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History: Wakefield's Early Identity Crisis, or the Town of South Reading

The Town that was later re-named “Wakefield” was established in 1812, but not before it was almost named Winthrop or Florence.

The Town of Wakefield can be excused for having a sort of identity crisis. It is actually difficult to decide the date on which the Town was founded.

From Lynn to Redding
The land now known as Wakefield was first settled by intrepid farmers from Lynn that were seeking a good water supply and more arable land. They set out to explore the western territories and in 1639 were given permission to establish “Lynn Village.”  The first settlements in Lynn Village were around the shores of the Great Pond, now known as Lake Quannapowitt. In 1644, when 7 men and their families had established homes here and forty-four people lived here, they petitioned the General Court for permission to incorporate as a town. Permission was granted, and the town named Redding was established. 

The town was vast and included all of the present day towns of Wakefield, Reading and North Reading, along with some territory in the present day Wilmington. It’s important – and intriguing – to note that all of those first settlements were in “Redding” were actually here in what is now known as Wakefield. In fact, the first settlement in the town now known as Reading did not come until 1666.

A Second “Parish” is formed
As the town grew, divisions were established. In  1696, it became a hardship for settlers in the far north of the town to make the commute to the meetinghouse and to school. They requested, and were given, permission to establish the “Second Parish,” now known as North Reading. They hired a minister and built a meetinghouse by 1720.  

The remainder of the town, the “First Parish,” was the center of government and official functions; the western part of town began to be called “Wood-end.” As time passed and the town grew, tensions grew as well. Things had become more complicated: Wood-end rankled at the distance they had to travel to school and to meeting.   Grudgingly, First Parish conceded that school could be taught one-quarter of the time in Wood-end, three-quarters of the time in First Parish.

Resentments Grow in Reading
Not surprisingly, Wood-end began to want to form its own parish in order to have its own minister and its own teacher. All around them, new settlements, and new parishes were being born. In 1713 Lynn-End was established as the North Parish of Lynn (the present day Lynnfield); in 1725 ‘Charlestown End’ incorporated as the town of Stoneham and would form a congregation by 1729; in 1730, Wilmington, which had annexed some of Redding’s territory, incorporated, gathering a congregation by 1733. 

As early as 1720, Wood-enders formally requested a second division from First Parish in order to form their own parish. The request was defeated but, as the years passed, the desire to separate increased. Things came to a head when the First Parish decided to build a new meetinghouse. The Wood-end took this opportunity to lobby to move the meetinghouse one half mile to the west. The First Parish was more populous than the Wood-end. It outvoted them on this effort. In 1767, the new meetinghouse was built, at a cost of £600, with the cost to be split among the parishioners.

Wood-enders brought their case directly to the Massachusetts General Court, which would ultimately allow them to form “Third Parish,” thus freeing them of the monetary responsibilities for the new meetinghouse. Further, they brought suit to have any money they had already paid for the First Parish house to be repaid to them. This blow to the pocketbook engendered a rankling resentment in First Parish that grew with time.

Politics Divide the Town
With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the three parishes of Reading came to an uneasy peace, jointly choosing representatives to the General Court, voting together for selectmen to represent them. With the end of the war, however, the old tensions grew again. The politics of the three parishes were very different:  First Parish tended to be Democratic-Republican; Second and Third Parishes tended to support Federalists. Although First Parish was by far the most populous, in general votes, the majority rule usually backed the candidates that First Parish despised. This came to a roiling boil around 1810 when sentiments about a renewed war with Great Britain were rising high. Republicans, like most of the inhabitants of First Parish, were in favor of Madison and the war. Federalists, like most of Second and Third Parishes, opposed it. Unfortunately for First Parish, the majority vote elected Federalists to the Legislature time and again. Meanwhile, among the voters, anger grew. John Damon, a boisterous inhabitant of Wood-end said that if he were drafted to fight, he’d prefer to start fighting at the “Old Parish,” for he deemed that the inhabitants “there were far worse than the British.”

A New Town is Formed
First Parish had had enough and petitioned the legislature to formally secede from the rest of the town. On February 25, 1812, the town of South Reading was officially incorporated, freeing Old Parish from the rest of the town of Reading. (North Reading would be incorporated in 1853.) 

The town had left its original identity behind, and was soon dreaming of taking a new name. Thirty years later, in 1846, they took a vote to adopt a new name with the following results: for Winthrop 71; for South Reading 35; for Florence 6; for Lakeville 4; for Vernon and Greenville 1 each. An official petition was taken to the Legislature to re-name the town Winthrop. The petition was not granted, but sentiment to re-name itself lingered on, and was finally satisfied in 1868, when they voted to rename the town in honor of the benefactor of the Town Hall, Cyrus Wakefield. 

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