Part 2 of a 3-part story: Life in Reform School

By Dina Samfield


SHIRLEY -- Prior to the opening of the Shirley Industrial School for Boys in 1909, boys too old for the Lyman School in Westborough were sent to the Concord Reformatory, even if their offenses were minor, said Pat Wood at the recent opening of the "Managing Delinquent Boys" exhibit at the Shirley Historical Society.

Wood, whose parents worked at the school, grew up on the former Shirley Shaker Village property from 1952 to 1970.

In Shirley, she said, the boys, ages 15 to 18, were given three meals a day and shelter, "but there were problems mixing these kids together."

The school's first superintendent was Herbert Taylor, a Dartmouth graduate and educator.

Sgt. Alfreda Cromwell talks about advances in the treatment of male juveniles.
Sgt. Alfreda Cromwell talks about advances in the treatment of male juveniles. (Courtesy photo)
Farm and outdoor life were thought to make healthy boys, but not all boys were farmers. They worked seven-hours a day, five and a half days a week.

Wood said the boys had free time for seasonal varsity and intramural sports, which they played against both public and private schools. They also participated in brass band, glee club and minstrel shows.

They would toboggan down the central building hill, play basketball in the gym, and swim in the indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool built in 1924. There was also a boxing ring, and some inmates participated in the Greater Lowell Golden Gloves boxing tournament.

There was a 13-acre athletic field with baseball, softball and football fields, a racetrack, handball and volleyball courts and clubhouses.


The boys enjoyed leisure time, and king-sized, nonfilter tipped Cavalier cigarettes were used as a reward for good behavior.

Every other Sunday and Wednesday were movie nights in the auditorium, Wood said. She reminisced about the sight of watching the boys march two by two up and down the hill every morning and afternoon.

Fred Hippler, who also grew up at the school, said his father Bob taught carpentry there. The biggest problem for him, he relayed, was that, although he could visit his friends who lived at Fort Devens, many of their parents were wary about allowing their children to visit him at the sprawling reform school.

He and Wood both lived there during the time of John Hastings, who served as the school's superintendent from 1954 to 1970. Hippler said that one of his fondest memories from his childhood was when Hastings appointed him a "special police officer" with a badge, allowing him to "direct traffic" on the property. He also enjoyed the privilege of going up in the projector room on movie nights.

The Cottages

The justification for the early 19th-century shift to institution-based reform for juveniles was the doctrine of "parens patriae," or "the state as parent." In law, the term refers to the power of the state to act as the parent of any individual in need of protection. Previously, youth who were accused of wrongdoing were generally imprisoned with adults.

As 19th-century reformers across the country championed the cause of rehabilitating youthful offenders in separate facilities, the reform or "industrial" school movement grew. However, it was not until the late 1960s that U.S. laws were passed that gave youth in the juvenile court system constitutional legal rights.

At the exhibit opening, Wood described how the boys housed at the Shirley reform school were provided with medical and dental care, and "were well fed with food they grew and prepared themselves."

"The boys lived in cottages with a master and matron to make conditions at the school as close as possible to home life, and so that when the boys got their freedom, there would be no sudden rebounding in their lives, which is invariably the case with boys who have been held down with an iron and unmerciful hand," Wood read from a quote by the school's first superintendent, Herbert Taylor.

Wood explained that Arthur Shurcliff, a noted American landscape architect, laid out the campus in a "Plan for the Arrangement of Buildings and Roads" in 1914. Shurcliff's plan included a central administration building located at the top of the hill, with cottages encircling it on both sides. The original administration building, which had been the Shaker administrative building when the 900-acre property was the Shirley Shaker Village, later became staff housing, with a staff dining room located in the basement.

"The boys were not randomly assigned to their cottages," Wood said. The trustee cottage, which had been the Shaker laundry, housed the "good kids," and they had special privileges.

The Hipplers lived in Cottage 2, a former Shaker building previously occupied by the Dearings, and the first cottage to stop housing boys when it became a staff residence.

Cottage 3 housed boys and a staff couple who lived on the top floor. Cottage 4 was for "the taller boys" after Cottage 6 closed when it was burned down around 1970. Cottage 5 had burned due to sparks from a barn fire in 1914 but was rebuilt.

Cottage 6 was destroyed by lightning, and later used as a state police barracks until the newer Leominster barracks was built. It had housed "average boys."

Cottages 7 and 8 had the Curleys as its cottage masters at one time, Wood said. These cottages were part of the original school's design.

Cottage 9 had the "tough kids," with a tunnel connecting it to the central building. It was known as the disciplinary cottage. Boys who misbehaved or ran away were sent there. It was fenced and had solitary confinement, with special rules such as "no speaking." The treatment there became controversial in the 1970s.

"You could end up staying there for a month," said someone in the audience.

Next Week: Part 3 -- Escalating tensions.