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Alms-house —New County-Post Offices-Stores-Rail
The early method of sustaining those who were dependent on the public for support, in most of the rural towns in New England, was exceedingly objectionable. It seems that the burden of this support was considered so onerous as to justify the most strenuous measures of economy, in securing the object demanded by wholesome law. And oftentimes the position of the pauper was one of shame, as well as of undue physical inconvenience and suffering. Shirley was not entirely free from the reproach here implied.
During the first eighty-four years of its history its paupers were annually distributed among those families that were willing to give them bed, board and nursing, at the least possible expense to the town. At the annual townmeetings the names of the unfortunates were publicly paraded, and they were auctioned off—one after anotherby the moderator, to the lowest bidder.* Spirituous liquors were frequently furnished, unblushingly, by the town authorities as a lure to cheap bidding. As a general fact, the consequence was that the paupers were forced into the poorer class of families, into unwholesome rooms, and frequently compelled to subsist on coarse and sometimes unwholesome food. Enlightened Christianity could not always bear the oppression of this wrong; hence, at an early period of the town's history, measures were proposed by the more reflecting part of the community for the removal of this error. At a town-meeting holden in
*See Appendix 0.
March, 1763, a proposal was made to secure a general and well-organized home for that unfortunate class of our fellow-citizens called paupers, and it resulted in the following action by the meeting, after a proper debate :
"Voted to choose a committee to provide a work-house in this district ;—and Ensign Longley, Capt. Longley and Lieut. Walker were chosen this committee.” The reader will perceive that in this record all christian names are passed over, and if strength can be imparted to civil proceedings by military titles this was a strong committee ; and yet, the result shows that it was an unsuccessful one, as the project entirely failed in their hands. This praiseworthy attempt to ameliorate an unfortunate and unjust custom took place just ten years after the incorporation of the town; and it surely is a reflection on the degeneracy of after times that seventy-four years were permitted to pass before any further attempt was made in the right direction. During all this period the gavel of the moderator was heard, at each annual town-meeting, hammering off the board and lodging of the unfortunate pauper to the lowest bidder, amid libations of spirituous liquor offered up at the shrine of economy!
In 1837, after considerable exertion by an efficient committee, a farm was selected in the northern valley of the town, on the borders of the Mulpus, containing a little more than one hundred acres of land,-suitably divided into mowing, pasturing and tillage, and a rich meadow plat,all of which was well watered and fenced, and supplied with large and commodious buildings. This fair farming establishment was thus converted into an asylum of charity, and became a home for the homeless. Ample provision was made for comfortable lodging, food and raiment, for medical attendance of the sick, and for appropriate labor for those in health ; the old had a careful supervision according to their several necessities, and the young were duly provided with sacred and secular instruction. Religious meetings were holden in the establishment at stated periods, and the various facilities of moral, mental
and religious training were appropriately applied to the varied wants of the several inmates.
The asylum was in a position retired from the public highway—a peaceful retreat for those who have little interest in the stirring events of life, and little concern with those changes that engage the attention of the more active portion of the community. Aside from the particular fitness of the location, the natural facilities of the farm adapted it to the purpose for which it was to be devoted. It contained a thick bed of clay, from which large quantities of bricks of a superior quality have been, from time to time, manufactured.
The land and buildings were purchased for $2,969.71. The farming utensils, household furniture, and domestic animals were secured for $700. Within a few years the buildings passed through changes, and were subjected to repairs—among which was the erection of a new barn to take the place of one destroyed by fire—that well adapted them to the public service for which they had been set apart; making them convenient for the master and comfortable for the inmates.
When this establishment was opened, and during the first three years of its occupancy, the number of paupers varied from fifteen to thirty ; but as the temperance reformation progressed the number diminished, so that by the close of the twelfth year there were but from three to five who claimed a home in the alms-house.
This important change in the amount of pauperism, -together with some injudicious management in its prudential concerns, whereby the expense of sustaining the asylum because disproportionably large,-induced several persons to advocate the abolishment of the institution, and a public sale of the property. It was argued that the few that remained, or that would be likely to become dependent on the public for support, could with more ease to themselves and with less cost to the town be accommodated in private families; and this without the objectionable auction principle that had prevailed at a former period.
Accordingly, at the town-meeting in April, 1853, a vote was obtained for the immediate sale of the farm and all its appurtenances, which decision was executed on the spot. This measure was adopted to the very great regret of a respectable minority of the citizens, and has since been regarded by some of its movers as a hasty measure, and productive of evils that might have been foreseen.
As time has progressed, however, and the causes of pauperism have diminished, the suggestion has proceeded from several sources to set up district asylums throughout the Commonwealth, (each district to contain any convenient number of towns,) as homes for the imbecile; and to have them constructed on such a scale as to enlarge the comforts of the inmates, and at the same time reduce the expense of their support. There is doubtless too much wisdom in this measure to be long overlooked by a discriminating community.
Since the incorporation of Shirley, several attempts have been made to dissect it from its present county relations, and connect it with a group of contiguous towns for the formation of a new county. These attempts had an early origin, and have been, from time to time, renewed unto a recent period.
In 1763 the town took the following action on the subject : "Oct. 24. Voted to choose a man to sign a petition with ye neighboring towns, concerning making application for a new county, in this part of the county of Middlesex and the part of Worcester County adjoining. Deacon Hezekiah Sawtell was chosen for said purposes.
Nothing more is found concerning the project until May, 1785, when the following article appeared in the warrant for a town meeting: "To see if the town will choose a delegate to meet other delegates from several towns in the northerly part of Middlesex County and the northerly part of the county of Worcester, to consider on the matter of forming a new county, to consist of a number of towns in the aforesaid counties.” The town voted to send a delegate, and Obadiah Sawtell was appointed to
that office. No report of the result of this action has been recorded, and probably none was made.
In the year 1794 the following entry appears : "Voted to send a man to Leominster to meet a committee from several towns in the counties of Worcester and Middlesex, in order to petition the General Court for a part of each of the aforesaid counties to be made a distinct county. Dr. Benjamin Hartwell was chosen delegate.” The whole matter was, however, reconsidered, and the delegate dismissed.
Though nothing further appears on the town records concerning a new county until quite a recent date, the matter has been repeatedly agitated, with considerable earnestness; and petitions have been twice forwarded to the State Legislature in favor of the change. "At the annual meetings in April, 1828, the question was submitted by the Legislature to the people of Worcester and Middlesex,—'Shall a new county be formed of the towns of Royalston, Winchendon, Athol, Templeton, Gardner, Westminster, Ashburnham, Fitchburg, Leominster, Lunenburg, Princeton, Hubbardston, Phillipston, Lancaster, Bolton, and Harvard, from the county of Worcester; Groton, Pepperell, Shirley, Ashby, and Townsend from the county of Middlesex, as was prayed for in the petition bearing the name of Ivers Jewett at the head?' The decision was in the negative, by a great majority of the voters."
When the subject was brought before the Legislature in 1851 it received a negative without being referred back to the people. As the extreme towns in the several counties have been brought near their shire-towns by means of railroads, thereby removing the difficulties of court attendance that formerly existed, a large majority of the people deem it unwise to incur the expense of establishing any additional counties in the Commonwealth.
In 1856 Fitchburg (which has since received a city incorporation) was made a shire-town in Worcester County; and that will be an additional reason for leaving