
Winter terms of school were the longest and best attended for then, in spite of the difficulties in getting to and from the schoolhouse over unplowed roads filled with snow, there was not so much farm work to compete with school work.
In 1803 the schools were organized to have women teachers for a summer term of 7 ½ weeks, and a winter term of 14 weeks under men teachers, some of whom were college students earning money for their college expenses. Some Marlborough residents made a specialty of teaching – among them Silas Felton who taught, after starting in 1795, a total of 550 weeks of 5 ½ days, and Levi Bigelow, who taught at Robin Hill District 20 winters from 1815, and specialized in penmanship. “Master” Herman Seaver taught many years in the center villages. The Goodale family furnished several teachers, including Lucy Goodale, who in 1819 married Rev. Asa Thurston of Fitchburg, and then went to Hawaii with the first Christian missionary group and spent the remainder of her life there.
The first schoolmistress in Marlborough was Lucy Brigham, who was teaching as early as 1798, when in her teens.
In 1803 schoolmistresses received $1.00 per week for teaching and $1.00 per week for board, or a total of $15.00 for the 7 ½ week term. Schoolmasters received $1.75 to $2.00 per week and an equal amount for board, and taught a 14-week term. In 1803 Dr. Nathaniel Pierce received 84 cents “for teaching one scholar the Latin language for three weeks”.
Although these wages appear ridiculous by modern salary schedules, yet they were adequate for the times and there was no dearth of teacher supply. The teachers were subjected to examination by a board of the ministers and other educated men of the town, and had to prove their fitness as instructors.
In 1827 a group of Marlborough citizens formed a stock company to establish an Academy to serve the purposes of higher education, such as Dr. Pierce had been paid for. This was a private institution and the students paid a small tuition fee. By permission of the Town, the Academy was erected on the Meeting House Common, which at that time, following the splitting of the Town into two parishes, was just a vacant plot of land. Silas Gates and his son, Abraham Gates, who had inherited and operated the old Williams Tavern, were members of the Academy Corporation. Silas died in 1828 and Abraham in 1830, and each bequeathed to the Academy $1,000, the income of the total $2,000 to be used for the support of the Academy, and for that reason the institution was called “gates Academy”. The
Academy first received pupils in 1828 and during the ensuing five years was not a great success. In 1833 Obadiah Wheelock Albee was selected as preceptor and the school sprang into life, and had pupils not only from Marlborough, but also from surrounding towns and a few from out-of-state. Mr. Albee came from Milford, Mass and was a graduate of Brown University of the class of 1832.
The Academy building was a two-story wooden structure, and the second floor was used briefly as a Masonic Lodge Room. The schoolroom was on the first floor, heated by a stove in the winter, and the word “heater” is used with considerable license, since one pupil went on record as saying the temperature, by thermometer reading, was often as low as forty degrees. The furnishings were crude, the lighting by windows was inadequate, and the ventilation was by the leakage system. Toilet facilities were outside the building. The water supply was a well. If there were reading or singing school classes in the evening, each one attending such extra classes brought his own candle for light. Yet the school was as good as any in any other town at the time. Mr. Albee was
superior as an instructor, and many who completed the courses offered attained positions in later years as clergymen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and manufacturers.
In 1851 the Town of Marlborough voted to establish a public High School, and took over the Academy, - the building itself, Mr. Albee as Principal, and the undergraduate student body. As a High School the first classes assembled September 6, 1851. Because of a considerable increase in population due to the school factories, the attendance in this school outgrew the building, even with both floors in use and an assistant instructor employed; in 1860, the Town built a new High School building, on the Academy site, of three stories. And with a basement where one room was designated as a gymnasium, but which was soon declared too damp for that purpose. This new school was ready for use in January of 1861, but Mr. Albee resigned as principal and his position was filled by others; first by Mr. Gamewell, and
then by Mr. Claflin who resigned in the fall of 1862 to join the Union Army along with two of his students.
This 1860 High School was used until the older half of the present High School (Walker Building) was erected in 1897, the second half being added thereto in 1924. Now plans have been drawn for a new High School building to be built on the old Indian Plantation land close to the intersection of the old Connecticut Path (Union Street) and the Nashua Path (Bolton Street)(this is the current Intermediate/Middle school).
In March, 1884, the School committee appointed a Superintendent of Schools for a period of one year, on the assumption that great good could be accomplished through this office. With true New England caution, however, they reserved the right to report to the Town if this officer should prove inefficient, while granting that a single year was hardly sufficient to determine his true value. At this time, Marlborough schools comprised one High School of three rooms with a seating capacity of 88, four large buildings of 2018 capacity used for primary and elementary grades, three two-room buildings within the limits of the Town, and four rural schools accommodating a total of 200 pupils.
These eleven district schools have long since been consolidated into the present four elementary school, Freeman, built in 1916, Mitchell in 1925, Bigelow in 1931 and Hildreth in 1932.
