Shirley Center (Shirley, MA)

I went on a social-distancing daycation to Shirley, MA last weekend and after exploring Shirley Village (the subject of the most previous post) we headed north to Shirley Center.

In case you didn’t read my Shirley Village post…

Shirley is a small town in central MA, about 40 miles northwest of Boston and only 13 miles south of the New Hampshire border. Like much of central MA, it was probably inhabited by the Nipmucs prior to European settlement, and by various other ancient Native American tribes before them, though little recorded evidence of their time on the land exists today and even less archaeological evidence has been sought. European settlement began in the 1720s with the contruction of mills on the Squannacook & Nashua Rivers. Shirley was incorporated as an official town* of Massachusetts in 1753 and was named after the colonial governer of Massachusetts at the time, William Shirley.

Shirley Center is the true heart of historic Shirley and the colonial center of town. Like many colonial New England town centers, it has a common, a church, a town hall, and a burial ground, and is surrounded by prominent 18th and 19th century homes. What makes this colonial town center even more picturesque is that its eastern border is a vast wooded area with trails, maintaining a feeling of a quaint piece of civilization serving as an “errand into the wilderness”.

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Shirley Center, as seen from the Common, looking across to the Town Meeting Hall and old Congregational church, and woods behind these buildings to the east.

A quintessential New England concept, the common was land that was owned “in common” by all in the town and was used for many public purposes, such as grazing cattle, holding gatherings, militia practice, etc. Currently the Shirley Common is just a patch of grass, with a few trees, a bench (where a cyclist was resting during my visit there), and a Civil War monument in the center.

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The Civil War monument located in the center of Shirley Common. On the plaque the Civil War is described as “The Great Rebellion”. On the sides and back of this monument are listed the names of the men who served.

Where this Civil War monument currently stands is where, in 1773, the First Parish Meetinghouse was built for a cost of  £168. This meetinghouse was an upgrade from the town’s original meetinghouse built ninteen years earlier and located 1/3 mile north on Green Lane. To commemorate its construction Lydia Hancock, aunt to American patriot leader John Hancock, donated a large-print folio Bible which is still housed in the building. The building underwent major internal renovations 1839 and in 1851 the meetinghouse was moved from the center of the common to its present location 100 yards east. Like most elsewhere in New England the congregation of Puritans who built this church converted to Unitarianism in the 19th century, but dwindling membership (in part due to dwindling population as Shirley Center lost import compared to the more industrialized Shirley Village) eventually led the congregation of First Parish Church to dissolve in 1944. Immediately a society was formed to preserve this historic building, which still maintains control of the building today and rents it out for weddings, memorials, concerts, etc.

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First Parish Meetinghouse in Shirley Center

Throughout New England these colonial white-steepled buildings are referred to as meetinghouses and not churches because the Congregationalists who built them and worshipped in them believed “the church” was the living group of believers, and not the building. Hence, the church met inside a meetinghouse. These meetinghouses were often used for non-church functions as well, such as for town halls, parties, political gatherings, debates, etc. (Perhaps most the most notable example of these were the Boston Tea Party meetings in the Old South Meetinghouse in Boston).

The Shirley Meetinghouse was no different. I happened to be visiting on April 19, 2020, the 245th anniversary of the first shots of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord, located just twenty miles southwest of Shirley and made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride”. On the outside of the meetinghouse, just to the right of the front door was a plaque commemorating the men from Shirley who marched to Lexington and Concord on that fateful day.

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Plaque commorating the Shirley militia that marched to Lexington and Concord for the first military engagement of the American Revolution.

According to “History of the Town of Shirley” (c.1883), all but seven men in Shirley answered the alarm from Lexington and Concord, and those seven were kept from going by old age, disease, or physical incapacitation. One of the more colorful old men of the village tried to sign on anyway, declaring “True, I cannot handle a musket, yet will I fight the redcoats with my two canes!”

Perpendicular to the north of the Shirley Meetinghouse is the 1847 Town Hall. In addition to conducting local government, this building was used as a school, lecture hall, and evening functions as well.

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Shirley Center Town Hall c.1847

To the east of the Town Hall is the Town Pound. In the 18th and 19th centuries town pounds were used to temporarily house loose and wandering livestock for their owners to come claim.

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Colonial town pound next to the old Town Hall in Shirley Center

Just one mile north of the downtown of Shirley Center is Bull Run Tavern and Inn. This is an early 19th-century building, but the location has held and inn and tavern here continuously since 1740. Located at the intersection of the small and local Parker Road and the more prominent Route 2A, known historically as “The Great Road”. This was the route for travelers heading West from Boston towards Albany, and the Bull Run’s website claims it was the first overnight stop for those travellers.

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Bull Run Inn & Tavern, on Rt 2A just north of Shirley Village

Of most interest to me in Shirley Center, though, is the Center Cemetery.

