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HARVARD — A new sign hangs inside Hildreth Elementary School, hand-carved from precisely matched pieces of South American mahogany. The plaque is located just to the right as one enters the library near the school’s main entrance.

It was the work of Harvard School Committee Chairman Keith Cheveralls to commemorate the School Committee’s Jan. 25 , 2010 unanimous vote to rename Harvard Elementary School as Hildreth Elementary School. The vote marked the culmination of years of work by the late Dr. Jeff Harris, who died five months after the School Committee vote on June 23, at the age of 88.

Harris was passionate about honoring some aspect of Harvard history by renaming the school. In November 2009, Harvard School Committee member Piali De set off to explore more about Harris’ historical findings, dug out from the archives of the Harvard Historical Society and other resources.

De said Harris’ keen interest in the topic originated two decades ago after the original school structure, dating back to 1904, was demolished and rebuilt, resulting in the current school structure. De said Harris had first broached the topic during her prior tenure on the School Committee a decade earlier. “When it resurfaced again, I felt it had been at least 6 years on my horizon so I picked it up with him.”

“I’d offered to follow up and learn the facts, which I did,” said De. She and Harris reviewed the data he’d collected on the birth of the Harvard School district. “He told me the whole history of how all our schools came to be built back to the 1890s.”

School history

Harris provided the School Committee with a historical synopsis of the development of the Harvard School District. Starting in the mid-1600s, the Legislature required towns to provide public education for its children. By the 1720s and 1730s, Harvard College graduates often served as teachers in the various districts around the state.

In 1740, Harvard was hauled into Worcester Court for failing to provide a school for its children. Thereafter, four district schools were formed. By the mid-1880s, the number of district schools swelled to nine, each run by separate committees.

An 1878 Town Meeting vote did away with separate districts. Approvals were granted for the creation of the Center School, then located between the General Store and Congregational Church. The common school was built in time for the 1881 mandate doing away with smaller district schools.

By 1900, the Center School was outdated. The State Board of Education was pressuring the town to build a new school.

“The school was just not up to par,” said De. The town cited a lack of land and money. Enter the Hildreth Family.

“The Hildreths bought that piece of land and gave enough money to pay for half of the cost to build the (hen known as) ‘Brown School,'” said De. Six acres across Massachusetts Avenue from the original Bromfield School was gifted in 1904 by Harvard brothers Edwin A., Stanley B., and sister Emily E. Hildreth. It is where the Brown Building was built, named, simply enough, for its brown color.

The Brown Building was expanded with an addition called “the brick building” to relieve overcrowding in 1959. Kindergarten started in town in 1973. In 1984, studies revealed a need for possible school additions. The resulting recommendation was to build a new elementary school, which was completed, alongside a massive Bromfield addition project, in 1990. To make way for the current elementary school structure, the Brown Building was demolished. But the underlying naming issue nagged at Harris.

The Bromfield School came to be via the bequeathing of Margaret Bromfield Blanchard’s grandfather’s land to the town for a high school. The resulting Bromfield Trustees relinquished control over the trust to the town in the 1940s. The Bromfield name appropriately stuck. Harris began to piece together a similar nod for the Hildreths based on the history complied on the elementary school.

De said Harris reached out to Hildreth family descendants who had moved to the western U.S. Harris reported “they were thrilled with the idea of renaming the school” with the Hildreth name.

Cheveralls delivered the plaque to the elementary school a week after Thanksgiving. Over the winter break, some tweaks were made to allow the sign to be mounted on the hallway wall outside the library. The sign went up just after New Year’s Day.

“The Committee is indebted to the Harvard Historical Society for their research and support,” reads the plaque, “The Committee especially recognizes and thanks the late Dr. Jeff Harris for his tireless efforts to dedicate the elementary school. His knowledge, understanding and passion for the importance of our local history remains an inspiration to us all.”

Cheveralls crafted the sign at his Quarry Lane workshop, which Harris, a skilled woodturner, visited last year. Harris did not live to see either the finished product or the sign’s design.

Cheveralls’ uncle Ian, who resides in Battle, United Kingdom, is also a woodturner. “I have some of his pieces here, including one from a 1,000-year-old English Yew tree that was standing at the church where I was christened in 1953. It came down in a hurricane in the 1990s.”

For the HES sign, Cheveralls said: “The design, layout and each letter were drawn by eye and hand. No CAD (computer aided design) here.”

The carving and shaping of the wood was hand done using traditional carving tools and techniques. The sign is finished with hand-rubbed natural Danish Oil. The plaque is sealed with a final coat of Liberon walnut-toned paste wax.

It was a labor of love and token remembrance for the Hildreth donation and Harris’ historical digging. “Sadly, Jeff did not live to see the installation of the commemorative plaque that we committed to in January,” said Cheveralls. “It seems only fitting that we somehow try to combine the installation of the plaque with a small act recognizing Jeff’s own commitment to our town’s history and schools.”

At the time the vote to rename the school was made, Harris applauded the School Committee for marking the Hildreth family’s place in Harvard history.

“There’s so many things that have made this town the place that we love, not just live in,” said Harris. “There are so many things in Harvard that were given one way or another that makes the town what it is.”