The custom of “examination Days” at he conclusion of the winter term of school began in the District School. Then, the pupils, particularly the class that had completed their school education, put on an exhibition of blackboard demonstrations, recitations and declamations, with the School Committee acting as examiners, that the Board consisted of three men, two of whom at least were clergymen and the other a doctor or lawyer or otherwise educated person. The parents, or others interested, were invited, and a gala time was spent. This practice was continued at Gates Academy and for many years at the High School.
On Friday, March 20, 1868, after an all-0day examination at the High School, graduation exercises were held in the evening at the Town Hall and diplomas were presented to four young ladies and one young man who comprised the Senior Class, by Rev. Mr. Start of the School Committee. This was the first time diplomas were awarded in Marlborough, and the first time graduation essays were read by the graduates, including the valedictory by Miss Lilla W. Witherbee. Abner H. Wenzell was the Principal of the High School at this time, and to him and the assistant, Miss Martha Bigelow, the class presented a card tray and silver candlesticks respectively, and also to Mr. Wenzell framed photos of themselves. Thus was started in Marlborough the pattern for High School graduations, in emulation of the colleges and
which has been continued without interruption to the present day, except that private classroom examinations to show the proficiency of a student have been substituted for the “public” ones.
In 1873 music as a scheduled part of schoolwork was introduced, and Prof. Francis W. Riley was engaged as an instructor. Prof. Riley had had a prominent part in arranging the colossal Music Jubilee in Boston the year before, in which some Marlborough people had parts in the chorus of 20,000 voices and the orchestra of 2,000 instruments. In 1872 concerts in preparation for this Boston event had been held in Marlborough, and after the Boston performances in June of 1872 the bands from Paris and Dublin came to Marlborough and were honored. There were other musical events in Marlborough in 1872, so that the Town musically awakened, voted a course in Music in the public schools at the next Town Meeting in March of 1873.
Previous to 1873 there had been casual signing in the schools, as a break in the tedium of other studies, and there had been private singing classes over may years, and small choral groups and orchestras had been organized, but it was a wide step to include music in the schools at the taxpayers’ expense. A few years later instruction in drawing was included in the school courses.
In addition to the Public Schools, there were also in Marlborough, two Catholic Elementary Schools and a girls’ academy. St. Mary’s Parochial School, conducted by the Sisters of St. Ann, has an enrollment of 350 children. It was completed in 1952 to replace St. Anthony’s School which had served the French-speaking people of St. Mary’s Parish since 1889. The Immaculate Conception Parish maintains two schools on Washington Street, one built in 1910 and the second constructed in 1956, and both staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, with an enrollment of about 750 children. St. Ann’s Academy was opened in 1888 by the Sisters of St. Ann, as an elementary school and soon after expanded to include High School; at present it has an enrollment of approximately 350 students in
grades five through High School. The student body comprises not only local pupils, but girls from all sections of New England and Canada as well as some from Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Organized games had no place in the schools, although impromptu outdoor games at recess time were indulged in; throwing a ball, running games, an occasional fist fight among the boys, and rope skipping for the girls.
Intra-town and inter-town competitions were unheard of as these involved preplanning which was not possible before the day of the telephone and fast transportation.
Games similar to baseball were played way back in the 1700s with posts instead of cushions for bases. Baseball by uniformed teams was played in Marlborough in 1860, not by schoolboys, except when they tried to imitate their elders, but grown-up young men. Games were played on the High School Common, which then was a steeper side hill than now, and the scores would be some fantastic figure like 56 to 29. In 1869 the Marlborough Fairmount Baseball Club improved a piece of land for a ball field east of Prospect Street between Rice and Lincoln Streets, which streets were non-existent then. This field had been the place where the big tent was pitched for the principal banquet and speaking program at the time of the 200th Anniversary Celebration in 1860. The Fairmounts were a sort of
local World Champion Team in the 1860s and 70s and went on barnstorming tours. They were followed later by the nine Madden Brothers, some of whom had played with then Fairmounts, and were the great-grandparents and great uncles of the Madden boys in the High School of 1960.
High School athletics do not appear to have been popular until the middle of the 1890s, when both baseball and football teams had scheduled games with the neighboring towns, some of which could be easily reached by the steam railroad lines and other by electric street railway. A privately built baseball field, called Prospect Park, with wooden bleachers and grandstands had been built on the top of Prospect Hill in the 1880s and was used by the Town baseball teams. There was no, other place suitable for athletics until Ward Park was built in 1924 by the City and about the same time Stevens Playground and Kirby Field were prepared. In 1936, War Six Athletic Field (Kelleher Field) was built by the City.
Basketball was not played in Marlborough until about 1900, and was introduced then by young men who had learned the game at college. This game was played in the City Hall. Following a basketball game on Christmas night, December 25, 1902, the building caught fire and was totally consumed.
Eight years ago, in 1952, a City Recreation Department was organized, so that there is now an excellent bathing beach at Fort Meadow with instructors for swimming. And there are baseball teams and basketball teams under the direction of this Department.