Two hundred years ago, the town now known as Wakefield officially split off from the rest of the town of Reading (then incorporating both Reading and North Reading.) What is now Wakefield had been the First Parish, or the oldest part of the original old town of Redding, with settlement as early as 1639. Over time, divisions between the ‘parishes’ had grown, exacerbated by politics – our town, being largely Republican, favored the war with Great Britain; the remainder of the town of Redding, being largely Federalist in feeling, opposed a military solution. This was the final straw, and the town of “South Reading” was officially incorporated on February 25th, 1812.
At the time, there were about 800 persons living in the village of South Reading. There were 125 dwelling houses. There were sixteen public roads, no sidewalks, no town hall and no post office. The Centre Schoolhouse stood upon the Common itself near where the Civil War Monument stands today. The Common was unfenced and un-graded; the center part of it was a hollow or basin that was filled with debris. In winter, it froze up and presented a skating pond. The Lower Common was not then all public land: the earliest burying ground still stood near and under the current Bandstand. The Lower Common also housed a blacksmith shop and an engine house for the “Republican Extinguisher” fire engine. The town pound, then an important structure for housing loose livestock, stood near where the Unitarian church stands today.
There were two religious societies in town: the Congregational church stood near where its successor now stands near the lake (then still called the “Great Pond.) The Baptist Church stood on Salem Street.
At its first official town meeting on March 5th, the South Reading town officers were selected. The town chose a moderator, town clerk and selectmen, but also a ‘fish committee,’ ‘fence viewers,’ a ‘leather sealer,’ a ‘pound keeper,’ and a ‘hog reeve.’
At the second town meeting, nine days later, a committee was chosen to settle matters still pending with the old town of Reading. (In actuality, however, disputes with the old town would go on for years.)
On April 6th, 1812, the town met again, this time to discuss finances. The whole amount of money raised by taxes from South Reading (for town, county and state purposes) was $1500. The town meeting decided to spend the sum of $350 on schools, and appointed a school committee to determine where that money went. The princely sum of $450 was earmarked for highway repair.
The balance of the meeting dealt with issues of defense. Hostilities with Great Britain loomed, and the scrappy little town of South Reading wanted to do its part. They appointed two members to attend a conference in Concord to “take into view the situation of our pubic affairs.” A new powder house was to be erected on “Hot-house Shore” of the Great Pond, and to be supplied with ammunition. Extra money was voted to be given to those drafted for public service in the military. Selectmen were authorized to do the drafting; guns and ammunition were to be furnished for soldiers at the town’s expense. A committee was appointed to make sure that the families of the soldiers were taken care of. The mood of the town was evidenced in a series of resolutions that they passed:
“That in times like the present, big with danger, and threatening momentary change, we should lose no time … in making the utmost exertions to meet the enemy and repel his attacks…”
“That it be recommended to have signals agreed upon, to give speedy notice in this town of an attack upon the navy-yard … that every man may have an opportunity to display his valor, and aim at least one blow to avenge the many wrongs of our much injured country.”
South Reading was ready to fight – but they were two months premature. It should be noted that the nation’s declaration of war did not come until June 18th. It must also be noted that the town of Reading, in a meeting held on July 13th, voted on the question of whether the town was in favor of a war with Great Britain. Not one Reading man voted in favor of the war. (One can only imagine South Reading’s disgust at the news of the old town’s vote.)
The infant town of South Reading grew quickly; by 1830, there were 500 more people in town and 40 more dwelling houses. In 1845, when the extension of the Boston & Maine Railroad came through South Reading, our leading citizens predicted, in great excitement, that “South Reading would probably furnish as many as thirty daily passengers” for the train.
In fact, the railroad brought another huge growth spurt to the town, with new industries and new town services. By 1847, the town had decided to establish a high school, and to lay out new streets. The town decided to rename its ponds, naming the upper lake “Quannapowitt,” and the lower lake “Wappahtuck.”
The town also decided to hold a vote to rename itself. Many were still angry with the old town of Reading and wanted a new name to complete the total divorce from the old town. “Winthrop” received more than twice as many votes as “South Reading,” but the state legislature rejected the name. (Note: the town of Winthrop, Massachusetts would be incorporated in 1852.) It would be 21 years before South Reading would be permitted to make a permanent name change in honor of the man who had donated a municipal building to the town, Cyrus Wakefield.