Wellesley High School’s Freshman Year

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on September 29, 2016.

Left: David Farnham, teacher at West (Needham) High School in 1865-66, standing outside the Mason School in Newton circa 1875. Right: Maugus Hall in the 1880s following its conversion into a church by the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills. (Source: Left -- from the collection of the Newton Free Library (MA). Used with permission. Right -- 'Early Days in Wellesley' by Gamaliel Bradford

Left: David Farnham, teacher at West (Needham) High School in 1865-66, standing outside the Mason School in Newton circa 1875. Right: Maugus Hall in the 1880s following its conversion into a church by the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills. (Source: Left — From the collection of the Newton Free Library (MA). Used with permission. Right — ‘Early Days in Wellesley’ by Gamaliel Bradford)

“It was one dark, overcast morning in May, 1865, that my old friend, Mr. Nathan Longfellow, then Chairman of the School Board, drove into the little village now known as Wellesley Hills with the writer, and all his earthly effects on the seat by his side. I had never seen anything hitherto of this beautiful spot, only as I had been hurled through on an express train while on my way to college. My friend left me at a little building under large, branching elms, known as Maugus Hall.

“I entered the little room and found some thirty to thirty-five bright and active boys and girls ready to receive me. The room had been arranged for school uses as conveniently as could be reasonably expected. These pupils had come from the various grammar schools without much reference to a high school course, but they were all in dead earnest, and we soon found ourselves fairly classified and busy at work.” Wellesley High School was thus born.

The writer here is none other than David Farnham, Wellesley’s first high school teacher. Truth be told, given the vast richness of Wellesley’s history, Farnham isn’t all that notable; he was here for only a single school year. But being first does count for something.

The inaugural year of Wellesley High School — then known as West (Needham) High School — could be described as, well, ad hoc. This is quite understandable. The concept of a public high school was new to the townspeople. In the past, if you wanted a high school education, you had to go to Newton or find a tutor. Indeed, small towns everywhere were trying to figure out public education beyond the primary and grammar schools.

In fact, Needham — which included what is now Wellesley until 1881 — waited three years to comply with an 1862 Massachusetts law that required all towns with more than 500 families to establish their own high schools. What caused the delay? Town leaders couldn’t agree on a location for the high school. A schoolhouse in the eastern half (now Needham) would be inconvenient to the people of the western half (now Wellesley), and vice versa. Put it in what was then no man’s land — the area near the current border of the two towns — and nobody would benefit. It wasn’t until the State Board began pressuring the town that they finally agreed to open a high school in each end of the town.

But then there was the question among the west precinct’s residents of where to put their high school. Grantville (Wellesley Hills) or West Needham Village (Wellesley Square)? A few tense meetings later and a compromise was reached: alternate locations each term, literally picking up all the furniture and school supplies and shipping them by wagon back and forth. Grantville was selected for the first term.

One problem: there was no schoolhouse available in Grantville. Their solution? Rent Maugus Hall, a one-room building located on the current site of the Unitarian Church that had been used for village meetings and social gatherings. Purchase desks, chairs, inkwells, and books, partition off a corner in the basement to create a recitation room, and voila, a schoolhouse! A third room was later added by boarding up one of the carriage sheds at the rear.

Great. They had a schoolhouse. But there weren’t any students yet. Because graded grammar schools didn’t exist, there was no easy way to determine which students were qualified for high school. So they just took the brightest students from the two grammar schools — peeving the grammar school teachers in the process by robbing them of their best students. In total, enrollment for the high school that first year was 34. (It included future longtime Wellesley primary school teacher and eponym of the Junior High School, Alice L. Phillips, as well as 9-year-old Marshall L. Perrin, first Superintendent of the Wellesley Public Schools who would have an elementary school in the Fells named in his honor.)

Finally, they needed a teacher. A 30-year-old recent graduate of Amherst College, David Farnham had taught one year at Medway High School before his arrival in Grantville, presumably at the request of his “old friend,” School Committee chairman Nathan Longfellow.

From all accounts, Farnham’s only year at West High School was quite successful. He was intelligent, a skilled teacher, a fine disciplinarian, and the students liked him. Beyond book learning, the class would take numerous field trips: walks within the village to learn about plants and animals, nighttime sessions to look at constellations and the positions of the planets, and even visits to Faneuil Hall and the historic sites in Lexington and Concord.

Farnham’s tenure would last until early 1866, when he accepted a position as principal at the Mason School in Newton Centre. Thus began a revolving door of teachers at West Needham’s high school — some good, some terrible — as the school tried to find its footing. There were certainly bumpy moments, but the town persevered, the first 7 students graduating on March 13, 1869. It really wasn’t until Seldon Brown arrived as principal in 1886 that the high school found the stability and professionalism it needed to thrive.

But that shouldn’t discount the legacy of David Farnham and the first high school class in 1865. The story has to start somewhere.