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Center Cemetery in Shirley Center (c.1755), with Shirley Meetinghouse in the background

The Center Cemetery (c.1755) was the first cemetery in Shirley, MA. (For the first 30 or so years of settlement, the dead inhabitents of this area were buried in the nearby town of Groton). It was enlarged in 1864 and again in 1865, but by 1849 another cemetery was established in the rapidly growing Shirley Village to the south.

It is in the Center Cemetery that the earliest inhabitants of the town of Shirley (which wasn’t official until 1754) were buried. It is here that Shirley’s veterans of the Revolution War, Shays Rebellion, and the War of 1812 are buried. The first minister of Shirley Meetinghouse, and the town’s first two doctors are also buried here. One local author wrote in 1883 that after a town-sponsored clean-up and installation of wrought-iron gates surrounding the cemetery “It is now an inviting retreat for bodily exercise, and for those mental and moral communings which appropriately belong to seasons of relaxation from the cares and business of life” and where one “may contemplate the feeble tenure that holds him from the grave…[and] await the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God.”

I will end with some graves from Center Cemetery that caught my eye. I have visited many 18th & early 19th century graveyards and I have never seen such a profusion of poetry written on the tombstones, nor any seemingly-secular engraved faces. Enjoy!

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Late 18th century tombstone with a carved face that has no obvious signs of religiosity… which is curious to me. I’ve also never seen the fat cross shaped columns on either side of the face, and there were numerous headstones here with that decoration as well. Please comment if you have insight!
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Another seemingly-secular face, this one with a similar design as the one above, but different from the two below. And a poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Sleep on sweet babde and take thy rest. God calls thee; home he thought it best”
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Another seemingly-secular face, very different from the two above and different than the one below. And a poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Dear friends for me pray do not weep. I am not dead but here do sleep within this solid lump of clay until the Resurection Day. And here indeed I must remain ’til Christ shall raise me up again.”
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Another seemingly secular face, with a distinctly different design than the above three, but carved near the same time as the first two. I have also never seen the star-like designs around the face before. Comment if you have insight! And another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Sleep on sweet babe. Take thy rest. God called thee home when he thought best,” a poem repeated throughout this graveyard for tombstones of babes.
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Conjoined tombstone of a husband and wife who died 10 months apart. I’ve seen this beofre in other graveyards, but it is fairly uncommon. The skull decoration on the top is common of early to mid 18th-century New England tombstones.
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Tombstone of a 7 year old girl named Eunice. The skull decoration is common for a grave of this time period, but I’ve never before seen the flower decorations that are on either side of the skull. Please comment if you have insight.
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Another of the same (or similar) kind of flower decoration on a tombstone, but this time only the flower. Comment if you have insight!
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Carved faces on 18th-century graves are often depicted with angel wings, like on this tombstone. Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): : “Pray kind reader cast your eye and here you see your friend doth lie. As you are now so once was I, and now so must you be. Prepare for death and follow me.”
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Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Pass on my friends. Dry up your tears. I must lie here till Christ appears. Death is a debt by nature due, which I have paid and so must you.”
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Tombstone for four sisters (aged 12, 10, 6, and 1) who all died within nine days of each other. Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Farewell dear parents, friends adieu. We can no londer stay with you. Our God doth call and we must go, and leave you here to dwell below. Dear Children, you are called from earthly charms, to dwell with Jesus in his arms. Accept those mansions of his rest, for God did call when He thought best.”
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Tombstone of 16 month old child. Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Sleep on sweet babe and take thy rest. God called thee home, he thought it best.”

 

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Tombstone of a veteran of the Mexican-American War.
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“In Memory of Captain John M. Sherwin, who was burnt in a papermill in this Town June 16, 1837.” Aged 28 years. The History of the Town of Shirley (1883) describes Sherwin as an employee of the papermill. The entire mill was destroyed and Sherwin was the only life lost.
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Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): ” She was a mild and pleasing youth, her parents joy and love. But death has summoned her away. We trust to realms above. Peace to her soul. The fatal hour is past. And silence over her mantle cast.”
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Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Farewell my children and partner dear. If ought on Earth could keep me here, it would be my love for you; but Jesus wills my soul away. Jesus forbids a longer stay. My dearest friends, adieu.”
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Another poem (spelling and punctuation have been modernized for ease of understading): “Farewell my children, friends so dear. Weep not for me, nor shed a tear. But strive thee better part to obtain. Until then to die will be your pain.”

Sources & More Info:

*c.1930s NPS Historic Buildings Survey: http://loc.gov/pictures/item/ma1045/

*Shirley Center National Historic District: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/massachusetts_conservation/shirley_center.html

*Shirley Historical Society’s Points of Interest: https://shirleyhistory.org/about/points-of-interest/

*Shirley Historical Society’s Timeline of Shirley History: https://shirleyhistory.org/about/timeline-of-shirley/

*Shirley Meetinghouse: https://www.shirleymeetinghouse.org/

*Bull Run Inn & Tavern: https://www.bullrunrestaurant.com/history

*History of the Town of Shirley (c.1883) (available for free purchase on Google Books): https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Seth_Chandler_History_of_the_Town_of_Shirley_Massa?id=3p-8DmVqh6YC